Jeff doesn't mean to go to Raleigh. He spends the first few weeks after he runs away in Canada, moving from place to place and avoiding small towns where people might recognize him. He hasn't watched more than a few minutes of diner TV since he left home, but he knows he's probably kind of big news, since TSN did a five-minute spot on Kitchener that included mentions of him, and since his parents will probably take all the publicity they can get to try and find him. He leaves Canada for the US with the last of his money, hiding in the back of the bus when they're stopped at the border. He sends his parents a note after he's been gone for three weeks, but when he wakes up from his nap in a Detroit library to see cops questioning the librarian at the front desk, he realizes he can't contact his parents anymore.
His priorities for going somewhere are pretty simple: he needs a place where he can work, scrounge food from the dumpsters if he has to. Somewhere warm, preferably. Somewhere that won't ask too many questions. At first he could afford meals, but his money ran out pretty quickly; now he depends on being able to go to 24-hour rest stops and wash himself in the bathroom so he can look respectable enough to get hired for a shitty waiter or busboy job.
It's both more horrible and infinitely better than he was expecting. But winter's coming, and it might not be as big a deal in most of the US as it is in Canada, but he needs to find a place that will hire him. He tries a few places in Virginia, a few more in Maryland, but he only manages to work a few weeks at various diners before they find out he's homeless and fire him, telling him to go back to his parents.
He ends up in Raleigh purely by chance: the last time he's fired, it's October and he's saved up sixty dollars by virtue of sleeping at a Richmond shelter and only eating at the local McDonald's knockoff he was working at. He buys a bus ticket without even caring where it's going, as long as it's further south. Fall is getting ready to turn into winter.
Raleigh is warm for October, and he stumbles across a homeless shelter specifically for runaway kids. He's been by those places before and they're usually full, but this one has a spot, and a one-year limit instead of three months. It's the luckiest he's been since he left home, and his luck continues when he takes a bus on a whim and finds himself a job at a diner on the outskirts of Raleigh. He knows he looks awful, raggedy and underfed, but the manager squints at him and says, "Can you work hard?"
"Call me Sue. Do you have a place to sleep?"
He's pretty sure he goes white at that. "Yes. Um. A shelter."
"Kid, I don't want to know. Do your job and I'll pay you." She hands him a pad of paper and nods at the door, where a customer is coming in. "Go."
It's stupid, but the last five months have gone by in a blur of traveling and fighting to survive. His life slows down in Raleigh; it's the first time he's been in a shelter where he knows he'll be able to stay awhile, and the first time he's had a job where his boss knows he's a runaway. It makes it easier to talk to other people.
It helps that down here, people are insanely friendly. His third day in the shelter, a girl walks up to him and says, "So do you know how to talk? You haven't said a word since you came here."
Jeff stares up at her. "Yeah. I do."
"That's good," she says, and plops down on the floor next to him. "You should keep your cash on you. I noticed you've been hiding it in your duffel, but trust me, if I've noticed then so have other people."
"I can't just carry it all around," Jeff says.
"Please," she says. "You've got, what, fifty bucks? You're not gonna get mugged. It's Raleigh."
"Yeah, but," Jeff tries, but she talks right over him.
"Sucks you don't have a bra to keep it in, but." She pauses. "Hey, Brandon, come here!"
"What?" A tall, skinny boy asks as he drops down next to her.
"Where do you keep your cash?"
The look he gives her is incredulous, and she rolls her eyes. "Where should the new guy keep his cash? Not in his duffel bag."
"Jeff. My name is Jeff."
"Leah," she replies.
"Brandon. And for your stash, hit up the Salvation Army, see if there are cargo pants that have snaps or zippers. Otherwise, keep it in your socks. Don't keep it all in one place."
"Oh, well. Thanks," Jeff says. He's figured out plenty of things on his own since April, but it's not like he had many options for advice, or has ever had enough cash to really worry about these things.
"So where are you from?" Leah asks, leaning back against the wall. "Not around here."
Jeff's accent, or lack of accent in his opinion, is a huge giveaway. "Up north," he says vaguely.
"Like New York?" Brandon asks, leaning forward.
"Um, no. Toronto," Jeff says. It's not very likely that they'll report him or get him deported.
"Oh," Brandon sighs. "I want to go to New York."
Leah rolls her eyes. "He wants to go ice skating at Rockefeller, and then he'd freeze to death in Central Park, waiting for Prince Charming."
He misses skating, too, but he gets hung up on the last words. "You're, uh," Jeff tries.
"Gay?" Brandon finishes. "Yeah, mom and pops weren't too pleased to find that out."
"Oh. That sucks," Jeff says weakly.
"Delway was too small for me anyway." Brandon shrugs.
"What about you?" Jeff asks Leah.
"I don't talk about it," she says flatly.
"Okay," Jeff says quickly. He doesn't want to upset the nicest people he's met in months.
"I was gonna go to the library," she says. “You guys want to come?"
And suddenly Jeff has friends and a job, and it's kind of okay. Leah helps him get a cheap pay-as-you-go phone so he can get called in for extra shifts at work; Brandon's unendingly optimistic and laughs at all his stories about weird customers at the diner. All his stuff still fits in a duffel bag that he sleeps with, but it's not so bad.
Jeff has his favorite customers at the diner – the ones that are nice, the ones that tip well, the hot ones. It's not like he has a lot to do other than try to remember as many customers as possible, and get as many tips as possible. So, yeah, he has his favorites. There's this one guy who always smiles and leaves a huge tip, like, thirty percent.
One afternoon the guy is checking his phone, and Jeff notices the NHL logo as he refills his water glass. This guy is always chugging it faster than Jeff can refill it.
"Do you know how the Leafs are doing?" Jeff asks.
The guy shoots him a look that Jeff can't quite read. "Uh, sorry, but I think their losing streak hit eight last night."
"Ouch." Jeff winces. He wants them to do well, but it's almost comforting that he's not missing out on a great run by them.
"Yeah, sorry." The guy apologizes like he really means it.
"It's not your fault," Jeff says, smiling at him. "You want the usual?"
"Sure," he says, putting his phone away. "So you're not from around here, huh?"
Jeff looks away. "I'll go give the kitchen your order," he says, and books it.
They don't really talk after that, but that day the guy leaves an even bigger tip than usual. Jeff pockets it and tries not to think about the kind of creeps who give someone who looks like Jeff extra money.
The guy doesn't come back for three days. When he does, it's Saturday and he looks exhausted. "Long week?" Jeff asks when he sets the guy's food on the table.
The guy nods, giving Jeff a fake-looking smile. "You could say that."
Jeff wishes he could figure out why the guy looks so familiar. He sounds Canadian, but Canada's a big place, and asking where he's from might give him away. He wants to stay here. "Do you get the weekend off, at least?"
"Today," the guy says. "I'm Eric, by the way?"
Jeff's not sure why he says it like a question. "You know mine," he says, tapping his name tag.
He's already turned to go when the guy – Eric – says, "By the way, the Leafs won last night."
"Cool," Jeff says, turning around so he can smile. "Thanks." After that, he sort of runs away, but whatever, he has other tables to take care of, so he's too busy to think about Eric's answering smile.
The guy comes back two days later. Jeff smiles a greeting and goes over to take his order, but just as he's opening his mouth to talk, Eric's phone rings. "Hang on a second, sorry, you can go if you want," he says, and picks it up. "What?"
"Staalsy!" whoever it is on the other end yells. Eric winces and holds the phone away from his ear. Jeff's not totally sure what he says next, though, because his brain is finally making the connection. He knows how he knows the guy. Staalsy. Eric.
He's been serving eggs to Eric Staal for weeks now. And asking about the fucking Leafs.
"I'll be by in awhile. Later," Eric says, and hangs up. "Sorry about that."
"You're Eric Staal," Jeff says, and then winces, immediately feeling like an idiot.
"I kind of wondered when you'd work it out," Eric – Eric fucking Staal – admits. He smiles hopefully. "So. My usual?"
Jeff manages not to trip over his own feet on his way back to the kitchen. It's a near thing, but it's nice to know he hasn't lost all grace and balance since April, and he doesn't hear Eric Staal snickering at him, so maybe he didn't notice.
He leaves Jeff a huge tip that day, probably just because he was running late to meet up with whoever called him. Or maybe math just isn't his strong suit. Jeff knew plenty of guys like that.
Jeff can't believe that he's been serving a gold medal winner for the past few weeks and didn't even realize it. His sisters would flip if they –
"Table 14, order up!" Johnny calls from the window.
Right, Jeff has work to do. He can freak out later.
Leah and Brandon don't get why Jeff is so excited about it.
"Now if it were a basketball player," Leah says with a little sigh.
"Is he hot?" Brandon asks.
"Yeah, kinda," Jeff admits.
"But guys, he's part of the Triple Gold Club, and I've been bringing him eggs," Jeff says.
"The what?" Leah asks.
"He's won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and a world championship gold medal," Jeff explains. "That's really hard to do. And he was a beast during the playoffs the year they won the Cup, too. He was – he was really good. And young, too."
"Oh, I remember him," Brandon says. "He was cute. Everyone else was really old."
Most of the time, Jeff is glad that his friends don't care about hockey, but for once he'd just like someone to get excited with.
"Anyway, the important thing is that he's rich and tips like it," Leah says. "So good for you."
Jeff knows she's right, but it's hard to think of Eric as really rich, despite the fact that he's started tipping twenty dollars no matter what he orders. Knowing he plays for the Hurricanes makes his schedule make a lot more sense, but it's not like Jeff sits down and talks hockey with him.
Or at least, it's not like that until one day when Eric says, "Hey, it's pretty dead, right? You can read over GameCenter on my phone, if you want."
Jeff tries not to look suspicious. "Yeah?"
"Sure," he says. "You're a hockey fan, and you asked me how the Leafs are doing, I figure you'd like to see the standings and headlines and stuff."
Jeff's checked them out a few times in the library, but he's mostly too paranoid to read up on hockey stuff. Like somehow it would get traced back to him. "Sure."
Eric hands his phone over. He doesn't have the standings up – he wouldn't, he sees them every day – but Jeff goes to them immediately. "Whoa," he says. "What happened to the Devils?"
"What didn't?" Eric says. He launches into an explanation of the Kovalchuk deal. Jeff knows a little about it, but not nearly as much as Eric does. He's so behind the times; it's really sad.
By the time Eric's done, someone else has come in, and Sue's waving him over. She knows he gets big tips from Eric and isn't going to stop Jeff from talking when there's no work to do, but she's also not going to wait his tables for him. "I have to go," Jeff says. "But this is really interesting, thanks."
"See you," Eric says. When Jeff gets back to clear off the table, there's another twenty waiting for him. He only feels a little uncomfortable when he pockets it.
The next time Eric comes in, it's around the end of his shift, and he looks cranky. Jeff serves him without saying anything; but when Sue says, "Your high roller's taking forever. Go home, kid – I'll give you the tip tomorrow."
Jeff wants to stick around, but Eric really does look like he wants to kill someone, and he's exhausted. He takes the apron off and grabs his hoodie, heading out.
But as he gets to the door, Eric says, "Hey, you want to help me finish this? I'm not hungry."
He ordered two sandwiches, so Jeff isn't surprised. Still, he hesitates – until Eric says, "Please? I won't get my bad mood all over you, I swear."
God, he's a dork. It makes it easier to talk to him, but still. "Sure," Jeff says, and goes over to sit down.
"Rough day at the office?" Jeff jokes.
It's lame, but Eric cracks a smile. "Back-to-back overtime losses."
"Ouch," Jeff says, picking at the fries. "But at least you got two points, right? Better than none?"
"Yeah," Eric says. "And at least Jordy wasn't playing. I mean, I'm not glad his foot is broken, but I hate losing to my little brothers."
"How does the Ranger feel about being the only one without a cup?" Jeff asks.
That actually makes Eric laugh, and Jeff can't help smiling. "Marc? He's cool about it for the most part, but if Jared gets one... We're never getting birthday presents ever again. But yeah, when Jordan got his, there was some grumbling about Sid and Malkin. Then we hung our rings on the Christmas tree that year. Didn't go over so well."
Jeff laughs and takes a bite of the sandwich. He's really hungry, but he doesn't want to look too pathetic in front of Eric. Who's telling him stories about Christmas at a multiple Stanley Cup household.
So weird. He wants to ask about something other than hockey, but he doesn't know what, so he just keeps eating. Eric seems to have unwound a little, so it's not as awkward as it could be eating across from an angry NHL player.
"So what are your plans for the evening?" Eric asks. "You're done with work, right?"
"Um," Jeff says. "Laundry, I think."
Leah mentioned needing to do some, and Jeff will probably buy the detergent and split the load with her. Then they can hang around the laundromat for a few hours and watch TV.
"Not going to save it for your parents when you go home for the holiday?"
"Holiday?" Jeff asks. "Oh right, American Thanksgiving."
Eric laughs. "I wasn't sure if you were a Canadian Leafs fan or an unfortunate son of a Leafs fan."
"It's kind of both, isn't it?" Jeff asks.
"Fair point," Eric concedes.
This is getting to be kind of too much about Jeff, for Jeff's liking. "I've gotta catch my bus, but thanks for the sandwich," he says, rising to bus their plates.
"Oh, yeah, no problem," Eric says. "I should get going."
He drops some bills on the table and tells Jeff to keep the change - way too much, especially considering he gave Jeff half his food, but Jeff's not going to say no.
"Good luck next time," Jeff says.
"Thanks." Eric grins back.
He has to stand on the bus ride back to the shelter, but even though his feet are killing him, he's in a pretty good mood.
Jeff thinks it must be a one-time thing, but the next time Eric's there, he waves Jeff over again. "So, I forgot to ask," he says. "You are going home for Thanksgiving, right?"
"Um," Jeff says.
"Because I do this thing at my house, a players’ Thanksgiving, since it's an American holiday and everything. You should come."
Jeff stares, because they've had maybe three full conversations, plus exchanging pleasantries. Does Eric invite the person who does his dry cleaning, too? "I, um. I think I'm going home."
It's the first time he's outright lied to Eric, and he hates it. But Eric just nods like he hasn't noticed anything and says, "Yeah, totally. I'll see you when you get back, then."
"Right," Jeff says, and bolts in the back to ask Sue to make sure he works on Thanksgiving and not right before or after.
He brings some turkey back to the shelter on Thanksgiving Day. Sue lets him have it for cheap, and that way he, Leah, and Brandon have something to eat. It's not important to Jeff, but Leah and Brandon are both pretty quiet, and they all go to bed early.
Jeff sees Eric two days later. He can't really control the smile that comes to his face when he sees Eric. His days don't revolve around him, or anything. It's just...it's nice to see him.
"Hey," he says. "The usual?"
"If you want, I can just tell you when I want something different," Eric says. "How was your Thanksgiving?"
"It was great. We don't celebrate it or anything, but I, um, I got a lot of laundry done. Yours?"
"We've got more than a few Americans, so it was nice. Lots of turkey, though." Eric makes a face.
Jeff laughs. "I don't know, I think it's good."
"Well, you're a Leafs fan, too." Eric grins at him.
Jeff doesn't turn red, because that would be stupid. "Water or coffee?"
"Yes," Eric says, so Jeff runs to grab both.
November rolls into December and brings Raleigh's version of winter with it. Jeff has to raid the diner's lost and found for a windbreaker and hat, but when he layers that stuff over his hoodie, he's warm enough waiting for the bus to and from work.
The Hurricanes schedule for December is weird; almost all the games are on the weekends and none during the week. Jeff knows this because Eric dropped a pocket schedule in with his money one afternoon. He's not sure if it was on purpose or what, but he keeps it tucked into his own wallet, so he can figure out when he might be seeing Eric. And when he definitely won't be, so Jeff can be sure to scrimp a little more.
He doesn't particularly like being so dependent on Eric's tips, but they definitely make things easier. The weekend games actually work out well for Jeff, because he's usually busy enough with other tables that he wouldn't really get to hang out with Eric anyway, and then Eric comes in on slow weekday afternoons when Jeff has time to hang out and talk.
Jeff doesn't sit down at the table with him every time he comes in – Jeff doesn't even know if Eric comes in when Jeff's not working – but every few days or so they'll sit and talk about hockey and Eric will have some story to tell. Jeff tries to remember interesting things of his own to share, especially if he snags someone's sports section and sees that the Canes lost. They're always stories about the diner, though, and he tries not to think about what will happen when Eric realizes he never talks about school.
It's one of Jeff's few ties to hockey down here, and even if he knows it's dumb to cling to it like he does, he can't help grinning every time he sees Eric sitting at one of his tables. It's just nice to have someone whose life revolves around hockey the way his used to, is all.
“So what are you doing for Christmas?” Eric asks at the tail end of the longest shift of Jeff's life.
Finals at State mean that there are college kids desperate to get out of the library or their dorm room, and they just camp out at a table with all of their books and order coffee for hours, and occasionally food. And they're all so grumpy, and it rubs off on Jeff.
“Hmm? Oh, I don't know, the shelter is doing something,” Jeff says. He's seriously considering just keeping a pot of coffee for himself.
“The shelter?” Eric asks. “Do you volunteer somewhere back in Toronto?”
Jeff freezes. He blinks at Eric and considers his options. Eric's already provided him with a lie he can use, but he's so tired of lying to him, and if Jeff says he's going home for a week and then Eric comes in while Jeff's supposed to be gone, what's he supposed to say then? “Um. No, the youth shelter. That I stay at. For homeless kids.”
He's stupidly worried Eric will laugh it off or something. He's not expecting his entire face to go slack. "You're homeless?"
"But you have a job."
"It doesn't exactly pay enough to make rent. Even if someone would rent to me."
Now Eric looks horrified. "But – Jesus Christ, how –"
This is the absolute last thing Jeff needs. Of course Eric's horrified. He probably thinks only idiots leave home and wind up homeless. "Look, I'm going to go get you your check."
"Wait," Eric says, and – he actually reaches out, grabbing Jeff's wrist. "Wait. Shit, sorry." He takes his hand away after Jeff flinches. "But you're okay at the shelter, right? You can afford food and stuff?"
Most of the time, Jeff doesn't say. "Yeah. It's all right." Especially with Eric's tips.
Horrified has turned into sad. Jeff doesn't know how he even manages to make his face move that quickly. "If you need anything, please, tell me."
Eric's the last person he would tell, but Jeff forces a nod. "Yeah, totally."
He makes his escape after that. Eric doesn't stick around and Jeff doesn't go back out, but when he clears the table, there's $40 waiting for him. It's a stupidly huge tip, and Jeff's ashamed of himself when he pockets it. But what's he going to do? Eric's not a creep, he's just weird. He's going to keep giving Jeff money, and Jeff's going to keep taking it, because he has to. Eventually Eric will get tired of it and leave.
He spends the next few days pretty sure that Eric's not going to want to talk hockey when he comes back. Why would he? Jeff's a kid who spends way too much of his time laughing like an idiot when Eric talks to him, and who was stupid enough to run away from home. He's a no one, and now Eric knows it.
But when Eric shows up again, he gets his usual and then says, "Hey, sit down for a few minutes. I didn't realize you didn't have access to hockey news at all, I just thought you were trying to be studious or something."
"I mean, I have the library and stuff," Jeff says.
"Yeah, but still." Eric grins at him. "Get your news directly from the source."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm not sure Hurricanes news is what I'm really going for."
That makes Eric laugh, which in turn makes Jeff grin. "Ouch," Eric says. "So I guess you don't want to hear about how there's a TV show about the Penguins and Caps now."
"Um, no," Jeff says.
"Yeah, me neither. The Leafs could really make it this year?"
But he can't even keep a straight face saying it, and Jeff finally gives in and laughs. "Okay, whatever. You win."
"I figured," Eric says.
Jeff's a little confused when he sees Eric at his table a couple of days before Christmas.
"Don't you guys have a game tonight?" Jeff asks.
Eric smiles, like he's glad Jeff is paying attention to the Hurricanes. "Yeah, so I'm skipping the coffee. And just some scrambled eggs and wheat toast?"
"Sure," Jeff says.
When he comes back with Eric's orange juice, there's a little red bag with a reindeer on it next to him on the table.
"You weren't here yesterday," Eric says. "And I'm heading to Pittsburgh after the game tonight. The family's meeting at Jordan's so he doesn't have to limp through an airport. I mean, I think it would be kind of funny if he had to, but our parents disagree. Marc's totally in my corner, though."
Jeff is vaguely aware that Eric is babbling, but he's still stuck on the gift bag on the table.
"It's not going to bite," Eric says.
"You shouldn't. You didn't –" Jeff stammers.
"It's not a big deal." Eric shrugs. "Trust me, it's not."
"I –" Jeff begins, but the order for another table is called, and they aren't a guaranteed tip, so he has to serve them quickly. "I'll be right back."
Eric's food is ready by the time table twelve is served, so Jeff can't delay going back to his table.
"Trade you," Eric says as Jeff approaches with the plates.
Jeff can't help smiling a little. He puts down the eggs and toast and picks up the little red bag. It's heavier than he expects, but when he removes the green tissue paper, he sees some chocolate at the bottom of the bag and –
"Oh man, are those maple candies?" Jeff asks.
"My mom sent me like three pounds," Eric says, beaming at him. "I can't actually eat that many, so I thought I'd share."
"Thank you," Jeff says. "This is awesome."
"There should be a little card in there, too," Eric says, looking a lot more nervous.
Jeff sees it then. It's in a gift card envelope, and he feels awkward again as he opens it. It's a gift certificate to the grocery store near the shelter. He doesn't know how Eric knows that's the closest one, or if he just guessed, but then he flips it over – "Fifty dollars? This is too much, I can't."
"It's Christmas," Eric says, like that makes it normal.
"Yeah, but," Jeff tries.
"I'm not going to use it," Eric says. "So you might as well keep it."
Jeff sighs. It's not like he knows Eric that well, but he gets the feeling there's no winning this one. "Well, thanks."
"Yeah. Merry Christmas."
It's probably the only time this past week that he's kind of meant it.
The problem with having Christmas spirit, though, is that after Eric leaves, he's left with a shitty feeling in the pit of his stomach. He puts the gift card in his wallet and takes the chocolate back to the shelter, ignoring the sympathetic shoulder-pat Sue gives him. He knows she'd help him more if she could, but she's still got a home, and Jeff's family is up in Toronto without him.
If Jillian could see him now, she'd flip, he thinks dryly.
"High roller," Leah says when she sees the bag. "What's in there?"
"Did Prince Charming get you something?" Brandon says, fake-swooning down onto the bed.
"Just some chocolate," Jeff says. "And a gift card to Safeway."
"How much?" Leah says.
"Fifty," Jeff mumbles, eyes on the floor.
Brandon whistles. "Damn. You're sure he's not –"
"I'm sure," Jeff says sharply. "He's just...he's got tons of money, and I'm his charity case or whatever."
"Sweetie, it's okay if you like him." Brandon takes a piece of chocolate, unwrapping it and closing his eyes. "He's hot."
"No," Jeff says stubbornly. It's actually not okay, for a million different reasons. "He's too weird. And I don't have time for crushes."
"Oh yeah, you're so busy," Leah says. "Hey, what's this?" She pulls the maple candy out.
Jeff grins. "Try it. It's good."
And just like that, attention is taken away from Eric. Jeff focuses on the smiles on his friends' faces, and not on thinking about Eric getting to go to his family for the holiday.
Christmas at the shelter is both nice and incredibly depressing. They sing carols, and some volunteers come by with food for them, and Leah and Brandon swap socks as fake Christmas gifts, and Jeff ends up spending the entire gift card on dumb presents they can all share. As Leah and Brandon try to retell the entire plot of A Christmas Story, Jeff eats maple candy and tries not to think about hanging ornaments on the tree with Jilly, or Andrea's annual horrible rendition of Rudolph.
Eric's back the day after Christmas. "Hey," he says. "How was Pittsburgh?"
"Pretty good," Eric says. "How was the shelter?"
"It was good. Kind of, you know..."
Eric waits, and Jeff's viscerally reminded that no, he doesn't know. "A lot of kids miss home," he says lamely.
"Oh," Eric says. "That makes sense, yeah. I'm sorry."
Jeff shrugs. "Not your fault."
"Still." Eric puts the menu away. "My usual?"
"Got it," Jeff says, and goes to the kitchen.
Jeff's actually glad for the tip that day, because Eric won't be by again until the new year at least, and Jeff needs the money. He's been feeling more tired than usual lately, and if he's getting sick, then he needs to have enough cash for some DayQuil or something. And it's not like Eric says goodbye, or anything, but he knows Eric knows that he follows the Hurricanes' schedule now.
He keeps an eye out for the sports section, nabbing it when he can and reading up on the ‘Canes. They win both the away games, which means that when Eric shows up on New Year's Day, Jeff gets to say, "Hey, good job."
"Thanks, I really depend on your feedback," Eric says.
"Very funny," Jeff says, and turns to leave.
"Hey, hang on. Here." He hands Jeff a canvas grocery bag.
"Wait, what?" Jeff says. But he's already pulling out the sweatshirt folded inside it. It's a Leafs hoodie, and it looks exactly his size. "Oh."
"Don't tell me you can't take it," Eric says quickly. "It's not my size, and I can't give any of the guys a Leafs hoodie. And I think you're smaller than they are anyway. I mean – not that I've – look, it's yours, okay?"
"This –" Leafs gear is expensive. "How –"
"We were in Toronto," Eric says, which is stupid, because Jeff knows they were in Toronto. He follows the Hurricanes as much as he can, and he's starting to care about them winning. Well, not starting. He does.
He realizes he's tuned Eric out just as Eric stops talking. "I just," Eric says when Jeff blinks at him. "I wanted to get you something practical, and I figured, if you don't have anything else, you might like it."
"Thank you," Jeff says, manners taking over when he can't make himself think straight. "This is really awesome. Thank you."
Eric relaxes immediately. "Oh, good. I thought you hated it, or something."
"Well, it's not Hurricanes merch, so, you know." Jeff grins at him.
Eric throws his head back and laughs. "Uh-huh. Go get me my food, kid."
Jeff goes to put the sweatshirt away, shoving down the little bit of sting that Eric calling him 'kid' has. He is a kid compared to Eric, and he needs to remember that.
Eric comes in once more before leaving for another road trip and tips big, as if to make up for the fact that he'll be gone for almost a week. Jeff appreciates it, because even the generic cold meds are expensive, and he's not shaking whatever it is he's got as fast as he'd like.
It doesn't help that it seems like everyone at the shelter is getting sick, even the volunteers. And even though it's not as cold as Ontario, Jeff's pretty sure he'd trade a little snow for all this rain. The rain brings a cold dampness that cuts through Jeff as he's waiting for the bus, even with his Leafs sweatshirt under his windbreaker.
He and Brandon make a trip out to the nearest thrift store for some new pants one morning before he has to go to work, but it starts raining once they're halfway there.
“My hair is going to be ruined,” Brandon complains as he zips up his jacket and they hurry down the street.
“Who are you trying to impress?” Jeff asks, coughing a little as they run.
“You never know!”
Jeff almost runs right past the people handing out umbrellas on the corner, because it's just too convenient to believe.
“Oh my god, you're a lifesaver,” Brandon says to the woman passing them out. “Jeff, come get yours!”
“Oh wow, um, thanks,” Jeff says.
“Just trying to spread some good in the world,” she says, smiling with a whole bunch of teeth.
They're turning to go when her partner rests a hand on Brandon's arm. “Son, if you come by the church later, someone can help you with your condition.”
“Condition?” Jeff asks.
“Come on, let's just go,” Brandon says.
“We just want to help you, son,” he says, until Brandon jerks his arm free.
“You've done plenty,” Brandon says coldly.
He takes off down the block, and Jeff has to hurry after him. Then he notices the rainbow flag patch on Brandon's backpack.
Right. Of course.
He's kind of surprised when Brandon opens the umbrella once they're down the street. “You're still going to use it?”
“I need an umbrella, Jeff. It's not the worst I've dealt with by a long shot.”
“Yeah, but –”
“Nothing's ever free, and that wasn't a terrible price to pay.” Brandon shrugs.
It's not a great way to start the work day, and even knowing Eric might be in doesn't cheer him up. He's just too tired.
He should use the umbrella, especially when it starts raining while he's waiting for the bus home after his shift, but he's too stubborn. He takes a quick, hot shower once he gets back to the shelter, but in the morning, he realizes what a colossal mistake that was. He can't breathe through his nose, his head feels three times heavier than it should be, and he swears he can hear things rattling around in his chest when he breathes. He stops at a Walgreens on his way to work and gets some of the tea that's supposed to make him not sick, but he's afraid to show his Canadian ID to the pharmacist, so he can't get the really good drugs, even though he's willing to pay for them.
Sue gives him a look when he gets to the diner, and says, “Don't cough on the food. Or pass out.”
“I won't,” Jeff assures her. He doesn't wipe his nose on his sleeve until he's out of her sight.
His shift is a long one, and by the time Eric comes in, Jeff is dead on his feet. “The same?”
“Yeah,” Eric says. Jeff turns to put the order in and Eric says, “Wait, hold on, sit down for a second.”
“Can't,” Jeff says. “Got tables. I'll get your order in.”
“You look like death,” Eric says. “Why are you even here?"
“Because it's my job,” Jeff snaps. Then he sighs. "I've only got an hour left on my shift, it's fine."
He's not sure he's convincing anyone, because Eric frowns, and Jeff has to hurry to the employee coat room to cough. By the time he gets back out front to put in Eric's order, Eric is gone.
Which, okay, fine, Jeff doesn't want to deal with his meddling right now. But he started counting on Eric's tip the second he walked in. His chest cold is weighing him down, and Eric's tip might've meant he could slip someone else a few bucks to buy him the real Sudafed. But he'll just have to make do with the tea, the cheap stuff and a few extra hours of sleep.
The rest of his shift drags, but he's finally off, and Sue is packing up some soup for him to bring back to the shelter when Eric walks in.
"Your cash cow has bad timing, sweetie," she says, handing him the bag.
"Yeah," Jeff says, not wanting to get into it.
He walks past Eric at the door, even when Eric says his name and then follows him.
“Jeff, wait up.”
"I have a bus to catch."
"No, you don't."
Jeff doesn't turn around. "Yes, I do. I'm sick, and I can't get you sick. The entire city would have my head."
"I got you a doctor's appointment."
"Which I can't pay for. It'll be fine, I've got cold meds."
"You probably have a virus, or something. I'm taking you to the doctor. My car's in the lot, come on."
Jeff knows he needs a doctor, but he doesn't want to be Eric Staal's charity case any more than he already is, so he shakes his head and keeps walking.
He expects Eric to give up. Why he thought Eric would act like a normal person is beyond him. He must be really sick.
Eric follows him to the bus stop, and then stands with him, waiting for the bus. "We're going to be late for the appointment," Eric says.
"I'm not going."
He actually jumps when Eric finally moves into his line of vision. He's holding a hundred-dollar bill. "Come to the doctor's."
Jeff wants to be furious. He wants to yell at Eric to leave him alone. He doesn't want to be the kind of person who can be bribed.
But a hundred dollars is a lot of money, even if Eric might hold it over his head afterward. And he really does feel like shit.
"Fine," he says, and takes the bill.
Eric's car is warm. It's nice, but he has to rest his face against the cold window to balance it out, and the change in temperatures makes him a little dizzy.
"Here," Eric says, reaching into the back seat and handing Jeff a bottle of Gatorade. Jeff would protest on principle, but Eric's got an entire flat of it back there and it's half empty. For some reason that makes it better than it would have been if Eric had bought it just for him.
"It's a long drive from the arena," Eric explains. Because, right, professional hockey players need to stay hydrated.
"Oh," Jeff says, drinking slowly. "The money...don't think – I'm not –"
"It's fine. Extenuating circumstances," Eric says.
"You really don't have to," Jeff says, for lack of anything better to say.
"Yeah, I know," Eric says, and starts the car.
He doesn't talk on the drive over, and Jeff is grateful, because it means he can close his eyes and try not to think about how awful he feels. When the car stops, he tries to convince himself to open his eyes, but it takes Eric quietly saying, "We're here."
The doctor's office is in an old, restored house. The receptionist checks their name off and has them sit down. It's a really, really nice place – they probably do a lot of work with the Hurricanes, Jeff thinks. That's enough to make him feel a little sicker, because Jesus, what is he doing?
He's sick enough that he doesn't even pick up a magazine. When they call his name, he blinks a little before standing up.
"Need help?" Eric says mildly.
Jeff shakes his head and follows the nurse back.
The nurse is a nice guy, and the doctor sort of reminds him of his mom, but that doesn't exactly set Jeff at ease. He doesn't have to lie about his age anymore, but that doesn't mean he couldn't still get into trouble if they found out he's in the country illegally.
"You feeling okay, Jeff?" the doctor asks. She's got the stethoscope pressed against his back, listening to his lungs.
"Wouldn't be here if I did." Jeff shrugs.
She laughs, but then he starts coughing, and she starts frowning. "I need some chest X-rays to confirm it, but I think you might have pneumonia."
X-rays sound expensive. "Are you sure?" Jeff asks.
"I wouldn't suggest them if I wasn't."
She doesn't sound mad or anything, but Jeff looks away anyway. He can barely think, and – he knows he's never going to be able to pay Eric back. He knows. Most of the money he does have was Eric's to begin with. "Okay."
They X-ray his chest, and Jeff thinks that will be the end of it, except then they tell him he has to wait for the X-rays to be developed, and it's close enough to the end of the day that that'll be tomorrow. So Jeff goes out to the waiting room and tells Eric.
Eric frowns. "Hang on," he says, and goes up to the desk.
The receptionist raises her eyebrows when Eric says something quietly – is he trying to use his name or something? But she goes in the back, and when she comes back out, it's to tell them it'll be a fifteen-minute wait.
"You didn't have to do that," Jeff says.
"I know," Eric says.
"We can settle your balance now, Mr. Staal," the receptionist says.
Jeff tries not to listen, but he hears anyway. "So, without insurance, that's one hundred for the exam, one twenty-five for the x-rays, and seventy-five for the consultation."
Jeff almost falls out of his chair, but Eric passes his card over like it's nothing.
Fifteen minutes later, the nurse lets him back into the exam room.
"The good news is this appears to be a rather mild case," she says, pointing to a gray spot on his lungs. "But we want to keep it that way, so I'm going to write you a prescription for some antibiotics. Any pharmacy in the city should be able to fill it."
"Oh, good," Jeff says. He has a feeling Eric is going to pay for those, too, and he's nearing too tired to care.
"In the meantime, get plenty of rest, and drink lots of fluids. Let your friends take care of you."
Jeff can't help but wonder if Eric asked her to say that, but he's just so tired. And now that he knows it's not just a cold, it seems so much easier to just give in and mope.
"Thanks, doc," Jeff says, and makes his way back out.
Eric stands up when he comes back out to the waiting room. "So?"
"Mild case, got a prescription." He has to concentrate on not wavering on his feet. "There are clinics, I can –"
"We're going to CVS," Eric says firmly.
Jeff doesn't have the energy to tell him no. He follows Eric back out to the car wordlessly. When they get to CVS, he proffers the prescription and says, "I can wait in the car."
Eric shakes his head. "Come on."
He's not sure why Eric wants him to follow until they get inside and give the prescription to the pharmacist. Eric immediately says, "So, we need to get you some sick food. I can get soup, but they have Gatorade and stuff here," and heads toward the food section.
"It's fine, I – the diner sells soup," Jeff says. He has some in the car, he remembers suddenly. Work seems like a really long time ago.
"They won't let you work when you're sick."
Well, no, but if it's a mild case then it'll clear up in a few days, hopefully. And in the meantime, Jeff has some money saved. Enough to buy himself food until he gets back to work, anyway. "I'll be fine."
He's surprised when Eric turns to face him. "Please," Eric says quietly. "Just let me do this, okay?"
Jeff wants to say no. He's not naive or stupid; he's had people who've wanted to help him before. It ends badly.
But he finds himself saying, "Yeah, okay."
"Thank you," Eric says, deflating like he's the one getting a favor, and continuing on to the food section.
They leave with the prescription, orange juice, and Gatorade. Jeff's wondering how he's going to get it back to the shelter and keep it – it's not like there's much room – when Eric says, "You need somewhere to stay."
Oh, fuck. Here it is. "I'll be fine," Jeff says.
"You know you won't be able to just stay at the shelter with all this."
"I will," Jeff says.
"And then probably catch a cold while you're getting better." Eric looks determined. "Let me get you a motel room. Just for a few days."
Jeff wants to say yes, he really does, but he forces himself to shake his head. "No, Eric."
"If it's about the money –" Eric begins.
"It's not about the money," Jeff nearly snaps. "I just don't want to be indebted to anyone. You've done so much already."
Eric deflates and looks kind of sad, and that makes Jeff feel guilty, which is ridiculous. He can't deal with this right now.
He sinks into the passenger's seat of Eric's car, and washes down the first pill with some orange juice – the good kind, with pulp and everything.
"If you need anything, just call me," Eric says, writing his number down. "I mean it. If it's something at the shelter or you start to feel worse. We've got an off day tomorrow, so don't worry about waking me up."
Jeff knows they have an off day – not that he's going to tell Eric that. He knows all about Eric's life, because Eric plays in the NHL, and now Jeff pays attention to him. Right now his entire life seems pretty rotten.
Eric drops him off at the shelter, and he knows he looks weird lugging a bunch of CVS bags in, but he's too sick to care. He says hey to Leah and Brandon and collapses onto his sleeping bag.
“I'll watch your stuff,” Leah says.
“Thanks,” Jeff mumbles. “You can have some of the orange juice.” It needs refrigerating, and that's hit or miss around here.
He's so, so tired, and emotionally exhausted too. It's easy to fall asleep, face pressed into the pillow, trying not to think of anything in particular.
He wakes up with a hacking cough. It's morning, so he takes a pill and washes it down with some red Gatorade and tries to go back to sleep. But people are moving around, and it's getting louder, especially since the heater is doing the weird rattling thing again. He groans and rolls over, trying to tune the noise out. He needs all the sleep he can get; he has to get better so he can go back to work.
He's finally drifting off again when one of the new kids starts yelling at one of the volunteers, accusing him of stealing his stuff, and Jeff wants to cry. After five minutes the guy is still yelling, and more people have gotten involved, so Jeff finally pulls out his cheap Trackfone. He's got about $5 in credit on it, so he could call Eric, but it's easier just to text him.
“centre's too loud to sleep. -Jeff”
He gets a reply almost instantly, even though it's not even nine and Eric doesn't have any reason to be awake already. “Be there in 20.”
Jeff pushes himself up and starts getting dressed, drawing a look from Leah. "You're not going to work like that."
"No, I – a friend is going to put me up for a few days. I'm just gonna try to get some sleep," Jeff says.
"A friend?" she asks skeptically.
"From the diner," Jeff half-lies. She'll think it's a coworker, and he's fine with that. He doesn't want to hear what she has to say about him being a professional athlete's charity case.
But Leah's not that dumb. "It's your sugar daddy, isn't it."
Jeff buries his face in his hands. "Look, I can't – there's nothing else I can do."
He hates admitting it. He hates it. But it's true, so he says, "Yes."
"If you're sure," she says. "I'd hug you, but you're diseased."
Jeff smiles weakly. "I'll see you in a few days."
"Just – be careful," she says, and pats his shoulder in spite of her protestations.
It's not until he's sitting outside with his duffel and CVS bags, dressed and waiting, that he starts to feel nervous. He knows he needs to do this. He has to get well so he can go back to work, and if that means depending on Eric, then fine. Eric's not a creep. He's not going to expect anything Jeff doesn't want to give. Probably. Hopefully.
Eric pulls up and hops out of the car, face falling when he sees Jeff. "You look like hell."
"I'm fine," Jeff says. "Or, I will be."
"Right." Eric takes his bags.
Jeff's stomach is churning, and not just because he's sick. He wants to get out of here before anyone else sees who's picking him up.
"I can book a motel," Eric says when he starts driving again. "I kind of bolted from home, but there's a Days Inn nearby."
"Sounds good," Jeff says weakly. Being back in a car is making him dizzy.
Eric keeps shooting him worried looks. "Are you going to be okay by yourself?"
"I...yeah?" Jeff says weakly. He hates how small he sounds.
Eric sighs and pulls over two blocks ahead of the Days Inn sign. "I don't want to force you to do anything or trap you," he says gently. But Jeff is struggling to sit up, fighting the panic and sadness that maybe Eric is like the people he's done his best to avoid since he finally got to Raleigh.
Eric's eyes widen and he puts his palms up. "No, no, nothing like that. I just think you should come home with me for a couple of days. You'll have your pick of guest rooms. I just don't think you should be alone somewhere. And my fridge has plenty of food. No strings, I swear. I'd never – Jeff. Never."
Oh. Right, of course he wouldn't. Jeff's an eighteen-year-old runaway with pneumonia. Somehow, even though the haze of sickness and drugs, he's a little disappointed about never. "Okay."
Eric's house is huge. Of course it is; Jeff doesn't know exactly how much he makes, but he knows it's a lot. He feels like he should be intimidated, or at least embarrassed, but mostly he's just tired.
"So, the rooms are all upstairs," Eric says. "Mine's all the way at the end of the hallway, if you want some space."
"Mostly I don't want to walk far," Jeff says. There are a lot of stairs. He might have to take a break or something.
"Do you need help?" Eric says.
"No, no, I'm good." Eric's already carrying his duffel and the CVS bags. Not that they weigh much.
But Eric's got the now-familiar skeptical look on his face. "Stay here," he says, and goes upstairs with the bags.
When he comes back down, he hunches down a little and says, "Lean on me."
Jeff has literally never been more embarrassed in his life. But Eric's strong and warm, and it's easy to lean into him as they go up the stairs.
Eric gets him settled on the bed, just sitting, before quickly backing off. Jeff would feel bad about what happened in the car, but he can't. And the bed is really comfortable, so he kicks off his shoes and settles back against the pillows. Everything smells fresh and clean, and it's quiet, and he's half asleep while Eric pulls out his meds and more Gatorade and puts it on the bedside table.
"If you need anything, I'll be downstairs," Eric says softly.
"Mk," Jeff mumbles, pulling the blankets up to his shoulders.
He wakes up confused, some hours later. His head feels thick, and he doesn't know where he is – not the shelter, obviously – is he home? A new billet? When he spots the orange prescription bottle on the table, he remembers. He's at Eric fucking Staal's house, Jesus.
Like he's been summoned, Eric appears in the doorway. "Hey, you're awake."
"Kinda," Jeff replies.
Eric's lips quirk into something like a smile. "You hungry?"
"Not really?" Jeff says, but his stomach growls.
"Yeah, you should eat," Eric says. "Hang on."
Jeff slumps back against the pillows, wondering what Eric's getting. He doesn't have long to wonder, though, because Eric comes back with something folded under his arm, balancing a bowl of soup in one hand.
"It's not fancy, I just ordered it. But it is chicken noodle," Eric says, setting it down on the bedside table. Then, while Jeff watches in shock, he unfolds the tray and sets it over Jeff's lap.
"Here," he says, putting the soup down. He backs away immediately.
He's being careful, Jeff realizes. Well – Jeff is weak and in Eric's house, in one of his beds, so it makes sense. "Thanks," Jeff says, and gulps some of the food down. It's hot, but it's really good.
"You should take your meds, too," Eric says. He sits down on a chair by the door.
Jeff's not sure he's okay with being watched. "Right," he says, and obeys.
"If you want to do some laundry or whatever, just let me know," Eric says. "There's some of Jared's stuff left in the closet, if you want to borrow it."
Jeff snorts. "He's like eight inches taller than me."
"He's my height." Eric waves a hand. "So, uh, only six?"
Jeff forces a little laugh at that, glad Eric hasn't asked how Jeff knows how tall his brother is. "Maybe later, I think I'll just stay up here for now," he says.
"Yeah, okay, sure," Eric says. "Oh, here's the remote for the TV, if you get bored."
The giant flat screen that Jeff somehow missed earlier. In his defense, he was really tired.
"ESPN's 188, TSN is 567 and the NHL Network is 243," Eric says.
Jeff doesn't have to fake a laugh. "Thanks."
Eric grins. "Okay, well, I'll just leave you to it."
He's gone before Jeff can surprise himself and tell Eric he could stay.
When he's done eating, he puts the bowl and tray aside and turns on TSN, relaxing back into the bed as the familiar Canadian accents fill the room. He's not happy – he still feels terrible – but he feels...he's not even sure. Relaxed? No, definitely not. Calm? Only because he's drugged to the gills. He just –
He feels safe, he realizes, and the thought draws him up short. He feels safe in Eric Staal's house. And he almost let slip that he knew Jared, and, fuck, he's an idiot. An idiot who can't go anywhere without worrying Eric.
It puts a pretty heavy damper on the rest of the evening. Jeff woke up around five, and by nine he's ready to fall asleep again. He takes his meds and slumps down into the pillows, closing his eyes. The bedroom door is still open, but he can't hear Eric anywhere. Do they have another day off tomorrow? Jeff can't even remember.
He decides he doesn't care right before he falls asleep.
He wakes up early the next morning with a pounding headache that he's pretty sure is partly caffeine withdrawal. He has no idea if Eric's even up, but it doesn't matter: he's seen Eric with Red Bull before, so he might have some here. Jeff stumbles out of bed and downstairs, leaning heavily on the rail but making it without killing himself or collapsing. It takes a little wandering to get to the kitchen, but he finally manages it – and then stops dead when he sees Eric standing shirtless in the kitchen.
"Oh – hi," Eric says. "Um. Sorry, I was just – coffee."
Jeff blinks. Eric's blush is spreading all the way down his chest. "It's your kitchen," he says finally. "Coffee?"
"Yeah, in a few minutes. Sit down, you look like death. Well, better than yesterday, but still," Eric says. He steps back so Jeff has a clear path to the island.
Jeff climbs up on a stool and slumps down, supporting his head with an arm. "Thanks."
"I've got morning skate, and then a game tonight," Eric says as the coffee brews. "But there's plenty of food and everything, so you should be fine."
"I'm probably just going to sleep all day," Jeff says. He's kind of surprised Eric's just going to leave him alone in the house all day. There's tons of stuff Jeff could steal and pawn. Not that he would, but Eric is way too trusting.
"Probably a good idea." Eric nods. He pulls the coffee pot out and pours two mugs, fixing them both with cream and sugar.
Eric's convinced him to sit down and have a cup on his breaks often enough, but Jeff never thought he'd been paying any attention to how he took it. He tries not to think about what else Eric might have noticed.
"Here," Eric says, handing him one. He sits down across from him. "Have you got soap and stuff?"
Jeff nods. "I know I'm gross, sorry, I just –"
"Hey, hey, it's fine." Eric smiles at him, then sips his coffee. "I see you almost every day, remember? I know you're into hygiene."
Almost every day, except when they go on road trips. Jeff's pretty sure they've got one coming up soon; he needs to hurry up and get better. "Right," he says, and takes a gulp of coffee so he doesn't have to talk anymore.
Eric seems fine with just sitting there and sipping coffee. When Jeff's almost drained his, Eric says, "Here, I'll make us breakfast,” and hops up again.
Jeff wants to protest, he really does, but then Eric's cracking eggs and frying bacon, and it's so much easier to just sit there and let Eric feed him. The food's good, if not great, and when he finishes Eric gives him seconds without comment.
"I've got to go," he says as Jeff eats. "I'll see you later, okay?"
Jeff nods, mouth full.
When he hears Eric leave, he slumps against the island in relief. He has some time to himself, which means he can...do things that aren't panicking about being in Eric Staal's house. And he can watch the game tonight, which will be great. He hasn't been able to watch a hockey game in forever.
As he goes upstairs, he has the fleeting thought that it'll be hard to leave. But whatever; that doesn't matter. He's done plenty of hard things in the past eight months. Leaving the Kitchener Rangers was way harder than leaving Eric Staal's house will be.
He goes back to sleep for an hour or so, and when he wakes up, he's feeling pretty okay. Okay enough to attempt showering, at least.
He can't remember the last time he didn't have to use a community shower and could take all the time he wanted. The water pressure is insane, so he washes his hair quickly and then just stands under the water until he starts feeling kind of light-headed. The towels are big and fluffy, and he wraps himself in them as he sits on the toilet lid, waiting for his blood pressure to get back up and coughing up all the crap in his lungs that the steam dislodged.
He's going to get soft, hanging around a house this nice, but he can't help it.
Jeff gets dressed and wanders downstairs. The living room has an even bigger flat screen, and the couch is big enough for eight people at least. It's insane, knowing how much that stuff must have cost. No wonder Eric can leave him twenty- or thirty-dollar tips a few times a week.
For a moment, Jeff lets himself wonder "what if?" but he shuts it down. What's done is done, he reminds himself.
Even so, when he sees a stick and a ball leaning up against the wall next Eric's Team Canada jersey, he can't help picking it up.
It's been so long since he so much as touched a stick, and for a second all he can do is stare at his own hands. But the ball's there, and instinct takes over. He starts fucking around, not doing anything specific, just enjoying the feel of the stick and the familiar movements he hasn't even thought much about in months.
"I didn't know you played," Eric says quietly from the doorway.
Jeff drops the stick and leaps back, the backs of his legs hitting the coffee table. "I wasn't – I mean, I didn't –"
"Hey, hey." Eric was leaning against the doorway, but now he stands up straight, holding up his hands. "It's okay."
"I just." Jeff shakes his head. There's no way to say how stupid he feels, being caught holding a stick in Eric Staal's living room. "Nothing."
"You looked like you were having fun," Eric says mildly.
"It doesn't matter. When do you go back?"
"Right." Jeff props the stick up against the wall again. It's harder than he wants it to be to let it go. "I'll be upstairs."
Jeff shakes his head. "It's nothing, really."
He almost thinks he's gotten away with it, but Eric stops him when he gets to the stairs by saying, "So are you any good?"
"Not anymore," Jeff snaps.
But he's given too much away. "So you played."
Jeff's trying to think of something to say, but when he takes a deep breath, he starts coughing. And, fuck, it hurts – he bends over, and time sort of blurs, and then he's leaning on Eric again.
"Hey," Eric says gently. "Let's get you upstairs, okay? We don't have to talk about it. I'm sorry."
"It's nothing," Jeff says, but his voice sounds stupidly small and weak even to his own ears.
Eric helps him back up the stairs and watches from the doorway as he climbs back into bed. Apparently playing with the stick was too much physical activity for him. Jeff closes his eyes and tries not to feel too miserable.
By the time he opens them back up, Eric's gone. Jeff assumes he stays downstairs; he doesn't hear much from him until he hears him leave a few hours later.
When it's almost time for the game, Jeff trundles downstairs for more food. He winds up watching the game in the living room. It's pretty good, though they're playing the Devils, so it's also boring as hell. He likes being able to watch Eric play, though. He sat down and watched a lot of games when the reality of being drafted finally sank in last year, and Eric made a mark even then. Now...
Well, he's staying in the guy's house. That doesn't make how he plays any less impressive.
He falls asleep right after the Hurricanes finish it off, 4-2. When he wakes up the next morning, it's to the smell of coffee. There's another tray sitting outside his bedroom door, with steaming hot coffee and a plate of eggs. Jeff has no idea how Eric knew he was going to wake up, if he was planning on reheating it periodically or what, and he doesn't really care. He retrieves the tray and wolfs it down gratefully. By the time two rolls around, he's really feeling gross, so he gets up and showers.
He doesn't feel nearly as crappy as he was expecting – probably since he's slept and has been lazier than he's ever been since he was five or so. He grabs the two trays and sets them outside the room, then takes his dirty dishes and carries them downstairs.
"Oh, hey," Eric says. He's sitting on the couch, watching TV. "Need any help with that?"
Jeff considers the very real likelihood that he'll make a moron of himself and drop something if Eric tries to take any of the dishes from him. "Nah, I'm good," he says, and continues on to the kitchen.
He rinses the dishes off and puts them in the dishwasher, trying not to think about how easy this is, or how comfortable he feels doing it.
"So, uh, do you think you'll be sticking around for a few more days?" Eric asks.
He's leaning in the doorway, somehow taking up the entire thing without trying.
Jeff shrugs. "I don't – I mean, I hadn't really thought about it." But he's already making plans. He's almost better, so he can probably work short shifts at the diner until he's back to normal –
"You should stay, I mean, if you want. We've just got a back-to-back in Florida starting tomorrow, so I wanted to make sure you'd be okay here by yourself."
Jeff has to fight not to stare at him. Has nothing bad ever happened to him? Has Eric never even had his wallet stolen? He's taking trusting too far, all the way into being naive.
"There should be enough food in the fridge, but I'll leave some money in case you have to order something –"
"I have money," Jeff interrupts. Not a lot besides the hundred that Eric used to bribe him to the doctor, but he has some that's his.
"Right, of course." Eric nods. "Well, whatever. I just wanted to give you a heads up."
"Head up," Jeff acknowledges. It's not that clever or at all funny, but it makes Eric laugh and Jeff turns back to the sink to fill a glass of water.
"You're welcome to stay down here, if you want," Eric says, and leaves while Jeff's back is still turned.
Jeff really wants to, which is why he probably shouldn't. But he doesn't really have an excuse to stay upstairs, and Eric's letting him stay here. He doesn't want to be rude. So he goes out to the living room and settles on the ridiculously huge leather couch, doing his best to sit at a distance that's not weird in one direction or the other.
He knows he's over-thinking it. He's not stupid. But Eric's feet are bare and propped up on the coffee table, and he looks so relaxed. Jeff's in his home. He's going to over-think everything until he finally gets to leave.
"Like action movies?" Eric says, flipping over to The A-Team.
"Sure," Jeff says. He hasn't seen a whole movie since he left.
"Oh," Eric says quietly, almost to himself. "Here, I'll find it from the beginning, it's fun."
"You really don't have to."
"No, I want to." Eric glances at him, and then away again, concentrating on the TV until he finds the movie. It's only three dollars, but Jeff still squirms as Eric buys it and hits play.
“Did you ever see the TV show?” Eric asks as it loads.
“Just a few reruns.”
“Right, it was probably before your time.” Eric makes a face that Jeff can read pretty easily as 'I'm so old'.
“You're not that much older than me,” Jeff says. “Were you even watching the original run?”
“Well, no, but –”
The 20th Century Fox music starts playing and the conversation dies.
But Eric was right, the movie is fun. He's engrossed enough in the novelty that he barely notices when Eric gets up and returns with a sandwich. He wolfs it down, though, and drinks the soda Eric gives him with it. He's feeling so much better.
He can go back to work soon, he reminds himself. That's a good thing.
After the movie, Jeff says, "I'm going to go nap."
Eric nods. "See you."
"Yeah." There's an awkward moment where Jeff tries to bolt for the stairs and almost forgets Eric's legs are in the way, but then he circles around the coffee table, bobs his head at Eric, and makes his escape.
He doesn't come back down again; he falls asleep, wakes up to some soup at his door, eats it, and then falls asleep again. He's not thinking about Eric, because that's stupid: he's thinking about getting better. That's all.
He assumes Eric will already be gone when he wakes up the next morning, so he goes down the stairs easily, walking a little more heavily than usual and not bothering to yank his shirt down where it's rucking up around his stomach. So it's a problem when he turns the corner to get into the kitchen and runs right into Eric.
"Whoa," Eric says, reaching out and gripping his arms. "You okay?"
Jeff blinks up at him. He's wearing a suit: he's about to leave. And he's still touching Jeff. "Yes?"
"Right." Eric lets go quickly, stepping back. "So. I'm out."
"I'll see you in a few days." Eric takes a deep breath. "There's money on the table. Order what you need. The cleaning lady will be here tomorrow, but she'll be expecting you. There's a spare key on the table, too."
Jeff can't do anything but blink, because – seriously?
"Take care of yourself," Eric finishes.
"I – yeah, thanks," Jeff finally manages to say.
Eric offers him a lopsided smile and reaches out, but before he touches Jeff he drops his hand. "So yeah, see you," he says.
Jeff steps out of the way quickly so Eric can get by. "See you."
Eric leaves without looking back. When he locks the door behind him, Jeff sits down at the bar and takes a deep breath.
Just a few more days. Eric won't even be here. When Eric gets home, he'll go back to the shelter, and that will be the end of this. He won't get too used to this. He can't.
After he eats a couple of bowls of cereal, he starts to explore the house a little bit. He's really only been in the kitchen, the living room and his – the guest room he's staying in.
The stick is gone from the living room, and Jeff is briefly disappointed, until he wanders into what would probably be the rec room in a normal house. Instead of another couch or boardgames, Eric's just got a radio and a collection of hockey gear, including the stick and ball. But Jeff ignores the ball, because the door is open to the garage, where Jeff can see a shooter tutor and a pile of pucks.
It's impossible to resist. He doesn't even think about picking up the gloves and the stick sitting next to the door and separating a puck from the pile. He knocks the puck back and forth in front of his feet a few times before wristing it up over the goalie's shoulder.
Or trying to.
The puck ends up hitting the vinyl goalie in the face, and Jeff cringes. He's rusty, which isn't a surprise, but he hates it.
He ends up going through the pile twice over, finally getting some results on the second go around. He almost starts a third, but he starts to feel a little woozy.
He's got another two days to play with it. He can make a sandwich and maybe take a nap for now.
He spends the next few days sleeping, eating, and practicing as much as he can. The cleaning lady comes the first day Eric's gone, and Jeff ends up hiding in his room and hoping she doesn't come in. She does poke her head in, though, and say, "I have instructions to change the sheets."
"Right," Jeff says sheepishly, and escapes back out to the garage.
By the second day, the night before Eric's supposed to come back, he still can't do more than an hour or so without getting tired. But he's gotten a little better, despite the fact that his conditioning is completely nonexistent and he's still rustier than he's been since he was seven or so. The last night, he cleans everything up as much as possible and packs the few things he's removed from his duffel. He's not totally well yet, but he has his prescription, and he's well enough to go back to work, probably. Eric will be in by four or so, and then he can leave and go to see if he still has a job.
He goes to sleep feeling nothing but resolve. He's going to leave: he has to. This whole living the good life on charity thing needs to end.
Eric comes home in the late morning, dropping his bag heavily inside the front door.
"In the kitchen," Jeff says. His bag is on the chair next to him, and he can see Eric take it in as he drops into the seat across from him. Eric's wearing a suit again, but the top three buttons of his shirt are undone, and he looks good. Jeff can admit that.
"So you're feeling better?" Eric asks.
"Yeah," Jeff says. "Pretty much done with the meds, and I'm doing a lot better."
"Good," Eric says. "That's good."
"Yeah," Jeff says. This shouldn't be so difficult to say. He feels like he's going to hurt Eric's feelings or something ridiculous like that. "I was thinking I'd head back to the shelter today and see what's up at the diner."
"Yeah, if you want." Eric's expression doesn't change, which Jeff wasn't expecting. "I can give you a ride. I just have to move my stuff upstairs and change into something less stuffy."
He kind of figured Eric would protest, try to get him to stay. But it's best that he doesn't.
"Sounds good," Jeff says. He makes a point not to watch Eric go.
The ride back to the shelter is pretty tense. Jeff doesn't ask about Eric's trip and Eric doesn't volunteer any information. Jeff's trying not to be nervous, but it's hard. All he can do is think about the shelter. There might not be space, and Jeff doesn't want to end up on the street again. January in Raleigh might not be horrible, but it's not warm enough for him to be okay with sleeping outside. And bathing at the diner is always horrible, too.
He cringes at himself when he realizes where his thoughts are going. He sounds like a spoiled asshole. Leah and Brandon would be embarrassed to know him.
"Thanks," Jeff says when Eric pulls up in front of the shelter.
Eric taps his hand on the steering wheel. "I'll be seeing you."
Jeff has to swallow around the lump in his throat. "I – yeah. Yeah, totally." He grabs his bag and hops out, closing the door without looking back.
He feels awkward standing at the front desk, too clean and well-fed to be a homeless kid who needs help. The volunteer recognizes him, though – and her face falls. "Jeff."
Jeff tries and fails to remember her name. "Um."
"We're full," she says. "I mean, I can check, but – you know how long our waiting list is."
Shit. Shit, shit, shit.
She sounds worried enough that Jeff snaps out of it. "It's cool, I might have a backup plan," he says, smiling as easily as he can. "I'll see you."
His backup plan is walking to the diner. His bus pass expired three days ago; he has the money Eric gave him, but that's not going to go far, and he's not going to buy a new one until he's sure he's got a job to get back to. Anyway, it's not like he has a shift he needs to hurry there for.
By the time he gets there, he's out of breath and more or less praying that Sue is there. When he sees her behind the counter, he sighs and says, "Sue."
"Sweetheart, please don't tell me that bag of yours means what I think it means."
"I'm going to figure it out," Jeff says. "I was just wondering. Um."
"Do you still have a job?"
Sue might have a soft spot for him, but she's not stupid or even overly nice, and right now she's staring at him shrewdly. Jeff stands as straight as he can and nods.
"I should say no," Sue says. "But it happens I didn't have time to fill your spot. Got my nephew to work a few days instead. So you can come back, but don't get sick on us like that again, okay?"
"Right." Jeff lets out his breath, all in a rush. "Okay, yeah. Thank you. When can I start again?"
"Tomorrow morning, the usual time."
It's good, he tells himself. It's really good. He can spend a few dollars going to twenty-four hour fast food places, and then tomorrow he'll figure out a place to sleep in the longer term. He'll be fine.
"Thanks." His voice sounds tense and scared even to him. "I'll see you then."
"Here," she says, and tosses him one of their to-go sandwiches. "You're looking a little gray."
If she only knew. Jeff forces a smile and leaves.
He grabs a couple hours of sleep in the city library before they close, strategically holding an open book so it looks like he fell asleep by accident. Then he heads to Denny's and orders things off the two-dollar menu until the sun comes up and tries not to think too hard about what he'll do tomorrow night. He can only afford to do this for so long, and then... maybe he'll have to head further south, somewhere with warmer nights.
Jeff tries not to think too hard about why that prospect seems so unappealing.
Eric comes in halfway through Jeff's shift the next day. After practice, Jeff figures. He smiles when he sees Jeff, like he hasn't had Jeff invading his space for the last week. Jeff can't help smiling back, even though he's a little exhausted.
"Orange juice?" Jeff asks.
"You got it," Eric says. "How are you doing?"
It's barely more than idle small talk, but Jeff can't help blurting, "The shelter's full."
Eric's face falls. "What are you going to do?"
Trust him not to beat around the bush. "There are places I can go," Jeff says. He knows it's vague, but there's no way he's going to outright tell Eric what he did last night.
"Places?" Eric shakes his head. "Jeff –"
"I have to go," Jeff says, and all but runs to the back to grab another table's order.
But when he comes back out, Eric flags him down. "What kind of places are we talking about?"
Jeff really wishes that for once, Eric would just let something drop, because he can't seem to stop himself from telling Eric everything. "The library, all-night places. You know, around."
"That's not safe." Eric looks up at him, narrowing his eyes. "How much sleep did you get last night?"
Something in his tone has changed. He's always treated Jeff carefully, but now he's more or less ordering Jeff to be honest with him. Like it's going to help. "Enough," Jeff says. "I'm going to go get your juice."
When he comes back again, Eric says, "Sit down for a second."
Jeff would love to say no, but there aren't really any customers, and the part of him that's not choking on his own pride is really, really aware of how much he needs some help. He sits.
"I can do something," Eric says. "Make some calls, try and figure out someone who can put you up for awhile."
Jeff shakes his head. "I'm not going to owe you or anyone else like that."
"Jeff, it's not that big a deal," Eric says. "People want to help you. I want to help you."
"Why?" Jeff asks. He doesn't get why Eric cares so much about some kid he met at a diner.
Eric stares at him, his face twisted in confusion. "Are you serious? I like you, Jeff. You're my friend. And there's no reason for you to be staying up all night at Waffle House when I've got three spare bedrooms that just collect dust."
Jeff fiddles with the salt shaker. It's going to need refilling soon.
"I liked coming home to someone else there. It makes the house less hollow."
"Maybe you should get a dog," Jeff says. He doesn't want to think it could be that easy. He's not stupid or even as naive as Eric is. Things don't just work out like this.
"Maybe I will, if I have a roommate who can watch him while I'm out of town for days or weeks at a time," Eric says easily, like this is something he's been considering for more than five minutes.
"Eric..." Jeff says. It's tempting, really tempting.
"You don't have to say yes right away," Eric says. "I'll come back tonight, okay? At seven. If you haven't found a place by then, just tell me."
Tell him, and then Jeff will go and live with him, in his giant house, with his framed Team Canada jersey and enormous flat-screen TVs. Right. "I'll think about it," Jeff says. He's only human.
Eric smiles. "Okay, good. Can I get my usual?"
Jeff can't help the way he blushes, stupidly. "Sorry. Um, they've probably already started making it. I'll go check." He bolts.
Eric doesn't make anything but idle conversation for the rest of his time there. He cracks a few dumb jokes that Jeff manages to smile a little at, and when he goes, he leaves twenty dollars on the table. So it's a normal day, except for how the hundred Eric gave him is still in his wallet, and now he wants Jeff to live with him.
"So, you going to take him up on it?" Sue says while he's counting his tips.
He's not actually good at counting and talking, so he has to stop to say, "You were listening?"
"He doesn't seem like a pervert, but you never know."
"He's not. I was staying with him when I left. Because I was so sick."
Sue raises her eyebrows. "And you left?"
"I had to," he says. "I didn't want to just depend on him for forever."
"But now you're thinking about it."
"The shelter's full," Jeff says, fully aware of how helpless he sounds and completely incapable of doing anything about it.
"It's not a bad offer," Sue says, before turning to pour a fresh cup for the man sitting at the end of the counter.
She's right, and Jeff knows that. He also knows that when Eric shows up, Jeff's going with him. There's not much time during a shift for him to find another place instead.
The drive back to Eric's house is a weird one. It's different than last time, for one. Jeff's not sick as a dog, but it also feels more permanent. He can just tell he's going to be sticking around a while. Eric's too stubborn and Jeff's too soft.
"I can buy my own food," Jeff says suddenly, his voice loud and awkward to his own ears.
"Sure," Eric says.
Jeff wasn't expecting an argument exactly, but he feels better knowing he won't be mooching off Eric entirely.
Eric's house feels familiar and warm when they get there, and Jeff can feel himself relaxing by inches.
"You can take the same room, or check out the others if you want," Eric says.
"Same room is fine," Jeff says.
"You sure? The one next to it has a bathroom attached," Eric says. "Not that you have a lot of competition for the bathroom. Whatever, whatever works for you, go for it."
He leads Jeff up the stairs, but doesn't stop to see what room he chooses, just keeps walking back to the master bedroom. Jeff's not a guest anymore, he's a roommate. Or something.
He takes Eric's advice and upgrades his room. It's bigger, and has a larger television to match, along with the bathroom. Jeff actually unpacks his stuff this time, folding it and putting it away in the drawers under the TV. His stuff only fills half of the smallest drawer, but it feels good to do it and know he doesn't have to worry about anyone messing with it.
He ate at the diner right after his shift, so he's not hungry now, but it occurs to him that he's going to have to leave really early to make it to the diner in time for his shift tomorrow. He can pay for the bus, but the nearest stop is a 30-minute walk from Eric's house. Keeping that in mind, he showers quickly and heads downstairs to grab some water before bed.
Eric's in the living room, and he stands up when Jeff comes in. "Do you need anything?"
Jeff blinks at him. "Um. Just some water."
"Oh, right." Eric drops back down on the couch.
And, okay, it's ridiculous, but if Jeff doesn't say something then he's never going to be comfortable here. "Could you just ignore me, do you think?"
Eric looks up at him. "Ignore you?"
Jeff shifts from one food to another. "I'm still a little weirded out. By, uh, everything."
"Oh. Right, of course." Eric very deliberately turns away, staring at the TV.
It makes Jeff smile a little. He goes to grab his water.
"How are you getting to work tomorrow?" Eric calls.
Jeff freezes. "There's a bus stop."
"In the city," Eric says. "Do you want to borrow the truck? It's not great, but it'll get you around."
"Wait, what?" Jeff says.
"The truck," Eric says again. "It's not new or anything, and I've dented it with pucks a few times –" he makes an embarrassed face at that, "– but it's still in good shape."
Jeff knows Eric has a truck. He didn't spend three hours shooting pucks at a net in his
garage without noticing the truck in there. "Are you serious?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" Eric asks. "Seriously, I bought the truck after I was drafted, it's not exactly a BMW."
"I could be a terrible driver," Jeff points out.
"No, but that's not the point," Jeff sighs. He wonders again how Eric's made it this far in life being so nice and trusting. "Fine, I'll take the truck."
"Cool, I'll dig out the spare keys in a minute," Eric says. He's watching highlights from the Ducks-Kings game, and Jeff finds himself drifting towards the couch to watch, too.
"Are they any good this year?" Jeff asks.
Eric shrugs. "Hiller's a beast as always, he and Kopitar are going to be at the All-Star game."
Jeff nods and sits down at the opposite end of the couch. Eric does a good job of not outwardly reacting, so Jeff is able to relax a little more. During the commercial break, Eric goes to the kitchen and comes back with a set of keys, and tosses them to Jeff.
"Uh, thanks," Jeff says.
"No problem," Eric says as he drops back onto the couch.
"Wait," Jeff says, finally seeing the ratty old sweatshirt Eric's wearing. "The Peterborough Petes? Really?"
"What, you got something against P-dot?" Eric asks.
"When was the last time they were any good?" Jeff asks without thinking. "And that's a lame name."
"It's the OHL, all the names are weird or lame," Eric protests, conveniently ignoring any questions about the source of Jeff's opinions about OHL teams. He probably just assumes Jeff followed one of them, growing up in Toronto.
Jeff wants to defend the Rangers, but that'd be way too close to telling. "Yeah, I guess. I'm gonna head to bed, I'll see you later."
"Sure thing," Eric says, and turns his focus back to the TV.
It's kind of obvious that he's making an effort to be normal, but Jeff's fine with it, if it means Eric isn't going to think too hard about the fact that he invited a teenage runaway to live with him, or that he's letting Jeff use his car, or that Jeff plays hockey and is big on the OHL. It's not like anyone in Raleigh cares about the Rangers; Jeff's secret is safe. Hopefully.
He sleeps better that night than he has in ages, probably in no small part because he's so exhausted. He wakes up without needing to set an alarm. It's been a long time, but years of waking up at five have left their mark.
The Hurricanes don't play that day, so Jeff assumes Eric's still asleep. He grabs some breakfast – he really is going to have to go grocery shopping, even if he can't afford much. He's ready to go right before seven. His shift doesn't start until eight, but there might be traffic, and Jeff honestly still feels sort of weird about everything.
He's not really surprised when he gets out to the (years old, but still pretty nice) truck and there's a Post-it note on it that says, "Drive me! :)" It's Eric all over. And that's a little weird, Jeff thinks as he heads out, that he knows Eric well enough to spot that as an Eric kind of thing to do. But Eric was right; they're friends.
Sue whistles when he pulls up in the truck. "Damn. You want to spread the love a little?"
"I don't know, he's crazy," Jeff says, and ducks behind the counter.
His shift goes by quickly, and he's driving back to Eric's with groceries in the seat next to him before six. When he gets back to Eric's, Eric opens the door to greet him and snags one of the bags.
It's ridiculous both because Jeff's only carrying two bags, and because, what, was Eric watching for him?
But when he voices the question, Eric looks at him like he's crazy and says, "I heard the truck."
Oh, well. Obviously. Jeff bites his lip and looks away from Eric's back.
"You can put the stuff wherever," Eric says when they get into the kitchen. "I'm going to go out with some of the guys."
"The day before a game?"
It just sort of slips out. Eric raises his eyebrows and grins. "Yeah, Mom, for dinner and a drink. It'll be fine."
"Sorry," Jeff says. "I just –" Quit playing right at the most intense part of the playoffs. Take the game too seriously. No, he can't say those. "Never mind."
"Anyway," Eric says, still smiling, "don't wait up."
Jeff tries to match his smile. It's easier than he expected; he's weirdly relaxed, even while also being embarrassed. "Got it."
Eric turns away pretty quickly after that. Hopefully he isn't actually offended – not that there's much Jeff can do about it if he is. Jeff shrugs to himself and goes to unload the groceries.
He makes himself dinner, because he can, and considers taking it up to his room. But if he's going to live here, he can eat his dinner in the kitchen, or even the living room.
Probably. He's too worried about spilling on the couch, so Jeff eats at the kitchen table. He's careful to clean up after himself – he doesn't want Eric coming home to a mess – before he drifts out to the living room.
It takes him almost ten minutes to decide which hockey game to watch on Eric's insane satellite package. He settles on Blackhawks and Blues, but even though it's fast-paced and chippy, he falls asleep during the third period.
He doesn't realize it at the time, of course, not until he wakes up to Eric leaning over him, with a hand on his shoulder. "Jeff, Jeff, Jeff."
Jeff blinks up at him. "Huh?"
"It's past midnight, you should be in bed," Eric says. "This couch can be hell on your back."
With the exception of his new bed, it's the most comfortable piece of furniture Jeff's been on in over a year. "Right," he says, and moves to sit up. It's not until he's pushing against the pressure of Eric's hand that he even realizes Eric's still touching him.
"Sorry," Eric says, and – doesn't actually stop touching him. Instead he moves his hand to Jeff's arm, helping him up. "You okay to get upstairs?"
Oh, right. Because he's still kind of sick, and everything. "I'm good," Jeff says.
Eric moves his hand away immediately. Jeff's too bleary from being woken up to be able to ignore the disappointment he feels. "'night," he says, and sleepily stumbles away.
"Goodnight," Eric says quietly when he's halfway up the stairs.
Sharing the house gets easier as the days pass, and Jeff adapts to having a routine here and working around Eric's schedule. It's still weird watching Eric play with the Hurricanes on TV and then hearing him come home a couple hours later, or watching his highlights in the morning while they eat cereal on the couch.
And, yeah, Jeff's nursing kind of a stupid crush. Mostly he tries to ignore it, but it doesn't show any signs of going away soon. Eric's nice, and hot, and an elite hockey player. It's not really surprising Jeff has kind of a thing for him. He buries it whenever he thinks of it, because that's trouble he doesn't need.
One morning when Eric doesn't have practice and Jeff doesn't have to work, Eric pops his head into Jeff's room. "Hey, I'm gonna use the weight room, did you wanna?"
"Wanna what?" Jeff asks.
"I was thinking I could show you how to use the set-up, if you want." Eric shrugs. He's wearing loose shorts and a wife beater, and Jeff can already see this getting uncomfortable for him.
"Oh, yeah, sure," Jeff says. He stands but then stops. "Um, I'm not sure I have stuff to work out in."
"Right, yeah, hold on a minute, I think I've got some samples from Bauer you can use," Eric says, disappearing down the hall.
Oh, great. Jeff shifts from foot to foot and tries not to feel too awkward. It's even worse when Eric comes back and says, sizing him up kind of obviously, "These might be a little too big for you, but they're way too small for me, so."
"Thanks," Jeff says, and goes to get changed. They're pretty comfortable.
"You look good," Eric says.
Jeff blinks at him, because wait, what?
"I mean, you're obviously used to working out," Eric says. "You look comfortable, and – yeah. But it's been awhile, eh?"
"Right." Eric jerks his head. "It's this way."
Jeff follows him wordlessly. It's pretty nice, actually, if also sort of obviously meant for just one person. But Jeff hasn't had the opportunity to do anything but half-heartedly jog in way too long, so an expensive one-person setup pretty much looks like heaven to him.
He's familiar enough with weight machines that do the same exercises, so all Eric really has to do is show him how to switch the bench and adjust the bar so he can go from a lat pull down to a seated row or leg lifts while seated or lying down.
"Oof," Jeff says as he slides further back on the bench than he expected.
"Oh, sorry," Eric says, quickly leaning over him to adjust the position. "Was on autopilot there. You probably don't need that as far back as possible, huh?"
"Not so much," Jeff says. Eric's not actually touching him anywhere, but the little bit of exercise has made his skin warm, and Jeff can feel it despite the inches between them. Inches that disappear when Eric pulls some lever that pushes Jeff back up.
"Is that better?" Eric asks. He doesn't move, even though Jeff's basically plastered against him.
"I, uh, yeah," Jeff says. His throat is a little dry.
Eric steps back quickly, and Jeff thinks maybe he looks a little redder than before, but it's impossible to tell. And even if he was, Jeff reminds himself, it wouldn't matter. "Right, well, I think that's it for now. I'm just gonna use the bike for a bit."
"Sure," Jeff says, moving his gaze to the opposite wall so he can focus on the leg lifts.
"Hey," Eric says the next day, "I'm not going to be around this weekend."
"The All-Star game, right?" Jeff says. He's been watching enough NHL Network lately not to have missed it. Also, there's been traffic and signs and stuff.
"Yeah." Eric makes a pained face. "I'm the host, basically, me and Cam. So there's a lot to be done."
Jeff nods. "That makes sense."
"I'd offer to get you tickets, but -"
There'll be hockey fans from all over. Right. "No big deal," Jeff says quickly. "Have fun. You know, don't get too drunk." That makes him sound like Eric's mom. "I mean -"
"I get it," Eric says, smiling easily. "Relax."
"Right," Jeff says lamely.
He's not planning on watching much of it. He knows it's plenty fun for the players, who get to fuck around and get drunk each night, but Jeff likes watching actual hockey. The night of the skills competition, though, Eric's been gone for more than a day and the house is feeling a little empty. Jeff turns on the skills competition with more than a minor sense of inevitability.
It's kind of funny, at first. The trick shots are great - Ovechkin's a ham, exactly as Jeff remembers him always being when there's a camera on him. But then the camera's on Stamkos and, shit. Jeff stiffens as the camera pans over the players. Stammer's gone soon enough, but then they focus on Taylor Hall, and - no. Jeff can't deal with this. He turns the TV off, hands shaking a little in spite of himself.
He's kind of mad. It's stupid; he knows it's stupid. It was stupid to feel all lonely because Eric's not home, and it's stupid to get upset seeing people he left behind. That's not his world anymore, and he knows it.
But God, he wishes it was. He goes to bed that night feeling guiltier than usual, and when he wakes up in the morning to a still-empty house, he turns on MTV and cranks the volume up until it's impossible for him to feel like the house is too still.
Eric gets home late Sunday. Jeff worked a full shift at the diner, and he's eating dinner he made. It's not as good as Eric's, but Jeff's telling himself he doesn't care. Eric comes in wheeling a suitcase, and makes a beeline for the fridge without even looking up.
"Hey," Jeff says from the island.
Eric jumps. "Oh. I - the light was on, of course." He makes a face. "Hi."
"How was it?"
"We lost," Eric says, "but not by much. And it's not like it counts in the standings." He grabs a bottle of water and closes the fridge. "How was, um, your weekend?"
"It was fine," Jeff says. He desperately wants to talk about how fucked up it made him, but there's no way he's going to. "So how hammered did you get?"
"Not as bad as Pat Kane, so I think I'm doing okay," Eric says, smiling. "Cam had to stop me from making some dumb choices, though."
Jeff raises his eyebrows, amused in spite of himself. "Oh?"
"Yeah, my brothers always give me shit if I drunk text them."
Jeff laughs. "Right."
"Anyway," Eric says. He looks so relaxed for someone with a suitcase, in a suit. "I'm probably going to go hide in my room. Tons of people, you know."
Jeff's not disappointed, because that would be weird. "Sure."
"So." Eric takes a step forward, then shakes his head. "Goodnight," he says, grabbing his suitcase and heading for the stairs.
"Goodnight," Jeff calls after him, and goes back to eating.
It's not a big deal; it's just good to have Eric back.
The Tuesday after the All-Star game, Eric's at the diner. He comes by a little less often now, and Jeff won't let him tip so insanely anymore, but he insists he comes because he likes the food. As he finishes up his post-practice sandwich, he looks at Jeff and asks, "Do you want to go skating?"
Of course Jeff wants to go skating, but every time Eric suggests something like this, Jeff has to wonder just how much he knows. So he deflects by saying, "You just finished practice."
Eric shrugs. "It's no big deal. It's not like we'll be running drills or anything."
Jeff's not going to ask if he's planning on bringing gear, because it doesn't matter. He's not a person who plays hockey anymore. "Skates –"
"Can be rented. Come on," Eric says with a little smile. "Live a little."
Jeff kind of wants to point out that he's lived more than enough, thanks, what with the running away and everything. But going back on the ice is so tempting. In some ways it's even more tempting than living with Eric. "I'll think about it," he says finally, and goes to get a new table's order.
It's actually sort of weird that Eric still comes to the diner, because it means they end up hanging out a lot. Granted, at the diner Jeff's at work, but he's used to making time for Eric there, and when he's at Eric's he's getting more and more used to spending time in the living room and not in his bedroom. Plus, Eric still lets him use the weight room and keep the sample clothes, and so Jeff's thinking about taking up jogging again. Not that he really wants to know how bad his stamina's gotten, but it would be nice to be in shape again.
So he thinks it over as he finishes up his shift, and then a little more when he gets back to the house and fixes himself some dinner. Eric's got a game tomorrow, and he's just taking it easy in the living room, but when he comes into the kitchen with an empty plate, he says, "You know you're allowed to eat in the living room, right?"
"I'm messy," Jeff says.
"No, you're not." Eric eyes him. Jeff tries not to blush. "Seriously, I have a cleaning lady for a reason. I'm not going to kick you out of bed for eating crackers."
Jeff honestly can't help the way his mouth drops open. Seriously?
Eric turns bright red, at least. "Figuratively speaking."
"Thanks," Jeff says after a moment.
Eric bobs his head and turns to leave. At the last second Jeff says, "By the way – yes. I want to go skating."
"Awesome," Eric says. "Day after tomorrow, when I don't have a game. It'll be fun."
Jeff really hopes so.
Jeff's a little nervous heading to the rink Eric says they use for practice, but that’s also open to the public. Just a little, though; ever since they made the plans, he's been almost itching with the urge to lace up and get out on the ice.
So he's not expecting the stomach punch of homesickness that hits him when he feels the artificially cold air, hears the sound of kids laughing as their blades cut across the ice. He stops suddenly, and Eric bumps into him, his hands coming to rest at Jeff's side to brace them both.
"Are you okay?" Eric asks.
His voice helps Jeff clear his head. "Yeah, fine, sorry."
"Why don't you sit down, I'll grab you a pair of skates," Eric says, shooting him a worried look.
Jeff would protest, but Eric's already halfway to the rental desk. He kicks off his shoes, and Eric comes back quickly, dropping the skates at his feet.
"Still know how to put them on?"
"Are you serious?" Jeff asks, barely having to fake the outrage.
Eric just laughs and sits down next to him. They're not racing or anything, but Jeff's pleased when he gets his on faster than Eric does, even if he had a head start.
"What's taking you so long?" Jeff asks, rising from the bench.
Eric laughs and finishes up. "Come on, then," Jeff says, and leads the way onto the ice.
He's not even a little bit wobbly, thank God. Not that he honestly thought he'd lose the skill after less than a year, but still. It doesn't feel like anything so much as coming home, though; his body knows this, even without pads, even on a rink also filled with little kids.
"I don't want to interrupt your moment, or anything, but we could actually skate," Eric says from beside him.
Jeff blinks, realizing that he's been standing and shifting from foot to foot, not moving. "Right," he says, and pushes forward.
Eric's quiet for a few turns, occasionally turning around but not even looking at Jeff. Jeff's grateful because it's exactly what he needs right now, but he's also pretty okay with it when Eric says, "You're a good skater."
"Hockey," Jeff says, and then adds impulsively, "and figure skating."
Eric laughs. "Wait, seriously?"
"Years of it," Jeff says. "It was fun. Demanding, but fun."
Eric moves and skates backwards, this time looking Jeff up and down. "I can see it," he says finally.
If Jeff turns bright red right then, he's blaming it on the exertion.
Eric lets Jeff skate literal circles around him, practicing going forwards and backwards, feeling his muscles shift and get used to the movements again.
On a whim, he drops into a sit spin and gets a few revolutions in before he catches an edge and spills to the ice. He just laughs it off, though, so content to be back on the ice. "At least I didn't fall far." He shrugs.
Eric's staring at him, but he's got a wide smile on his face. "You're full of surprises."
"Yeah, well," Jeff says lamely. He glances up at the clock and sighs. "I guess we should probably get going."
"My legs are going to be killing me tomorrow," Jeff says. "But we should do this again sometime. Or, I mean, I could come on my own. Whatever."
"We should," Eric agrees.
Jeff lets himself have a little smile at that.
Later, while they're eating dinner and watching some terrible movie with aliens on TV, Jeff speaks without thinking.
"Have you ever –" He cuts himself off. "Never mind."
"Have I ever what?"
"Nothing, it was a dumb question," Jeff says. "I'm pretty sure I know the answer, anyway."
Eric puts his plate down on the table and turns to look at him. "Jeff."
He sighs and pushes his food around with his fork, not making eye contact. "Have you ever done something really stupid? Something there's no recovering from?"
"No," Eric says.
"See, I knew it," Jeff says. "Told you it was dumb."
"No, I mean, I've done some really stupid shit," Eric says. "I've made my share of mistakes, but there's always the chance for recovery. For forgiveness."
Jeff bites down on his lips.
"If someone did something to you – your parents –" Eric says haltingly.
"No!" Jeff says. "No, they never. This was just me."
Eric relaxes a little at that. "Then I'm sure they don't care, wouldn't care, about whatever it was. They probably just miss you. I know I would."
Jeff looks up at Eric then, trying to read his expression, but Eric just keeps talking. "If you aren't ready to face the music, or deal with all of that, that's fine. I'm not going anywhere." He stands then, taking both their dishes.
"Except, oh, we've got a nine-day road trip coming up," Eric says from the kitchen. "But other than that."
Jeff laughs a little, and is honestly a little relieved. Things have been getting kind of weird, and a few days of not seeing Eric might straighten them out. He doesn't want to make the same mistakes all over again.
The day Eric's supposed to leave, Jeff gets up a little earlier than he needs to. He bumps into Eric on the way out of his bedroom. "Oh, shit, sorry," he says, taking a step back. Eric's carrying two bags. "Do you want me to take one of those?"
"I'm pretty sure I've got it," Eric says. "You can get the door, though."
So Jeff does. He's a little surprised when, after dumping the stuff in his car, Eric doesn't just drive away. Instead he comes back up the steps and inside, stopping a few feet away from Jeff and saying, "So I guess I'll be seeing you."
"Right," Jeff says, wondering why in the world Eric decided to make his leaving as awkward as possible. "See you."
Eric tilts his head, and then takes a few steps forward and squeezes Jeff's shoulder. Before Jeff has a chance to react, he's backed off again. "Take care of yourself," Eric says, and leaves.
Jeff flops down on the couch. It's not a big deal, he tells himself. It's stupid. Eric's ridiculously rich and plays in the NHL and is apparently really into charity, and that's it, end of story. Sure, things have gotten sort of weird between them, but that's probably Jeff's little thing manifesting itself. So obviously he needs to knock it off and just roll with it. Eric has brothers. Of course he's touchy.
Eric calls after he's been gone for two days. The sound of the ringing phone scares the hell out of Jeff – he hadn't even realized Eric had a land line until that moment. He isn't sure he should answer the phone until Eric's voice comes out of the answering machine.
"Hey Jeff, uh, if you're there, it's me."
Jeff picks the phone up out of the cradle then. "Uh, hey. Is everything okay?"
"Hey!" Eric says. "Yeah, everything's fine. We just had some downtime, so I thought I'd see how you were doing."
"I'm doing good." He's bored. "I'm picking up some extra hours at the diner this week."
"Yeah?" There's a rustling sound from the other end of the line, like Eric's leaning back against the pillows on his hotel bed.
"Yeah, I mean, it's something to do, and they pay me to do it, so." Jeff shrugs, even though Eric can't see it.
"You that bored without me?" Eric asks.
"I – no," Jeff says.
"You are! You miss me," Jeff can hear him smiling over the phone.
"Don't flatter yourself," Jeff says, but he's smiling a little, too.
"But you're okay? Everything's going well?"
"Sure," Jeff says. "It's a lot nicer being alone here than on the street."
"Well, I'd hope so." Jeff can imagine Eric shaking his head. "How's Sue's – it's her nephew, right? The one in the hospital?"
"Yeah, she hasn't mentioned it," Jeff says. "Good job on the win, and everything, by the way."
"Winning is what I do, baby."
He sounds so lame, and so incredibly conscious of the fact, that Jeff can't do anything but laugh – and then laugh some more when Eric says smugly, "Damn right I'm hilarious."
"Probably not for the reasons you think," he says when the laughter's subsided. Well, okay, he's sort of giggling a little still, but whatever.
"Whatever," Eric says easily. "Listen, I should probably go, but I'll talk to you soon, okay?"
"Right, totally," Jeff says. He hopes he doesn't sound too desperate. He kind of misses the way he could make friends at the shelter, is all. "Talk to you later."
He hangs up before Eric responds again. He just seems like the type of guy who would.
Jeff feels better after talking to Eric. Not that he was feeling bad before, just. He feels more settled. He can't hang out with Leah and Brandon the way he used to, not now that he lives in such a nice place and they're still in the shelter, and he misses them way more when Eric's not around to distract him.
It's still pretty early, but he goes up to his room to settle in for the night anyway. There's no real reason for him to hang out in the living room by himself when there's a TV in his room, and if he falls asleep in front of it, he's already in bed.
And okay, when he's lying in bed, alone in the house without having to worry that Eric's going to come home, he can get around to taking care of some other things. It's dumb, but he always feels weird jerking off in Eric's house. It's the guest room – hell, it's Jeff's room now. This is his bed. It's not like Eric's going to walk in on him without knocking, or like Jeff's doing this in Eric's bed. There's nothing weird about this.
Except for how hot he found both of those mental images, and how they're speeding things along, even though Jeff had planned on taking it slow and really taking his time. That's a little weird, considering that he hardly ever jerks off thinking about people he knows, but not actually that surprising.
He's over having starstruck kind of feelings towards Eric, but they've been replaced by knowing the guy, and, yeah, thinking about him really does it for Jeff. So he goes with it, drawing out the fantasy – Eric coming in, Eric being embarrassed but turned on, Eric not leaving. And it's good. It's really fucking good.
After he comes, he just sort of lies there, enjoying the fact that he can be gross and not even clean up right away. It's not that bad, he thinks. It's not bad at all, really. So he's kind of into Eric; he knew that already. It's not like Eric's even remotely into him in return. Eric couldn't hide something like that from Jeff, Jeff's pretty sure. And it's not like Jeff's ever going to tell Eric. He's got other things to worry about.
So it's fine. It really is.
He's cleaned himself up and is almost falling asleep when the land line rings again. Probably a telemarketer, Jeff thinks, and doesn't answer.
The next few days pass quickly as Jeff works extra hours at the diner and hangs out around the house. He wonders if Eric's going to call again, but tries not to want it too badly. Eric's done plenty for him, and Jeff's attached enough as it is.
That doesn't stop him from watching the post-game interviews, but it's not like he jerks off watching them. Jeff has lines.
Still, he's glad to hear the phone ring again after almost a week in a quiet house. He hesitates before answering it, wondering if he should let it go to the machine first, but he hasn't heard the phone ring at all other than when Eric called before, and it's not like he's hiding here or anything.
"Hello?" Jeff says.
"Hey!" Eric says. Jeff relaxes immediately. "Uh, how's it going?"
"Good," Jeff says. "The house hasn't burned down yet."
Eric laughs a little at that. "It'd be impressive if it had and the phone still worked."
"Yeah," Jeff says. "I guess."
"So what have you been up to?" Eric asks.
There's nothing pointed about that question, but Jeff still blushes. Fortunately there's no one around to see it. "Same as before, work, hanging out, working out some."
"Oh good, that's good," Eric says. He sounds a little distracted, but Jeff's not sure if he's imagining it or not. "So I'll probably be back around three the day after tomorrow. Are you going to be working?"
"Um, yeah," Jeff says. "Til five."
"Oh, okay. Cool," Eric says. "So I guess I'll see you when you get home."
"Yep." Jeff's definitely imagining the tinge of disappointment in his voice. "That was a nice hit you laid on your brother, by the way. Did he steal your Pokemon or something?"
"Pokemon?" Eric snorts. "No, he broke my GI Joe, way back when."
The conversation shifts to hockey then, just casual chatter until Eric needs to get to bed. "See you soon."
"Yeah," Jeff agrees. "Good luck tomorrow," he adds before hanging up.
He decides to hit the bike before bed; he's feeling restless.
He's not counting down the hours until Eric gets back or anything lame like that, but he is looking forward to it, and his shift before he can get home and see Eric goes by really slowly. When it finally ends, he practically runs out, ignoring Sue's laugh and knowing look.
It's just been weird and quiet, is all. Jeff's never lived alone, and he doesn't want to. Also, he's doing his best not to make things awkward with him and Eric, and that starts with not worrying about him coming back.
Eric doesn't come out to the garage as Jeff turns the car off, thankfully. He's sitting in the kitchen when Jeff comes in, drinking a beer.
When he sees Jeff, he smiles. "Hey."
Jeff's imagining the nervous tone. Why would Eric be nervous? "Hey, you're back," he says, then immediately feels lame.
"Yep." Eric blinks at him, then looks away, then looks back again. "Hey, so, do you want to sit down? I think we should do this now."
Jeff stifles panic out of habit. He can't possibly know. He can't – unless he's decided that actually, he doesn't want a teenage runaway living with him, in which case, Jeff is totally fucked, and it doesn't matter that he has more fantasies about sex with Eric than he really wants to think about.
Eric sighs and looks at him. He looks old, Jeff thinks. He's never seen Eric look this much like someone's older brother before. "There was a report on TV the other night."
Jeff nods, waiting for the bombshell. Maybe Sue will let him crash at the diner a few nights a week. And it's getting warmer. There are options.
"It's been a year," Eric says, making air quotes, "since promising young player Jeff Skinner disappeared."
For a second Jeff's stuck on the sheer lameness of the air quotes. Then he actually processes what Eric's saying, and he almost falls out of his chair.
"I – I – It hasn't been a whole year," Jeff says. It's a stupid thing to say, but it's the only thing he can think of.
"Right, because the playoffs aren't until April, right?" Eric asks. "The Petes did actually make it to the playoffs a few times when I was on the team."
He cracks a little smile at that, but Jeff doesn't smile back like usual. He's too busy trying to remember how to breathe normally.
"Jeff?" Eric asks.
"I can't. I can't go back," Jeff says. He doesn't deserve to go back. He doesn't deserve living here with Eric. He knows that. He should go –
He stands up blindly. He should go.
"Jeff," Eric says, both hands coming down heavy on his shoulders. "You don't have to go anywhere. I won't make you."
"I'm sorry," Jeff says. "I'm sorry, I just –" He didn't mean to lie to Eric, he just never planned on telling anyone. He never thought –
"Hey, hey, it's fine," Eric says gently, his thumb rubbing the side of Jeff's neck. "Sit down, we can talk. Or not talk. Whatever."
Jeff falls heavily into a chair as Eric reaches into the fridge and pulls out another beer, handing it to Jeff.
"So do you want to talk about why you left when your team was up 3-0 in the conference finals?"
"Not really," Jeff says taking a sip of his beer.
"Okay," Eric says. "The Spitfires won, by the way. Won the series and then the Memorial Cup."
"Oh." Jeff knows he left some of his teammates down leaving like he did, but he figured they'd be able to pull out one more win.
"It's not your fault," Eric says.
"It kind of is."
"You don't have to tell me," Eric says. "I'm not going to argue. But what I said about your parents missing you, before, I meant it. I'm sure they do."
"That's not it." He takes another drink. The memories are still fresh, despite the fact that he does his best not to think about them. The shame of being discovered, quickly displaced by the fear from being threatened. Getting that he could not play hockey with his reputation or without it, but that he wasn't going to be able to keep the game. "I just..."
"Hey." Eric grips his shoulder. "It's okay."
Jeff turns into the touch almost without thinking. "Sorry, I just – I can't –"
"Push me away if you want," Eric says after a second, and leans down to hug Jeff.
It can't be comfortable, from that angle, but Jeff doesn't care, because Eric is warm and solid and Jeff can't even feel that awkward about the whole jerking off thing. He doesn't exactly hug back, but he does lean into Eric and close his eyes briefly.
"I've been wanting to do that since I met you," Eric admits when they pull apart. "You look like you could use one pretty much all the time."
"Thanks," Jeff says dryly. But he really does feel better, a little. "I can tell you, just. Maybe later?"
"Sure. Whenever. I'm not going to push you." Eric looks at him consideringly. "Though, you know, you were holding back on me when I asked you about hockey."
Jeff can't help turning bright red. "I didn't want to give myself away."
"It seems really obvious now," Eric says. "I was just too dumb to put it all together."
"You're not too dumb," Jeff objects.
Eric gives him a self-deprecating grin. "You were news, like, big news. And I didn't even consider that my Canadian, runaway, hockey-playing roommate might be that hockey-playing runaway. Also named Jeff Skinner."
"Oh. Well," Jeff says, rolling the bottle between his hands. "It's not like my name tag had the Skinner on there." He probably would've given a fake name had it been required. "Can we just talk about something else?"
"Yeah, sure," Eric agrees, leaning back. "I need to catch up on the DVR."
Jeff moves to the living room, grateful to leave the heavy conversation behind in the kitchen. Eric sits a little closer on the couch than usual, like he wants to keep Jeff within arm’s reach in case he decides to bolt. But where would Jeff go?
They watch TV for an hour or two, and it's nice and calm, exactly what Jeff needs. When he starts getting tired, he says, "I'm going to head up," and tries to force himself to get off the couch.
Eric laughs and nudges Jeff's ankle with his foot. "That might require you to move."
"Ugh," Jeff says, but he's smiling. Eric reaches out – they're not even sitting that close, but he has freakishly long arms – and ruffles his hair, fingers skimming the back of his neck as he pulls away.
"You'll be okay," he says.
It's not exactly a revelation, but it's nice to hear anyway. Jeff smiles. "Yeah. Thanks."
"Now go to bed, kid."
"Oh, fuck off," Jeff says, but he goes. When he falls asleep that night, he feels better than he has in a long time.
The next few days are pretty close to what Jeff is starting to realize is normal. When he and Eric are around at the same time, they'll watch TV and talk hockey. Eric's happy to engage him now, and Jeff's kind of horrifying himself with the opinions he's developing about the Hurricanes.
"Why can't you win faceoffs?" he asks one day as they're eating dinner in the living room.
Eric makes an embarrassed face. "Rod won them all for us. We're not – I mean, we're trying to get a new team together."
"Uh-huh," Jeff says. "But right now you're on the bubble again."
"Trust me, I know."
Jeff realizes he's put his foot in his mouth. "You'll get there," he says, nudging Eric's leg with his ankle.
Eric shrugs. "Yeah, maybe."
"You will." Jeff has to try not to say anything stupid. "You will, Eric, you're –"
"Really good," Jeff finishes lamely.
"Touching," Eric says, rolling his eyes. He's smiling a little, though.
The day after that, Eric says, "Hey, practice didn't wipe me out too much. Want to go skating again?"
Jeff always wants to go skating. "Sure."
"Cool. Grab your stuff."
"I really should've figured it out when you brought up figure skating," Eric says as they're driving to the rec center.
"I really was trying to keep it from you."
"Yeah, I know." Eric pulls into the rec center. "I mean, it was obvious you played. I was a little worried you'd start crying when we got on the ice."
"Ha, ha," Jeff says. "I missed it, okay?"
The weird thing is, Jeff knows he does. At least, as much as anyone who's never actually had to leave hockey behind could.
"Anyway," he says as they get onto the ice, "now you can criticize my form. It's been way too long."
"It's not bad, actually," Eric says after a minute of looking Jeff over. "Do you ever think –"
Eric shakes his head. "Never mind."
"No, now you have to tell me."
"If you contacted your family again. It might not be too late for you."
How cold Jeff feels has nothing to do with the ice. "Eric –"
"We can drop it. Just, think about it."
Eric Staal skating at a rec center will always draw requests for autographs, but once again, people are polite about it. Jeff just kind of stands around and helplessly tries not to find it cute as Eric smiles at little kids and cracks dumb jokes that make them laugh. Jeff and little kids have that in common, apparently.
That night, Jeff hangs out in the kitchen while Eric makes dinner. "Does it ever weird you out, being the face of the franchise?"
"Nah. I mean, really, who wouldn't want a piece of this?"
"Very funny," Jeff says. Luckily, Eric's back is turned, so he can't see Jeff smiling and smiling. "I just mean, does it get weird? You know."
"It used to, yeah. But, I don't know. I'm used to it now, I guess. I've been here a long time."
"Makes sense." Jeff goes to grab some water, filling a glass for Eric without asking. "I just – I don't know. It's weird that all the NHL stuff is weird to me. I mean, I was going to be in the NHL, probably."
"It didn't seem real the first few months," Eric admits. "Especially since then the lockout happened."
"You'd get used to it, though."
"Yeah." There's no chance for him to now, though. He tries not to talk about it, because Eric doesn't need his problems. It's just so nice to be around someone he can talk to about it.
"Hey." Eric bumps him gently with his hip. "Can you grab me the dill from the spice rack?"
Jeff passes it over, then goes back to the kitchen table. It's stupid to imagine that his side is tingling from where Eric touched him.
After they eat dinner and hang out for awhile, Jeff says, "I've got to get in early tomorrow to stock. So, um."
"Goodnight," Eric says. He smiles up at Jeff as Jeff gets up to go upstairs.
"Goodnight," he says, and escapes as quickly as possible.
He's a little surprised to see Leah come into the diner the next day. "Hey," he says. "Um, it's a little busy, do you think –"
"I've got a couple bucks, I can buy a coffee."
Jeff glances over at Sue. "You don't have to."
"No, I do," Leah says. She sits down. "So bring me a coffee, waiter."
Jeff laughs, then hurries back to the kitchen to put in his orders.
Leah hangs around until it quiets down enough that Jeff can talk to her. "So you've moved on from the shelter and think you can forget your friends, huh?"
"No, of course not," Jeff says. "Come on."
"I'm kidding. Mostly. Look, just because I'll get ragingly jealous of you doesn't mean we can't hang. It's not like you're that busy."
That's true enough. "So how've you been?"
"Still looking for a job. It's hard. I don't know how you get hired so easily."
"I'm better at pretending to be an adult."
Leah makes a face. "Probably."
"My shift ends in an hour. We could go down to the library, or something."
"I hung out there yesterday."
"I could –" Jeff swallows, hoping she doesn't hate him for us. "I could cover you if you wanted to go to Waffle House or something."
"If you can cover me, we're stepping up and going to Denny's," Leah says. If she's offended or mad, she doesn't show it.
"Sure," Jeff says. Then people come in, and he has to head over to seat them.
Leah's got the same wariness about being in a place where you have to spend money that Jeff had, and probably still has, a little. He thinks she's been on her own longer, but he's not completely sure. "So, how's your sugar daddy treating you?" she asks when they get their waters. Jeff didn't try to order her a soda.
"It's good," Jeff says. "Um, it's really good."
"Good, or –" She wiggles her eyebrows. "Good?"
"Very funny. Just friendly, good."
"Sure." She sips her water. "Brandon's doing well," she says. "He's nursing a way bigger abandonment complex than I am, though."
"Yeah. And –" She sighs. "He may have an aunt he's in contact with."
"Oh." Good for Brandon, bad for Leah, who would be months before trusting anyone else at the shelter. "That's good."
"For him, sure." Leah sighs. "I just wish..."
"I know." He really does. If he could help her – but the diner doesn't pay enough, and he's trying to make something of himself right now.
"Stop it." She kicks him under the table. "I'm telling you my problems because we're friends, jackass, not because I want you to somehow magically fix them."
"I wasn't trying to fix them."
"Sure, and pigs can fly."
"Anyway, what else have you been up to?"
Leah tells him about the haunts she's discovering, and her efforts to wheedle someone into giving her a job. It's all way too familiar, but Jeff does his best to listen and laugh at her weak jokes. She deserves someone who will do that.
It's still kind of a relief to go home, though. He's half hoping Eric won't be there, but it's not a game day, so he is. "Hey," Eric says.
He's not the type to ask Jeff where he's been, but Jeff tells him anyway. "Leah came by."
"Yeah?" Eric nods at the couch. Jeff goes to sit down. "How was that?"
"Kind of awkward," he admits. "I mean, I'm –" He waves a hand at the house. "And she's still at the shelter."
"She doesn't make you feel bad about it, does she?"
Jeff smiles at the misplaced protectiveness in the question. "No, she told me not to feel bad. But I still do."
"That makes sense. Well, I'm glad you got to see her."
"Yeah, me too."
They're silent for a few minutes, then Eric says, "Sutter tried to freeze my underwear again."
Jeff laughs. "Wait, what?"
"He's been trying to get at my spare pair for ages now." Eric shrugs. "He mistimed it, though. They melted."
"Nice," Jeff says. "I thought he was one of your leader types."
"Oh, he is," Eric says cheerfully.
Jeff snorts. "Okay, then."
The days continue like that, unremarkable and comfortable. So he relaxes his guard enough that when he comes back home one day and hears two guys laughing in the living room, he assumes it's the TV and doesn't immediately bolt – right until he comes out and discovers that, no, it's actually a real live person, hanging out with Eric. More specifically, it's Cam Ward.
"Um," he says. He's diner-dirty, greasy and smelling vaguely of food. And this is one of Eric's closer friends, he knows. "Hi?"
Cam raises his eyebrows. "Hi."
"I, uh, I'm going to go change," Jeff says, practically bolting for the stairs.
It's not the smoothest move, but Jeff needs a couple of minutes to prepare for this. He wasn't expecting Eric to just spring this on him. It's probably weirder that Eric hasn't had anyone over since Jeff moved in, at least not while Jeff was home. So maybe he should have expected it, but he didn't, and now he has to try and not look like a freak.
He heads back downstairs once he's wearing clothes that don't smell like bacon. He tries to walk as casually as possible, so probably it ends up slower than normal, but Jeff is okay with a few extra seconds.
He grabs a bottle of water from the kitchen and takes a deep breath before heading into the living room.
"Hi, I'm Jeff," he says, offering Cam his hand. It's weirdly formal, but Cam rolls with it.
"Eric mentioned that. I'm Cam."
Jeff barely bites back an 'I know', and he shoots Eric a look, wondering what exactly he told Cam.
"How was work?" Eric asks.
"Fine," Jeff says, sinking into the arm chair, since Cam is in his spot on the couch. "Thought Sue was going to murder one of the customers, but Carlos held her back."
He can feel Cam watching them. "What have you two been up to?"
"Just hanging, you know," Eric says. "Cam followed me home."
"Right," Jeff says. "Well. How was practice?"
"It's good having Cory back. Coach juggled the lines a little, had Cory on Brandon's wing. We'll see how it works out."
"That's good, yeah." Jeff can't formulate opinions with Cam's eyes burning a hole in him. "I may spend some time with Leah and this other kid, Brandon, this weekend. Just go to the park or something, I don't know."
"Oh, that should be fun."
“Yeah, real exciting stuff.”
"The weather should be nice!” Eric says.
"I'm going to grab a beer," Cam says, and leaves.
Jeff's by the couch in an instant. "Seriously, what the hell."
"The guys knew something was up. I don't know how, they just did. And Cam asked for a ride, he said his wife had dropped him off, I just – I couldn't tell him no. We used to hang out after practice a lot."
Oh, great, that makes Jeff feel guilty as hell. "Sorry."
"No, it's fine. It's not your fault. But I couldn't say no without it being suspicious. I kind of hoped you'd work late, to be honest. I told him about you, but I didn't want you to have to deal with it."
"Yeah, it was really slow." Jeff sighs. "It's cool. I'm not your dirty little secret or whatever."
"You're not my secret at all," Eric says. He reaches out and catches Jeff's wrist briefly, squeezing. "So we're okay?"
Jeff's getting used to Eric touching him a little more. He's totally, completely getting used to it. Mostly. "Yeah. We're okay."
"I got the kid one, too," Cam says, coming back out of the kitchen. "Unless you don't let him drink?"
"I'm a runaway, he doesn't let me do anything," Jeff says easily, snagging a beer and going back to the armchair.
"Holy shit," Cam says, pausing with the beer halfway to his mouth. "You're Jeff Skinner."
Jeff figured Eric had already covered that part. "Uh, yeah."
"Holy shit," Cam repeats. "Cody's obsessed with your case. Story. Whatever." He turns to Eric. "Has he been here the whole time?"
"She is?" Eric asks, not responding to the question.
"No," Jeff answers, because he hates being talked about like he's not there. "I've only been in Raleigh since October, and Eric only made me stay with him in the last month."
Cam looks back to him. "So what were you – why did you..."
"It's not really your business, Cam," Eric says. His voice is light, but authoritative – his captain voice, Jeff realizes.
"Yeah, but –" Cam says. "Your parents are freaking out."
It's a low blow. Jeff opens his mouth to reply, and realizes that he can't. He tries not to think about his parents, along with...everything else.
"That's enough, Cam." Eric sounds genuinely pissed now.
Cam shakes his head. "Eric –"
"We can go back to fucking around with the TV, or you can leave."
Jeff's a little surprised when Cam blinks a few times before saying, "Okay. Sorry." Especially since the last statement is directed at Jeff.
"It's fine," Jeff says. He swallows around the lump in his throat. "So, Eric's been keeping a secret. Now you know."
"Well, we knew he had one." Cam's still looking between the two of them warily. "We just thought he had a girlfriend, or something."
Eric crooks his mouth into a smile. It doesn't help that much; he still looks vaguely pissed. "When was the last time I had one I didn't introduce to you?"
"That's why it was a mystery." Cam sighs. "You know he's not going to be able to meet any of the other guys. If I recognized him..."
"I didn't," Eric points out. "You wouldn't have, if it weren't for Cody. We don't have to tell anyone else he's a runaway."
"Or I could just not meet your friends?" Jeff says. "Problem solved."
"I'm supposed to have everyone over to grill," Eric says. "It's tradition."
"I could –"
"No, Eric's right," Cam says. "It should be fine."
"Fine," Jeff says easily, but he's already planning on requesting a double shift that day.
"Cool," Eric says grinning, for real this time.
Jeff wants to smile back, but Cam is watching them, and he's not sure what exactly made those reports his wife has followed, so he takes a sip of his beer.
"So what were you guys watching, anyway?" Jeff asks, deliberately shifting conversation away from himself.
After Cam leaves, Eric makes them both dinner. "Sorry about earlier, with Cam. He shouldn't have said that."
"I didn't... It's not like it was really news that my parents, my sisters –" Jeff cuts himself off. He'd been too busy just surviving before to really think about it. But now that he is, he feels like an asshole. "If I did write them a letter, could you send it? On your next road trip, I mean." He doesn't want anyone else putting Jeff and Raleigh together right now.
"For sure," Eric says. "We're headed up to New York in a couple days, I can drop it in a box up there."
"Thanks." Jeff sighs. Now he just has to figure out what to say.
"So, sisters?" Eric asks. "How many?"
"Four," Jeff says. "Three older, one younger. And a brother."
"Wow," Eric says. "And people say there are a lot of Staals."
"Yeah, well, none of us are in the NHL," Jeff says. That still kind of stings, too.
"You would have been," Eric says.
Jeff snorts. "Not that it matters."
"Maybe not, but still. The video they showed – that kind of talent wouldn't be passed up."
It's probably true, but it's yet another painful reminder of exactly how much he's lost thanks to his own stupidity. "Thanks."
Eric bobs his head and goes back to poking the stir-fry.
They eat at the bar that night, knees knocking together companionably. Eric never cooks complicated things, but he's better at it than Jeff would have expected – definitely better than Jeff himself. It's good, because it gives him something to concentrate on doing instead of thinking about missed opportunities.
"I was drafted pretty much right away," Eric says thoughtfully. "The OHL was good for me."
"Well, I wasn't like you," Jeff says.
"You would've been taken pretty high," Eric says. "After how things were going for you in the playoffs?"
Jeff shrugs. "That's different. I got, I don't know. Intense."
"I'll bet," Eric says.
And then – it's nothing, really. Just Eric looking at him at the same second Jeff leans forward to grab the salt. But they're a little too close, and Jeff has to sit back quickly.
"So," he says. "Another road trip?"
"Not long. A few days."
Jeff nods. “Cool.”
“You gonna miss me?” Eric asks, bumping him under the table.
Jeff shrugs. “We'll see.”
“Who else is gonna make you dinner?” Eric asks.
“Johnny and Amber?” Jeff says, naming a couple of the cooks at the diner.
“Oh. Right. Well, it's just a few days in New York and Long Island.”
“Yeah, I hope so, especially from the Rangers.”
“And keep your head up when Marc's on the ice with you,” Jeff adds.
Eric laughs. “I think I'll be okay.”
“Yeah,” Jeff agrees. He pushes around what's left of his stir-fry and sighs. “I guess I better work on that letter, huh?”
"Finish that first. You need a computer to use?"
"I want to handwrite it," Jeff says. "Um. Do you have a notebook, though?"
"Probably, hang on." Eric gets up and starts rifling through drawers. Jeff gets up and cleans off their dishes, putting them in the dishwasher.
"You didn't finish," Eric says, finally fishing out a notebook and a pen.
"I get enough fattening from the diner," Jeff says. "Thanks."
"No problem. I'll leave you to it." Eric heads out of the kitchen.
It's good that Eric left him alone, Jeff thinks, staring at the notebook. He doesn't think he could do this with Eric watching. Especially not if Eric was going to keep bumping him, hugging him, squeezing his shoulder.
He's not doing it on purpose, Jeff reminds himself, sitting down at the table. It's just how he is.
Right, okay. Enough thinking about Eric. He has to concentrate on what's in front of him. Taking a deep breath, he picks up the pen and turns to the first clean page, starting to write.
In the end, it's a short letter. He just tells them he's okay, and that he misses them, but he's working and doing just fine. When he's done, he folds it up and goes out to the living room. Eric's watching Ghostbusters.
"Okay?" Eric says.
Jeff nods and settles down next to him. His spot has been edging closer and closer to Eric lately, and right now, with the way Eric's sprawled, his head bumps against Eric's hand before he realizes it's there. "It was hard, but I mean, it needed to happen."
"Yeah." Eric's thumb brushes the top of his head. "It'd be a dick move to say I'm proud of you, huh."
"Probably," Jeff says with a smile.
Eric grins in return, and they go back to watching Ghostbusters, Eric's fingers occasionally tracing patterns on the top of Jeff's head.
Jeff leans into the touch a little and tries not to feel weird. He should tell Eric. Not necessarily the details of why he ran away, but – he should at least know the bare bones of it. But if he did tell Eric, he might stop. Jeff really doesn't want that.
This time, it's Eric who goes to bed first. "I'm beat," he says, sitting forward. He doesn't move his hand from Jeff's head, though. "I'm going to head upstairs."
Jeff hopes Eric doesn't notice that he's gone still. "Goodnight."
"Hey." Eric tugs his hair really lightly. "It'll be okay."
"I know," Jeff says, but he thinks he's pretty unconvincing.
Eric taps his head, then finally pulls away. "It will be," he says, and goes upstairs before Jeff has a chance to answer.
Sometimes, Jeff thinks, it's more obvious than not that Eric's a big brother and a captain. It's too bad all Jeff's stupid brain can do is translate the touching into everything Eric doesn't mean.
He sits alone for a long time before he goes to bed.
“So you've got the letter?” Jeff asks as he leans against the door and watches Eric grab his suitcase.
“Right here.” Eric taps his jacket, and Jeff can hear the paper rustling. “You going to be okay? For real?”
“Yeah, I'll be fine,” Jeff says. “Like I said, I've got plans. You'll be back Sunday, right?”
“Yep,” Eric says, grabbing his suitcase. “So I'll see you then.”
Then there's the too-charged moment where Jeff realizes he has to get out of the way before Eric can leave out the door he's leaning on. They do an awkward dance to trade places, but instead of just letting it slide when they're done, Eric reaches out and pulls Jeff into a quick hug. He barely has a chance to register it beyond the smell of Eric's body wash before he pulls back again. “Bye.”
“Four points,” Jeff calls at him as he walks across the stone path to the driveway.
He meets up with Leah and Brandon the next day. "Hey, high roller," Leah says, hugging him in greeting. "You're paying for lunch."
Jeff rolls his eyes, but it's not like he can't afford it. He's been buying less and less food, since Eric likes to cook for them, and pitching in by always cleaning up instead. "Whatever."
"So how much do you have to suck his dick?" Brandon says. "I want all the details. All of them."
"I don't," Jeff says. He can feel his face heating up. "Trust me, he doesn't want that."
Leah's eyes widen. "Wow. So it's like that, huh?"
"Let's just go get lunch."
"Walking and talking is a thing we can do," Brandon says, and sets off to prove his point. "I mean, I can't blame you. I looked him up the last time I was in the library. He's hot."
"He's doing me a huge favor, that's it." Jeff lets himself be tugged into linking arms with Leah, but he doesn't make eye contact with either of them. It's a little disconcerting to realize he's apparently incredibly obvious. "You really think he'd mess with a teenage runaway? He's a millionaire. He could have anyone."
"That doesn't mean you don't want him to have you."
"Whatever," Jeff says.
"And you're eighteen, right?" Leah asks. She's never said how old she is, so Jeff assumes she's not legal yet.
"So it's not illegal anywhere," Brandon points out.
"That's not the point," Jeff says. "It's not like fear of being arrested is what's stopping him. He doesn't – that's just not how it is."
Brandon huffs. "No offense, but I was hoping for some juicy gossip."
"Sorry." Jeff shrugs. "I'll buy you a milkshake to make up for it."
"You're sharing that," Leah says.
Jeff ends up getting two so they can each have one. "You aren't going to have one?" Leah asks.
"No, I'm good. Don't feel like something sweet right now." And he's not that hungry, but he'd feel like a jerk saying that.
Brandon and Leah eat slowly, well practiced at drawing out their dining as an excuse to stay somewhere longer, but Jeff manages to eat slower accidentally.
"Is everything okay?" Leah asks. "Is this guy doing something else?"
"No!" Jeff says. "It's not like that, he's really just that nice. But..."
"But what?" Brandon asks.
"He's going to mail a letter to my family while he's in New York."
"Oh wow," Leah says.
"Yeah," Jeff agrees.
"No return address, obviously," Brandon says.
"No, I just don't want them to have to worry anymore. But I can't go back and just pretend..." He fucked up, he's the one that has to pay for it, not them. He should've done this a while ago.
"They'd take you back, you know," Leah says. "I mean...you're lucky to have people who still want you."
Jeff knows that, and it makes him feel ashamed that he's stayed away for so long. And he can't impose on Eric forever. "Yeah, I know."
"Anyway," Brandon says, "I'll be eighteen soon, and then Leah and I can run away together."
"Gross," Leah says. "Also, come on, you're so gay, I can't even really blame your parents for kicking you out."
Brandon gasps dramatically, and Leah laughs, which sets Jeff off. After that, they stay off the heavy topics.
Jeff drops them off at the shelter and then drives back home. It's a little weird that he trusts Eric not to slip something in the letter telling his parents where he is, but he knows that Eric respects his choice. He just wishes the cookout thing wasn't happening so soon. The fact that Eric respects him doesn't mean Eric's friends will.
Jeff's not expecting Eric to be home for a couple hours at least when he wanders downstairs in his boxers to get something to eat. So it's something of a surprise when a strangled sort of "Um, hey," comes from behind him while he's standing in front of the fridge.
He jumps a little. "Uh, hey, um. Sorry, I didn't think you'd be home this early."
Eric's face looks kind of red – he can't be blushing, Jeff's pretty sure he's got the monopoly on that – and he scratches his neck. "Short flight."
"Right, yeah, of course," Jeff says. "Did you, uh, need anything?" He waves in the general direction of the fridge.
"I, no. No, I'm good. I'm just gonna take my stuff upstairs and get out of this suit. And change."
"Right, yeah," Jeff says to an empty room.
He closes the fridge, not really hungry anymore, and waits to follow Eric upstairs so he can put on some pants.
Later, over thrown-together sandwiches, Eric finally makes eye contact again. "So we're gonna grill on Wednesday. You're not working, are you?"
"No," Jeff admits.
"Cool, we should go grocery shopping for supplies soon," Eric says easily.
"I, yeah, sure," Jeff says.
"We have to do burgers and hot dogs, but I can't actually guarantee I won't burn them."
"I've never grilled," Jeff says. "So it'll all be good to me."
"Awesome." Eric bumps their knees together, then gets up to put his plate in the sink.
Jeff doesn't react to the knee bump, because that would be ridiculous. Instead he says, "I'm going to go take a nap," and escapes upstairs.
Going shopping with Eric is weird. He never makes lists, which seems crazy to Jeff because he's so organized about cooking and just generally living life. But when the time comes to buy things, he just wanders the aisles and grabs whatever catches his eye. It drives Jeff crazy.
Buying for a cookout is simple enough, though, that Jeff's pretty sure Eric's not going to fuck it up. So he's pretty content to just push the cart and occasionally buy things he thinks they'll need, like a barbecue sauce that doesn't look gross and some coffee for Sutter, who drinks it all the time for no apparent reason. When it comes time to pay, Eric doesn't ask and Jeff doesn't offer; he just passes his card over like it's no big deal.
"You're so easy to shop with," Eric says. "My brothers are always all over the place."
"Spoken like someone who was in charge at the grocery store," Jeff says, remembering his sisters pushing him around. He misses them – it's sudden, like a knife to the gut. But he does.
"Hey." Eric puts his arm around Jeff, even though they're almost to the car. Jeff mostly doesn't stiffen, and when Eric doesn't move it, he lets himself lean into it. "It'll be okay."
Jeff really, really doesn't want Eric seeing him as some kind of needy kid, but...he's so solid. "Yeah, I know," he says, and hipchecks Eric against the car. Eric laughs and starts unloading the groceries.
The day of the cookout, Jeff's not hiding, he's just...in his room when the first few people start trickling in. He eventually makes himself go down, after checking his hair a few times, wishing his shirt was a few sizes larger and less threadbare (he almost has enough money together to buy some actual new new clothes, which he desperately needs), and thinking about climbing out the window. Whatever. It's normal to be nervous, he tells himself.
And it's kind of obvious he's on display when he comes down. Not in an obnoxious way, just, it gets quiet, and then Sutter says, kind of loudly, "Holy shit, he's a baby."
Jeff bristles a little at that. He's eighteen, and he's seen more than some spoiled NHL player. “Shit, Eric, you didn't mention this was an old guys' party.”
Eric grins at him, which is more important than the bark of laughter from Sutter and some of the other guys, and he relaxes a little.
He goes to grab a beer, and Eric bumps his shoulder as he passes him, and things are okay.
Eventually everyone moves out to the backyard where the grill is actually set up, and Jeff watches as Eric, Cam and Colesy try to get the thing started.
“So are you from Thunder Bay, too?” the rookie Jamie asks, leaning against the fence next to Jeff.
“Uh, no, Toronto area,” Jeff says.
“Oh, Eric said you were a friend of the family so I just figured. Are you going to school around here?”
Eric probably should have shared whatever story he fed his team about his teenage roommate, but hopefully he kept it vague. “Just working for now, but I might start next year.” If he could figure a way around the illegal alien thing.
“Cool.” Jamie nods. “So what do you think the odds are that one of them loses their eyebrows trying to get that started?”
Jeff laughs, and Eric looks over towards them. “High, if Eric doesn't tell Colesy it's a gas grill and that charcoal and lighter fluid aren't actually necessary.”
Colesy flips them off, but Eric salutes ironically and starts screwing around with the dials. "We can always just eat the potato chips, I guess," Jeff says.
"Probably," Jamie says. "So do you follow us at all, or are you a Leafs fan?"
"Well, obviously," Jeff says. "But no, since I, um. Came down here. Yeah." He wishes his stomach wasn't in knots.
"Cool," Jamie says easily. "We're not that great this year anyway."
"McBain! Quit yapping and go grab the meat," Eric says.
Jeff grins. "Better you than me," he says, and Jamie rolls his eyes and goes.
It's not that bad. The guys accept his presence easily enough, and he only gets shit for being born in 1992 a few times. Even then, it's mostly from Sutter, who can't be that much older. Jeff remembers to keep breathing and not be weird, and it works out.
When it's almost time to eat, he goes inside to grab some more beer for the cooler. He doesn't realize Eric's followed him until he says, "Doing okay?"
"Yeah," Jeff says, pulling the case from the fridge. "They're nice."
Eric grins. "I wouldn't go that far." He puts a hand on Jeff's shoulder and squeezes lightly, supportively. Jeff smiles up at him.
They both jump a little when someone clears their throat. Jeff looks over to the door to see Cam standing there, eyebrows raised.
"Colsey says it's time to eat," Cam says. "Grab the buns, Eric?"
"Right," Eric says quickly, and practically trips over himself to get them from the counter.
Jeff ignores the way Cam's looking at him. It doesn't matter that he's the only one who knows Jeff's actual situation, he tells himself as he carries the beer out.
The food is actually pretty good, and everyone's relaxed and just stays outside, laughing and drinking as the afternoon sun beats down on them.
It's nice, and Jeff has fun drifting between conversations, and Eric seems to be on some terrible joke-telling roll. And maybe Jeff's a little bit buzzed, because he can't stop laughing at them, even though they're not actually that funny.
Jamie and Sutter seem to think that's hilarious, and eventually everyone's cracking up over nothing. Eric looks so pleased with himself.
As the sun starts to set, everyone starts gathering up the empties and paper plates and dumping them in the trash. Jeff grabs the dishes and cooking utensils to load up the dishwasher as the team starts to head out.
"You don't need to do that," Eric says, bringing in all the leftover beer.
Jeff doesn't even respond to that. "That was fun."
"Told you it would be."
"Well, you also take in teenage runaways, your judgment’s not for shit." Jeff pauses in putting the plate into the dishwasher. Eric's standing on the other side, and they're close enough that Jeff can feel how warm he still is from all the sun.
"You've got," Eric says, and reaches out, brushing his thumb over Jeff's nose. It comes away with suds on it.
Jeff rolls his eyes at himself. "Thanks."
Eric blinks at him, and somehow, Jeff can't move. His arms are dripping, and the water's running, and Eric –
Reaches forward, cups the back of Jeff's head, and leans down to kiss him.
He pulls away almost right away, before Jeff can even react, and takes a few stumbling steps back. "I – shit, sorry."
"You, um." Words. Jeff can make words work for him. "You..."
"Sorry," Eric says again. His voice is a little higher than usual. "That was stupid."
"We could do it again," Jeff blurts out.
"Jeff, I don't. That was –" Eric stumbles over his words.
"Good," Jeff says. Well, it would've been if it hadn't been so short.
Eric licks his lips, and Jeff feels especially brave, so he steps forward and leans up to kiss Eric again. He doesn't have to lean far. Eric meets him halfway, and his lips are soft and warm. Jeff rests a hand on the back of Eric's neck to keep him from pulling away again. He doesn't need to worry, though. Eric wraps a long arm around Jeff's back, pulling him that much closer.
Jeff sighs contentedly, and he swears he can feel Eric smiling against his lips. This is good, so good.
The position isn't the most comfortable, and by some silent agreement they make their way to the living room without separating much so they can make out more easily on the couch.
Jeff would be lying if he said he hadn't thought about this before, but he never actually thought he'd be here with Eric pressing him back into the leather upholstery, covering him almost entirely.
"You're sure this is okay," Eric says.
It doesn't really sound like a question, but Jeff nods. "Yeah, fuck yeah, are you kidding? Yes."
Eric nods and kisses him again. He's not shy about using his weight with Jeff, pressing him down as he kisses him. Jeff's just fine with being guided, too, especially when Eric deepens the kiss, his hand stroking circles on Jeff's side.
It's slow and more comfortable than Jeff thinks it has any right to be. He can't stop touching the side of Eric's face, his neck, and Eric moves with the touch and smiles when Jeff huffs a laugh of disbelief against his cheek.
"God, I've wanted this," Jeff says. "You have no idea."
Eric kisses his neck. "I might have a little bit of one."
Jeff's breath catches and his dick, which has been interested in the action for a while now, suddenly seems painfully hard. Jeff steers Eric's mouth back to his and can't resist grinding up against him just a little. He can feel that Eric's hard, too, and God, he just wants this, all of this.
But Eric shifts his hips away, even as his tongue teases Jeff's. Jeff's not deterred, he just follows Eric away, even if he has to lift his hips almost completely off the couch. Then Eric pushes up off of Jeff entirely, and he feels cold where Eric's not touching him.
"Jeff, no," Eric says. "I – I can't."
"Are you serious?" Jeff asks.
Eric ducks his head and takes a deep breath. "I can't, Jeff. I just. You're –"
"Going to end up jerking off thinking about you," Jeff finishes. "Again."
It's a low blow, but Eric started it.
"Jesus, Jeff, you can't just –" Eric winces and shakes his head. "Look, do what you want, but we can't keep going, okay? I can't."
Jeff stares at him. He wants to say something, but Eric looks legitimately upset. And this isn't easy for him, Jeff thinks. Granted, being homeless and running away from everything he cares about hasn't been easy on Jeff, but he doesn't want Eric to look upset just because he can't sleep with Jeff.
"Okay," Jeff says. "This is fine."
Eric looks hopeful. "Yeah?"
Jeff pushes him back against the couch, kissing him. "Yeah."
"Okay," Eric says after a minute. "Okay, I should go."
"I wasn't lying," Jeff says.
"And you have no idea how much I'm going to think about that." Eric kisses him again.
Jeff hums a little and kisses back until, unsurprisingly, Eric disengages and stands up. "I'll see you later," he says. "I'm going to go nap a bit."
"It's eight pm," Jeff points out.
"Maybe I'll just go to bed. I'm basically ancient," Eric says, and grins cheerfully.
Jeff laughs, feeling giddy. "Right."
He actually does end up jerking off thinking about Eric. It's hours later, and he feels profoundly weird about it, but he can't stop thinking about Eric's weight pressing into him, the slow way he'd traced his tongue over Jeff's lip when he angled Jeff's head the way he wanted. He wants so much more, but in absence of that, yeah, he'll settle for thinking about Eric and knowing Eric's probably thinking about him.
The next day is a lot less awkward than he'd have guessed. He goes downstairs early, but Eric's already eating cereal in the kitchen. His limbs are folded up hilariously, his toes curled over the bottom of the chair, his knobby knees sticking out. It makes Jeff smile. "Hey."
Eric lights up. "Hey. Sleep well?"
"I've slept worse," Jeff says easily, grabbing a Red Bull. "Practice today?"
"Optional skate. I thought I'd go in," Eric says. "And then we can hang?"
"Yeah, totally." Jeff sits down across from him, their knees knocking companionably. "Anything interesting happen?"
"Nah," Eric says. "Well, the Devils are angling for a playoff spot."
He would be philosophical about it. Jeff rolls his eyes and steals the last slice of toast from Eric's plate.
To Jeff's disappointment, when Eric said 'hang,' he really did mean just hanging out. Eric does sit a little closer on the couch while they play video games, and their shoulders brush against each other more often than is actually necessary, but Jeff's kind of past being satisfied by that.
But he is glad that Eric isn't sitting on the other side of the room, as far from Jeff as possible, so he doesn't push it.
They're between levels when Eric's phone beeps. Whatever text he's received makes him frown and reach for his laptop.
"Everything okay?" Jeff asks.
"Cam's being cryptic," Eric says as he types. He scans the screen for a minute and then says, "Oh."
"Oh what?" Jeff asks.
Eric turns the computer to face him, and it doesn't take Jeff long to see Family receives word from missing OHL star. He hovers over the link, but can't bring himself to click on it.
"Can you read it?" Jeff asks. "I can't –"
"Do you want me to read you the whole thing?" Eric asks as he takes the laptop back.
"Just the gist," Jeff says.
Eric nods. "Well, they got the letter, obviously, you say you’re okay, you're working, everything's fine." Jeff tries not to get too impatient, but he knows what he wrote. "They love you, and they miss you."
Jeff nods and turns to look back at the TV, trying not to let himself get too overwhelmed.
Eric puts the laptop down and wraps an arm around Jeff's shoulder. "You okay?"
"Fine," Jeff lies. It's the closest he's come to talking with his parents since last year, and he can barely handle it. He leans into Eric, just trying to focus on here and now.
"I shouldn't have left," Jeff says quietly. "I was just freaked out and didn't know what to do."
"What happened?" Eric says, scooting a little closer so that he can tuck Jeff's head under his chin.
It's nice, because it means Jeff definitely doesn't have to look at Eric. "It's so stupid. Last year, during the playoffs – me and a friend were fooling around. It wasn't anything major, it was just stress, and trying to let off some steam. But we were stupid." He takes a deep, ragged breath, forcing the words out. "We got caught. And the guy who caught us made threats."
"Jesus," Eric says.
"Not, like, bad ones. He just, you know. He said he'd tell." Now that he's saying it, he feels even stupider for running away. "And I just completely panicked. I knew it wasn't the end of the world, but I couldn't think past not being able to play hockey. And I just acted without thinking about it, about what would happen if I left. I can't – I thought I wouldn't be able to deal with being with my family then. If I couldn't play. I thought I wouldn't be able to make it, so there was no point to sticking around." He screws his eyes shut, hoping Eric won't want more details. He doesn't think he can talk right now.
"That makes sense," Eric says. "I mean, overreaction, yeah. But you knew that." He moves his arm so that he's rubbing circles on Jeff's back. "Hey, it's okay. It's okay, Jeff."
"It's really not," Jeff says, and he's not crying, but it's a close thing.
"Yeah, it is." Eric sighs a little and puts his other arm around Jeff. It can't be comfortable – Eric's tall, but he's not that tall – but Jeff doesn't really care. He clings, feeling pathetic but also hugely relieved.
"It could have been worse, anyway," he says after a minute of pulling himself together. "I mean, look where I ended up."
That makes Eric laugh. "Always look on the bright side, huh?"
"Something like that," Jeff says.
Jeff's suddenly aware of how close their faces are, and Eric's mouth is right there. It's like emotional whiplash, but he prefers the full body hum to nearly crying all over Eric.
He bites his lip, and he knows Eric sees it, but instead of taking the invitation, he pulls back until he's only got the one arm around Jeff. Jeff sighs and goes to pick up his controller again.
Jeff's up early the next morning for work, and he's surprised when Eric comes down to grab a cup of coffee with him. "Hey," Jeff says.
"How late are you working today?" Eric asks.
"Just til three," Jeff replies. "Why?"
"We're playing the Leafs tonight," Eric says. "I can have a ticket set aside for you."
"Wait, seriously?" Jeff asks.
Eric grins, "Yeah. It's not a big deal, I hardly ever use my allotment. But you have to promise to cheer for us at least a little."
"I – yeah, I mean. Yeah. For sure."
"Cool," Eric says. "Shouldn't you be getting going?"
"Oh, yeah. Right," Jeff says, gulping down the last of his coffee. He takes an aborted step towards Eric – for what, he's not really sure. "Um, see you tonight."
Eric nods, but he takes a step back. It's a pretty clear signal. Jeff can't keep from smiling wryly.
To his surprise, Eric smiles back. It's a "we're in this together" kind of thing, and it means Jeff goes to work feeling surprisingly light-hearted.
He wears jeans to the RBC because he kind of figures that's what will make him fit in. Also, he doesn't own anything else, and he's not going to buy dress slacks just to go watch some hockey. So he's a little surprised when he gives the will-call box his name and he's escorted not to the three hundred level or something, but to a box, where literally everyone – male and female – is wearing some kind of suit.
Jeff's glad that he decided not to wear his Leafs sweatshirt, even if Eric's the one that gave it to him. It didn't seem right to wear blue and white when Eric's the one giving him the ticket.
Still, it's embarrassing. He sits in the seat they lead him to and tries not to stare at the open bar and the insanely plush seats surrounding him. He's pretty sure that's Rod Brind'Amour sitting a few seats down. Half the people are talking on their Blackberries, and the other half are sitting around looking important.
Eric could have warned him, he thinks, even though he knows that if Eric had, he wouldn't be here.
It gets easier once the teams get on the ice. It's hard not to root for the Leafs to crush the Hurricanes; actually, it's hard to sit there and not make much noise. But the seats are fucking great, and he gets to watch Eric being Eric, which is a huge difference-maker in the game. The guy's playing like a maniac. Jeff knows it's stupid, but he sort of hopes that it matters at least a little that Jeff's watching.
He gets a few looks when he fist-pumps emphatically after Kessel fires a puck past Cam on the power play, and wow – it's kind of weird to watch an NHL game and realize he's hung out with half the players on the ice.
Jeff can't keep quiet when on his next shift, Eric blows past the Leafs defense and does a double toe drag while faking out Reimer and getting the puck past his left skate. "Holy shit! Holy shit," Jeff says, immediately looking to the scoreboard for the replay. That was really hot. Fortunately, he doesn't say that part out loud, because when he looks around, Rod the Bod is already laughing at him. Just a little though, not in a dick way, and he nods at Jeff.
Jeff slides down in his seat and tries not to move until intermission, when he quickly grabs a plateful of food before returning to his seat.
The Leafs lose, but Jeff's not actually that upset, and he high-fives some of the suits around him as the siren blares. He debates hanging around and waiting for Eric, but that seems too clingy. And he's kind of afraid they'll kick him out if he tries to hang out in the suite too long.
He does leave a note when he gets home, Working early tomorrow, can't stay up to say great game. Bet you make the highlights.
Jeff would wait up, if he thought Eric would make it worth his while, but the odds aren't great on that.
He tries to sleep, but he's still awake when Eric comes home. It feels weird just hiding in his room, so when he hears him climb the stairs, he puts a shirt on and opens his door. "Hey."
Eric looks surprised. "Thought you'd be asleep by now. I looked for you back at the RBC."
"Yeah, I didn't realize things would be, you know. Swank."
"No, it's fine," Jeff says. "I mean, really. It was amazing. Thanks."
"It's no big deal, really. I was happy to do it. I just, you know, wanted you to have some fun."
What happens next is his fault completely, but he doesn't think anyone in the world would really blame him for it. Eric's looking at him, and he's smiling so much, and he gave Jeff ridiculously nice seats for a game he was fucking amazing in. When Jeff steps forward and kisses him, it's because he can't imagine doing anything else.
Eric groans, but he doesn't push Jeff away. He tangles his hands in Jeff's shirt, touches his arms and his back and his neck, and he kisses back.
Jeff takes everything Eric gives him. He has to be on his toes, more or less, and it's a little uncomfortable, but he doesn't care. He sucks lightly on Eric's tongue, teases him, smiling a little when Eric's hand jerks against the small of his back. It's so goddamn good, and Jeff doesn't even have to feel guilty for the way his brain is replaying Eric's insane goal.
"It might be the hottest hockey game I've ever seen," he says when he finally pulls back.
Eric smiles crookedly. "That's a lie."
"Not really," Jeff says. He's the one who steps back this time; Eric at least does him the courtesy of ignoring how obviously hard he is. "I'll see you tomorrow," he says. "Goodnight."
He makes it back to bed before he jerks off, barely. He doesn't even try to think of anything except Eric.
It continues like that for the next week, both of them doing their own thing and hanging out, and Jeff waiting for Eric to make another move. He doesn't, and Jeff pushes him a few more times, but the only one ever touching his dick is Jeff himself.
It's frustrating as hell, because Eric can't or won't explain why he won't go any further. At first, Jeff figured he just wasn't sure that Jeff really wanted this and wasn't doing it out of obligation. But then they're working out one day and Eric glances at Jeff and says, "Okay if I take this off?", motioning to his soaked shirt.
Jeff almost chokes on his own tongue. "Um, sure."
"Thanks," Eric says, and peels it off.
Jeff doesn't stare, mostly. It's hard, because Eric's right there. But Jeff's on the weights, and he needs to focus or he could injure himself. He goes back to doing leg lifts and tries not to watch Eric on the bike.
"What are your hours this weekend? I was thinking we could go to a movie with Cam and Colesy and a few other people."
That sounds like a horrible idea, but Jeff's ability to tell Eric no is pretty much nonexistent. "I just work mornings, so sure."
"Awesome," Eric says. "You almost finished there? We could go on a run."
All things considered, it's not exactly a surprise that Eric's into fitness. Jeff just needs to make him eat more. "Sure, hang on," he says, doing one last lift and then getting off.
Eric hops off the bike. They exit together, which would be fine, except Eric's shirtless and sweaty and reaches over Jeff's shoulder to turn out the light, and somehow Jeff winds up flipping the light back on, pressing Eric back against the wall, and kissing him.
He should stop, he really should. But Eric groans and kisses back, hauling Jeff up onto his toes. He's not hard, but he's getting there just from the kissing, and he can feel Eric doing the same thing.
Because fuck, this is hot. Jeff slides a hand up Eric's chest, reveling in the slickness of his skin and the muscle beneath. Maybe this time they can keep going. Maybe...
But when Jeff arches his back and thrusts against Eric, Eric pushes him away, looking regretful. "No."
Jeff sighs. "Eric –"
"We can't, Jeff."
"You haven't told me why."
"I know. I just, I can't. Not with everything. Okay? It's not that I don't want – I mean, I do. Obviously." Eric pushes himself off the wall and walks past Jeff. "But I can't."
So that's frustrating – really frustrating. But he's not sure how to push it, short of walking into Eric's room naked and refusing to leave until Eric fucks him. Or blows him. Anything, really.
The movie, at least, is fun. There are enough people there that Cam bringing Cody and Erik bringing his wife Emily doesn't make it feel like a weird double date. Jeff sits between Eric and Cam, though, which is a little weird. He and Eric bought popcorn to split, and Cam somehow manages to glance over every time Jeff and Eric go for the popcorn at the same time and their fingers brush. Eric looks permanently sheepish, but he bumps his leg against Jeff's companionably when Cam snorts at them.
The Canes and Jeff both have an off day the next day, so they go to a bar after that. Jeff's convinced he'll get ID'd, but he orders a beer and no one seems to care. "I never see you at practice," Cam says, nodding at Jeff.
"I'm normally working," Jeff says. He doesn't squirm or anything. Cam's scrutiny is fine with him.
"Right," Cam says. "I mean, I just figured. Cody comes sometimes."
Wait, what is Cam trying to say? "I really am busy a lot."
"Not everyone's lives revolve around the Hurricanes," Erik cuts in. "Cut the kid a break."
"You just like him because he's your son's age," Cam says.
"And we're so old," Cody says, jostling Cam. "Let it go, grandpa. The kid's got things to do. Practices aren't that interesting anyway."
"I like them," Eric says cheerfully. If he noticed the weirdness of the moment, he's not letting on. "Did you know I might get traded to the Leafs?"
"Not that rumor again," Jeff groans.
Everyone else looks confused, so Jeff explains. "People are obsessed with getting Eric. Personally, I don't get it, because he's not that great. But Leafs fans are convinced he's the key to a Cup season or something."
"What, you don't think I could be a difference-maker? That hurts."
"I think you're not Gretzky, which is what it would take for the Leafs to break their drought?"
"I don't know why I keep you around when you're so bad for my self-confidence."
Three or four really, really inappropriate answers occur to him. He can't make himself talk, and he realizes a little late in the game that everyone else looks uncomfortable too.
"Oh, right, you clean," Eric says in a transparent effort to make everything less awkward.
Jeff forces a laugh. So does Cody. Everything goes back to normal, except for Cam's narrow-eyed staring.
And hey, even that's pretty normal, Jeff's learning.
They stay for a long time, until even Jeff's getting tired. Eventually, though, Colesy drops Eric and Jeff back off at their place.
"That was nice," Eric says. "You got along with everyone really well."
Jeff's a little hung up on the fact that the last time he hung out with the Hurricanes, he and Eric ended up making out. "Yeah."
"And I only almost held your hand a few times," Eric says, letting them into the house.
He turns on the light in enough time for Jeff to see that wow, no, he's really not joking. "Uh."
"I know. Stupid, right?" Eric goes to hang up his coat. "Anyway, Cam was right about going to practice. You're welcome to. I mean – you're welcome to do anything you want, but you know what I mean."
"I know," Jeff says. "The cat was out of the bag that you want me around awhile ago, you know."
"Whatever," Eric says. "I'm just saying, they wouldn't turn you away."
"I'll pass, thanks." Watching a hockey practice will just make him want things he can't have.
"If you're sure." Eric yawns. "I'm heading up. Goodnight."
Jeff's heart thumps when Eric steps forward, but all he does is hug Jeff. Jeff sighs and follows him up.
Spring is moving in rapidly, and it's making Jeff homesick. It's really too early for spring, and it's already too humid, but that doesn't matter. He can't stop thinking about the playoffs, and how he let Kitchener down.
He thinks Eric picks up on it a bit, because Eric's stopped touching him as much. Maybe that's Jeff's fault for being pushy, but he's pretty sure Eric is trying to give him space. And the Hurricanes are pushing for a playoff spot that Jeff honestly doesn't think they're going to get, so there's that, too.
He wishes he could stop thinking about it. If he'd stayed, then by this time he'd be finishing his first regular season in the NHL. As it is, he's serving biscuits and gravy to college kids obsessing over finals, and trying not to think about the way Eric's hand feels pressing against the back of his neck.
Eric leaves his laptop open on TSN one day while he's off at practice, and Jeff spends a few minutes clicking around for hockey news, pretending that's all he wants to do. But after reading just how terrible the Leafs’ chances of making the playoffs are for the third time, he finally gives in and types his own name into the search box.
There's a lot of stories that come up. A lot. More than he's really comfortable with, especially when half of them are accompanied by a picture of his mom crying. He reads a lot of them, but it just gives him a knot in his stomach until he thinks he might puke.
He closes the window and shuts the laptop before escaping to his room. He's not hiding from it, but he crawls into bed and watches old episodes of Friends on demand.
He doesn't come down for dinner that night, and Eric doesn't push him. But just as Jeff's thinking about giving up and going to bed, Eric knocks on his door.
"Yeah?" Jeff says without getting up.
"It's optional skate tomorrow, I was thinking about going to the grocery store after I jog. Probably around lunchtime. You in?"
Eric's been buying most of their groceries. Jeff keeps meaning to tell him not to, but he likes to cook, so. "Yeah, sure."
"Okay." There's silence, and for a second Jeff thinks Eric's moved away, but then he says, "You okay?"
"Just –" Jeff's throat closes up. "I kind of want to be alone," he says finally.
"All right," Eric says easily, and then he's walking away from the door.
Fuck Eric and his respecting Jeff's boundaries anyway, Jeff thinks sullenly, and does his best to fall asleep.
He still feels like shit when he wakes up the next morning. He tries to hide it from Eric, but the second Eric sees him when he comes downstairs, he raises his eyebrows and makes Jeff an extra big mug of coffee.
"Shitty, shitty night," Jeff says, "yeah. I just..."
He can't stop thinking about the headlines. His stomach twists. "I think I want to go home."
He'd like to know what Eric's face looks like, but he can't look at him. Instead he stares at the table, waiting for Eric to tell him no, or – something.
"Okay," Eric says after a moment. He sounds perfectly calm. "I can make that happen."
"Can you?" Jeff says, because, yeah. He's got a few hundred bucks saved, but not enough for a flight back to Toronto.
"Sure," Eric says. "I'm not going to ask if you're sure."
"I am," Jeff says. The second he said it, he knew. It's what he needs.
"Okay." Eric sighs and covers Jeff's hand on the table, squeezing it. "It'll work out, Jeff."
"You sound pretty sure," Jeff mutters.
"Yeah, well. One of us has to be." Eric pulls away. "I'll make some calls, okay? I'll let you know when I figure stuff out."
"Thanks." Jeff moves his gaze to his coffee. He feels so pathetic.
"Hey, it'll be okay." Eric hugs him briefly, moving away before Jeff can really react. "I'm going to go to the store. I'll be back later."
Jeff thinks he sounds a little tense. He wants to know, wants to figure out if Eric's happy or what, but he can't make himself move. He stays there as Eric moves around the living room, and doesn't get off the stool until he's left the house entirely.
He's going home.
He finishes his coffee and then heads upstairs to pack. He has no idea when he'll actually be leaving, but somehow, putting his stuff into his duffel bag makes it more real. It doesn't take very long, since he doesn't have a lot of stuff, and he's left puttering around the house again.
Jeff hits the stationary bike hard for half an hour to try and burn off some of his excess energy and antsiness. He can't help but be pleased to realize that he's almost back to where his cardio was when he left Kitchener. When he gets home, it'll almost be like he never left at all.
Except he did leave, and he's going to have to leave again to go back.
Eric's pulling into the driveway when Jeff comes down after his shower, and he hurries out to help bring in the groceries.
"Thanks," Eric says with a grin. Jeff tries to ignore the pang it gives him and smiles back.
Unpacking the groceries is an adventure. He doesn't know why Eric bought half this stuff. He doesn't even like raisins in his bagels. Jeff doesn't ask, though. He just splits the work with Eric, occasionally brushing past him to get to the fridge or pantry.
"So there are a few flight options for tomorrow," Eric says suddenly.
"Tomorrow?" Jeff asks. That seems so...soon.
"Yeah, is that okay? I mean, there are some for today you could probably still catch –"
"Tomorrow's fine," Jeff says. This time tomorrow, he could be on his way home. It doesn't even feel real.
"Okay," Eric says. "There's one that leaves at eight – we'd have to leave at five or so to catch it. Then there's one at one, and one at four."
"One works," Jeff says.
"Okay, great." Eric pulls out his phone and sends a text. "So we'll leave tomorrow morning, make sure we get you to RDU in plenty of time."
"Sounds good." Jeff wishes Eric would look at him. Is he relieved? He has to miss Jeff at least a little. They're friends. "Thanks."
"No problem." Eric finishes putting the cans away – he has peas now, even though Jeff knows he hates them – and jams his hands into his pockets. "You'll need a coat," Eric blurts.
"I'll be all right."
"No, you need one. I have – it's a hunter's jacket. It'll be too big, but it's warm. You can have it."
Jeff's pretty sure his family will bring him some stuff, but it's obviously important to Eric. "Okay. Thanks."
"You should call your family," Eric says. "Let them know you'll be coming."
"Right." His phone should have enough money to do that, barely. "Okay." He pulls it out of his pocket and –
Chickens out at the last minute and dials the land line, where he knows no one will answer. "Hey, it's me. I'm – I'm coming home. I'll be at the airport tomorrow around four or five. I'll call you from there." He swallows. "I love you," he adds, and hangs up.
Eric's still not looking at him.
"So I guess you'll be glad to have the place to yourself again," Jeff says. "I'll be out of your hair –"
He doesn't get a chance to say anything else before Eric's pushing him back into the refrigerator and kissing him like Jeff's the last source of oxygen on the planet. Jeff clings to him, in case he tries to pull away before Jeff's ready to let him go.
He's not sure when that will be, exactly, but Eric doesn't even seem to notice as Jeff grabs at his shirt and digs his fingers into Eric's hip. Every touch feels desperate and both too much and not enough at the same time.
Eric pulls back just an inch and rests his forehead against Jeff's; they're breathing each other's air, but it still feels too far away. Eric opens his mouth to say something, and Jeff tenses, ready to argue for this, but all Eric says is, "My room?"
"Fuck yes," Jeff says, pressing up to kiss him, sealing the promise for more.
Eric doesn't let go of his hand, just drags him up the stairs so quickly Jeff almost falls over. He refuses to think about what he's doing, if it's a good idea. It doesn't matter, he tells himself. He wants Eric, Eric's finally not saying no. That's enough.
When they get to Eric's bedroom, Eric pins him against the wall and kisses him again. Jeff's not a light guy, but Eric is practically lifting him, kissing him as he does it.
"I want –" Eric shakes his head. He looks wrecked already, staring at Jeff. Jeff can't interpret his expression. "What have you done? What do you want?"
In answer, Jeff pulls him forward and kisses him. He catches Eric's lower lip in his teeth and tugs a little, letting himself thrust shamelessly against Eric's leg. "Anything," he says. Anything, because this is the only time he gets to have Eric, and he feels like he can't even breathe.
Eric laughs hollowly and cups Jeff's cheek, kissing his temple. "Here," he says, and tugs Jeff's shirt off.
And it's flattering in an awful way, the way Eric's staring at him, but Jeff's not the insanely hot one in the room here. "You, too," he says, leaning back against the door.
Eric shudders a little, but he obeys, stripping it off quickly. Jeff's pretty sure almost everything he sees tonight is going to be the hottest thing ever. "Eric –"
He doesn't get a chance to say anything else. Eric's kissing him again, relentless, his hands running all over Jeff.
Jeff's jeans are apparently a personal insult to Eric, because he makes an annoyed noise every time his fingers hit the waistband. So Eric finally pulls a hand away from Jeff's face to undo the button and zipper, never removing his mouth from Jeff's. It's an impressive display of coordination, and Jeff would say so, but he's a bit preoccupied. Instead, he moves his hips away from the wall when Eric tugs his jeans down.
Eric has to stop kissing Jeff so he can peel them off him, but that just means his head ends up two inches away from Jeff's dick. It's not exactly shy right now, straining against his boxers. Eric's just staring at it, and Jeff has to groan when he licks his lips.
"Jeff, I want to –"
"Yes, anything, please," Jeff says. He can feel Eric's breath through the fabric, and he would really like for Eric to touch him before he comes in his shorts.
"Bed," Eric says, pushing him over to it. Jeff does his level best not to trip over himself. He lands pretty hard on the bed, scooting back and staring when Eric lowers himself on top of Jeff.
"You're sure this is okay?" Eric says, moving down so he's kissing Jeff's hip.
"Um," Jeff says. He can barely think.
Eric reaches up and grabs Jeff's wrist, holding on just shy of painful. "We won't do this if you're not okay with it," he says, enunciating clearly.
"Yeah," Jeff says. "What, are you crazy? Yes. Of course, yes."
That makes Eric smile a little, letting go of Jeff. "Okay," he says, and pulls Jeff's boxers off.
He just looks for a second. That's going to get annoying, Jeff thinks, except for how he's honestly pretty into it.
Eric doesn't say anything else, just glances up at Jeff and then wraps a hand around his dick. Jeff swallows around a moan, trying not to do anything too embarrassing. Like come with Eric's hand on him.
At first Eric just jerks him off slowly, kissing Jeff's hip and his thigh, watching Jeff like Jeff's never been more interesting. Jeff lets himself fist his hands in the sheets, determined to keep watching. Eric's fucking hot pretty much all the time, but now...fuck, Jeff just wants Eric's mouth on his dick.
He gets his wish. Eric licks the head, then takes Jeff in, moving painfully slowly and not stopping until his lips are pressed against his own fingers.
"Oh, Jesus," Jeff croaks.
And Eric – Eric reaches out and takes one of Jeff's hands, guiding it to his head. Jeff curls his hand over Eric's hair. There's just enough to tug, and God, he wants to.
Eric sucks lightly, then a little harder, moving his hand from Jeff's wrist to his hips. There's no question about who's in control; Jeff can barely move, and he's completely okay with it.
Eric settles into a rhythm that makes Jeff's toes curl and flex as he tries to hang on and enjoy this for as long as possible. He'll probably only get one shot at this, but he wants to feel everything. Eric seems pretty set on making sure Jeff never forgets this blow job ever, because he's pulling out all sorts of tricks.
Still, Jeff's not expecting Eric to pull back and then go down on Jeff and just keep going until he's got Jeff's entire dick in his mouth, before retreating and doing it again. Luckily, Eric's still got a firm grip on Jeff's hips, because he's pretty sure they'd have tried to thrust impossibly further. As it is, Jeff can't help pulling hard on Eric's hair, not pulling him down – there's nowhere else for him to go – just grasping for something to keep him from coming apart.
"Oh fuck, Eric, Eric, Jesus," Jeff pants.
Eric hums a little around the head of Jeff's cock, and that's it, his control is shot. "Fuck, Eric, I'm –"
The words are half a second late, but Eric's got it covered, swallowing as Jeff tenses and then goes boneless on the bed.
Eric pulls away, kissing his way back up Jeff's body. Jeff hooks a leg around his hip, pulling him close. "Eric," he says, and then kisses him so he doesn't say anything stupid.
"Your smile," Eric says quietly, moving to kiss Jeff's neck, bite it lightly. "It's the best thing I've ever seen."
Jeff can't smile right now, not knowing this is the end, that he won't get to touch Eric again. But he can say, "You – I want you to fuck me."
Eric stops at that, blinking up at him.
"I'm eighteen," Jeff says by way of explanation. "By the time you're done with prep I'll be ready to go again." And if he only gets one night, he wants as much as possible.
Eric's eyes narrow just a little, his hands tightening where he's holding Jeff. He nods and moves away, grabbing lube and condoms from the nightstand. "We're going to take it slow."
"I'm shocked," Jeff says a little peevishly.
Eric kisses his knee. It's the kind of sweet, thoughtless gesture Jeff wishes he could have a chance to get used to. "Let me know how it feels, if you need less," Eric says, slicking a finger and nudging Jeff's legs further apart.
Jeff's been fucked exactly once and has fingered himself only a few times, and not at all since he left home. But he trusts Eric to make it good, so when Eric pushes a finger inside, it's easy to stay relaxed.
"Jeff," Eric says, his voice tight.
"It's good. Don't stop."
Eric leans up and then down again, curling himself over Jeff's body and burying his face in his neck. It's honestly a little ridiculous and looks awkward, but Jeff's not going to tell him no. It feels like Eric's enveloping him. "You can add another," he says instead, lifting his hips for emphasis.
The second finger takes some getting used to. Eric's fingers aren't very thick, but they're long, something Jeff's noticed when he's zoned out watching them wrapped around the bars on the weight machine while he was on the bike. It wasn't a lot of fun popping wood while straddling the bike seat, but Jeff's not fighting the way his dick is coming back around.
This is definitely better than just watching in the weight room, with Eric stretching him and kissing his neck. His hair smells really good, too, and Jeff's just trying to take it all in.
"You good?" Eric asks, his voice low and controlled against Jeff's skin.
"Yeah. More, Eric, faster, just - please."
Eric huffs out a little laugh, and kisses Jeff. "You're in an awful hurry."
He is, he wants Eric inside of him now, and he can't help think that the sooner they do this, the sooner they can go again, and maybe he'll blow Eric next time –
Eric adding a third finger derails Jeff's thoughts on everything. He can't focus on anything but this right now. Eric's staring at Jeff, watching his breath speed up and the way he bites his lip. It would make him feel self-conscious if Eric didn't have three fingers up his ass right now.
"Eric, fuck me," Jeff says, once he finally has the words.
Eric nods and pulls his fingers out slowly. Jeff bites his lip against the feeling.
But then Eric's slicking the condom up and pressing in and oh. It's nothing, really, just a stretch and Eric moving above him, but there's feeling racing through Jeff, and it's all he can do to hold still, shaking a little, and let Eric keep going.
When Eric's all the way in, he stops, staring down at Jeff. He moves his hand from Jeff's hip to his leg, stroking, watching the way Jeff shudders against the touch. Jeff's the one who caves first, arching his back and saying, "Move, Eric. You can, I swear.Move."
Then Eric does, and it's exactly like his first time, except a million times better in every way. It shouldn't feel this good, Eric moving inside him, stretching him almost to the point of pain. Jeff bites his lip and doesn't try not to make stupid sounds.
"Jerk yourself off," Eric says, voice tight. "I can't –"
Jeff's not the only one who's shaking, he realizes. He nods and gets his hand on his dick, moving frantically, completely without finesse. Eric closes his eyes and thrusts harder, groaning.
Jeff comes first, making a profoundly stupid noise as he does it, hips coming off the bed. He kind of loses track of everything for a second. When he comes back, Eric's moving frantically, running his hands over every inch of Jeff that he can reach.
On instinct, Jeff grabs one of Eric's hands and squeezes it. Eric meets his eyes and comes, slumping down onto Jeff as he does it.
Jeff can't stop staring.
He looks completely spent, and Jeff might feel smug if he thought he looked any different. Eric's lips are really red and swollen from blowing Jeff. And kissing him. Jeff turns Eric's face so he can lazily press their lips together. Eric kisses back for a moment before pushing himself up and slowly pulling out. Jeff bites his lip and squirms a little as he adjusts to Eric's absence.
He doesn't want to think about missing Eric as he watches him get up from the bed to throw the condom out and grab a towel. The second he's back and done cleaning Jeff up, Jeff pulls him back down, but Eric makes a face and pulls back.
Jeff tries not to let his stomach drop out when Eric rolls away. Eric wanted this, why wouldn't he want – It was good, and –
“Ugh, sorry. Wet spot,” Eric says, reaching for Jeff and pulling him so he's half splayed across Eric's chest.
Jeff turns his face into Eric's neck, so he has a minute to remind himself that Eric's not actually a dick. Even if it is his fault that they haven't been doing this for weeks. If they had been like this, Jeff can't say leaving would be any easier, or if Jeff would be leaving at all. But he needs to leave, he needs to go home, no matter how good it feels to have Eric's hand languidly moving up and down his back.
“That was a heavy sigh,” Eric says softly against Jeff's hair.
“I – I'm just a little tired,” Jeff lies. It's not entirely a lie, he's had a busy sort of day so far.
“Go ahead and sleep,” Eric says. “I'm not going anywhere.”
"I'll try," Jeff says. He kind of wishes Eric were coming back to Markham with him, even if it's totally impossible and ridiculous. He has to stay in Raleigh, and Jeff can't.
He's not expecting much, but Eric's so warm, and the longer he lies still the more genuinely tired he feels. And Eric's stroking his back, breathing slowly, like he might fall asleep, too.
It's pretty easy to nap.
When he wakes up, it's twilight out, and Eric is shifting out from under him. He makes a questioning noise and opens his eyes.
"Sorry," Eric says quietly. "I was hoping I wouldn't wake you up. I need to use the bathroom."
"It's fine," Jeff says, sitting up and yawning. Eric's naked in front of him. That's...he turns red, but he doesn't look away. "What time is it?"
"Almost six," Eric says. "We napped for awhile."
He stifles a pang of disappointment. They have the rest of the day, and the night. That's got to be enough. "Oh. I'll, um, get dressed."
"Sure," Eric says. "I figured I'd order us food."
Jeff nods and gets out of the bed, hunting for his boxers. Eric leaves for the bathroom.
He's found them and is sitting on the edge of the bed in them, trying not to feel lost, when Eric comes back in. "What kind of food do you want?"
"Pizza's fine," Jeff says.
Eric climbs back into bed, tossing a towel over the now dry but still gross spot. He's holding his phone. "Give me a minute," he says, and dials, holding out an arm.
After a minute's debate, Jeff climbs back onto the bed, scooting over and tucking himself against Eric's side. He stays there while Eric orders the pizza. When he hangs up, he says, "So."
"So," Eric says, and pulls back a little.
The kiss isn't a surprise. Both their mouths are sort of gross, but Jeff couldn't care less; he leans into it, swinging a leg over Eric's waist and moving into his lap.
Eric laughs a little, but he puts a hand on the small of Jeff's back and tilts his head to accommodate Jeff.
"Whatever, the other angle was awkward," Jeff says, letting himself flop forward, his head resting on Eric's shoulder.
"No complaints here," Eric says. He seems content to just hold Jeff there, even though Jeff knows he's gained back some of the weight he lost before he moved in.
"We should move," Jeff says after a moment.
"Should we?" Eric draws circles on Jeff's back. "No reason to."
Jeff can think of plenty of reasons, but – he kisses Eric's shoulder. "Yeah, okay," he says, and kisses Eric again.
Eric really is content to stay there, just kissing Jeff with one hand teasing the hair at the back of his neck, and it's contagious. Or maybe Jeff's just still a little sleepy. Either way, he settles in with his arms around Eric's shoulders, warm and in the moment, not thinking about later.
He loses track of time, and almost jumps when the door bell rings. Eric laughs and strokes his fingers quickly down Jeff's cheek. “Just the pizza guy. I should go pay him.”
“You should put on pants, first,” Jeff says.
“You're gonna have to move before I can do either of those things,” Eric points out with a wide smile.
Jeff almost protests that he's not hungry and they should just skip dinner entirely, but his stomach growls loud enough for the pizza guy to hear it downstairs. “Fine,” he sighs, rolling off Eric.
He gets to admire the view while Eric gets up and snags his pants off the floor and puts them on before quickly jogging down the hall and thundering down the stairs.
A minute later, he calls up, “Food's here!” Which Jeff already knew, but he guesses this means they aren't going to be eating up here. He sighs and forces himself to stand up, grabbing a shirt off the top of Eric's dresser. He could've found his on the floor, but this is just more convenient.
Eric doesn't mind, judging by the smile he gives Jeff when he comes into the living room.
“What?” Jeff asks as he settles down on the couch. “No dinner in bed?”
“I'll bring you breakfast tomorrow,” Eric promises, passing him a plate.
Jeff likes the sound of that.
It's not actually necessary or even helpful for them to eat plastered against each other – Jeff's pretty sure it slows them both down considerably – but neither of them budge beyond reaching for another slice. It's nice, and Jeff lets himself wonder if they could have this again. If Eric wanted to wait for Jeff to figure out what the hell he's going to do with his life once he's back in Markham, maybe he could come back to Raleigh with a real job –
“I should call Sue,” Jeff realizes aloud.
“Huh?” Eric asks.
“Tell her I'm not going to be able to work my shifts this weekend. Or ever again.”
“Oh. Right. Um, yeah,” Eric says.
Fuck, Jeff totally ruined their moment, popped the fragile bubble of denial they'd both been nursing so carefully.
"Can we stop by the diner tomorrow?" Jeff says impulsively. "Before we go to the airport? I don't want to do that over the phone, and that way I can give her a letter to give Leah." And he doesn't want to make things worse right now, selfish though that may be.
"Sure," Eric says. Maybe Jeff's imagining it, but it seems like he relaxes a little.
"Just –" Jeff closes his eyes. "Right now. I don't want to think about it."
"Whatever you want."
Something in his tone makes Jeff open his eyes. Eric's looking at him steadily, completely calm. Jeff's own stomach is in knots, and his knee hurts. Wait. What?
Eric's got his hand on his knee, he realizes, and looks down. His knee is killing him, because Eric's gripping insanely tightly.
"Hey," he says, and tugs at Eric's hand.
Eric yanks it away immediately. "Sorry. I –"
"No, it's fine," Jeff says.
"You should call her," Eric says. "You really should. We can still stop by tomorrow."
Jeff shakes his head. "She's used to kids coming and going. She'll be fine."
Slowly, deliberately, Jeff picks Eric's hand up and laces their fingers together. "I don't want to think about it," he says again. And then, because he knows Eric won't say no to him, "Please."
"Jesus," Eric mutters. He's looking down, away from Jeff, but he hasn't pulled his hands away.
Feeling a little stupid, Jeff kisses their fingers.
Eric takes a ragged breath. "I should put the food away."
"It can wait," Jeff says. He's pretty sure if Eric moves away from him right now, this – whatever it is – will be over.
He can see Eric faltering, so he squeezes his fingers and tugs Eric towards him. Eric moves easily. Jeff doesn't know what he would have done if Eric had tried to fight it, but he didn't, and now he's got his mouth on Jeff's again. It's not the slow and easy making out they'd done while waiting for dinner; it's desperate and frantic, like when they started, but with more of an edge. It's all Jeff can do to keep up and hold on.
It takes forever for them to move from the couch back upstairs. Eric relaxes a bit once Jeff gets his pants back off. Not many people stay that intense while getting head. He then rolls Jeff onto his back and jerks him slowly while kissing every inch of Jeff he can reach. It's good, really good, and the mood in the room is lighter than it had been. And Jeff doesn't want to say anything to screw it up again, so he doesn't ask about tomorrow, or what's going to happen next week and next month, and if Jeff's ever going to see Eric again.
They fall asleep like that, gross and sticky and tangled up with each other. Normally Jeff would object, but Eric's got a vice grip on him, and Jeff can't bring himself to make Eric let go.
When he wakes up the next morning, it's to Eric jostling him gently. "We need to get up if you want to have time to stop by the diner."
"Right," Jeff says. He pulls away from Eric, stifling the pang of regret that goes through him. "Okay. I'll –"
Eric kisses him, gross morning breath and all. Jeff leans into it, surprised. When they pull back, Eric rests his head against Jeff's. "We have time," Eric says raggedly. "If you want."
"Of course I want," Jeff says. "Are you serious?"
"As a heart attack," he says. His smile doesn't do much to offset the truth of his words.
Jeff doesn't need to be told that was a goodbye.
He showers alone, which is for the best, really, but he hates leaving Eric's room to do it. The spell is broken, and it's just awkward when he goes back in later looking for the clothes he left behind the night before. He has to dig his passport out of the hiding place he's kept it in since leaving. When he brought it to Windsor, he just figured the guys might want to run across the border to Detroit for Coney Island dogs or whatever. He runs his thumb over the battered blue cover and slips it into his pocket before shoving everything back into his duffel.
Eric passes him a to-go mug when he drops his bag in the kitchen. Jeff thinks they probably have time for him to drink it here, but Eric seems to be in an awful hurry to get him out of the house.
"Got your letter?" Eric asks.
"Yeah," Jeff says. He slipped some of his extra cash in with it; he's not going to have much use for American bills in a few hours.
The drive to the diner is quiet. Jeff doesn't even mention Eric's terrible taste in music when a Nickelback song comes on.
Sue seems to know exactly why Jeff's coming in on his off day. "Moving on?"
"Going home," he answers. "Sorry for the short notice, but –"
"Katie needs some extra hours, we'll be fine," Sue says. "You take care of yourself."
"Thank you," Jeff says. "For everything. I couldn't have...without you."
Sue looks uncomfortable at such a sincere display, so Jeff quickly moves on. "If my friend Leah comes in looking for me, can you give her this for me?" He holds out the letter.
Sue sighs but takes it, tucking it into her apron. "The skinny one with the big eyes?"
"Yeah," Jeff says. And that's it, that's all he needs to say. This is the last time he'll set foot in this place, and there's an echo of the pang he felt watching Eric's house disappear in the rear view mirror. "Bye, Sue."
Once he's back in Eric's car, he sighs. "I guess that's it, then."
"That's it," Eric echoes.
"Thanks. You know, for everything."
Eric winces. "You really don't have to thank me."
"I kind of do, though," Jeff says.
"No," Eric says. "You think I just did it out of the goodness of my heart?"
"Don't try to pretend you didn't," Jeff practically snaps. He's not going to let Eric act like he's a bad person, or someone who wouldn't have helped Jeff if they hadn't ended up in bed.
"Okay, I did," Eric says, merging onto the highway. "But –"
"But nothing," Jeff says firmly. "You did a lot. Thank you."
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Eric nod. He doesn't say anything, though, and Jeff's so nervous he feels a little like he's going to puke, so he keeps quiet, too.
When they get to the airport, Eric says, "They won't let me past security, so," and pulls up to drop Jeff off. "Be sure to take the coat. It really will be cold."
"I know," Jeff says. "I –"
Eric glances around and leans forward, kissing Jeff hard. Jeff can't help himself: he fists a hand in Eric's hair, kissing back.
"Okay," Eric says after a few seconds. "Okay, go."
"Bye," Jeff says, and hops out.
He grabs his duffel and his jacket from the back and goes into the airport without looking back. He feels almost dizzy. This is so unreal. Even making his way through security doesn't help.
He has enough money for some food, and some time to kill, so he buys a burger. His cell phone is in his pocket, the hundred dollar bill Eric gave him still in his wallet. He should've given it to Leah and Brandon, but he couldn't – he feels like an asshole and a coward, but he couldn't stick around to say goodbye. And they're pretty much his only links to Eric.
Well, that and the coat, which is sitting on the seat next to him. After a moment’s debate, he picks it up and puts it on.
It smells like Eric, and he feels so, so pathetic. But no one has to know that's why he's wearing it. He pushes the sleeves up so they won't drag and starts methodically eating his burger, doing his best not to think about the fact that he might not see Eric again for years, if at all.
He tries to sleep on the flight – he didn't sleep well the night before, because he didn't really try, he just lay awake while Eric slept curled around him. This seat isn't nearly as comfortable, but he's able to grab a few minutes here and there before the flight begins its descent – sooner than he expects.
The short trip across the jetway proves Eric right about the coat; Raleigh made Jeff soft.
There's a Tim Horton’s right across from the exit from customs, and Jeff makes a beeline towards it. He's a little nervous about going past the security sign and seeing his parents again. He needs a minute, and some caffeine, so he forfeits his last three American dollars, save Eric's bribe. He left the rest of the money in the letter to Leah.
But he can't delay any longer once he has the coffee doctored to his liking, so he picks up his bag and heads for the stairs. He doesn't see anyone right away, and his stomach sinks. They have to be coming. Maybe there was traffic. He didn't give an exact arrival time, or nobody checked the messages. Or –
"JEFF!" someone yells.
He turns, and there's Jillian racing towards him, knocking into people like they aren't even there. He barely has a chance to open his arms before she's throwing herself into them. "Jeff, Jeff oh thank God you're here really here."
"Jilly..." Jeff can barely get her name out; she's almost crushing him, and he's a little overwhelmed at seeing his baby sister for the first time in almost a year.
"I have to call everyone," she says, pulling back. She swipes at her nose quickly, before pulling out her phone. "Mom, he's here, number nine."
And that's when Jeff realizes they've staked out every baggage claim in the airport. "You didn't exactly give us a lot of information," Jillian says, refusing to let go of his arm.
"I'm sorry, I just wasn't sure," Jeff says weakly. He doesn't have to explain further because suddenly the rest of his family emerges from the crowd, and his mom is only acting slightly more aware of her surroundings than Jillian was.
Even his dad grabs him and pulls him into a hug, lifting him off the ground. "Never do that again," he says when he puts Jeff back down.
"I'm sorry," Jeff says. "I really am, I just –"
"Whatever," Erica says. "You're here. That's what's important."
Jillian jams herself under one of his arms. "Now let's go home. Congratulations, you got us all in one place, we're going to binge on takeout."
"Your room is the same," his mom says. "You don't need to worry about that."
Jeff nods, feeling struck dumb. "Thanks."
"Is that all of your stuff?" Ben asks when Jeff picks his duffel back up.
"Um, yeah," Jeff says, feeling weirdly self conscious.
"Well, that's fine," his mom says, "the cars are going to be full enough as it is."
Jeff rides with his parents, since neither of them are willing to let him out of their sight very long. Ben and Jilly come with them, and the rest of his sisters ride with Jennifer. Apparently there's some sort of agreement about not asking Jeff any questions until they're all together to hear the answer. Which is fine with Jeff, since it means he can sit back and get used to being home before he gets grilled.
He wishes he had more eyes so he could look at all of them at once and catalog the differences.
"You cut your hair," Jeff says aloud, and then flushes. Of course Jilly cut her hair at some point in the last year.
"Yep," Jilly says. "I got tired of braiding it for games."
"You need a haircut," Ben says from her other side.
Jeff runs a hand over his hair sheepishly and tugs at the back of it. Eric never said anything about the length, but he'd never seen Jeff with it much shorter. "Yeah, a friend of mine used to cut it, but we didn't have a lot of time lately."
It was easy for Brandon to do it at the shelter, but once he'd moved into Eric's, the convenience factor wasn't there.
His parents catch Jeff up on the family news the rest of the way home, and he just sits back and tries to keep all the names straight.
The girls are already inside when they get home, because Jenny drives like a maniac, and Andrea's ordering Chinese.
"Whatever's fine, really," Jeff says when they ask what he wants. "I'm not picky."
That gets a look, because that wasn't exactly true before, but it is now.
"So you were in New York?" Erica asks as they settle into the living room. There's a new coffee table.
"Uh, I wandered for a while," Jeff says. It's true. He'd only spent about six months in Raleigh.
"Jeff, honey, why?" his mom asks.
"I, uh," Jeff owes them an explanation. And he might as well lay that all out. "I – I'm gay."
Jennifer and Andrea roll their eyes, and Ben cringes, which just makes Jillian laugh.
"We figured that out when we searched your computer and found all the porn," Erica explains.
Oh god, Jeff is mortified. Eric's going to laugh for an hour when he hears – No, no he won't. Eric's not – It doesn't matter. "I – oh god."
His dad, at least, looks as embarrassed as Jeff feels.
"Someone found out, and it was just...really messy. I thought I couldn't play hockey anymore."
"That's so stupid," Jillian says. "What?" she adds when Andrea glares at her. "It is."
"Yeah, well." Jeff shrugs. "That's the only explanation I have." He tugs at his sleeve, trying to fight the urge to bolt. His family deserves this. He was pretty awful.
"It's fine," Andrea says. "Everyone's stupid sometimes."
"Not usually to the tune of running away for a year," his mother says dryly.
"How'd you get back?" Ben says.
Jeff's pretty sure his question is just to change the focus from Jeff's tendency to like having sex with guys, but he really wishes Ben had chosen any question but that. "A...friend," he says lamely. "They helped me out."
"You can't tell us you're gay and then play the pronoun game," Jillian says.
Jeff makes the mistake of catching his dad's eye. He looks serious and worried. Jeff can't help it: he turns bright red. "It's not a big deal. Nothing – nothing sketchy. Just, a friend helped me out, okay?"
"Some friend," Jillian mutters.
His mother breaches the awkward silence by touching his shoulder and saying, "We're just glad you're back."
Jeff smiles, forcing away the totally irrational urge to defend Eric. They don't know, and they're never going to meet him. It doesn't matter. "Yeah. Me too."
They don't ask for many details after that, and Jeff doesn't volunteer them; instead, they all focus on telling him everything he's missed since he's been away. Eventually his mom starts yawning, and Jeff becomes hyper-aware of the bags under everyone's eyes, so they all file upstairs. Jillian's staked out a claim on Jeff's floor, saying, "Whatever, I don't care if you want to be alone, someone's got to keep an eye on you."
So she's the one who sits up after they've gotten their pajamas on and says, "That coat's too big for you."
Jeff can't keep from glancing over to the closet, where he's hung it on the doorknob. "Yeah."
Instead of following up on that, she just says, "You really had a rough time, huh."
Jeff closes his eyes and nods.
Jillian reaches up and punches the side of his leg, the only part of him she can reach. "It'll be okay."
"I can't..." Jeff swallows hard. "I still can't play hockey."
"We'll figure it out," she says sleepily. "We will, okay?"
All Jeff can think about is the look on Eric's face the first time he invited Jeff to move in with him. That stubborn, absolute determination that things would work out. How'd he forget that his family has it, too?
"Okay," he says, and does his best to go to sleep.
Jeff wakes up staring out the window of his bedroom, and it takes him a minute to figure out where he is. It's not an unfamiliar feeling after years of playing hockey and months of moving around and sleeping wherever he can, but waking up at home is stranger than it should be.
Jilly's still passed out on the floor, because it's barely just past seven on a Saturday. He gets up and steps carefully over her on his way out.
Jennifer and Erica are asleep on the floor of the living room, but Andrea's in the kitchen and the coffee maker is on.
"Hey, kid," she says as he pours himself a mug.
"Hey," he says. "Big shot lawyer doesn't know how to sleep in anymore?"
"At least I have an excuse," she says. "What's yours?"
"Early shifts at a diner," he says. "And shelters get loud early."
"Shelters?" she asks. She doesn't sound horrified, like Eric did when he found out, just curious.
"Yeah, I mean, I wasn't staying in hotels the whole time," Jeff says. "But I got sick, and a friend made me crash with him."
"Sick?" Andrea asks. She looks suddenly pale, and Jeff doesn't know why until –
Jeff's eyes widen. "Not what you're thinking. I – no. Just, I had a really bad cold and needed antibiotics and shit. But I'm fine, really."
She gives him that lawyer look again, and he tries to look as STD-free as possible. "I'm glad."
They drink their coffee for a while before Andy says, "I think Mom's going to want to get your hair cut before Jilly's game, and she might call Bob to let him know you're back."
"Bob?" Jeff asks.
"McKenzie, he was really good about getting the word out and keeping people updated on your disappearance. He thought you were going Top Ten last year."
"Wait, Bob McKenzie from TSN?" Jeff clarifies, his voice hitting octaves it hasn't since he gave up figure skating.
"Yeah." For some reason, she doesn't get why Jeff is freaking out a little.
He saw the articles on the website, but he hadn't really processed who wrote them.
"I should've just let him out me," Jeff mumbles into his coffee.
"No, the guy who caught me," Jeff says. He doesn't want to name names, because Andy can be intense –
"It was Jackson, wasn't it? I mean, he was your roommate, and if you were that worried about staying in the closet, you wouldn't have been hooking up in a hallway or something."
There's no use denying it. "This is why we don't tell you things," Jeff grumbles.
Andrea ignores him. "He's an asshole, and is playing in the ECHL, so fuck him." She pauses. "Figuratively."
Jeff snorts. "Yeah, thanks for that mental image. Eugh. And at least he's still playing hockey."
"You could play," she says. “And if that asshole tries to stir up shit, we'll slap him with some sort of suit for not assisting in a police investigation about a missing child and causing undue distress to the family.” She looks so pleased at that prospect, like she's got a subpoena drafted and waiting to be used.
It's too much for Jeff to think about now, so he focuses on the hockey. "I haven't played in a year, I'm not in the shape I'd need to be, and everyone thinks I'm a head case. I'm not going to be high on anyone's draft board."
"You don't look out of shape," she says. "Be honest. You kept it up."
"Did you miss the part where everyone thinks I'm a headcase?"
"Whatever. It makes a story." She waves her hand. "That can be dealt with."
"You're such a lawyer," Jeff says.
"You know it." She gives him a measuring look. "You've grown. I have the day off – we'll go get your hair cut, get you a suit. We're going to have to do an actual press release, you know."
Even thinking about it makes Jeff feel vaguely ill. "Can't I just give an interview, or something?"
"Oh, you'll give interviews, believe me." She finishes her coffee. "Shower and we'll go out."
"You need some space," she says cheerfully.
It's easy to be with Andrea. She doesn't press him for details, not even when Jeff wears Eric's jacket out despite his old coat hanging in his closet. She buys him a new sports coat and a haircut, and they go out for lunch at Timmy's and don't talk about how Jeff spent his year.
He's more than a little surprised when he looks in the mirror after his haircut. He looks older in a way even a year of homelessness couldn't accomplish. He can't help but think of the way Eric would grin, making a rueful comment about how young Jeff looks.
It doesn't matter, he tells himself sternly, and thanks Andrea.
When they get back home, it's almost time to head out for Jillian's game. "We're all going to scatter tomorrow, but I'll be back," Andrea says. "Count on it."
There are at least as many eyes on Jeff at Jillian's game as there are on the ice, but his parents keep him pretty well insulated, and people are polite and maintain their distance. But even so, Jeff just feels kind of exhausted by the time it's all over.
"Better get used to it," his dad says, laying a hand on his shoulder. Jeff's pretty sure it's meant to be comforting, but it's not.
It's easier when Jillian joins them and starts chattering about the game and how the refs totally missed that she was tripped three times by the same girl. It's normal.
Until they get home and Jeff sprawls on the couch – there's room now that the four oldest have headed back to their own places – and his mom sits down by his feet, resting a hand on his ankle as she makes a phone call.
"Hi, Bob," she says. "Yes, he's home safe. Uh huh, yesterday. Picked him up at the airport. We just got back from Jillian's game. Oh, they won. I'll tell her you said so."
She squeezes Jeff's ankle. "Honey, would you mind meeting Bob for lunch tomorrow?"
Bob McKenzie wants to have lunch with him. This is weirder than realizing he was bringing scrambled eggs to Eric Staal. Eric hadn't requested Jeff be his waiter or anything. "Uh, sure," Jeff says when he realizes she's still waiting for a reply.
"He'd love to," his mom says into the phone.
"I'm gonna go upstairs," Jeff says, slipping away from his mom. He needs to be alone for a while; he hasn't had a minute to himself that wasn't in the bathroom since he stepped off the plane yesterday.
His duffel bag is still packed, so he takes a minute to put his clothes in the drawers with his old stuff. He hadn't realized how faded all of his stuff looked until it was next to all the stuff he'd left behind. There's so much of it, too.
Jeff pulls out his phone and considers texting Eric, just a 'hey, I'm still alive' thing, nothing more, but the battery is completely dead and he realizes he left the charger next to the TV in his – Eric's guest room. Right, well, it probably wouldn't have worked in Canada anyway. Jeff can't bring himself to throw it away, even if it is useless, so he tosses it in his sock drawer.
There's a knock on his door, and then Jillian pokes her head in. "Hey, thought you might want this," she says, holding out his laptop.
"Oh, awesome. Thanks, Jill," Jeff says, taking it from her.
She lingers in the doorway for a moment. "I'm really glad you're back, Jeff."
"Me too," Jeff says. "I missed you guys."
She gives him a smile, like maybe she thought he didn't, before slipping off down the hall.
When he opens his computer, he has about four thousand unread emails. Half of them are spam that he just deletes, hundreds more are Facebook messages and emails from his friends and family members hoping he'd be checking his email. Jeff doesn't look at the ones from right after he left. The articles were bad enough; he's not sure he could handle what they were sending him.
He stares at his Facebook page for twenty minutes, trying to decide whether or not he should change his status from "Go Kitchener!" When he does decide to post something, it takes another fifteen to decide on "Back."
Dinner that night is quiet. Jeff's feeling pretty keyed up over the Bob thing, especially when his mom says, "It'll just be the two of you. We don't want to give the impression that we think you can't handle yourself."
Something in her tone makes him pretty sure that's exactly what she thinks, which nettles him a little. He handled himself just fine for almost a year.
He just nods, though. "Yeah, sure."
He doesn't have to help with dishes or anything, so after dinner he goes back upstairs. He keeps his laptop shut, doesn't do much of anything except poke around in his drawers and try to get used to having all his stuff around him again. It's almost embarrassing, looking at all of it and remembering Leah and the shelter. He'd let everything in here fade in his mind, because he figured he wouldn't get to see it again.
It's possible he was being a little dramatic, but he's used to feeling stupid about running away. How he's going to face Bob McKenzie, he doesn't know.
He gets tired pretty quickly. When he goes to sleep, he sets his alarm for 6:30. He can hit the treadmill before people are awake. He has to keep trying to get back in shape if he's seriously going to try for the NHL. Not that he can really think about that right now. If he even starts to think about how much it means, he's going to lose his shit in a major way.
He doesn't get really dressed up for the lunch, but he does wear a nice shirt and slacks. They're a little too wide on him, and he has to unroll the cuff of his pants; he's lost a lot of bulk and apparently picked up an inch or two.
His mother hands him the keys, which is nice. They're meeting up at a place Jeff has never heard of, which probably means it'll be nicer than Jeff's used to. But he did brave his way through wearing jeans to the nicest part of the RBC, so he can suck it up and deal with Bob's choice.
Eric would laugh, he thinks. Eric's exactly the same no matter where he is or what he's doing.
The restaurant is nice, but not too nice. The table cloths and napkins are paper, and Bob's not wearing a tie, so Jeff relaxes a little bit.
"Hi, Jeff, nice to finally meet you," Bob says, holding out his hand.
"Nice to meet you," Jeff says, shaking it. He takes his seat and has a sip of the water waiting for him. It's weird, seeing Bob out from behind the desk at TSN.
They make casual small talk while they order.
"Been following hockey since you left?"
"Um, yeah, mostly box scores," Jeff says, "but I caught a few games here and there."
"That's great," Bob says. "The Leafs have been showing signs of life lately."
"Yeah, I saw their game against the Hurricanes," Jeff says. "Kessel had that sick goal, but Cam Ward was a wall and Eric, uh, Staal was playing like a beast."
"They're pretty good down there, it's a great city," Bob says. Jeff has to restrain himself from agreeing too enthusiastically.
"So I guess you probably want to know why I left," Jeff says, twirling his straw in his Sprite. He knows it's what Bob's here for, and it's making him antsy waiting for the question.
"Everyone's pretty curious," Bob says as he pulls out a pocket recorder. Jeff nods as he turns it on. "You and the Rangers were almost on your way to the Memorial Cup."
"Hockey was everything, you know?" Jeff starts. "And something...something happened, and I thought I wasn't going to be able to play anymore, so I kind of freaked out, because I didn't know what to do if I couldn't play hockey. So I just left."
"What was it that happened?" Bob asks.
Jeff tries not to squirm. "I don't really want to talk about it. It wasn't anything illegal or anything. It was just stupid. And leaving was stupid, but it was what I'd done, so I stayed gone, even when I ran out of money and food."
Just then their food arrives, and it's a huge portion of lasagna with a side salad that could be a meal on its own. He's not going to be able to finish it all, and he just feels guilty.
"I had friends that couldn't go home, because their parents and families...they weren't like mine. I didn't deserve my 'get out of homelessness free' card, so I stayed. Three of us would probably split this easy," Jeff says, waving at his food.
"So why did you come back?" Bob asks.
Jeff chews and tries not to get distracted thinking about Eric. "I got really lucky. I mean, I had another friend who helped me out. He kind of pointed out what a dumbass, er, idiot, I was being. He helped me send that letter to my folks, and eventually get back home."
"Wow, some friend," Bob says.
"Yeah, like I said, I got lucky," Jeff says, and then he pauses, thinking of Leah and Brandon and everyone else he met. "If you wanted to include something in your article or whatever about people donating stuff to homeless shelters or youth shelters... that'd be really great. I'd appreciate it."
"Sure, of course," Bob says. "And then there's the hockey question. There's still time for you to put yourself into the draft. Are you thinking about it?"
"Am I still thinking about what it would be like to maybe one day play in the NHL and for the Stanley Cup?" Jeff asks. Bob just laughs. "Uh, yeah, I think about it. I just...I assumed I blew it, that I'd have to find something else to do with my life now. That was terrifying," Jeff admits. "I'm only half decent at waiting tables."
"Plenty of people would support you, myself included, provided you work hard. And unless you've completely changed from last year, I don't anticipate that being a problem."
"I'm willing to work as hard as I need to," Jeff says. No matter how hard he has to work, it'll be easier than the time he spent in Baltimore and Richmond, and even Raleigh, before Eric came along.
Bob nods. "Since Kitchener's rights have expired, you'll most likely do some time in the AHL, though I think you'd have to be pretty out of shape to need more than a few months. My article will be out tomorrow, and I'm sure after you do a few more interviews, teams will want to meet with you."
Jeff can't help but turn red. Bob smiles. "You were a big story."
"I never wanted to be."
"Well, stranger things have happened." Bob nods at his plate. "Now eat up."
Jeff eats as much as he can and doesn't bother protesting when Bob pays. "We'll be in touch," he says in the parking lot, nodding at Jeff.
"Thanks," Jeff says. He drives home feeling ridiculously grateful.
"Good news," Jillian says when he gets home. "Michelle's agreed to take you on."
"My trainer, dumbass," she says. "She's going to whip you back into shape so the NHL can drool over how cut you are."
"Please never say that again."
Jillian rolls her eyes and punches him in the arm. "Also, you're officially news again. Congratulations. You have like a million people all over your Facebook."
Even thinking about it makes Jeff want to run back down to Raleigh. Even more than he does just sort of generally. "Uh, great."
"Not the word I'd use," she says. "I'm going to go for a jog in a bit. You game?"
"I went this morning," Jeff says.
She gives him a look.
"Jeff?" His mom pokes her head in. "Can I borrow you for a second?"
"What's up?" he says, following her back out to the kitchen.
"We picked you up a new phone." She passes it over. "And we're going to need to schedule some interviews."
Jeff sighs. He might as well get all of this over and done with quickly.
It's weird having a camera crew at the rink when he hits the ice in full gear for the first time in almost a year, but at least Jillian's there, helping him run drills and keeping him loose. He never minded the occasional interview or giving a quote after a game when people wanted to talk about hockey, but now they want to talk about Jeff and his feelings and why he ran away, and he's so tired of it.
But being back on the ice with a stick in his hand makes up for it all. He can't stop smiling, even when Jilly strips him of the puck and he has to chase her down to get it back. He's exhausted by the time their time slot is up, but he still doesn't want to leave the ice.
"Tomorrow's going to be a bit rough, huh?" one of the TSN guys asks.
"I don't know if I'll be able to walk." Jeff laughs. "But hockey tough is different from real life tough. I'll have my protein shake and a hot shower and a warm bed tonight. It's a privilege to get my a – butt kicked by my baby sister out there."
Apparently that was a great sound bite, because it's all over the place before the Leafs game that night. And then he's getting Facebook messages from half his old team. "Dude, quit playing like a girl and come practice with us. Spott will be thrilled."
"We'll give them a call tomorrow," his dad says.
Jeff passes along the maybe and his new number to Gabe, and in four minutes he has twenty text messages from his old teammates.
It's starting to seem at least kind of possible that he could still do this, that he didn't lose hockey forever.
It becomes even more real as time passes, and he hangs out with the guys more and works to get back into shape. He's rusty, but getting better every day, and the shit people give him for being rusty just works as a motivator. Stammer comes home once the Lightning are eliminated and immediately introduces him to his trainer, who seems to think that Jeff is just a specially designed challenge. A player who didn't play or train for a year trying to make the draft. Jeff thought he'd gotten into pretty good shape, but this guy has a different definition of that.
Of course, by the time the combine rolls around, Jeff's glad Scary Gary's been working him into the ground.
The combine is a weird experience for Jeff. Actually, it's probably a weird experience for everyone, as they're all given numbers and assigned to different lines so they can have their body fat pinched, hit little plastic sticks as they show off their vertical leap. Jeff's pretty sure he's going to throw up when he gets done with the Wingate test. At least there are no cameras in his face at the time.
He does a few interviews throughout the day, but the cameras are pretty set following around Gabe, that kid Ryan from Red Deer, and the other guys pegged to go in the first round. Jeff's just a human interest story; the combine specials are more for people trying to scope out who their team might select in the first round.
His results aren't the greatest, but they're good enough, Jeff figures, and Bob was right about teams wanting to meet with him. He gets good at saying the same stuff over and over, stressing his commitment to the game and his willingness to do his time in the AHL. A few guys expect him to resent it, or something, but Jeff honestly doesn't care. Taking a few years in the AHL to get to the NHL is so much more than he thought he'd get to have.
Things are shaping up to be pretty good. Jillian's excited when he talks to the Bruins, because she might end up at Boston College. Having someone nearby would be great, Jeff thinks, and tries not to also consider that he'd see Eric multiple times a year, when he finally makes it to the NHL.
He's doing his best not to think about Eric at all, actually, as the draft gets closer and closer. It helps that he has tons of other things on his mind, and he's exhausted every night when he falls into bed. But he has dreams. Stupid ones, where he's with Eric and everything's great, and he wakes up feeling like he's been punched in the stomach.
Eric's probably moved on, anyway. Jeff's just going to keep reminding himself of that.
It's a bit of a surprise when Jeff comes home from the rink one day, a month and a half after he's come home, and his mom says, "You've got some mail." It's even more of a surprise when it's just a letter, postmarked from Raleigh.
He opens it in the kitchen, figuring it's probably from Leah. When he reads it, though, he sits down hard at the kitchen counter, staring down at the sheet of paper.
All it says is, "If you want," and a phone number. And it's signed "Eric".
"Who's it from, Jeff?" his mom asks.
"Um, just a friend saying hi," Jeff says, stuffing it in his pocket.
"From North Carolina?"
"Yeah, I spent a while there, winter is really mild and the people are nice," Jeff says.
"Oh," she says. She has that kind of vaguely sad look she gets whenever he talks about the time he spent away. "You have that meeting with the Hurricanes soon, don't you? Are they in North Carolina or South?"
He'd forgotten about that. "Uh, North. They're in Raleigh. Dinner's not going to be ready soon, is it?"
"Probably not for half an hour or so."
"I'm gonna head upstairs for a bit," he says.
He feels like he should lock the door before taking out Eric's letter, but that's ridiculous. It's not like he's going to jerk off to Eric's phone number. He plugs the number into his contacts but hesitates before going so far as to actually call him. He's probably not busy; the Canes cleaned out their lockers weeks ago. Jeff watched Eric's interview online, but he gives really boring interviews. He didn't smile much, but that doesn't really mean anything. He's always so serious when there's a mic in his face, and they'd just failed to make the playoffs.
He ends up sending a short text as his mom calls him down to dinner. "this is my new number."
Jeff leaves the phone on his bed so he won't check it obsessively through the meal.
When he comes back upstairs, Eric hasn't responded. He stifles the pang of regret and turns his phone on silent, flipping through The Hockey News instead of thinking about Eric, or his upcoming interview, or...anything. He can't help but wonder, though, what Eric – and Cam, really – have told the guys. Some of them had to have noticed Jeff disappearing at the same time a runaway named Jeff reappeared. A hockey-playing runaway, no less. Someone has to have noticed.
Not that it matters. He's sure Eric thought of something. Probably something that doesn't sound that realistic, because, well, it's Eric. But something. And he's told them, and they believe him, because it's obvious as hell that Eric's team trusts him.
Jeff's glad, he really is. Eric deserves to be surrounded by solid people. People who will support him, and stick around. People not Jeff.
Okay, fine, so that's a little crazy. Jeff checks his phone and then sighs at himself. Crazy and also stupid; Eric's obviously not going to text back. He should just go to bed.
But right before he does, he checks one last time, and there's a text waiting. "good luck with rod and everyone. be solid. he'll like you."
Jeff blinks at it. It's not like he was expecting much of anything, but – career advice?
It doesn't matter, he tells himself. He's going to get into the NHL and it doesn't matter that Eric Staal has decided to put distance between them. Because it's good, and healthy and smart, and also Jeff left, and Eric's the one with friends and a whole life down there. Not Jeff. Jeff did the right thing.
And he's doing the right thing when he doesn't reply.
Eric doesn't text Jeff again before his meeting with the Hurricanes scouts and management, and that's fine. That's good. But it's weird, because Jeff's nervous waiting for the meeting to start. Really nervous. He wants them to like him, and he doesn't want Rod Brind'Amour to recognize him.
He wants them to draft him.
It's stupid, but even meeting the Leafs crew didn't make Jeff's palms sweat like this. It's not like them drafting him would make everything with Eric suddenly be cool and work out. So he shouldn't even dwell on it. There are thirty teams in the league, and Jeff will be thrilled if any of them pick him. He doesn't care if he's Mr. Irrelevant, just so long as there's a real chance he gets to play hockey professionally. And he needs to remember that.
Jeff really hopes he isn't Mr. Irrelevant.
"Mr. Skinner? They're ready for you now," a young intern says, poking his head out of the conference room.
The meeting starts the same as all the others, the same questions about his fitness and practice regimens, if he really thinks he's ready after a year off, and Jeff gives them the same answers he's given everyone else.
He's a little surprised when Brind'Amour asks, "So what do you think of the Southeast Division, Jeff?"
"Um, I think it's on the rise, and that's great. I mean, the Capitals will get all the attention as long as Ovie's around, but Tampa Bay really stepped it up this year, Stammer did a great job, and the Hurricanes obviously have a solid core that maybe just needs a few more pieces, especially on the power play." That gets an eyebrow from Brind'Amour. "But Raleigh's a great city, and I'd love to play there. Or uh, Charlotte."
Brind'Amour just nods and makes a note on the paper in front of him. Jeff tries to read him, to see if his next question is, "Weren't you that kid in the box a few months ago?" But he doesn't say anything else, and the scouts take over again.
"Well, Jeff, we'll probably see you in Minnesota in a few weeks," Brind'Amour says as they wrap it up.
"Yeah, um, travel safe," Jeff says lamely as they shake hands.
Once he's back out in the hall, he stares at the patterned carpet and turns his phone over in his coat pocket. He wants to call Eric, tell him what happened and see if he has any idea what Rod might be thinking. Instead, he texts Jennifer.
"Rod the Bod is huge." She'd had a crush on him as long as Jeff can remember, she'll appreciate it.
She texts him back "!!!", which makes him smile.
He's having to spend more and more time at the gym as the draft gets closer. He's about back to where he was before, physically, and skillwise he's getting there. He practices with the Kitchener guys most days, and obsessively works on his skating and shooting when they have other plans. Stammer comes out to the rink some days, but he's supposed to be spending his summer relaxing and getting ready for another deep playoff run, not busting his ass to help Jeff. He's – not confident, but he's getting closer to confident. He's starting to think he has a real chance, that he can prove himself in the AHL and have a career. It's awesome, in a terrifying way.
Two weeks after his meeting with the Hurricanes, he's finishing up a three-hour workout when he pulls his phone from his gym locker and sees a text from Eric: "Leah says hi."
It makes his throat close up. It's unfair, he thinks almost angrily, tugging on his heartstrings about something so specific.
But he's not going to hang Leah out to dry even by proxy, so he texts back, "tell her I said hi too."
He goes home and eats dinner with his family, trying and mostly failing not to obsess over his phone in the meantime. He doesn't constantly check it, but he does keep an eye on it, waiting to see the notification light flash. It does a few times, but it's always someone else.
"You're bulking up," his mom says when he takes another helping of roast. "Training's intensifying?"
Jeff nods. "I'm ready for the physical part, I think. The skills – we'll see."
"You're not wanting in work ethic," his mother says approvingly.
“Yeah.” He wolfs down the food as quickly as he can. “I’ll be upstairs if you need me,” he says, and escapes.
He leaves his phone on his desk when he gets to his room, determined not to think about it anymore. He spends some time dicking around on Facebook, telling Gabe to quit tagging him in so many pictures and spying on the guy Jillian’s dating. He’s about to set up his ice time for the next week when Jillian pokes her head in. “So, who is he?”
Jeff jumps. “Wait, what?”
“You were checking your phone, like, obsessively. Who is he? I won’t tell.”
“No one,” Jeff says.
“Uh huh. You know I’ve had boyfriends before, right?”
“Yeah, your current one has really awful taste in clothes,” Jeff says, tapping his computer.
“Whatever. Not your problem. Seriously, who was it?”
“No one,” Jeff says. “I mean – a friend of mine passed on another friend saying hi, is all.”
“From Raleigh?” She'd seen the postmark on Eric's letter, and there hadn't been any real reason to deny that he was there. It's not as though anyone reasonable would think he’d been living with the captain of an NHL team.
Jeff has to look away from her to nod. “Yeah, she was one of the street kids.”
“And your friend who has the money to have a cell phone was texting you. This wouldn’t happen to be the friend who bought your plane ticket, would it?”
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” Jeff says weakly.
Jillian sighs. “You’re going to tell me eventually, though, right?”
“It’s going to take awhile,” Jeff says. “I’m not trying to keep secrets. Things are just – it’s complicated.”
“It always is. I’m going to watch some South Park, you want in?”
It’s almost ten. “Nah, I’m good. I’ll probably crash soon.”
“Sleep is for the weak,” she says, but she leaves.
Jeff closes his computer and strips down to his boxers. If he can just get to sleep, maybe he’ll feel less mixed-up about this when he wakes up.
Except half an hour later, he’s still awake, mind buzzing. And it feels like his phone is looming at him from his desk. He grits his teeth. The Hurricanes are done for the season; Eric will still be up. He can call him, and they’ll talk for a few minutes, and then things will be less fraught. Maybe.
Mind made up, he grabs his phone. He puts pants on before he dials, though, just because he’d feel weird otherwise.
The few seconds waiting for the phone to connect are some of the worst he’s ever experienced. Then the phone clicks, and Eric says, calm and easy, “Hey,” and Jeff realizes he can’t say anything at all.
When Eric speaks again, he sounds worried. “Jeff?”
“Hi,” Jeff says, wincing when his voice cracks. “I got your text.”
“I know, you replied.” Eric sounds a little distracted. “How are you?”
“Is this a bad time?”
“Huh? No, it’s fine.”
“You sound a little out of it,” Jeff says, trying hard not to sound like he thinks he has a right to judge Eric’s moods, or something.
“I’m kind of trying to make sure this isn’t a dream,” Eric says. “A really detailed dream.”
Jeff laughs in spite of himself. “No, it’s not.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“So.” Jeff clears his throat. “You went to the shelter?”
“No, actually. She works for the diner now. Sue gave her a job.”
Jeff shakes his head. “She would.”
This is so awkward. “Um. How’ve you been?”
“Looking forward to next year,” Eric says. Jeff’s familiar with that note in his voice, the slightly brittle one that means he thinks he could’ve done better.
“It made things less complicated for me,” Jeff says. “I only had to root for the Leafs till they got knocked out.”
“You kept following us?”
Jeff balls his hand into a fist. Why does Eric sound surprised? Does he not realize – whatever. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.”
“That’s good. That’s really good.” Eric clears his throat. “So. I heard you’re putting yourself in the draft.”
“You saw the interviews?”
“A few of them, yeah. I mean, I watch the NHL Network, and they were all over.”
“Right.” Jeff’s not disappointed. He’s not. Eric has no reason to keep tabs on him. “Yeah, I’ve met with a lot of people about it. I’m hoping, you know, I can be in the AHL, work my way up.”
“You’ll definitely get to the NHL. I don’t know anyone who works as hard as you.”
Jeff snorts. “That’s not a guarantee.”
“Well, I also think you’re insanely talented, though.”
Jeff can almost see the dopey, self-conscious smile Eric’s probably got on. “Yeah, well. I met with the Hurricanes.” The second it’s out of his mouth, he winces. It sounds desperate.
But Eric sounds interested when he says, “Yeah? How’d that go?”
“Rod’s kind of terrifying.”
Eric laughs. “He’s got a lot of opinions on Carolina hockey, for sure. Charlotte’s nice, though. My brother’s on the Checkers.”
“Oh, right.” Because that wouldn’t be awkward at all. “Well, you know, maybe.”
“I figured you’d be rooting to be drafted by a Canadian team. Stay close to your family.”
“I want to, yeah.” In between being frustrated by how smothering they can be. “But, I mean, Raleigh was good to me. So.”
“Right,” Eric says quickly. “There are worse places.”
“Totally,” Jeff says.
“So you rooted for the Leafs, huh?”
It’s the worst subject change ever, but Jeff goes with it. “Well, obviously. I’m kind of glad you guys missed it. Otherwise my loyalties would have been divided.”
Eric laughs. “Seriously?”
It’s totally fine if Jeff turns red right now, he tells himself. “Only a little. But yeah. I mean, Cam’s a great guy.”
“I should’ve known. Listen, speaking of Cam, I should go – I have to get up at the ass crack of dawn tomorrow and go to Home Depot with him and Cody.”
“Oh, totally. Sorry I called so late.”
“No, no, it’s fine. It’s really, really fine,” Eric says quickly. “I’ll talk to you soon, right?”
Jeff swallows around the sudden lump in his throat. “Yeah. Definitely.”
“Okay.” Eric’s voice gets a little soft. “Goodnight.”
“Tell Cam hi for me,” Jeff says quickly, and hangs up.
He’s equal parts happy and completely, gut-wrenchingly sad. Hearing Eric’s voice has brought everything he was feeling back to the surface. He doesn’t want to be the pathetic guy missing someone he only slept with once, but he really, really is. He misses Eric so much it hurts.
But he has to be up early tomorrow, so he forces himself to go to sleep.
Jeff's mom takes him out suit shopping the next afternoon, because even though he's put back on most of the bulk and weight from last year, his old suits still don't fit well enough in his mom's opinion.
"Oh, they're fine for traveling," she says. "But this is the draft, and you want to look your sharpest."
That's a relief at least; only needing the one new one means this shouldn't be too painful.
Three hours later, Jeff's contemplating suicide by silk tie while his mom and the sales guy debate gray vs. black vs. blue and pinstripes and matching shirts.
Occasionally they'll ask Jeff for his opinion, but he just doesn't care. He pulls out his phone to check just how long he's been sitting there, and while the phone's in his hand, he types out a text to Eric without thinking.
"Professional advice needed. What kind of suit should I get for the draft?"
He's not actually expecting a reply, or at least not one as quickly as it comes.
"You'll look good in dark gray, but pinstripes will make you look like a lawyer."
He was mostly joking when he asked, but if Eric thinks he'd look good... "The dark gray one," Jeff says.
"The charcoal?" the salesman corrects.
"Yeah, sure," Jeff says.
"Are you sure sweetie?" his mom asks. "It's a little plain, don't you think the blue –"
"Mom, come on," Jeff says.
"All right," she sighs. "I guess that's it, then."
"thanks" Jeff sends back. He's proud of himself; they can have a quick, casual exchange. Like friends. It's good.
And if he tucks a red tie into the garment bag when he's packing later, it's just because it matches well.
A lot of teams wear red, it doesn't mean anything.
Time seems to speed up after that. Jeff's working so hard he barely has time to think about anything else, but somehow he manages to keep up texting Eric. He doesn't call him again, but he'll text him about training, or TV, and Eric will text him pictures of his house and Cam's dog and stuff. It's really nice, even if it does mean he's constantly reminding himself that his chances of getting drafted by the Hurricanes are really low.
It's not that he won't be able to be happy if he's drafted somewhere else, he just really wants to be with Carolina. Eric hasn't even mentioned it; he's probably assuming Jeff's getting drafted by someone else and is fine with it. So Jeff does his level best to be fine with it, too. He's going to get to play for the NHL. That's the most important thing.
He and his mother fly to Minnesota a few days before the draft. Jeff's trying to get used to feeling so nervous he's certain he's going to puke every time he inhales.
Eric sends him a text at seven, after he's finished dinner and gotten in bed in hopes that he'll fall asleep sometime before midnight. "Good luck."
Jeff stares at the display for a second before he gives in and hits the call button.
Eric answers right away, and Jeff relaxes minutely.
"Hey," Eric says. He sounds surprised.
"Hey," Jeff says back.
"Shouldn't you be out with the other draftees?" Eric asks.
Jeff shrugs, even though Eric can't see it. "They went to go see the sequel to some movie I haven't seen. So I'm just laying low."
"Trying not to freak out." It's not even a question, Eric just knows.
"You're gonna be great. Whoever drafts you is going to be lucky to have you on their team."
Jeff lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "What if I get drafted by the Islanders?"
"Tavares and Grabner are cool kids. You could be part of their revival, start a new dynasty. And I'll tell Marc to go easy on you."
Jeff snorts, "I'm pretty sure that'd just make him hit harder."
And what would Eric even tell his brother? "Be good to the Long Island rookie, we slept together that one night."?
"Yeah, maybe," Eric says with a little laugh. "Is your whole family there?"
"Just Mom for now, Dad and everyone else have to work, so they're coming down Friday morning."
Jillian's free, but Jeff wasn't disappointed to find out his sister wouldn't be hanging out at the hotel with bored hockey players.
"Cool," Eric says. "It's awesome, going on stage and getting that jersey. Soak it up."
There's little chance of Jeff not savoring every moment. "I will. So uh, you gonna be watching on Friday?"
"Wouldn't miss it," Eric says seriously.
Of course he wouldn't, everyone watches the draft. But it's still nice to know. "Well, I should let you go and see about getting some sleep."
"It's eight o'clock, there," Eric says.
"I know," Jeff says. "I just –"
"Freaking out, right. Well, the Twins are playing, that should put you to sleep," Eric suggests. "Good luck."
"Thanks," Jeff says. "Thanks for letting me bug you. Goodnight."
He has to hang up quickly before he says anything stupid like "I miss you".
By the next afternoon, Jeff's wondering why they got to Minneapolis so early. All he's doing is sitting around trying not to think too much. Fortunately, Gabe's here, and Matt and James too, so they all end up hanging out together, goofing off and talking about how much they wish they could get trashed (and only half joking about how Gabe and James would do it, if Matt and Jeff weren't there to frown at them). It's fun, and Jeff doesn't even check his phone all that much.
"Okay, okay, I have to go," Jeff says at around eleven. "I'll see you guys later."
"Lame," Gabe says, throwing a sock at him. Jeff laughs and ducks out.
He's surprised when he sees another text from Eric. "done partying?"
"Not partying. Hanging. Yes."
Eric doesn't reply. Jeff shrugs to himself – whatever, if Eric doesn't approve then he doesn't approve, Jeff refuses to worry about it when he has so much else going on – and goes back to his room. He's a little surprised when his phone starts buzzing as he's letting himself in.
He stays out in the hallway; his mom's probably been sleeping for hours now. Plus, he's pretty sure if she sees him talking to Eric, she'll somehow know. "Hey."
"It's not too late, is it?"
Like Jeff would tell Eric if it was. "No, it's fine."
"I just wanted to catch up, you know, see how the day'd gone."
"You'll do well, I'm sure."
Jeff rolls his eyes. "You know you've never actually seen me play, right?"
Eric laughs. "Seriously?"
"Unless you dug Kitchener games off YouTube, or something."
"I did, because I was curious, but that's beside the point. They ran clips of you constantly for awhile there. Everyone's seen you play."
"Wait, hang on," Jeff says, because he knew about the highlight reels but – "You've seen me play a full game?"
"It wasn't – I mean, I just watched it while I was doing other stuff."
Jeff doesn't like how embarrassed Eric sounds. He feels like he should have the market cornered on embarrassment right now. "Right. So."
"You're really good," Eric says quietly. "Really, really good."
"Oh, um, thanks," Jeff says. He's really glad this hallway is empty so no one's around to see him blush.
"You're gonna be a pain in the ass to play against," Eric adds.
That's a strange thought, having to face Eric on the ice. It's not like it's uncommon,. People play their old roommates and friends all the time. Jeff's done it in the OHL, even guys he'd hooked up with. But this...
"You still there?" Eric asks.
"Yeah, sorry, just. It's crazy, a few months ago I was your charity case and now –"
"You weren't –" Eric protests.
Jeff just talks over him, "– and now we're talking about playing each other in the NHL."
"You probably owe me dinner," Eric concedes. "First time we play in the same city."
Jeff grins. "It's a date. I mean. You got it."
"Right. Well, I should let you go. Big day tomorrow."
Jeff doesn't want to let him go, wants to make Eric keep talking to him until he falls asleep. "Yeah, I. Yeah."
"I'll be watching," Eric says. "Good luck."
"Thanks," Jeff says, and hangs up.
Jillian wakes him up the day of the draft by jumping on top of him. "Jeff! Today is the day your life changes!"
"Oh, God, stop talking," Jeff says, groaning and rolling over.
"No, but seriously," she says, "get up."
"Ugh," he says. He almost doesn't want to face today. What if he's made a mistake? What if he ends up picked by the Islanders after all? Or picked by someone who sends him down to the AHL for the next five years because he's a headcase who just can't play the way he used to?
"Hey," Jillian says, jostling him, "knock it off. It's like the OHL, remember? Only, you know, bigger."
Like the OHL, only bigger. Right. Jeff can manage that. He takes a deep breath and gets up.
The draft itself happens in a blur. They file in and sit down, and Jeff's so nervous Jillian ends up grabbing his knee just to hold him still. He takes a deep breath, and then another one, and tries not to notice just how much more important this draft is.
The first round goes quickly. Or, well, Jillian actually looks both tense and bored, so maybe that's just Jeff being a lunatic. Whatever: it goes, and Jeff's name isn't called, and then they have to go back to the hotel until the next day. Jeff's only a little jealous of Gabe for getting picked second overall. Mostly because he wishes he knew where he was going, or if he was going. And now Gabe's way too busy to hang out, so he and Jillian spend the night watching bad movies on the hotel's HBO.
The later rounds go much faster than the first, since there's a lot less pomp associated with it all, so Jeff's not actually sure if his name is called as quickly as he feels like it is. But it's still the second round, so it was early. Earlier than he dared to hope.
For a second, he can't do anything but blink. Then Jillian's laughing and pulling him into a hug, and his mom and dad are too, and they're pushing him down the steps. Jeff just goes with it, right up until he puts on the jersey, and he looks down and realizes that the Hurricanes have drafted him.
He's going back to North Carolina.
"Congratulations, son," someone says, clapping him on the back.
Jeff tries to smile and tries not to wobble. They're both pretty hard. He's too stunned to even really feel happy. "Thanks," he says a little distantly to someone. "I didn't think..."
He's going to have to remember how to talk at some point.
He doesn't know how many interviews he gives, how many questions he answers, before he finally gets a minute to himself. Or more accurately, to himself surrounded by his family.
"Oh, honey, we're so proud of you," his mom says, hugging him.
"Knew you could do it, squirt," Jennifer says, grinning widely.
"You're lucky it was a shallow draft," Ben says, earning himself slaps and shoves from their sisters. Jeff just laughs.
"Carolina's a little far, but I guess you'll be up to face the Leafs twice a year," his dad says.
"Raleigh's great," Jeff says. "You guys can come visit in the winter, maybe tailgate before a game."
He has to stop himself before mentioning how great the guys on the team are, because explaining how he knows that would be...complicated.
Jeff doesn't get a chance to really check his phone until they go out for dinner. There are so many text messages it's insane, and even though he hasn't had a chance to update Facebook, there are congratulatory messages on his wall.
It takes some scrolling to find the text he's looking for. It's short, but Jeff still grins when he reads it.
"Welcome to the team."
He and Eric will be on the same team. Eventually. Whatever, they'll be in the same state and can hang out more than six times a year.
After dinner, his dad smiles ruefully and says, "Don't do anything too stupid," nodding at Gabe waving him over. Jeff grins and hugs everyone goodbye, then follows Gabe back to his room.
Someone's got a bottle of vodka, and they spend the next few hours getting cheerfully trashed. Jeff feels like he's flying. He just keeps repeating to himself, he's going to be playing for the NHL. With Eric. He can't think of a single better thing.
When he finally stumbles back to his room, he checks his phone again, ignoring the way the world is swimming. There's another text from Eric. "You'll be down in a few days. I'm buying you dinner."
Jeff can't jerk off because his sister is in his room, and also that would be kind of weird and creepy. But God, he wants to. Thinking about being on a team with Eric, about Eric being his captain...
He's going to stop wanting Eric like that because he has to. But he can still think about Eric. Playing with him, hanging out with him. And maybe someday Eric won't tell him no. Maybe he can make Eric care about him again.
He's drunk enough to not want to deal with any feelings, so he changes and crawls into bed. The hangover he's bound to have the next morning is going to be completely worth it.
He's got ten days at home to pack and get ready for prospect camp. It’s just a few days down in Raleigh to meet the other prospects and tour the facilities. It's barely more than a long weekend, but his parents are getting a little tense about sending Jeff on his own. Even though he's got a return ticket and is bringing his cell phone with him and has already promised to call or text twice a day.
"They're going easy on you," Jillian says, flipping through a gear catalog on Jeff's bed while he packs. "They barely let me out of their sight at all last summer. And they're going to be even worse when I tell them about BC."
"Sorry," Jeff says. He at least earned the weird clinginess. Jilly doesn't deserve it. "You still haven't told them?"
"I was hoping you'd go to the Bruins and I'd have that as a selling point. Carolina doesn't really help me. Even if you'd been drafted by the Canucks, it wouldn't be America Stealing Their Baby: Part Deux."
"Sorry," Jeff says again. "But I don't really control the draft."
"Please, you're giddy about going back and seeing that guy again."
"Anything cool coming out this year?" Jeff asks, nodding at the catalog in a desperate attempt to change the subject.
Jillian just rolls her eyes.
Being back in the Raleigh airport is weird. Even though he knows the team is sending someone to take him to the hotel, he still half expects Eric to be the one picking him up and taking him home. The short guy with thinning hair is holding a sign that says "J. Skinner & B. Smithers". So, definitely not Eric.
"I'm Skinner," Jeff says.
"I'm Smithers," another voice says behind him.
Apparently their flights arrived at the same time, which explains why they're sharing a car.
"We'll grab your luggage and head over to the hotel," the driver says.
"Sounds good," Jeff says.
"I'm Ben, by the way," the other prospect says as they're getting into the car.
Jeff nods. "Jeff."
"Oh, holy shit, you're Jeff Skinner."
He's probably going to be getting this a lot. "Um, yeah."
"You must be amazing if you went second round in spite of, you know, everything."
"I don't know," Jeff says. "Maybe?"
Ben laughs. "Sure."
They fall silent after that. Jeff wants to say something interesting, or at least nice, but the truth is, his stomach is in knots. He can't help but wonder if Eric's going to be there, or someone else who'd recognize him. They're going to have to think up some kind of story, probably; it won't fly if Jeff just shrugs and acts like he hasn't met half the team.
They get to the hotel they're staying in and have a few hours before they're taken over to the facilities. Ben's not overly talkative, which works for Jeff, but he does ask Jeff a few questions about Kitchener and the draft. Jeff pulls out his phone once Ben's gone into the bathroom and texts Eric. "In your city. Will I see you?" He hopes it's not too clingy, but he'd feel weird not asking.
Eric's reply comes quickly. “Definitely. Hitting up camp one day and I still owe you dinner.”
“Pretty sure I owe you dinner, too.” Jeff sends back.
“Save that for training camp. Spend time with your roommate and the other guys.”
Right, because he's on a team now. He isn't just crashing in Eric's house. And being...whatever with the team captain on top of being “that runaway kid” isn't going to help anything.
At least he's not the captain's brother. Jared gets ribbed constantly throughout dinner for that, but he takes it in stride. Jeff laughs at some of the guys' teasing, well-practiced from time spent together in Charlotte, and tries not to stare too hard at Jared, cataloging the differences and similarities between him and Eric.
He manages to make it not weird though, and is invited back to the room Jared's sharing with one of the Zachs to hang out with them and some of the other guys. Jeff's relieved, not just that he hasn't scared Jared off by being weird, but that he can hang with new people who know him first as “that runaway kid” without it being too awkward.
“So, Staaler, is your brother going to be checking up on you?” Nash asks.
Jeff's so glad someone else asked, because Eric hadn't been that specific, but Jared just shrugs. “I dunno, he mentioned swinging by one of the days, but I don't know what his plans are.”
Jeff's a little disappointed that Jared doesn't have more details, and is disappointed again the next morning when they arrive at the practice rink and it's just the coaches and trainers. He doesn't have a whole lot of time for disappointment, though, because they've got to collect all of their new gear and practice jerseys, and it's so awesome that Jeff can't stop grinning.
They run through basic drills, shooting, skating and passing while the coaches evaluate them on whatever it is they're looking for, and then break out into two squads for a scrimmage. Jeff's on the white team, so he has to go change his jersey, and when he comes out, Eric's leaning against the glass talking with the red team.
Jeff feels a little like he's been punched in the gut. Eric's lost weight and he looks tired, but he's there, right in front of Jeff.
"You okay, man?" Jared says from behind him.
"Uh, yeah," Jeff says, and skates over.
"Hey, Jeff. Hey, Jared. Jeff worked at a diner I go to a lot for awhile," Eric tells everyone. "And Jared, well, he's a friend of the family."
He grins, wide and stupid-looking. Jeff's glad he's not the only one who laughs.
"I was just telling these guys welcome," Eric says. "Hopefully we'll see you play in Raleigh soon."
Jared slow claps, which sets off another round of laughter. Jeff jostles Jared and Ben. "Come on, let's go."
Eric leaves, making a pit stop to talk to one of the trainers. He doesn't look back, and Jeff stops watching him at the same time everybody else does.
When the drills are over, Jared and Zach – the one who's Jared's roommate – talk Jeff into going out with them. "It'll be fun," Zach says. "No one gives a fuck at Kelley's."
"Sure," Jeff says.
"So you worked down here?" Jared says.
He's asking how Jeff knows Eric. It's a fair question. "Yeah, for awhile. It was kind of weird realizing I was serving eggs to Eric Staal."
Zach cracks up at that. "Man, you must have flipped."
"I went south so no one would recognize me, so yeah."
"But Eric didn't," Jared says.
"It took him awhile," Jeff says.
"Whatever, are we going to go out or what?" Zach flicks Jeff's ear. "Go grab your wallet, dipshit."
It's fun being out with the credit card his parents gave him, not having to worry about anything but having fun. It's even better when he gets a text from Eric. "Dinner tomorrow? You'll have time to go out with the guys after."
"Sure," Jeff texts, and puts his phone away before anyone can ask him who he's talking to.
They're all just chilling in a booth with half-empty beers when Tyler pipes up, “Dude, I'm hungry.”
Ben shoves the bar menu at him, but Tyler pushes it right back. “I want, like, real food. Not bar food.”
Ben shrugs, and Tyler turns his attention to Jeff. “You worked at a diner, right? Is the food any good there?”
“Yeah,” Jeff says. “What, you want to go to Peg's?” Sue never did explain why the diner was called Peg's.
“Yeah!” Tyler says, “Come on, guys, we can't drink anymore tonight anyway, unless you really have your heart set on Juniors or the A this year.”
Tyler has a point, and suddenly Jeff's in the front seat of a cab giving directions to his old diner.
He doesn't recognize that many of the people on the night shift, and there's really only one table big enough to hold all of them. Jeff leans back and looks around while the guys pick up their menus; he knows what's on there. When he sees Leah approach, she doesn't look particularly excited to be taking on a table of six drunk guys, guaranteed tip or not. Jeff had been hoping she'd be here, but it's still an awesome surprise.
“Hi, my name is Leah, can I get you guys anything to drink tonight?”
“Coffee,” Jared says, and half the table echoes it. But when it's Jeff's turn, he hems and haws.
“I don't know, what's good here?” he asks, turning to face her.
“Oh my god, you asshole,” she cries, hitting him with her order pad three times before throwing her arms around him.
Jeff laughs and hugs her back. “Is that any way to treat a guy who got you your job?”
“You didn't get me my job, Sue gave it to me after you fucking disappeared on us.”
The guys are sort of staring, but Leah isn't letting go. “I left you a letter!”
Leah snorts. “Yeah, I didn't get that for like a week. I was this close to stalking that hottie hockey player and –”
“Leah, can I introduce you to Jared Staal? Eric's brother,” Jeff says, cutting her off. “And Ben, Tyler, Zac and Zach. We've got prospect camp this weekend.”
Leah's eyes widen as she remembers everyone else around them. “Nice to meet you.”
They're all sort of laughing, but they nod politely, like the good Canadian boys – or nearly Canadian, in Ben's case – they are.
“I'll go get that coffee,” Leah says, squeezing Jeff's shoulder.
“Just water for me,” Jeff says.
“So. A friend of yours?” Ben asks.
"Yeah, from back when I was...you know."
They crack up. "She's hot, man."
"Don't," Jeff snaps. "She was with me at the shelter, okay? She's got enough problems."
He comes off sounding like kind of a crazy person, but Ben says, "Sure, man, whatever," and they go back to talking about what they expect for training camp.
Leah doesn't hang around to talk to them, and Jeff doesn't blame her: they're six drunk guys. She does hug him when they get up to leave, though, and says, "Give me your phone," plugging her number in when he hands it over. "Don't you dare not come back," she says, hugging him again and punching his shoulder.
Jeff laughs a little. "Definitely will."
"Damn right," she says.
"Skinner! Get your ass out here!" Zach yells.
"All right, I have to go," he says, and follows the guys out.
The next day is more drills and more tours, and Jeff's pretty tired by the time he gets back to his room. "Plans tonight?" Ben says, flopping down on the bed.
"Um, yeah," Jeff says, checking his phone. "Dinner." Eric texted him last night to say seven, but he doesn't actually know if Eric's picking him up or what.
"With who, your homeless friend?"
Jeff tells himself to let it go. "Another friend, actually."
"You got around down here."
"Funny," Jeff says, and texts Eric to ask where he should wait.
"we can meet in your hallway. what floor?" Eric texts back.
Jeff tells him five and grabs some jeans and a nicer shirt from his suitcase.
"Not a black tie thing, then, huh?"
Jeff shrugs. "I'm not actually sure."
"Uh-huh," Ben says, but thankfully he lets it drop.
Jeff knows people aren't actually prying that much, considering that his entire past year has been exactly the kind of ridiculous that means people want to know everything about it. But it's still kind of irritating, especially since what he really wants to do right now is be pathetic and obsess over this dinner with Eric.
It's only about an hour, though, before his phone is buzzing with a call. "Hey," Jeff says, picking it up.
"I'm in the elevator," Eric says, and hangs up.
It's a little weird, but Jeff shrugs to himself and grabs his wallet. "See you," he says. Ben nods at him.
He takes a deep breath as he leaves the room and heads down the hallway towards the elevators. He's passing the alcove with the vending and ice machines when Eric says, "Hey."
Jeff jumps. "Were you seriously lurking?" he says, staring.
"In the doorway," Eric says. He looks embarrassed, at least.
"Yeah, okay," Jeff says. He crosses his arms in front of him, then lets them drop to his sides. "So."
Jeff wants to kiss him. He just wants to move forward and kiss him. It would be so easy, and he doesn't think Eric would push him away. But if he did, then they'd go to dinner and Eric would take him home and not text him again, and Jeff knows it. "We can go?"
"Right," Eric says quickly. "Yeah, of course. Um."
Jeff realizes that he has to step to the side to let Eric out past him. "This way," he says with a cheesy smile, and heads for the elevators.
The wait is long enough that Eric winds up standing next to him, rocking back and forth on his feet. "Will the guys give you shit for this?" he says as the elevator light pings.
"Nah," Jeff says. "Well, a little. The normal amount." They don't have to know he's going out with Eric.
Eric nods. "Right."
"Will the guys give you shit for this?"
"They don't know. Well, except Cam," Eric says. The elevator doors open, and they get in. "Cam knows about everything."
"I mean, he's not going to tell," Eric says. "He just, he gets stuff out of me, you know?"
Jeff does, actually. "Sure."
The doors open on the ground floor. "I'm parked pretty far out," Eric says.
Jeff's brain keeps cataloging the dumbest things. The way it feels to walk next to Eric, how tall Eric is, the way his hands flex, giving away the fact that he's nervous, too. Jeff wants to keep staring, to note every difference between this Eric and the one he left in Raleigh months ago. He wants to touch, to see if Eric's lost enough weight for there to be differences in how he feels. He wants...way too much, and he's not going to get any of it.
But he gets time with Eric. That's got to be enough.
He lets himself into Eric's car when they get there. "So where are we heading?"
"There's this burger place downtown that's pretty good, I figured we'd stop there," Eric says.
They're silent for a few minutes. When Eric gets stuck at a red light, he says quietly, "I watched all your interviews, you know."
"Oh," Jeff says, wincing at his own lameness.
"Yeah. I...it's good to see you."
This is so painfully awkward. Jeff clears his throat and adds, "It's exciting, being down here."
"I mean, I know the area, and...the guys. So if I end up getting out of the AHL anytime soon, then. Yeah."
"You will," Eric says firmly. He doesn't sound at all uncertain for the first time since saying hi. "You're going to play with us."
"You sound pretty sure about that."
"Why wouldn't I be? You were a second round pick. Of course you'll play for us."
"It's still hard to believe," Jeff admits. "I spent forever thinking I was done with hockey."
"I know." Eric pulls into a parking lot next to a not-quite-shady-looking building with a picture of a cow on the awning. "I know it looks sketchy, but trust me, it's good."
"It'd better be," Jeff says, smiling at him and getting out.
"So you're having fun at camp?" Eric asks. "With the rest of the guys, I mean."
Jeff would categorize this as awkward small talk, but he knows Eric actually cares. "Yeah, Everyone's cool. It's nice even to just scrimmage against guys that aren't Kitchener."
"You looked good out there, Maurice looked impressed," Eric says.
Jeff doesn't even fight how proud that makes him feel. "I went out with Jared and some of the guys last night."
"Kelley's?" Eric asks, but it's more of a statement, like he already knows the answer.
"Yeah, just a couple beers, nothing wild," Jeff assures him. "Then we ended up back at the diner. That was weird."
"I bet," Eric says softly.
"But we were at one of Leah's tables, and she tried to murder me with her note pad."
Eric laughs and God, it's so good to see him, and see him laugh and smile. Jeff knows he's staring, but he can't help it. Eric catches his eye and the air suddenly feels so much heavier. Jeff licks his lip absently.
Eric opens his mouth to say something, but is interrupted by their waiter.
"Can I get you two anything to drink this evening?"
"Sweet tea," Jeff says absently.
"The same," Eric says.
The moment is gone, even after the waiter disappears again, and Jeff sighs.
"She was worried about you," Eric says, and it takes Jeff a moment to remember what they were talking about. "I told her you were going into the draft, but didn't see her after. That was a good surprise for her, I bet."
"Yeah, and we left a good tip," Jeff adds.
"Paying it forward?" Eric asks.
"Yeah," Jeff says. "I want to donate some money to the shelter, too. I've got all this money now, and..."
"Makes sense," Eric says. "You should talk to the front office about that; the Canes charities might be able to help you set that up or even set up a fundraiser."
Conversation stays on safe topics and hockey for the rest of the meal, and they linger even after their plates have been cleared.
"I should take you back." Eric sighs. "Gotta bond with the rest of the guys."
Jeff knows Eric's right, but he wishes he wasn't. "This was fun," Jeff says.
"Yeah," Eric agrees. "So keep working your ass off and we can do this more often."
"I'll see what I can do," Jeff says.
There's another awkward moment as Eric pulls up outside of the hotel. It's so similar to when he dropped Jeff off at the airport months ago, and he's half waiting for Eric to kiss him. But he doesn't.
"So I'll see you in September," Eric says, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel.
"Yeah," Jeff says. "See you."
It's better than the last time Eric drove off leaving Jeff on a sidewalk, because they know they'll see each other again, but the inside of his lip is starting to hurt from where he's been biting it.
The rest of prospect camp passes in a blur. Eric texts him a few times, but Jeff tries to focus on working. When he gets on the plane headed out of Raleigh, he doesn't let himself mope. He'll be back soon, permanently; there's no reason to act like this is the end of the world.
Summer passes pretty quickly after that. Jeff's not counting down the days until training camp; he's got too much to do. He has to pack and help Jillian navigate telling their parents about Boston, and he's still working out and hanging out with the Rangers. Eric texts him and sometimes calls, and Leah and Brandon email him from the library. They're doing really well, and Eric seems okay, too. So he's got a lot going on: he's not spending his time thinking about how great it will be to see Eric again.
He spends most of his free time playing pick-up soccer games with some of the guys when they can't get ice time. Stammer shows up for some of them, claiming, “Southeast guys gotta stick together.”
Jeff laughs and shrugs as PK scoffs at them both. “Please, Northeast is where it's at.”
“Like you weren't rhapsodizing about the weather at All Star Weekend,” Stammer says.
“Don't listen to him, Skinner, I was drunk and trying to avoid the Staals.”
“Avoid the Staals? Why?” Jeff asks, trying not to sound too eager.
“They freak him out if there's more than one of them in a room,” Stammer explains. PK throws the ball at his head.
“Shut it, man!”
The conversation moves on to the women in Montreal and Florida, and Jeff can't figure a way to get things back to Eric. But it's fun, hanging out with these guys as an equal, or almost equal, again.
Before he knows it, his stuff is packed up and ready to ship down to Raleigh, and he's got two huge suitcases to check when he gets on the plane. His last night at home, both his mother and father hug him multiple times, and Jilly alternates between rolling her eyes at him and reminding him he has to call them a bunch.
"And don't you dare forget," his mother says, hugging him again.
"I've got it, jeez," Jeff says, ducking his head. But secretly he's a little pleased. He's gotten used to having a family again, mostly, and it's nice to know he'll be missed in a normal way.
He sends Eric a single text as he sits down, before he puts his phone in airplane mode. "I'm on the way."
"See you at the RZ" is waiting for him when he lands, and Jeff grins all the way to the hotel.
Jeff's rooming with Tyler this time, and Jared and Ben are in the adjoining room. It's nice knowing these guys coming in, knowing they're cool with him and his, to quote Jillian, "dramatic past".
But he's still anxious about his first day with the rest of the club, especially the guys he met last year at Eric's cook-out.
He half hopes that none of them will recognize him, even though it's ridiculous. Jamie and Sutter nod at him in the locker room, and Cam gives him a long look. Jeff tries not to blush when he remembers that Eric told him about – yeah. His gaze can't help skipping over to Eric, changing and laughing next to Ruutu and Chad. He's bulked up since prospect camp. He looks good.
Jeff quickly goes back to getting the last of his gear in place before Maurice comes out to address them all. The butterflies in his stomach aren't fading, so he's just going to have to use the nervous energy and not let it get the best of him.
"Just an old family friend in town to work?" Jamie says, elbowing him, as they head out to the ice.
"I was working!" Jeff says. That part was true at least.
Jamie snorts and lets it go, but Jeff notices a few extra looks from the guys he met in the spring, and the other rookies probably do, too. And it's not a stretch to think that Brett might mention something to his cousin Brandon, and if anyone asks Jared, he can shoot down the "old family friends" lie.
He needs to talk to Eric after practice, but Cam grabs him first.
"It's good that you're back," he says without preamble. He's speaking quietly enough that no one else will be able to hear him, unless they’re hanging around and listening creepily. It doesn't actually bode well for Jeff, he's pretty sure. "Eric was pretty depressed when you left."
"I had to," Jeff says. He's pretty sure he should defend himself. Well, kind of. "I couldn't just stay in Raleigh forever."
"Sure." Cam crosses his arms. "And when you didn't call or text, Eric was pretty down in the dumps. So it's good that you're back here. He seems happier."
Jeff doesn't say anything.
"Really, a lot happier." Cam's still staring at him. "I wouldn't want to see Eric unhappy again."
Jesus. Jeff manages not to back away slowly, just barely. "Right, of course. I wouldn't. I mean, obviously."
"That's good," Cam says, and turns and walks away.
Fucking goalies, Jeff thinks, and pulls out his phone. "can we go to the diner? need to talk."
Eric replies right away: "meet you there asap."
So he knows there's a problem too. That's good, Jeff convinces himself. They'll think up a lie that doesn't imply they were busy having a doomed romance, or whatever the hell it is they were doing when Jeff lived there.
On the drive over, he can't stop thinking about Cam's words. He'd convinced himself Eric's seriousness was normal, but seeing how rundown Eric looked this summer...he's pretty sure he just got a "don't hurt him or else" talk, and he's not really sure what to do with that.
"He's over there," Sue says when Jeff gets in, nodding at the corner booth. Jeff smiles a thank you and goes over.
"Half the team has asked me about you," Eric says with a rueful smile. "We probably should've gotten things straight before now."
"They know we knew each other," Jeff says. "Are we going to tell the truth?"
Eric shakes his head. "The truth sounds sketchy."
"Anything will sound sketchy," Jeff points out.
"You had trouble getting an apartment," Eric says, "because you were young and didn't have credit history, and you were illegal. So I let you pay me rent to stay at my place."
Jeff winces. "Paying rent sounds like a euphemism."
"I think it's the best we're going to get."
Jeff would like to argue, but it's probably true. "Okay, then."
"What can I get you?" their waiter says, coming over.
"Um, the steak sandwich, please, and some water," Jeff says.
"I'll have the same," Eric says, passing his menu over.
"No scrambled eggs?"
Okay, then. Jeff plays with his silverware. It feels weird sitting here with Eric; before, he'd sit down and have to constantly get back up again in between talking to Eric about this or that. Also, he didn't have a quiet place to sleep, or more money than he knows what to do with. "I'm glad you – I mean. You look better."
"You noticed, huh," Eric says. "Yeah, it was a rough summer. I had a lot going on."
"Sure," Jeff says quickly. He didn't mean to imply it was all because of Jeff. He probably had other stuff stressing him out, too, and –
"Hey," Eric says quietly, nudging his ankle with a foot. "Come out of there."
Jeff shakes himself a little. "Sorry," he says, offering a smile.
Eric's shoulders relax. "Anyway, you guys are looking good. Getting some young blood on the team will really help."
Jeff nods. "At this point it's mostly a coherence thing, right? We just – I mean, you guys just need to figure out what you're doing with each other."
"Mostly," Eric says. "But it's a skill issue too. We need to get a tighter defense, lighten up on Cam a bit."
"Would Cam really want that?" He totally had crazy eyes when he talked to Jeff.
“Probably not, but he'll just have to deal,” Eric says with a grin. Jeff smiles back automatically.
Everyone on the team buys the story, even if Jared gives them both a few weird looks, obviously sensing that there's more to the story. But Jeff's not going to tell him any more of the details than necessary. "I did steal some sweatpants you'd left behind," Jeff admits. "So I owe you."
Everyone seems to find that hilarious, and not just because the Canes have outfitted them all with plenty of gear.
"So did you pull them up to your armpits, or just roll them and roll them and roll them until they didn't drag on the ground?" Zac asks.
"Hey, he could've made a permanent change and taken scissors to them. Then he'd have enough fabric for a sweatshirt, too," Tyler cuts in.
"Fuck all of you." Jeff laughs easily. He prefers short jokes to questions, but he has to protest at least a little.
Once he doesn't have to worry about lying to the team – this is close enough to the truth – he can relax into camp more. He's still busting his ass, trying to prove to the coaches and GM that they made the right choice taking him when they did, but he can focus on hockey.
Sure, he thinks about Eric when he jerks off in the shower sometimes. Okay, most of the time, but they're cool around each other in front of the guys, and besides that trip to the diner, they haven't had much time alone.
But Maurice does put them on a line together the last practice before the first exhibition game. It's great, they click, their passes click, and Ruutu gets to the net for both of them. It's basically hockey heaven for Jeff, even before word comes down that they'll be trying that line the next day against the Jets.
It's not a real game. Half the guys on the ice, Jeff included, aren't expected to be on the opening day roster. But it doesn't matter; there's an anthem and a crowd, and it's the first time Jeff's played in a real game since last April.
He's a little revved up.
It has its advantages and disadvantages. He helps create a play and gets an assist on Eric's first goal of the night, late in the first period, which means Jeff gets to hug him as they laugh and smile with the rest of the team.
But then he almost gets into it with Evander Kane, after the guy almost takes his head off against the boards. No gloves are dropped, but Jeff figures it makes the ref quick on his whistle on their next matched-up shift, and Jeff gets called for tripping.
He's not the first or only one to take a penalty that night – Eric got called for interference and Tyler hooked Andrew Ladd – but he feels like a moron in the box and tracks the penalty kill earnestly, waiting for his opportunity to get back on the ice.
They kill the penalty easily enough, and if Jeff thought he was juiced in the first, he's even more so now.
"You like this all the time?" Eric asks as he shoots Gatorade into his mouth between shifts.
"Usually just the playoffs," Jeff admits.
Eric laughs. "Well, rein it in, we've got a long way to go before then."
Jeff does his best, and is rewarded for waiting that extra second in the high slot for Ruutu to get in front of the net. He's in the perfect place to screen the goalie and tip Jeff's shot in.
"Two points! Not bad, rookie," Eric shouts over the siren.
They win the game, for all that it matters in September, and Jeff can't stop smiling at the press in the locker room.
"You and Eric Staal worked well together out there," one of the beat reporters, Chip something, says.
"Yeah, I mean, it's probably harder not to work well with a guy like that," Jeff says.
"You two are pretty good friends. One of the guys mentioned you were staying with him for a little while after you disappeared."
Jeff swallows but does his best to keep the smile on his face. "Yeah, I was working down here and staying in one of the youth shelters. Eric was a customer at the diner I worked at. I think he honed in on the Canadian accent and decided he didn't have enough little brothers."
That gets a little chuckle from the reporters, and Jeff has to fight not to look towards Eric's locker or think about how un-brotherly things actually were. "But yeah, I got kinda sick this winter and Eric let me crash with him for a while. Helped me get home."
When he says it like that, abbreviated, Eric comes off like a good guy. Which he is. It's good.
None of the reporters look particularly satisfied with abbreviated, though, but it's all he's giving them tonight.
"Serving him eggs isn't that different than serving up passes, I guess," Jeff says. It's lame, but they accept it, and he's free to finish getting dressed as they move on to Boosh.
Eric met with them first and has already cleared out of the locker room, so Jeff texts him a heads up before catching a ride back to the hotel with Zach and Biggsy.
"We should do an interview together," Eric texts him back. "Maybe tomorrow?"
They've got tomorrow off before they play the Predators the next day. "Sure," Jeff texts back. "You'll set it up?"
"Done. 4 pm," Eric texts. "With Luke, at the diner."
"Laying it on thick. Meet you there at 3?"
"See you then."
"Get off your phone, Skinner," Zac says, poking his head in. "Staaler and me are going down to Kelley's, you game?"
"Sure, give me a minute," Jeff says.
They end up just having a few beers. Jeff gets ribbed for playing the preseason like it's the playoffs, but he doesn't care. Off the ice he likes the guys, but on the ice he's got a job to do. He wants to be in Raleigh, and not just because of Eric. Because this is what he wants to do.
"You've got that look on your face again," Jared says quietly. "You remind me of my brother like crazy."
"Whatever," Jeff says.
"No, really, you do." Jared's a little drunk, but he looks determined. "He likes you, you know. He asks me about you all the fucking time."
"That's nice," Jeff says, edging away a little.
Jared looks amused. It makes him look more like Eric. "I'm not going to bite. It's cool, man. Whatever." He takes another drink of beer and, luckily, looks away from Jeff.
The interview will make things more normal, Jeff thinks. It has to.
He gets to the diner at three on the dot. Eric's already waiting, leaning against the wall outside. "Sue approve of you sketching the place up?" Jeff asks.
"Probably not," Eric says cheerfully. "Come on."
"So," Jeff says when they sit down. "How are we going to spin this?"
"We pretty much have to just say what we've been saying," Eric says. "That should be good enough."
"They're going to ask me why I didn't say anything sooner, though."
"Stick with the media attention. You wanted your life to be normal again, and you didn't think it would be relevant."
Jeff knows Eric's right, but the pit of his stomach is still twisting. They're doing a really great job at talking around the fact that what actually happened with them was...what it was.
"Hey." Eric hooks a foot around Jeff's ankle. "It'll be fine. Luke's a good guy, he's not going to try to make this into something it's not."
"But it was," Jeff says. He doesn't mean to: the words just kind of come out.
Eric actually recoils. "You think you had to?"
"No! You know that's not what I meant."
"Talked about it," Jeff says when Eric trails off. "I know."
"So," Eric says briskly, "it wasn't that, and Luke won't try to make it into that."
So much for talking about it. "Right."
"Good." Eric smiles up at the waiter. "Can we get two coffees, please?"
They drink it in silence, and as much as Jeff enjoys just being around Eric, he's unsettled. Maybe Eric doesn't want to talk about them sleeping together because he wishes it hadn't happened. Which makes Jeff glad he didn't say anything stupid that night, but it's still confusing. And Cam seems to think...
Eric nudges his foot again. “Hey, you okay? Second thoughts?”
“No, I'm good,” Jeff says, grabbing his mug as it arrives. Eric doesn't move his foot, just leaves it resting against Jeff's. It's not exactly footsie, but it's the best connection Jeff's got to him right now, so he'll take it.
Luke shows up then, and they wait until he has a cup of coffee, too, and is settled in before getting to the interview.
“So this is where it started, huh?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Jeff says. “Eric was a semi regular –”
“Since we're on the road half the time,” Eric explains.
“– but it wasn't until the third or fourth time he was at one of my tables that I realized I was bringing eggs to a member of the gold medal team.”
Eric laughs. “I thought he'd been playing it cool when he asked about the Leafs if he saw me checking The Hockey News on my phone.”
Jeff rolls his eyes and tries not to blush. He'd been so embarrassed when that went down.
“So where were you staying at this point, Jeff? Obviously it was before you were staying with Eric,” Luke says.
“Yeah, no, I was mostly staying at the youth shelter over on Harrison when there was enough room.” Jeff won't be embarrassed by this. It's just how it was. He doesn't have anything to be embarrassed about; none of the people there do.
“And if there wasn't room?”
Jeff shrugs. “Depended on the weather. If it was really bad out, I'd hope I had enough cash to buy the minimum at Denny's or Waffle House. But winter in Raleigh is way easier than winter in Toronto –” Eric's gripping his mug tight, so Jeff adds, “– and it didn't happen that often, anyway.”
“But you got sick,” Luke prompts.
“Yeah, I figured it was just a bad cold, no big deal,” Jeff says as Eric snorts across the table. “Yeah, yeah, you didn't think so.”
“And I was right,” Eric says.
“I must have looked really pathetic, because he dragged me to a doctor, and I was diagnosed with a slight case of pneumonia.” His mom is going to read this, and she is going to flip, so he has to downplay it as much as possible.
“Wow,” Luke says.
“Yeah,” Eric cuts in. “It took a little convincing, but we both knew he'd have a better chance to rest and get better if he wasn't bunking down with a dozen other people.”
“And I'd played with his brother, so I knew he was a decent guy,” Jeff says, glossing over his apprehension.
“He took the room Jared uses when he visits, and I ordered chicken soup as take out,” Eric says.
“I slept basically the entire time,” Jeff says.
“So then you stayed with Eric til you went home?”
“No, once I was better, I wanted to get back on my own, so I packed up my stuff and went back to the shelter,” Jeff says.
“You moved out of Eric Staal's...three-bedroom?”
“Four,” Eric corrects.
“Four-bedroom house to go back to the homeless shelter?” Luke asks, barely keeping the incredulity out of his voice.
“He'd already done so much,” Jeff explains. “And I didn't want to owe him even more than that.”
“You didn't owe me anything,” Eric says. “You don't.”
Jeff stares at him for a second, trying to read something in his words, before continuing. “So yeah, I made sure I still had a job here after having to take a bunch of sudden sick days and went back to the shelter, but they were full.”
“So what'd you do?” Luke asks. “Go back to Eric's?”
“Eventually, yeah,” Jeff says. He briefly explains the whole one day he managed to stay away from Eric's before moving back in. “Then after a while, I wasn't so caught up in just trying to make it day to day. So I was able to think about home, and my future. Then when I wanted to go home, Eric helped me with that, too.”
Jeff rolls his mug in his hands. “I'd say I wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for him, except I probably would be, I’d just be wearing a name tag.” He laughs.
“So, Eric, what was it about a waiter in a diner that convinced you to take such amazing measures?”
It's Eric's turn to squirm. “I don't think they were that amazing. A few bucks here and there for tips and a trip to the doctor aren't that big of a deal on my contract, you know? And all those rooms are empty unless my parents or brothers are visiting, so it just made sense.” He shrugs. “I don't know, maybe I subconsciously recognized him from the reports after he went missing last spring.”
“So you didn't know that his whole family and the OHL were looking for him?” Luke asks.
“I remembered hearing about that kid, but I didn't expect to see him in Raleigh, so I never put it together.”
“Never?” Luke sounds surprised. “So did you just tell him, Jeff?”
“Not exactly,” Jeff says. “He knew I'd played hockey, knew I'd run away, but I didn't link the two."
"It was TSN, actually. Bob McKenzie was doing an update on Jeff's status, and I was kind of surprised to see my roommate on TV."
"I bet," Luke says.
"The second I knew, I wanted to tell him to go home," Eric says. "But he wasn't ready, so I tried not to push."
Jeff tries not to show his surprise. Luke nods and says, "But you were fine with him living with you?"
"That part was easy. He's a good roommate." Eric grins at Jeff. Jeff ducks his head and smiles back. "It was touching a part of the community I hadn't realized existed, though. We've got a lot of homeless kids in Raleigh that we should be taking care of."
Eric keeps going in that vein for awhile, and then they wrap it up. Luke stands up to go right away; Jeff and Eric have both ordered eggs and neither of them has finished, so they don't go to follow. "Thanks, guys," Luke says, and leaves.
"Wanted me to go home, huh?" Jeff says, smiling to try and make it a joke.
But Eric gets serious immediately. "I didn't want you to leave, but I wanted you to go home. It would have been wrong, encouraging you to stay."
Then why did you sleep with me, and why aren't we talking about it now, Jeff doesn't say. "Yeah, totally."
"I think that interview'll go over well," Eric says. "Luke's a good guy."
"So you said."
"Coach wants to give Crearey a try," Eric says. Crearey's the Canes' first round draft pick. "But you're better, and I think he knows it."
Jeff shakes his head. "I should be suspicious of this constant advocacy you've got going here."
"Nah," Eric says. "Come on, you know you're up to scratch."
"Well, yeah," Jeff says. "But there's knowing it, and then there's you constantly telling me."
Eric moved away during the interview, but now he kicks Jeff lightly and keeps his foot there again. "Keep playing like you did with Winnipeg. The guys'll give you shit, but it sends a message."
Jeff nods. "That's what I was hoping."
"You've got good instincts for that kind of thing."
They fall silent. Jeff picks at his eggs. He wants to say something about those last few nights, wants to know if Eric thought they were a mistake or what. But he can't think of a way to ask. 'Hey, remember that time we slept together? That was fun, right?' seems a little presumptuous. Especially since it was so fraught.
Jeff doesn't think he was making up how much Eric cared about him back in the spring. He hopes not, anyway.
"I got a dog," Eric says suddenly.
"You did? Cool." It's an abrupt subject change, but Jeff's willing to see where he's going with it.
"Yeah, a mutt from the shelter."
"Turning into a habit for you."
"Very funny. I was thinking, you should meet her."
Jeff's stomach suddenly finds new and interesting ways to twist into knots. "I could," he says finally.
"You should," Eric says firmly. "You'll have to balance knowing me and the guys with knowing the new guys, but there's no reason to pretend like we don't know each other. That would be even weirder than this."
This. Pretending they haven't slept together. Jeff can take a cue. "Totally."
The drive back to Eric's is so familiar it makes Jeff ache in a weird way.
"I can't stay long," Jeff says, trying to break the quiet and dispel some of this weirdness. "I need to get back to the hotel for my nap before the game."
"Right, you play again tonight," Eric says. "You could nap here if you wanted."
Jeff wants to nap if Eric will nap with him, but since Eric's doing a great job of pretending they never shared a bed, he figures the odds of that are low. "Nah, I should stick to my routine."
"Right, yeah," Eric says.
"So what's her name, anyway?" Jeff asks.
"Do you call her Lady?" Jeff asks, trying not to laugh.
"Sometimes," Eric says, not looking at Jeff.
"She's very well-behaved," Eric says defensively. "You'll see."
She's not a terror or anything, but when Eric lets her out of the dog crate, she does her best to climb him and lick his face.
"Hey girl, yeah, I missed you, too," Eric says, laughing.
She's smaller than Jeff expected, but when she comes bounding over to meet him, he sees that her paws are huge. "Nice to meet you, Byng," Jeff says as he scratches behind her ears – also huge.
"She likes you," Eric says, smiling at them both.
Jeff has to fight not being taken in by this moment of the two of them on their knees in the kitchen, with a puppy squirming between them. It's so domestic, and Jeff doesn't want it to end.
But Eric rises to his feet. "You need to go outside, don't you, B?"
She whines, and Jeff follows them out to the backyard.
"So how long have you had her?" Jeff asks. He would've thought Eric would've mentioned it earlier.
"Right after the season ended," Eric says. "Cam said I was annoying him and needed something that – something to occupy my time. So I hit up the Humane Society, and there she was."
Byng pees on the fence and then takes off barking after a butterfly.
"She's a charmer," Jeff says.
"Yeah," Eric agrees. "I should get you back."
Before Jeff can protest that he can stay a little while longer, Eric's whistling Byng back to them and luring her back into the crate. "I'll be back soon, I promise."
"What are you going to do on road trips?" Jeff asks.
"I was thinking I'd ask Leah to dog sit, or see if Cody wants to deal with a toddler and a puppy on her own, before looking for a pro," Eric says. "I'll figure it out."
"Leah likes dogs," Jeff says. "They flock to her when we hang out at the park."
Or they did; they haven't been to the park in months.
"I'll definitely give her a call, then." Eric grabs his keys. "Ready?"
Jeff hasn't even taken his shoes off, so yeah. "Lead the way."
"I can pick you up again before the game," Eric says, "if you're okay with it."
They do a carpool, and Jeff should really turn Eric down, but – "Yeah, sure."
"Cool," Eric says, and hops in the car.
Jeff smiles in spite of himself. He still sounds like such a dork.
Eric's not playing against Nashville, a fact Jeff doesn't actually realize until Eric shows up at the hotel in dress slacks and a collared shirt. "I'll be up in the box," he says. "No sense in running me ragged in the preseason."
He says it in a way that makes it obvious the guys love getting on him for being the face of the franchise. It makes sense, Jeff thinks, but – whatever. He's not going to be playing with him tonight, and that's fine. "Make sense," Jeff says. "Thanks for picking me up."
Eric waves a hand. "Not a problem."
Jeff very carefully doesn't look at him on the way out, or even when they get in Eric's car. He does say, "They'll be putting us up in billets down in Charlotte."
Eric nods. "Yeah, I figured. When I was a rookie, they had me share with another rookie, too."
"When you went straight to the NHL, you mean," Jeff says, jostling Eric's arm on the console so he knows it's a joke.
"Oh, whatever," Eric says. "I did a year in the minors!"
"Because of the lockout, you crybaby," Jeff says.
"You know, I'm glad you're being sent down to Charlotte. I get enough lip already."
"Oh, please, you'll miss me," Jeff says.
It's the exact wrong thing to say. They fall silent, and stay that way until they get to the RBC Center. "Good luck," Eric says, dropping him at the entrance.
"Thanks," Jeff says. He looks Eric in the eye. "I did, too," he says, and shuts the door.
Jared motions him over when he gets into the locker room. "Hey. Didn't see you on the way over."
"Yeah, Eric gave me a ride. He took me h – to his place earlier, to meet his dog."
"Oh. That was nice of him, I guess."
"Well, he didn't have her when I lived with him."
Jared looks unimpressed. "Right."
Jeff tamps down on the urge to explain further, make it sound less weird. But Jared's not acting like it's weird, because unless you know about Jeff and Eric, it's not weird.
Instead, he says, "So is all the hockey skill taking up the space in his brain for creativity? Because really, Lady Byng?"
Jared snorts. "His teddy bear growing up was named Teddy. This is nothing new."
"So we should just be glad her name isn't Dog?"
"Pretty much," Jared says, grinning. "He's nuts about her, though, she gets a better spot on the couch than I do."
Jeff laughs and pulls on his skates. Cam's been looking their direction for the entire conversation, but Jeff can't tell if he was listening or if he's just staring at some spot between them while he's getting in the goalie zone.
Jeff doesn't get any goals or assists in this game, but he doesn't take any dumb penalties either, and gets good chances.
He also blocks four shots that all seem to find the least protected parts of his body.
"At least you didn't get Sami Salo'd," Ben says, slapping him on the shoulder.
Jeff hisses; sore there thanks to a hit from Legwand, he half expects his whole body to be purple. "What happened to Salo?"
"Dude! Oh right, you missed it, he took a puck to the crotch and ruptured a testicle during the playoffs last year," Tyler explains gleefully.
"It wasn't actually ruptured," Jamie corrects.
"Aghh," Jeff says, involuntarily squeezing his legs together.
"Yeah," Ben says. "Silver linings, dude."
"Hey, can we go to your diner tomorrow? If I eat that fucking continental breakfast again I might kill myself," Jamie says.
"Uh, sure, if you promise not to hassle Leah."
"Your hot friend? Sure, dude, whatever."
"She wouldn't get with you anyway," Ben says. "Face it, trailer trash is as good as it's gonna get for you."
Tyler cracks up and high-fives him.
They go to bed pretty early that night, just because everyone's gassed and doesn't really want to admit it. Jeff's up earlier than Ben, so he checks his email, just sort of fucks around, waiting for the text from Jamie or Tyler.
The diner is fun, and they've just got practice after that. "Leah says hi," Jeff tells Eric in the locker room.
"Oh, awesome," Eric says. "You went this morning?"
"Yeah, she seems really happy."
Eric nods. "She'd tell me about your emails sometimes."
"Yeah, I think she worried." He knows she did, especially after Brandon left for Charleston.
"She did," he says. "But she knew you were doing the right thing."
Jeff's not even sure what they're talking about anymore. "Yeah," he says, and turns away.
This time he can tell for sure that Cam's watching him.
After practice, there's a missed call from Jilly, but she didn't text him, so he doesn't know why she called. He waits to call her until he's back at the hotel, since she's supposed to be at school anyway, and when she answers the phone, he's really glad he did.
“ERIC STAAL?!” she shrieks into the phone. It's so loud that he's sure Tyler can hear from his bed, so Jeff waves an apology and goes into the bathroom.
“So I guess that article is up,” he says.
“Eric. Staal. Eric Staal is your mysterious guy and benefactor and you didn't tell any of us?”
“He's not my –” Jeff begins. “I didn't want anyone making a big deal out of it or blowing it out of proportion.”
“Out of how you were moping in his jacket your first week back?” Jillian asks. “Yeah, why would we do that?”
“It's not like that,” Jeff lies. “He's just a really good guy.”
“Oh my god, you're like, totally in love with him, aren't you?” Jeff briefly considers the question, but pushes it away as his stomach starts to sink. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, Jilly doesn't seem to require an answer. “Well, good news is Mom thinks he's a nice young man, once she stopped freaking out over you having pneumonia.”
“What? Oh God,” Jeff says, pushing the heel of his palm against his eye. “She doesn't...”
“Huh? Oh, no, but I need to call Andrea back, and then Erica. Seriously, Jeff. Eric. Staal. I can't believe you,” she says.
“I need to go,” Jeff says. He needs to not be on the floor of the bathroom thinking about how his sisters apparently powwow about his possible love life.
“All right, fine,” Jillian sighs. “But call me later! I miss you.”
“Miss you, too,” Jeff says, even though at the moment he's grateful for the thousand miles between them.
The first round of cuts are made a couple of days later, sending Zac, Tyler and Jared down to Charlotte. So Jeff and Ben hang out more with McBain and Sutter – Brandon, not Brett, who was also sent down – and he gets more playing time with Crearey. He's a smart player, but he tends to get pushed around by some of the bigger guys when battling for the puck along the boards. They all figure the Canes will give him his nine-game maximum before sending him back to the WHL, where he can get consistent top line minutes.
Jeff tries not to hope too hard about what might happen after those nine games are up; there are a lot of good players in Charlotte. But he does everything he can to make sure his name is high on that list.
Jeff only gets to play on Eric's line in one more game, but Eric's obviously on a mission. He keeps passing the puck to Jeff instead of shooting, and halfway through the second period, Jeff gets the puck past Ty Conklin for a goal.
Jeff laughs when Eric throws an arm around his neck. "You know this is the preseason, right? That doesn't actually count as my first NHL goal."
"It counts!" Eric insists as they skate past the bench for high fives before hitting center ice so Eric can take the next faceoff.
It's no surprise when, the morning after their last exhibition game, Jeff's called into Rutherford's office.
“Jeff, you've done an amazing job here at camp. I know Paul and Rod and the rest of the guys are really impressed with what you've done.”
Jeff accepts the compliment, but he can hear the “but” hanging.
“But we've decided to start you off in Charlotte. If you keep playing there like you did up here, I'm sure I'll be seeing you again soon.”
“Thank you,” Jeff says. “For the opportunity and just – everything.”
They shake hands, and Jeff heads back to the locker room to pack up his stuff. Most of the guys have cleared out, but Eric's still lingering.
"Back down to Charlotte," Jeff says without preamble.
He's trying to sound cheerful about it, but Eric's face still falls.
"Come on," Jeff says, nudging him. "You knew I wasn't staying."
"I did," Eric admits after a moment.
"It'll be fine," Jeff says. "It's not like – I mean, I'll be back."
That makes Eric smile. "You definitely will."
"So," Jeff says. "You're kind of standing in front of my locker."
"Oh!" Eric's spine straightens like he's been poked with a cattle prod. "Sorry. I was thinking – take you out to dinner?"
Jeff eyes him, because – seriously? "Really?"
"Yeah. If you want. I mean, you can pay, if that's...if you want."
"Okay, yeah, sure," Jeff says. "Do I need to change?"
"Nah, I was thinking pizza or something," Eric says. "Oh, um, Cam suggested it, so he and Cody are coming?"
Jeff doesn't stare, because that would be crazy. But the thought of Cam coming to his goodbye dinner or whatever makes him want to puke a little. "No, that sounds good."
"Awesome." Eric sounds relieved. "We're supposed to meet them there."
Jeff pulls his phone out of his locker and checks it. He half expected a text from Ben, but there's nothing. He might be upset about going down to Charlotte; he's got to know he probably won't be coming up as quickly as Jeff. The thought makes him feel guilty, but it's true. "Okay, cool. So you're driving me around tonight?"
"Looks like," Eric says, snagging his gear bag. "You ready?"
It says a lot, Jeff thinks as he follows Eric out, that no one blinks at Eric just hauling Jeff's gear around. Jeff should probably tell him to knock it off anyway, but he's pretty sure if he does, Eric will just do his good-natured farmboy playing dumb stuff, or something.
"I'm excited, actually," Jeff says as they pull out of the parking lot.
Eric glances at him, expression unreadable. "Yeah?"
"I mean, not to be leaving, but just...getting started. Playing again in games that matter."
"I can't wait to see you in the postseason," Eric says. "You'll tear it up."
"We've got to get there first."
"So, Cam, huh?"
"Yeah, he really wanted to have dinner with us." Eric bites his lip. Jeff should probably stop staring, but he's not going to. "Look. If Cam gives you shit, just let it roll off your back. He's kind of protective."
"Do I even want to know how bad it got?" Jeff says carefully. He's not sure if they're acknowledging this or what.
"He's got some weird ideas," Eric says, which is a complete non-answer.
"Right," Jeff says. "So, LaRose's looking like he'll have another good year."
"He's dominant when we need him to be."
"Would Cam like it if I said your D needs to do its job this year?"
Eric snorts. "Cam thinks stingers improve his game so much he doesn't wear thicker gloves in practice."
"Great," Jeff says a little weakly.
The restaurant is a semi-nice pizza place downtown. Jeff tries and totally fails not to be nervous as they park and go inside. "Hey," Eric says, waving at Cam and leading Jeff over to their booth. Cam's sitting with Cody, who stands up to give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Hey, stranger,” she says.
“Hey,” Jeff says, not entirely sure if this is the normal way to be treated by your teammate's wife that you've met maybe two times. “How've you been? How's the baby?”
“Getting bigger every day.” She laughs. “Of course, that's what Eric says about his dog.”
“It's true!” Eric says.
“He's a compulsive caretaker,” she says. “I don't think he realized how absurdly huge that house of his is until you went home. But she appreciates the back yard more than he does.”
"And the dog won't leave suddenly," Cam says, smiling blandly.
"Um," Jeff says.
"Anyway!" Eric says, scooting over in the booth so Jeff can sit down next to him. "So, food, eh? What do we want?"
It only takes a few minutes to sort out an order. Cam, Cody and Eric have a routine, and Jeff's the only wrench in the proceedings. "Really, I'm fine with anything," Jeff says.
"You don't have to pretend to like olives," Eric says. "Cody can deal with them only being on half the pizza."
"They're not my favorite, but I'll eat them," Jeff insists. "It's not a big deal."
"It's also not a big deal to just get olives on half," Eric says.
"Half is fine," Cody agrees.
The booth isn't that small, but somehow Eric has ended up pressed all along Jeff's side. He's warm and smells good, and it's distracting.
He almost misses Cody saying, "I'd ask if you're enjoying Raleigh, but..."
Jeff scratches his neck and laughs a little. "Yeah, I love it here. I'd sort of hoped that the Hurricanes would draft me, but mostly I just wanted to get drafted at all."
"So you didn't care about coming back," Cam says.
Jeff wonders if he'll be able to fend Cam off with his silverware. "No, I mean. I did want to come back, but I'm headed to Charlotte tomorrow and could be traded next week."
"They're not going to trade you," Eric says, and his hand twitches a little on the table.
"Right, but anything can happen in this league. So I figured the first step was getting into it."
Jeff hopes that's enough to satisfy Cam, whose expression hasn't changed at all. He takes a long sip of his water and lets Cody steer the conversation elsewhere.
They get salads before the pizza, and Jeff's so nervous that he actually eats his. Cody's talking about Nolan's teething, which is apparently a nightmare come true, and Cam's watching Jeff so closely Jeff hasn't yet seen him blink.
It's nervousness that makes him drop his fork onto the ground. "Whoops, let me get that," Eric says, and bends down. Only Jeff's already bending over to grab it. The only thing that saves them from knocking heads is the fact that Eric's so tall he's not having a problem reaching the floor, so instead Jeff's head bumps his shoulder.
"Um," he says, hand pressed up against Eric's arm.
Eric sits up. "You can go."
Oh, great. Jeff ends up with his head inches from Eric's lap for the few seconds it takes to grab the fork and sit back up. When he does, he looks resolutely at Cody, trying to ignore Cam's gaze burning a hole in him.
"Are you planning on having a birthday party for Nolan?"
Cody raises her eyebrows. "Are you planning on being in Raleigh?"
"I could get called up pretty early," Jeff says, thinking of Crearey.
"You're awfully confident," Cody teases.
"He's got the scoring touch," Eric says mildly.
"Is he mature enough?" Cam says.
Jeff glances at Eric. "I'd like to think so," he says.
Under the table, Eric bumps the side of his leg against Jeff's – and leaves it there. "Either way, he can make it into Raleigh for one day. He can be my plus one."
"That won't be necessary," Cam says grimly.
"Oh, look, the pizza," Cody says. "How's your family doing, Jeff?"
Not talking about hockey seems like the safest thing right now, and Jeff really appreciates her.
Eric and Cody do a good job of keeping the conversation moving as they eat, and Cam only makes a couple more veiled insults and threats. Jeff figures it's a win, but it makes the whole thing sort of exhausting.
"Sorry about that," Eric says as they head back to the hotel. "I didn't think Cam would be so....He's making a big deal out of nothing. It's fine. We're fine."
So fine that Eric can't look his direction.
"It wasn't – I didn't. It wasn't about leaving you," Jeff says softly. "I had to go home."
"I know," Eric says, finally glancing over. "I'm so fucking proud of you, and I would be even if you'd been drafted by the Ducks and we never got to play together."
Jeff shifts, not knowing what to say. "I am glad the Canes drafted me. I'm glad to be back...sort of back."
"You'll be back," Eric says.
"Yeah," Jeff says. "I should probably buy a car while I'm in Charlotte, huh?"
"Probably," Eric agrees. "Most guys buy one right after they sign."
Jeff shrugs. "I didn't need one then."
Eric grins and shakes his head. "You're going to end up buying something older than you are, aren't you?"
"No," Jeff denies. "I was thinking of getting one of those hybrid SUVs, so I can save money on gas if I have to drive back and forth a lot."
"Pre-owned?" Eric asks.
Jeff huffs. "Maybe, if I can find one I like."
Eric's still laughing at him when he pulls into the hotel parking lot, but as he pulls into a spot the smile fades. "Well, say hi to Jared for me."
"I will," Jeff says. "I – take as many points as possible, yeah? Get this team off on the right foot."
"Do my best," Eric says.
Jeff should go, finish packing, but he hesitates, wanting just a few more minutes with Eric. "So, I'll see you."
"Yeah, for sure," Eric says firmly. "Jeff, I –"
"Yeah?" Jeff asks, twisting to face Eric. It's dark, so he can barely make out the expression on his face, but he thinks that maybe...
But then another car pulls in behind them, and Eric flinches back in the headlights. "Have fun," Eric says. "The A is a great league, I know you'll tear it up."
"Right." Jeff tries not to deflate too much. "Well, bye."
He heads straight into the lobby and doesn't look back to the parking lot once.
He doesn't really have time to mope, which is nice. They all get sent down to Charlotte the next day, and then Jeff's busy trying to find a car and settle in, and then they play their first game. Jeff's on the top line, and he's feeling the pressure in a way he didn't up in Raleigh; he has to be good here, or he'll never get back to Raleigh. It's not about proving himself anymore. It's about staying good.
He gets an assist in the first game and goes out with Jared and Ben afterwards. "I probably should've scored," he says, three beers in.
Jared looks at him like he's crazy. "It's the first game."
Jeff shrugs and takes another drink.
That night he gets home late, more than a little drunk, and jerks off thinking about Eric leaning into him, how good it felt. He feels stupid, but it's not the first time and won't be the last time he does it, either.
The next day, his phone wakes him up at nine in the morning. "Rise and shine!" Eric says when he answers it.
Jeff groans. "I'm giving you your own ringtone. And then never answering it."
"Liar," Eric says.
He's totally right, but Jeff doesn't want to give him the satisfaction. "What's up?"
"I heard you did well last night."
"I could've been better."
"You could've been worse, too. Keep it up."
"Thanks." Jeff gives himself a second to enjoy how he feels before saying, "So did you seriously just call me for that?"
"Well, and I figured you'd be a little hungover."
"Oh, fuck you," Jeff says, but he's laughing.
"We play tomorrow," Eric says, "but I won't be going out. I could call you then, and you can pick apart how I played?"
Jeff already knew the Canes played then – not that he's going to tell Eric that. "Yeah, totally."
"I'll talk to you then," Eric says, and hangs up.
That was weird. But Jeff's overslept, and that sets a bad precedent, so he gets up and grabs some breakfast.
He really does buy a car – a used hybrid SUV, exactly like he told Eric. There's no reason to waste his money. He's going to talk to the front office, too, about maybe giving a bunch of his signing bonus to the shelter. He doesn't want a big deal made of it, but if turning it into a marketing thing raises even more money, then Jeff's more than willing to do it.
"Damn," Eric says two nights later. Neither of them has a game the next day, and they've been on the phone for a half hour. "You really move when you want something."
"I don't see the point in wasting time," Jeff says. "And I mean, it'll probably run out eventually, how grateful I am. But not yet."
"Sure you don't wish you'd been drafted by the Ducks?"
Jeff knows he's supposed to laugh, but something in him snaps. "I wanted to be down here, okay? I wore a red tie, for God's sake."
"Don't joke about it," Jeff says. He feels tired all of a sudden. "We're not talking about it, fine, but – don't joke about it."
Eric sighs. "I thought about you every day, you know."
"Yeah." But Jeff still feels kind of pissy, which is the only thing that explains what he says next. "And I still think about you when I jerk off. So."
Eric inhales sharply. "Don't."
"It's true," Jeff says. "Look, if you don't want to deal with it, fine. But you should know."
"Jeff," Eric sounds a little pained. "I – I have to go."
"Yeah, sure," Jeff says, just this side of snapping.
He's in a bad mood the next morning, and nearly snaps at Jared, like it's his fault his brother is an idiot.
"Dude," Jared says.
"Sorry," Jeff grumbles. Even though he's pissed at Eric, the fact that they're probably not going to talk for a few days doesn't actually make him feel better.
"You look like you want to punch something," Jared says. "Is everything cool?"
"Yeah, fine. I'm just going to go for a run I think."
"Bike," Tyler cuts in. "You'll destroy your knees if you go running like this."
"Whatever," Jeff says. He hates that they're right.
"Don't go hurting yourself before our first road trip, man."
They're heading up to New England the next day for a three game trip through Bridgeport, Springfield and Worcester. It's going to be a lot of time on a bus, but Jeff is kind of looking forward to it.
"I won't," Jeff says. He only bikes for an hour or so, and makes sure to stretch well after and give his legs a chance to rest so he doesn't have to crawl to his car.
The billet house is empty when he gets home, so he just heads straight for the basement and sprawls across his bed. He'll pack in a minute.
He wakes up to his phone ringing.
"Oh, were you sleeping? I didn't think – sorry. This can wait."
"Eric?" Jeff asks, confused.
"Yeah, sorry, go back to sleep –"
"No, it's fine," Jeff says, sitting up a little. "Did something happen?"
"No? I mean, nothing I can think of."
"Oh. I didn't think I'd hear from you until we got back," Jeff says. Which is the closest he can come to directly calling Eric out as a coward.
"I wasn't going to call," Eric says. "But –"
"I can embarrass myself more, if you want," Jeff says.
"It's not embarrassing," Eric says.
"Yeah." Jeff flops back onto his back. "It's not at all embarrassing to be like oh, by the way, you've been my go-to jerk-off fantasy since January."
Jeff closes his eyes. "Yeah, Eric. January. I told you."
"I didn't think – look, Jeff, it doesn't matter. I just wanted to apologize." Eric sounds brisk now. "I shouldn't have hung up on you."
"What are you trying to say?" Jeff says. It's not like Eric to talk in circles like this.
"You're mad, and I –"
"I'm not mad."
"You are, and you have a good reason to be."
"I put you in a corner," Jeff says, because he did, and he's going to be an adult about this. "So I should be the one to apologize. It's not like you were going to say, oh, me too, and we were just going to talk about the Panthers or something."
"That's why I called, actually."
"...to talk about the Panthers?"
"Me, too," Eric says quietly.
Jeff can't think of a single thing to say.
Eric sighs into the phone. "I had to go and jerk off, okay?"
"Um," Jeff says.
"You don't have to say anything," Eric says. "I just figured, if you knew – it would be less awkward. If you knew you weren't the only one."
Right, or he'd just pop a boner the second Eric said it. He's not sure which is worse, the fact that arguing kind of turned him on or the fact that knowing Eric jerks off thinking about him is enough to make it worse. Jeff eyes himself warily. This is stupid, but – "Or more awkward."
"I'm sorry," Eric says quickly.
"No, it's fine." Jeff bites his lip and presses a hand against his dick. Not rubbing, just...trying to make it less urgent. "It's good to know. Thanks, I think."
"If it helps, it wasn't deliberate the first time. It was after we...I tried not to, before. But you were gone, and I missed everything."
Hang up, Jeff silently wills him. Just hang up. "Everything?" he asks, trying to keep his voice steady.
"Touching you. Seeing you, talking to you. You."
"Eric, Jesus," Jeff says. He shoves his hand down the front of his boxers so he can squeeze his dick, maybe get it to calm down.
"I would've called. When I got home. But my phone –" Jeff wouldn't have wanted to, but he wouldn't have been able to stop himself.
"I know, I should've written you sooner, I just –" Eric's breath stutters, and Jeff has to freeze his own hand on his dick.
"Sorry, Jeff. Sorry, I should go –"
"No! Don't," Jeff says. "I can't throw stones here."
"What? Oh, fuck, Jeff –"
It's not really phone sex. They're not pretending they're in the same room, or saying what they'd want to do to each other if they were – Jeff really wants to blow Eric again, and thinks about it a lot – they just jerk off thinking about each other. While on the phone listening to the noises the other is making.
"Jeff, say something, please –" Eric begs.
It's a difficult request for him to answer at the moment, so he stumbles over his words. "I – Eric, what."
But judging from the groan on Eric's side of the phone, it was enough, and that sends Jeff over the edge.
As he comes back to himself, he can hear Eric's voice but can't find his phone right away.
"Uh, hold on," he says, hopefully loud enough that Eric will hear him. He reaches for the box of tissues he keeps next to his bed, and cleans off his hand, making a mental note to take out the trash before he leaves the next morning.
His phone is sitting next to his pillow, and he picks it up quickly. "Sorry, lost track of my phone."
"That's fine." Eric sounds embarrassed. "So that was, uh."
"It was okay," Jeff says, trying to stave off any more freakouts.
"Just okay?" Eric jokes.
"Are you fishing for compliments when I jerked myself off?" Jeff asks.
"Well, when you put it like that. So, road trip tomorrow, yeah?"
Somehow it's not an awkward subject change, so Jeff stays relaxed as he answers, "Yeah. I think I'm rooming with Jared, so..."
It's funny how he never thought about how awkward phone sex would be after the actual sex part. "So."
"I'll talk to you later. Talk, I mean, not – yeah. Talk."
"Jared will think it's weird if you're calling me to talk for an hour, too."
Probably true. "I'll work something out."
"Jeff, I –" Eric sighs. "Take care of yourself on the road."
"I will," Jeff says. "Bye."
"Bye," Eric says, and hangs up.
Afterwards, Jeff just sort of flops back and stares at the ceiling. He really does have to take the trash out, but right now he wants to just process the fact that he just fucking had phone sex with Eric. He'd like to think this isn't going to make things even weirder and more awkward, but in reality, he can't really see what else it could possibly do.
They have to be on the bus at 8 AM, though, so he eventually quits obsessing and gets up to put the trash out.
Jeff's hoping to catch a few extra minutes of sleep on the bus before they get to the airport, but the second after he closes his eyes, someone drops into the seat next to him. He thinks about not opening them, but he can feel whoever it is staring at him.
"Um, hey, Jared," Jeff says.
"Hey," Jared says. "So, we'll be in New York."
"I figured we could go hang out with Marc."
Jeff must look like a giant idiot, because Jared rolls his eyes and clarifies, "My brother, man. One of them."
"Oh! Right. Yeah, I know that."
"Uh-huh. So, you up for it?"
"Totally. I'm just, you know." Jeff leans his head against the window. "Tired."
Jeff wakes up when the plane begins its descent into Massachusetts, and a bunch of the guys are staring at him, trying not to laugh.
“What?” Jeff asks, subtly wiping at his face to check for drool.
“I could sleep like that, too, if I were 5'10”,” Jared says from across the aisle.
Jeff’s been curled up against the window with his knees against the seat in front of him. He slowly drops his knees and stretches them out as best he can.
“Ugh, you're going to be like this on the bus, too, aren't you?” Ben asks, disgusted.
“Probably,” Jeff says. Learning to sleep anywhere is another thing he learned last year. “But I'm a light sleeper.” Not that his teammates are going to try to steal his stuff. Or if they did, they won't keep it.
“So I should take the room closer to the bathroom,” Jared says. “I don't want you getting pissed at me if I have to pee in the middle of the night.”
“He's like my grandma,” Tyler says. “We roomed together last year. Good luck with that.”
Jeff's kind of worried that rooming with Jared will be kind of weird, all things considered, but Jared's been pretty cool about Jeff and Eric being friends, and it's not like he knows that Jeff and his brother... yeah. He cringes a little when he remembers that he's apparently going to meet Marc, too.
He sends Eric a quick text about it. “Apparently going with Jared to meet Marc in NY?”
That's not the question that first came to Jeff's mind. “After the Bridgeport game.”
There's a longer delay, and then Eric replies. “Jordan's going to be in town, too. Sorry?”
Well, that's just great. Jeff half hopes Coach will suddenly decide that they can't go, even though it's after their last game and they aren't flying back to Charlotte until the next morning. But that's days away, and they have games to play. He needs to be focused on that, and not the Staal ambush headed his way.
And he won't even have Eric to help him through it. It's so unfair.
“It'll be fine.” Jeff sends back. He has to at least try to believe that.
"Let me know if you're not, I can get them to lay off."
Because that wouldn't be weird. "Quit worrying," Jeff sends, and that's the end of it.
They play Springfield first. Jeff tallies two assists and plays like as much of a workhorse as he knows how. He goes out with the guys after; Eric's congratulations text comes just as he's leaving with Jared.
Jeff doesn't even know how he keeps tabs on AHL games so easily. He's pretty sure smart phones don't do that.
"Thanks," he texts back.
"My brother?" Jared says.
"Um, no," Jeff lies. "My sister Jillian. She keeps pretty close tabs on our game."
"That's nice of her, I guess." Jared sounds vaguely confused. Then again, the Staals are kind of crazy about each other.
"Yeah, she's, um. I mean, she's going to college next year, so we're friends."
"Right." They come up to Tyler's door, and Jared pounds on it. "Get your lazy ass out here, man."
They meet up with Ben, too, and end up getting into a seedy bar that doesn't bother to card. It's pretty sweet, and even better when Tyler decides to reenact Ben wiping out and ends up wiping out himself. It's really fucking nice, Jeff thinks, not to have to worry about where he's going to sleep, or Eric, or anything but playing fucking games.
And facing down the Staals in three days, but whatever.
They lose against Worcester but beat Bridgeport. Jeff doesn't tally a damn thing against Worcester and is so annoyed about it he ignores Eric's texts, but he gets two goals in Bridgeport and winds up so fucking pleased that he doesn't mind when Jared says, "Um, you should definitely shower. The train's soon."
The train doesn't take nearly long enough. "So," Jeff hedges. "Are your brothers, like...nice?"
Jared snorts. "They're the worst. They all want to meet you, though."
Oh, right, because that's not terrifying. "Great."
They take a cab from the train station to some restaurant that just has a neon sign that says “Bar”. Jeff's not sure he'll be allowed in, and wow, wouldn't that be a shame. But Jared just says “Staal” to the bouncer, and they're pointed at a table where Marc and Jordan are already waiting.
“Is your brother that big of a deal around here?” Jeff asks, a little bewildered that it's that easy.
“Nah, but this is Avery's place,” Jared explains.
“Look who finally showed up,” Marc, says nodding at Jared as he grabs a seat.
“I know it's hard talking to the brick wall over there,” Jared says, nodding at Jordan, who clips him upside the head.
“Uh, hi,” Jeff says, dropping into the last empty spot.
“So you're Skinner,” Jordan says.
“Yep,” Jeff replies. He wishes there had been more to read in that, to figure out why Eric's brothers wanted to meet him.
A waiter comes by to take drink orders, and even though everyone else orders a beer, and Jeff would really like to not be sober for this whole night, he just orders a Coke. He really doesn't want to risk getting busted or making Sean Avery lose his liquor license. Jeff's pretty sure that wouldn't end well or quietly for any of them.
Still, the order makes Marc snort a little. “So this is the new little brother Eric picked out without consulting the rest of us.”
“Oh, well, I don't know that it's a brother thing,” Jeff says. Definitely not a brotherly thing, but he can't think about that right now or else he'll start blushing. It may be dark in the bar, but it's not that dark.
“It's not,” Jared confirms, and Jeff has to shoot a look at him, wondering what he knows. “Eric is way too nice to him for it to be a brother thing.”
Jeff laughs a little, because he figures it's a joke. “Eric's a nice guy!”
But now they're all looking at him, sizing him up, and Jeff doesn't really get why. They don't know, Eric would've mentioned telling them, and Jared would've mentioned something if he thought... “I'm gonna go to the bathroom,” Jeff says. “Sorry, long train ride.”
The bathroom is way brighter than the bar itself, and Jeff blinks a few times as he pulls out his phone. “What exactly do your brothers know?”
He waits, and he waits, and he takes a piss and washes his hands, and he waits. Then the little GameCenter alert on his phone pops up because Eric Staal just scored his fourth goal of the season. Right, they're playing in Calgary tonight. Jeff knew that; he just forgot in the face of all the Staal brothers looking at him like they know what happened over the summer. And a few days ago.
Jeff takes a deep breath. He can't hide in the bathroom all night.
"– don't know, man," Jordan's saying as he comes back to the table. “It's weird.”
"Sorry," Jeff says, sliding in.
"We got you a beer," Jared says, nodding to the beer sitting next to his soda.
Jeff takes it, feeling like a tool. Maybe it's poisoned or something. He doesn't think the Staals are scary enough for that kind of thing, but he's not willing to rule it out.
"So," Marc says. "How long have you known Eric?"
"Awhile," Jeff says. "I mean, he went to the diner I work at, so."
"Yeah, I saw your interview," Marc says. "But seriously, how did that really go down?"
"That's how it happened, I swear," Jeff says. "I wasn't out to get his sympathy, or whatever." He takes another drink of the beer.
"Sure," Jordan says, "but come on, Eric leaks money."
"It wasn't like that," Jeff snaps. "We're friends."
He doesn't get why Marc looks amused. Whatever. "But has he told you about how he likes to get his friends arrested?"
"Please, that was cousins. Not that you Thunder Bay guys know the difference," Jeff says.
"Uh-huh," Jordan says. "Jared, you've given the kid a swirly, right?"
"Getting to it," Jared says.
They keep going like that, hassling each other and making pointed comments about Jeff that Jeff mostly ignores. He has a beer, and then another two, and he's not really surprised that when Marc makes a crack about forwards and he laughs pretty loudly, Jordan says, "So why'd you go back to Toronto?"
He forces himself to shrug. "I just knew I needed to go home."
"But you were living with Eric."
And wanting him constantly. Jeff stares at the table. "Yeah."
"His house is fucking ridiculous. You wanted to leave that?"
"I needed to go home," Jeff says. "It really was that simple."
"God, are you going to say anything you didn't say in an interview?" Jordan says.
"Come on, we're hockey players," Jeff says, desperately reminding himself that there's no possible way they can know anything for sure. "I'm supposed to be boring."
Marc shakes his head. "So, any tips on how to make him be nicer to us?"
"Um, be a runaway?"
"Tried it when I was eight. Didn't work."
"No idea, then," Jeff says. "Any tips on how to make sure he doesn't blast Nickelback when he gives me a ride?"
"Nothing's wrong with Nickelback," Jared says.
"Everything's wrong with Nickelback," Jordan says.
"Wait, he gives you rides?" Marc says.
Jeff tries not to groan.
“I didn't have a car during training camp. And before we'd go to the grocery store and shit. It's not a big deal.” He doesn't know why they're making it a big deal.
“The grocery store?” Jordan asks.
“Yeah, you know, where they sell food? They do have those in Thunder Bay, right?” Jeff takes a long sip of his beer. As weird as this is, he still prefers it to Cam staring him down over pizza.
Fortunately, the conversation moves back to hockey with some help from Jared, and they order Jeff a couple more beers, and he relaxes and doesn't think about Eric much. Except to notice the way they all share some of the same features and way of talking and little tics, like when Jordan purses his lips or Marc leans back in his seat and watches all of them.
It makes Jeff miss Eric, even though it's only been two weeks since they last saw each other and a few days since they spoke. He checks his phone to see if Eric's replied, but the only new messages are from the Checkers guys.
“We should probably get going,” Jared says eventually. “Wheels up early tomorrow and it's a trip back.”
“You kids need to come play with the big boys soon, then you can play in real cities,” Jordan says as he throws an arm around Jared's neck.
“Working on it,” Jared says.
“Yeah,” Jeff agrees.
“Well, we'll see you on the ice then,” Marc says. Jeff's probably just tired, but that sounded a little bit menacing.
Jeff's phone buzzes when they're about an hour from the city, and wakes him up from his light doze. It's Eric.
“Nothing. Not about us.”
Jeff's trying to decide if that makes the considering looks they were giving him better or worse when his phone buzzes again.
“But they do know I'm not totally straight.”
And then another. “Were they okay? I'm sorry, they can be assholes.”
Jeff rolls his eyes and taps back, “They were fine, I'll call you when we get back home.”
“Who is it?” Jared mumbles from the seat next to him.
“No one,” Jeff says. “It's fine.”
He doesn't sleep again until they get back to their rooms in Bridgeport.
He calls Eric as soon as he gets back to his billet, then feels like an idiot when it goes to voicemail. But Eric calls him back a few hours later. "No practice today?"
"Nah, they gave us a day off," Jeff says. "How about you?"
"Pretty good. I've got three days off coming up, after our ninth game."
"Oh, yeah. Cool."
Neither of them is going to jinx it – they're not that stupid – but the possibility hangs between them. After a minute or so, Eric says, "I should probably go, actually."
"Say hi to Byng for me."
"Will do," Eric says, and hangs up.
Jeff hates how much he misses him. It could be a hell of a lot longer than nine games, and he knows it. He just – he can't stop the way he thinks about Eric, how much he wants to be close to him. And he's pretty sure it's not going to get better anytime soon.
He's thinking about going up for food when Leah calls him.
"So you know your boyfriend had me dog sit for him, right?"
"He's not my boyfriend," Jeff says. "Also wait, what?"
"When he went on a road trip. He paid me five hundred dollars, Jeff."
Oh, Eric. "And?"
Leah makes a noise that's halfway between a yell and a groan. "What am I going to do with five hundred dollars?"
"Save it, probably. Come on, Leah, that's not – it's really not that bad."
"I dog sat for like, four days!"
"So? Actual dog sitters are way more than that."
"I don't believe that."
"No, it's true." Jeff has no idea if that’s true, but it could be. And he wants Leah to have that money.
"He could've gotten a friend to do it."
"He wanted to hire someone. Come on, Leah, let it go."
"It just seems like so much."
Jeff's way, way too familiar with how helpless she sounds. That's just how Eric is. "He leaks money," Jeff says, remembering the Staals. "Plus, his dog food costs like a million dollars on its own. Look for it in the grocery store next time. If they even sell it there."
"Fine, whatever. God, rich people." Leah sighs. "So how are things with him, anyway?"
"I knew it! Spill."
"It's nothing," Jeff says. "I mean, we had phone sex, but –"
"Right before I left for Massachusetts," Jeff says. He's making it sound as matter-of-fact as he possibly can; it's not a big deal, he tells himself firmly.
"God, you're hopeless," Leah says. "And you're still not talking about all the sex you had?"
"Not really, no."
Leah sighs. "You really care about him, don't you."
Jeff wishes it wasn't that obvious. Then again, he wishes his stomach didn't twist at the idea of not being able to be with Eric, too. "Yeah."
"You're going to have to deal with that at some point."
"I know," Jeff says. "Believe me, I know."
"Well, as long as you know,” she says, before mercifully changing the subject. “So I was thinking about taking a GED class."
That perks him up. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. They give it to you on the cheap if you're poor, and I think I'd do okay on it."
"Of course you would. And you could save up, go to community college, too."
"That's what I was thinking."
They keep talking about it after that, batting ideas back and forth until finally Leah has to go. Jeff feels infinitely more relaxed after that. He need to go buy some protein bars for his car, so he heads out.
Crearey is reassigned to Juniors the morning following the Canes 3-1 loss to the Flyers, and no one's surprised. Everyone on the Checkers has turned it on during practice, in case the brass is watching and still making the decision. But the Canes have three days off – they're not even practicing today – so there's no need for them to make a call up right away.
Jeff tries so hard not to think about it as he kills time after practice, playing video games with one of the billets’ sons, Danny. Eric doesn't call or text and Jeff is glad, actually. He needs to not obsess about it, and trying to talk around it with Eric won't help with that. Especially when he's also trying not to think about what it's going to mean for them if he is called up. If the phone sex – which has only happened the once and never been mentioned again, of course – means they're going to try for something again, or if it's just going to be that much weirder. If Cam's going to try to murder him in his sleep.
But it's pointless to think about those things until he knows whether or not he's even going anywhere.
“You're really bad today,” Danny says bluntly, after Jeff's guy dies again.
“Yeah, I know,” Jeff says. “Sorry.”
“Yeah,” Jeff says.
“Want some juice?”
“Sure, buddy,” Jeff says, grinning. Life is simple for a nine-year-old, and Jeff tries to let some of that rub off on him.
The call comes the next morning, and Jeff has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from cheering while he's on the phone with Daniels.
“So swing by the arena and grab your stuff, they're waiting for you in Raleigh,” Daniels says.
“Thank you,” Jeff says. “Just. Thanks.”
“Knock 'em dead, Skinner.”
He texts the guys as soon as he hangs up to let them know he's ditching them, and Tyler immediately replies with “Good, tired of having to drag your underage ass around.”
Jeff stares at his phone for five minutes, trying to figure out what to text Eric. He probably already knows, he's the team captain, so it's not like Jeff is letting him know, but he should say something or else it'll be weird when he shows up in the room.
He finally decides on, “Got my locker ready?” and goes about packing up some of his stuff. There's no guarantee that he'll be staying up for the rest of the season, so there's no point in him packing entirely, and, he reminds himself, if there's anything he forgets, he can just buy a new one.
Or maybe borrow.
He gets his gear and hits the road; it's only three hours to Raleigh if he doesn't make any stops.
The three hours seems like forever as he's actually driving it, though. He can't stop reviewing things in his head: playing with Kitchener, staying with Eric, playing for the Checkers. He wants to stay in Raleigh so badly he can taste it, and he knows there's no way of knowing if he'll be able to.
They've told him which hotel to check into, so after he gets his room key and everything, he sits down and checks his phone. Apparently the news has made it onto a few blogs, because Jillian's texted him a bunch of exclamation points, and his mom and dad have both texted him congratulations. Eric hasn't texted him back, and Jeff has to fight down his disappointment. He's probably busy, or maybe he's napping or something. There's no reason to be an idiot about Eric yet.
He's about to put his phone away when he gets the text. "Congratulations. We don't skate till tomorrow. Come say hi to Byng."
It's not exactly what Jeff would have hoped for, but it's better than nothing. He sends a quick "see you soon" and heads out.
The drive to Eric's doesn't really take him past anything familiar, but he can feel himself getting more and more nervous anyway. He's here to stay, at least for a little while. He's going to be playing with Eric, in the fucking NHL, and they had phone sex, and Jeff just doesn't know how to deal with any of it.
His palms are sweating when he pulls into Eric's driveway. Eric must have been watching for him, because he opens the door before Jeff even gets to the front walk. "Jeff!" he yells, waving him in.
"You made it," Eric says with a grin, shutting the door behind Jeff. He's got Byng by the collar, and when he lets go of her, she immediately tackles Jeff.
"Yeah," Jeff says, scratching Byng behind the ears. He looks up at Eric. The sun is streaming through the windows, hitting Eric's hair in ways that make him look ridiculously good. "It's...really good to see you."
"You, too," Eric says. "Can you believe we're going to be playing together?"
He looks so excited, like a little kid. Jeff laughs and tries not to feel disappointed. Eric obviously wants to forget about everything that's happened, and that's fine. They'll be friends. It's more than Jeff thought he'd get, anyway. "It's pretty crazy."
"I just – stand up for a second." Eric tugs him to his feet and, when Jeff looks at him stupidly, grabs Jeff and pulls him into a hug. "You're here," he says, chin tucked over Jeff's head.
Jeff tries not to do anything stupid, like turn his face into Eric's neck. "I'm here."
"Sorry." As quickly as it started, it ends. Eric steps back, looking embarrassed. "I've been excited all day. Cam's ready to kill me."
"Now you know how I feel."
Eric laughs, but it sounds forced. Jeff realizes too late that he just referenced their old relationship, yet again. Fuck; he's got to stop doing that. "He'll come around."
"Uh-huh," Jeff says. "So. Want to watch some TV or something?"
"NHL Network's always on," Eric says, heading out to the living room.
Jeff tries and fails not to catalog the way the house has changed. The shoe rack Eric bought when Jeff started living with him is still there, looking weirdly lonely with just Eric's track shoes on it. There's a dog bed in the living room, and the blanket Jeff used last winter is folded over top of the couch now. Eric's bought a few more movies and books, and a Wii. He only had a Playstation before.
It's different, obviously, but it still feels like home in an incredibly stupid way. Jeff sits down on the couch, a few feet away from Eric, and tries not to let on how uncomfortable he is. "It's probably not permanent. They've got me in a hotel again."
"Yeah." Eric turns the TV on and keeps his eyes riveted to it. "But you've got a chance to prove you should be able to stay."
It's weird sitting on the couch with Eric; it's so familiar and so awkward at the same time. More than it was when Jeff visited briefly during camp, since then he didn't have a lot of time to think about it, and the focus was on Byng.
But now Jeff's sitting on the couch with Eric, and he knows that Eric still wants him. Or at least still thinks about Jeff the same way Jeff thinks about him. It doesn't make sitting here on the couch, not touching, any easier.
"Jeff?" Eric says, clearing his throat.
Jeff blinks and looks away from Eric's hands. "Um, yeah?"
Eric looks a little flushed, so he definitely noticed Jeff staring, and probably knows exactly what he was thinking about. "You hungry?"
The odds that Eric has decided to use bad porn lines as come-ons are low, but Jeff sort of hopes anyway. "I could eat."
"Anything specific?" Eric asks as he pushes up off the couch.
Jeff knows what his reply would be in a cheesy porno, but he just shrugs. "Whatever you've got around."
Eric disappears into the kitchen, and Byng trails after him, leaving Jeff to lean heavily back on the couch and sigh. This is all a terrible idea, he should just go back to his hotel and –
"Turkey sandwich?" Eric asks from the kitchen.
"Sure," Jeff says.
Eric comes back a few minutes later with two sandwiches and lets Jeff pick first, even though they look exactly the same.
"Thanks," Jeff says, and Eric grins so widely that Jeff has to take a bite of his sandwich before he says something stupid.
God, he even missed Eric's weird bread with seeds in it.
"'S good," Jeff says.
"Good," Eric says, picking up his own sandwich.
Jeff takes a couple more bites before putting his plate down on the table. He didn't forget that Byng was there at their feet, but he certainly wasn't expecting her to casually reach up and snag the food from his plate.
"Byng!" Eric scolds, leaning down and grabbing her muzzle. "No. No taking Jeff's food. Or any food off the table. No."
It's too late for Jeff's lunch. She'd pretty much inhaled it the second it was on the ground, save the lettuce. But at least she looks suitably cowed, with her big brown eyes staring up at Eric.
"Sorry," Eric says. "She's still learning."
Eric's still bent towards Jeff, and he's just so right there and close that Jeff can't help leaning forward and kissing him. Eric doesn't react for a long moment, but Jeff doesn't give up, even though the angle is awkward and there's a plate digging into his stomach.
He wants this, Eric wants this, there's no good reason not to.
After a few awkward moments, Eric pulls back and stares at Jeff. Jeff looks back defiantly, refusing to feel bad. They had phone sex, for God's sake. Eric has to –
"Jeff," Eric says desperately, and pulls him forward.
At first, he mostly just feels weird, but that disappears pretty quickly. Eric puts his plate aside and scoots closer, pressing Jeff back into the couch, one hand holding the back of his head just shy of too hard. Jeff kisses back eagerly, his own hands digging into Eric's arms. If Eric tries to move away now, he doesn't know what he's going to do.
"I missed this," Eric says, pulling back and kissing Jeff's neck. "You have no idea how much I missed this."
"I think I might," Jeff says, trying to keep his voice from shaking. He wants to know that he can have this, that he can stay in Raleigh, play hockey and have Eric.
"They told me," Eric says, and goes back up to kiss Jeff again. "Before they called you up. I wanted to call you, I couldn't even believe it was happening."
That makes Jeff laugh a little. "You kept telling me it would."
"But now it is." Eric leans back and pulls Jeff on top of him. "Tell me if this isn't okay."
"We had phone sex," Jeff can't help but point out.
"I thought that might have been a fluke."
And now Eric's not looking at him. Great. "Okay, so are we just not going to talk about the fact that we also had multiple rounds of sex right before I left?"
He can feel Eric tense up. "I shouldn't have done that."
"I was there," Jeff says. "I participated. Maybe we shouldn't have, but it wasn't just you."
"When you didn't call, I kind of figured you regretted it. Cam made me send the letter."
Of course he did. "No regrets," Jeff says. "My phone... Look, I – I care, okay? A lot."
Eric nods, then ducks his head, pressing his face into the curve of Jeff's neck. Jeff lets him, sitting still and waiting. When Eric finally pulls back, he adds, "And I know you do. I'm pretty sure your brothers know you do."
Eric winces. "Yeah. Probably."
Jeff leans in, slowly this time, and kisses him. Eric relaxes, leaning back and letting Jeff take the lead. He kisses back, though, slowly and thoroughly, his hands moving up and down Jeff's back.
"It was pretty much impossible not to think about you," Eric admits. "That's why Cam kind of wants to kill you. I was pathetic."
"I had a lot going on," Jeff says. He's not going to deny it so Eric's ego feels better or something stupid like that. "But, I mean – yeah. Me too."
"And you're here again." Eric shakes his head. "It's hard to believe."
"I'm staying," Jeff says, and kisses Eric again. "I swear, I'm staying."
"They actually called me in to talk about housing," Eric says when they move apart again.
Jeff can't help but wonder why they're discussing this right now, but he nods tolerantly.
"They wanted to know if I'd want you to live with me," Eric says. "Since you did before."
"I told them I'd ask you if you wanted to live with your captain," Jeff grips Eric's shirt tight when he says that, in case he tries to pull away. "I didn't want to assume. Your room is still all set up –"
Jeff sighs. "Eric, I don't want to stay in your guest room."
Eric freezes, and his eyes dart off to a spot on the wall behind Jeff. "Oh right, well, Sutter has a room –"
Jeff stares at him for a second before nudging Eric's chin back so Eric's looking him in the eye. "I don't want to live with Sutter or anyone else."
"But a hotel isn't –"
"Eric," Jeff says, biting back a laugh. "I want to live with you."
"I don't want to stay in the guest room," Jeff repeats. "I want to upgrade. You don't use all of that closet space anyway."
Eric stares at him for a minute before a grin stretches across his face. "Oh."
"Yeah," Jeff says, half laughing as leans back down to kiss him again. "That work for you?"
Eric nods enthusiastically, since Jeff's keeping his mouth busy.
Jeff could stay here doing this all night, and then get up and do it again before they go to practice together. For the Hurricanes. In the NHL.
"I don't know what I did to deserve this," Jeff mumbles against Eric's cheek.
"You're you," Eric says simply. "Well, that and, you know. Hard work and stuff."
Jeff laughs. "Right. And stuff." He thinks he's going to be pretty happy with and stuff from now on.