"Always fresh," Jack declares, aiming a pained smile at the camera. "Always, uh, Tim Hortons?"
"Dear. Sweet. Lord." Lardo crowds in against Bitty's shoulder, jostling for a better view of his laptop. "Bitty. Bits. Go back. Play it again."
"I can't, it's streaming live," Eric reminds her, still reeling from the embarrassing, endearing sight of Jack Zimmermann, brand-new second-line center for the Providence Falconers, trying and failing to look natural while eating a maple log on Canadian network television. "Well. He could've told us! The guys were just gonna watch the highlight reel tomorrow; they would've totally missed the—" Eric cuts himself off, thinking of the extreme discomfort in Jack's eyes as he mimed ordering a coffee at the end of the commercial. "Oh."
"We shouldn't tell anyone about this," Lardo says, sounding more like she's trying to convince herself than anything else. "Right? He'd choke himself to death on one of those little jelly donut holes if he knew we'd seen this."
"Yeah." Eric clears his throat, and thinks about Jack's voice—how it's been a little over a week since Eric's had a chance to hear it over the phone; how Jack's accent always gets a little bit round and ridiculous when he's trying too hard to impress someone; the familiar angle of his hair falling into his eyes after he's pushed it back from his forehead. "We'll forget all about it. Except maybe—"
"Well obviously you and I are going to find a video of it and watch it many, many times, god, Bits. How altruistic do you think I am?"
"Shitty would be so disappointed in us," Bitty sighs, opening a new window to search YouTube.
"Shitty would have emailed a link to the Swallow by now out of pure adoration and pride, and you know it," Lardo counters. "Oooh! Oh man, there it is, click it, click it!"
"My body's a machine, and it needs the best fuel possible," says Jack's opening voiceover, in one of the most stilted, awkwardly-inflected readings Eric's ever heard in his life. It's a total trainwreck, and Eric's whole chest aches with overwhelming fondness.
"Nothing's ever going to top this, as long as we live," Lardo says.
As it turns out, she's wrong.
"Hey, there," Jack says, kneeling down on the ice in order to get eye-level with a bright-eyed and gap-toothed child actor. The grace and ease of that motion only highlights the seriously impressive badness of his acting. "What is wrong?"
"I'm just sick of getting picked last, Mr. Zimmermann," sighs the kid, looking up at Jack with exaggerated, wide-eyed desolation. The whole setup is unrelentingly cheesy, but Eric has to admit—putting Jack next to a cute kid was a genius move.
"Let's work on your backhand," Jack says at the end, squeezing the kid's shoulder before they skate off across the lake together. Eric watches them avidly while the logo for a sporting goods chain appears in the foreground, cooing involuntarily when he sees Jack scoop the kid up into his arms and spin in a wide arc; it's clearly an unscripted moment, and they're both laughing. It's the only time Jack looks even remotely relaxed on camera.
"Ugh," Eric says, slamming his laptop shut and tossing it dramatically away from himself. "Ugh!"
It's pretty unbelievable—in light of Jack's continuing notoriety at Samwell—that the commercials stay a secret as long as they do.
The thing is, Ransom's completely absorbed with his 24 insane credit hours, Holster's completely absorbed with helping Ransom study for midterms, and the team in general seems satisfied enough watching the locally-broadcast games and keeping up with the rest of the season through recaps and highlight reels (which, unsurprisingly, feature Jack more often than not). About once a week, though, everyone who's free piles together on the appalling Haus couch and screams themselves hoarse whenever the camera catches sight of Jack's face through his visor. Once, while Jack is being interviewed after scoring a tie-breaking goal and serving up a gorgeous no-look pass in the second period, they whip themselves into such a frenzy that the lacrosse team ends up calling the campus police on them.
But Eric, apparently, is the only one pathetic and lovelorn enough to drink up every single out-of-market Falconers broadcast like he's dying of thirst—which is why he's the only one who sees the Crest Strips endorsement, the plug for a new set of NHL rookie cards, and the actually kind of devastating shave gel spot where Jack doesn't talk at all, but instead spends twenty-eight seconds looking apologetically handsome and well-lit while rubbing his stubble in front of a mirror. He's shirtless in that one, and, for some mysterious reason, appears to be totally hairless below the neck.
Eric ends up completely zoning out the next morning in the middle of breakfast with the team. He just cannot get over it. Like, did Jack do the shaving himself? Did someone else do it for him? How far down did they shave, exactly? Is the... oh boy... did they get the happy trail, too? How do you even apply for a job shaving impossibly-beautiful stomachs all day, because—
"Bitty, brah, you've been holding that same bite of pancake on your fork for like, ten minutes," Lardo says, and then crams four strips of bacon into her mouth.
Eric should have realized it was only a matter of time, but he's still not prepared when Jack's Honda commercial pops up during a local broadcast.
"Take your best shot, in a Honda," Jack says into the camera, at the end of a montage of his flashiest goals interspersed with quick cuts of a CRV doing spirals over ice.
"Holy balls." Dex sounds reverent. "Did I just see that? Did that just happen? In real life?"
Nursey rolls his head back to gaze at the ceiling. "I just... I feel like my existence didn't mean anything, until this moment."
"I thought... I thought he did a... fine job," Chowder pipes up loyally. "He sounded fine. Very, uh..."
"Canadian?" Dex offers.
Ransom makes a horrified noise. "You take that back."
"It's like he's forgotten how human language works," says Shitty's voice from Lardo's computer, his delight palpable even over their shaky Skype connection. "Take your BEST shot, IN a Honda!"
Eric groans. "Y'all, now, c'mon.".
"Take your BEST-shot IN-a-Honda," Lardo tries, nailing Jack's accent and inexplicable scansion perfectly, and the whole group erupts in hysterics.
Jack calls Eric the next morning, catching him just as he's leaving for class. "Give it to me straight, Bittle," he says, in a determined and fatalistic tone that makes him sound like he's about be shipped off to war. "How bad was it."
"Jack, I have no idea what you mean! You played great. Especially with the—"
Eric sighs, slipping outside and leaning against the porch railing. "It was fine, you did good, I promise. It wasn't that bad."
"Did all of the guys see?"
"They... they thought it was great too," Eric says, and Jack answers him with a derisive silence. "Okaaaaay, so maybe get ready to be chirped about it for a while, but so what? You're playing amazing, Jack, that's all that matters."
"I'm just... so bad at it." Jack says it softly, like it's a profound confession. "I don't like being... I just wish I wasn't so bad at it."
Eric squeezes his eyes shut, and thinks he's never hated the distance separating them quite this intensely before. "Oh, Jack honey, look. It's not your thing, and that's just fine. You're great at lots of stuff, you know? You're great at your job, which is the most important part of all this, anyway. The other stuff is just—benefits." Jack snorts, and Eric grins to himself. "Well, not benefits, I suppose, if you're miserable about it. Can't you just stop taking endorsements?"
"George says it's important for me to construct a healthy public image this early on, and I agree, but it's only..." Jack heaves a sharp, heavy sigh, and Eric can clearly picture the way his big shoulders would shift, and the somber scrunch of his forehead. "I just wish they wouldn't keep asking me. I don't understand why... there are guys on my team who are so much better at it. Gordo's Timmy's commercial has been running in three different markets for five years, but they still—"
"Zimmermann, your goalie might be great at selling donuts, but he hasn't got a face like yours," Eric says, and then collapses right down onto the porch steps, appalled at himself. "I mean. Well. It's not a huge surprise, is all."
"It can't." Jack coughs. "That can't be the only reason, anyway."
"Your fans love you," Eric says, hastily skimming over the issue. "It's probably a li'l embarrassing but it's good, too. People wanna see more of you."
"Yes, but I wish they just wanted to see me play hockey. Instead of seeing me... pretend to shave, tabarnak."
"Ooh, you know, I have a question about the shaving one: how much of your hair did they actually—"
"Bye," Jack says, and hangs up while Eric's busy laughing.
Have a good day Bittle, he texts less than a minute later, and Eric glows with warmth even as the cold wind cuts through his hoodie. He's about to put his phone away and head to class when his text alert chirps again.
It's getting chilly out, by the way, I hope you brought a better coat and good boots this year. Let me know please.
"You know, I didn't do anything to deserve this," Eric complains to the universe in general. He aims a vicious kick at a chunk of ice on the Haus lawn, wincing when it sends a stab of pain through his too-thin boots. "I'm a good boy. I've been to church, even. I've never cheated and used a store-bought pie crust in my whole life. "
Shitty makes it back to Samwell for Thanksgiving, which is fantastic enough to take some of the sting out of the fact that Jack is still on the west coast recovering from a double header. Some of it. Eric's just glad he decided to make three kinds of potato dishes, is all, because he suspects he's going to need the comfort carbs.
"Looking swole, Itty Bitty," Shitty says warmly, scooping him up into a massive hug and spinning him around until he squeaks. "Whooooa. Would you look at that thing. I leave for a few months and suddenly it's Booty-pocalypse Now."
Eric flushes happily. "Stop."
"Working overtime to fill the role of Obnoxiously Beautiful Motherfucker now that my boy's gone, huh? Aw, c'mon, no..." Shitty must see the way Eric's face crumples at the reminder, because he sets him back on his feet and hugs him even tighter. "No sadness on Thanksgiving. There are five different pies in this kitchen, what could be sad about that?"
"Six," Eric sniffs, snuggling deeper into Shitty's shoulder. There's one still in the oven, a maple-caramel-pecan thing that he's thinking of sending to Jack somehow, once he gets the ratios right. It's an NHL nutritionist's worst nightmare, obviously, but Eric's a lot more devious than most people give him credit for so he's not too fussed about the logistics.
Then Shitty gets hit with a running tackle from behind that sends them sprawling to the floor, which means—
"Lardo," Shitty sighs, sounding altogether too content for somebody trapped in a tangle of limbs under a kitchen table. "You don't skype me enough, bro."
"I skype you twice a day, jackass," she says, and appears to be making herself comfortable curled up against his chest.
"Y'all are so sweet," Eric gasps, "but I'm gonna need one of you to get your knee and/or elbow off my kidney."
After dinner they get wasted on the expensive Pinot that Shitty brought and watch Jack's Honda commercial about a dozen times. Shitty solemnly pours out a little wine onto the floor the first time Jack appears onscreen, in tribute; Eric allows it, because he's pretty solidly drunk and also the carpet could hardly be made worse than it already is.
"He's a movie star!" Shitty declares around Replay #13, actual tears glistening in his eyes. "What a beaut. Look at him, Bitty. Look at him. In his Honda."
"I'm thankful for Honda," Eric agrees, gesturing over-emphatically. A little wine sloshes onto his fingers, and he sucks them into his mouth. "I'm thankful for... Jack's face."
"To Jack's face!" Holster cries, raising his glass.
"IN a Honda," adds Lardo, her Jack-impression still somehow perfect even after she's demolished most of a bottle by herself.
It's a lovely night, but Eric regrets it a tiny bit when he stumbles downstairs early the next morning with a killer hangover and a sugar headache, only to find Jack waiting for him in the kitchen.
"Mustache," Eric says, inanely. "I, um."
Jack smiles, slow and simmering, and Eric swears his headache just vanishes. "Hey, Bittle."
"Hey. Jack. Uh." He feels dizzy. He needs protein, probably. "I have some questions."
"Like, how did I get here? I chartered a plane, actually, it was pretty cool, my seat had a foot rest."
"No, I mean. That is pretty cool. But my main question is—"
"It's the mustache, isn't it." Jack rubs it self-consciously, and Eric's fingers twitch at his sides. "Do you like it?"
"Well. I think... I think it's very...."
"Don't worry, I know it's terrible," Jack says, grinning his I-got-one-over-on-you-aren't-I-clever grin. "You don't have to strain yourself trying to think of nice things to say about it."
"Mr. Zimmermann, you are the worst," Eric breathes, and then blames his pre-caffeinated and weakened state for the desperate way in which he hurls himself in Jack's direction.
"But why, though," Eric says a few minutes later, still folded securely into Jack's arms and strongly considering never extricating himself ever.
"Why did I fly back here?" Jack sweeps both big, warm hands all the way up Eric's spine, and then back down again, letting them rest at the waistband of his cupcake-print pajama bottoms. "C'mon, Bitty. You know."
"No," Eric says, his voice low and rough. "I didn't... I meant, why the mustache?"
Jack chuckles, his nose buried in Eric's hair. "You're really not a morning person. I almost forgot that."
"You called me Bitty," Eric says. Jack smells really good, even though he's been traveling all night. Chartered planes must smell at lot better than commercial ones, he guesses. "I like that, you know."
"I flew back here because Shitty texted me a picture of your scalloped potatoes, and I missed you," Jack says. "Bitty."
Eric's heart goes all heavy and achy. He's dying, probably. "Like, missed everyone, you mean. All of us."
Jack pulls back and looks him in the face. "Yes," he says, "and you, specifically."
"Oh my goodness, look at you, your mustache is so hideous," Eric breathes, before he grabs Jack by the hair and pulls him down into a kiss.
"I'm hoping," Eric says, an undefinable amount of time later, "that I'm not out of line, here."
"Hmmm?" Jack has him up on the counter—which is fortunate because Eric's not sure his knees are exactly functional anymore—and he's pressing a random line of gentle, ardent kisses across Eric's throat. "Quoi?"
"Kissing—oh—you," Eric clarifies, clutching at the edge of the counter when Jack's teeth drag against his skin. "I sort of. Attacked. Sorry."
Jack snorts, and hauls him right into the cradle of his hips, hands firm and possessive at the backs of his thighs. "I didn't mind."
"Holy hell." Eric swats at his chest half-heartedly, beaming dazedly at the ceiling. "You stop being so, so sexy, or I'm gonna... swoon, or something."
"You first," Jack mutters against his neck, and that's it; Eric's gonna melt into a pile of warm butter right here on this faux marble countertop.
"The mustache, uhh...." Eric falls back onto one elbow, tugging Jack with him by the collar of his sweater. "It's really not deterring me as much as I would have thought."
"The ad executives at Pepsi disagree," Jack says, skimming his fingers up under Eric's shirt, and ooh, yes, but also....
"Wait." Eric sits up abruptly, cupping Jack's dear, beautiful, ungroomed face between his hands. "Jack. Did you grow a mustache just to make your face less pretty for your corporate sponsors?"
Jack's grin is probably the smuggest Eric's ever seen on him. "Well, I grew a mustache for men's health awareness. And, coincidentally, Pepsi decided to push back my photoshoot. Indefinitely."
"Sweetheart," Eric says, amazed, "you are just the worst celebrity. Kiss me some more."
"Or, alternatively," Shitty yawns from the hallway, "you fuckers could get a room so the rest of us can finally have breakfast. No judgment, and I love you both, but you're blocking the coffeepot."
It's considerably harder to say goodbye to Jack this time, even though he leaves behind his still-warm jersey for Eric to remember him by (along with the vivid patches of mustache-burn on his belly and between his collarbones).
"I'll call you all the time," Eric says when he's putting him in the taxi. "Constantly. You'll be so sick of me."
"Promise?" Jack leans through the open window and kisses his cheek, which is so adorable that Eric's toes curl in his sneakers. "I'll drive down and visit too, when I'm in Providence. I get great mileage in my Honda."
Eric makes an incoherent noise and kisses him one more time, slow and lush, before tilting their foreheads together. "I need you to know," he says tremulously, "that the second I'm done mooning over how amazing this morning was, Jack, you are getting chirped within an inch of your life."