They lost the last game of the season, which was another teaspoonful of disappointment in an ocean of it. Afterward, though, the locker room was lighter than it had been for a while. The guys were just glad it was over.
Coach came to talk to them once the press was done. He was as tired as the rest of them, but he said all the right things about coming back from the summer stronger and better.
Eric stood up when Coach was through.
"Yeah," he said. "This sucked." There were some ironic cheers. "So let's end it the best we can," Eric continued. "The Annual Hurricanes Summer Barbecue. My place. Tuesday. Be there. Bring beer. Bring your kids. Don't bring the season with you." The cheers were more sincere for that, and the guys looked marginally happier as they returned to their stalls.
"You'll still be here, right?" Eric said, bumping his shoulder into Jeff's.
"Yes, Jesus, I'll make the dip again," Jeff said, rolling his eyes.
"Awesome." Eric made victory fingers. The dip happened only once a year, at the end of every season. It was a spicy, cheesy buffalo chicken concoction famous with hockey players from Raleigh to Charlotte. There was nothing overtly wrong with it, nutritionally speaking, as long as portions were moderate. The problem was, no one's portions were ever moderate.
"You're the best," Eric said, slinging an arm around Jeff's shoulders.
"I know." Jeff smiled, only a flicker of dimples showing. He ducked out from under Eric's arm and returned to his stall. Eric watched him go, and sighed. He'd forgotten, just for a second, that he wasn't allowed to do that anymore.
Fuck. What a fucking awful year.
She and Cam and Nolan showed up on Tuesday morning to help set up. Well, Cody and Eric set up; Cam sat on the deck with his leg propped up, drinking a beer and watching Nolan run around the yard.
"Your house is still ridiculous," Cody said, grunting as they levered out the heavy middle leaf in the dining room table. "How many can this seat, twenty?"
"I like to be prepared," Eric said defensively.
"Yeah," Cody said. "If you ever need to host six separate out of town guests in their own suites at the same time, you're set."
"It could happen," Eric said. "And also, probably only four. So shut up."
People started showing up in the middle of the afternoon. Cody trotted from the kitchen to the buffet out on the deck, commandeering anyone in her path to carry food. Semin brought a keg.
Jeff showed up after four wearing tight jeans and a black t-shirt. He was carrying a half dozen covered pie plates; Cody made room for them in the oven while Jeff cracked a beer.
"Fuck," Jeff said, staring out the kitchen window to where some of the kids were running through the sprinklers. "How much shit do you think I'd get if I did that?"
Cody swiped a kitchen towel across her sweaty face. "Strength in numbers?" she asked.
Jeff grinned, put down his beer, and left Eric alone in the kitchen with only a shouted, "Don't burn my dip, Staal!" over his shoulder.
The house filled up gradually, until Eric could barely get from room to room without acquiring at least one toddler barnacled to his shins. The mood was a bit off, at first. He kept catching the team clumping together, talking about the season in tones of frustrated resignation. Eric broke that up whenever he could, steering guys off to get a drink or out to the soccer scrimmage in the backyard.
By the time the burgers started going on the grill, the atmosphere had improved some. Eric caught a glimpse of Jeff, curls clinging damply to his face while his clothes gently steamed in the late afternoon sun. He wasn't the only one who had gotten soaked. Eric didn't know who brought the water balloons, but his money was on Jordy.
Getting everyone fed took nearly two hours. Eric was unceremoniously booted from his own grill by Cam, who swiped the spatula and the I Grill to Thrill apron and everything. Funny how his injury played up when there were folding chairs to move, but not when there was meat to char.
Almost everyone ended up outside as the sun set, picking at dessert. Some of the Checkers guys had fireworks. Eric badly wanted to say no to their stupid, pleading faces when they asked if it was okay to set them off, but he couldn't.
He ended up sitting on the deck steps, eating a piece of pie and watching the kids argue over the best way to light a fuse. Jesus.
"The insurance policies we have on you guys don't cover dismemberment," he called.
Jordy dropped down next to him, a beer in each hand. "You're right," he said, like they'd been carrying on a conversation. "This is a pretty sweet party."
Jared detached himself from the Checkers guys and wandered over to plop down a step below them. Approximately ten seconds later, one of the PR ladies came over with her camera.
"Family photo?" she asked hopefully.
They smiled for her, and Jordy made devil horns behind Jared. Eric wondered despairingly why he'd pushed so hard to get his brothers here with him.
"Reminds me of the farm," Jordy said when the photo op was done. He gestured out over the packed yard.
Jared snorted. "Wow, no shit, Eric is on a nostalgia kick."
"Shut up." Eric kneed him in the back. "I like my team." And if the annual barbecue looked an awful lot like the massive family reunions their parents hosted every summer, well . . . that just meant he'd learned to put on a good party from the experts.
"One day he'll get Marc down here, and he'll explode in a puff of feelings," Jordy said.
Eric frowned reflexively. "Not going to happen." Marc had made his utter disinterest in signing with the Hurricanes clear on multiple occasions. Eric respected that; Marc had a good thing going with the Rangers, and a life in New York. But there was no law against being a little wistful over the possibilities, was there?
Heather joined them, slipping into the space next to Jordy. The two of them clinked beers, then kissed, long and slow.
Eric sat back and finished his pie. He had two of his brothers here, set to play together for years. He had a team. Good guys. His guys. It had been a beautiful day.
The first firework shrieked into the sky. And watching it, Eric felt only empty.
He got up after a while and slipped away inside. A bunch of the younger kids were sleeping upstairs, and the house was quiet.
Jeff was in the kitchen alone. Eric stopped in the doorway, unobserved, and looked at him. Jeff's clothes had dried; they looked stiff and a little muddy. His hair was a mess, and he'd burned across the bridge of his nose. He was working at the island, boxing up leftovers in a set of nested tupperwear. And he was shifting gently from foot to foot as he worked, humming softly to the baby secured in one of those sling things on his chest.
And Eric just surrendered.
He could hear the party noises drifting in through the screen door. Everybody sounded happy. Looking at Jeff, Eric let this whole miserable disastrous year slide off his shoulders. And he let go.
"Hey," Eric said quietly.
Jeff jumped, patting reflexively at the baby, who didn't stir.
"Sorry." Eric went and leaned against the opposite side of the island. "Who's that?"
"Emily. Tlusty's sister's youngest." Jeff snapped a lid onto a container of potato salad. "She wouldn't go down, so I said I'd take her."
"You don't want to see the fireworks?"
Jeff shrugged with one shoulder. "Kind of peopled out," he said. He wasn't looking at Eric; he didn't much anymore. He was polite, he was friendly when Eric initiated. But off the ice, Eric might as well be a casual acquaintance.
"Do you want kids?" Eric asked suddenly.
That got Jeff's attention. "Yeah," he said, frowning at Eric. "Not anytime soon. But sure."
Eric leaned across the island on his elbows. "How many?"
"God, I don't know. Why?"
"A bunch?" Eric pressed. He thought of the farm, and the scraps he'd picked up of Jeff's happy, crowded childhood. "You want a full house?"
"Yes," Jeff said, so fast Eric knew he hadn't needed to think about it. "Why?" he asked again.
Eric took a deep breath. "I made a mistake," he said plainly. "Last spring. A huge mistake."
Jeff's rocking motion stopped. "Excuse me?"
"When you tried to talk to me after the end of the season last year," Eric said. "I fucked up, Jeff."
"Ah." Jeff slid back into motion, crisply snapping another lid down. "I liked it better when we were pretending that never happened," he said lightly. "Let's keep doing that, eh?"
Eric reached across the island and wrapped a hand around his wrist. "I'm asking if we can have the conversation again," he said. "Because I want it to go differently this time."
Jeff went still again, his feet planted. There was a brief silence in which he stared at Eric, blank-faced.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" he said.
"No," Eric said. He straightened his shoulders. "I'm not."
"Oh, wow, really," Jeff said. "Because the way I remember it, it was irresponsible to so much as talk about it, and I'd understand that better with more time to mature. Did I get that right?" He flung Eric's own words back at him savagely, forgetting halfway through to keep his voice down. The baby squawked, disturbed by the noise. Jeff snatched his wrist away and patted her back, rubbing gentle circles.
Eric had been keeping a lid on this for a long time. But letting go of that was easy as he watched Jeff soothe the baby and glare murder at the same time. This was the viciousness that came out when he was cornered on the ice – or in Eric's kitchen, apparently. Eric loved him.
"I was wrong," Eric said.
"Oh, sure." Jeff laughed in a derisive undertone. "And you just happen to decide to try this the second I'm on the trading block? I wasn't born yesterday, despite what you think. If you want a goodbye screw, skip the bullshit and just ask."
Eric jumped at the only part of that he felt equal to handling. "You're not getting traded," he said.
Jeff opened his mouth, then hesitated. ". . . Do you have information I don't?"
Eric winced. "No. If I did, I would have told you. But I really don't think it's going to happen."
"Oh, well, I guess I'll unpack my bags then," Jeff snapped. But some of the fight had gone out of him.
"Even if I'm wrong – which I don't think I am –" he added hastily. "Jeff. Can we rewind a year?"
"What, so you can make yourself feel better by being a little less of a dick on a do-over?" Jeff joggled the baby gently, one hand cupped over her little head while he whisper-sneered at Eric.
"Yeah, kinda," Eric said. "But mostly so I can give the right answer this time."
That shut Jeff up. He stopped all motion, both hands hovering over the baby.
The screen door banged and there was a thunder of feet. A pack of kids stampeded through the kitchen, in from the dining room and out into the living room. Faulk came in on their heels, waving a water gun and laughing evilly.
"No water guns in the house!" they simultaneously shouted after him. The baby was waking up, and Jeff looked appalled. And rumpled and pissed off, and so lovely it made Eric's throat hurt.
"Look," Eric said quickly, while Faulk declaimed something ominous in the living room and the children screamed. "Just stay tonight, after the party. Talk to me. Please."
The screen door banged again, and Cody came in with someone's brand new girlfriend – Eric couldn't place her yet.
"Oh wow, Jeff, that's awesome," Cody said, surveying the kitchen. "I was not looking forward to tackling this."
"Neither of you have to do anything," Eric said, nettled. "It's my kitchen, I got it."
"Sure, sweetie," Cody said. "You can dial a cleaning service like a champ. Monica, would you mind doing a round to collect empties?"
And then the kitchen was bustling again. The baby's mother showed up, and there was a great production over fussiness and allegedly dirty diapers. It took Jeff a few minutes to escape; he made a break for freedom around the island as soon as he could.
"Fine," he said, brushing past Eric. "I'll hang out. We'll talk." The set of his mouth was grim, but Eric almost fistpumped.
Some of the guys set up a card game in the dining room, and Eric ended up sitting down for a few hands. Jeff usually would have been all over that, but tonight he was conspicuously absent. But for the first time in a year, knowing that Jeff didn't want to be in the same room as him was okay. Or would be okay. Or could be okay.
Eric stopped drinking. He needed to keep his head clear.
People left in a trickle. Normally, Eric offered guest rooms to the guys with young kids and long drives, but this year he let it go. He wanted the house empty.
Jared left with Jordy and Heather after one. They were down to the dedicated partiers by then, the single guys, mostly. They settled in around the dining table, playing poker and talking shit.
And Jeff wasn't among them. Eric made a circuit of the entire downstairs to be sure. He went out back, too, circling the empty yard in the dark and listening to the cicadas. No Jeff. Eric stood there on the grass for a while, trying to decide whether he was more mad or disappointed.
It was just so unlike Jeff; he threw himself bodily at guys twice his size, and apparently enjoyed it. And he was furious at Eric, that was clear. So if he'd actually taken off . . .
On balance, disappointment was winning.
He went back in, intending to sit down with the guys. The party was teetering on the brink of transformation from family barbecue to team bender, and he'd stocked the bar accordingly.
But once he got back in the dining room where they were all talking and laughing, he just couldn't. Eric started cleaning up, reaching around shoulders to collect dishes and trash. It didn't take long for the guys to get the hint.
They left in a batch. Eric hugged everyone in the entryway, and promised to see them all in September.
And then the house was empty.
Eric stopped cleaning the minute the door closed behind Sanguinetti. Because he did have a good cleaning service, thank you very much, and also because he was just done. With today, with the season.
He trudged up the stairs, turned into his bedroom, and stopped.
The bathroom light was on, and Jeff was curled asleep on the folded blanket at the foot of his bed.
Eric just stood there for a minute, so relieved he couldn't have said anything if he'd wanted to. He could hear Jeff's quiet, regular breathing.
He went and sat carefully on the edge of the bed without turning on the overhead light. Jeff had his knees folded up and his chin tucked down. He was a neat, compact package. Eric would get permanently stuck if he slept in that position. But Jeff was insanely bendy from regular yoga and the dance classes he still took sometimes, a remnant of figure skating that he didn't want to let go of.
Eric took a deep breath. He wanted to scruff his hand through Jeff's hair, wake him up with a kiss and get him under the covers. But when Jeff was awake, he was probably going to want to verbally smack Eric around some more. And when he was asleep, Eric could pretend that they'd just hosted this party together, that Jeff had gotten tired and gone upstairs early, that Jeff had been waiting for him in bed, that Jeff was his.
Eric braced himself and leaned in, but didn't touch him. "Hey," he said quietly.
Jeff napped like a cat, easily and anywhere. Last year, back when he was here as much as he was home, he'd dozed off on the couch all the time. Eric knew how easily he woke, and how slow and muzzy he was after.
He watched Jeff sigh, go "hmm?" and blink, and slowly uncurl.
"Eric?" Jeff said, soft-eyed and confused. Then he frowned, rubbing his face, and said, "Oh. Right. I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"You never do," Eric said, smiling. That was what Jeff always said when Eric found him sleeping on the couch, the plane, in a hotel lobby, and, once, on the locker room bench in a tumbled pile of gear.
"There were kids in all the guest rooms," Jeff said. "Babies. Everywhere."
"It's fine." Eric locked his hands together and put them between his knees for good measure. "I don't mind you in here. I like it."
Jeff exhaled audibly. "I was trying to say, don't read into it."
"Oh." Eric swallowed. "Okay. Noted."
Jeff sat up slowly. He swung his feet over the side of the bed and sat for a while, elbows on knees and face in hands. "Is everyone gone?" he asked the carpet.
"Yeah. It's nearly three. Do you – the guest rooms are free. Do you want to do this in the morning?"
Jeff scrubbed his face with both hands. "No. But I'm tired as hell, so let's cut this down to the essentials, okay?"
"Sure," Eric said, actually relieved. There were only a very few things he needed to say to Jeff, and he was pretty sure he could get them out. They were pretty simple and, well. Essential.
"I'm sorry I took your head off earlier," Jeff said. "I'm too tired to be mad now, and yeah. That was shitty of me."
That was so familiarly Jeff that Eric was smiling before the apology was halfway out. Jeff flared up hot and cooled down just as fast. The guys who set him off on the ice didn't get an apology, but Jeff was often laughing and sheepish by the time he got back to the locker room.
That was one reason why the distance this year was so awful. They'd practically lived in each other's pockets last year, making dinner together, working out, watching games, building a fire pit in the back yard. And then Jeff had smiled at him late one evening last April and said, "Hey, so we both know what's going on here. Let's get on with it, yeah?" with no fear or doubt, just expectation. And Eric had shut him down cold.
So when Jeff had come back after the lockout and made it clear Eric was no longer welcome in his life, it wasn't because he was mad. That would have worn off long before. It was because cutting Eric out was something he needed to do.
"No, it's cool, I get it," Eric said. "I was going to say you could yell at me some more if you want."
"I'll keep it in mind," Jeff said dryly. There was another brief silence, and then Jeff said, "What do you want from me?"
Eric picked the simplest answer he could. "I want to kiss you, and I want you to stay the night and let me cook breakfast for you, and I want to spend the day with you, and then I want to take you to dinner somewhere nice."
"Well." There was no bite in Jeff's voice, just weariness. "At least you're admitting it now."
"Yeah." Eric leaned forward. "I'm sorry. Did I say that? You've got to believe me, I—"
"No I don't." Jeff was looking at him for the first time. He seemed older in the indirect light from the bathroom florescent. "I don't have to believe you if I don't want to."
"Fuck." Eric grabbed two handfuls of the throw blanket. "I know you don't. I—" he snapped his teeth shut, breathing out through his nose. "I'm just sorry."
Jeff sat still, eyes on Eric's face. "Why'd you do that to me, man?" he asked at last. "I mean, I've been turned down before. But you tried to make me think I was in this thing alone, like I was making shit up."
"It's complicated," Eric said. Jeff looked singularly unimpressed, and Eric sighed. "It is. But if I had to boil it down – I'm a lot older than you."
Jeff's spine snapped straight and he threw up his hands. "Oh my God," he said, the sleepy huskiness entirely gone from his voice. "You treat those seven years like seven fucking decades, do you know that? I don't see what—"
"I've thought about marrying you," Eric said, and Jeff shut right up. Eric stared into the bathroom, eyes unseeing, face hot. "I mean, I'm your captain and I'm responsible for you, and that – that's a thing. But mostly it's that I've thought about marrying you, and having kids with you. And I know you're not in that place yet, I get that. But the thing you don't get is that I am." And more so every day, it seemed, in this giant house that still felt empty even with half of his family in it.
". . . Wow," Jeff said. "Okay. Um. Okay." His exhale was shaky. "You're right, I'm not there."
"And that's okay," Eric said quickly. "I mean, I just want to date you, to be clear. But you need to know. That's – that's what this is about. For me."
"You didn't want to date me a year ago," Jeff said.
"Yeah I did," Eric said. "I just didn't want to get hurt. And, well." He gestured between them. It was a little late to be concerned about that now.
"Yeah," Jeff said, nodding like he got that. He shuffled his feet and bit his lip. "Why tonight? I, uh, didn't mean the thing I said earlier about you doing this because I might be traded, but."
Eric shrugged and thought, essentials. "You were in my kitchen," he said. "Holding a baby. Putting leftovers away."
There was a very long silence. Eric waited, not looking over. He felt drained. And surprisingly at peace, considering Jeff might still tell him to fuck off.
The bed shifted. When Eric turned, Jeff had gotten up on his knees on the blanket.
"Well," Jeff said, "My dip does bring all the boys to the yard." He put a hand on Eric's shoulder. "What was it? The first thing on your list. A kiss good night, yeah?"