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Five First Dates

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1. Jerry's

It's not that Eric thinks the date will be amazing because A, it's Ransom and Holster and they have the collective intuitiveness of a brick wall and B, see point A. He's been through this already with Winter Screw last year and that ended up with him throwing out his only pair of dress shoes after his date -- and Eric uses this word very loosely -- puked up four margaritas on them (though a new pair had shown up on his bed a week later with a note that said "Don't worry, we'll do better next time").

But it seems like they've swung in the complete opposite direction because they asked way too many questions about the kind of guy he likes (given answer: "Tall"; actual answer: "Inaccessible hockey players") and the kinds of things he likes to do on dates (given answer: "Go to Jerry's? Get coffee?"; actual answer: "Nothing, I don't like dating."), and somehow had come up with the most boring guy on earth that Eric found himself having to make small talk with over brunch, which was an affront to Jerry's brunch, really.

Lardo would be pissed.

Jamie is nice-looking, definitely tall, so there's that, with cute glasses that his bangs keep getting stuck on so he spends a large amount of time tucking his hair behind his ear. But good lord, they have nothing in common, from the fact he doesn't listen to music made after 1980 to his sport of choice being building World War II airplane models.

Eric orders the strawberry cream pancakes and Jamie orders eggs and bacon and dry wheat toast and Eric says, "You can try some of mine," when it comes but Jamie says, "Oh, I don't really like sweets" and at that point Eric wonders if this is a prank.

It still sucks later when he has to stumble through letting him down because somehow Jamie had come away with the impression that the date was amazing and not in contention for the blandest date on earth, and letting people down was not a position Eric loved being in. Which is why he doesn't date...or maybe he doesn't know how because he doesn't date? Either way, it's the worst, and he consoles himself with making a dozen cherry turnovers.

At least the next morning when Jack asks if he can take one on the road, Eric gets to dawdle with him while he warms it in the toaster oven.

"How was your date," Jack asks, filling a glass with tap water ("Jack, we have a Britta, gross.")

Eric rolls his eyes. "Fine, if you like listening to hour long spiels about World War II." He realizes what he's said. "Which I do," he adds hurriedly.

Jack raises his eyebrows over his glass as he takes a pull and Eric's face heats.

"I mean. Platonically. Or on a date. If you like that. History, I mean." Any day now he'll stop talking and when that day comes he'll also murder Ransom and Holster in their sleep.

The toaster dings, thank the baby Jesus, and just as the flush is leaving Eric's cheeks Jack takes his first bite, closing his eyes briefly and saying, "Oh," around a mouthful.

He files it carefully away for later, with the rest of his catalogue of the things about Jack that make his heart race. It's a face that he's seen already and has made appearances, shamefully, when Eric is falling asleep. But he'll take the refresher, he's only human.

Jack holds the turnover in his teeth as he shrugs on his hoodie. "Later, Bittle," he says out of the corner of his mouth and winks and Eric actually feels his stomach do a slow roll, upending his insides in a way that is almost pleasantly painful.

The door closes behind him as Shitty walks in, wearing ratty orange and green striped briefs and blue monster slippers. "Turnovers, rad," he says, and jams one in his mouth cold.

Eric sighs and fills the carafe for coffee.


#


Eric's first real crush was on Tyler Embry, his freshman year of high school. Tyler sat in front of him in American History and played baseball and had a smile that crinkled up the corners of his hazel eyes, a smile that he would flash at Eric like a secret every time Mr. Dowd would ramble off on some Culturally Significant detail or another.

The other kids in class would start checking their phones under their desks or the girls in the back would pick up their whispered conversation from where they left off when the bell rang, but Tyler would turn to Eric and smile because he knew Eric kind of liked Mr. Dowd, even if he had no earthly idea what he was talking about half the time.

Eric already knew, by this point, that he couldn't be the only gay kid at school. But it wasn't something he dwelled on too much because he knew other gay kids already, from skating, and he just never felt much of anything for anyone. So he figured it would just be more of the same when he was with kids he had nothing in common with.

But then he met Tyler.

Eric knew Tyler from him Being Popular, but then he suddenly noticed Eric, for reasons Eric still can't explain. Tyler had asked Eric for help studying, which turned out to be hilarious because Eric grasped even less than Tyler, but they tried anyway, and studying after school turned into Tyler walking him halfway home until their paths diverged which turned into Eric going to Tyler's games and Tyler inviting him over to play XBox.

The crush happened before Eric really understood what was going on, because he knew Tyler was straight (Tyler talked about girls a lot, and Eric learned a lot about how to talk about girls over those months which was useful for high school) and that his friendship was just that: friendship. But one day they were cutting through the woods on their way to his house when Tyler stopped to look up at a mockingbird that was screeching in a tree and Eric was struck by the strangest feeling in his belly. When Tyler grinned at him, Eric realized: I really like this boy.

It was almost impossible, after, for Eric to be normal. He thought about Tyler all the time, replayed every slap on the back, every brush of their hands, the flex of his forearms and shoulders.  

It was a catalogue that he kept with him when they moved, and even though Eric said he'd call Tyler, he never did, because he knew he was confusing friendship for something more and it was better this way.

Years later, in the kitchen at the Haus, creaming butter and sugar in a giant pyrex bowl, Eric feels the same thunderstrike except this time Jack will be the one moving away and Eric doesn't think it'll be better, not for a long time.


#


2. The River

Eric supposes he thought the River would look different when you're on a date, but it doesn't. If anything, it somehow feels more ordinary than when he and Jack would walk along it toward Faber in the early mornings for checking practice, that strange silent half-dark of knowing it's the morning but the sun isn't up.

Even with Jack complaining in his ear about bad calls or their sometimes inconsistent puck possession (which Eric personally thinks Jack is splitting hairs on, what's 2% here or there come on, but it's also that kind of thing that makes him a great captain and makes Eric love him more, somehow), or strategizing about their upcoming back to backs, it feels...

Magical is probably a silly and overly sentimental word, but Eric's going to use it anyway because that's just what it feels like, still almost half asleep on his feet with a coffee that Jack makes him in his Habs to-go mug, listening to Jack describe the variables which would have changed the outcome of a specific play that only he remembers from three games ago. It makes Eric feels like they're the only two people on earth.

As opposed to now, when the guy Ransom and Holster has set him up with is trying to play "guess who's on a date" like they're in a romantic comedy except he's not funny and is actually sort of being a jerk about it.

He knows why they picked this guy -- Ben. He's tall (again, at least they listen to one thing), he's outgoing, he's handsome in an odd sort of way with a long nose and he talks out of one side of his mouth sometimes, like his jaw is a little lopsided, which Eric finds intensely charming. But his humor manifests itself as mean too much of the time which basically cancels out any effect his very nice mouth might have on Eric to see where this goes.

 He suffers through it for as long as he can stand and in his pocket he sends Lardo the message they had agreed he'd have cued up just in case, a bunch of exclamation points. 30 second later, his phone buzzes.

"Sorry," he interrupts, and Ben snaps his mouth shut, "It's our manager. Hey Lards, you okay?"

"How bad?"

"Oh, no," Eric says, and thinks he might be hamming it up when Ben's eyes narrow, just a bit. "That sounds like the worst!"

Lardo snickers and says, "I'll see you soon, Bits."

"I'll be there as soon as I can." Eric hangs up and makes the universal gotta go gesture at Ben who rolls his eyes and Eric wrinkles his nose before he can help it.

Needless to say, he returns home by himself, where Jack is standing on the porch in Under Armor leggings and his hideous yellow running shoes, holding one ankle behind his butt to stretch his long, lean quad.

Eric gives himself a shake. "Hey, Jack."

Jack looks up, and quirks his lopsided mouth to one side. "Run?"

Above them Eric hears a snort and looks up to see Lardo and Shitty on the roof. "Have fun, boys," Shitty singsongs and Jack chucks a wadded up Habs rally towel in their general direction, which Shitty kicks out of the air with a karate yell.

Eric laughs and goes to change.


#


3. Annie's

Eric knows he must be a sight because Holster slaps a hand to his forehead when Eric comes through the door after meeting Zach (dark-haired and quiet and really intensely into hockey; gave him a treatise on what Eric did wrong on the ice during their last match up against Yale) at Annie's.

Holster and Jack are in the kitchen and Eric, managing to avoid all eye-contact with Jack, strips off his button down and undershirt and shoves the bundle at Holster. "You can wash that in your next load."

Even Jack couldn't make spilling coffee on him after overanalyzing his stats romantic, though when he actually did spill coffee on him last week, his adorably shocked face and super Canadian "sorry" and his hands all over Eric as he tried to somehow mop it up really made up for it.

"And iron it, too," he snaps, before stomping up the stairs, certain he can feel Jack's eyes on his bare back and cursing himself for liking it.


#


4. Faber

"I'm probably going to have to murder those boys to get them to stop trying to set me up." Eric frowns at his button down and contemplates wearing a tie even though it'll be covered up by his scarf. "Is it weird to wear a tie to an ice-skating date?"

"Yes." Lardo looks at him over the top of her book. "So do you need me to help you bury the bodies, or?"

Eric sighs. "No, it's fine. How do I look?"

"Oh, Bits," she says and frowns. "Just say you don't want to go."

He's already told himself this will be the last time. But he feels bad backing out now and who knows, maybe this is the thing that will do the trick -- maybe the ice will work some magic.

"It's not that I don't want to," he says, digging a sweatshirt out of his closet. "I just want to with--the right person."

Lardo pushes her tongue against her bottom lip where her lip ring used to be. "Is this how you're gonna find the right person?"

He zips up his sweatshirt. "Fifth time's a charm?"

Lardo sighs. "If you don't kill them, I might."

Eric sticks his tongue out, puffs up his hair in the mirror, and takes a breath. "If I'm back before ten, I give you full permission."

He had told Jason he'd meet him at Faber for tonight's open skate, the last one of the school year, so he makes a little noise when he opens the door and a guy is standing there, his hand raised like he's about to knock. "Oh," he says, and smiles. "You must be Eric? I'm Jason."

Eric blinks. Jason is tall and broad-shouldered with dark hair and though Eric's type consists more of things like smart and funny and makes him smile, Jason's coming close by just standing there grinning. Eric starts, realizing he hasn't said anything. "Hi! Yes, hi."

"Have fun boys," Holster yells as he passes and Eric turns to shoo him away, his cheeks reddening.

Behind Holster is Jack, of course, who smiles and gives a little wave with the hand holding a six pack.

Eric swallows hard and smiles back then turns back to Jason. "Sorry. We should, um, go."

Jason laughs and Eric closes the door on Jack, still standing in the hall, while Ransom yells for a beer.

At Faber, his first step onto the ice is strange without someone from the team stepping on behind him. But then Jason is there and he laughs a little as he pulls himself closer to the wall. "Okay?" Eric asks, and Jason snorts.

"Just gotta get my sea, uh, ice legs? Under me." He grins as he clings to the wall. "How's my form? Almost a pro, right?"

Eric laughs and holds his fingers up in an almost-pinch. "This close."

Jason holds a hand out, his hazel eyes crinkling over his pinked cheeks. "Show me the ropes?"

Eric's heart squeezes and he blinks and takes Jason's hand. He's wobbly on his feet ("Like a baby deer." "Yeah, but like, a really handsome and manly baby deer, right?" And here Eric feels a laugh punched out of him as Jason tries to flex his biceps without falling down), but gets more confident as they complete a slow lap around the rink.

The feel of the ice under Eric's skates, the contrast of the ache in his knuckles from the cold and a warm palm against his. Getting beer from the concession stand and laughing at Jason's recounting of his run in with the LAX bros: It's...nice. It's normal. It's what you're supposed to do on dates, it's what Eric has imagined a date on the ice would be like. Though maybe his version had had more checking in it, he can admit.

After, they sit next to each other on the benches next to the public lockers, and Jason nudges his shoulder as he leans over to unlace his skates.

Eric looks up and Jason smiles and reaches out to tuck a lock of hair back into his pompadour. Eric knows what comes next and he lets it, because if this doesn't do it, nothing will, the smell of the ice and rubber flooring and apple cider curling around them.

Jason kisses him, and Eric gives it a shot, kissing him back, Jason's cool mouth giving way to a hot tongue testing the seam of Eric's lips.

Nothing stirs in Eric, not really, and after a second Jason realizes it, too.

Jason pulls back and bites the corner of his lower lip as Eric stares at the floor, eyes tracing the puzzle piece edge where two rubber tiles meet each other, searching desperately for something to say that isn't the dreaded 'it's not you it's me', even though it's mostly true.

"It was my skating, wasn't it?" Jason says finally and Eric looks up to see Jason smiling wryly at him.

Eric sighs. "I'm sorry. I really had a nice time." He pauses a beat. "But you really are awful at this. I thought you played baseball?"

Jason lets out a startled bark of a laugh. "Yeah, on ground that isn't actively trying to kill me when I walk on it." He bumps Eric's shoulder again. "Wrong time, maybe?"

"Maybe," Eric concedes, not wanting to string him along. They could go on another date, and another, and maybe Eric would start to feel something. Maybe it'll work out. But maybe isn't good enough for him anymore; he feels compelled to add, "It's complicated," knowing Jason will hear it for what it is: No.

"I get it. Not gonna say I'm not bummed, but I get it." Jason stands. "Walk you back?"

"No, that's...I'm gonna stay a bit, if that's okay."

He shrugs a little sheepishly. "Of course. Tell Holster I was a good kisser at least, okay?"

Eric laughs again, which seems crazy considering he feels mostly like garbage. "Promise."

Jason waves a little and leaves and Eric sits on the bench until his nose is so cold it starts to feel warm again, trying to think about nothing, mostly thinking about how much he wishes it were Jack here with him, for the first time allowing himself to wonder what it would be like. What it would have been like to be on all these dates with him -- listening to him ramble about the differences between Canadian and American made planes over omelettes, making him try Eric's pumpkin flavored whipped cream on his latte,

When he gets back to the Haus, he stomps into the den and blocks the television where Ransom, Holster, Shitty and Jack are all watching an old Habs-Pens game because Jack hates the Blackhawks and refuses to watch the Finals but feels itchy knowing there's hockey on that he's not watching; the rest of them are ridiculous enablers. "Hey!" Holster says. "Down in front!"

"Enough," Eric snaps and Ransom and Holster shrink back into the couch. "I'm not doing this anymore, and you're both going to drop it."

Ransom says tentatively, "We really thought you'd like this one."

"It's not that I didn't--I know what you've been doing and I just." He makes the mistake of looking at Jack, who is looking back at him with a strange expression on his face that's halfway between sadness and concentration. It's the way he looks when the other team scores on them and he knocks helmets with the d-men who were on the ice.

Or, in layman's terms, pity.

"I just don't want to anymore." He swallows hard but doesn't look away until Jack does. "That's the last one. I mean it."

They both nod meekly and behind Eric the Consol horn sounds on the television as the Pens net one. Holster's eyes dart to the side to see if he can see the screen, but Eric does his best to loom and Holster quickly cuts his eyes downward.

"Sorry, Bitty."

Eric nods and stomps up the stairs.

Halfway up, Shitty grabs his arm gently and Eric lets himself be stopped. "Hey, are you--do you need to talk?"

He imagines talking Shitty through it: how much he wants to be with someone, anyone, but how little his body seems to be able to get with the program when the time comes and how he's tired of trying to make himself into it. How he can get so turned on from watching Jack's hands kneading dough, but a hot guy has his tongue in Eric's mouth and he feels almost repulsed. How he's been mostly fine with it all until now, until stupid Jack Zimmermann and his dumb smile and his sad eyes and his idiot friends who are trying to help but are making him feel bad and would probably jump in the river if they realized that.

Shitty is looking at him so openly that it's hard for Eric to hang onto how mad he is. "I'm just. I dunno. Not interested? In that, anyway."

"In dating?"

"No. Sort of? All of it. I don't want to meet guys like that. I don't like it, and I can't..." he makes a hand gesture that he hopes Shitty will understand.

Shitty nods. "I get it. That's okay, you know."

"I know," Eric snaps, flushing, because maybe he didn't until right now.

"Okay, Bits." Shitty butts his head against Eric's shoulder. "Got your back."

Eric laughs and shoves him down a step before heading back upstairs. He lays on his bed in the dark and listens to the guys arguing over a tripping penalty and eventually falls asleep.


#


It's not okay, of course it isn't.

But he doesn't need anyone to explain to him what he is or why he feels the way he does. He just is and he just does and that's the end of that.

He's met tons of people more worldly than he is and he's travelled to a bunch of places and he finally left his podunk town to come to a place where he could be himself. And if being head over heels with Jack Zimmermann is all tangled up in that, well, it won't be forever.

It's not okay, but it will be.


#


5. A Victory Lap

There's a knock at the door as Eric is idly scrolling around Tumblr, waiting for the blog file to upload. "Not interested," he says crankily, because if Ransom and Holster think he wasn't serious about shutting this nonsense down, they have another thing coming. Maybe he'll institute pie suspensions next year. He's bringing a few to Faber tonight to celebrate Jack and Shitty's last night as Wellies, maybe he'll start the suspensions immediately.

"You haven't heard what I was thinking yet, though."

Eric spins around in his chair to see Jack leaning in his doorway, mouth quirked in a tiny half smile, and Eric feels his heart trip up for a second, simultaneously crushed and relieved that this might be the last time he'll look up from his desk to see that smile, those perpetually sad blue eyes, that long, lean body looking like a tall drink of lemonade on a hot summer day all but lounging in his doorway like he belongs there.

"As long as it's not a forced date, I guess it can't be so bad," Eric laughs and after a second Jack does, too.

"Ah, no," he says, his smile going a little strange, just on the other side of wry.

Eric narrows his eyes at Jack's leggings. "I know you did not come in here to take me to checking practice."

"So...that's a no, eh?"

Eric feels the Jack Laurent Zimmermann is implicit in his raised eyebrow and Jack laughs.

"Actually, I was thinking you might want to take a turn around the ice with me. No checking allowed, I promise. Maybe grab a coffee at Annie's before we head up."

After so many terrible dates trying to create the perfect night, it's so close to what Eric wishes were reality...but Jack's smile is so lovely, his offer so sincere that Eric wants to beat his head against his desk.

His computer pings that his upload is done, so instead he looks away and busies himself scrolling through file names so he has somewhere else to look, but can't help but smile because it's so very Jack. "A victory lap around Samwell?"

There's a pause. "Something like that."

Eric steels himself, turns around and smiles. "Lemme get my skates."


#


Jack does, in fact, concede to trying the whipped cream on Eric's latte, using his straw as a spoon as they walk along the River to Faber. Of course, Jack has an espresso, hot, even though it's a beautiful spring day and Eric's sweating slightly under his collar.

"See, I'm acclimating," he says and Jack smirks at him.

"Tell me that tonight when we're on the roof and you're freezing your butt off."

"I will not," Eric says loftily. "I'm a New Englander now."

Skating next to him is normal, but without a real purpose, just lazily circling the ice, Eric's heart pounds. Jack asks him to do a jump and Eric does a salchow then a double toe loop because why not, but it's been awhile so he teeters a little on the landing and Jack is suddenly there to steady him.

He's out of breath from the jumps, of course. "We can make a play outta that?"

Jack laughs, and it must be Eric's imagination that he seems breathless, too. "One day you'll have to teach me some of those."

"With that butt, you'll get tons of height," Eric says, unthinking, and Jack laughs again.

Eric shows him some fancy footwork that ends in a chase across the length of the ice and Eric's not sure what's gotten into him, maybe the caffeine or maybe feeling so raw from last night, but when Jack reaches the opposite end Eric throws himself forward, checking Jack, as much as Eric can check anyone, into the boards.

Jack squares his shoulders and catches him around the waist, like he expected it, like he can read Eric's mind but in reality Jack can read his body and thinking that while he's pressed along the length of Jack's chest and hips makes every inch of Eric's skin flush with heat, pricking sweat under his arms and over the back of his neck.

"Hey," Jack says, looking down at Eric with eyes that look dark and liquid and Eric thinks Jack must be able to feel his heart slamming against his chest. "I thought we said no checking."

"You said no checking," Eric breathes, drunk on the feeling of Jack's hard, lean body against his. "I made no such promises."

Jack hms and Eric knows if he doesn't move now he's going to do something he'll regret. "Brunch?" he says and Jack blinks.

"What?"

"Brunch," Eric repeats and Jack smiles and pushes back, his hands sliding off Eric's hips.

"Of course."

"Race you," Eric says, to make it not weird and he takes off for the door on the opposite end of the ice with Jack on his heels, laughing his dorky honking laugh that only the team ever gets to hear.

Eric's heart squeezes at the thought that soon another team will learn it, without him.

They don't talk about planes while they wolf down all-day breakfast at Jerry's. They talk about the Falconers and summer plans and Eric deciding to finally fill his language requirement next year, all while Jack, who's ordered huevos rancheros, casually steals bites of Eric's pancakes.

"I can help," he says around a forkful of beans and Eric smiles into his orange juice.

"Yeah?"

"Of course, Bittle. I'll make up a lesson plan."

Eric laughs, but stops when he sees that Jack is serious, and his heart feels so full he almost can't speak. "That would be great, Jack."

Jack spears another piece of pancake. "No problem."

They walk back to the Haus along the river as the sun is setting behind the pond. Across the quad, the band is practicing for graduation tomorrow. Eric has been trying to avoid it, but this does feel like an ending, a final goodbye to Jack, to the Samwell Eric knew as Jack's liney, Jack's roommate...Jack's friend. Next year is going to be so strange without him, without Shitty, but Eric knows it's the way things go, the way they must be. And that it'll be better, in the end, if he wants to stay Jack's friend.

Jack stops and looks out over the quad and Eric peeks at his face, half in shadow, half golden in the long sunset.

Suddenly Jack turns to him. "Thanks."

Eric laughs a little. "For what?"

Jack slants a smirk at him. "For coming on my victory lap."

Eric shoves him and Jack lets himself be shoved. "I didn't mean it like that."

"Well," Jack puts a big hand on Eric's back, right between his shoulder blades, "thank you."

Eric tips his face up to look at him and he realizes they're close, very close to each other, and if this were a date with one of those other boys, this would be when they would try to kiss him.

Except with those other boys Eric wouldn't feel like this: like there's a cord drawing him into Jack, like he can't breathe because his heart is thumping in his throat, like there's a tingle in the soles of his feet, pushing him to want to go up on his toes and close the gap.

It's not those other boys. It's Jack. And this is not a date.

"Of course, Jack," he finally says, and punches Jack lightly in the shoulder.

Jack's brow knits for a second, probably wondering at the length and intensity of Eric's pause, then smoothes out. "You bringing pie tonight?"

Eric smiles, because if he's learned nothing else in the last four years it's how to put on a brave face. "You even have to ask?"

"I guess not," Jack says easily and turns towards the Haus. "C'mon."

Eric manages to not cry the entire way home so there's that, at least, though he does make a brief detour into his room to sob quietly into his pillow for ten minutes before going back downstairs to make sure the pies are unmolested.

Lardo and Shitty pretend his face doesn't look red and blotchy and they let him stand in front of the fridge until the boys come downstairs, the cool air resetting his resolve to get through this.

"Letting out all the cold air, Bittle," Jack says over his shoulder and Eric startles.

"I told you, I generate my own cold air now."

"Right, you're a New Englander, I forgot." He plucks at the shoulder of Eric's sweater. "This all you're wearing, eh?"

Eric sniffs and pulls out the pies before closing the door. "It's June, Jack, how bad can it be?"

Jack holds his hands up. "Okay, I believe you, you don't need to bring a coat. Ready?"

Eric takes a deep breath, looks over Jack's shoulder at Shitty, Lardo, Ransom, and Holster all loading up with bags and laughing and he feels his heart break. "Ready."


#


In the end, Eric's right: he didn't need to bring his own coat, after all.


#


+1. Providence

After graduation, Eric couldn't make any grand speech to Jack -- he planned it for days, refining and repeating the sentences over and over to himself in the shower (I like you, Jack, I just needed you to know, I like you so much). But when he was faced with it, with Jack, looking down at him with his lopsided smile and wearing the tie Eric had picked out for him that morning, the words he wanted to say were too terrifying; they somehow weren't the words he had practiced, but the ones that you probably couldn't take back.

He couldn't stand to see the look on Jack's face he had seen on Tyler's.

So instead he stumbled through a goodbye and generic promises to see each other soon and forced himself to walk as normally as possible when it felt like his feet weren't touching the ground because he was potentially having a panic attack from the force of the unspoken words battering against his skin from the inside.

He knew from experience that the feeling would get better with time and distance -- the force of his feelings for Tyler had dimmed when they moved, of course, but Eric couldn't help thinking about him sometimes, stopped himself from looking him up on Facebook and wondering what life would have been like if Tyler had liked him back. Wondering what it would be like to see that smile in the morning, over breakfast.

What's killing him, though, is that the feelings for him have lingered without having friends in common who will aggressively get them together at periodic intervals, without having to play on the same ice without him for two more years, without having to watch Tyler play hockey 82 nights a year, without having to eventually be invited to his wedding, maybe, to a model, probably.

His throat hurts like there's a peach pit stuck in it and he won't cry, he tells himself, just don't cry.

Back at the Haus he dashes up the stairs past Ransom and Holster, who are in front of the fridge arguing over what to do with the last six-pack ("I'll just drink it now!" "What? Let's just buy a cooler at Stop-n-Shop and put it in the trunk." "Bro, how adult of you, I'm disappointed." "Bro."), not trusting his voice.

In Jack's room, Chowder's boxes are stacked in a corner, and Eric hovers just inside the doorway.

"Bits."

Eric feels tears pressing against the backs of his eyes and he can't speak.

Ransom lays a big warm hand on his shoulder. "C'mon," he says quietly. "We'll drop you at the airport on our way up."

Eric makes a small noise. "On the way?"

"Ish. On the way-ish."

Eric wants to say no; definitely does, at various points in the process, say no multiple times, but 20 minutes later finds himself, his bags, and a cooler full of beer stuffed into the backseat of Ransom's car.

After gassing up and Holster eating about 25 mini powdered donuts from the Honeydew attached to the gas station, they pull onto 95. The car is oddly silent for ten minutes, but Eric is sure that Rans and Holster are telepathically communicating somehow, or, like, using some system of hand-signals because Ransom nods decisively and meets his eyes in the rearview mirror. "Hey."

Eric sighs, feeling too brittle to put on a sunny face. "I'm fine, I swear."

"Sure," Holster says easily, wriggling sideways in his seat to look back at Eric. "We'll get to that in a second."

Eric laughs a little despite wanting to stay cranky and annoyed at them.

"Listen. We wanted to apologize for this year, if we made you feel pressured or anything to date."

"Or to hook up," Ransom adds, flickering his eyes between the rearview and the road. "We didn't mean to make you feel like you had to."

Eric shrugs a little helplessly. "It's not that I don't want to."

"You don't have to explain, bro, if you don't want to," Holster says, very seriously, reaching back to put a hand on Eric's knee. "It was our bad."

Outside, a hawk circles over their car for a second then lands out of sight in the dense trees. "You were trying to help."

"Yeah, but not actually helping," Ransom says wryly and Eric laughs.

"No, not actually."

Holster turns back in his seat for a minute then twists around again. "So just to clarify for next year--"

"Bro."

Eric laughs again. "I'm good, guys. I'm just not..." He searches a second. "I'm just not. Not like that, anyway." He feels a little better saying it out loud. It's not that he'll never want to. But he doesn't think he's going to have much luck on blind dates.

"We got your back, Bits." Holster smiles at him and twists around again. "Dude. Get to the right."

"I know," Ransom snaps.

"Well, your signal isn't on, so."

Eric leans his head against the window and closes his eyes for a second; he wakes with a start when the car jerks and Ransom lays on the horn.

Eric blinks and sees Holster gesturing out the window to a car trying to pull away from the departures line outside the Delta terminal at the same moment they're trying to pull in, doing an exaggerated bow to let the guy through. "After you," he shouts as the guy flips him the bird.

Ransom puts the car in park and he and Holster come around to help Eric get his bags out of the car. "Bitty," Ransom says, "listen..."

"I'm fine."

"Yeah, you said." Holster clicks up the handle on his rolling suitcase. "But if you're not--"

"I am," Eric says firmly and holds out a hand for his duffle, slinging it over his shoulder when Ransom passes it to him.

Ransom drags him in for a hug and Eric puts his face into Ransom's shoulder.

Then Holster is there, too, long arms going around both of them. Eric almost lets his body sag into them, just for a second, but he needs to put one foot in front of the other if he's going to start really moving on. He worms his way out and smiles at them with wet eyes. "Thanks, guys," and he means for the ride and the apology and the trying in the first place.

"Love you, bro," Holster says, as they fold themselves back into the car. But he hesitates before he shuts his door. "Just."

"Holtzy."

"As Michael Scott on the Office once said, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Eric feels the curb drop out from under him. "What?"

Ransom rolls his eyes. "Michael Scott did not say that."

"He did."

"He-- he didn't come up with it."

"He did, Steve Carrell used to play hockey!"

"That doesn't even--"

Holster slams his door then rolls down his window. "Just sayin', bro."

Ransom leans across Holster's lap. "Remember, Bits, we always got your back, no matter what."

"Safe flight, Bits!" Holster says as they pull away, then, "Hey, can we stop for sandwiches in Brookline?" and then they're gone into the flow of traffic.

Eric stares after them for a long moment, thinking about Jack licking pumpkin whipped cream off his straw, Jack's heart beating just as hard against his on the ice, the charged moment on the quad, where it felt like in another universe Eric could have leaned up towards him and Jack would have smiled, and...

He takes off running.


#


A bus, a train, and a cab later, it's dark by the time Eric makes it to Jack's apartment in Providence. He had asked Jack to send him his address so he could send him a care package in time for Training Camp, and he suddenly feels unsure. What if Jack's parents are here? What if Jack decided to go back to Montreal at the last minute?

What if this ruins everything.

"Bittle?"

Eric spins around to see Jack standing at the foot of the steps up to the front door. He's carrying grocery bags and his face is so sweetly confused, that Eric wants to just throw himself into his arms.

"I was at the airport," Eric says in a rush, "But I had to ask you something."

Jack herds him and their bags inside, into the elevator, and up to the fifth floor. It's strange and silent and Eric's not sure how to continue, even when they're finally inside and Eric is leaning against the closed front door.

"You were at the airport," Jack prompts.

"Yeah, but I left because I had to ask you, um. Yesterday. Was that..." Eric feels like he's probably going to hyperventilate at this point, he must already be hallucinating because it looks like Jack is smiling at him, a dopey grin unfurling crookedly across his face.

"Was that..." Jack prompts again, and Eric startles a little because he's so close now, a big hand settling lightly at his waist.

"...A date," Eric says, swallowing around a suddenly dry mouth.

Jack licks his lower lip and his voice is gravelly when he says, "I wanted it to be."

Eric sways a little on his feet. He's emotionally exhausted and the world is spinning slightly but Jack has a hand on his waist, the other coming up to very lightly touch his cheek. "Oh," Eric says faintly. "Me, too."

Jack hms, like the does when he's analyzing the ice, and leans in. "Bittle."

Eric gets it this time and meets him halfway; everything he always thought he was supposed to feel races along his skin when his mouth meets Jack's.

Jack kisses him slowly, firmly, his hands sliding down to curve around Eric's hips as Eric's come up around his back. He pulls back for a second and Eric blinks at him, licks his lips and watches Jack's eyes flicker down to them before he leans in again.

Eric opens his mouth for Jack and Jack makes a noise low in his throat, bending his knees and crowding close as he slides his tongue along briefly against Eric's, then again a little deeper, and Eric's head is spinning at the slow, slick slide of it against his own.

He presses his hips up and Jack nudges his legs apart to press a massive thigh up against Eric's dick, hard and almost over-sensitive already and the noise Eric makes would be embarrassing if he didn't groan it into Jack's mouth, and if it didn't make Jack surge against him, pushing both hands up into Eric's hair to cradle his head.

"Bittle," he gasps, tearing his mouth away. "Sorry, god, is this okay?"

Eric feels stupid with want, everything he never felt with anyone else coalescing under his skin, too big to be contained; he's vibrating with it. "Jack," he says, because he just missed his flight home and travelled 50 miles and he's a sweaty, flushed mess with his dick hard against Jack's thigh, and Jack is stopping to make sure it's okay because he's the best person and Eric is helplessly in love with him.

Tears spring to his eyes suddenly and he laughs a little. "In case it wasn't clear, this isn't casual for me. I don't think I know how to do casual."

Jack stares at him intently, then kisses his forehead, his cheek, his mouth again, gently. "Neither do I."

A laugh bubbles up out of him. "Jack 110% Zimmermann."

Jack's eyes go dark. "Yeah," he says, low, and Eric nods and they're kissing again, Jack's fingers finding their way under them hem of Eric's shirt and everywhere Jack's bare skin touches Eric's, Eric feels a dart of heat into his belly, zooming out along his nerve endings into his fingers and toes.

"Jack," Eric says, tipping his head back as Jack kisses his throat, under his ear, and he rolls his hips up, "Jack."

Jack goes to his knees and Eric gasps wetly, his hands somehow in Jack's hair, and he knows this is fast but it feels like this has been coming for a year and he wants.

"Okay?" Jack asks, looking up at him from under hooded eyes, his fingers resting lightly on Eric's hips.

"Yes, yes," Eric says, and he can feel a flush suffuse his entire body.

Jack slowly undoes his belt, puts his cheek against Eric's dick through his pants and Eric makes a high-pitched noise that he can't stop because right now he's just trying not to come from the sight of Jack, ruddy-cheeked and out of breath, on his knees in front of him.

Jack eases Eric's zipper and then his pants down around his thighs, before looking up at him one more time, pressing his huge palm up under Eric's dick where it's trying to curve up against his belly in his briefs. He doesn't say anything but licks his lower lip and Eric feels like he's had all the breath punched out of him.

"Please," he croaks and Jack slides his briefs down and leans in in one motion, holding Eric's eyes as he closes his mouth around the tip of Eric's cock.

Eric's hips jerk forward desperately and his fingers tighten in Jack's hair ("Sorry, sorry, oh--" but Jack hums in encouragement, sliding his mouth down slowly while he leans his head up into Bitty's hands) and Eric's sure he's not going to last because nothing has ever felt like this before. Nothing has set his brain and his belly on fire with whatever this is, and he's not sure what's better, seeing Jack's face or feeling Jack's mouth, so he guesses it's both of them at the same time, Jack inextricably linked with the attraction Eric feels for him, the attraction Eric feels period and Eric peels his eyes open when he realizes they've shut at some point, looking down as Jack presses his tongue under the corona of his cock and jerks him off and Eric can't, he can't--

"Jack," he gasps, and he's gone, a white hot tide rolling through him from his dick to his belly and out the top of his head.

He blinks and Jack has his forehead pressed to Eric's belly, his arm working his hand between his thighs and Eric slurs, "Wait," but then Jack makes a bitten off noise and shakes, tuning his head into Eric's hip.

Eric sags, sliding down the door until he's half in Jack's lap, and he kisses him wildly, turned on and spent at the same time; his dick twitches when he realizes he's tasting himself on Jack's tongue and Jack laughs into his mouth before pulling away.

"Hey," he says, his voice scratchy and used and Eric squirms.

"Hey, yourself," Eric says breathlessly.

Jack tucks a strand of sweaty hair back along Eric's temple. He looks content, sleepy and smug. "Hey," he says again and kisses the corner of Eric's mouth. "We should hydrate."

Eric just looks at him and Jack's grin turns a little self-effacing when he says, "What, we should!" and Eric leans back against the door and cracks up until Jack joins in.

"We will, Jack," Eric says when he's found his breath again. "In a minute."

Jack grumbles but acquiesces, and Eric pets his hair and a thought strikes him.

"We were sort of dating this whole time?"

Jack looks at him. "Did you want to be?"

"Well. Yeah."

"Okay," Jack says, a slow grin unfurling on his face. "Me, too."

Eric laughs and shakes his head and lets Jack go get them Gatorade and a wet washcloth and thinks: Yeah.

Okay.


#