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Eric.

That's his name.

Jeff's known it since he was old enough to understand what the name on his wrist meant. They're big, capitalized letters, almost too big to even fit; they stretch out past his wrist and up his arm. Jeff was born with all four letters already there, script already in place. His parents had known Jeff's soulmate's name before they'd even decided on one for him.

Everybody seems to think it means he won't have to wait very long, that Eric will just show up and they'll grow up together, and everything will work out that way. Jeff doesn't care enough to mind that that's not what happens. He's stretched too thin between his family, school, skating and hockey, and barely has enough time to go to a movie with some girls from school, let alone bother looking for Eric.

He'll think about him sometimes when he's lying in bed, tired but not quite able to actually fall asleep. Just, the normal stuff: what's he like? Where is he? Does he like ice skating? Hockey? When are they going to meet? But Jeff never lets it bother him too much. He has enough to do already.

The thing is, Jeff's never really been attracted to any of the guys at school, or on his team, and the one time he managed to really have a crush, it was on Jessie's older brother, and that's just--everybody liked Karl; he played college hockey and looked like the kind of guy who posed for magazine covers. He's still pretty young, he guesses, but his sisters are always talking about who their soulmates could be, where they are and how cool it’ll be to finally meet them and get married or whatever. Jennifer even joined one of those online finding websites, trying to find hers.

For Jeff, it's hard to join in around the cafeteria table with his friends and just guess what their soulmates will be like. If pressed he'll say things like, "Well, I hope he knows how to skate, but I could probably teach him if he doesn't," and "He'll probably be a family guy, right?" if just because he'll have to deal with Jeff having five siblings and about a thousand aunts, uncles and cousins. But really, Jeff doesn't know. Doesn't have a clue. He doesn't really care anyway.

But that changes when he stays home from practice one night, with a dodgy shoulder that’s been bugging him since he tripped on the ice a week before. It’s just an accident that he catches the game.

His sisters are all arguing and nobody really wants to sit at the table for dinner and listen to them. His brother is on the couch, channel surfing through the guide, going back and forth between reality TV shows, until he settles on the Carolina vs. Philadelphia game—Jeff isn’t even paying attention, he’s just walking through the room, but the minute the game comes on, and Jeff sees it on the screen, he can’t—

He stops, rooted to the spot. It's this one player that Jeff can't help but stare at, watching as he rushes down the ice and snaps a goal in past the Philly net, just... just like that. His brother clicks over to another channel, and Jeff yells, "Stop! Change it back, change it back!" and dives for the remote, fighting with his brother just long enough to hit the recall button.

"What the hell, Jeff?" Ben whines, but stops when the announcers say it, say Eric Staal and second goal of the night and one of the best new young guys in the league.

It's enough that it gets his sisters to stop yelling and crowd around the television instead, because—because alright, Eric's not that uncommon of a name, but this is different. Jeff hadn't even been watching the game, had just been passing through the room on the way to the stairs, and—just a glimpse, and Jeff just knew, before they'd even said the guy's name.

It's him. It’s Eric.

That's him, and Jeff's always known his name, but that's him on the screen, and suddenly it's so much more than just some stupid name that never really meant anything.

Jeff doesn't know how he knows, but he does; it's like a light going off, an alarm in his head.

Jilly says, "He's old!" and covers her mouth as she laughs, and Ben says, "That's not how it works, is it?" with an eyebrow raised at Jeff's dad, who's come into the room to see what's going. "You can't just know by seeing somebody on television?"

Jeff doesn't respond to either of them, doesn't bother even paying attention to his family. He's too focused on the television screen, can't stop watching as Eric gets a third goal—a hat trick that has the audience screaming. He watches Carolina win the game against Philadelphia, watches Eric as he wipes the sweat off his forehead and grins at the camera as he tries to hear the questions being thrown at him from the on-ice media afterward.

He must’ve watched the whole third period by the time the television clicks off, but it feels like he's only been sitting there for a few minutes at most. He stares at the black screen, and the sudden lack of sound has him turning around, still in a daze, to see his dad with the remote, and his mother pushing his siblings out of the living room, even Andrea.

Jeff knows his parents are going to try to talk to him about it, say things like—like he’s too young to know his soulmate yet, or whatever, but all Jeff wants is to go to Carolina, to go to a Hurricanes game and to see Eric, to meet him, to—

His mother sits down on the couch, angled so that she can still face him, and she says, "Jeff, honey."

"That's him," Jeff says, because how can they not already see it?

"You're thirteen," his mother says, carefully. His dad adds, "And it might not be. There are plenty of great hockey players out there with the name Eric. If he even plays hockey."

"I—" Jeff starts, because that's not it, that's not it at all.

"You have time," his mom says again, smiling softly, like she's cutting him off from the reasoning he's already trying to put together in his head. "I've always liked that you weren't too invested in your name, Jeff," she goes on. "Lord knows your sisters spend enough time obsessing over theirs."

"Your mother's right," his dad agrees, nodding. "It's good to be focused on you right now, on skating. If you worry about who is or isn't your soulmate, you'll lose that."

"No, I won't," Jeff argues back, "that's the reason they're called soulmates! They're yours, they're perfect for you, they're—"

His mom lets out a chuckle, practically a snort, and says, "That's a misconception if I've ever heard one." She pauses, and then crosses her arms, narrowing her eyes. "You're already trying to figure out how to get to Carolina, aren't you?" She still looks amused though, like she's humoring him.

Jeff takes a second to think, and then asks, "Would it be such a big deal to just go to a game?"

"When they come to Toronto, maybe," his dad replies easily, but he's pointing his finger at Jeff. "That doesn't mean you'll get to meet him though. How many people have a soulmate named Eric, do you think? How many go to his games to try and meet him, do you think?"

"But it has to be him," Jeff says, and he's never been more sure of anything in his life as he is about Eric, right now.

"If it's meant to be, it'll happen," Jeff's mom says. "Just focus on being a kid for now, eh? You barely have enough time to eat dinner with your family as it is."

"And your brother's right," his dad starts, but Jeff doesn't want to hear what Ben may or may not be right about. Nobody knows the science of how the names on everyone's wrists work; sometimes people just know, and sometimes people meet someone whose name matches theirs, and it's perfect, but they're not it. That sort of thing happens, and there's no way to know how any of it works, or why, or—there's no reason Jeff can't be sure about this, just because he's never met Eric in person.

He knows.

"I want to quit figure skating," Jeff says, suddenly. His parents look shocked, and then realization dawns on both their faces, but not the right kind. His mom opens her mouth to say something. Quickly, Jeff keeps talking. "I just—I've been thinking about it for awhile," he says, unsure, tripping over the words. It's true though, he has been thinking about it. Jilly knows, because he usually talks about it with her, whining because he didn't want to disappoint his parents. And now he's just blurting it out. "I can't focus on two sports at once anymore, they're too—it's getting too competitive, and I don't have time for anything, for you guys or my friends, or even school. I just, I need to pick one, and I—I want to focus on hockey."

He'd been struggling to make a decision up until twenty minutes ago, but his parents don't need to know that. This is what he wants, and no matter the final addition in the for column, hockey is what he's choosing. He's decided.

"Are you sure?" his Dad says, finally sitting down. "You love figure skating, Jeff."

"I love hockey too," Jeff says, honest. "I mean, I love the game, and yeah, I love skating, but—I can skate and play hockey at the same time, I just won't make fancy jumps and compete anymore. But I'll still be on the ice. I've thought about this, honest. You can ask Jilly, she's been helping me decide."

His parents don't look assured, but his mom nods after a moment. "If that's what you want. And—we'll get tickets to the next Leafs game, alright? Whenever they play against Carolina."

Jeff doesn't have a plan for the future. He knows he loves ice skating and hockey and figure skating and just being on the ice at all. He doesn't want to leave his family or even Toronto, has had the opportunity to before, but turned the coach down. Things like his career, and his soulmate—it just seemed so far off; he didn't need a plan for any of that yet.

But when he goes to bed tonight, he can't shut it down; he's making plan after plan in his head, what he'll have to do to make a hockey team at a higher skill than the one he's on right now, how hard he'll have to work if he wants to make it to the draft when he's eighteen, if he wants Carolina to pick him.

And he wants to meet Eric so badly he can't keep still when he thinks about it.

For the first time, Jeff has an idea of where he'll be in five years. He knows where he wants to be.

Eric.

It's like the letters on his wrist have finally stopped just being this--this dumb tattoo, empty and pointless. They don't just represent a name anymore, a hazy point in a hazy future. Suddenly, they have a purpose, a meaning, and a real life person on the other end of it, and Jeff wants that like he wants ice under his feet.

It’s going to be part of who he is.

They go to a game a few months later, but his parents ended up being right and there's absolutely no way to get in and actually meet Eric. It's not as disappointing as he'd thought it would be, maybe because his parents sit down with him a few weeks before the game and really press the idea of waiting on him. He doesn't want to wait, doesn't want that to make sense, but it does. He has so much to do before... before whatever, the future. He has to focus on hockey, and school, and he can't just abandon his family either.

And, well, when his dad brings up the fact that Eric might not be ready yet, is just starting his career in the NHL, really, and to suddenly be tied down to a kid back in Toronto... and if Eric really is his soulmate, then a few more years before they meet just won't matter.

It hurts, a lot, but it makes sense to wait. If not just for Jeff, then for Eric, too.

Jeff can wait for Eric’s sake.

Also though, he really hates that both his parents are lawyers and never lose an argument with any of their children, except maybe Andrea.

They watch the game from the stands, eat nachos and cheer even when the Leafs lose, and then go home with Jeff in the backseat, forehead pressed against the cold window, staring at the ground as it speeds past. He’s waiting; he decided to wait.

He just wishes he hadn’t.

But he can focus on hockey in the meantime, and watch Eric's games, and hang out with his friends when he manages to steal the time, or help Jilly out with her homework, or even Ben with his face-offs when he isn't being a jerk.

For the next year or so, Jeff ends up spending a lot of his free time on the internet, in turns saving pictures of Eric to his hard drive (under a folder labeled 'english essays', not because he's hiding them exactly, but because of how much teasing he'd get if his sisters found out), and scowling at the ones where Eric's a little too close to other people.

Eric always has on his wrist guard in the photos. That makes sense, really. Pretty much everyone in the public eye has that as a requirement written into their contracts, if just because of the headache it'd be if all your fans knew your soulmate’s name—stuff like that is why tattooing over the wrist is illegal in most places. His parents have dealt with it a few times at their firm.

It doesn't bother Jeff too much, at first, because he's sure it has to be Jeffrey written there, in his own handwriting, except—except Eric has a girlfriend, all the sudden, and Jeff stalks Eric on google enough that he knows that her wrist, at least, says Eric on it. For the first time since seeing Eric skate down the ice and make that goal on the television, Jeff wonders what if.

What if it isn't him, after all? What if Jeff has just been projecting because of something else, hockey or a dumb, teenage crush on a professional athlete, and Jeff doesn't think so, but it's possible he'd seen Eric's name somewhere before, or heard it before—something crazy like that.

Jeff misses one of his games the day Eric says in an interview that he's proposed to his girlfriend, that he and Tanya VandenBroeke are getting married. It's—he can't stop crying, let alone get up to go to the rink and play hockey. His pillow is gross and disgusting by the time his mom gets home, and she lets him curl up in her lap and keep crying on her instead, even though she's still in her suit from court.

He thought he knew, for sure.

He was so sure.

"Shh," his mom says, combing her fingers through his hair, and kicking off her high-heels so that they fall to the floor beside Jeff's bed as she curls up next to him. "It's okay, Jeff, shh."

"I don't get it," he hiccups out, finally. "It was him, Mom, it was, I knew it before I even knew his name. I chose hockey because of him, Mom."

"Oh, stop," his mom says, stern, but she doesn't move away from where her arms are wrapped around him. "You chose hockey because you love it, and if you try to say it was because of a boy, you're just aiming for pity."

Jeff doesn't answer.

"You love skating, Jeff," she says. "That's not going to disappear. Eric Staal—he's one of a hundred Eric's you'll meet before you meet yours, you hear me? One in a hundred."

"Okay," Jeff says, after a long minute, and he takes a long breath with it. When he pulls back, his moms suit is wrinkled and tear-streaked, and he feels guilty until she says, "My youngest son is more important than some old suit I'll have dry-cleaned anyway. Come on, we'll get pizza for dinner. You can help me pick the toppings."

They go to the pizza place and they let Jeff decorate his with the pepperoni in the shape of a hockey stick (sort of; he's not much of an artist), and by the end of the night, surrounded by his siblings and his parents and a various assortment of pizza toppings, he doesn't even feel so bad anymore.

 

Until, of course, he's eighteen and drafted seventh overall, to the Carolina Hurricanes.

 

It's actually kind of easy to avoid Eric at first; Jeff isn't the only rookie coming in, let alone the only player, and while Eric is the captain, he doesn't really have time to sit down and get to know everybody going through training camp. Jeff gets a grin and a, "Welcome to Carolina," as Eric shakes his hand, and then Eric moves on as soon Jeff can stutter out a, "Yeah, uh, thanks."

He accidentally falls flat on his ass when he skates out on the ice with the rest of the new guys, and gets laughed at enough that it isn't even embarrassing, just annoying. Jeff is a good skater; it's probably his best quality, and he's screwing it up at training camp. He tries to ignore thinking about Eric after that though, and go figure, focusing on hockey is a lot easier when you're not tripping every time you catch a glimpse of your team captain.

But when Jeff gets chosen for the opening roster, it gets harder to avoid seeing him, thinking about him.

Hell, Jeff has to go try playing on a line with him.

Objectively, Jeff knows Eric isn't his Eric, can't be. Eric's not only already married, he has a three-year-old son named Parker. At the same time, Eric is just so ridiculously nice. He wants to meet and hang out with everybody, make sure they're comfortable on the team. He wants to play on the ice with everybody too, wants to be their captain, and their friend, and when he smiles, there's always this hint of a grin or smirk, and Jeff has a hard time focusing.

It feels like butterflies exploding in his stomach.

Jilly laughs in his face when he skypes home and whines to her about it.

Jeff keeps losing his balance at stupid moments, or drops his water bottle and fumbles into various pieces of exercise equipment in the team gym, knocking into people and things with hasty apologies. He misses enough shots on goal that he's kind of surprised they even want him on the Hurricanes roster instead of starting down in Charlotte.

At the first real practice, Jeff goes out on the ice without his wrist guard. He'd worn it all during training camp, like every other rookie and good portion of the regular guys. It's not technically required, at practice, if there's no media or camera crews around, but it's still basically encouraged. Eric's married, for instance, and he still wears his all the time, same as Cam Ward. Actually, Cam wears a wrist guard on both wrists, which is kind of weird. There's no real definitive science about names being on your left or right sides... but Cam is kind of weird in general, and Jeff is never, ever, going to bring it up.

Besides, Cam is married, so whatever reasoning there even could've been is moot.

The point is, he wants to get it out there, in the open, and hopefully that'll make things less awkward for him in the long-run. Because of all the padding and his practice jersey though, nobody notices until after they're done. He's dumping his pads on the floor in front of him, letting the familiar noises of the locker room calm him down. Justin, one of the other rookies, is next to him, saying something about a prank that happened back in juniors, when Cam Ward is abruptly grabbing Jeff's wrist and yanking him up from where he'd been sitting.

Jeff yelps, embarrassingly, but he's surprised and kind of alarmed, this isn't normal behavior. Plus, Jeff's still half-naked, and Cam is kind of nerve wracking at the best of times. He hasn't really talked to Jeff yet, which makes the sudden, inappropriate touching even more weird and uncomfortable.

"Uh," Jeff says, trying to pull his arm back, but it ends up being pretty futile. Cam has a really strong grip.

"Eric?" Cam says, kind of loudly.

Jeff winces, and says, "Yes?" before glancing at the letters on his wrist, assuming that's what Cam is asking about. But a couple of stalls down from Jeff’s, Eric pulls his head out from all his pads and shakes out his hair out, wet with sweat, just like Jeff's. He looks at them and raises an eyebrow before standing up and directing a question at Cam.

"Cam, what the hell are you doing?"

He starts walking over like he's going to come to Jeff's rescue, maybe.

The problem with that is that Eric is kind of distracting, what with the whole half-naked and sweaty hockey player thing going on. It's like something you'd see in a vintage gay porn video. Probably not the greatest thing to be thinking about right now though, Jeff realizes, and he tries tugging his hand back again. Luckily it doesn't even seem to matter in the end: Jeff is too nervous and kind of creeped out by the fact that Cam Ward is holding his arm in a death grip to get going at all.

Jeff's going to have fingerprint indents in his skin after this, Cam is gripping him so tightly. He really wants to say something about how rude it is to grab somebody like that, let alone grab their wrist, let alone half-naked, thanks, but he's pretty sure Cam wouldn't care anyway.

"This is weird," is what Jeff says, finally, when Eric stops in front of them. He tries to smile but probably fails for the most part. They have an audience now too, beyond just Eric, and that just makes everything even more embarrassing.

Cam shrugs and lets go of Jeff's wrist when Eric throws a heavy sort of glare at him. Jeff is looking at Eric closely enough that he can see it in Eric's face the second Eric comprehends what that was all about: the fact that Jeff's wrist is visible, and that the letters there spell out Eric.

Eric's eyes widen, and when he looks up to Jeff's face, he—

He doesn't look pleased, or even amused, or anything Jeff had been hoping for, or at the least expecting.

He looks troubled, like Eric thinks this could be a problem.

And that, right there, is why Jeff lies. At least, it feels like a lie. It's definitely not the whole truth. Not that he was ever planning on saying anything about having a crush on his Captain. He gets enough mocking from his sisters for that already, he doesn't need it from his teammates too.

He rubs his wrist where Cam had gripped it so tightly, and then says, "So what?" defensively enough that Cam gives him a look like he's stupid. Jeff resists the urge to look at anyone other than Eric and Cam. "It's not like I'm going to be weird," Jeff says, finally, as steadily as he can, because Eric looks like he's struggling to come up with something.

"What?" Eric finally answers back.

"I mean, obviously it's not you, right?" Jeff says, and forces himself to smile, one that shows off his teeth. He doesn't want this to be an issue, if just because Eric is going to be his captain for the next three years. Jeff's already signed the contract.

"Right," Eric says, after a beat.

"We'd understand if you had a crush though," somebody else yells out. Jeff drops his head and groans.

"Yeah, Staal is pretty hot. They breed 'em good out in Thunder Bay."

"Shut the fuck up," Eric yells, and throws a sweaty towel at the guys on the other side of the locker room.

Cam doesn't stop looking at Jeff until after he's tugged on a t-shirt and jeans, and tied the laces on his sneakers. Even then, he only goes away because everybody's leaving, ready to take off and head back to their houses, or in Jeff's case, the hotel the team is putting the rookies up at until they can find their own places. Or get sent down to Charlotte.

"Don't worry about Ward," Ruutu says on his way out, clapping a hand on Jeff's shoulder. "He's a goalie. The piercing stares come with the job. He'll grow on you."

"Oh, yeah, thanks," Jeff says, but then gets called over to the car when Justin yells at him for a ride back to the hotel.

 

The teasing that started in the locker room because of Jeff's wrist having Eric written on it doesn't die down. If anything, it gets worse, as though the teams picked it up as the new thing to mess with their captain (and the new rookie) about. After the first few times, Jeff starts laughing back when the guys make kissing faces at him on the ice, if just because of how ridiculous it is to see these professional hockey players messing around like that. It's a lot like Kitchener, and he's relieved once he figures that out.

Eric still yells at the whole team to get back to work when the guys get too ahead of themselves with the joking around stuff, but Jeff is almost thankful for it. In a weird, roundabout way, it's made the whole thing a lot less awkward, and he can skate on the same line as Eric now without tripping over his own feet or getting caught staring.

And that's good, because he's set to start in the first preseason game.

It's remarkably easy to treat the Eric thing like a joke, like everyone else is, and just focus on hockey.

Or, well, it would be, if he didn't get dragged back to the hotel with Justin and a bunch of the other guys, including Eric, to get moderately drunk after their second win, and celebrate Jeff's first NHL assist. Eric isn't a cuddly drunk, or even an affectionate one, but he's warm and sitting next to Jeff on the couch, leaning forward to argue with Pat over something or other, and Jeff can't really focus on anything but where his leg is pressed up against the length of Eric's.

It makes him feel a bit more drunk than he even is, and then he feels kind of dumb, because he really, really needs to get over this. When he gets up to move though—because distance is probably a good start—Eric looks up at him, eyebrows furrowed, and pulls him back down. "You okay, kid?" he says, and that's the worst, basically, except then he's handing Jeff his bottle of water, and Jeff takes it.

"I'm fine," he mutters, and then drinks the water with his sister's stupid voice in his head, saying you're indirectly kissing him! It doesn't make him feel any less like a kid, that's for sure.

Eric goes off to the corner of the room to accept a call from his wife at some point. Jeff can't help but keep looking at him, glancing from the beer in his hand to Eric, in the corner, huddled with his phone. It's kind of strange—Eric doesn't seem happy, all hushed tones and not-quite raised voices. But then his entire face lights up, and Jeff swallows the rest of his beer in one gulp.

He's not sure what it says about him that he just finds that even more attractive, the way Eric’s face is just—glowing, like that, for his wife, his family. Jeff slips out of the hotel room full of drunk hockey players in order to collapse on his own hotel bed and try to pretend he's not a terrible person with a crush on his married teammate.

It doesn't work.

 

"So, your thing for Staal," Justin says, and it's out of the blue enough that Jeff's character on the TV screen goes off route and crashes into a wall, the car exploding. He has to wait ten seconds for the car to regenerate, but Justin just pauses the game and turns to give Jeff a look, like that was all the proof he needed.

Admittedly, it probably was.

Jeff says, "You suck," because he doesn't know what else to say. It seems a bit immature to deny anything when it's already pretty obvious.

"I'm just saying, you know he's married, right? So he can't be, like, yours," Justin says, shrugging and nodding to Jeff’s naked wrist, to the letters printed there, as if he's pointing out something Jeff doesn't already know.

Jeff slouches back against the couch and looks at the ceiling of the hotel room, starts counting the little dots of white paint. "It's just... hero worship, I think," he says, finally, and as much of a lie as that is, it doesn't feel like one. His thing for Eric is bigger than that, yeah, but he can't really say it's not part of it. Putting aside the fact that Jeff had fantasies of marrying the guy for the better part of his teenage years, Eric is amazing at hockey, and he's nice to everybody, friendly even, like he genuinely wants to be friends with everyone on the team (even the rookies). If Jeff needed somebody to look up to, like a role model, Eric is definitely the guy he'd have picked.

He did pick him, even.

Justin hums, and then says, "That happens. Just remember, man, there's somebody way better for you out there. And don't get all butt hurt at the barbecue this Saturday."

The team barbecue, the first one where Jeff will get to meet Tanya, and Parker, and everybody else's wives and kids and families.

He's actually been thinking about not going at all.

At Justin's look, Jeff realizes that probably isn't going to be an option.

"I'm not that bad," he says instead, swallowing. He really isn't.

Justin snorts, and then says, "Yeah, you kinda' are."

Jeff groans and says, "Shut up, re-start the game," and then tries to figure out a way to go to morning practice tomorrow without wanting to climb under a rock.

So, Jeff's thing for Eric isn't as unnoticeable as he'd been hoping. It doesn't matter: the team thinks it's hilarious and Eric never says anything about it, and besides Cam's weirdly intense staring, it's just a 'rookie with hearts in his eyes for the captain' sort of situation, which is as non-threatening as a crush can get, Jeff guesses? It doesn't mean anything. It's kind of embarrassing, yeah, but it could've been a lot worse.

He really does like Tanya though.

He gets to meet her just two minutes into the barbecue because she actually comes looking for him. It's kind of weird for a minute, and she's looking at him like she's sizing him up or something, but then she smiles and says, "You must be Jeffrey."

"Just Jeff," Jeff says, and holds his hand out.

Her smile gets bigger and she gives him a root beer after saying, "You're still underage, right?" but he doesn't mind, because Eric is pushing through the crowd with a kid up on his shoulders, squealing in delight, and it's stupid, but Jeff feels like he's getting punched in the stomach and boarded at the same time.

"Hey Jeff," Eric says, grinning, and then, "Parker! Say hi to Jeff."

"Hi Jeff!" Parker yells, words kind of smushed like a toddler's always are.

"Hi," Jeff says back, once he manages to shake himself out of it. He can't stop the smile on his face at the image of Eric carrying his son all over the place like that, big grins on both their faces, and then he laughs loudly when Eric dumps Parker up over his head, and Parker screams in laughter and slips to the floor with a thump.

"You two are such pains," Tanya says, picking Parker up. "I'll never be able to get him down for his nap now."

Eric says, "Come on, Tan, it's a party. Let him skip the nap," while Parker yells, "I don’t want a nap!”

"He needs to be on a schedule for it to work, Eric—"

Jeff isn't sure if he should be trying to escape or not, but luckily just then Cam and his wife get there, and everybody is distracted. Parker somehow ends up back on the floor, and before Jeff knows it, he's being dragged out into the backyard to play in this ridiculously huge sandbox with Parker and about five other kids. Justin laughs at him when he sees him walk past, but Jeff ignores him and ends up helping Parker and Louise build a makeshift sand tower just so they can all destroy it twenty minutes later.

By the time Jeff gets up to grab some food, his stomach reminding him that this is a barbecue and hamburgers are on the grill, even his hair has sand in it. Parker says, "Carry me?" and Jeff hoists him up, looking through all the people—he doesn't know all of them, despite this being a team thing—to see if he can spot Parker's mom, or Eric, maybe.

Eric finds him first. He's looking at Jeff, kind of bemused, like he's not sure how Jeff ended up carrying Parker around, covered in sand and what Jeff is relatively sure was blue kool-aid before it was used in the making of sandcastles. "Hey," Eric says, after a minute, and Parker excitedly looks up and says, "Daddy!"

Jeff obediently passes Parker over to Eric.

"You get food yet?" Eric says, looking at Jeff even while Parker smushes his face into his cheek and neck, like personal space isn't a thing that exists.

"No," Jeff says, "I was about to though?"

"Cool, you can sit with us. Parker likes you," Eric says, grinning.

"I think he's about to fall asleep on you," Jeff points out, and tries to ignore the picture that makes, and what it's doing to him. He really needs to get over this.

"Yeah, uh," Eric starts, "it's past you-know-what time." He almost sounds guilty.

"Special occasion?" Jeff suggests, and Eric smiles at him. Jeff doesn't want to take sides though, remembering the almost-fight between Eric and his wife on that subject earlier. "I'm gonna' grab a burger," he says before taking off towards the grill, where people are lined up with paper plates to get food.

When he gets back, Eric waves him over to where he's saved him a spot at one of the lawn tables. Jeff barely manages to squeeze in, Parker sitting between them with his own plate in front of him, mostly just filled with watermelon and grapes. Eric keeps stealing pieces from Parker's plate, and Parker keeps yelling, "Stop it!" to the amusement of the entire table.

He's barely paying attention to whatever Eric and Cam are talking about, instead listening in to a conversation on shootout stats between Ruutu and one of the wives Jeff doesn't remember the name of, when Cam says, loudly, "Jeff, how old are you again?"

Eric says, "Cam," right before Jeff answers with a hesitant, "Eighteen?" Like pretty much all rookies who've just been drafted, he doesn't say, because he's still kind of nervous around Cam and wants to tread lightly.

"Huh, so you're, what, eight years younger than Eric here, that's quite the coincidence, eh, Eric?"

Jeff pauses, and he wants to ask what is, and why, only Eric is standing up, pushing out from the table, and says, "Cam, can I talk to you for a minute?" like it's something else, something that doesn't have to do with Jeff at all. Except for the way Cam spares another look at Jeff before he says, "Yeah, okay," and gets up to go talk to Eric somewhere else, in private.

Jeff says to Parker, "Your daddy and Cam are kinda' weird, eh?" and Parker says, "Uhuh," before leaning his head against Jeff and closing his eyes, practically falling asleep right there.

"That's funny," somebody says from behind him a few minutes later, and Jeff has to tell himself quickly not to jerk around, or he'll disrupt Parker's precarious sleeping position. It turns out to be Tanya anyway, and she leans down to pick Parker up. He stretches and wraps his arms around her neck, just as sleepy as before. "He doesn't usually warm up to people so fast," she murmurs, quiet-like, and Jeff doesn't really know what to say to that either.

He goes with, "I have lots of little cousins, so I'm used to it," and tries to smile. Tanya smiles back, but it's not the same as before, and Jeff ends up leaving the barbeque with Justin, unsettled and unhappy, and definitely not sure what any of it was supposed to mean.

 

Jeff finally moves into an apartment, and the Hurricanes are playing well, but probably not well enough to seriously fight for a playoff spot. He spends some extra time on the ice though, shooting pucks around and trying to get faster. He works with the trainers too, starts building his muscle strength up without losing any of his speed. He misses a game when he gets the flu, and ends up sleeping through the whole thing and waking up to a disaster of a bedroom, with tissue paper and sweaty sheets and just as bad t-shirts thrown all over the floor.

Justin drops by to check he's still alive, but Jeff doesn't really see the light of day again until he trudges out of his apartment to go see the trainers for a check-up. He wears one of those masks over his mouth while he's in the arena, because he really, really doesn't want to get anyone sick, but then the trainers declare him unfit for the next game, and all Jeff wants to do is get on the ice, sick or not.

He goes home anyway, pulls on his pajamas and climbs into bed with his laptop to skype his family.

Jilly tells him to make soup, and his mom says take a warm bath, and then a warm shower, and his dad says, "Get off your computer and go to sleep, Jeff." But then Jilly says, "And when you're all better, go out and hit up the town! Stop pining, it isn't healthy."

She's still in high school, but she's smart, and it makes sense.

He doesn't go anywhere until he's back in his skates though, and they clear him to play in the game against New York. They don't win, but Jeff feels good just being able to play. The whole team is in surprisingly good spirits actually, despite the loss, and Jeff's confused about it until he finds out it's because they're all going out afterward, since Eric's brother will be in town for another day, but they don't actually have another game for two.

"You coming?" Justin says, knocking into him in the locker room as Jeff towels off his hair.

"Sure?" Jeff replies, not entirely sure where they're going except out.

It's a bar, of course. Jeff gets a little blue stamp on his hand, so that the bartender knows not to serve him, and then gets shoved into the back of a booth, crowded in on both sides by his teammates. The music is loud; louder than usual, even, and he thinks he hears somebody say it's some sort of special dance night or something.

He's mostly still tired from the game, but he joins in the team's conversation about what he'd missed while he was stuck in bed for a week. He's not overly surprised when Justin kicks him out of the booth with a, "Go get us a pop or something, man, these jerks won't do it." He's talking about the older guys, who're all nursing beers or shots of some sort of harder liquor. Jeff rolls his eyes but goes, making three of the guys move first in order to get out of the booth.

The floor is crowded, and Jeff has to lift his arms in the air just to squeeze through at a certain spot before he can reach the bar. When he does get there, he says, "Hey!" and tries to get the bartender's attention. She looks frazzled, red hair all over the place, but she grins and says, "What'll you have, kiddo?" and taps on his hand, indicating she's seen the blue stamp.

"Just two cokes, please," he says, and then waits as she moves to grab them.

"Hey," he hears a minute later, and then someone is pushing in next to him, grabbing his hand. He blinks and turns his head to look at her. She says, "Name on your wrist is Eric," and Jeff glances down at his wrist, where the name is standing out against his skin. He hasn't worn the wrist guard for the whole week, being sick, and never does during the games because the padding for the actual hockey gear is more than enough as it is. Still, he should've put it on before going out tonight—he just forgot. "Mine's Erica," she keeps on though, and she's starting to smile. "Close enough for a dance, don't you think?"

Eric isn't ever going to be Erica; it's not like he's missing a letter off the end. But maybe it's a good idea to dance with someone, and Jeff likes the way she smiles, all teeth.

"Sure," he says, smiling back at her. "Just let me drop these off with my friends," he adds, gesturing at the cokes. She follows him back to the table, and he gets a whistle or two just for that when the guys see. Justin gives him an obnoxious thumbs up, Cam starts glaring at him all intense-like again, and Eric frowns but leans in over the table and says, "Check in with us before you go anywhere, alright?"

Jeff makes a face at the idea of Eric being some sort of chaperone he needs to check in with, but he nods after a second and then lets Erica lead him out on the floor to dance to some ridiculous old nineties song he hasn't heard since he was a kid. It ends up being pretty fun, everyone on the floor incorporating terrible oldie dance moves, and he's laughing more than he's dancing properly, even though Jeff actually does know how to dance, how to move his hips and feet in rhythm with the music, no matter what song is going over the speakers.

"You're terrible at this!" Erica yells, but she's laughing as Jeff tries to twirl her out. There's not enough room for it, really, but she goes with it anyway. Jeff smiles and makes an overly dramatic bow, and they come off the floor sweaty and tired what feels like ages later. Jeff's exhausted, by then, having already played a whole game just a few hours earlier, and when Erica asks if he wants to take it somewhere else, he hesitates.

"Sorry," he says, finally. She shrugs but grabs his hand and writes her phone number on his wrist, right underneath Eric's name. The ink almost looks the same, and it's disconcerting enough that he doesn't invite her back to the table with him, even though he knows it'd only be polite.

He gets back to the table and gets a group cheer for his effort, apparently, before the guys finally move and let him squeeze in at the edge of the booth, next to Eric. "Couldn't pull it off, little man?" Ruutu asks, grinning from across the table.

Jeff rolls his eyes, and then tries to ignore the way Eric gives him more room in the booth by raising his arm up and lying it across the back of the chair, behind Jeff and close enough that it’s brushing against the back of Jeff’s neck. "Don't diss on Jeff, he has moves, didn't you see him out there?" Justin calls out, and then picks up a drink that definitely isn't the coke Jeff had gotten before.

"Yeah, those were pretty sweet," and this time it's Marc talking, Eric's brother. Jeff hasn't actually talked to him yet, at least not beyond the 'Hey, I'm Marc, what's up?' part of being introduced to him. "Where'd you learn to dance?" he keeps asking.

"Uh, figure skating," Jeff says. "Dancing sort of comes with it. Plus I have four sisters, so--"

"Damn!" and then suddenly there's an eruption of talk about how many sisters everyone has, and, Jeff's pretty sure, how they're all off-limits.

Eric leans in after a minute, pressing closer against Jeff and making him freeze up. He says, "You looked pretty good out there though," and Jeff is suddenly hit with the fact that Eric is drunk, or at least pretty close to it.

Awkwardly, he says, "Thanks," because what is he supposed to do with that? Everybody at the table seems tipsy, at the least, and there's not enough water on the table to counteract the amount of alcohol, but Jeff's never actually seen Eric get drunk. Granted, he hasn't been on the team that long yet, not really, just the better part of one season, but Eric's always seemed like the kind of guy who declares himself designated driver by default.

The whole situation seems weird, especially with how close Eric keeps getting. If Jeff scoots over anymore, he'll fall out of the booth.

"Come on," Eric eventually says, "let's see your moves."

"What?" Jeff says back, weakly. Eric is already pushing him out of the booth though, and Marc is saying, "Eric—" at the same time as Cam.

"I'm tired, can't we just—" Jeff tries, because it worked on Erica before, but Eric just laughs and throws an arm around Jeff's shoulders after they're both standing up.

"Shut up, little bro," Eric says, not even looking at Marc, and he doesn't seem worried about it because he's too busy dragging Jeff back out onto the floor. Jeff is really, really sure Eric has to be drunk, and not just because he almost trips just trying to get past the groups of people blocking their path.

"Are you okay?" Jeff yells, and he has to yell because the music is so loud over here that you can feel it vibrating through the floor, through the walls. He kind of wishes he'd been drinking too, just to make this feel less strange, to make it make more sense than it does while he's sober.

Eric yells something back, but Jeff can't hear him really, not until Eric sighs and leans in closer, to talk in his ear, "'M fine," he says, and then, "come on."

It should be weird, shouldn't it? And it is, really; it's not comfortable, by any means, but Jeff doesn't say no, and doesn't stop him when Eric puts his hand on the small of Jeff's back, and they start to dance. It's not in pace with the music coming out of the bar speakers though, because Eric doesn't seem capable of that, and Jeff's not sure if it's because he's a terrible dancer, or because he's drunk. Probably a combination of the two.

It doesn't matter.

Jeff's heart is beating crazy fast, and he feels hot and sweaty all over; everywhere Eric is touching him feels like a live wire that's short-circuiting. He's not laughing like he was with Erica—instead, he feels like he's barely managing to breathe at all. "Eric," he says, unsure, but Eric just shakes his head and leans in, says something unintelligible against Jeff's neck. His fingers are trailing up Jeff's wrist, and somehow, he manages to get closer, until their bodies seem to be touching everywhere, and Jeff can feel every little movement either of them makes.

"What?" Jeff asks, swallowing.

"I don't like it," Eric says, louder, or maybe just closer to Jeff's ear, and so it's easier to hear him.

"You don't like what?" Jeff asks, but Eric doesn't answer, just pressed his fingers tighter against Jeff's wrist, making his heart skip in his chest. Jeff lifts his other arm to wrap around Eric's neck for some kind of support with how Eric is leaning on him, trying to get closer, and they keep dancing instead of attempting to talk over the noise. Jeff isn't sure how long they stay out there, dancing like that, but it can't have been very long; definitely not as long as it feels like.

Marc is the one that comes out and grabs them both, a big grin on his face. Jeff thinks it looks fake, too wide and plastered on like he's trying not to give whatever he's really thinking away. Jeff can't blame him, and feels sick and guilty and hot and out of his depth. Eric is sort of—he almost looks like he wants to say no though, looks at Jeff like—Jeff doesn't know, doesn't know what that look means. But then Marc is asking if Jeff needs him to call a taxi, and Jeff shakes his head. Marc takes Eric home, and Cam goes with them, and then Jeff piles into his car with Justin and some of the other guys who need a ride, and he tries not to think about it again until he can go home and climb into bed and, well.

The thing is, he's been in Carolina for almost seven months, but he's been in love with Eric Staal for five years.

It's not going to go away.

 

Jeff doesn't see Eric for two days after that. He's wary when he walks into the locker room for morning practice, but nobody says anything, not even Cam. Eric doesn't look at him for a few minutes, and Jeff is halfway between angry and hurt, before Eric bumps into him on the way out to the ice. "Sorry about the other night," he says. He almost looks uncomfortable, scratching at the back of his neck. "I got, uh, a little carried away."

"It's okay," Jeff says back, even though it really wasn't.

"Get your skates on," Eric says, changing the subject. "We've got some drills to run today. It's Pittsburgh tomorrow."

"Yeah," Jeff says, after a minute.

They're not talking about it anymore then.

Jeff starts tightening his laces, staring hard at his skates so that he doesn't have to look anywhere else. It's not like he thought it meant something; he knew it didn't even while it was happening. At least, nothing beyond Eric being drunk and a little handsy, which, yeah, out of character, but it’s really just Jeff projecting his feelings all over the place.

His stupid crush is the size of Jupiter, apparently, and everyone can see it.

What Eric did, dragging Jeff out for a dance at a stupid bar, it's not a big deal at all, when you look at it like that. He was just teasing Jeff, like any of the other guys on the team would've. Eric's just... usually nicer than that. But again, alcohol consumption tends to turn people into dicks. Jeff knows: he's spent enough time getting drunk with dumb hockey players.

Jeff wants to stay mad, he really does, but in the end, he just feels tired.

Practice moves along slowly, drill after drill, when all Jeff wants to do is go home and climb into bed, and not wake up until he has to get ready for the flight to Pittsburgh tomorrow. As soon as practice is over though, Coach comes into the locker room and announces that their flight's been switched from tomorrow morning to tonight, so they all need to go home, get packed, and get back to board the bus.

There's no time to take a nap.

Jeff manages to fall asleep on the plane, somehow ignoring everybody else, even Justin and his stupidly loud headphones. When they finally land in Pittsburgh, it's nearly midnight and there's enough snow on the ground that Jeff's shoes disappear entirely, and his toes are wet and feel like ice cubes. It says something about how long it's been since he's spent any time at home, probably.

He didn't think to wear a real jacket either, just the suit jacket they all wear for team flights, and he's shivering, top to bottom, the minute he steps off the plane. Eric drops a sweater on his head not a minute later, and when Jeff blinks up at him, he's grinning kind of softly and says, "Jeff, where's your jacket, come on."

Jeff bites his lip, but tugs the sweater on, saying a muffled, "In my bag," through the material. It's Eric's red Hurricanes sweater, with 'STAAL' written across the back. Jeff shivers when he smoothes it down his torso, not because of the cold, and vaguely hopes he won't have to give it back too soon.

He forgets to feel guilty until they get to the hotel and he has to force himself to take the sweater off, instead of sleeping in it. Thinking about Tanya and Parker at least helps him manage that, and he climbs into bed in his own Hurricanes shirt, the one with 'SKINNER' written on it.

There's nothing dangerous about that.

 

The game is terrible.

It starts out alright. They're one to one as the third period starts, and the Hurricanes goal was off of Jeff's assist even. But it's after that that everything starts going downhill. Jeff's not sure who managed to bribe the Pittsburgh people into doing it, but when the kissing cam starts up, Jeff's whole bench starts cracking up. Jeff's about to ask, "What's so funny?" when he figures it out: a close up of Jeff and Eric sitting next to each other on the visitor's bench is being displayed out on the big screen for the whole arena to see.

It's probably going to end up being on one of those highlight reels at the end of the season for funniest moments, and objectively, it's a good prank, except for how it's not at all. Maybe if it wasn't Jeff at the center of it, he'd think it was funny, but as it is, he just wants to put his head between his legs and pretend he never noticed it at all.

The Pittsburgh audience thinks it's hilarious, and the whole Penguins team is laughing too, over on their bench. Jeff is just frozen where he's sitting, tense and uncomfortable and looking anywhere but at the stupid screen displaying his face to the entire arena. It's too much; this is taking the teasing too far. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it really was a stupid, harmless crush, but it's not, it's not, at least not for him.

"Hey," Eric says, bumping him, and Jeff, stupidly, looks up at him.

Eric leans down and presses a kiss against his mouth, closed-mouthed and soft and probably meant to be quick, just a peck for the cameras. The thing is, Jeff is really, really dumb, and instead of backing up, he leans forward and kisses back. Maybe that would've been okay, would've been fine, except Eric doesn't move away, just pushes in and kisses Jeff harder, like maybe he can't help it either.

Jeff yanks backward and lets out a loud, giggly laugh, and pastes on a big, stupid smile for the camera, because Jesus, the entirety of Pittsburgh just saw that. Sidney Crosby just saw that, and this is worse than his team knowing he has a crush on Eric, this is an entire city, and not even Raleigh, or Toronto, but Pittsburgh.

And where does Eric get off—

The camera moves on, finally, and Eric reaches out to touch Jeff's shoulder. Jeff can't though, can't take that, not right now, and he jerks away. He still hears it when Eric says his name, quiet and rough and—broken sounding, almost.

It takes Jeff twenty seconds to see Cam glaring at him, but it doesn't last, since he's their goalie and he has to focus on the game more than on Jeff and making him feel even worse about his stupid, ridiculous crush that everybody seems to want to make fun of him for, even Eric.

Eric doesn't even make sense though. Why would he—what is he even doing? Stupid prank or not, Tanya's going to kill him. Maybe Jeff can help her bury the body when they get back to Raleigh.

 

He doesn't look back at Eric for the rest of the game unless it's to pass the puck.

They lose the game, four to one.

 

Jeff doesn't talk to anybody as they get cleaned up afterward in the visitors' locker room, but nobody's really talking. Walking into the third period with a tied score, and then losing four to one is just—it's just awful. It was the worst period Jeff's played in his entire NHL career, maybe, and coach had pulled him off the line before the end of the game.

He feels sick, nausea churning in his belly. If it was just the Eric thing, it wouldn't be so terrible, but Jeff let it affect his hockey, let it mess with him on the ice. That's just something he never thought he'd do, and he can't look anyone in the eye. Ruutu claps a hand on his shoulder in passing, but that's all the acknowledgment he gets from anyone. The locker room is disturbingly silent, not even the coach bothering to yell at them.

When the reporters are allowed to shuffle in, Jeff hunches his shoulders and tugs his ballcap down low to cover his eyes, and then slips out and through the cameras and microphones to hide in the showers, the only part of the locker room reporters aren't actually allowed to follow him.

He just wants to go home, he thinks desperately, and he doesn't mean Raleigh. He wants to go home to Toronto, wants his mom and dad and Jilly, and even Ben, and he just, he wishes his wrist didn't even have a name on it; wishes he'd been drafted somewhere else, or that he'd kept up figure skating instead of hockey.

At least he's probably going down to Charlotte after this; he won't have to look Eric in the face anymore.

He must stay in the showers for a long time, forehead pressed against the marble, because by the time Cam walks in and says, "Jeff," Jeff's clothes are damp from the steam, and his cheeks are wet because he hasn't been able to keep from crying. He jumps when Cam comes in though, wipes at his cheeks for plausible deniability.

"Yeah?" he asks, and his voice cracks, like he's thirteen all over again.

Cam lets out a long sigh and leans against the wall near the door, shaking his head. "I guess there's no way it isn't you," he says, finally. "I think we both knew that the minute you showed up, but..."

"What are you talking about, Cam?" Jeff asks again. "Did Coach send you in here?"

Should Jeff even go back to Raleigh, or just head straight to Charlotte—

"What? No," Cam says. "Eric's still talking to the reporters since you ran off to hide. I came to check on you 'cause he's all tied up."

"Great," Jeff says. "You're a great teammate, Cam, thanks. I'm fine though, so feel free to leave."

"Skinner; that last period was nowhere fucking near fine," Cam says, not even bothering to soften the blow. Jeff flinches. "Not that it's all your fault. Eric wasn't playing any better. I think the guys who orchestrated that whole little prank are kicking themselves in the balls right now, too. And hey, I'm the one who let two goals in in under, what was it, forty seconds? I feel awesome."

"I'm sorry," Jeff says, squeezing his eyes shut. They'd left Cam high and dry out there. Fuck.

"Don't be, kid," Cam says again, sighing even more heavily. "As much as I'd like to blame you, none of this is your fault. That honor belongs to... our captain. Speak of the devil."

The door creaks open, and Jeff knows it must be Eric before he even says, "Jeff?" voice tentative like he's not sure he's wanted.

"Go away," Jeff groans, and lets his forehead hit the wall again. He doesn't even want to look at Eric.

A minute later, he hears the door shut, but when he glances over, it's only Cam that's left. Eric is still standing there, looking at Jeff, uneasy and framed by his own anxiety. Instead of repeating himself, Jeff pushes off from the wall and looks up at Eric, hands forming into fists by his sides.

"I'm sorry, okay?" Jeff says, and it burns to say it. "It's not like I meant for this to happen, and I'm trying to not let it bug me, but it's not working. And you're not helping—"

Jeff's cut off abruptly when Eric surges forward and smashes his mouth against Jeff's, his fingers threading through Jeff's hair. Jeff squeezes his eyes shut and kisses back, because he can't help it, he can't—it's like he's physically incapable of moving away, even though he knows he should, even though he—even though he wants to.

He has to arch his neck and lean up on his toes in order to reach properly, practically falling into Eric's hands, barely breathing because kissing Eric is somehow so much more important than that. His fingers wind into the fabric of Eric's jersey just for something to hold onto.

When they finally break apart, Jeff sucks in an unsteady breath; he has to blink for everything to come back into focus. Eric presses his forehead against Jeff's, bending his back in what must be an awkward position, but his hand is still at the back of Jeff's neck, like he can't bear to let go.

It makes Jeff even angrier.

He presses his palms against Eric's chest and pushes, making Eric stumble backward.

"No," Jeff says, "you don't—you can't do that, I'm not—I can't do that, okay, and I don't actually know what your issue is, but I'm not just here to—"

"Just—let me explain, alright?" Eric says, suddenly, pushing forward and reaching out to grab Jeff's shoulder. Jeff jerks backward, because Eric can't touch him, Jeff can't think when Eric is that close to him, he can't be objective about this, can't—

"I'm getting a divorce," is what Eric comes out with, letting his hand fall back down, rejected.

Jeff stares at him.

"This isn't—where I wanted to talk to you about this," Eric says, finally, gesturing around the shower stalls. "And I'm pretty sure the guys are still out there, since most of them haven't actually, you know, gotten in here yet. Nobody wanted—"

Great, Jeff thinks. He's been keeping his team from showering because he was throwing a fit, and nobody wanted to interrupt. He feels like even more of an idiot—like a child.

And Eric's getting a divorce.

Eric's—

"You're getting a divorce," Jeff says.

"Yeah," Eric says. He slides the back of his hand against his forehead, wiping away the sweat from the game.

"Why?"

Eric looks up at him at that, meeting Jeff's eyes. "You know why," he says. "Tanya's not my soulmate, Jeff. You are."

The room is filled up with nothing but the sound of dripping water and the loud noises of Jeff's shallow, uneven breathing, as he tries to understand that, to even—to comprehend the words that just came out of Eric's mouth.

"I was eight," Eric says, finally, to fill the silence. He stops, and rubs the back of his head, darting his eyes at the door. "I mean. Christ, this is hard. I was eight when the first letter showed up. That's not normal; it's not supposed to take so long, and I—Jeff, I spent a long time thinking I didn't even have a soulmate. I had doctors tell me—"

"Stop," Jeff says, and he's focusing on this little line on the floor, separating the ceramic tiles. He can't—

"Tanya—"

"Shut up!" Jeff yells, finally, still focusing on the floor, but it's all too much. It's too much. He starts for the door, darting between Eric and the wall, and he's pushing through when Eric touches his shoulder, trying to stop him.

"Don't touch me!" Jeff yells, loud and angry; the words echo into the locker room, and the team, or whoever is still standing around, all look up at them, dropping their conversations and whatever else they were doing in order to pay attention.

Jeff bites his lip and squeezes his eyes shut to keep the tears at bay, and slowly, takes a measured breath before turning around, and opening them back up to look at Eric's face.

"So I'm your soulmate," he says, and the words taste bland on his tongue. Eric flinches. "It doesn't change the fact that you're an asshole. Get a divorce or whatever. It doesn't make any difference to me."

He walks back to his locker, manages to pull on his shoes and tie the laces, and then head straight for the bus and slide into his seat. He puts his headphones in and covers up with his own jacket, not the one Eric had loaned him yesterday.

Nobody tries to talk to him, not even Justin, who has to sit next to him, or Coach, who still needs to yell at him about that horrible last period. And definitely not Eric, who pauses when he climbs in and has to walk past him.

Jeff presses his forehead against the cold window and stares at the snow as the bus drives down the highway, back towards their hotel. It reminds him of that first Hurricanes game he went to, when they drove home afterward and he’d done the same thing—just watched the road speed by with his forehead pressed to glass as they drove farther and farther away. He's not sure how he manages it, but twenty minutes later, Justin is gently shaking his arm, waking him up.

Jeff struggles up and into the lobby, and then up into his and Justin's room. He climbs into bed without changing or cleaning up, and still, nobody says a word to him.

That's probably a good thing.

He wouldn't know what to say anyway.

The thing is, Jeff had always thought that your soulmate is supposed to be perfect for you. That is, everyone's definition of perfect is different, but your soulmate—they're your perfect. His mom had tried to explain that that just wasn't true, more than once even, but Jeff finally knows what she meant. Finally knows what she and Dad went through every time a couple came into their law firm with issues they couldn't work out on their own.

But this? He doesn't think even his mom could figure this one out.

Eric's married, Eric's a father, Eric chose somebody else, even though Jeff was—

Eric wants a divorce, what, to be with Jeff? They'd never even kissed before tonight, who does that, who—and how could he do that? To Tanya, to Parker?

And he'd lied, he'd lied about it, all of it. He'd known, the whole time, that Jeff's stupid crush wasn't just a stupid crush, it was the real thing, and he'd still kept quiet, he'd let Jeff think it was one-sided, think he was stupid for caring so much. God, he'd introduced Jeff to his wife.

So, what, he'd just been trying to decide if Jeff was worth getting a divorce for before acting on it? Jeff wants to laugh. The subtleties of adultery, he guesses.

Eric's ruined everything.

Wrapped up in hotel blankets across the room from Justin, who blessedly doesn't say a word, Jeff can't keep from crying.

 

The season is over with twelve more games. Somehow, Jeff manages to avoid talking to Eric for every last one of them.

They don't make playoffs.

 

Jeff spends the summer in Toronto, hanging out with his sisters and Ben, when he comes home. Jennifer tries telling him he should buy his own house, since he's a big NHL star now, but he can't face the idea of not coming home to his parent's house every summer.

Especially after years in the NHL like this one.

Eventually, Jilly gets the whole story out of him, and she's just as stumped as he was. That's not the way soulmates are supposed to work. His mom just shakes her head. She says, "You two. My Disney spawn." She sits on the floor, and Jilly crawls over to lean on her. Jeff stays curled up on the couch, where he's comfortable, and has been for the past two hours.

"This isn't Cinderella, you know," she says, "nothing's going to be perfect just because you have his name on your wrist. You're both human, Jeff, prone to mistakes." She pauses, makes a face. "Some mistakes bigger than others."

"Mom—"

"I'm not saying forgive him, Jeff, or anything like that. Just... try to understand it from his point of view."

"How am I supposed to do that?" Jeff mutters, unhappy. His mom is supposed to be on his side.

"Maybe," she says, "talk to him, instead of arguing and then giving him the silent treatment for two months and coming up to Toronto to sulk on your mother's couch." Jeff winces. "That might help. It always comes down to communication. We think we don't need to talk because our wrists promise us this great future where everything's going to be perfect just as soon as we meet. Jeff, Jilly... that's not how real life works."

"It worked for you and Dad," Jilly mutters.

His mom sighs and says, "Were you there? Because trust me, when I met your father... let's just say we had to grow on one another before dating was an option. And then we started a firm together, and had six kids. I never could have imagined it when I first met him. But here you are."

She stands up, letting Jilly fall over where she'd been sitting with a thump and complaint. She just stretches though. "Now get up, it's time to stop moping. And you can buy us dinner, Mr. NHL Superstar."

Jeff gets back home that night and pulls out his phone. He still has Eric's number, and he brings it up. The truth is, he never did let Eric explain, and Eric had tried more than once—dozens of times, even. Cam had even grabbed him after their last practice, but Jeff had ducked and dodged and hid in a closet in order to avoid it. He just hadn't wanted to deal with it.

He probably should have though.

It takes him an hour to tap it out, just a hey, and push send. He puts his phone down and gets up to go to the bathroom before bed, but his phone vibrates against the bed and lets out a beep, letting him know he has a message. He grabs for it, flipping the screen open, and sees Eric's hey back.

Jeff ends up not texting anything else, but he can't help smiling either.

 

They end up texting often enough over the summer that his sisters send him sly looks and make fun of him for being the other woman more times than he can count. He doesn't ask Eric about that: about Tanya, or the divorce (or if it's still happening?). They mostly talk about hockey, or training, or movies that are coming out that look really good.

It's not flirtatious at all. It's the same kind of texts he sends Justin, or any of the guys, really, from Carolina or Kitchener.

But Eric sends him a picture of Parker one morning; he's covered in whipped cream and syrup, and has more waffle on him than on his plate. Jeff looks at it for a really long time. He doesn't know what to say in response to that. He doesn't know what Eric wants him to say.

Parker is Eric's kid; but if Eric and Jeff are soulmates, does that mean...

At dinner, he interrupts Jennifer while she's talking and says, "Mom, Eric has a kid," and stares at his mashed potatoes like they'll give him the answer he's looking for.

Ben snorts and says, "Dude, I thought Jenn would be the first to get knocked up," and the table sort of explodes as Jennifer yells at Ben, and Ben yells back, and his parents try to make them stop yelling.

By the time everybody shuts up, Jeff's emptied his plate. He wants to go get in the shower and maybe never come back out. His dad stops him in the kitchen as he's washing his plate off in the sink.

"Have you met Parker?"

Of course his dad remembers Parker's name.

He and Mom have probably been waiting for this topic to come up, he realizes with a start.

"Yeah," Jeff says, "he's a really great kid." For some reason, he tugs his phone out of his pocket and shows his dad the picture of the waffle debacle.

His dad grins when he sees it, and says, "Pretty damn cute. Think you can handle that?"

Jeff looks at the picture again, but doesn't know how to answer.

His dad says, "Jeff," quietly, and turns off the faucet. "Kids are the sticking point. They always are. This kid, Parker... he's not your responsibility. But if you want to give this thing with Eric a go, Parker's going to be a part of that."

"Yeah, I just... I feel like I'd be taking him away from his mom," Jeff admits, finally, the guilt sinking in.

"You're not," his dad says easily. "Eric's ex-wife is going to be involved. You can't avoid that."

"She hates me," Jeff says, or more like whines. He hasn't talked to her since everything went down, but how could she not hate him?

"She might," his dad gauges. "But you're going to have to deal with that no matter what."

Jeff groans, and hits the back of his head against the refrigerator when he leans against it.

"Kid," his dad says, "listen up. I don't know why we have names on our wrists. There are thousands of theories, and none of them can be proven. But... there has to be a reason. It led me to your mom, and your grandpa to your grandmother. You know, when you told us it was Eric, when you came home a few weeks ago..." His dad covers his face with his hand; when he drops it, he looks tired. "I'm sorry. You knew it was him when you were just a kid. I thought that was crazy, but if I'd just listened to you, and took you to meet him, maybe all of this... would've been easier for you."

"I was thirteen," Jeff says, surprised. "That couldn't have been easier."

"It might've kept him from getting married."

"But then we wouldn't have Parker," Jeff adds, and then closes his mouth.

Then they wouldn't have Parker. Both he and his dad are quiet for a long minute, before his dad finally breathes out and says, "The point is, kid—well, you're not a kid anymore, eh?"

Jeff gives him a small smile.

His dad pats him on the shoulder and walks out of the kitchen, leaving Jeff by himself. He goes up to his room, and looks around. It's an old twin bed, stickers all over the frame. His trophies are held up by makeshift shelves his dad put together, and it's—it's childish, what he's doing. Coming home, hiding out with his parents, sleeping in his old room.

Maybe he needs to grow up.

Jeff breathes out, long and careful, and texts Eric: I'm ready to talk if you are.

And then he buys a plane ticket.

 

Eric offers to pick him up at the airport, and Jeff surprises himself by texting back if you don't mind? He's standing by the baggage claim when Jeff arrives, scanning the incoming luggage for the suitcase he must recognize as Jeff's.

"Hey," Jeff says, coming up behind him.

Eric twists around, and then says, "Hey."

"That's my bag," Jeff points, and Eric fumbles to reach over and grab it, accidentally getting in some guy's way who glares at Eric and Jeff both. Jeff shakes his head and moves to take it from Eric's hand, saying, "Jesus, knock people over, why don't you."

"He didn't actually fall," Eric argues.

Jeff lets Eric stuff the bag into his backseat while he climbs into the front, reaching quickly to mess with the radio station. Eric doesn't seem to mind when he climbs back in; just starts up the car as they start to drive out of the airport, dodging traffic as well as they can. They don't talk until they hit the highway and Jeff, fidgeting, finally asks, "So, uh, why are you even still in Raleigh? I thought you'd be in Thunder Bay by now."

Eric is quiet for a minute, before he says, "Parker." After a pause, he adds, "Tanya's—I didn't want to take him too far away, yet. He's used to me leaving for days at a time during the season, but he's never been away from his mom for that long."

"Oh," Jeff says, awkward, after a long minute. It takes even longer for him to say, "That's still happening then."

Eric sends him a quick look, but then keeps his eyes on the road, scanning the exit signs to make sure they don't miss theirs when it comes up. "Yeah," he says. "It wasn't just... Tanya and I had been having problems for a while. We both knew it was coming."

"I'm sorry," Jeff blurts out, and then winces.

"Don't be. It's not your fault," Eric says, and he's sort of smiling, but it's not a real one, a happy one.

Jeff settles into his seat with his arms crossed, looking out the window. After a while he leans down to change the radio again when the commercials start to be never-ending, but it doesn't take more than forty-five minutes before Eric's pulling into the parking garage below Jeff's apartment complex. He shuts off the car, but neither of them move to get out right away.

"Jeff," Eric says, voice strained. "Do you want—"

"I could order pizza," Jeff interrupts, "if you wanted to stay for a while."

Eric gives him a grateful smile and says, "Yeah, sounds good."

Jeff drops his bag as soon as he gets into his unit, pushing it aside so that he can kick his shoes off and walk towards the big window in the front room, opening it to let in some fresh air. It hasn't been that long, really, but Jeff doesn't have a personal cleaning service come in once a week like some of the guys do and the room almost smells stale.

They end up ordering two pizzas even though Eric claims he's good with whatever Jeff wants, and then Jeff manages to stall even longer by turning on the television and booting up FIFA. He throws Eric a control and says, "You wanna' play?"

Eric sits down on the other side of the couch, and they end up 3-1 before the pizza arrives.

"You're kind of terrible at this," Jeff chirps as he gets up to answer the door, and Eric leans back, watching him.

"I never get to practice. What do you do all day, sit around playing video games?"

"Ha," Jeff says back, digging through his wallet for a two twenties. "Keep the change," he says, and takes the pizzas out of the delivery guy's hands before pushing the door shut with his hip.

“So, uh,” Eric starts a few minutes later, game paused and fingers greasy from the pizza, “I wanted to explain.”

Jeff is quiet for a minute, but then puts the paper plate in his hands down on the coffee table, and turns so that he can see Eric better. He feels conflicted, excited and nervous and hopeful and scared and doubtful and stupid for all of it, but he just says, “Okay. Explain.”

Eric lifts his arm, and Jeff uneasily eyes the wrist guard there, even as Eric starts to pull it off, rough. His skin is pale underneath it, a contrast against the rest of him. He drops the guard to the floor and turns his arm up so that Jeff can see the letters there, scrawled unevenly. Jeffre, is what it says, and Jeff swallows, looks up at Eric.

“That’s not—“

“It’s you,” Eric says, dropping his arm back to the couch. “I was trying to explain, before. The J didn’t show up until I was eight. It makes me sound terrible, but… it was probably around when you were born. I didn’t get the e for… years. I was a teenager, and the rest of the letters took just as long. It was just J-E-F when I met Tanya, and I didn’t even know if you were—if you were real. And then Tanya got pregnant and I just thought… I thought that was the only chance I was going to have.”

“When I was born,” Jeff says, quietly, needing to share this back, “your name was already there. All four letters. And I knew it was you the first time I saw you play hockey. That game against Philly, when you got a hat trick? I saw it on TV, and I just—I just knew. But then you got married, and—“

Eric grabs his hand, clenching it tight as he says, “I’m sorry, Jeff, I’m so sorry.”

“Me too,” Jeff says, and lets out a watery laugh. “I was expecting it to all just… fall into place, I guess? This isn’t what I was expecting when I was a kid, you know?”

“Yeah,” Eric sighs. “Fuck. Yeah, I know. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Jeff says after a minute, watching the way Eric’s long fingers curl around his. “If—if you want to—what are we going to do, Eric?”

Eric is quiet for a minute, like he’s trying to figure out what to say, how to answer, but he finally looks up and says, “Jeff, I’m in love with you,” and Jeff straightens up at the words. He wasn’t—he knew, sort of, if they were—but it’s different to hear it, to know, to be told— “But I still have Parker,” Eric goes on, quietly, “and I get it if you’re not up for that.”

“I love Parker,” Jeff says, not hesitating or tripping over the words, “and I’ve loved you since I was thirteen, so that’s definitely not an issue—“

Eric is pushing forward and pulling Jeff towards him at the same time, tugging him into his arms. “Fuck,” Jeff hears him murmur against his neck, and Jeff pulls back just enough to get his knee under him, and lean up for the leverage he needs in order to kiss Eric, smashing his mouth into Eric’s quickly. They stay like that, just kissing, until Jeff’s leg starts going numb underneath him and his lips are tingling.

He falls backward, accidentally knocking the remote and letting the game start up again, though neither of them are paying it any attention.

“We have to,” Eric starts, but Jeff is already moving into a different position, climbing up on top of him and pushing Eric backward, and presses his mouth back against Eric’s. Eric kisses back, and his fingers clutch at Jeff’s sides, holding on tight.

Jeff doesn’t care—they can talk about it later, about why they’re both idiots, about the divorce, and Tanya, and the media, and Parker and hockey; all of it can just wait, because Jeff can’t stop kissing Eric now, not now that he’s allowed to, that this is his, and everything is coming together.

Neither of them notice when the y fills in, like ink setting into paper, on Eric’s wrist.