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Better With Time

Chapter Text

March 2011

The streetlights passed every few seconds. Eric could see them in the red in his shoes, appearing and disappearing as the old family truck sailed down the highway toward Madison. He stared at his feet, at the rhythmic pulse of light and then no light, as a means to avoid the tension he could feel from the front of the vehicle. From this angle he could only see the cuffs of his jeans, the laces and half-circle of white on his high tops, and, every few seconds, the lone French fry from dinner that had fallen on the carpeting. He continued to stare, though, because the window had reflections and if his mother looked back at him one more time before they reached the hotel he was going to start crying, and there had been far too much of that lately.

Emotion swelled in his chest, which pushed painfully against his ribs when he tried to breathe in to stifle it, and the accompanying grimace only resulted in a stretch against the stitches in his lips. Out of the corner of his eye he could see movement from the front seat again and before he could stop himself he'd looked up and caught the worried gaze from his mother. The expression hadn't ceased in twenty-four hours and Eric wondered if the lines around her mouth and eyes would become permanent.

She opened her mouth to speak, to ask if he was okay again, but he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt down to cover the worst of the damage to his face, then turned to the window to avoid her. She stared for thirty seconds, the length of five streetlights, before she turned back to the front and away from him.

He didn’t want this. There was no reason to jump ship at a moment's notice after a couple of broken bones, but decisions had been made in hushed whispers followed by loud shouts into the phone at the realtor to get them anything, anything at all, as long as we can leave today. He can't stay here another day. No one asked him if he wanted to leave and his mother packed everything into boxes while he slept in the first floor guest room. After loading the family truck with just what they needed for now, Coach drove them away from home, to the highway, and back to Madison where Eric had lived when he was little.

Eric looked at himself in the reflection on the window. He was still little.

It really wasn't that bad. His arm had ached with the rain that had fallen when they pulled onto the highway, but the rain was over. His ribs would heal if he just rested for a bit. His face, though – his face showed the worst of it and that probably was what caused this whole mess: the burst vessel in the left eye hadn't calmed down yet, but it was only visible when he looked to the right; the accompanying bruise on the arch of his cheek was starting to yellow, which apparently was a good sign; the stitches in his hairline and on his lips could come out on Friday. Come Saturday he would be fine. This was unnecessary.

His phone in his pocket vibrated again, rattling against the fiberglass of his cast. He glanced down at the lump in the pouch of his sweatshirt but already knew who it was; that was apparent from the only signature on the royal blue wrapping (a well-drawn portrait of Iron Man with the caption "Cast-Iron Man" and the accompanying signature drew by Drew, 3/8/11 ). Eric looked back down at his red and then not red shoes and prayed that they'd never find a house in Madison and come morning they could turn around and go home. He could go swimming with Drew once the cast came off, he could nail that quad toe loop every time, and in October he could place well enough at Regionals to go to Eastern Sectionals, and maybe even do well enough to go to Nationals. He could do it this year – he could have done it this year.

His ribs began to hurt again and he realized he was holding his breath. He exhaled and gently rested his forehead against the cool glass of the window. If he fell asleep maybe he'd wake up in his own bed again.

Chapter Text

August 2005

"Dicky, honey, time to get up!" Suzanne Bittle knocked on the door before she entered, and Eric opened his heavy eyelids. He hadn't quite grown used to the room yet, but ever since he put Beyoncé up on the wall directly within his line of sight, it started to feel just a smidge like home. The poster wasn't his first choice; he'd really wanted the one from the back cover of her solo album, but his mother shot that down in the store in less than five seconds ("That is not appropriate, Dicky," she had said). Instead when he opened his eyes the first image he saw was a fully-clothed tour photo, but it was still a good way to start the day.

Everything else in the room still remained mostly in boxes labeled in Suzanne's handwriting – Clothes, Skating Costumes, Books, CDs/DVDs – but everyday clothing had been unpacked from the open suitcase and littered the gray carpeting, an unfortunate result of Eric needing to search everywhere for a pair of pajamas.

"Dicky? Get up! It's your first day at a new school and you are not going to be late because you're lazing around in bed all morning. Get dressed and come downstairs for breakfast." Suzanne left the door open but Eric could hear her footsteps down the stairs. They squeaked and Eric missed the old house, just for a second, because none of the flooring in that house made a sound.

Eric shut his eyes but Suzanne shouted his name and, with a grumble, he pulled back the covers on his brand new bed. Suzanne said he deserved a new one because he was getting too big for just a twin, but the motivation was transparent. He'd been in that bed for the entirety of his memory, since he transitioned out of his crib, and it had seen enough. He'd watched Coach and Uncle Jeffrey try to carry the frame down the stairs when the headboard snapped right in half, leaving Uncle Jeffrey with two legs and Coach with the wood carving of Winnie the Pooh.

He began to rummage through the clothes still in his suitcase and quickly grew frustrated. "MAMA!" he yelled.

"YES?" Suzanne yelled.

"HAVE YOU SEEN MY JEANS?"

"THERE ARE JEANS IN YOUR SUITCASE."

"NO, MY DARK JEANS."

"DICKY – Lord . I am not going to yell up the stairs at you. Put on some clothes and get your butt down here."

It took ten minutes and four shouts from his mother before Eric found his dark jeans in one of the boxes; they were his best pair and thus the only way to assemble an outfit worthy of the first day at a new school. He really wanted to wear his maroon sweater but it was entirely too hot out for sweaters, so he compromised with his brand new converse high tops and a blue button-down over his t-shirt. He attempted to fix his hair on his forehead while he brushed his teeth, but Suzanne was yelling at him again so he bolted down the stairs with his backpack over his shoulder.

"There you are," she said when he entered the kitchen. He placed his bag on the floor and sat at the table where she'd set a plate of eggs and bacon. "Hurry up, we'll be late."

His father sat on the other side of the round kitchen table, scanning the sports section of the newspaper. Coach glanced over the edge of the print with a familiar pair of large, dark eyes. Eric could see those eyes every time he looked in the mirror, although Coach's natural squint was on the wrong side. Coach surveyed him for just a moment, wordless, before he picked up his mug of coffee and returned to reading the text in front of him.

"What time's the bus?" Eric asked his mother.

"I thought I'd drive you. It is your first day, after all."

Eric had opened his mouth to just say "Okay," but Coach set his mug on the table again and said, "The boy's ten years old, Suzanne. He can take the bus for his first day of school."

"It's a brand new school, Rick."

"It's okay, I can take the bus," said Eric into his plate of eggs. "Where's the stop?"

"I'll walk you down there," said Suzanne, her eyes on her husband, but he didn't say anything as he folded his paper. He stood up and, as he passed by Eric, fluffed his hand over the long layers of Eric's hair. Eric froze, still staring into his food, until Coach had kissed Suzanne and headed toward the garage door. Once he was gone, Eric brushed his hair with his fingers, the edges of his bangs just over his eyes, and then resumed eating.

Their house sat just shy of the cul-de-sac that looped around one end of their street. The bus stop was at the very opposite end of the block. It took nearly five minutes to walk there. "It should be here at seven-thirty," said Suzanne. "So just another minute or two. You cut it close, Dicky."

Suzanne fussed over him while they waited: she smoothed the hair on his forehead; she straightened the sleeves of his button-down that crinkled under the straps of his backpack; and just as the bus turned the corner, she gave him a tight hug. "Have a good day, honey. Make some friends. I'll pick you up after school and take you to the rink for practice." Eric nodded and let her hug him all the way until the bus stopped and opened its door.

"Bye, Mama," he said. She waved and he climbed up the three steps. There were only five other kids on the bus and none of them looked particularly friendly, so he took a seat in the middle and waved back at Suzanne before they pulled away and headed off toward school.

Abbotts Hill Elementary School was probably the same size as his elementary school in Madison, foot for foot, but it seemed so much larger when Eric walked under the white awning toward the main entrance. His school in Madison had just been one building with three floors – Abbotts Hill had three buildings side by side and a field in the back that seemed to go on forever. The previous week he and his mother attended orientation, since he was a transfer student, but that seemed like a lifetime ago and he'd already forgotten the location of his homeroom. It was in the main building – he remembered that much.

The classroom for 5A turned out to be at the very end of the first building on the right, across the hall from 5B. Eric entered 5A to find most of the class already present and sitting in neat rows, chatting loudly with each other while the teacher sorted through paperwork at the front of the room. She looked up when Eric entered and her eyes crinkled with her smile. "You must be Eric," she said.

"Um, yeah," said Eric.

"You're my only new student this year! I have you right there – fourth desk in the first row." Eric nodded and sat down in his desk, behind a girl with blonde hair so long she could sit on it and in front of a boy with lightning bolts etched above his ears. Lightning Bolts was talking to his neighbor across the aisle and Long Hair was doodling CM + DL inside small hearts all around the inside cover of her binder, so Eric sat at his desk, propped up his chin with his hand, and stared at the map of the United States until the bell rang.

The 5A and 5B teachers shared the majority of the fifth grade curriculum – Mrs. Favata, Eric's homeroom teacher, taught social sciences, history, and language arts while Mr. Ross taught science and math. Both of them started their lessons the same way: "This is your final year before middle school, and that's why this year you can expect more homework, harder tests, and pop quizzes. It's never been more important to keep up." When it was time for P.E. during the final period of the day, Eric's brain felt mushy and overloaded from both teachers insisting that he was in store for a difficult year.

The P.E. teacher looked nothing like Coach, who taught P.E. at Chattahoochee High School – she was older, close to sixty, but had the build of someone who'd grown up with the more nimble sports like ballet or gymnastics. She reminded Eric of his figure skating coach Katya, although Katya could be Coach Slowey's daughter. Coach Slowey was not much taller than most of the class, and in fact two of the boys had already passed her, but she had the whistle so she had the authority. She called the class onto the field for calisthenics and Eric regretfully obeyed; it was hotter than the dickens out on the field, the sun arching high over them as they did arm circles and pushups and jumping jacks. By the time they were actually lining up to play soccer, Eric was sweating down the sides of his face, the skin underneath his blond hair pounding in the heat.

Eric followed through the motions the best he could, trying to play left defense when he was really just not keen on ever touching the ball. He was just thinking it would be very nice if we could just go back inside, when he turned downfield and suddenly a black and white blur was headed directly for his face. He didn’t have time to move before it collided, full force, with his nose.

"Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" yelled his guilty classmate, who'd kicked the ball from only four feet away. "I wanted to kick it to the other side of the field and this is the first time I've ever had the ball in my life and I am so, so sorry. I'm so sorry."

Eric was flat on his back on the grass, looking up at the cloudless blue sky and the full intensity of the shining sun, but all he could feel was the throbbing of his nose and something even warmer than his skin flowing down his face and onto his cheek. "Oh Lord, you're bleeding. Coach Slowey! He's bleeding!"

Approximately twenty other fifth graders were huddled around him, all of their faces looking down directly at him, forming a halo around the blinding light of the sun. The perpetrator of the bloody nose was closest out of any of them, kneeling just next to Eric's chest.

"Out of the way, class. Give him some room."

Coach Slowey knelt in front of the sun so Eric could see her face clearly, down to the etched lines in the leathery brown of her skin. She had definitely spent her life in the sun. "Eric, right? Is your name Eric?"

"Yes," said Eric.

"Are you okay?" she asked. Eric nodded but his nose hurt so he stopped nodding and looked at the blue of the sky again.

She held up two fingers in front of his face. "How many fingers?"

"Two," said Eric.

"I think you're fine. Did you pass out or just fall over?"

"I just fell over," said Eric. "My nose hurts."

"Yep, your nose is bleeding but it doesn't looking broken. Can you sit up? Does anything else hurt?"

"No."

"Okay, sit up." She slid one arm under his back and carefully helped him up, which caused more blood to fall onto his gray uniform t-shirt. Coach Slowey pulled a tissue out of her fanny pack and held it up to Eric's nose. "Hold this against your nose and breathe out of your mouth. I'm going to send you to the nurse. You're new this year, right? Do you know where the nurse's office is?"

"No," said Eric.

"I'll take him," said the boy who hit him in the face.

"Okay. Drew is going to take you to the nurse's office. Get up."

Eric stood up; Coach Slowey supported him as if his balance were off, but it was the force of the ball that knocked him onto his back so he didn't feel wobbly at all. Drew, who was the reason for this, also put his arm around Eric and led Eric off the field toward the closest building. When they were out of the white line marking the edge of the soccer field, Coach Slowey blew her whistle and shouted for the class to resume the game.

"I'm so sorry," said Drew.

"It's fine," said Eric.

"No, it's not fine. I hit you square in the face. And you're new. And you don't know anybody. I mean I'm sure you wanted to come to a new school and make friends but I didn't think you expected to be almost murdered before three o'clock."

"It's my fault," said Eric. "I'm the worst at sports. I shouldn't be near anything that has to be kicked or thrown. If you hadn't hit me I probably would have hit you."

"Well that makes me feel better," said Drew. "A little. I'm Drew, by the way, Drew Lester. We're going in this building. Oh my word, it's so much cooler in here. I thought I was going to die out there. It's not like I kicked you in the face on purpose to get out of the heat! I promise I didn't do it on purpose! I don't think I could have hit anybody in the face on purpose, even with a big soccer ball."

The inside of the building was about thirty degrees cooler than outside and while the air conditioning was a blessing, it caused Eric's nose to throb worse when he realized the heat on his face was from the wound, not the weather. Drew was still holding him unnecessarily, but Eric let Drew lead him into the front office, where the administrator took one look at them and gasped.

"Drew Lester, what did you do?"

"What makes you think this is my fault?" Drew asked loudly.

"Drew, honey," said the administrator, but she said nothing else before she gestured toward the nurse's door to her right. Drew led Eric through it. The nurse leapt from her chair at the sight of Eric's blood and took over for Drew, who stood awkwardly out of the way while the examination began.

"It looks like it's just a bloody nose, thank the Lord," said the nurse as she prodded at Eric's sore face. "You might get some bruising, but I don't think you need to see a doctor immediately. Were you going to take the bus home?"

"No, my mom's coming to take me to practice."

"Okay – it's only about fifteen minutes before the end of last period, so you stay in here and hold this ice pack to your nose until she comes, okay?" The nurse looked over her shoulder at Drew, still standing by the door. "Drew, do you want to keep him company while I fill out the paperwork?"

Eric looked at Drew for the first time; he had been hard to see against the harsh light of the sun when Eric was lying on his back on the soccer field, but Drew looked a lot like him. Both were unusually small and skinny, but Drew's eyes and hair were completely different colors than Eric's. Although it had gotten a littler darker than when he was young, Eric's hair was still very blond, but Drew's was dark as night and shaggy all over, like he needed a haircut but purposefully hadn't gotten one. His eyes were the opposite too; unless he looked closely in the mirror, Eric couldn't see his own pupils but Drew's were easily distinguishable against his pale blue irises. Drew also wore black rimmed glasses, but the square lenses were so large that Eric wondered how they didn't fall right off his nose. Apart from these obvious differences, Drew reminded Eric a lot of himself – especially in the way he stood pigeon-toed and had raised his shoulders to make himself look smaller.

"Yeah, okay," said Drew. He walked over and sat down on the examination table next to Eric. "Sorry again."

"I'm fine," said Eric.

"Does it still hurt?"

"A little," said Eric. "But we're inside now. I think that's better than being outside in the sun."

"Yeah. And I forgot sunscreen. My Mama would have killed me if I came home burnt again. I was burnt all summer long because I was in the pool with my sister and we never remember to put on the waterproof stuff before we get in. Amy's still red in the face."

"Amy's your sister?"

"Yeah. She's five. She started kindergarten this year in the other building but she goes to daycare because they get out earlier. I have to pick her up before I go home. Hey – I know that I just tried to kill you and all, but do you want to come to my house after school? My Mama's gonna finally buy me the Zelda Four Swords game for Christmas so I've been playing the other ones on my N64. Do you like Zelda?"

"I don't know. My Mama doesn't let me play video games. Says I'll get addicted to technology or something like that."

"You're missing out!" Drew yelled and put both of his small hands over his mouth when the nurse shushed him. "Zelda is awesome," he continued through his hands. "I really want an Xbox but I have to wait until I'm a teenager because all the games I want are rated too high and she won't buy them for me, but I have a Gamecube and a N64 and it's really fun. Have you ever played MarioKart?"

"No."

"Oh my God! That's it. You have to come over."

"I can't today, I have practice."

Drew visibly deflated, both of his hands dropping to the edge of the table.

"Right," said Drew. "You said that earlier."

"Yeah. I don't have practice tomorrow, though. Just Monday, Wednesday, Friday and every other weekend."

"What do you practice? Obviously not soccer."

Eric laughed so hard that he snorted and put a hand to the tissue stuffed up his nostril, which he had practically inhaled.

"Boys, calm down," said the nurse. She stood up and yanked the tissue from Eric’s airway. "You're not seriously injured, Eric, but I don't need you choking to death on a Kleenex. Here." She handed a clean tissue to Eric. When he stuck it back up his nose, he noticed Drew looking at him.

"Don't stare at me like that, you're the reason I have tissues stuck up my nose."

"Sorry. Sorry that you have tissues up your nose. Is this going to bother you at practice?" Eric hadn't thought about the repercussions of his bloody nose with Katya, but if she planned on having him practice as hard as he had over the summer, it'd probably start bleeding again, and then his blood would fly out of his nose while he was spinning and she would make him scrub it off the ice on his hands and knees.

"It might. If you didn't have to pick up your sister I'd say you'd have to come follow me around and clean up after me. Do you know how to ice skate?" Drew shook his head. "Oh. You should learn because then we could go skating together. I figure skate. Katya, my coach, lives out here."

"Is that why you moved here?"

"Yeah. When I was younger I had another coach but he said I was too good to skate with him so we found Katya instead. We tried to make it out here once a week from Madison but it was a long drive and Katya said if I wanted to be serious about it I should practice more often but Madison's way too far for that."

"Oh, so do you, like, compete?"

"No, not yet. I'm not really old enough to compete at a big level but Katya says I could probably do good at Juniors when I'm thirteen. Coach – my dad – just got a new job at the Hooch as the football coach."

"Oh, awesome. Are you going to go to Hooch, then?"

"Yeah."

"Where you going to middle school?"

"I don't know."

"I'm going to Taylor. I think you're probably going to Taylor too. So you can come over tomorrow?"

"Yeah, sure," said Eric. Drew smiled and pushed up his glasses on his nose with his index finger. "Are you far away? Do you take the bus?"

"No, I pick up my sister on the way home and we walk."

"Okay, I'll walk home with you tomorrow."

The bell above the table rang, startling the pair of them. Eric winced and Drew's glasses fell down his nose – he patiently pushed them back up again. The nurse opened the door for them to leave and they skidded out of the office, down the hall, and back toward homeroom where they'd left their backpacks before P.E.

"My mom's in the front probably," said Eric. "I have to go right away for practice. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yeah, see you tomorrow!" said Drew. "Sorry again."

"Shut up about my nose, D, I'm fine." Drew smiled again so wide Eric could see his one crooked tooth. Eric grabbed his backpack from his chair and then stuffed his books underneath the lid of his desk before he bolted out of the classroom, down the hall, and to his mother, who gasped at the sight of him.

"Eric Richard Bittle, what happened to you?" she asked. She took his backpack and began to examine his face.

"Drew hit me in the face with a soccer ball. I'm fine. Can I go over to his house tomorrow?"

"You want to go to his house tomorrow? After he hit you in the face?" Suzanne asked.

"It wasn't on purpose, Mama."

"We'll talk about it at dinner. Katya is going to freak out when she sees your nose. Does it hurt? Is it still bleeding?" Eric shrugged his shoulders and got into the back seat of the car. Suzanne closed the door after him but Eric could see the smile on her face. When the door shut, he realized it was just matching the one on his own.

 

***

 

"Hey, I can't come over today," said Eric to Drew while they sat next to each other in Tuesday's art class. Drew had a decent painting of the fruit bowl but Eric's bowl looked more like a circle with small circles inside of it. He hadn't even attempted to draw the bananas. "I told Mama we had to pick up your sister from daycare and I think she figured out your mom wouldn't be home, so she said she had to meet your mom first. You and your sister can come by us if you want today until your dad gets home."

"Okay," said Drew. "Do you live far away? Can we walk to your house?"

"I don't know. My Mama said she'd pick us up and drive us to your sister's daycare and then drive us home."

After the bell rang and Eric handed in a horrible drawing of the bowl of fruit, they headed back to homeroom to gather their books for night one of homework – Eric didn't want to think about how behind he was going to get on math already, but he had zero plans to actually do his decimal worksheet and even fewer plans to fill out the list of US Presidents for social studies. Their summer reading quiz was on Thursday and he'd only read two of the four required books – he hoped Drew had read at least two different ones so he could avoid Bridge to Terabithia and James and the Giant Peach , but he'd just finished one in the car when they'd moved from Madison. He'd have to ask Drew when Suzanne wasn't around, since Eric told her he'd finished all of them already.

"You must be Drew," said Suzanne after she stepped out of the car. Drew pulled the shoulder straps on his backpack together in the center of his chest and put on a forced smile.

"Yes, Mrs. Bittle. It's nice to meet you."

"You too. I'm very glad you and Dicky here are friends, but I have to admit you're starting off on the wrong foot, young man, if you think I'm going to let the two of you hang out unsupervised without having met you yet."

"I'm sorry," said Drew. "My Mama works different shifts at the hospital so some days I'm home for an hour or two before my dad gets off work. I didn't think it was a big deal."

"That's all right, you and your sister can come over to our house until your dad comes home. Where's your sister's daycare now? Sit up front with me and show me the way." Drew looked back at Eric, who smiled at him, before Drew climbed into the front seat. Eric was only somewhat jealous – Drew was an inch taller than Eric but still wasn’t supposed to sit there yet, and Eric had never ridden up front.

They picked up Amy just two blocks away; Drew disappeared inside and returned with a long-haired female version of himself, who was chatting excitedly as they approached the car. Eric opened the door next to him so she could climb onto his old booster seat, and Suzanne buckled her in before she got back into the car.

"Are you Drew's new friend?" Amy asked Eric once the car began to move. Amy's hair was down to her waist, just as richly dark but scraggly as if it had not been brushed recently. As she spoke she pushed her hair out of her face with the back of her hand, but it fell right back into her clear blue eyes. She had a sunburn peeling on the apples of her cheeks, and her face otherwise was bright and excited with her joy to meet new people.

"Yeah," said Eric. "You're going to come to my house until your dad gets off work and comes to pick you up. Do you like pie?"

"Yes!" said Amy and she giggled. "Do you have pie at home?"

"We always have pie at home," said Eric, "but I was going to ask Drew if he wanted to help us make one. You can help too."

"Okay!"

"You make pie?" Drew asked, turning around in his seat to look back at Eric. Suzanne scolded him and he faced the front of the vehicle again.

"Yeah. Do you want to make a pie with me later? We just got peaches this weekend and they're perfect."

"Yeah, okay. I'm not really into baking, though. That's kind of a girl thing, isn't it?"

"Good food is for everyone, Drew," said Suzanne. "Eric and I have been baking together since he couldn't reach the counters and I had make him stand on a chair. It's very fun, you'll see." Drew shrugged his shoulders but didn't respond.

"Eric, can I see your room?" Drew asked when Suzanne pulled in front of one of two garage doors. "Do you have a pool?"

"No, just a patio in the back," said Eric.

They jumped out of the car, leaving Suzanne to take Amy out of her car seat. Amy was asking Suzanne about pie. Tightly grasping both of the straps of his backpack on his shoulders so it wouldn't shake off, Eric ran to the front door and flung it open, Drew hot on his heels. They entered the beige-walled foyer of the house and ran right up the white carpeted stairs –

"DICKY! SHOES!"

– they ran back down the stairs, kicked off their shoes onto the mat by the front door, then ran right up the stairs and entered the first door on the left. Eric dropped his backpack onto his desk chair and sat down onto his comforter while Drew began to look around.

"I like it," said Drew. "It's bigger than my room."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Amy got the big room in our house. She's half the size of me but they gave it to her when she was born so it's hers now. She made it pink – like, super pink. It'll burn your eyes out if you look at the walls too long. I like your room better. I'm not going to burn my eyes out. Are you going to go to Georgia?"

Drew pointed at a large University of Georgia flag pinned to the wall next to Eric's bed. Eric nodded.

"Yeah, my dad went there. I don't really want to go anywhere else."

"Me neither. My parents both went there and that's where they met each other, so they really want me to go. I kind of wanted to go to Florida for a while but –"

"If you tell Coach you want to go to Florida he's going to kick your butt right out of this house," said Eric.

"Why do you call your dad Coach?"

"Because he's a coach."

"But he's not your coach. He coaches at Hooch, you said." Eric shrugged his shoulders. "Why does your Mama call you Dicky?"

"My dad and I have the same name – Eric Richard. She calls him Rick, he calls me Junior, and she calls me Dicky, which is short for Richard I guess. I don't know how that works, really. I like Eric better."

"Oh, okay. Who's that?"

Drew pointed at the poster next to Eric's door. Eric gaped.

"You don't know who Beyoncé is?" Eric asked. Drew sheepishly lowered his pointer finger and shook his head. "Oh Lord, forget the pie. Amy and Mama can make the pie together. We are going to sit here and listen to everything Beyoncé has ever created in her life, and you will love her as much as I do."

"Okay."

Drew set his backpack on the floor and sat on Eric's bed. Eric had already connected his iPod to the large stereo disc changer that sat atop his dresser. He scrolled through to Beyoncé, turned up the volume, and the two of them sat together on Eric's bed, where they listened until the smell of fresh peach pie filled the corners of the house.

Chapter Text

March 2011

It was early afternoon, and Eric's new bedroom was dark already. That was one of the advantages of the house in Johns Creek – his bedroom faced south so if the sun shone, so did the room. Despite the time, he'd spent the better part of the day in bed. The storms that loomed throughout the month of March were finally gone, but the lack of thick cloud cover did nothing to improve visibility and he could barely see the unpacked boxes littered around the floor.

He carefully sat up – sitting up was painful – and placed his bare feet on the floor. The carpeting was worse here than in Johns Creek; there it was soft, long enough to dig his toes into. This carpet felt like rug burn waiting to happen and the color reminded Eric of the commercial strength flooring at Hooch. He put on socks before he returned to bed, and then picked up his phone.

There were a string of text messages under the time. Eric hovered over the touchscreen, ready to scroll, but the messages were all from the same person, all saying something along the same lines of:

     Drew
     How’s the new house

Eric locked his phone and placed it back on the nightstand. He closed his eyes and attempted to fall asleep again; it'd been the same routine for most of the week, really – something would start to hurt, he'd ignore it until it really started to hurt, and then he'd ask his mother for a pain pill and sleep the rest of the day away. Everything felt foggy, not just the weather. It was hard to pay attention to the book he was supposed to read for his new literature class, it was hard to listen to music, it was hard to think. It hurt less to lay in bed and look at the ceiling, but lying in bed and looking at the ceiling had gotten boring after two hours, and that was two days ago. He'd attempted to unpack some of the boxes, but bending over was bad and kneeling was bad and sitting on the floor was fine but getting up from sitting on the floor was bad.

Sleep didn't happen, probably because he had just been asleep for eighteen hours, so he slowly sat up again, wincing hard at the pain in his ribs as his muscles pulled him upright. His mouth felt grimy, his hair felt greasy, and his skin was starting to itch. He couldn't remember the last time he took a shower, since showering with a broken arm was the worst, and he needed to do something to make it through the rest of the weekend. He'd start at a new school on Monday, less than ten weeks before finals.

He sat at his desk and opened the lid of his laptop. He didn't really have anything to say today, really hadn't had anything to say since he heard about the move, but talking always came naturally to him so he pressed record and sat back in the chair. It took two minutes of fidgeting and swiveling to find an angle that hid the worst of his injuries, and it took only one "Hey y'all," to remember he shouldn't gesture with his cast. It would be naïve to say no one would notice that there was something wrong, but hiding the worst of it would reduce most of the concern.

"Hey y'all," he said again. "Sorry it's been so long, but if you're one of my more astute observers, you probably can figure out why. I'm in a new house! We moved in just a few days ago and I haven't quite gotten to all the boxes yet. Beyoncé is up, though. You're not really home until you've got Queen Bey looking over your shoulder." Eric glanced at his latest iteration of Beyoncé on the wall, this one a promotional poster for her upcoming album, her arms up, her hands in her hair. "It's still pretty weird, I'm not going to lie. Haven't had a chance to try out the new kitchen just yet, but it's got a nicer oven. Mama's been going crazy with the baking since we've been here and I don't blame her – someone has to feed these neighbors and let them know who's in town. You can't just plop yourself down in a new place and not properly introduce yourself."

Eric sighed; he hadn't baked in weeks and it felt like a part of him was missing.

"I got a lot of really great questions last time and I have a few already that I'll answer next time. This is just to let you know I'm still here, I'm still alive, we just had a little bit of an unexpected turn –" Eric paused and stopped the shaky breath that lodged itself in his throat before it could evidence itself in his voice. "But I'll be back. If you have more questions leave me a comment. I don't know anybody here anymore – we used to live out this way when I was just a young’un, but it's been ages – so I think I'll be spending a lot more time with all of you! We're almost at four fifty, so tell your friends and hit subscribe because y'all, the kitchens are open."

Before Eric could lean forward to turn off the recording, there was a knock at the door. He froze, staring directly into his own eyes, and waited for his mother to go away. It was definitely his mother since he didn't hear the footsteps approach.

"Dicky?" she asked after a minute.

Eric did not reply, staring himself down on the computer screen.

"Dicky, honey, Drew is on the phone. He said you're not answering yours so he called me."

Eric looked over at his phone on the nightstand; he wouldn't be surprised if he'd missed a few calls since the last time he cleared his notifications.

"Dicky, honey, are you sleeping? Can I come in?" Eric didn't reply again but Suzanne tried the door handle and he closed his eyes. The door was locked. "Eric Richard Bittle, you unlock this door right now."

"Go away," Eric said quietly.

"Dicky! It's Drew on the phone!"

"I said go away!" Eric called, louder this time, and after a moment her shadow underneath the door headed back to the stairs.

"I'm sorry, Drew," Eric heard her say as she headed out of earshot. He leaned forward and finally turned off the recording.

The video was edited and posted by three o'clock and Eric finally had the energy to leave the room. He brushed his teeth and washed his face in the bathroom but didn't shower – he'd have to figure that out Sunday night at the latest, but it was still a task too daunting to face. After changing into acceptable outdoor clothes, Eric quietly descended the stairs and darted to the front door via the family room, hoping to avoid sight of the kitchen since he knew his mother would be in there. He had one hand on the doorknob before he was caught.

"Where are you going?" Suzanne asked. Eric looked over his shoulder; she stood in the doorway to the dining room, her hands on her hips.

"I wanted to take a walk."

"Do you want to tell me what that was all about before?" she asked. Eric didn't respond but also didn't go through the door. "Drew is your best friend, Dicky. It's not like we're all the way across the country. It's close enough that you can see him on the weekends if you wanted." Eric couldn't look at her; he instead turned his focus outside. It was finally sunny again but there were small puddles of water from the rain. It wasn't so hot yet that they would evaporate by the end of the day like they did in summer. "It's okay if you don't want to. If you want to have a clean start here, that's fine. That's why your daddy and I did this, but you have to tell him. You can't let him miss you and not tell him why."

"Can I go?" Eric asked, careful to keep the attitude out his tone.

"Do you have your phone?"

"Yes."

"Will you answer it if I call you?"

"Yes."

"Then yes, go. Be home by dinner."

Eric walked out the front door and through the path to the driveway. The mugginess of the day hit him as soon as he was out the door – not quite hot yet, but the thickness of the air was not pleasant. It was the same in Johns Creek; outside of the yearly barbeques in August, he barely saw anyone out of doors when the temperature began to increase.

The flowers in the front yard were starting to come in; some of the tulips near the porch were already sprouting pink and yellow bulbs. Tulips were very popular in this neighborhood, Eric discovered as he headed down the sidewalk, but not every house had them. Their immediate neighbor on the right had a rosebush on the side of his house, which Eric knew his Mama would look at when she did dishes. Most of the neighborhood looked the same; two-story houses with white picket fences and trees upon trees.

It only took a few minutes to wander his street and the off-shooting cul de sac. When he was younger, before Johns Creek, they lived on the other side of Madison in a one-story house with no sidewalk. Madison looked completely different from over there, and this part of the city looked a lot more like home.

Eric sighed; this was actually home now, and he'd have to get used to that all over again.

He headed back to the house but he stopped at the end of the driveway and looked at it. They had fewer trees in the front, probably due to the expanse of forest abutting the backyard, but there was one small birch just in front of the window to the guest room. The siding was white, just like so many of the other houses he'd just passed, the shutters painted black. More than anything, though, the house just felt like a house. It didn't feel like coming home when his shoes carried him up the pavement. That would probably come in time, but until then he felt like he was circumventing the building of a stranger when he passed the garage to enter the backyard.

Suzanne had mentioned the possibility of building a bonfire pit back here, since there was so much room between the end of the house and the trees, but the previous owner left nothing to be desired. A few ill-maintained and indistinguishable bushes lined the siding, but apart from that there was no deck, no patio, no real reason to be there.

Eric's eyes were trained on the forest, however, specifically a tree with a large knot and low-hanging branches that he could see from the window in his room. He wanted to see the whole of the neighborhood from above, not just what he could find with his feet on the sidewalk, so he headed directly for the tree and lifted his arms to hoist himself up on the lowest branch.

It was a mistake. He immediately groaned at the strain in his chest just at the act of lifting his arms above his head. He lowered his arms, stared resolutely at the branch, and lifted them again. With one foot on the knot of the tree and his uncasted arm bracing him, Eric hoisted himself up and roughly onto the branch, landing with a painful "Oof" on the bark of the tree. A low whine emitted from his throat and that was that – he couldn't go any higher. Instead he shifted, his back against the trunk, his legs spread out in front of him, and looked up. It was definitely a climbable tree; he could go pretty high if he was healthy and tried hard enough, but that would have to wait for another day.

He was only about five feet off the ground but the thought of the impact when he jumped down was enough to keep him there for the time being. He took the phone out of the pocket of his shorts and looked at the notifications for the first time in days. There were forty-three text messages and four missed calls, all from Drew Lester. He scrolled through the chain of texts, his chest painful in a way unrelated to physical exertion.

     Drew
     School's not the same without you here

     Drew
     All the jocks keep looking at me, you know

     Drew
     Like they're waiting for you to show up

     Drew
     I don't think anything's changed

     Drew
     Practice today was the WORST

     Drew
     My breast stroke is getting better though

     Drew
     I just need to work on it

     Drew
     Maybe Claire will let me practice with her

     Drew
     Lol

     Drew
     Dude

     Drew
     I miss you

     Drew
     Just tell me you're okay

Eric put the phone back in his pocket and closed his eyes. He didn't know how to reply.

 

***

 

Suzanne called him in for dinner at six o'clock. He screamed into his fist with his mouth closed when he landed on the ground again, but he'd walked off the pain by the time he made it to the kitchen and his mother handed him three plates, the topmost stacked with silverware.

"Go and set the table, Dicky. What's that on your cast?"

Eric looked at his cast; there was mud caked into the wrist from his less-than-graceful fall from the tree. Suzanne took the plates from him and set them on the counter.

"Wash your hands first. Don't get your cast wet, but try to clean some of that off. You still have five more weeks with that thing, honey, don't get it so dirty."

Eric entered the first floor bathroom where he carefully washed the dirt off his hands and scrubbed at the blue wrap on his cast for a few minutes, his gaze purposefully avoiding the one signature. While he was scrubbing, Coach passed by the open bathroom door and peered inside. He took one look at the dirt and raised his eyebrows, but didn't say anything. Eric continued to scrub.

When he returned to the kitchen, mostly clean, and picked up the plates from the counter, Coach's phone began to ring. Suzanne cast her best glare across the length of the kitchen, but Coach took one look at the number and quickly answered it.

"Hey, son! I'm glad you called! No, no, it's a good time. What's on your mind?"

Eric placed the plates on the dining room table and then spread them out across three spots, one at the head of the table for Coach, one on either side for Eric and Suzanne.

"Wowee," continued Coach, "it sounds like you've got a busy summer on your hands. You get into all the camps you wanted?" Eric began placing a knife and fork on either side of each plate, pausing just for a moment to remember, Fork on the left? Yes, fork and left have four letters . "Ah, you're not going to turn into a Bama boy on me, are ya, Jack? Do your new coach a solid and tell me you're at least considering going to Georgia." Coach laughed in a way that Eric rarely heard when there weren't football players around. "All right, all right, I hear ya. You gotta follow in your daddy's footsteps. I getcha. The camp for the Bulldogs is a good one, you should at least go even if you've got your heart set already. Where else you thinkin' about?"

"Rick," said Suzanne. Eric finished setting the table and returned to the kitchen to collect the water and tea pitchers. Suzanne had both hands on a pot from the stove and was looking over her shoulder at Coach, standing in the breakfast nook with his phone pressed to his ear. "Dinner's ready."

"Hey, Jack, when do you have to make your decisions?" Coach asked. "I'm just subbin' right now for Geometry – I don't start my P.E. role until next school year – but I'll be around on Monday if you have a free period and want to chat about which offers to take. Bama and Georgia for sure, Florida State if you can squeeze it in. We'll pull up the calendar and see what's what with the others. See you then, Jack."

Eric was already sitting with Suzanne at the dining room table when Coach entered.

"Sorry, dear," he said. He planted a quick kiss on Suzanne's cheek and Eric looked at the pot of chicken rigatoni to avoid having to witness it. Coach took a seat and placed a napkin on his lap before he reached for anything else.

"One of your new students?" Suzanne asked.

"Yeah. QB. He's a good kid – he's getting scouted heavily by the colleges already but needed some advice on which camps to go to this summer. I think he's already a done deal, though. Alabama. It's where his father went."

"Well good for him," said Suzanne. "That must be very exciting."

Suzanne served everyone a plate of chicken rigatoni and they all ate in relative silence until, without prompt, Suzanne turned to Eric and asked, "So what about you, Dicky?" Eric stared back at her and waited for her to elaborate. "Is there a new hobby that you want to try out now that we're here?"

Eric furrowed his eyebrows as he chewed around his noodles.

"Why?"

"Well you should do something."

"I have hobbies. I bake."

"Something with people."

"I have a blog and four hundred subscribers."

"Real people, Dicky."

"They're real! One of them lived in Johns Creek and she got real excited when she ran into Drew and I at the mall."

"I agree with your Mama, Junior," said Coach. "You should have a hobby. A sport or something." Eric looked into his plate of rigatoni and picked out a piece of red pepper.

"I'm not playing football, Coach," said Eric coolly.

"I'm not asking you to play football. I'm just saying – you like the skating, you were good at it, you could compete. You should find something else where you could compete. There's more to you than just talking about pies all day."

"I like talking about pies all day," said Eric.

"Well maybe we'll go to the Y next weekend and see what they have to offer down there," said Suzanne. "After you get settled in at school."

Eric shrugged his shoulders and ignored the look his parents cast each other.

"Yeah, maybe after I get used to school."

Samwell High was larger than Hooch despite the significantly smaller population in Madison. From what Eric could gather, the 5A status of the sports teams drew a lot of commuters from nearby cities. The new arts building also contributed to the out-of-district students, and was the result of some wealthy alumni – or, at least that was what Coach said when Eric drove the two of them there on Monday.

"I'll have to stay after school and meet with the other Athletic Directors," said Coach after Eric pulled into Coach's space in front of two identical brick buildings. "So you can wait for me, if you want, and get some more driving experience with that broken arm."

"My cast should come off before my birthday," said Eric.

"Either way, it wouldn't hurt."

"I'll just take the bus," said Eric.

"Fine."

Eric stepped out of the truck and adjusted his backpack on his good shoulder. The new arts building was across the street from the senior parking lot and two main buildings, on the way to the gym and football field. Eric could see the stadium clearly despite its distance from the rest of the school; the baseball diamond and soccer fields stood between the street and the stadium, but it looked daunting even from here. Eric turned back to the school proper and headed inside the first building, marked A.

The interior of the school left much to be desired, especially considering how much money went into the athletics and arts departments. The two classroom buildings were the oldest of the bunch, and perhaps the next in line for updates, but the gray lockers and white cement block walls felt like a prison rather than a school. There were posters on all of the bulletin boards, some brightly colored to attract students for clubs, the spring play, and prom. Eric ignored the announcements, not at all interested in participating in anything for the rest of the school year, and stopped at locker 577, located just outside his homeroom on the second floor. Eric dropped off his books, ignoring the side-glances from nearby students who did not recognize him. Samwell was a large school, large enough that no one could expect to know everyone, but a brand new face in March when lockers were assigned in August caused some attention.

"Hey," said someone to Eric's right after he closed the door to his locker. Eric looked over and the girl's eyes darted immediately to the bruising on his cheeks and the split in his lip. The stitches had been out for a week, but that didn't change the fact that Eric looked like he'd been stuffed through a meat grinder. The girl looked somewhat familiar with mousy dishwater hair and too much eyeliner under her hipster glasses, and it was possible Eric had known her five years ago. The girl swallowed carefully and purposefully looked away from Eric's injuries.

"Are you new? Or did you just switch lockers?"

"New," said Eric.

"Oh, just to Samwell? Or to town?"

"Town," said Eric.

"Oh! Welcome to Madison, then! I'm Aubrey –"

Aubrey stuck out her hand for him to shake and Eric looked at it. He adjusted his backpack on his shoulder just as the bell rang, causing her eyes to drift to the cast on his arm, and he took it as an opportunity to ignore her. He turned and headed down the hall toward his homeroom, leaving Aubrey with her hand outstretched and a disappointed look on her face.

Eric entered his homeroom class and stopped at the teacher’s desk first – "Oh, you must be Eric!" he said. "I met your father last week. I'm excited to have him join the staff in the fall."

"Yeah, where am I sitting?" Eric asked.

The teacher gestured toward an empty seat in the back of the classroom. Eric sat down, pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, and closed his eyes. It was probably better this way.

Chapter Text

August 2005

"Can I come to your practice?" Drew asked Wednesday before final period. They were headed toward the auditorium where music class took place, the longest trek of the school day apart from when they had P.E. and had to change clothes in the gym.

Eric looked over at Drew in surprise.

"You want to come to my practice?" Eric asked. Drew nodded. "Why? It's just a bunch of running laps and spinning and falling on my butt."

"Yeah, but ice skating is kind of cool,” said Drew. “I have no idea how to ice skate. You can probably skate backwards too, huh?" Eric nodded. "Yeah, that's awesome. Is it okay? Do you have practice today?"

"Yeah."

"My mom works earlier shifts on Wednesdays so I don't have to get Amy. Is your mom going to drive you over?"

"Nah, it's just a few blocks. I was going to ride my bike. Do you have a bike?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, we can ride over after school –"

Eric lost his footing as a much larger student checked him into the lockers. Eric looked up, surprised, and a kid with a backwards baseball hat and jeans way too large for him looked back, chuckling. "Watch where you're going, half pint," he called over his shoulder.

"Hey!" said Drew.

"You too, four eyes."

Drew pushed up the rim of his glasses with his index finger, staring back the boy, who continued to walk away, laughing. Drew looked over at Eric. "You okay?"

"Yeah, it didn't hurt. I just wasn't expecting it." Drew frowned but they continued the rest of the way to music class. Eric surreptitiously rubbed his elbow so Drew wouldn't see.

After music class, Eric and Drew met at the bike rack and rode two blocks to the ice rink. The rink was much nicer than what Eric practiced in back in Madison, but it still far from an Olympic grade facility. Eric felt a sense of calm the first time he entered it and his skating had only improved since moving to Johns Creek.

"Who is this?" Katya asked when Eric and Drew entered the building.

Katya still looked like a skater; similar to Coach Slowey but twenty years younger, Katya was small and compact, but her tank top showed off the muscles still defining her arms. She had her hair in a tight bun, away from her face, and the severity of her look caused Drew to duck behind Eric. "Katya, this is my friend Drew," said Eric. "Is it okay if he sits in the stands and watches?" Katya narrowed her eyes at Drew, who gripped onto the edges of Eric's shoulders.

"All right," said Katya, "but no noise from you. Eric, don't expect me to go easy on you just because you brought a friend along. Get changed and on the ice – three minutes." Katya turned and headed to the boards.

"You can sit right up there," said Eric, pointing at the benches near center ice. Drew ran off toward them and Eric headed to the locker room to change. Three minutes later Katya impatiently tapped her foot on the ice. Eric waved at Drew, who waved back and then rested his chin on his hands. Katya snapped her fingers in front of Eric's face.

"Eric, pay attention. Ten laps front and back, then we'll work on spins."

Eric headed toward the edge of the boards and waited for Katya's signal. She nodded to him and he darted forward, careful to keep his breathing even as he began to work up the familiar warmth in his legs. Drew waved each time he passed, and after ten laps, Katya blew her whistle and Eric turned on his heel, now skating backwards.

"Woo!" shouted Drew when Eric passed, but Katya yelled, "Faster! You should be able to skate the same speed forward and back!" Eric stared behind him, his arms out, and continued backwards, but skating in this direction was in fact considerably more difficult, and by the end of his next laps, his thighs were burning and his feet were throbbing from the tightness of his laces.

Katya kept him on the ice for an hour, which was usual, working mostly on spins. By the time Katya blew her whistle again, Eric had to crouch onto the ice and try to stop the dizziness. "It gets better," said Katya. "You'll get used to it. You did well today but you need to tighten up. Speed will come but work now on staying in one spot."

"Do I need a focus point?" Eric asked.

"No, you spin too fast. A focal point will hurt your neck. Like I said, you get used to the dizziness." Katya extended a hand to him and helped him to his feet. Eric attempted to skate forward but paused again, still dizzy, and waited a moment before continuing on again. "Next practice we work on your feet. You're getting better at skating backwards, but you need to pay attention to the edges of your blades."

"Thanks, Katya."

"You're good, Eric," said Katya. She gestured toward Drew, who was still staring at them even after a full hour of spinning drills. "Your friend thinks you're good too." Eric smiled over at Drew, who smiled back, and then he thanked Katya again. "See you Friday."

Drew waited for him outside the locker room. Eric still felt a little wobbly on his feet, but the room had finally stopped moving when Eric moved. "Dude!" said Drew as soon as Eric fell into step with him. "That was awesome! How did you spin so many times and not puke?"

"I almost puked," said Eric, but a smile etched onto his face anyway.

"You are so cool! Okay, I don't think I'll ever be able to do what you can do, but maybe some weekend you can teach me how to skate. Mama took me and Amy once but I just fell over a bunch, but you never fell over! Even backwards! Dude. Dude, I like you."

"Thanks, Drew," said Eric, the grin uncontrollable at this point, matching the one on Drew's lips. "I like you too."

"Do you want to come over to my house tomorrow? I have to get home before Mama gets worried – she's probably freaking out that I'm not home yet, but I'll tell her I got detention or something. I have to pick up Amy tomorrow after school but we can go back to my house if it's cool with your parents." Eric nodded. "Awesome. We can play MarioKart. Here's my Mama's number." Drew handed Eric a ripped slip of paper with a phone number and Katelyn Lester written on it. "Just in case."

They exited the ice rink and unchained their bikes from the rack. At the end of the parking lot, Drew turned to the left and Eric turned to the right. "See you tomorrow, E!" Drew shouted over his shoulder. Eric watched him bike away, his dark hair rustling in the wind, his glasses tipping to end of his nose yet again. Drew pushed them up before he turned the corner, his hand up in a wave. Eric waved back before he turned to go home.

"Dicky, honey, is that you?" Suzanne asked about twenty minutes later. Eric popped his head into the kitchen; Suzanne was up to her elbows in pie dough and it appeared that something was already in the oven, probably for dinner.

"Hi Mama," said Eric.

"How was practice? Did you find your way home all right?"

"It was good!” said Eric. “Katya said it was good, I just need to work on staying in one spot when I spin."

"That's great, honey. I'm making apple turnovers, do you want to help?" Suzanne asked. Eric nodded again. "Go change and wash up first." Eric did and put on his favorite apron before he stepped up to the counter next to his mother. She handed him a bowl of apples and a paring knife. "Work on these at the table while I get the crusts done. Tell me about school – are you making friends?"

"I made a friend," said Eric as he sat down at the kitchen table and began to peel one of the apples.

"Did you talk to anyone else?" Eric shook his head, looking at the back of his mother's head in confusion.

"No."

"Dicky, you should have more than one friend."

"Why? I like Drew."

"I know you do, honey, and he seems like a good kid. His little sister was very helpful yesterday making that peach pie. I just don't want you to get too attached to one person. There are other kids at the school you can talk to."

Eric thought about the kid with the too-large jeans who'd pushed him into a locker for no reason. His elbow stopped hurting after thirty seconds, but the sharp pain when he'd collided was still a tangible memory.

"No, I think I'm just going to be friends with Drew. Can I go to his house tomorrow?"

"Is his mother going to be home?"

"Not sure. I have her number if you want to call her. It's in my backpack upstairs."

"I'll call her after dinner to check. You're too young to be left home alone, even if it's just for an hour or two. I might have a bone to pick with her about how she's raising her kids."

"Mama!"

"All right, Dicky," said Suzanne. She swooped above him and planted a kiss on top of his head.

"Mama! Stop it!" Suzanne laughed and returned to the counter where she continued to knead together the dough for the turnovers, pausing every few moments to add another teaspoon of water. Eric shook his hair back into his eyes and picked up another apple to peel.

 

***

 

Drew's house was much bigger than Eric's. It was hard to say how many stories it was, with the multiple roof points, but it was probably just two. When Drew unlocked the front door and they stepped inside, the foyer ceiling went all the way up, the sunlight beaming in through the large windows onto the pale color scheme of the visible areas of the house. It was the same with Eric's house – every room seemed to be just one beige color – but the inside of the house was much larger and cleaner than home. Drew kicked off his shoes at the door and Eric followed suit before they ran up the carpeted stairs.

"What does your sister usually do when you're home alone?" Eric asked. Amy had disappeared as soon as they entered the house.

"I dunno, play I guess. I don't pay much attention to her unless she yells."

"Does she yell a lot?"

"Yeah. A lot."

Drew's bedroom was at the end of the second floor landing and, despite Drew's complaints about the size, it was actually bigger than Eric's bedroom. He had a television on top of his dresser and a basket full of video game controllers. He picked up two controllers and handed them to Eric after Eric dropped his backpack on the floor.

"Here, take these. Do you want chips? I'm going to get some from the kitchen."

"Yeah, sure."

"Be right back. Turn on the TV."

Eric turned on the television and pressed the power button to the Gamecube, but he had no idea how to get to the actual gaming menu from live TV, so he listened to boring news and looked around the room. Drew's walls were an alarming shade of blue, kind of like the color of Mario and Luigi’s pants on the cover of the game Drew had thrown in Eric's lap before he left the room. There were several posters on the walls, mostly various Star Wars and Star Trek movies and Zelda video games. He had a lot of games on his bookshelf, more than actual books, and Eric was just looking at some of the titles when Drew returned with a bag of chips.

"You have to switch it to Game," said Drew, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Drew changed the video input on the remote and loaded up MarioKart. “What course do you want to play?” Drew asked. Eric could only shrug his shoulders and allow Drew to pick. Two races later, Drew was thoroughly kicking Eric's butt, but Eric was at least beating the computer characters.

"What does your mom do at the hospital that you have to be home alone sometimes?" Eric asked through a mouthful of potato chips.

"She x-rays people."

"Oh, cool. What does your dad do?"

"I don't know, something in an office," said Drew. "Sells stuff, I think, because he always talks about prices and 'quarterly numbers' and whatever. Does your dad teach too or does he just coach?"

"He teaches P.E. at Hooch too."

"What does your mom do?"

"I don't know. She's in the basement making stuff a lot," said Eric. The third race ended and Eric was in fourth place, which was better than a lot of the computer characters but way worse than Drew, who'd been waiting for him to finish. "Do you have any coke?"

"Yeah, in the fridge downstairs. I think we have coke and ginger ale. Grab me a ginger ale, okay?"

"Okay."

Eric licked the salt off his fingers as he ran down the stairs and into the kitchen, but he had to take a step back at the sight of it. There were two ovens built into the wall as well as a gas range in the center island, and enough counter space to cool cookies for the entire neighborhood. It took a minute to even locate the refrigerator, since the outside was paneled the same as the rest of the cabinetry, but Eric grabbed two ginger ales from inside. He couldn't help but open some of the drawers inside the fridge, incredibly disappointed to find only a stick and a half of butter, no fruit other than melon, and skim milk. He shut the refrigerator door and looked over the kitchen with a jealous sigh before he ran back up the stairs and into Drew's room.

"You have the best kitchen ever, Drew! Do you ever make anything in it?" Eric handed Drew the can of ginger ale. Drew popped the tab and took a long gulp before he set it on the nightstand next to him.

"Nah, my mom usually makes dinner if she's home. My dad usually picks up something."

"Does your mom like to cook?"

"Not really. She usually makes the same meals all the time – chicken tenders and spaghetti and mac and cheese and stuff."

Eric frowned; there was leftover mac and cheese in a bowl in the refrigerator when he was snooping, but it looked to be the kind from a box.

"Oh. You should come over for dinner after your dad gets home."

"Nah, he said he's going to bring home pizza tonight. You should stay for dinner. Pizza is awesome."

Eric could not remember the last time he had pizza – probably the night last summer that he and his mother made homemade pizzas with sausage and fresh mozzarella. They'd spent the entire day making and then remaking the pizza dough, since his mother wanted to try it like they did at the shops, stretching it out with their hands and tossing it in the air, but after both of their discs landed on the floor they started over and just used rolling pins and their knuckles.

"Sure," said Eric. "I should probably call my Mama."

"K, but after we do another race. You're getting better at this."

They played MarioKart until Mr. Lester got home at six o'clock. "Hello hello!" he yelled up the stairs. "Drew? Amy?"

"DADDY!" Amy shouted from somewhere downstairs. Drew paused their game and closed the nearly-empty bag of chips before he and Eric stomped down the stairs. Mr. Lester was in the kitchen, dressed in a tie and slacks. He looked a lot like Drew and Amy – same dark hair, same blue eyes. He wore glasses too, but his frames were small and silver, unlike Drew's which took up the majority of his face.

"Hi Eric," said Mr. Lester. "It is Eric, right?"

"Yes, sir," said Eric.

"Staying for dinner?" Eric nodded. "All right, I bought breadsticks too so we should have plenty to eat. Let me see your hands." Eric and Drew stuck out their hands. "Greasy. Let me guess, there are no more potato chips left."

"There's some," said Drew with a frown.

"Still wash 'em up before you sit down at the table."

Eric ate two slices of pizza and a breadstick off a paper plate at the dining room table with Drew, Amy, and Mr. Lester, who was watching the news through the open archway between the dining room and the living room. After Mr. Lester scolded Drew for speaking with his mouth full, nobody said anything while they ate. When Eric finished stuffing the just-okay pizza into his face, Drew grabbed his empty plate and threw it in the garbage in the kitchen. Eric wiped the sauce off his face and hands and followed Drew into the kitchen, but his eyes kept drifting to the patio in the backyard.

"It's too cold to swim," said Drew, gesturing toward the pool.

"Yeah but you have a lot of trees in your yard. Do you like to climb trees?" Drew nodded. "It's still light out. We can probably see the sun set from that one." Eric pointed at a tree at the edge of the forest with several thick branches and a large knot that would serve as a great foothold. Drew followed him outside and Eric ran straight there.

"I think we might be able to see the neighbors on the other side of the forest if we go up high enough," said Drew after he and Eric had both hopped up onto one of the lower branches. Eric pulled himself up to a second one right away, his knees near Drew's head.

"How far up do you usually go?" Eric asked. He was only six or seven feet from the ground. Below him, Drew looked through the thicket of the leaves. Eric also attempted to see through the trees, but they were still too low and the brush was too dense to see the houses on the other side.

"Not far. I usually make it to the one you're on and then I look down, and that's it. Can you go higher?"

"I sure can."

Eric grabbed hold of a branch above his head and tested his weight on it before pulled his entire body up by his arms.

"Holy cow, how can you lift your whole body with your arms? You must be able to go all the way to the top of the rope in P.E."

"Yeah," said Eric, his voice a little strained with effort as his feet locked around the branch. He swung himself to the top of it. "Katya makes me climb the rope every week when we do gymnastics training. I don't really like it but she says I have to be able to do flips and stuff."

"So can you do a cartwheel?" Drew asked.

"Yup. I can do cartwheels without hands. Sometimes. Sometimes I fall still."

"Awesome!"

Eric stood again and reached for another branch - they were thinner up here but a few of them looked sturdy enough to support his weight.

"Go all the way to the top, E!" Drew called from ten feet below, after Eric had made it up to another limb.

He couldn't go all the way to the top without falling, but there looked to be a promising surface where he could at least try to poke his head over the adjacent trees. He grabbed hold of a handful of leaves and stepped up once, twice, and a final time until he could pull the twigs away from his face and see everything.

"You at the top?"

"Yeah," Eric called. He looked down and could see Drew's face looking back up at him from several feet below. He would probably die if he fell, which caused a thrill of terror to leap into his stomach, but he had enough support that he wouldn't.

"How's it look?" Drew asked.

Eric could see all the way to their school. The rooftops of the neighborhood shined in rich, sunlit colors – mostly brown, but red and orange too. He could see cars like ants on the busy roads, coming home from work and ending the day. He could see the sun to the west, ready to descend and sleep for the night, but in this position it was like it was there saluting him, the king of the treetops, showing Eric his empire where he was the ruler - everything belonged to him, everything was visible at his fingertips, and he just had to take it.

"It's wonderful," whispered Eric.

Chapter Text

May 2011

The cast on Eric's arm was removed the day before his sixteenth birthday. The event was immediately punctuated by a trip to the YMCA to look at flyers for summer activities. Eric had absolutely no desire to join anything that did not involve sitting in his room and talking to the now five hundred people who followed his vlog about baking and life, but talking to five hundred "not real" people was not enough of an extracurricular activity for Suzanne Bittle.

"Dicky, just pick something. One thing," said Suzanne. The catalog at the YMCA had an abundance of classes ranging from ballroom dancing to family badminton to power yoga. Eric frowned when he turned a page and saw a photo of a little girl in an arabesque on ice skates. His coach prior to Katya still lived in Madison, but the man had long since said Eric had passed the level of instruction he could provide. Eric quickly turned the page to see another group of children on ice skates, but they were wearing heavy pads and holding sticks.

"What about this?" Eric asked, pointing to the photo.

"Hockey?" Suzanne asked. Lines furrowed into the ridge between her eyebrows. "Honey, your cast just came off today. Don't you think that's a little…physical for you?"

"It says no contact," said Eric. "If I have to pick something this is what I pick. I already know how to skate."

"All right, we'll look into it."

After attempting to register at the front desk, they quickly learned the hockey class through the YMCA was done for the season. Before Suzanne could ask Eric to pick something else, Eric had pulled out his phone and found the website of a hockey club located in town with a large banner reading "Now enrolling for summer season!"

Suzanne frowned at Eric's phone.

"All right, Dicky. We'll drive there this weekend and sign you up. Or, more accurately, you can drive there this weekend and sign yourself up," she said and nudged his side. "Are you nervous about your test tomorrow?"

"No," said Eric, shaking his head. "Coach lets me drive the truck to school and back."

"Ugh, I can't believe this," said Suzanne. "I can't believe my little bitty Dicky is old enough to get a driver's license. It seems just like yesterday I was teaching you how to walk and now you're a big grown up –" Eric snorted.

"I'm barely taller than you, Mama," said Eric.

"Barely taller is still taller, honey," said Suzanne. "Look at the young man you've become." Eric looked away to avoid her scrutiny; he did not want to see her misty eyes yet again. It seemed like she almost always had misty eyes lately, and they were almost always in his direction. She'd cried just the week before when she asked if he wanted to have a birthday party, in which Eric stared at her from across the dinner table and said, "Why? Who would I invite?"

"Well your friends at school, of course," said Suzanne.

"Mama," said Eric. "I don't have any friends at school. Everybody already had their friends when I showed up."

Suzanne had teared up into her mashed potatoes and Eric excused himself to his room without a full stomach just to avoid having to see her face.

Her waterworks did not improve the morning of Eric's sixteenth birthday either, after Eric returned from the processing area at the DMV with an interim driver's license printed on a hard piece of paper that was folded enough to fit into Eric's wallet. Suzanne and Coach sat in the waiting area and Suzanne threw her arms around Eric so tightly that he was thankful his broken ribs had finally healed.

"Mama, stop it," said Eric, trying to squirm away from her. Being just a tad taller than her had no advantage in the situation and he was forced to wait for her to finish her hug. Eric squeezed his eyes closed, hoping that no one else in the waiting area was looking at him. Just as he feared, three middle-aged women clapped their hands together and said, "Congratulations, young man! Happy birthday!"

"Oh Lord," Eric whispered, feeling the blush spread all over his warm face. "Mama, I just want to go to school."

"Okay, okay," said Suzanne. She linked her arm in Eric's and directed him toward the exit. "It's my job to embarrass you, you know. Number one duty of a mother." Eric rolled his eyes. Suzanne opened the side door and Eric turned to the right, back toward Coach's truck, but Suzanne pulled him the other way. "No, over here."

"Why?" Eric asked.

Suzanne stopped two parking spaces down in front of a dark blue Ford F-150. It wasn't new – it was probably around ten years old – but it was shiny and clean with brand new tires. Suzanne nodded over to it and Eric stared at it in disbelief.

"What is this?" he asked.

"This is your truck!" said Suzanne, practically bursting at the seams. The smile on her face was the widest he'd ever seen, setting into the lines around her brown eyes. "Happy birthday! I know you wanted a new phone, but I figured this would make up for it."

"Oh my word, Mama, did you seriously buy me a truck?" Eric asked. He looked over his shoulder at Coach, who nodded and held out a set of keys.

"Here you go, son."

"Oh Lord," said Eric. "Thank you."

"Go stand in front of it, I need a picture!" said Suzanne after she pushed Eric toward the truck.

"Are you really going to take a picture? I'm a mess." Eric wiped at his eyes and took several breaths to control the red in his face, but he knew it was absolutely no use to try to quell the blotchiness at this point. He tried to smile for Suzanne's camera and she took several pictures, both in front of the truck and to the side of it, and then finally with Eric behind the wheel. He could see the wear of the truck from the inside but overall it looked to be in great condition. Eric started the engine and lowered the window.

"Mama," he said; she came up next to the driver’s side window and leaned in. "How can you afford this? We just – we just moved to a new house and Coach is just subbing –"

"Don't you worry about that, Dicky," scolded Suzanne. "This is a big birthday and you are our only son. You deserve a nice gift. It's not a new truck, it's got a lot of miles on it, but your daddy got a good deal from a buddy of his so it should last you through college, at least. Lord, now I'm thinking about college. I cannot think about college today. You better get going. If you leave now you can make it to second period."

Eric stared at the steering wheel of his new truck and couldn't possibly think about second period. What even was second period? Biology (which was the worst). Eric wondered how easy it would be to skip school now that he had his own truck and didn't have to ride with Coach any longer. Coach seemed to think along the same lines, because he said, "I'll follow you there. Let's go, Junior."

"All right. Thank you, Mama. Coach."

"You're so welcome, honey. Happy birthday!"

Eric drove his new truck to school and parked in the sophomore/junior lot across the street. A parking pass already hung from the rearview mirror, so he assumed he was allowed to park there. He took a deep breath and smoothed his fingers over the wheel one more time before he got out of the truck and headed into class.

 

***

 

"Hey y'all," said Eric into his webcam. "I have got a lot to say today and you're going to have to forgive me, because it's not all about baking. Now as you may know, sophomore year ended and thank the Lord for that, because I did not think I could get out of that school fast enough. I managed to still pass my classes despite changing schools just two months before finals, and my GPA isn't so bad that I have to worry about getting into Georgia in a few years. But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about hockey."

Eric relaxed into his chair and felt the worries slide off of his face as his mind drifted to the last two weeks of practices for his new club hockey team.

"Now I know what you're thinking – 'Listen, my sweet summer child, I came here to learn about complex lattices and how to make a decent pie crust for once.' To you, I say this: lard. The reason your pie crusts are not turning out is because you think lard is gross, that there has to be another way, but you can put all the butter and oil and what have you in that crust and it'll never be as good until you give it up and put the darn lard in there. For the rest of you, let's talk about hockey.

"I never in my life thought I'd be happy to be on a sports team. If you know me at all, you'd know my talents lie more in areas that do not involve throwing, catching, or blocking. I'm more of a let-me-just-dance sort of person. That's why I liked skating so much. I can do a back flip with daggers on my feet and land upright, but if you ask me to catch a baseball you're probably going to give me a black eye. And hockey is like that – hockey will give you a black eye. The puck goes really fast. But you're going really fast too, and it just…works. I don't know how to say it. I'm not going to pretend that I'm worthy of the NHL or even a scholarship, but I put my stick out there and the puck falls into place and I love it. I love it.

"The rest of the team is friendly enough. There are two other forwards – I'm a forward, if you can believe it. Like the one who scores the goals. Crazy. Anyhoo there are two other forwards who play on the same shift as me, Ollie and Wicks. I think they're related? Like cousins or brothers or something? They're nice and we work together well, but we are not insta-friends or anything like that. I'm more happy to just be out there doing something to take my mind off of…you know. For a while."

There was a knock on the door. Eric paused his recording.

"Yeah?" he asked. He swiveled in his chair and Suzanne stuck her head in.

"Are you recording one of your blogs?" Suzanne asked.

"Yeah, but I paused it. What's up?"

"Happy birthday!" she said and entered the room.

"Mama, my birthday was a month ago. And you bought me a truck."

"I know, and I wanted to buy you this too, but it wasn't out yet."

Suzanne held out a copy of Beyoncé's fourth studio album, 4 . Eric's eyes lit up.

"Mama! Oh my goodness, thank you!" Suzanne smiled when Eric began to tear open the plastic to get at the booklet and disc inside. Suzanne looked around the room and her eyes landed on Eric's poster on the wall. Eric watched as she walked over to it; it definitely wasn't the poster he wanted on the wall, but Suzanne had refused anything too revealing, and the arms-over-the-head pose was similar to the one on the cover of the album, but the album showed a lot more skin.

"What is about her that you like so much?" Suzanne asked.

"I don't know. Her music is really good. It's easy to dance to."

"Yeah, but what is it about her? You listen to a lot of dancey music."

"She's really confident. She's not going to take any crap from anyone. She was part of a super popular music group and wanted to do her own thing so she did. I like that."

"Do you think she's pretty?" Suzanne asked with only a brief glance over her shoulder. The sunlight caught her in the face, illuminating the curve of her jawline and the apples of her cheeks, and in that moment she was beautiful too, just like Beyonce affixed to the wall.

"She's a queen," said Eric.

"But do you think she's pretty?"

"Mama," said Eric. "Do we have to?"

"No," said Suzanne, shaking her head. "I'm sorry. I'll let you get back to it. Don't stay locked in here all day listening to that. Come down for dinner later." Eric nodded but he was already putting the disc into his computer to transfer to his iPod.

Eric made it through exactly three songs before he pulled his headphones out of his ears. He could feel his heart pumping heavily in his chest, like it did after five mile runs for Katya in summer. He looked at his computer, which was still set up to continue the rest of his vlog, but the elation he'd felt when thinking and talking about hockey was completely gone, and instead his eyes would not stop drifting to the car keys on his desk next to his phone.

Thirty seconds later Eric thudded down the stairs with the CD case in one hand and the keys in his other. Suzanne looked up from the living room couch.

"That was fast," she said. "Is there something wrong?"

"Can I take a drive and listen to it in my car?" Eric asked, holding up his keys.

"Sure, honey. Dinner's at six." Eric was out the door before she finished speaking. It was already two o'clock.

Two full album listens later, Eric pulled up to a curb on Donnington Drive, down the hill and around the corner from a pale brick house with multiple roof points. There was no one out; summer was in full swing and just the few moments he'd sat there without the air conditioning on had caused his tank top to stick to his back. He'd have to turn the engine on again soon, but in the meantime he stared at the gentle rustle of the leaves on the tree in front of the house.

The swelter became unbearable after five minutes. He tolerated it for seven because he deserved it; he had not been to Donnington Drive nor had he said a word to the occupants of the house in three months. They were more than likely inside their air conditioned home with no reason to ever leave, so he settled for staring at the shell of their life and, eventually, turned his engine back on.

The album began again and then, after another full listen, the garage door opened. Eric immediately scooched down behind the wheel to hide his face and turned off the music in order to be able to hear. From this viewpoint he could just see around the bushes and inside, but had no hope to see an actual person until: "Drew, get the mail for me before we go, okay?"

His breath hitched in his throat when Drew appeared. He looked the same: dark hair parted on one side and combed into a swoop that lay away from his forehead; thick, black glasses; flip flops and shorts and a tank top that showed off his swimmer's arms. Eric swallowed heavily, his eyes gratuitously raking in the angles of Drew's body. Drew jogged to the end of the driveway, opened up the mailbox, and peered inside. Eric slid further down, trying to hide, but Drew barely gave the truck any notice before he took the mail and returned into the garage.

That was it. The family car backed out of the driveway and turned in the opposite direction. The garage door closed. They were gone.

Eric could feel the tears in his eyes and gripped the hot steering wheel in his fists to prevent himself from crying yet again – it was always crying now. Crying when he woke up, crying when he drove to school, crying at dinner, crying while listening to Beyoncé say I miss you like every day and knowing that he could just pick up the phone and text him and tell Drew those words and it would be better, but instead he cried about it down the street from Drew's house without Drew knowing he was even there.

Eric sat up, wiped at his eyes, and shook his head before he headed down the street, allowing himself to dwell in his emotions for ninety more minutes until he arrived home. He parked the truck behind Coach's in the driveway and noticed the garage door was open here as well. Several fans were going in the garage to try to ward off the thick blanket of heat. When Eric closed the door to his truck, Coach looked up from the planks of wood he'd been sanding on the worktable; with the sander off, Eric could hear the television from the corner of the room, but it was clear Coach wasn’t paying much attention to it.

"Hey Junior," he said. "Where were you off to?"

"Mom gave me the new Beyoncé album. Wanted to listen to it in the car."

"Yeah? How are the speakers in that thing?"

"Good. Could be better."

Eric took a step toward the house, hesitated, and looked over at Coach again, who rearranged the plank on the worktable.

"That's, um," Eric said, and he scratched the back of his head nervously, "that's coming along, isn't it? You gonna stitch it together next?"

"Yep," said Coach. "Just gotta finish sanding these ones and I'll get the molds put together." Eric's eyes drifted over the mess Coach had created in the garage – it wasn't unusual for Coach to do that, but Eric was surprised this one had gotten so large so fast. The components of the mold for the frame of the canoe were lying in pieces against the wall, ready to be assembled on the table. This garage was a little smaller than the one back in Johns Creek, so the table was angled diagonally.

"How long is this one gonna be?" Eric asked.

"Eighteen feet."

"Who's it for?"

"Us," said Coach. He turned on the sander and Eric didn't speak. He stood with his keys in his hand and his eyes on the dust that swirled into the air and onto the floor as Coach smoothed the wood over and over again.

He'd seen it so much in the past that it was easy to recognize what stage of building Coach was in and how much further he had to go. Buying and trimming the wood was the easy part, and Coach had clearly done that when school let out, but the sanding always took a long time. When Eric had been very little, back when they lived in Madison the first time, he would sit on a stool and watch Coach and Uncle Jeffrey stitch the planks into the shape of the canoe. Coach would spend hours tightening and adjusting the stitches and would always want to glue them same day, even if it got late into the night. Eric would scratch the mosquito bites on his legs, his back stiff and uncomfortable from the stool, while Coach mixed the epoxy in the corner of the garage and Uncle Jeffrey fell over from the smell because they closed the garage door when the bugs got too bad. That was the oldest canoe Eric could remember, sold to a family with four rowdy boys. It had been strapped to the roof of a station wagon and Eric wondered what the point of all the work had been if Coach never got to launch it.

"They'll use it plenty, Junior," Coach had said. "Next time we'll take it out for a test run before we let them pick it up, okay?"

The sander clicked off and Eric blinked several times; he'd been staring at dancing dust for several minutes without seeing it.

"We've never kept one before," said Eric.

"I thought it was about time," said Coach with a shrug. "No sense in making so many of these and never keeping one for yourself. We're not far from the lake out here – it was a bit of a drive from Johns Creek but it's just a hop and a skip from this house." Eric nodded.

"Can I – can I help?"

"You go on inside and help your Mama finish dinner," said Coach. "Afterward you can hold it in place while I make the stitches, if you want."

"Okay," muttered Eric. Coach rearranged another plank and Eric was inside before the sander turned on again.

Chapter Text

September 2005

"E!" shouted Drew. "Get your butt back down here, I can't go that high!"

Eric's body was completely wrapped around a branch about twenty feet from the ground. They'd found a good tree in the forest behind Eric's house, but it had been hard to get to with the thick bushes and fallen brush all over the forest floor. It took fifteen minutes to stamp down the sticks enough to walk on them, and then Eric saw it, further apart from the others, a majestic trunk that shot at least forty feet into the air. It was bigger than any of the trees over at Drew's house, but Drew's house was in the middle of neighborhood and Eric's was just on the edge of one.

Eric, still clinging to the branch, let his head fall backwards to look down at Drew and, subsequently, the ground.

"Oh Lord," he said when he realized how far it was.

"Yeah, exactly. If you fall you will die."

"Don't tell me I'm going to die!"

"Well you are! Climb back down right now! I want to go inside. I think there was poison ivy."

"There wasn't poison ivy, you dork," said Eric. "It was just normal bushes. It's not my fault you're allergic to literally everything."

"That's not true," said Drew and Eric could see his frown even from this distance.

Eric secured his hands and let go of his legs, causing Drew to make an ominous noise, but his feet touched the branch below. He steadied himself before he crouched again and began to make his descent back to his friend. When Eric reached Drew's branch, Eric sat down, his legs on either side, and leaned forward to prop himself up on his elbows and look at Drew, who was resting against the wide trunk of the tree.

There wasn't much light in this part of the forest, since they'd gone in so far, but a beam from the late-afternoon sun broke through a hole in the leaves and shone directly onto Drew's face. They'd spent a lot of time in the sun over the past few weeks so Drew's face was much darker than it had been when Eric first met him. The only change in Eric's skin was the peeling of his cheeks from his latest sunburn. It wasn't fair.

"What?" Drew asked when Eric continued to stare at him.

Drew's dark hair flopped over his forehead and around the upper rim of his glasses. Eric wore his hair just the same, the fringe brushing his eyes, but it fit Drew's face better than Eric's. Drew's hair always looked very soft, like if Eric touched it, it would slide easily between his fingers. Eric didn't move but continued to look up at Drew.

"Nothing," said Eric.

"Do you want to come over to my house tomorrow and swim?" Drew asked. "It's supposed to be real hot."

"I can't. Coach's barbeque for the football team is tomorrow."

"Like everyone's gonna come over here? But that's not until dinnertime, right?"

"Yeah, but Mama and I always spend the whole day making food. She likes to make macaroni salad and pasta salad and potato salad but she always lets me make the pies and sometimes I make cobbler and –"

"So you're going to spend all day making pie?"

"Yeah! Always peach pie, usually pecan, usually apple. Coach cooks the burgers and hot dogs on the grill but no one ever cares about that, people always care about the pie. Mama always says the pie is gone before the burgers are gone. You can come over and help, if you want."

"Nah," said Drew. "That's something you and your Mama do. I don't want to get in the way."

"You just don't care about baking."

"You got me," said Drew.

"That's okay. You liked that cherry pie I made you, right?"

"Yeah! It was the best thing I've ever had!"

"See? You care a little."

"I care about eating, E. I don't care about making." Eric shrugged his shoulders. He gripped the branch underneath him, shifted his legs, and proceeded to dangle by his knees, which caused Drew to sit up violently. "What the heck, E? You're going to fall!"

"I'm not going to fall, Drew, chill out."

"If you fall and die I am not telling your Mama. I am just going to run straight home and never talk to you again." Eric could see Drew carefully peering over the edge of the branch, worry etched into his face. Eric smiled and began to swing. "Stop it!"

"What're you going to do about it?" Eric asked, giggling as he swung his upper body back and forth. It wasn't too far from the ground from this branch, just another three feet if he stretched out his arms.

"I'm – I'm – I'm going to push you over!"

"Then I will die! I thought you didn't want me to die?"

"Eric! Seriously, you're freaking me out. Can we get down and go inside?"

Eric gripped the branch with the back of his knees and pulled himself up. He carefully hopped down (Drew groaned into his fists) and held out one hand for Drew. Drew ignored him completely and opted to hug the trunk and shimmy down to the ground, and then they both turned and ran back inside. Suzanne and Coach both sat at the table; Suzanne had several goodie bags in front of her and Coach appeared to be helping, but when Eric entered the room he popped the second half of a football-shaped sugar cookie into his mouth.

"Rick, stop it. Those are for your team."

"They're good, Suzie," said Coach. "Drew, you here again?"

"Yes, sir," said Drew.

"Can Drew stay over tonight?" Eric asked. He sat at the kitchen table and began to cut even lengths of blue and yellow ribbon from a spool.

"If it's okay with your parents, Drew," said Suzanne. "Are you going to help us bake in the morning? We've got plenty to make for the barbeque."

"No," said Drew. "I'll go home after we wake up."

"Then you're not allowed to stay over," said Eric. Drew made a face at him but sat down on the table and ate a cookie. "Don't eat those!"

"It's okay, honey, he can have one," said Suzanne. "Your father, on the other hand…" Coach snuck another cookie from the plate but then stood and skirted around the table. He kissed the top of Suzanne's head before he ruffled both Eric and Drew's hair. Eric groaned and immediately combed his bangs back into place, while Drew let his messy mop stay as it was.

"What's for dinner, Mama?" asked Eric.

"Nothing too special since we've got a lot to do for tomorrow. I've got a meatloaf in the oven and I'll pop some veggies on the stove in a bit. You like meatloaf, Drew?" Drew shrugged his shoulders. "You'll like my meatloaf. It's my own Mama's recipe, and she might have gotten it from her Mama too – who knows. It's how I've always made it."

"My Mama can't make any sort of loaf," said Drew, "and she definitely can't bake cookies. Did you decorate these too, Mrs. Bittle?" Each cookie had brown icing and white stitching, and several of them had a number written on them as well. When Suzanne nodded, Drew's eyebrows disappeared into his hair. "Oh, wow!"

"You're sweet, Drew," said Suzanne. "If you stayed longer in the morning, I could show you how –" Drew shrugged his shoulders but didn't commit to anything.

They filled goodie bags for an hour before dinner when Coach wandered back into the room; he smelled strongly of epoxy and Suzanne sent him upstairs to change his clothes before he could sit at the table. "Coach makes canoes sometimes," Eric explained to Drew. "He makes them and then people buy them. It's pretty cool."

"Do you guys have your own?" Eric shook his head. "Oh. I want one." When Coach returned in different clothes, Drew looked up. "Mr. Bittle, can you make me a canoe? I want to go canoeing."

"Maybe, son," said Coach. "How 'bout I take you and Junior out on the lake to test this one out when it's done?" Drew nodded excitedly. "You ever been fishing?"

"My Uncle Mike and Aunt Jan took me and Amy over the summer. Amy didn't like it too much. It was okay. I didn't really catch anything either because Amy kept screaming about the worms and all that," said Drew. "I don't think Amy's cut out to be outside."

"Don't you worry, our lake's got plenty of crappie to fry on up," said Coach. "What d'you think, Junior? You want to go on out to the lake when I finish up the canoe?" Eric shrugged his shoulders. "I'll have to get a move on, then, with the season already started. Don't want to go camping if it's too cold out."

After dinner, Drew and Eric retreated to Eric's room with a deck of cards. They played War and Spit and Crazy Eights, shouting at each other ("NO, I GOT IT DOWN FIRST, I WON! PICK UP YOUR CARD, IDIOT!") until Suzanne popped her head in at nine o'clock.

"That's quite enough, boys," she said. "Time for bed. Dicky, honey, give Drew some PJs to wear. I put an extra toothbrush in the bathroom."

Eric gave Drew a pair of shorts and they brushed their teeth side-by-side in the bathroom. Suzanne waited for them to climb into bed before she headed back downstairs again, Eric near the wall, Drew on the outside. "Why do I have to be on the outside?" Drew asked.

"Because if someone breaks into the house they'll kill you and not me. Duh," said Eric.

"You're the worst, E."

"Just being honest, D."

Eric curled toward the wall; his new bed was large enough that Drew felt very far away from him, but Eric was hyper aware of Drew's presence. They were both quiet for a long time, but then Drew turned toward Eric and spoke again: "Do you snore?"

"How would I know?" Eric asked. "Do you?"

"I don't know. Do you kick? My Mama said when I was a baby I used to kick her all the time."

"Maybe you should sleep on the floor."

"What? No!"

"I don't want you kicking me all night long!"

"You're all the way over there, how am I even going to reach you? Look –" Drew attempted to kick and his foot hit Eric right on the butt. Eric yelped. "Ha, I guess I can hit you. I'm not sleeping on the floor. If you think I'm going to get you, you can sleep on the floor."

"This is my house!"

"Yeah and I'm a guest! I get the bed!"

"Just don't kick me –"

"BOYS! SLEEP! NOW!"

Eric giggled, and then Drew giggled, but before Suzanne could come up the stairs they'd both fallen asleep. Neither kicked the other during the night.

 

***

 

Drew went home after breakfast. Eric's disappointment was quickly eradicated when Suzanne set out the ingredients for their first task of the day – crusts. This year was the first time Eric was given the sole responsibility to make all of the pie crusts for Coach Bittle's Annual Varsity Football Kickoff Barbeque, and he vowed to make the best pie crusts that could be made by man.

Suzanne sat at the kitchen table peeling potatoes for the potato salad and watched Eric fondly as he carefully concentrated on evenly adding cubes of lard and butter to the dry mixture; Eric could feel her gaze from across the room and glanced back every few seconds. Every time he turned she looked back at the potatoes as if she weren't watching him. After a few minutes of this, Eric frowned at her.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing, honey," she said. "You just look very grown up over there." Eric rolled his eyes. "Are you excited for the barbeque? Your daddy won't stop talking about these boys on the team this year."

"Yeah," said Eric. "I don't think any of them will be there when I go to Hooch, though."

"True, but it's a different group of kids than he taught back in Madison – they care about it more," said Suzanne. "Do you ever think about maybe playing?"

"No, Mama, I like skating," said Eric. He closed his eyes and thought about the one peewee football game he'd played when he was five years old and how much it had hurt when someone ran into him after he caught the ball. "No one's gonna run into me when I'm skating. Well, most of the time. Sometimes Katya likes to get in my way so I'll turn faster."

"Well maybe the boys today will throw the ball around with you. It'll make your daddy happy to see you taking an interest in it."

Eric removed the dough from the bowl and began to knead it on the counter, his lips turned downward. He didn't reply to her and definitely did not let her see his face while he molded the large batch of dough together. Instead he focused completely on the task in front of him, eager to get it perfect, and then wrapped several discs in cellophane before placing them into the refrigerator and working on batch number two.

Suzanne made the macaroni salad while Eric melted together blueberries and sugar, made a pasta salad while Eric cut apples into perfectly even slices and tossed them with cinnamon. It took the length of the day to finish all of the food, pausing only shortly for sandwiches for lunch, and by three o'clock when they began to clean up, Eric's feet were beginning to hurt and his hands felt raw from overwork. At four o'clock Coach had the grill turned on and the rest of the food was placed on tables on the patio, but Eric was upstairs in his room staring at the clothes in his closet with wide eyes.

"MAMA!" he yelled.

Suzanne was also changing her clothes, so she appeared in Eric's doorway just a moment later.

"What are you screaming about, child?" she asked.

"Help me pick out what to wear," Eric said. "I can't think of anything."

Suzanne walked into Eric's closet and began to sort through the shirts hanging there. "What about this?" she suggested and held out a blue-and-yellow plaid button down. "It'll match the team colors."

"But everything is blue and yellow! We bought blue and yellow tablecloths!"

"True," said Suzanne. She picked up another button-down shirt. "How about this, then? It's just blue. You can wear a white t-shirt under it and your khaki shorts." Eric stared at the shirt for a few seconds and Suzanne forced it at him. "I think you'll look very handsome in this, Dicky. They'll be here any minute, so get changed up and meet me downstairs. Comb your hair too." Suzanne carefully brushed his hair out of his eyes and left the room.

Eric spent five minutes combing his hair over his forehead after he changed his clothes and made it downstairs just in time for the doorbell to ring. He ran across the foyer and threw open the door to reveal five very large teenagers wearing blue letter jackets and baseball hats. All five of them looked skeptically down at him, but he smiled brightly and waved.

"Hi!" he said. "Come on in – everything's in the backyard!" Eric pointed toward the living room where there was a sliding glass door to the backyard.

The boys entered the house without wiping their feet and Eric frowned at the dirt that would no doubt end up caked into his mother's carpet, but he didn't say anything. Before he could close the door again two more boys headed up the sidewalk. "Hi y'all," he said. "Come on in!"

Eric was on door duty for twenty minutes before the entire roster of the Chattahoochee varsity football team arrived at the house, and each of them looked as intimidating as the last. Eric was very used to being one of the smallest kids in the class, but there was one player who was quite possibly two and a half feet taller than Eric with a neck the size of Eric's waist. Eric ducked behind the front door when he entered and looked at the floor while he pointed toward the backyard.

It was much easier to interact with all of them as a group, though, especially when Eric was manning the table with all the side dishes. "You should try the macaroni salad – it's the best macaroni salad this side of Atlanta, let me tell you!"

"Okay, kid," said the kicker – he was clearly the kicker because he was not nearly as large as the rest of the team – but apart from that, most of the players talked to each other and let Eric scoop ridiculous amounts of food onto their sturdy paper plates. After everyone was fed, there was just enough left to make a plate for himself and his mother. Eric took a hamburger from Coach for himself and a hot dog for his mother, then sat down at one of the tables next to her.

"We have enough?" Suzanne asked.

"Yep, just," said Eric. "Is this a bigger team than the one in Madison?"

"They're a larger division here," said Suzanne and when Eric looked confused, she said, "This school has more money, so they can have a nicer stadium and a bigger team, and they get to play other schools with nicer stadiums and bigger teams."

"Oh," said Eric. "Does that mean Coach gets paid more?"

"A little," said Suzanne. "But don't you worry about that."

Eric ate quickly so he could run back to the dessert table and serve pie when everyone was finished with their first and second plates of the main course. Suzanne stood next to him with a scoop for the vanilla ice cream and together they handed out slice after slice of pie, each time explaining in full the contents of each one:

"This one's got a cinnamon sugar crumble on the top," Eric was saying to three players who really didn't care about what pie they ate, "this one's Cherries Jubilee, this one's blueberry lemon –"

"Cherry's fine, kid," said one of the players and the rest nodded. Eric frowned but handed over three slices of cherry pie and plastic forks, and put a smile back on his face when someone else approached the pie table. Eric had a feeling he was one of the quarterbacks from the way the rest of the team treated him, but Eric wasn't quite sure.

"What kind of pie do you like?" Eric asked.

"I just want ice cream," he said.

"Oh," said Eric.

Suzanne scooped him some vanilla ice cream and he rejoined one of the tables.

"Who just wants ice cream when there's pie to be eaten?" Eric asked.

"It's okay, honey, not everyone likes pie."

"Everyone should like pie," said Eric with a pout.

After pie Coach brought out a few footballs from the garage and the boys began to toss them around in the yard. Eric watched from a distance; the ice cream boy was definitely a quarterback by the way he spiraled the ball perfectly with each pass. A second circle of players next to Eric did not contain a quarterback; they were more about throwing the ball as hard as they could, trying to peg each other in the face rather than place the ball where it could be caught.

"Dicky, honey, help me with these dishes," said Suzanne. She handed Eric two nearly-empty pie tins and gestured toward the house. Going back to the house would mean having to walk between the two groups of rowdy players. Eric held onto the two tins and skirted the edge of the group containing the quarterback, but before he could make it to the house, someone shouted: "Kid, heads up!"

A football sailed through the air toward him. Eric instantly remembered his first meeting with Drew and the pain from Drew’s kick, so he dropped both pie tins, raised his hands, and caught the ball just before it hit him in the face. "My pie!" said Eric, looking at the upturned dish on the ground, and the boys just laughed at him and called for the ball back.

"Good catch," said the ice cream quarterback. "Can you throw it too?" Eric drew back his arm and threw it back but, despite his good spiral and aim, it bounced off the player's chest and onto the ground. "That's pretty good, kid."

"Thanks," said Eric. He quickly carried his mess back into the house and threw both of the tins and the dirty leftovers into the garbage.

"It's okay, Dicky," said Suzanne. "We'll have plenty left over. You should bring one of these to school tomorrow and give it to Drew. We know he likes pie." Eric looked sadly at the pie in the garbage and frowned before he made his way back to the dessert table to continue to clean, this time completely avoiding everyone else.

Chapter Text

August 2011

Eric fell. It wasn’t nearly the first time it had happened in practice, but this was one of his more spectacular falls. He'd held out his stick for a pass from Wicks and despite his speed, the puck was just out of reach. He leaned forward, practically horizontal already, to try to meet rubber to tape, but his center of gravity was too far off balance. He collapsed forward and slid all the way from the dot to the board with a crunch.

"Oof," he said when he felt his body collide. He had enough padding around his ribs (completely healed, but sometimes still tender) to avoid any re-injury, but a jolt of pain seared into his back and he groaned. A whistle was blown before he'd gotten on his feet again and Coach Frahm appeared in front of him. Coach Frahm was a young coach, not long out of college, with a neatly trimmed beard and kind green eyes. Eric had taken to him immediately.

"You okay, Bittle?" he asked.

"Yeah, yeah, just leaned forward too much."

"Okay. Good hustle. Get on up and take this face off."

Eric stood up and skated back to the dot. He laced his fingers together and stretched his arms over his head – his back cracked in several places as he straightened his spine, but it felt loose and limber, no lasting damage from the fall. He crouched over the faceoff circle, opposite Tony, with Ollie to his left and Wicks to his right.

Face offs were not his strongest suit, but Coach Frahm had put him in several practice scenarios over the summer, which led Eric to believe he was probably better at it than he thought. He easily won possession over Tony and passed to Ollie (because Wicks didn't deserve it), but then Tony pushed him away when Eric attempted to spin to follow Ollie to the goal. Eric fell over for a second time, but he didn't get up when his body jammed into the boards. He could feel the shakes beginning in his hands and didn't want to have an episode right there on the ice. Coach Frahm blew his whistle.

"Tony, no pushing," he said.

"What?" Tony asked. "I barely touched him!"

"You know the rules. No pushing. Line up again."

Eric returned to the dot, his stick over his knees, willing himself to calm down. Tony looked reluctantly apologetic for the action. Eric stared at the red circle in front of him and it seemed to help.

"Sorry," said Tony.

"No, it's fine," said Eric.

Eric also won the second face off and again passed it to Ollie, then spun around Tony and headed toward the goal. Ollie shot it at the net, missed, and Eric caught it. With a quick flick of his wrist, Eric sent the puck sailing into the corner and past the goalie's glove. "YES!" yelled Wicks. "BITTLE FOR THE WIN!" Eric smiled when Coach Frahm blew the whistle a third time and they all headed back to the bench.

"Great job today, everyone," he said. Wicks handed Eric a bottle of water and Eric took a long sip. "I think we're in a great spot for our first game next week. Next practice we're going to tighten up passes, though – Wicks, we don't want to throw Bittle into the boards every time you're trying to get him the puck. Anticipate where he's going to be. Watch his speed. Bittle, it's the same for you. Let him know where you are. Got it?" Eric nodded. "Great. That's it for today. See you Tuesday."

Eric stood up to head back toward the locker room, but Coach Frahm stopped him. He waited for the rest of the team to pass before he spoke. "Bittle, you're doing really well."

"Thank you, Coach," said Eric.

"I'm going to have you start for the first game, but I think during Tuesday’s practice we're going to try you out at center."

Eric frowned.

"Ollie's the center."

"Yes, and he's been good, but I think you can balance them out better if they're on your wing. They need to work with you as well as they work with each other. You have a better faceoff percentage than either of them and you're faster. What do you think?"

"Yeah, I think I can do that."

"Great," said Coach Frahm. "I think this will be a good move for you. The center tends to be, well, the center of the team. We'll talk more Tuesday. Wash up and go home."

Eric hid his excitement from Coach Frahm and the rest of the team through his shower, changing his clothes, and all the way to the parking lot. Once safely inside his truck he fist pumped and then immediately proceeded to fan his face to hide the tears that sprang into his eyes. "Hockey is amazing," he said to his reflection – his reflection beamed back. He took a deep breath and started off toward home.

There were several bins of fruit on the kitchen table when Eric walked into the house, along with a handful of groceries. It was entirely too much for Suzanne's weekly grocery trip, and it was also Saturday – Suzanne usually went to the grocery store on Sundays. Eric looked bemusedly at all of them until Suzanne unpacked three boxes of macaroni and a sack of potatoes from inside one of the paper bags, and all of the elation he'd felt from practice seeped out of his body.

"What is this?" Eric asked.

"Just what we needed for the barbeque tomorrow," said Suzanne. "D'you want to help with the pies? There will be –"

"What do you mean?" Eric asked and Suzanne stopped unpacking at the chill in Eric's tone.

"The barbeque, Dicky. For the football team."

"Are you fucking kidding me?"

"Eric Richard Bittle, how dare you –"

"How dare I?" Eric yelled. "How dare I, mother? You made me uproot my entire life, quit skating, move an hour and a half away from my only friend, start at a brand new school where nobody gives a damn about me, for what? To invite the football team over for a barbeque before I even know who they are? To invite them into my home and make me make them pie, parade me around like you did all of those other times? How dare you invite them here!"

"This is your father's yearly tradition, Dicky –"

"I don't care about traditions! I thought we were done with traditions after father's sweet little angels nearly murdered me five months ago!"

"What is going on here?"

Coach stormed into the kitchen and Eric instinctively backed up against the garage door to veer away from him. Coach looked as mad as Eric felt, his face red, his hands on his hips, his eyes dark and wide as he looked at Eric and not at Suzanne.

"What are you thinking?" Eric asked, his voice icily quiet.

"I'm thinking we're going to have a barbeque like we do every single year, son," said Coach. "I have a job and spending time with the team is part of it. This is how it is."

"No, this is how it starts," said Eric. "This right here. Your macaroni salad and goodie bags and hamburgers. This is how I end up dead before I graduate."

"Son, don't exaggerate."

"Yeah, I'm exaggerating," said Eric with a huff. He crossed the room, giving both of his parents a wide berth, and headed toward the stairs. He paused before his feet hit the carpet of the dining room, turned to Coach, and touched a finger to the faded scar on his upper lip. "Do you remember how it looked? I don't, but I remember your face. I remember how you looked when you found me. Tell me they're not capable of it."

Eric pivoted and ran through the dining room and up the stairs to his bedroom. He slammed the door behind him and slid down to the floor, unaware that he was shaking.

 

***

 

Coach sought him out first. Eric had napped for the better part of the afternoon, sleeping poorly, kicking off his sheets several times and then pulling them back up again. He was in a sheets-on phase when Coach knocked on the door and opened it without waiting for a response. Eric took one look at him and pulled the bedding over his head.

"Are you going to let me talk about what happened down there?" Coach asked. Eric didn't reply, expecting Coach to leave, but when the door closed again it was accompanied by footsteps and Coach's weight on the edge of Eric's bed. Eric grumbled as he lowered his blanket to below his chin. Coach wasn't looking at him. "Your Mama's in a right state. She took your side because that's what she does. Thinks we should cancel tomorrow instead. I know where you're coming from, son –"

Eric snorted and Coach finally looked at him.

"This is my job. This is what I know how to do, and this is what keeps this roof over your head. Pays for your gas. Lets you play hockey. I know you don't like it, and I get that you don't like it, but if the school says throw a barbeque for your team, you throw a barbeque for your team. It'll be different this year, I promise, Junior. These boys are not the ones you knew at Hooch."

"How do you even know?" Eric asked.

"Because I do. I know them. I know them better than you, and you can't pass judgment on an entire group of people just because of your experiences with a couple of bad eggs. Not everyone is Clayton and Marcus, son. I know why you don't want them in the house. It's too late for me to change that, but you don't have to be here. They don't need to know who you are. Why don't you call up Drew and spend the day out by him?"

Eric tensed under the covers and didn't reply.

"Or I can give you some money and you can go see a movie. You don't have to be home."

"So you're just kicking me out of the house?" Eric asked.

"I'm giving you an option to go somewhere else because you don't want to be here."

He worried at the scar on his lip. It had healed well, just a small white split that disappeared at a distance of four feet, but Eric had fallen into the habit of fidgeting with it. The memory of it was still tangible and it reminded him that even if he hid in his room, it was only a matter of time before people connected Coach Bittle to Eric Bittle.

"No," said Eric. "I'm not going anywhere."

"All right. They're going to be here tomorrow at four o'clock whether or not you are. Your Mama will make the food – you can eat with us if you'd like or you can stay up here." Coach reached out toward Eric's shoulder, hesitated, and then clapped him once before he stood again. "You gonna come down for dinner?"

"No."

"We'll make a plate for you anyway."

Eric waited for him to leave before he closed his eyes. Just as he did he saw the bottom of a muddy tennis shoe with the word VANS imprinted on the sole. It grew closer and closer and Eric opened his eyes again before it collided, his entire body jolting with the memory. He took in a deep, harried breath before he curled into a ball under the sheets and waited for the ache in his chest to disappear.

 

***

 

Eric owned only one Madison Hockey Club T-shirt and it was dirty, but not so dirty that he couldn't get away with wearing it a second time. There were far more wrinkles than he'd normally allow in his clothing, but it would have to do. He wore his baggiest jeans – none of his jeans were really baggy, but these at least didn't hug the sticks that were his legs – and laced up his tennis shoes. He stood in front of the mirror and judged his appearance. "Normal," he said. "Very normal."

He reached for the jar of pomade on his dresser but quickly stopped himself. He combed the swoop to the side with his fingers but otherwise did nothing to style it. After one more look at himself he reached for the handle just as the doorbell rang downstairs. A wave of dread entered his body. He looked directly into his own eyes, nodded, and then opened the door.

There were only a handful of people so far, all sitting at one of the tables in the backyard. The tablecloths this year were crimson and white to match Samwell's colors and to give the space a much warmer atmosphere. It was entirely too hot out for letter jackets, so everyone in the backyard had on a T-shirt. One of the players (he had to be a senior with that mustache) wore a crop top that, when Eric entered the backyard, he took off completely and tucked into his back pocket. Suzanne approached the table with a smile and a pitcher of sweet tea, politely ignoring that one of the table's occupants was shirtless.

"Can I offer you boys some sweet tea? And you Larissa?"

Eric didn't see her at first due to the wide-shouldered and incredibly tall blonde man blocking her from sight, but a short girl sat next to the shirtless man – she was smaller than Eric with hair down to her shoulder on one side and buzzed on the other. When she looked up at Suzanne, Eric could see thick eyeliner around her dark eyes.

"Thanks Mrs. Coach," said the man with the mustache. Suzanne poured the three of them a glass of sweet tea and then headed over to Eric, who continued to hover near the door to the kitchen.

"Oh, honey, I'm glad you came down," she said. "Larissa and Adam and…um…Knight are here already. Have you met Larissa before? She's the team manager." Eric glanced back over at Larissa, who was looking at the man with the mustache with a raised eyebrow, probably because he was now attempting to tie his long hair back with the edges of his crop top. It wasn't working very well.

"No," said Eric, "I haven't."

"You should say hi." Suzanne looked into the house. "Looks like a few more are here too. Oh, there's Jack! You should definitely say hi to Jack." Eric looked over his shoulder. Three more boys were walking through the house; the first was muscular enough to rival some of the more terrifying boys from Hooch but his salmon colored shorts made him seem less threatening; the second was tall but incredibly skinny and had a look of awe about him as he wandered in between the others; and the third was the spitting image of Bob Zimmermann, the recently retired quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. Eric ducked out of the doorway and pressed himself up against the siding when the three entered the backyard and were promptly flagged down by a crop top.

By five o'clock there were nearly fifty people in the backyard. The tables were crammed together near the patio to leave open space near the forest and along the side the house for the team to socialize after dinner. Eric hadn't really noticed how much smaller their yard was here than in Johns Creek, but after seeing so many people maneuvering around each other, he could clearly notice the difference.

Eric made it through two plates of food and half a piece of pie before someone spoke to him. It was easy to avoid everyone early on since he stood near the door to the kitchen and just looked down, but once people began to finish their meals, it became apparent that he was not someone they knew.

The mustachioed man and Larissa were the ones who approached him first. "Hey, you're not on our team, are you?" Larissa asked.

"No," said Eric.

"Oh, you're Coach's son, aren't you?" she asked.

Eric nodded curtly and stuffed another forkful of pie into his mouth.

"'Swawesome,” said the mustachioed man. “I'm Shitty. Wide receiver."

"Shitty?" Eric asked, his eyebrow raised.

"Don't ask," said Larissa. "I'm Lardo. Team manager. I try to keep these idiots in line. They're good for the most part, though, unless they're taking their clothes off in front of the Coach's wife. Hella awkward." Eric nodded.

"I take it you play hockey," said Shitty, gesturing to Eric's shirt. Eric looked down and nodded, but didn't speak further. "They don't have a hockey team at Samwell. I think they should. If they can spend a gazillion dollars on a new stadium and charter in players from half the county they could probably also afford a hockey team. By the way, bro? This pie your mom made? Orgasmic. Like I think I blew one eating it." Eric looked at Lardo, who rolled her eyes. "I guess that's kind of a weird thing to say about your mom's baking. Probably didn't want to hear that." Eric shook his head.

"You don't talk very much, do you?" said Lardo.

"Actually, kind of the opposite," said Eric. "I just – I didn't quite get along with Coach's last football team."

"Ah, they were probably a bunch of dicks," said Shitty. "We here at Samwell are not dicks. Well, most of us are not dicks. I'm not a dick."

"I'm not a dick," said Lardo.

"Lardo's def not a dick," said Shitty. "Ransom and Holster – they are the broiest bros who have ever bro'd, but not dicks. Chowder's completely incapable of being a dick. Dex is – well, Dex –"

"He's kind of a dick," said Lardo. "But in, like, a tolerable way? He just really needs to chill. Nursey is great at telling him to chill."

"And then there's Jack," said Shitty, turning as if he'd known Jack was standing just out of reach this entire time. He scooped Jack away from the dessert table and into his arms, holding Jack from behind like they were posing for a prom photo. Shitty set his chin down on Jack's shoulder and Jack grinned.

"Shitty, jamais! " Jack said with a laugh. He looked forward and realized Eric stood in front of him, and then stood upright. He was taller than Eric, like everyone except for Lardo, but apart from the square jawline of Bob Zimmermann, he wasn't as intimidating as Eric had originally thought upon seeing him. He looked awkward, actually, attempting to pull out of Shitty's grasp to be more authoritative, but it didn't quite work since Shitty wouldn't let go of him. "Sorry. Are you on our team? I don't think I've seen you at practice." Jack's accent was noticeably different: Shitty had the same Southern twang Eric had grown accustomed to from a life lived in Atlanta's suburbs; Lardo seemed to have no accent at all; but Jack had a grit in his tone that was not local. Eric couldn't quite place it.

"No," said Eric.

"This is Coach’s son. Bittle. Bitty," said Lardo, and Eric's eyebrows lifted at the nickname he didn't realize he'd earned.

"Ah," said Jack. "Jack. Nice to meet you."

Eric shook his hand and Jack let go with haste, and then just as quickly made an excuse to walk away. Eric watched him as he left, then looked at Lardo. "Is he –?"

"Jack Zimmermann? Yeah. His family moved out here when his dad retired, what, last year? Came on when he was a junior. In four years he's going to be in the NFL. I'd put money on it."

"But he's not just Jack Zimmermann, okay?" said Shitty and Eric pressed his body against the siding of the house again when the tone of Shitty's voice turned aggressive. "He's my best friend and royal amounts of awesome off the field, so lower your eyebrows."

Eric forced his eyebrows to normal height.

"I wasn't –"

"Dude, you were," said Lardo. "I mean, I get it, his dad’s a big deal."

Eric glanced over at Jack; Coach had caught up with him and was talking to him about something related to football, because Coach never stopped talking about football. Jack nodded in agreement, one hand holding a paper plate with pie, the other desperately trying to lift a fork to his mouth, but Coach kept gesticulating in the way, and Jack had to lower his fork to prevent a collision. As Coach continued to speak Jack sneaked woeful glances down to his plate, a frown etched into one corner of his mouth. Coach clapped Jack on the shoulder and Jack jumped in surprise, which caused a bark of laughter to burst out of Eric's mouth. Jack looked over and smiled, just for a moment, before Lardo appeared in front of Eric's line of sight.

"Bitty. Eyebrows."

"Sorry," said Eric.

"Nah, you're cool. Come show me what the big deal is about this pie."

Eric led Lardo to the table and began explaining the various flavors, and for the first time in several months, he was happy to be speaking to someone.

Chapter Text

April 2006

Coach didn't finish building his canoe until April, but as soon as he did Eric invited Drew to come camping with them on Lake Oconee. They'd have to make a whole weekend out of it; the lake wasn't far from Eric's old house in Madison, but adding on the extra ninety minutes from Johns Creek to Madison, it was nearly a two hour drive to get there. After school on Friday, Eric walked with Drew and Amy back to Drew's house; Drew's mother was already home.

"Drew, honey, have a good time. Don't forget to put on sunscreen," said Mrs. Lester after she handed Drew a weekend bag. Eric didn't get much opportunity to see Mrs. Lester since she usually worked late, but Eric had been given permission to skip skating practice to go camping for the weekend, and Mrs. Lester was home on Friday afternoons. Mrs. Lester, like the rest of her family, was very pretty, but unlike Mr. Lester, Drew, and Amy, she had greenish gray eyes and light brown hair that curled underneath her chin. It was hard to see her resemblance to her children until she bent to kiss Drew on the cheek and Drew grimaced in embarrassment; she and Drew’s faces were the same.

"Mama, not in front of Eric."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot you're much too old to get kisses from your Mama in front of your friends." Mrs. Lester proceeded to kiss him again, in the middle of his scrunched up forehead, and Eric laughed. When she finally let Drew go, Drew wiped his face, hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, and turned to Eric, his skin beet red. Eric laughed again and Drew smacked him in the arm. "Drew, no hitting. Be nice to Eric."

"Yeah, be nice to Eric," said Eric. Drew walked out of the room with an exaggerated huff. "Thanks for letting him come camping, Mrs. Lester."

"Of course. Have a good time."

Drew and Eric kept each other entertained for about forty-five minutes of the two hour drive with simple conversation to catch each other up on the day, which happened to be quite a lot. However, when nothing was left to be said, Drew and Eric quickly grew fidgety.

"Mama, where are we?" Eric asked.

"We're still an hour away, Dicky. Don't tell me you're already bored."

Eric chose not to say anything at all. He leaned over Drew to look out the window on his side, since the scenery on Eric's side was incredibly dull. He could only look at the same rows of tall, skinny trees for so long before his eyes bugged out of his head. "Ugh, E, get off me," said Drew.

"Yours isn't any better," said Eric. The same types of trees lined the westbound highway. Eric pressed his palm down into Drew's thigh in an effort to balance as Eric attempted to look around Drew's head and out the window. At the same time, Coach hit a bump in the road and Eric toppled right onto his friend.

"E! You're going to knock my glasses off my face!"

"It's not my fault you wear the largest glasses in the history of anyone who has ever worn glasses," said Eric.

"I have big eyes, I have to wear big glasses!"

"Your eyes are not that big. I have bigger eyes than you. You just think you have big eyes because they're so blue." Eric used Drew's knee again for balance and Drew attempted to push Eric off of him. Eric just pushed back and Suzanne turned around from the front seat.

"Boys, that's enough. Dicky, do you even have your seatbelt on?" Eric sat up and returned to the other side of the car, where he surreptitiously buckled his seatbelt. "I didn't think so. Lord, you bicker more than friends ought to bicker."

"Sorry, Mama," said Eric as Drew said, "Sorry, Mrs. Bittle."

"Dicky, you brought some music, didn't you? Give me your CD case and we can listen to music the rest of the way. No more pushing back there." Eric handed Suzanne his travel CD case.

"Can we listen to Beyoncé?" Drew asked.

"Yeah, can we listen to Beyoncé?" Eric echoed.

Suzanne conceded and put in Beyoncé, but after two songs she ejected the CD and both Eric and Drew protested. "Dicky, how long have you had this CD?" Suzanne asked. Eric shrugged his shoulders. "I don't think this is appropriate for the two of you to be listening to."

"Mama, I know every word of that album," said Eric. Suzanne frowned and flipped through the rest of the selection Eric had brought with him, and they spent the rest of the car ride listening to Kelly Clarkson, which Drew was only mildly interested in, and which Eric sang at Drew until Drew hit Eric with his duffel bag.

They arrived at Lake Oconee at dusk; the sun was just setting when Coach handed Eric a tent in a bag. Eric and Drew ran toward an open area. Their campsite had its own beach and a secluded view of the lake; Eric hadn't seen anyone else enter the park. Eric threw several poles at Drew, who only caught one and stared at it. "Um," said Drew.

"You put it through the frame," said Eric.

"Um…"

"Okay, maybe you should be in charge of the ground cloth." Eric handed Drew a large plastic square. "You put it on the ground. That's why it's called a ground cloth." Eric began building the tent while Drew smoothed out the cloth and sat on it. Eric gave him four stakes and a hammer.

"Are you expecting vampires?" Drew asked.

"No, they're for the tent. Have you never been camping before?"

"I have," said Drew, frowning. "We usually rent a camper."

"Oh, that's boring," said Eric. "Get up, I have to put the tent there." Drew watched as Eric positioned the tent on top of the ground cloth. Drew began to hammer the stakes into the ground, and after only tipping it over three times, the sunlight all but gone, the tent was finally in place. Drew unzipped the flap, sat down inside, and let out a deep breath.

"Man," he said, "that was in tents."

Eric stared at him.

Drew stared back, trying and failing to keep a poker face.

Eric zipped the flap and walked away to help his mother with the fire.

 

***

 

It was chilly in the morning when Eric awoke, but by the time the sun hit them as they sat by the fire, sweaters were unnecessary. Suzanne was making bacon and Coach was untying the canoe from the top of the car. Eric sat on one of the logs outlining the fire pit and Drew plopped next to him, still wrapped inside his Wallace and Gromit themed sleeping bag.

"I like your sleeping bag, Drew," said Suzanne. "I tried to get Dicky to buy a Wallace and Gromit backpack for school this year but he refused."

"I probably would have beat him up if he brought a Wallace and Gromit backpack to school," said Drew.

"You kind of did beat me up," said Eric.

"Not intentionally! That soccer ball would have intentionally hit your face if you brought a Wallace and Gromit backpack to school. You're just not cool, E."

"Yeah, and neither are you."

"I know, that's why we're friends."

Suzanne handed each of them a few strips of bacon in a napkin before cracking several eggs into the skillet. She scrambled them together and split them onto four plates just as Coach placed the canoe in the water and headed back up to the fire pit. Suzanne handed him a plate of eggs and the rest of the bacon when he sat down on the log next to her.

"You boys want to go out on the lake after breakfast?" he asked. "It hasn't sunk yet, so I'm assuming it'll be seaworthy." Drew immediately looked at the boat in the water and Eric laughed at him. "I expect some serious fishing from both of you – we didn't bring any other food so it's up to you whether or not we eat the rest of this weekend."

"He's lying," said Suzanne. "There's plenty of food."

"Nope," said Coach.

After breakfast, Drew and Eric changed into their swimming trunks and slathered each other’s faces in sunscreen before they helped Coach launch the canoe into the lake. "Holy moly, this lake is cold," said Drew. "Eric, if you push me in I'm going to murder you."

"If you make another pun about tents I will," said Eric and he hopped into the canoe. Drew hopped in after him. Coach handed each of them an oar and as they began to row toward the center of the lake, Suzanne waved at them from the shore.

"Your mom's not coming?" Drew asked.

"Nah, she hates fishing. She brought a book and will probably be disappointed if we get back before she's done with it," said Eric.

"We're pulling to the left," said Coach. "Drew, row harder."

"Eric, don't row so hard," said Drew.

By the time Coach was pleased with their location, Eric's arms were beginning to get sore and he could feel the heat of the sun, now higher in the sky, reflecting off the surface of the water and onto his skin. They hadn't brought the sunscreen with them into the boat, which Eric knew already was a mistake. Coach handed each of them a fishing pole and when Eric brought his arm back to cast it into the water, he could already feel the tightness of a burn in the crease of his shoulder. Drew cast his pole the opposite direction and within minutes had caught something.

"COACH! WHAT DO I DO?" Drew yelled.

"Well first you need to calm down, son," said Coach with a chuckle. "Pull up to set the hook and then begin to reel it in." Eric set down his pole and swiveled to help. Drew's glasses were all the way at the end of his nose; Eric pushed them back up but between the grease from the sunscreen and Drew's sweat, they just slid right back to where they were. Eric pushed them up again and Drew batted him away, nearly losing control of his pole. Eric sat back and Drew pulled a flapping crappie from the water.

"What is this?" Drew asked, holding the fish at arm's length as it continued to flail.

"It's a crappie," said Coach, "and a decent size too. Give it here and catch a few more of those."

Two hours later Drew had caught three crappie, a striped bass, and a plastic bag; Eric had hooked a fish and lost it, but overall was not having any success. "This sucks," said Eric when Drew handed over another fish to Coach. "Can we go back now?"

"I think we've got enough, yeah," said Coach. Eric and Drew returned their poles and Coach handed each of them an oar. It took about twenty minutes to row back to the campsite but they had to pause two hundred feet away to let a powerboat go by. It sped far over the limit and caused the canoe to tip ominously to the starboard side. Eric gripped the edges of the canoe, a jolt of fear slipping down into his stomach as he, Drew, and Coach leaned toward port to prevent the boat from capsizing.

"You okay, E?" Drew asked after the boat righted itself again. "You seem tents."

Eric stared at Drew, who immediately burst into laughter.

"Okay, that's it," said Eric. "You are not allowed to make another pun for the rest of the weekend."

"What? I will make as many puns as I please and you cannot stop me!"

"Do you want to race for it? Coach, can we swim back?" Eric asked, and as he twisted to look at Coach he could feel the heat on his shoulders.

"Will it get you to stop fighting?" Coach asked.

"Probably not," said Drew.

"Fine. Junior, give me your oar." Eric handed Coach his oar and then turned back to Drew.

"Okay," said Eric. "If I make it back to shore first, you cannot make another pun this weekend. You ready?"

"Shore," said Drew and burst into laughter. Eric immediately jumped into the water. "HEY! You cheated!" Drew threw his glasses at Coach and then hopped into the lake as well. The boat tipped yet again.

"Boys! Don't tip the boat!" scolded Coach, but Eric was already swimming. Despite Eric's questionable head start, Drew's lifelong advantage of having a pool in his backyard quickly showed itself, and Drew reached the beach two body lengths ahead of Eric. Drew climbed out of the water and started running parallel to the shore, his arms up in the air.

"I WON!" he yelled as Eric scrambled the rest of the way out of the water and onto the sandy beach. "I BEAT YOU! ERIC BITTLE BIT THE BIG ONE AND I'M GOING TO PUN THE PANTS OFF YOU."

"Was there actually a pun in that?" Eric asked, breathing hard, his hands on his knees as Drew continued to run back and forth in front of him. The canoe hit the beach and Eric helped Coach pull it ashore. Coach handed Drew his glasses and Drew finally stopped gloating. Suzanne, who had been reclining in a chair with her book, finally set it down and stood.

"Looks like I missed something," she said. "What are you yelling about, Drew?"

"Eric challenged me to a race and even though he cheated he lost badly. You could almost say that his swimming was –"

"Don't do it," said Eric.

"- crappie. "

"UGH!"

"Eric Richard Bittle, look at your shoulders! Put a shirt on this instant and get out of the sun. Rick, did you bring the sunscreen with you on the boat?" Coach sheepishly scratched his red nose. "Oh, Drew, you're burnt too! Your mother is going to kill me. Both of you go change your clothes right now. Rick, you find me the sunscreen and stick some on your nose. Where are your fish?" Coach handed Suzanne the bushel of fish before he headed toward the tent.

After Eric and Drew changed their clothes, Suzanne slathered all of their exposed skin with a thick layer of sunscreen. Suzanne had set up a card table next to the fire pit. She began to descale the fish and handed a different knife to Eric when he stood next to her. When she finished and rinsed the fish off, she handed it to Eric, who began to gut it. Drew stood on the other side of the table, a disgusted look on his face.

"Ew," he said when Eric dumped entrails into a garbage bag.

"You could help, you know," said Eric.

"Or I could stand here and make witty comments."

"If you make another pun I will gut you too," said Eric, brandishing his fillet knife.

"Dicky, we do not threaten our guests," said Suzanne.

"Yeah, Dicky, don't threaten me."

"You're lucky she still thinks you're a guest," said Eric.

After cleaning all of the fish that Drew and Coach caught, Suzanne and Eric made lunch. The afternoon hike was cancelled due to excessive sunburn, which had begun to take effect on everyone after they sat dormant on the logs for their meal. Eric and Drew were banished to their tent and Coach was sent to the gas station to purchase aloe.

Drew lay face-down on top of his sleeping bag, his face buried into a pillow. Eric sat cross-legged next to him, trying to keep still. "How do you feel?" Eric asked quietly.

"I'm okay as long as I don't move," said Drew. Eric looked sadly over Drew's exposed skin; the sunburn spread down the back of Drew's arms and then up the nape of his neck; Eric had seen the rest of it when Drew changed his clothes but he didn't want to see any of it again since Eric's skin was more than likely the same color. Drew turned his head and looked up at Eric; his nose and cheeks were horribly red. "E?"

"Yeah, D?" asked Eric.

"Thanks for inviting me. I've never – I didn't really have friends before I met you."

Eric frowned but nodded. "Yeah. Same here. You're probably not having a very good time, though."

"No, I'm having a great time," said Drew. "I mean right now isn’t great, but I liked being on the boat. I've never eaten a fish that I actually caught before. That was kind of cool."

"Yeah, it's kind of cool," said Eric. "If my Mama will let us, we should try again tomorrow morning so I can actually catch something. If we can move tomorrow." Drew chuckled and then grimaced. "I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you hit me in the face that day." Drew chuckled again and then grimaced again. "Sorry."

"No, no, I'm fine," said Drew.

Eric peered out of the flap of the tent; Coach had just returned with two bottles of aloe. He threw one at Eric and opened the other to apply it to his own face. Eric opened the second bottle and turned to Drew, who very carefully peeled off his shirt, his face contorted in badly concealed pain through the whole action. The sunburn was worst on Drew's shoulders, but at least it was not blistering. Eric rubbed the aloe in his hands before carefully applying it to Drew's heated skin; Drew jumped but eased into the coolness. Eric applied the aloe over every inch of red skin before he removed his own shirt and Drew took the bottle from Eric. Drew's hands were just as cold as Eric expected, but they still came as a shock when placed on Eric's skin. After just a moment, though, Eric's shoulders relaxed so he closed his eyes and hugged his knees to his chest, much more at ease.

"Better?" Drew asked. His voice was very close to Eric's ear and for some reason the feeling of Drew's breath felt colder than the aloe on Drew's hands. A shiver shimmied down Eric's spine.

"Yeah," said Eric.

"Good."

Eric opened his eyes. He could see out of the tent, to the green grass of the campsite, the shades of brown in the sand with all of Drew's footsteps from his celebratory run, and the glittering blue of Lake Oconee. He inhaled deeply and Drew's hands moved with him; he let it out slowly, closing his eyes again, and they sat together in the tent and waited for the relief to come.

Chapter Text

August 2011

Coach's annual barbeques usually took place after school had already begun, but the first barbeque with the Samwell team occurred before classes started. It was another reason why Eric was less than pleased that it happened at all, but when he walked into Building A for the first time as a junior, he didn't feel nearly as nervous as he had back in March.

His locker was on the first floor this time. He dumped his school supplies into it and headed to his homeroom with just a notebook and a pen. When the television mounted above the whiteboard clicked on, Eric assumed this would be the only time for the rest of the school year he'd actually pay attention to morning announcements instead of taking those precious twenty minutes before first period to finish homework. He recognized one of the anchors from the barbeque but couldn't remember if it was Ransom or Holster, and it didn't help that his co-anchor kept calling him "Adam." Ransom or Holster looked much less frightening on television than in person, but Eric had had very little interaction with him. Lardo and Shitty (Eric had never actually received an answer on why he was called Shitty) were friendly – a little over friendly, but not at all terrifying – and Jack Zimmermann seemed nice. Eric still hadn't quite gotten over that it was in fact Jack Zimmermann, but the rest of the team seemed very protective of him, so Eric waited until everyone was gone to freak out privately in his own bedroom.

Eric was still thinking about Jack Zimmermann when he headed into his first class of the school year, AP US History, which was why he was so surprised to see Jack sitting in the front row of the left hand cluster of desks. Eric paused in the doorway, clutching his notebook and his pen, and silently wondered several things at once: was it too late to switch to AP European History, had Jack noticed him there yet, would Jack recognize him after their five seconds of interaction at the barbeque, and if Jack did notice him and recognize him, would Eric be required to sit next to him?

"Dude, are you lost?" someone asked from behind Eric. It caught Jack's attention; he looked up and his face lit up at the sight of Eric, which caused Eric's heart and stomach to leap in opposite directions.

"Hey, Bittle," said Jack. Eric scrambled forward, finally letting the rest of the class inside the room, and Jack patted the seat next to him. "I didn't know you'd be in this class too. Come see." Eric frowned but took the seat just to the left of Jack.

"Come see what?" Eric asked after he sat down.

"Come here," Jack corrected, drawling out his accent and rolling his eyes. "Y'all never understand anything here. Did you have Mr. Fernandez last year too?"

"No," said Eric. "I had Mrs. Melke for social studies. It’s what I took before we moved."

"I took Euro History last year," said Jack. "You missed out on probably the best class they offer here. Mr. Fernandez taught that too."

Jack had turned to Eric when he started talking, and at this distance Eric could see the intensity of the blue in his eyes. The color looked very familiar. Eric opened his notebook to give him a reason to look elsewhere, but didn't want to seem rude, so he asked, "Where are you from? Like, originally? Your accent is real different." Jack’s accent had flecks of Eric’s southern drawl in it, but he frequently dropped the end of his words and had yet to pronounce a th .

Eric glanced over and Jack smirked at him, which caused Eric to immediately look back at his empty notebook. He wrote AP US HISTORY at the top to give him a reason to have it open. "Lafayette," said Jack. "Louisiana."

"Oh. Is that near New Orleans?"

"No, it's in central Louisiana."

Eric didn't get a chance to continue the conversation before Mr. Fernandez began to speak, and it was probably for the best. Eric was extremely aware of Jack's presence throughout the forty-five minute class. Eric already liked Mr. Fernandez, who spent the majority of the lesson introducing them to the curriculum for the year and then individually requiring each student to affirm that they would get a perfect 5 on the AP exam in May. This was Eric's first AP class and he was convinced he wouldn’t score anywhere near a 5. If he could scramble out of the exam with a 3, and thus have the class actually count toward college credit, he would be satisfied. After Mr. Fernandez shared some sample essay questions and answers on the projector, Eric changed his mind – if he could score anything higher than a 1, he would be satisfied.

When the bell rang, Jack fell into step with Eric, deliberately slowing to keep pace with Eric while they headed out of the classroom and down the steps. "Where ya going next?" Jack asked.

"Chemistry."

"Is that in Building B? I have physics."

"Yeah."

Eric gripped his notebook tighter in his hands; it looked like Jack was going to walk him the whole way there. Eric attempted to take a silent breath to calm himself down when they crossed the threshold outside toward Building B. Eric didn’t look at Jack as they walked, which allowed him to see the side glances from underclassmen who were not yet used to Jack Zimmermann in their school.

"You met Lardo and Shitty at the barbeque, yeah?" Jack asked four sidewalk squares from the door of Building A, which caused Eric to look over at Jack’s chiseled profile.

"Yeah. They're…interesting people." Jack smirked again and Eric looked forward.

"That is very true. They liked you, though. Lardo doesn't like many people."

"Is that a good thing?"

"Yeah, it's a good thing. They said we should hang out. So...what are you doing this weekend?" Jack asked. Eric stopped on sidewalk square number nine and looked up at Jack; Jack, in addition to being larger in the chest and shoulders, also stood eight inches taller than Eric so Eric was eye level with his chin. Eric didn't realize how close they were to each other and took a step back to relieve the stress on his neck.

"When?" Eric asked, still surprised by Jack's question. "I have practice Saturday during the day."

"It was my birthday last week –"

"Oh my goodness, happy birthday!" Jack smiled and rubbed the back of his neck.

"– Thanks. Um, if you're free in the evening, I'm having some people over Saturday night for a bonfire. If you want to come, that is." Jack pronounced it bohn-fiyah and the sound of it from his mouth caused a horrible shiver to sink its way down Eric's spine. "You okay?"

"Yeah. It's a little windy, don't you think?"

"Ca fais chaude, Bittle," said Jack with a chuckle and Eric raised an eyebrow. "It's hot hot out here. Don't tell me you're cold."

"Just a shiver. Sorry. You want me to come to your house Saturday?"

"If you want."

"Sure!" said Eric with too much enthusiasm. He lifted his notebook to cover the embarrassment that colored his face, but Jack stepped forward with a grin on his lips.

"Catch me your phone. I'll give you my number."

Eric dug his phone out of his pocket and handed it to Jack. "You realize that no one understands anything you say, right?" Eric asked. Jack nudged him with his elbow and Eric smiled as Jack put his number in Eric's phone and then texted himself from it.

They reached Building B – Jack's class was the first room on the second floor, but Eric's was farther down the hall. Eric waved at him before he entered the physics classroom, then as soon as he was out of view, opened his messages to see what Jack had texted himself:

 

     Eric
     Bittle

 

Before he could put his phone away, another text came through. It was Jack's address, followed by:

 

     Jack
     See you in class.

 

Eric smiled.

 

***

 

Eric stood in front of his mirror, juggling four different shirts. It was going to stay warm even after the sun went down, and if they were planning on sitting near a fire, he was probably going to be extra warm, so he'd found a pair of shorts that worked with most of his wardrobe, but shirts – he had no idea. Sleeves were a must, especially if Jack lived near the woods. Eric was normally a target for mosquitoes and he was planning on wearing bug spray (after he got there and said hello to everyone. He didn't want the entire football team and all of Jack's friends to think he smelled like bug spray on the regular), but he also didn’t want to start sweating through anything.

At seven thirty-five he'd tried on his entire wardrobe and finally settled on a breathable blue-and-white plaid button-down with the collar open and the sleeves rolled above his elbows. This left absolutely no time to fix his hair, since Jack said to be there by eight o'clock, but he took in a deep breath to calm his humming nerves and used a scoop of pomade to fix the swoop of bangs that he refused to let fall into his face. He finally picked up his keys at seven forty-three and ran down the stairs. Jack lived twenty minutes away, according to Eric's GPS.

"Shit," Eric muttered halfway down the stairs when he realized he didn't have shoes on. He turned around, ran back into his room, and flung open the closet. There were fifteen pairs of shoes staring back at him from the rack over the door, and he grimaced at the sight of all of them. Flip-flops were out of the question; if there was grass there would be ants, and he didn't want to spend the next week scratching his toes through tennis shoes the middle of class. Tennis shoes were also out of the question, because he was wearing shorts. "Dammit, why am I wearing shorts?" he asked himself.

At seven fifty-two he finally had decided to wear tennis shoes anyway, because no one really was going to care. He ran down the stairs and toward the garage, but was stopped by a shout from the kitchen. "Dicky, where are you going at this hour?" Suzanne stood at the sink with dishes from dinner that Eric was supposed to help with but then got distracted by clothes, and suddenly he felt very guilty.

"Out," he said.

"I can see that. Out where?"

"I, um," said Eric, "remember Jack?"

"Jack Zimmermann?" Suzanne asked, her eyebrows disappearing up into her bangs in surprise.

"Yeah. It's his birthday, or, well, it was his birthday, and he invited me and some people over to a bonfire and you can't really have a bonfire until it's dark and –" Eric gestured outside; the sun was low in the sky but hadn’t set yet.

"Okay," said Suzanne, the same look of dazed amusement on her face. "Don't stay out too late."

"Okay. Bye, Mama."

"Bye, honey."

Eric hopped into his truck, started it, and purposely ignored that his mother had just run into the living room to tell Coach what had happened.

Twenty minutes later the sun was nearly gone and Eric pulled up in front of a brown brick house with a gray shingled roof, located on top of a hill in the middle of the forest. The property wasn't far from the lake, close enough that they probably kept a boat on a launch nearby. It wasn't a surprise that it was beautiful; nestled at the end of a forest-lined street, tucked away from the rest of an outlying Atlanta suburb, it was automatically going to be something worthy of a retired NFL player. The driveway was long to accommodate the large garage and space to turn around, but the bulk of the home faced the forest, leaving just a wooden front door and a few shaded windows to greet Eric as he approached.

He heard voices from the backyard; he could just circle around the garage and join everyone back there, but having never been to the house and barely knowing any of these people, he felt extremely uncomfortable doing that and instead rang the doorbell. He wiped his hands on his shorts, already sweating nervously, as a shape approached the frosted glass of the front door. He dropped his hands to his sides when the door opened and there, on the other side, was recently retired quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, Bob Zimmermann.

Eric had seen Jack's dad on television many times, especially since he happened to be the rival quarterback to Coach’s favorite team for the entirety of Eric's life. He wasn't the bulky, thick-necked type of athlete which befit a linebacker or an offensive tackle, but clearly was still in great shape, slender but fit. He'd gone a bit gray at his temples, had a few lines on his face, and mostly did look like Jack apart from the eyes – Bob Zimmermann had brown eyes. Eric thought, though, that he would be bigger in person after seeing him on television so many times.

The Falcons and the Saints were in the same division, which made it convenient to watch most of the Saints games even when they weren't playing a divisional game, and Eric remembered sitting in the living room next to Coach and watching Bob Zimmermann throw a long pass to Lance Moore for a touchdown with just two minutes left in the 2008 Super Bowl, clinching their win for the team's first and only championship. Bob Zimmermann was not currently wearing his Super Bowl ring, which probably made sense since he was just sitting in his house, but he was also currently staring expectantly at Eric.

"Hi," said Eric. "Um, Jack invited me over."

"Come on in," said Bob Zimmermann. "I don't think I've met you before. What's your name?" His accent was thicker than Jack's, but the baritone and grit were the same.

"Eric Bittle."

"Bittle?"

"Uh, yeah," said Eric. "My dad's Coach Bittle."

"Mais yeah , you must go to Samwell too. You're not a senior, are you?" Eric shook his head and looked away from Bob Zimmermann for the first time. The inside of the house was not only gorgeous but massive, much bigger than it looked from the front. Eric could see through the open floor plan to the grand staircase and then all the way to the large windows covering the majority of the back of the house. Eric was impressed with the mocha colored walls and the matching brown, white, and beige furniture, but when Bob Zimmermann led him through the kitchen to get to the backyard, Eric had to force his jaw shut and look outside to stop himself from completely ignoring Jack and his invitation and instead cooking whatever he could possibly make in the kitchen for the rest of the evening.

"Eric?" Bob Zimmermann asked. "You okay?"

"I'm sorry," said Eric and he could feel his face flushing and his palms sweating again. "You have a really lovely house."

"Thank you, Eric. Everyone's here in the backyard."

"Thank you, Mr. Zimmermann."

Bob Zimmermann opened the door to the backyard and Shitty was the first to spot Eric. "Bitty!" he yelled. Shitty was once again shirtless. He stood just a few feet away from Alicia Zimmermann, who was standing behind the granite countertops of the outdoor bar, setting out several trays of appetizers.

Eric did not get a chance to appreciate the appetizers or Alicia Zimmermann, who was arguably the most beautiful woman in the world apart from Beyoncé and Suzanne Bittle, before Shitty enveloped Eric in a bone-crushing hug. Eric winced at the contact but Shitty was clearly both excited and, surprisingly, intoxicated. Eric looked past Shitty to see someone open a small refrigerator that been built into the stone siding of the bar and pull out a can of beer.

"Is that for you, Will?" Alicia asked, her eyes on the beer in the boy's hand. Eric vaguely recognized him from the barbeque; his red hair, excessive freckles, and large ears were hard to forget. Will nodded and Alicia held out a hand with long, delicate fingers. "You know the rules. You drink, you have to stay the night. Give me your keys." Will grumbled but Alicia gestured again and Will placed a set of keys in her palm. "All right. Make sure you text your Mama and tell her you're not coming home tonight. Give her my number if she has questions."

Shitty was leading Eric toward the group when Alicia spotted them. "Oh!" she said, drawing Shitty's attention; she already had Eric's, who was admiring her cheekbones and blonde highlights emphasized by the soft lighting in the ceiling over the bar. "Who is this? I don't think I've met you before."

"Mrs. Z, this is Bitty. Coach's son."

"Eric," corrected Eric.

"Nice to meet you, Eric," said Alicia. She held out her hand and Eric shook it; it was incredibly soft. She didn’t have the same accent as her husband and son, but Eric could pick up a few similar nuances as she continued to speak. "Jack's told me about you. You two have a class together?"

"Yeah," said Eric. "AP History."

"I'm glad you're here. I'd say I hope you like football, since that's all these boys ever talk about, but I suppose you're used to it with you being the Coach's son after all." Eric shrugged his shoulders and Alicia laughed. "I'm the same way, hon. Feel free to get some food and something to drink, but like I tell everyone, if you're going to drink, you have to stay. Even if it's one."

"Okay," said Eric.

"There's plenty of room anyhow." Alicia placed another glass tray on the counter and then walked out from behind the bar. "I'll let y'all get to it. I bought chocolate and marshmallows for s'mores, so come hollerin' when you're ready for them. Jack and Bobby got the fire pit going a bit ago."

The door to the house opened again and Bob Zimmermann stuck his head out. "Whatya doin' out here still, chere ? Come on in and let these boys alone." He caught eyes with Lardo, who had approached the bar in an effort to speed Shitty's introduction along. " Désolé. Boys and Larissa."

"Thanks, Mr. Z," said Lardo. "Bits, come on. Did you get to meet everyone yet?"

Eric wiggled out of Shitty's grip and followed Lardo toward a group of people sitting on a bench near the fire. "Bros," said Lardo, getting the attention of the three boys on the bench. Will was one of them. "Did y'all meet Bits? This is Coach's son, Bitty. Bits, this is Chowder, Nursey, and Dex." Will, who Lardo introduced as Dex, nodded at him, as did Nursey, who sat next to Dex, but Chowder stood up and shook Eric's hand.

"Hi! I remember you. Also I think we might be in the same lunch period? You have lunch fifth period, right?"

"Yeah," said Eric.

"I can sit next to you now! If you want! I mean it's totally okay if you don't."

"Sure," said Eric and Chowder smiled to reveal two rows of braces on teeth that were very nearly straight.

"'Swawesome."

"Chowder, chill," said Nursey and Chowder sat down again.

"These are the frogs," said Lardo. "Luckiest frogs ever to be on Varsity as sophomores, but Chowder's the best kicker we've had in years –"

"Thanks, Lardo!"

"– and Dex and Nursey are tight ends. We lost two good tight ends who graduated last year so they got bumped up from JV."

"Working out so far," said Dex. "I got a touchdown last night."

"Shut up, Dex, half the team got a touchdown last night. We played Buckhead. I swear Chowder should have just run his field goals in because no one would have stopped him." Dex rolled his eyes and took a sip of his beer.

"Did you see Jack yet?" Lardo asked Eric. Eric shook his head. Lardo nodded over to the left where Jack was standing by the pool with Ransom and Holster. At this point Eric was fairly certain he could figure out who was Ransom and who was Holster.

"Nice to meet y'all," said Eric as he walked away. Chowder waved but Nursey and Dex had begun to bicker over the validity of Dex's touchdown and barely acknowledged that Eric was leaving. When he approached, Jack noticed him first and nodded him over.

"Bittle," he said with the same smirk he wore when he extended Eric’s invitation on Monday, "you made it. Rans, Holster, y'all remember Bittle, right? Coach's son?"

"Oh, yeah, Bittle," said Ransom or Holster, and Eric realized he still could not tell them apart despite the fact that they looked nothing alike.

"Eric," corrected Eric with a shrug. "Or Lardo calls me Bitty. I guess either is fine."

"Listen here, Bitty," said Ransom or Holster and he swung a large arm around Eric's shoulders, "there is one thing that's very important for you to understand if you're going to hang out with this team on the regular. No one goes by their first name. No one knows anyone's first name. You got this bro here? This is Ransom." Eric nodded and looked over at Ransom, attempting to commit it to memory. He looked back at Holster and made a mental note – Holster was the one on the morning news. "Ransom has been my best bro since the age of twelve. I have no fucking clue what his first name is."

"And I you, dearest Holtzy," said Ransom.

"Then how come Jack is Jack?" Eric asked. Jack shrugged his shoulders and took a long swig from a bottle of beer.

"Jack Zimmermann defies nicknames," said Ransom. "Which is most surprising, since where we grew up it was just the same. Your teachers didn't know your first name. Nothing seems to fit the man, the myth, and the legend that is Jack Laurent Zimmermann."

"Or maybe y’all just really suck at giving nicknames," said Jack.

"That is completely false, couillon ," said Ransom.

" C'est vrai, " replied Jack and Holster immediately stepped in between them to separate them.

"I hate it when y'all get like this," said Holster.

"Are you from Louisiana too?" Eric asked Ransom.

"Born and raised, cher ," said Ransom, tipping his sunglasses which he was wearing for absolutely no reason, since the sun had set by now and the lighting in the backyard was fair at best. Stylistically, however, they fit his high cheekbones and complimented his white backwards snapback. "I'm from New Orleans, though. We came up here after Katrina. My parents keep saying we're gonna go back, but we're never going back."

"Do you want to go back?" Holster asked.

"Yeah! New Orleans compared to this asshole town in the middle of nowhere?"

"So you might say," said Holster with an uncontrollable smile that made Eric's blood run cold, "that your parents are holding you for ransom?"

"Oh God, Holster," said Ransom. His palm immediately smacked his own forehead as he sighed heavily. Eric took a step back, horrified.

"Bittle? You okay?" Jack asked.

"Was that a pun?" Eric asked. He could barely hear his own voice.

"Chyeah," said Holster. "You got a problem with puns?"

"Um," said Eric, still backing away, "I just… don't like them very much. Hey, I'm going to get a beer." Eric pivoted and headed away, balling his fists by his side and looking determinedly at the small refrigerator at the bar where he'd seen Dex take a can of beer. Eric had never had beer in his life. He had never had alcohol in his life, but if ever there were an occasion to start, this particular moment seemed like the perfect time.

There were several different choices in the refrigerator and Eric had absolutely no idea the difference between all of them. He took a Bud Light because it was the only name he recognized, then closed the fridge and headed in the opposite direction of Ransom, Holster, and Jack. Chowder, Dex, and Nursey had left the fire pit and were tossing around a football. When Nursey noticed Eric approaching, he nodded and threw the football at Eric, yelling, "Bitty! Catch!"

"Holy shit," said Eric and he dropped his unopened can of beer onto the grass so he could catch the football before it hit him in the face.

"Nice catch!" yelled Nursey.

"Give it here," said Dex. Eric threw it back to Dex, who stood about a hundred feet away. The ball spiraled through the air and Dex caught it at his chest.

"That was awesome, Bitty!" said Chowder. "How come you're not on our team? Come over here and play with us!"

"No, thanks," said Eric. He picked up the can of beer from the grass and carefully opened it; it only fizzed a little over his fingers. Eric looked back to the fire pit where Lardo and Shitty were sitting together, poking at the logs with long sticks. Eric changed direction and headed toward them instead, just as Chowder caught the ball and turned back to Nursey to return it.

"Chowder, you can't kick the ball at me. You're fifty feet away; it'll end up in the lake if you kick it."

"I'm the kicker! I always kick the ball!"

"Chowder, you have to throw it," said Dex.

"All right! Fine!" said Chowder. Eric didn't see Chowder's throw before he sat down next to Lardo. She nodded to him and he took his first sip of the beer and tried very hard not to make a face as the horrible, malty liquid slid down his throat. Lardo seemed to notice anyway and laughed.

"Let me guess. That's your first beer," she said.

"What gave it away?" asked Eric and since he couldn't hold it in anymore, he grimaced and Lardo laughed again. She had a great laugh; short and sarcastic, but completely suited to her face and voice.

"Just pound it, brah," said Shitty. "You'll get used to it after a while. And you're drinking Bud Light – next time make a better decision. You might as well be drinking watered down bread in a glass." Eric crinkled his nose and took another long pull, swallowing despite the fact that his mouth wanted nothing more than to spit it out. "That's how you get it, Bits! You'll be a pro by finals."

It didn’t take long for Eric to feel what he assumed was drunk. He finished his can of beer and let Shitty make the decision for round two, but when he stood and walked with Shitty back to the fridge, his head felt too light on his shoulders, his skin tingled underneath his clothes, and he really, really had to pee. Shitty lectured Eric on the several different types of beer located in the refrigerator, but Eric could not focus long enough to pay attention, and he instead accepted whatever Shitty put in his hand and headed back to the fire pit where Jack had joined Lardo on the bench.

"Shitty, do not tell me you're getting Bittle into craft beer," said Jack with a nod to the bottle in Eric's hand. "No one likes that shit."

"Everyone loves it and so do you, brah," said Shitty. He placed his arm around Jack's shoulders and Jack shook his head but allowed the arm to stay where it was. "Happy birthday, Jack. To the very best of us on his big eighteenth – you can vote now, you can go to war, but don't tell a motherfucking soul you're drinking that beer or we'll all go to jail."

"Here, here," said Lardo. They all raised their beers and took a long sip. Eric coughed and Jack looked pointedly at Shitty – whatever Shitty had given him, it was considerably worse than Bud Light.

"Eric, I see you," said Alicia. Eric looked up and Alicia stood in front of them with a bag of marshmallows, several chocolate bars, and a box of graham crackers. "Did you give me your keys yet?" Eric shook his head but handed over the keys to his truck. "Make sure you text your Mama. Jack, honey, give him my number in case his mother needs to call me." Jack nodded but when Alicia walked away with Eric's keys, Jack rolled his eyes.

"She'll be asleep by midnight," said Jack. "You can go home if you want."

Eric shrugged his shoulders and took out his phone.

 

     Eric
     MAMA

     Eric
     Im staying the nihgt at jacksokay?

     Mama
     Are you drunk?

     Eric
     No

     Eric
     Yes

     Eric
     Mrs zimerman made me promise not to dive hone

     Mama
     Well Mrs. Zimmermann is going to get an earful when I ask why she's letting my sixteen year old get drunk at her house.

     Eric
     Mammmmmmmaaaaaaa

     Eric
     These are my first friends you can't

     Mama
     We'll discuss it when you get home.

     Mama
     Stay safe. Drink water.

 

Eric shoved his phone back in his pocket and looked over at Jack and Shitty; Shitty had rested his head on Jack's shoulder while Jack put a marshmallow on a stick for him. Shitty accepted the marshmallow and stuck it into the fire, where he promptly began to burn it.

"No!" said Eric. "You have to catch it on fire and then blow it out right away. Have none of y'all made s'mores before?"

"I didn't know there were rules," said Shitty.

"Of course there are rules," said Eric. "Gimme that."

Eric took over the marshmallow roasting for the four of them, but when they all sat on the benches with perfect ratio of crunchy-yet-gooey marshmallow and melty chocolate, everyone seemed to agree that putting Eric in control of the desserts was a good decision. Eric smiled at the compliment and definitely did not fall off the bench after his second beer.

"Dude," said Lardo as she helped him off the ground. "You need to hang out with us more."

"Agreed," said Eric.

Chapter Text

August 2006

Taylor Road Middle School was closer to Eric's house than Abbotts Hill had been, so on the first day of sixth grade, Drew rode his bike to Eric's and they rode the rest of the way together. Their backpacks were very heavy this time, filled to the brim with all of the books they'd need for the year, so pedaling the final hill in the heat of August proved to be unusually complicated. By the time they'd locked their bikes to the rack in front of the two-story building, the first bell was already ringing and both boys were drenched with sweat. Eric dabbed his forehead several times with the inside of his open button-down, more concerned about the state of his hair than the blotchiness of his skin.

"See you in math?" Eric asked. Drew nodded and they ran to their separate homerooms. Drew cut into his classroom first but Eric still had the rest of the hallway to go and only one minute before the late bell to get there. Just as he approached the boy's bathroom, the door opened and he stepped quickly to the side to avoid it and narrowly missed running into the student who emerged from behind it.

"What the hell?" the boy said and looked down at Eric; Drew had the distinct advantage of growing three inches over summer, but Eric had barely grown at all. This particular boy appeared to have done all of his growing already because he loomed at least ten inches over Eric. Eric assumed from his height, his half-grown mustache, and his bad skin that he was an eighth grader, but everyone was so tall that Eric had a hard time placing anyone. "Watch where you're going!"

"Sorry," squeaked Eric. "I just didn't want to be late."

"Keep talking to me and you're gonna be late, faggot," said the boy. He leered at Eric; Eric broke eye contact, took two large steps to the side, and then bolted down the hall. Once safely inside of his homeroom just as the bell rang, Eric let out his breath and sank into his chair. He frowned, thinking over what had just happened, and realized he had absolutely no idea what a faggot was.

The rest of the day went in a rush which mirrored the pace of their morning commute; he and Drew only had math together, and math was entirely too complicated for them to chat or pass notes, so it wasn't until after school that they got to talk to each other again. Most of their books stayed in lockers, so the weight of their backpacks were considerably lighter on the way back toward home. "Don't you have practice today?" Drew asked when they headed off toward Eric's house.

"Yeah, but Katya wants to talk to my Mama and I so I'm going home and she's going to drive us there," explained Eric. "How was your day?"

"Fine, I guess," said Drew with a shrug. "I wish we had more classes together. Math is going to be insane this year."

"Yeah, I'm already lost," said Eric. "I wish we at least had lunch together. I don't have anyone to sit with and everyone is really tall here." Drew laughed.

"Yeah, because you're still a shorty," said Drew.

"Hey! I'm going to grow!"

"I'll believe it when I see it, E," said Drew. They turned a corner and pedaled onto the sidewalk. Drew didn't offer up any more information and Eric felt suddenly nervous as he thought about the interaction with the eighth grader than morning and what had been said.

"Do you know what a faggot is?" Eric asked.

"Yeah," said Drew. "It's when two boys like each other."

"You mean like us?" Eric asked.

"No, I mean like when two boys date each other. Like boyfriend/girlfriend, but two boyfriends," said Drew. Drew suddenly stopped pedaling and Eric had to turn around and face him before he got too far away and they were yelling at each other about faggots in the middle of the street. "Why? Did someone call you a faggot? Because that's not okay."

"Is it a bad thing?" Eric asked. "To like boys if you're a boy?"

"No, being a boy and liking other boys is fine. Someone saying you're a faggot isn't fine. It's not a nice word, like saying you're an asshole or something," said Drew. "Who called you a faggot?"

"I don't know who he is," said Eric. "I was on the way to homeroom this morning and almost ran into him. I think he's an eighth grader? He was not very nice so I didn't ask his name." Drew frowned but began to pedal again. Eric followed behind him and they continued down the street. "So if a faggot is a bad thing, what's it called when you like other boys? If you're a boy?"

"It's just called gay," said Drew. "It's not a bad thing to like other boys either." Eric frowned and Drew looked back at him. "Do you think you like boys?" Eric shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know," he said.

"Do you like girls?" Drew asked.

Eric thought about it, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized he didn't really know any girls at all. Apart from Katya and Drew's sister, he didn't really speak to any girls he wasn't related to, and none of the girls that he'd sat near in classes were ever particularly interesting. However, apart from Drew, none of the boys were particularly interesting either.

"Not really," said Eric. "Do you like girls?"

"They're all right," said Drew.

They turned onto Eric's street. Even from this distance, Eric could see that his mother was outside waiting for him. He groaned. "Crap, we're gonna be late," said Eric. He and Drew pedaled harder toward the house. "Hey Drew," Eric said, lowering his voice as they approached the house. "Don't say anything – you know, about this."

"Yeah, of course," said Drew.

They rode up the driveway and Eric dropped his bike in the garage. Suzanne gestured for him to come to the car. "Come on, Dicky, we're gonna be late. I've got your bag in the car already. Hi Drew, honey. How was your first day of middle school?"

"It was okay," said Drew.

"Sounds very exciting," said Suzanne with a laugh. "Thanks for riding home with Dicky but we've got to meet Katya in ten minutes."

"No prob," said Drew. "Have a good practice, E! See you tomorrow!" Drew pedaled away and Eric watched him leave before Suzanne pushed him into the car.

When they arrived at the rink, Katya was not wearing her skates like she normally did. Eric already knew it was going to be an abnormal meeting since Katya had asked Suzanne to come as well, but when Katya took them into an office instead of toward the ice, he started to get worried that this was going to be a "Eric is terrible and there's nothing more I can do for him" kind of conversation. Eric sat quietly in a chair on the other side of a desk and his mother sat next to him.

"Mrs. Bittle, Eric, I wanted to have a discussion about competition," said Katya, and Eric wondered if that meant competition for a spot to continue to train with her. "Eric, you're in middle school now, which means I think it's time to start really getting serious about what we're trying to do. You have a tremendous talent. By the end of seventh grade you'll be thirteen and eligible for Juniors."

Eric could feel the heat rush to his face and he placed his hands on his cheeks to try to stop it from being too obvious, which of course made it incredibly obvious.

"Juniors?" Eric asked. "Like – like Juniors ? Like the competitions that happen in big places with important people?"

Katya smiled kindly at him.

"Yes, Eric, like the kind that happen in big places with important people, which is why we need to start thinking about this now. The very important people do not compete at Regionals, they skip right to Nationals if they've won a previous championship or compete internationally. I want you to become one of those people," said Katya.

"Do you think Eric can make it to that level?" Suzanne asked.

"Maybe not at thirteen, but if he works hard and gets more exposure at a competitive level, I think he can make it there before he graduates high school. I'm not promising the world here, Mrs. Bittle," said Katya and Suzanne nodded, but Eric recognized her badly concealed excitement. Eric's face looked exactly the same when he had difficulty containing his own emotion. "I'm not talking Olympics or the Grand Prix or Worlds. I'm just saying Eric is good. He's hitting the easier triples consistently now and what was it, last week, Eric? You did a triple axel that was beautiful."

"Yeah, Wednesday," said Eric, still holding onto his warm cheeks.

"Those are the kinds of jumps that can make you successful in competition. So this is why I needed you both here – we can do this, we can work on a solid program over the next eighteen months that we can use at Regionals – but it requires a lot of dedication. Right now we have three on-the-ice practices a week and one strength training day. If you're serious about this, Eric, we'll have to meet more often. Not every day, but five or six days. And Mrs. Bittle, you need to be aware of the financial cost of this. My rate is an hourly rate, and that's not going to change, but there are other fees to consider. The Regional competitions can be just about anywhere along the East Coast, so there will be travel costs. There are registration fees, costs for costumes, costs for rights to use music… Competitive skating is very expensive and the payout for the winner is minimal at best. It doesn't become profitable until you reach those high levels and can get sponsorships or do commercials – and that's only a handful of all the talent in the country."

"Well, we'll have to discuss it, right, Dicky?" said Suzanne. She reached over and took his hand from his face so she could hold it in her own. "This is why we moved out here, so you could have the chance to do this. If you're serious about it, then we'll talk about it, okay?" Eric nodded and Suzanne squeezed his hand.

"All right," said Katya. "That's enough chit chat – Eric, change into your skates. Let's show your mother that beautiful triple you did for me last week."

"Okay!" said Eric. He picked up his equipment bag and ran out of the room. Most of what Katya had said had already fallen out of his brain, but he couldn't stop himself from thinking of exactly what she had not promised – his face in a commercial, a trip to the Olympics, a gold medal for his very own.

 

***

 

Coach's Second Annual Varsity Football Kick Off Barbeque in Johns Creek happened that Sunday, and Suzanne had asked if Drew's family wanted to attend. Eric thought it was the best idea Suzanne had ever had; he'd always enjoyed spending the day in the kitchen making all of the food, but he had to admit that the actual barbeques themselves were dull. None of the high schoolers wanted to talk to Eric, and Eric had nothing in common with any of them, so he usually stuck to the dessert table and handed out pie (and sometimes just ice cream) when players approached him.

Mr. and Mrs. Lester arrived with Drew and Amy around four o'clock. Coach was in the backyard cleaning the grill; Mr. Lester said a cursory hello to everyone before he accompanied Coach outside. Drew sat down at the kitchen table and plunked his head into his hands, but Amy ran directly to Eric and threw her arms around his waist.

"Can I make a pie, Eric?" she asked.

"You're in luck," said Eric sweetly and Amy beamed at him. "I have one more to put in the oven and I saved it just for you. Come here and help me stir this filling, okay? And don't you dare lose that tooth in this pie." Amy laughed and whistled through her front tooth, which was dangerously close to falling out of her mouth, before she stepped onto the stool Eric used to use before he was tall enough to reach the counters. Eric passed a bowl of sliced apples to Amy and then began to dump a smaller bowl of cinnamon, flour, and apple cider vinegar onto it. "Be careful when you stir, you want to get the filling all over the apples but you don't want to break any of them."

Amy very delicately stirred the apples and cinnamon mixture while Eric rolled out the bottom crust for the pie. Eric glanced over his shoulder at Drew, who appeared bored already and was looking around the room for something interesting. His eyes settled on a tub of lard sitting on the counter.

"LARD?" he yelled entirely too loudly for someone sitting in a quiet kitchen. Suzanne actually jumped, startled, and Mrs. Lester shot Drew a scolding look.

"Andrew Joshua, use your indoor voice," she said.

"Sorry, Mama," said Drew, "but why is there lard on the counter?"

"We use the lard in pie crust," explained Suzanne.

"Really?" Drew asked with a disgusted look on his face. "In all your pie?"

"Yes, Drew, in all the pie," said Suzanne. "Including the pie from dinner last week that you said you wanted to eat forever."

"Well that was before I knew it had lard in it," said Drew.

Eric rolled his eyes and looked back at Amy, who was still stirring but had evenly coated all of the apples in her bowl. "That's good, Aims," he said. He rolled the pie crust onto his pin and then placed it inside the pie tin. He smoothed it into the bottom and then placed the tin in front of Amy. "Okay, now you want to put the apples in the pie. Try to get the same amount all over so there aren't any lumps."

"Yeah, no one is going to eat a lumpy pie," sassed Drew.

Amy couldn't quite lift the bowl with one hand so Eric held it for her while she scooped the apples into the crust, taking care to evenly distribute them across the entire circumference. Once they were in, Eric set aside the bowl and began to roll the top crust. "Now we need a little bit of butter on top. Take this and cut me four little squares about this thick –" Eric held his fingers a half inch apart before he handed Amy a butter knife and a stick. Eric directed her where to put them and then put the top crust on. "Perfect! No lumps!"

"Praise the lard!" said Drew. Eric quickly turned around and pointed at the front door.

"Get out of my house," he said but Drew just laughed.

Eric guided Amy's fingers to cinch and crimp the crust, then handed her a fork and allowed her free reign for the design of venting holes. She made a smiley face with one tooth and then smiled at Eric, who took the pie from her and placed it in the oven.

"Do you have anything else to make?" Drew asked.

"No," said Eric.

"Good. Let's go outside."

Drew was already out the back door before Eric could reply, so he washed his hands and removed his apron before he ran outside as well, leaving Amy to help Suzanne and Mrs. Lester with wrapping the sweet corn in foil for the grill. It was still very warm out, but the heat of the day was beginning to taper off, so Eric didn't feel overwhelmed when he followed Drew at a full run toward the forest.

"Boys, don't go wandering off," called Coach. Eric knew exactly the tree Drew was aiming for, just on the edge, so he overtook Drew a few feet from it and leapt to grab one of the higher branches, then pulled himself up and over onto it.

"Holy crap," said Mr. Lester from over by the grill. "Those are the kinds of things that make me want to be eleven years old again. Although me at eleven was a little bit more like Drew than Eric." Eric looked down and Drew was struggling to get his leg over the lowest branch. Drew eventually maneuvered his body onto the branch but neither made any attempt to climb higher. Eric settled against the trunk of the tree, Drew below and to the right of him, Drew's head just within swatting distance.

"Don't hit me!" Drew complained and Eric laughed.

They stayed in the tree while the football team trickled in, a few groups of boys at a time. Suzanne, Mrs. Lester, and Amy helped set out the side dishes and desserts and while they didn't say anything to Drew or Eric, there were several pointed looks in their direction for hiding in a tree instead of helping. The yard slowly began to fill with high school football players, who still seemed larger than life even from seven feet above ground. Around five o'clock two boys entered the backyard from the kitchen and Eric hit Drew on the back of the head again.

"Stop it!" Drew yelled and Eric leaned over as much as he could without falling onto a lower branch.

"No, look," said Eric in a hushed whisper. "I think that's the guy who called me a faggot."

"Who?"

Eric pointed at the new arrivals near the sliding glass door. One of them Eric recognized from the previous year's barbeque as the extremely tall player with a neck the size of Eric's waist. It was probably still the same size, since Eric had not grown much over the past year. The boy next to him was definitely the boy who Eric had nearly run into on the first day of school.

"Oh, I think I've seen him before," said Drew. "He's in eighth grade. Why is he here?"

"I think they're brothers," said Eric. "I mean, look at their faces. They look exactly the same."

"Except the dorkus who goes to our school looks like he rubbed his face in pizza."

"True," said Eric.

Coach looked over at them from the grill, and Drew and Eric grew quiet to try to overhear the conversation. There were about twenty other football players in between them and everyone was talking, but Coach had always had a loud voice.

"Trevor! Who is this?"

It was difficult to hear Trevor's response, but Eric definitely understood "Clayton" and "brother."

"Ah, looking to get a leg up when you start at Hooch next year? Listen, Clayton, just because your brother is my best DT doesn't mean you automatically get a spot on my secondary."

"Clayton," said Drew. "I'm going to punch that guy in the face when we get back to school on Monday."

"It was nice knowing you, Drew," said Eric.

"I'm serious!"

Eric swung his legs over the side of the branch and hopped down to where Drew sat. Drew gripped the wood underneath him with both of his hands as the limb swayed ominously with Eric's sudden weight, but Eric sat with both of his legs over one side and looked right at Drew. "Drew," he said, "it's not worth it. It's not like when Michael Kinkaide shoved me into the lockers that one time."

"One time? You mean four or five times."

"You know what I mean."

Eric looked back over at the full backyard. Some of the players were sitting at tables and eating but most of them were in line for burgers. As Eric looked over, Amy came running in their direction and stopped just underneath them. "Drew! Mama says you and Eric have to come help with food and you can't sit in the tree all night."

"Ugh, fine," said Drew. "Eric, get out of my way – NO NOT THAT WAY!"

Eric jumped down onto the grass, crouching to absorb some of the impact. Drew, as usual, took his time to get down slowly, but then the three of them stood next to their mothers at the side dishes table and helped serve. Drew was responsible for beans and Eric was responsible for coleslaw, and everything was fine until Trevor and Clayton approached them. Trevor asked for a double scoop of coleslaw but when Clayton stepped in front of Eric, he looked Eric directly in the eyes.

"Hello," Clayton said.

"Hi," replied Eric, trying his best to force a smile when he could feel his knees shaking under the weight of Clayton's stare. "Do you want any slaw?"

"This your house?" Clayton asked, looking over at the house. Eric swallowed but then nodded. "It's a nice house. You must have helped make the food too, huh?" Eric nodded again.

"Yeah…the – the pie."

Clayton looked over at the dessert table and a small smile curled his hairy upper lip.

"Do you like to make pie?" Clayton asked.

"Dude, do you want any slaw or not?" Drew asked and Clayton immediately looked over. Drew stared right back at him but Clayton slowly shook his head.

"Nah," he said. "I think I'll save room for pie." He turned back to Eric. "You gonna serve that to me too?" Eric looked down into the bowl of coleslaw and didn't reply. Before Clayton could ask again, Suzanne held out a spoonful of macaroni salad.

"Do you want some of this, honey?" Suzanne asked. Clayton looked over at her but Eric continued to stare into the bowl of homemade coleslaw, whose carrots he'd chopped that morning while standing next to his mother at the kitchen counter. The mix of carrots and cabbage and mayonnaise and sour cream slowly began to melt together until he heard Clayton speak again.

"See you at school."

"Oh, do you go to school with Dicky and Drew?"

Eric dropped his spoon into the bowl and walked away before he could hear the rest of the conversation, for he could feel Clayton's eyes on him as soon as his mother said his long-used nickname. Drew said something too, softly, only for Eric to hear, but Eric didn't hear it. He pointedly did not run, but he headed inside and, once alone, ran through the house and up the stairs and did not leave until the barbeque was over and Drew knocked on the door to say goodbye.

"I'm just saying," said Drew. "I can bring a baseball bat to school and tear him apart."

"No, don't," said Eric. "He was just –"

"Really creepy?" asked Drew. Eric nodded. "Just try to avoid him. He's only there for another year. And if you need me –"

"I don't need you to protect me, Drew," said Eric. Drew stared at Eric for a long while and Eric had to look away from the intensity of Drew's blue eyes. Drew clapped him on the shoulder once before he left the room, calling "See you at school!" as he left, and Eric shuddered.

Chapter Text

September 2011

Samwell High's homecoming football game took place the second weekend in September. Suzanne never forced Eric to come to regular football games, but once a year for homecoming the entire family always packed into the car and drove to the stadium together. Suzanne had on a red Samwell Football T-shirt that matched the one Eric had purchased just for the occasion. Over the past few years, attendance at homecoming games was usually accompanied by temper tantrums or bargaining, but for the first time Eric actually was looking forward to seeing the team play. He had yet to attend a football game since hockey usually got in the way, so it would be the first time he could see Jack, Lardo, Shitty, and the others in action.

"Honey, let's sit right here so we can hear what your daddy's sayin," said Suzanne, gesturing to the first row behind the player's bench. It was still early enough that the row wasn't full, but two people were sitting on their own red bleacher cushions already. The cushions were much fancier than the old foldable chairs Eric carried at his side, the kind that stayed in the back of Coach's truck for the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year. Eric followed his mother into the row as Suzanne approached the couple. "D'y'all mind if we sit next to you?"

Alicia and Bob Zimmermann looked up and Suzanne blanched at the sight of them. Alicia looked right past Suzanne to Eric and she smiled brightly at him. "Oh, Eric! Hi! Yes, please come sit with us," she said, gesturing next to her. Eric unfolded one of the chairs and placed it next to Alicia for his mother to sit. "Is this your Mama?"

"Yeah. Mama, this is Mr. and Mrs. Zimmermann. This is my mother, Suzanne."

"Nice to meet you both," said Suzanne and she extended a hand to Alicia first before Bob. Eric unfolded the other seat and sat down next to his mother. "Have you been able to come to many of Jack's games? This is our first game this season but Dicky's been chompin' at the bit to be able to come see all his new friends play."

"Mama," said Eric. "You're so embarrassing."

"Yes, I know, sweetie," said Suzanne with a short pat on the leg.

"We had to come for homecoming, of course," said Alicia and when she smiled it lit up her face the way the Friday night lights lit up the field. "Jack's got a bit of…well…anxiety when it comes to us watching him play, so we tend to skip them and get the highlights when he's home."

"That's a shame," said Suzanne. "Dicky's never seemed to have much anxiety about us coming to see him, but I like it better that he's playing hockey now. Watching him compete when he used to figure skate was so agonizing for me – every time he'd jump in the air I swear my heart stopped beating."

"Oh, you used to figure skate, Eric?" Alicia asked.

"Yeah, when we lived in Johns Creek," said Eric.

"I've always wanted to figure skate. I can ice skate just fine, but going backwards or spinning? Couldn't do it. I bet you were wonderful at it."

"He was!" said Suzanne. "He really could have gone all the way to Nationals this year, if –"

"Mama," snapped Eric. "That's enough."

Suzanne bit her lip and they all looked at the field; Lardo was the easiest to spot, wearing a Samwell windbreaker and standing right next to Coach, albeit a foot below Coach, but Eric had to look at the back of the jerseys for the rest of the players to pick out the people he'd grown closer to ever since Jack's birthday bonfire in August. Lardo texted him nightly, sometimes with actual conversation, sometimes just with a photo of a baby goat. He shared a lunch period with her, Chowder, Ransom, and Holster, had AP History with Jack, always ran into Shitty in the bathroom, and frequently ran into Dex and Nursey in the hallway. Someone from the football team was always around, and for the first time since before starting high school, that was not frightening.

It was much easier to pick out the players on the field here than at Hooch; Hooch invested a lot of money into the stadium and equipment for its players, but Samwell one upped Hooch and stuck the names of the players on the back of their jerseys. Jack was number 1 and Shitty was number 42, but Eric quickly realized he didn't actually know anybody else's last name. After several minutes of scanning, he realized that Nursey was probably Nurse, and Dex might be Poindexter, but that was about it, until –

"BITTY! BITTY! HI! DOWN HERE!"

Chowder was standing behind the cheerleaders and waving frantically at Eric. Eric laughed and waved back at him.

"Chowder, pay attention," snapped Jack, and Chowder quickly turned around and returned to what looked like a huddle. The back of his jersey read Chow , which made sense.

"I was saying hi to Bitty," said Chowder, and Jack looked up at the bleachers, directly at Eric. Eric waved and Jack raised his hand only to lower it again when he saw that Eric and Suzanne were sitting right next to his parents. His face set to something unreadable and turned back into the huddle. Eric frowned and snuck a glance at Jack's parents, who were looking at each other instead.

Samwell received the kickoff and so Jack's offense took the field first. Eric realized for the first time that everyone he'd met at Jack's bonfire, apart from Chowder, were players on the offense. Ransom and Holster (who'd Eric had managed to identify before the game began) were left and right tackle. Dex and Nursey, like Lardo had mentioned, were tight ends, and Shitty was a wide receiver. Eric vaguely recognized the other players on the line from the barbeque, but most of them were not at Jack's bonfire.

Samwell had won two of their first three games, and from what Coach had discussed over dinner after their loss, it had been a tough fight with a rival that they would more than likely meet again in the playoffs. After Jack threw his first pass to Shitty, Eric had a hard time believing that any team had the ability to beat them, and while Ransom and Holster were great blockers, and so were Dex and Nursey when they needed to be, Jack was simply amazing. He threw dart after dart to several different receivers, electing to pass to Shitty when possible since Shitty had the best feet and made a first down on nearly every ball he caught. Jack rarely needed time to make a decision and marched the team down the field without ever requiring a third down.

The stadium was almost packed to capacity, at least on the home team's side, and with every pass caught, every first down, the students, parents, and alumni around Eric jumped to their feet and screamed. The games at Hooch had always been loud and exciting, but Eric had never experienced a stadium like this, where everyone was so passionate about the players on the field.

Only three minutes into the first quarter, Jack took a snap at the twenty yard line and dropped back to look for an open receiver. Eric stared at Jack's legs before he realized he was staring at Jack's legs, but even under pressure Jack seemed to be as nimble as a figure skater. His protection was starting to crumble as a linebacker pushed past Ransom, and even after several seconds, none of the players either in the end zone or just in front of the line were open enough to safely catch a pass. The linebacker reached for Jack and Eric placed both his hands over his mouth, his nerves pulsing in double time, but Jack scrambled out of the way and rushed through a hole opened up by Holster and Nursey. Jack took off past the line of scrimmage and toward the end zone. Shitty pushed someone out of the way, leaving Jack a perfect entry point. He crossed into the end zone and the crowd around Eric leapt to their feet, their shouts drowning out the stadium announcer who shouted "WELL WELL WELL WELLIES, IT'S A TOUCHDOWN!"

"That's how you do it!" shouted Bob. He placed his arm around Alicia and pulled her in for a close hug. Suzanne also hugged Eric and he smiled at her, but his eyes were still locked on Jack, who had just spiked the ball before he was enveloped by several team members. Chowder ran onto the field and high-fived Jack before he set up his kick for the extra point. Eric didn't watch the extra point and instead elected to follow Jack, who removed his helmet when he reached the bench. Coach said something to him – it was far too loud in the stands to hear what – and clapped Jack on the back before returning his attention to the field. Whatever he'd said it must have been good because Jack smiled before he pulled out his hand towel and wiped his face.

Jack looked up at the stands. He settled his eyes just briefly on his parents, who waved and whistled at him, before he looked at Eric. Eric waved again and this time, Jack waved back.

 

***

 

Eric had all but forgotten that the homecoming football game also meant the crowning of the Homecoming Court, mostly because Eric had never cared about it. Neither he nor Drew were ever popular enough to be in serious contention, and prior to attending Samwell, he didn't know anybody else who really could be. He only vaguely paid attention to the ceremony, chomping on the soft pretzel his mother purchased from the concession stand, until the announcer said, "And Samwell High's 2011 Homecoming King is Jack Zimmermann!"

Bob and Alicia jumped to their feet in cheers. Suzanne stood and clapped with them, but Eric stared at Jack on the field. He accepted a ridiculously large gold crown and a white sash that read Homecoming King and stood awkwardly at center field, several student cameras and one professional photographer from the Madison newspaper taking photographs of him. Eric had never seen the boy look so flustered and uncomfortable, as if for the first time in his life he would prefer to be anywhere other than on the football field.

Eric looked at Jack's parents – Alicia was beside herself with joy, taking several grainy photos of Jack with the camera on her phone. "Bobby, I knew this was going to happen. We should have brought your camera. I can't get any decent photos from this distance."

"I'm sure they'll give us a copy of the photos they're taking down at the field," said Bob.

"Did you think he'd win?" Suzanne asked.

"I know it's silly to say yes," said Alicia, "but yes. I had a feeling."

Bob, Alicia, and Suzanne remained standing for the announcement of the rest of Homecoming Court: girls from each year of school paraded onto the field, their hair done and their sparkly dresses dragging through the mud. Eric remained seated, still finishing his pretzel, and tried to keep a straight face when runners-up began to cry. The announcement of Homecoming Queen seemed to go on forever, but when Eric crumpled up his wax paper and threw it over the railing and into a garbage can, the announcer finally said, "Samwell High's 2011 Homecoming Queen is Camilla Collins! Congratulations Camilla!"

The cheers and claps of the audience were marred in part by whispers throughout the stands when Camilla, a blonde just as tall as Jack with toned arms and a radiant smile, was given a crown, sash, and bouquet of roses. Bob and Alicia were clapping politely but also whispering to each other, and Suzanne frowned at the unexpected reaction from everyone around her. "I think I missed something," she said to Eric.

"Camilla and Jack dated for a while last year," explained Alicia.

"Ah," said Suzanne.

"They're going to the dance together tomorrow so it's not like they hate each other, but it is a little weird. I know they're still friends but he never talks about her anymore. She's a great girl – very good at tennis. I think she's going to Georgia on a scholarship next year."

Eric stared at Camilla, who was smiling happily on Jack's arm. Her hair had been curled and plopped on top of her head with a few strands left down to frame her long, beautiful face. She either had too much blush on or was very excited to be Homecoming Queen, because Eric could see her cheeks from all the way in the stands. Even with the blush Eric could see she was incredibly beautiful. She looked like she belonged there, standing with Jack, a crown on her head and red roses in her arms. Jack's awkwardness was completely gone when he smiled with her, but as soon as the photo opportunity was over, he let go of Camilla and looked at the time on the scoreboard, anxious for more football.

 

***

 

Samwell won the game easily, 28 to 3. After Jack's rushing touchdown in the first quarter, he threw a long pass to Shitty in the second quarter that Shitty ran in from forty-six yards away. In the second half they switched to mostly running plays to take time off the clock. Eric did not know any of the running backs, but one of them got a touchdown, followed shortly by another one from Shitty. The only score from the opposing team happened late in the fourth quarter when everyone was hot and tired, which ended the hope that the game would be the first shut out of the year.

Suzanne kept up general chit chat with Alicia in between quarters, but Bob stayed mostly quiet until the end of the game when they were folding up their chairs and gathering their belongings to go home. "Your husband is a mighty fine coach, Suzanne," said Bob. Suzanne blushed immediately and Eric rolled his eyes.

"Why thank you, Bob," said Suzanne. "That means a lot coming from you."

"I mean it, though," said Bob, and with his accent it sounded like he was saying dough , "he brings out somethin' in Jack I didn't see last season. Now we know Jack can go pretty much anywhere he wants to next year, but I don't think Jack quite got that until he started talking to your husband. He's much more confident."

"Well he's an amazing quarterback," said Suzanne. "That rush in the first quarter for the touchdown! Lord, he avoided that sack like a pro!"

"He's got some talent, for sure," said Alicia. "I wonder where he gets that from." She nudged Bob in the stomach and he laughed. "It was lovely to meet you, Suzanne. I'm sure we'll see more of each other as the season goes on."

"I'm sure we will. Congratulations on Jack winning Homecoming King!" said Suzanne. She and Alicia hugged each other goodbye and Eric attempted to squeak out of the row without any contact, but Alicia pulled him into a hug as well. Eric shook Bob's hand and they were finally able to leave. As soon as they were out of earshot, though, Suzanne blushed bright red and turned to Eric.

"Lord, Dicky, I had no idea it was them when I suggested we sit there. I about burst into tears when they turned around."

"Ugh, Mama, that would have been the worst," said Eric.

"And did you hear what Bob said about your daddy?"

"Yes, Mama, I was there."

"Don't you sass me, Eric Bittle," said Suzanne, but she was still beaming to the heavens. "Your daddy has been in awe of that man for longer than you have been alive, and now he's coaching Bob Zimmermann's son! I never thought I'd live to see the day. I'm so glad we moved here."

"Hmph," said Eric.

"Dicky, honey," said Suzanne and she put her arm around Eric. "I'm sorry. I know this wasn't something you wanted, but look at all the good that's come of it."

"Yeah, I don't speak to my best friend anymore, I can’t go to Regionals, and I get to listen to you fawn over former NFL players like it's the pope or something. I’m not supposed to be here, Mama. I’m supposed to be picking out outfits with Katya and tightening up my quad toe. We’re supposed to be buying plane tickets for Philly again. Instead I’m here. In Madison. At a football game. There was nothing wrong with Johns Creek." Suzanne opened her mouth to reply, her eyes on the scar above Eric's lip, and Eric knew exactly what she wanted to say. She didn't say it.

"Give me those," she said instead and took both seats from Eric. "Go find your daddy and let's go home."

Eric wandered until he found the home team's locker room. He felt very awkward when he pulled the door open, but he didn't want to wait outside and chance that Coach would leave through a different exit, so he stepped inside and saw Coach talking to Jack, who had obviously just showered. He at least was already redressed, which was more than Eric could say for Shitty, who stood bare ass naked in front his cubicle, using his towel to dry his hair.

"Coach," said Eric. Both Jack and Coach looked up.

"Hey, son," said Coach. "We're just wrapping this up here and then we can go."

"Hey Bittle," said Jack.

"Hi Jack. Good game."

"Thanks."

"Bits!" said Shitty, who had finally put on underpants. Shitty placed an arm around Eric's shoulders and led him away from Jack and Coach, who had resumed talking about some kind of play that hadn't worked out the way they wanted it to. "A bunch of us are going to Steak n Shake. Do you want to come?"

Eric's eyebrows raised high on his forehead. "Yeah?" Eric asked.

Shitty rolled his eyes. "Brah. We're amigos now. You need to stop looking so surprised when we invite you to stuff."

"Sorry," said Eric. "Let me just ask –"

"Coach!" yelled Shitty for absolutely no reason, since Coach stood just five feet away. "Can we steal your son for a while?" Coach looked at Eric, who nodded, and then Coach nodded too.

"Sure, Knight. You're not going to get him drunk like last time, are you?"

"Mr. Coach," said Shitty with as much dignity as someone in their underpants could muster, "we would never do such a thing. Eric Bittle is both underage and your only son. We will treat him with the utmost respect."

"Uh-huh," said Coach. "Just get him back to me in one piece." Shitty saluted Coach before he led Eric back to his cubicle.

"Lemme just get some pants on and you can ride with me," said Shitty. Eric looked around; most of the team were showered and dressed by now, but were still mingling around each other in small groups. Eric couldn’t see Lardo anywhere.

"Where's Lardo?" Eric asked.

"They make her stay in the office after games," said Shitty with a shrug and one leg inside a pair of jeans. "Something about not wanting a female student exposed to so many dongs. I say if she wants to see some dongs, let her see some dongs, but I think she's all about staying in there too. She's gonna ride with us too so we'll need to swing by to get her."

Nearly the whole team was at Steak n Shake, along with what looked like the entirety of the cheerleading squad, when Eric arrived with Shitty and Lardo. This seemed to be a tradition after home games because the staff was not at all surprised at the influx of fifty-or-so customers at ten o'clock on a Friday night. Ransom and Holster were already seated at a table and waved them over; Eric sat down next to Ransom, who shoved a menu in his face. Eric was not at all hungry; Suzanne made ribs in the slow cooker, baked potatoes, and corn for dinner, and then he'd had a pretzel at the game, but he took the menu from Ransom and idly looked at it.

Jack was the last to arrive. "As usual," Shitty said. "I swear he and Coach could debrief for hours. Probably went over the other team’s field goal for twenty minutes. He's not even on defense."

"Knowing their defense is important, Shits," said Jack. The table looked up at his presence and broke out into applause, which caused Jack to roll his eyes when he sat down on the other side of Eric.

"SAMWELL HIGH'S HOMECOMING KING RIGHT HERE!" yelled Shitty.

"Where's your sash?" asked Ransom.

"Yeah, King Jack, where's your sash?" echoed Shitty.

"Y'all are the worst," said Jack.

"What took so long, Mr. Homecoming King 2011?" asked Shitty. "Too busy taking photos with Camilla and ignoring the meager peasantfolk?"

"I was actually with my parents," said Jack quickly, and he picked up a menu. Jack's embarrassment was even harder to look at from this distance; he clearly had been uncomfortable at midfield, but Eric could actually see the tension he held as he clenched his jaw and spoke through his teeth. "They asked me to go to dinner and I had to tell them this is tradition." He pronounced it axed , and Eric hid his inappropriate smile.

"Damn straight," said Holster and he toasted Jack with his side-by-side milkshake.

"Do you come here after every game?" Eric asked Jack.

"Every game we win," said Jack.

"So every game?" Eric asked.

" Mais, we lost against Forsyth two weeks ago and there's a big chance we'll see them again in the playoffs. There are a lot of really good teams left on our schedule, especially in October – now is the time to tighten it up, when our opponents are easy."

"Now is the time for you to shut up and order a celebratory milkshake. Save your lecturing for the locker room and let loose a little," said Holster as the waitress approached the table. Jack did not order a milkshake; he ordered chicken tenders and water (which he pronounced chicken tendas and wada and Eric hid his mouth behind his menu to conceal his smile). Eric ordered a chocolate shake that he in no way intended to finish, Lardo ordered cheese fries, and Shitty ordered an entire meal.

"What?" Shitty asked when he finished placing his order. "My mom's out of town. I didn't have dinner."

"Shitty, is your mother ever in town?" Ransom asked.

"Sometimes," replied Shitty.

"Were my parents nice to you?" Jack asked Eric. Eric looked over and realized just how close he was sitting to Jack – the chairs at the table were crammed together to fit the six of them. Eric looked to his other side but there wasn't any room between he and Ransom either, so he was stuck nearly sitting on top of Jack.

"Yeah!" said Eric. "Your mom and mine would not stop talking to each other. I mean, my Mama gets chatty when she gets nervous and she was super nervous, but they were nice. Why? Did you think they wouldn't be?"

Jack shook his head. "No. Just curious."

"Your dad said Coach is doing a good job. Mama nearly fell out of her chair."

"Your dad is a good coach," said Jack. "I like him a lot." Eric pursed his lips together to hold in a comment and instead simply nodded, but luckily at that moment the waitress plopped a giant chocolate shake in front of him and he had something to do with his hands instead of wring them underneath the table.

"Oh, Lord," said Eric when he looked at it, and Jack chuckled. Eric took a sip, which proved difficult due to the shake's thickness, and then turned back to Jack. Jack was fondly watching his attempt, so Eric decided to press his luck. "Um, your mom said that you don't really like it when they come to games?"

"They said that?" Jack asked.

"Uh…yeah."

"I suppose they're right," said Jack with a shrug. "I'm already nervous before games and knowing they're there just makes it worse. My dad's three years from being inducted into the hall of fame. It makes every incomplete pass just seem that much bigger."

"You play high school football, Jack," said Eric. "No one expects you to be your dad."

"You'd be surprised," said Jack, and he left it at that.

While everyone ate (Shitty more than the others, wolfing down a double cheeseburger and chasing it with French fries dipped in his vanilla shake), two people Eric did not recognize approached the table and started talking to Ransom and Holster. One of them was still in her junior varsity cheerleading uniform, half her hair pulled back and clasped with a red bow. She had a temporary tattoo of the white Samwell S on each of her cheeks. Eric looked over at her and she smiled at him, so he looked at her companion instead, who was more than likely on the football team by the sheer size of him.

"Dude," he was saying to Holster, "are you benching with me tomorrow? I need a spotter."

"We benched today. You need to rest," said Holster.

"I'm so close to two-fifty!"

"Bro, you are nowhere close to two-fifty," said Holster with an eye roll. Eric looked back up at the boy, who Eric assumed could easily bench press two hundred and fifty pounds, and this time the boy looked back at him.

"Who are you?" he asked. Eric hunched closer to his milkshake at the intensity of the stare.

"Eric," he replied quietly.

"Bitty," corrected Lardo.

"Are you on the team?" the boy asked. "You look a little small."

"He's not on the team," said Jack.

"Oh. You a cheerleader or something?" The boy looked at the girl and she shook her head.

"He's Coach's son," said Jack, and Jack's tone cut right across the table and into the intense glare the boy was still giving Eric. Eric sat up and the boy took a step back.

"Oh...sorry..."

"I like hockey more than football," replied Eric.

"Do we have a hockey team?"

"No, I play club hockey."

"And he's good at it," replied Ransom, who had never seen Eric skate. "You ever been on a pair of skates Einhardt? I feel like you'd fall right through the ice." Einhardt grumbled and quickly walked away, but the cheerleader stayed behind and began twirling her hair in her fingers.

"Where do you play hockey?" she asked. Eric raised his eyebrows and could not help but notice that everyone at the table was now staring at him, including the cheerleader.

"Um…with the Madison Hockey Club? We play at the rink in town." She smiled at him and Eric felt a nudge in his side from Ransom, which caused his face to turn a deep shade of red.

"That's really cool! I'm Erica by the way – you said your name is Eric, right? That's just like mine, but, you know, with an A at the end. I guess that's actually kind of awkward. But it's nice to meet you!"

"Yeah…"

"Sorry my brother's such an asshole," she said, gesturing to Einhardt, who was sitting a few tables away with some of the other defensemen. "Holster's right. There's no way he can bench two-fifty." Eric nodded and pursed his lips together, but otherwise didn't respond. "I'll get back to my friends, but I'll see you at school." Eric nodded again and she walked away, still twisting her long brown hair in her fingers. As soon as she was a safe distance away, Ransom put his entire arm around Eric and shook him.

"BRO!" he said entirely too loudly; Erica had just moved to another table and Ransom spoke loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear. "She totally wants you. You need to go over there and hit that up tout suite , yo." Eric hunched back over his milkshake and looked helplessly across the table at Lardo, who smiled sadly back at him.

"That's okay," said Eric.

"I bet she'd go to homecoming with you if you asked," nudged Holster from across the table.

"Um…I'm not going," said Eric.

"What!" yelled Holster. "Even Jack is going! If Jack goes you have to go!"

"I'm kind of required to go," said Jack, although he didn't look exactly happy about it.

"Yeah, and you only managed to get the hottest girl in the fucking school to go with you," said Holster. "Don't even get me started on that –"

"We're just friends," said Jack with a furtive glance at Eric; Eric just wanted this conversation to be over already.

"Chyeah, whatevs," said Holster. He looked at Eric again, who attempted to hide behind his milkshake. "Listen, Bits, Erica is mega hot and on the cheerleading team. I bet she could put her ankles behind her head."

"I can put my ankles behind my head," said Eric. "That's not that impressive."

"I don't think you're thinking the same thing I am," said Holster.

"No, definitely not," said Eric.

"Bro," said Lardo to Shitty, loud enough that Holster could not interrupt her, "I'm beat. Can we go back?" Shitty stuffed seven French fries in his mouth and nodded. "Bits? You want to ride back with us?" Eric immediately nodded and the three of them stood.

"Wait, Bittle," said Jack. "That reminds me, when's your next game? We want to go." Eric looked around the table and everyone nodded.

"Is this a 'when is your next game we actually want to go' question or is this a 'when is your next game we're going to tell Erica and embarrass the fuck out of you' question?" Eric asked carefully.

"No, I really want to see your game. You came to ours," said Jack. "I've never been to a hockey game before."

"All right," said Eric. "We're away tomorrow but we're home next Saturday if you want to come. Only the people currently at this table. And Chowder, if he wants. And Dex and Nursey maybe, if they agree to behave. No random girls."

"No random girls," said Jack.

They said their goodbyes and paid for their food at the counter before the three of them got into Shitty's car. Eric held the front door open for Lardo, but she shook her head and climbed into the back, where she promptly stretched out, small enough to fit comfortably across the three seats. Eric sat in the front seat next to Shitty. Once they were out of the parking lot, Shitty turned to him.

"You okay, bro?" he asked. "That got hella awkward."

"Yeah, I'm fine," said Eric. "I just really wasn't expecting it." When Eric glanced over he could see Shitty look at Lardo through the rear view mirror. The look they exchanged was very obvious and Eric took in a deep breath. They looked more concerned than anything else, but their concern did nothing to quell the tight ball of anxiety that lodged itself in his chest as he thought about what to say next. Shitty and Lardo were on the football team after all, both of them, and no amount of baby goats and friendly "Bro!"s could assuage the long rooted reputation that football players refused to accept people who were not like them.

"Can I tell y'all something?"

"Sure," said Lardo immediately. "We're all bros now. You can tell us anything."

Eric gripped his seat belt tightly in his hands and closed his eyes as he thought about what he was about to say, but there was no dancing around any of it. Shitty and Lardo waited silently for him. He opened his eyes but looked out the window as he said, "I'm gay."

"Oh, cool," said Lardo.

"Yeah," said Shitty.

Eric looked across the car at Shitty.

"What do you mean, 'yeah?' "

Shitty's eyes grew wide and he placed both hands on the wheel and looked at the road. "I mean 'yeah' in the sense of that's super cool and I'm so glad you felt comfortable enough telling us that. You are a great bro and – OKAY! Okay, I kind of knew."

"I mean we both kind of knew," said Lardo.

"You knew? Am I that obvious? Does everyone know?" Eric asked and he gripped the seat belt so tightly it was hurting his hands.

"No!" said Shitty immediately. "No, it was just your dad –"

"WHAT?" yelled Eric. "Did my dad tell you? Did my dad tell the whole team?"

"No, Bits, calm down!" said Lardo from the back seat. She was no longer stretched across the length of the car and instead leaned in close toward the front and placed her hand on Eric's shoulder. He loosened his grip on the seat belt. "Your dad's really cool. Before school even started, before any of us met you – and he didn't out you, he didn't say anything specifically – but a couple of the guys were messing around at practice and one of them said 'Oh that's so gay' and Coach just…"

"He flipped a shit on them," said Shitty. "He said, 'What the fuck, dudes, this is not okay. This is a place of tolerance. We do not say things are gay. Not on my team. If you have a problem with that you better fuck off.'"

Eric grew quiet and stared at the yellow stripes in the center of the road as they passed.

"He said that?" Eric asked.

"He didn't swear as much as I did," said Shitty.

"He is super protective of you," said Lardo. "I didn't realize it had anything to do with you but then we met you and – bro, you're awesome. I'm so glad we met you. It is a little obvious."

"Oh God," said Eric.

"But we're totally down with it," said Shitty. "You do you, man."

Eric nodded and looked out the window again, but he could barely see the buildings and the trees as they passed. The world going by was just a blur while he retreated deeper and deeper back into his head, but then snapped out of it and wiped his eyes when Lardo spoke again:

"Are you okay, Bits?" she asked.

"Yeah, yeah. I just – I never thought my dad would say something like that."

"Does your dad know?" Shitty asked. "I mean, I'm assuming he knows after saying something like that."

"He knows. They both know," said Eric with a shrug. "I've never really said anything to them, but we kind of have this understanding about it. We don't talk about it. We don't really talk at all anymore."

"I'm glad you told us," said Lardo, "because you are the coolest bro we know outside the team." Shitty reached back and bumped her fist in agreement. "But it might be best if we don't spread this too far. I think most of the offense is pretty tolerant – Jack for sure, Ransom and Holster and the frogs, but people like Einhardt? Or Gordon? I don't know how they'll take it."

"That's fine," said Eric. "I'm used to that. But yeah, we can tell Jack and them." Shitty and Lardo exchanged another look and Eric rolled his eyes, but for the first time in his life, he finally felt comfortable.

Chapter Text

April 2008

Clayton Collado graduated from Taylors Road Middle School without ever following through on the looming threat that Eric felt for the majority of sixth grade. Apart from a few close calls that were always thwarted by a well-timed appearance from someone on the faculty or the ring of a class-ending bell, Eric managed to take Drew's advice and avoid him. Drew and Eric were never late for school again, and Eric turned his attention to forming a solid routine with Katya now that their practices occurred nearly every day.

Eric had the basis of two routines down, but before he left practice on the Thursday before Drew's thirteenth birthday, Katya said that he needed to work on his panache. When Eric got home he asked his mother what panache meant, and then he spent the rest of the night flittering through the hallways of the house, trying to figure out exactly what to do with his arms. He frequently met his mother there and had to spin out of the way of her and her laundry basket, and after load number three, he spun directly into Coach.

“Junior,” he scolded, grabbing a hold of the railing so as not to fall right back down the stairs he had just climbed. “Why are you spinning?”

“Panache, Coach! Panache!” Eric yelled and spun into his room, leaving an irritated Coach behind.

On Friday, Eric entered the practice rink with his equipment bag to find Katya in the office again without her skates on. She'd done this to him a handful of times since he and his mother made the commitment to train more often (and thus pay more money), and each meeting involved boring diagrams of step sequences or photos of costumes.

Katya had rolled the A/V cart into her office, so when Eric entered she said, "Close the door and sit down. Where's your backpack?"

"I don't have any homework so I left it at school," said Eric. "Are you going to start giving me homework?"

"Yes," said Katya. "Sit down." She placed a pen and a legal pad in front of him. "I got a copy of this year's World Championships. We're going to watch the men's individual programs and you're going to take notes. Did you watch this year? Do you remember any of the performances?”

“Yeah, I remember Irina Slutskaya, and Sasha Cohen, and I remember Michelle Kwan had to drop out –”

“You’re thinking of the Olympics, Eric, and those are all women.”

“I...I didn’t watch any of the men,” said Eric.

“Eric,” scolded Katya and Eric looked at his feet. “You’re a boy. You need to watch other boys to know how to act. So, we've got your jumps set. They're very good jumps. Your spins are almost there. By October you will have beautiful spins. Now comes the hard part –"

"NOW comes the hard part?" Eric asked. "I thought spinning until I puked and falling until I break my bones was the hard part!"

"You haven't broken any bones, Eric," said Katya. "Save your drama for your routine. This is the hard part because a large percentage of your score comes from your interpretation of your music, your stylistic choices, and how you connect all of the elements of your program together. That's what we have to work on now. You'll have years to come up with your own style and how you want to be remembered, but for now let's find someone else that you like and model your movements after him."

Katya turned on the television and started the program; she spent a lot of time fast-forwarding through the waiting periods and while she did so, Eric repositioned the chairs in front of the desk so he could essentially lay down on them with the legal pad on his lap. "Eric, sit up," said Katya and he whined but sat up with his feet on the chair in front of him.

Eric paid attention the best he could through the short program; Katya skipped over routines that did not place well and focused primarily on those who ended up in the top ten, but Eric's eyes were starting to glaze over after four skaters. He'd taken a few notes but most of them were "twirls a lot" or "hands follow music." Katya seemed to pick up on Eric's waning attention and skipped ahead to the final two skaters of the short program round.

He sat up to try to focus and blinked several times. Katya started the program again when a man in a bodysuit with hair the color of Drew's skated to the center of the ice. His costume was mostly black but with a white swirl encompassing half his chest and all the way down one arm. His hair was shaggier than Eric or Drew's had ever been, but it suited his face. He took a breath, held his arms stiffly at his sides, and then when the music began, melted into a graceful fluidity that caught Eric's attention. Eric sat up, removed his feet from the chair in front of him and stared at the screen, holding his breath with each jump, counting each spin, following each step and motion and transition.

Three minutes later Eric was winded, having ignored the basic act of breathing for the entirety of the performance. He looked at Katya while the man on the tape came out of his spin with his hands above his head and celebrated the end of a brilliant routine, his mouth open, his chest heaving. Katya was watching Eric and her face appeared both amused and intrigued.

"Do you like him?" she asked.

"Yeah! Who is he?"

"That was Johnny Weir."

"Oh!" said Eric. "I've heard of him. I like him!"

"What did you like about him?" Katya asked.

"I don't know," said Eric. "Everything. I like his costume, I liked his music, I like the way he moves his arms. He's got – what did you call it? Panache. He's got panache."

"That he does," said Katya. "He came in fifth overall this year. He did much better in this performance than his free skate but fifth place at the World Championships is very, very good."

"Can we watch his free skate?" Eric asked.

"Yes," said Katya. Eric waited for her to skip to the middle of the free skate performances. Johnny's costume was very similar, black and white again, but this costume had glittery red lining on the front and a flesh-colored slit both down the center and down his right arm. Now having seen the first performance, Eric focused more on the reason Katya was showing this to him at all – he looked for the artistic additions that coincided with the music, and at arm movements and arabesques and spirals. He could see from a surface level that this skate was not nearly as clean as Johnny's short program, but there was still an intriguing magic that Eric found incredibly inviting.

Halfway through the free skate, Katya spoke again. "Do you still like him?"

"Yeah," said Eric in awe.

"I'll send this home with you so you can study it more, and I'll get more tape of him. He's very popular so it should be easy to find." Eric nodded but didn't take his eyes off the screen until it was over. Johnny looked less happy after this skate, but Eric was so impressed he nearly clapped there in Katya's office as Johnny let out a sigh, his cheeks pink with exertion. Eric's eyes followed him as he skated back to his coach and Katya shut off the television.

"I had a feeling you would like him," said Katya.

"Yeah? Why?"

"Just a feeling," said Katya with a smile. "I think that's enough for today. Take the tape and study – that is your homework this weekend since you do not have any from school."

"Gee, thanks, Katya," said Eric.

"I'll have more for you next week. Think about how you want to use what he does in your own performance. I know you were not as interested in the others, but watch them too and see what he does differently that makes you like him so much." Eric nodded. "I'll see you Monday. Have a good weekend, Eric."

"Thanks, Katya."

"Don't forget to run. I'll know if you don't run."

"Yes, Katya."

Eric was not as happy with that particular part of Katya's new training program. His practices on the ice were still his favorite, but ice time alternated with weight training at the rink. Also once a week he either took a gymnastics class or a ballet class, and neither of those were any fun (Drew liked it when Eric showed off a back handspring, but apart from that there was nothing entertaining about the ache in his joints after several attempts to make his body flip over during gymnastics or the excessive back arching and toe pointing that was ballet). In addition to all of the formal practices, Katya wanted Eric to run every off-ice training day. Eric kept up with it most days, usually before school since Suzanne would wake him up and yell at him to go outside, but on the weekends Eric usually found a way to skip it.

Eric did skip his run the next morning and instead grabbed his swim trunks and biked over to Drew's house not long after he awoke. It was unusually hot for April; typically the days didn't get so bad until June, but Eric was sweating by the time he dropped his bike in Drew's driveway and ran inside. "Drew!" he called when he entered the house. "You awake?"

There was no response so he ran up the stairs. Amy was awake and was violently coloring in her room when Eric ran by. "Hi Eric!" she yelled.

"Hi Amy," Eric said back before he opened the door to Drew's room where Drew was definitely still asleep. Eric dropped his bag on the floor and launched himself onto Drew's bed, causing Drew to both groan and curse as ninety-four pounds of Eric Bittle unexpectedly forced him out of slumber. "Wake up, dorkus, I want to go swimming."

"What?" mumbled Drew. His hand fumbled on the nightstand until he caught his glasses and put them on. He used them to look at the time and then immediately took them off and put them back on the nightstand. "No way. It's not even nine yet."

"Yeah, it's not even nine and it's hot as all get out! Katya wants me to run five miles today and I'm definitely not doing that in this heat so let's go in the pool and do some laps so I can pretend that I actually did something." Drew grumbled again and put his pillow over his head. Eric rolled off of him and poked him in the back over and over again until Drew finally sat up and yelled:

"Dammit, Eric, you are the worst!"

"I know. I'm gonna change into my trunks. See you downstairs in five."

Drew took much longer than five minutes to come downstairs, but he met Eric in the kitchen where Eric had eggs scrambling in a skillet. Drew sat on the stool at the island and did not say thank you when Eric placed the eggs and ketchup in front of him. Eric washed the skillet and was drying it with a towel just as Mr. and Mrs. Lester came down the stairs.

"I thought I heard you," said Mrs. Lester to Eric. She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek before she took the skillet from him to put away. "You boys going swimming?"

"Yep," said Eric cheerfully; Drew just grunted. "It's real hot today."

"Oh, wonderful, already," said Mrs. Lester. Mr. Lester was already pouring them both a bowl of cereal, so Mrs. Lester took the milk out of the refrigerator.

"I can make y'all eggs too, if you want," said Eric. Mrs. Lester dismissed his offer with a wave of her hand and so Eric waited patiently for Drew to finish eating. Drew handed Eric his plate, which Eric placed in the dishwasher, and then they headed toward the patio. Without the island separating them, Eric stood next to Drew for the first time that morning, and Eric realized he needed to look up to see him. Eric finally reached five feet but Drew had passed that and more; Eric's eyes were level with Drew's chin.

"Did you grow again?" Eric asked.

Drew shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe?"

"Well stop it," said Eric. Drew slid open the door and whistled as the wave of heat hit them. "I told you!"

"I thought we wouldn't swim again until June," said Drew. "It's been cold all spring." Eric dropped a pair of towels onto the table in between the two patio chairs and turned around when Drew pulled his holey Star Wars T-shirt over his head. Eric froze; they hadn't been able to swim since autumn, and Eric had not seen Drew shirtless at all since then.

Eric had seen Drew without a shirt many times in their three years of friendship and it never made a difference. Eric had seen Drew completely naked and it never made a difference. All of those times Drew did not have the small patches of hair on his chest and below his navel, and he definitely never had the muscles on his arms, shoulders, and abdomen. Eric had those muscles because Katya required that he have those muscles, but seeing them on himself meant nothing and seeing them on Drew meant… Eric had no idea what it meant.

"You okay, E?" Drew asked.

Eric looked up at Drew, who pushed up his glasses with one finger. Even his glasses were starting to look better, the black frames now fitting Drew's diamond shaped face rather than blocking his eyes, eyebrows, and cheekbones. Eric did not realize he had been staring, but he had definitely been staring, and the result of his staring was starting to twitch inside of his trunks.

"Sorry, yeah," said Eric. He took off his shirt, threw it on the chair, and jumped into the pool before Drew could notice what was happening.

 

***

 

"Hey E," said Drew.

Eric opened his eyes but had a hard time focusing on Drew's face. He looked blurry, even though Drew was standing just on the other side of Eric's bedroom. Eric sat up in his bed and rubbed his eyes, but the fuzziness remained. It was definitely Drew, though – it was Drew's voice and Drew's outline. Eric recognized the Star Wars T-shirt that Drew was wearing earlier that day, the one with the hole in the collar. Eric had told Drew to throw it away but Drew would probably never throw it away.

"What time is it?" Eric asked. He looked at the clock on the nightstand, but the display was blurry too. He could see that there were black numbers inside the blue backlighting of the alarm clock, but none of them made any sense.

"It's late," said Drew.

"Why are you here? Were you always here?"

"Of course I'm always here," said Drew. His voice sounded very far away.

"Come closer, I can barely see you."

"Maybe you should put your glasses on."

"I don't wear glasses," said Eric, but when he looked at the nightstand again he could faintly make out the shape of Drew's glasses. He unfolded them and put them over his eyes. Everything instantly came into focus, including Drew, who was now sitting cross legged on Eric's bed in the space between Eric's legs. He wasn't wearing his glasses, which made sense because Eric had them on, but it didn't seem to matter to him that he couldn't see. He was studying Eric's face with an intensity that Eric had not seen before.

"Did you ask your parents if you could stay over?"

Drew grinned, a sneaky lopsided grin that showed off a hint of his white teeth, and he slowly shook his head.

"So they don't know you're here?"

Drew shook his head again.

"Do my parents know you're here?"

"No one knows I'm here," said Drew. "Just you." Drew's eyes canvassed Eric's face, from Eric's eyes to his nose to his cheeks and, finally, down to his lips.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I never get to see you anymore," said Drew. "You're always at practice. Sometimes I look at you and it's like I haven't seen you in years. You look so different."

"You look different," said Eric. "You look older."

"We both look older," said Drew. "I think it's because we are."

Drew moved suddenly and Eric's heart skipped in surprise. Drew placed his hands on either side of Eric's hips and straightened out his body, effectively lying in between Eric's legs and bringing his face much closer to Eric's than it had ever been before. Eric could feel Drew's breath on his face, could see so far into Drew's eyes that he could make out the small black specks that tarnished the purity of the blue in his irises. Drew's eyes flickered down to Eric's lips again and Eric swallowed hard.

"What – what are you doing?" Eric asked.

"Let me try something," Drew whispered.

Eric didn't have time to react; he closed his eyes and Drew's lips pressed onto his own. It was a bit awkward at first, wet and weird, but then Drew opened his mouth and Eric followed suit, and the feeling of their lips sliding together caused a spiral of desire to sink slowly in between his legs, gradually filling him up until he ached and arched his hips toward Drew. Drew chuckled a low, breathy laugh and shifted his weight so he could slide his right hand up Eric's thigh and across toward the center –

Eric woke with a start. He looked around the dark room but everything he could see was perfectly clear, including the time: two thirty-seven. He lay back and shifted uncomfortably only to realize that he felt very sticky. He lifted his covers and brushed his fingers under the waistband of his briefs; it was definitely wet and sticky and he squeezed his eyes closed when he began to remember why. He remembered Drew from yesterday morning, shirtless and muscular and staring right back at him, not at all in the same way he stared in the dream.

This was really inconvenient.

 

***

 

The following afternoon Eric sat in his kitchen piping flowers onto a two-tiered birthday cake when the house phone rang. Solely concentrated on decorating the corners of the square bottom tier, Eric let someone else answer it. Three red rosettes later, Suzanne appeared in the doorway of the kitchen and immediately fawned over the cake:

"Dicky, that is beautiful!" she said. "You should let me decorate it, though. It's as much your birthday cake as it is Drew's."

"No, I want to do it," said Eric.

"Well take a break, honey, Drew's on the phone."

Eric set his piping bag down on the table in front of him and wiped his hands on his apron before he took the phone from his mother. "Drew, what up?" Eric asked. He slowly spun the cake on its stand; it needed gold draped piping still.

"Guess where I'm calling you from?" Drew asked and Eric wondered how long this conversation would go without a pun, since Drew was giggling that I'm-about-to-pun-you giggle already.

"Your house?"

"No! The car! We're on the way over."

"Okay," said Eric. "The cake's not done yet so don't look at it until I'm finished."

"No, E. I'm calling you from in the car. On my cell phone ."

"What?" Eric yelled and Drew laughed maniacally on the other end of the line. "When did you get a cell phone?"

"Today! My parents just gave it to me! It's my birthday present."

"That is so unfair! MAMA!" Eric yelled. Suzanne came into the room with a smile on her face. "Drew's parents just gave him a cell phone. I want a cell phone!"

"What could you possibly need a cell phone for?" Suzanne asked.

"To talk to Drew!" said Eric.

"You talk to Drew all day at school and half the time either you're over there or he's over here. There is absolutely no reason for you to get a cell phone. Call him from the home phone."

"But if I get a cell phone I could text him."

"Oh yeah we could text each other!" Drew said into Eric's ear.

"Honestly, Dicky, I don't know how you two haven't run out of things to say yet," said Suzanne. She left the room and Eric made a face.

"This sucks," said Eric. "You're not getting gold piping on your cake now."

"What! I want gold piping!"

"You don't even know what gold piping is, Drew," said Eric.

"Not really, but I want it. We'll be there in two minutes. I expect gold piping." Eric rolled his eyes and hung up the phone. He finished the rosettes on the bottom layer when Drew, Amy, and Mr. and Mrs. Lester walked through the front door. Drew immediately ran into the kitchen and handed his cell phone to Eric, which only made Eric grumble and return to decorating while Drew played every single ringtone the phone had on it.

Eric had asked Drew what he wanted for his birthday and Drew, like each year before, denied a gift and instead requested Suzanne's chicken pot pie and a homemade birthday cake. The cake for Drew's eleventh birthday was just one tier with Happy Birthday written on it. The cake for Drew's twelfth birthday was one tier but had a chocolate ganache drizzled over the top of it. This year Eric wanted to do something special, since they were both finally teenagers, but he'd been distracted all day and had only just sat down to decorate it about ten minutes before Drew called.

It was difficult to look at Drew without remembering his dream, and remembering his dream caused very disturbing things to happen to his body, so Eric stared at the cake until Suzanne made him stop so they could eat dinner. During dinner, Eric talked to Amy who happily explained how she ended up falling off the slide at recess on Friday.

"It was my turn," Amy was saying, "and I told Marisa she couldn't cut me but she cut me anyway, so I pushed her off the ladder and climbed it myself, but she followed me up the slide and pushed me super hard down. I fell off the side and landed right on my arm." Amy held up her left arm and showed Eric a gigantic purple bruise.

"And now you know that you shouldn't push people," said Mrs. Lester. "Even if they aren't very nice to you."

"She was not nice at all," said Amy.

"Yeah, well sometimes people are just bullies," said Drew. Eric glanced at him and frowned; middle school had been very uneventful so far and while it was still a ways away, Eric wondered if Clayton would remember him when he and Drew started attending Hooch.

After dinner Suzanne set the cake on the center of the table.

“Eric, did you make this cake?” asked Mrs. Lester, her eyes wide in awe at the beading and decorations. “It is absolutely gorgeous!”

“Thanks, Mrs. Lester,” said Eric.

“He likes making cakes too, huh?” Mr. Lester asked Coach. Coach nodded and they exchanged a look that Eric did not understand before Suzanne made Eric and Drew sit close to each other so they could pose for the traditional "fake blow" photo.

"Mama," said Eric with an eye roll, "this is the stupidest thing ever. Why don't you just take a picture of us actually blowing out the candles?"

"Because it never turns out right," said Suzanne, "and don't sass your Mama. You still have eleven days before you’re a teenager."

They pretended to blow out the thirteen candles on top of the cake while Suzanne took a photo, and then were allowed to actually blow out the candles, and Suzanne took a photo of that too. Coach stood up to turn on the lights and Eric reached for the cake knife when Suzanne interrupted him.

"Nope, nope, not yet! We have a present for you first," said Suzanne. She ran out of the room and returned with a small box wrapped in bright blue paper and a white bow. She handed it to Eric with a smile and without opening it Eric already knew what it was.

"You're the worst, Mama," said Eric.

"Well, if you're going to be that way, I'll just take that back –"

"No!" said Eric, holding the box out of her reach. Suzanne smiled at him and sat down, her camera at the ready, until he pulled off the bow and the paper to reveal his very own cell phone.

"Dude!" said Drew. "Now we can text each other!"

Eric quickly opened the box – his parents had obviously set it up already because when he pressed the home button it turned right on. Drew spewed out his own phone number and Eric entered it into the contacts. There were already three there: his mother, Coach, and the home phone. After Eric entered in Drew's number he quickly sent a text to him:

     Eric
     DREWWWWWWW

     Drew
     ERICCCCCCC

They both laughed but when Suzanne stood to begin cutting the cake, she quickly said, "Okay, you will have plenty of time to play with those. Now let's have some cake." Eric put his phone on the table but even after he was handed a piece of cake he couldn't stop staring at it. It was only a matter of minutes before their phones were back in their hands again.

     Drew
     Hey

     Eric
     Hey

     Drew
     This cake is good

     Eric
     Thanks

     Drew
     Even without the gold piping

     Eric
     Don't be a dick

     Drew
     YOU DON'T BE A DICK

     Drew
     DICKY

     Eric
     Hey!

"Boys! Phones away at the dinner table," scolded Coach.

"Does this mean I can join Facebook now?” Eric asked hopefully.

“Don’t press your luck, son,” said Coach, and Eric frowned. His phone buzzed on the table.

     Drew
     They won’t let me join either

“Drew!” said Mrs. Lester. Drew placed his phone on the table and gave his mother his most innocent smile. She shook her head. “Oh Lord, this is what our life is like now," she said. Suzanne, Coach, Mr. Lester, and Mrs. Lester laughed, and Drew discreetly typed another text:

     Drew
     Ugh

Chapter Text

October 2011

"Y'all know I read your comments like it's the news," said Eric into the webcam of his computer. It was still fairly early in the morning the day of the hockey game his friends had promised to attend, and to combat some of his nerves, he woke up, did his hair, and turned on his computer. "That's usually where I get my themes for my vlogs – that's how September ended up being Apple Month because seriously, y'all cannot get enough apple pie and apple cobbler and apple tarts and apple turnovers. I could have made it an Apple Year based on how much y'all wanted to know. But sometimes when I go in those comments I see your concern for me and I wanted to take a moment and share some life updates with you.

"I'm… I'm better. At least, I think I'm better," said Eric, but he didn't look at the camera when he said it. "It was rough for a while and I know you saw that. I know none of you believed me when I said I broke my arm at skating practice. I still don't – I still can't talk about it, but it's better, I promise, and a lot of that has to do with you all giving me a reason to be here, giving me a reason to talk about something. Truth is, though, that I haven't baked a single thing since I started this vlog and that's kind of ironic, since this blog is 95% baking and 5% me updating y'all on my life.

"I have friends now and while I didn't want friends when I moved out here, they have really helped me turn it around for the better. Shitty – sorry, I know, but for some reason his name is Shitty – but Shitty and Lardo and especially Jack really have helped me adjust to being here. They're why I'm doing this at nine o'clock in the morning, actually, because they're coming to my hockey game today! They promised to be nice but I seriously doubt any of them are going to be nice. I just hope I don't fall on my face when Wicks sends me a bad pass again. As long as I stay upright I think it'll be fine.

"And… I told them. About me. About being gay," said Eric, and took in a deep breath after having said it on camera for the first time. "It's no secret I live in small town Georgia, so telling someone you're gay out here is like asking for a whooping, but they were cool. I only told a few of them, and they've been pretty quiet about it, and really apart from a lot of people being way nicer than normal, nothing much has changed. I could tell Holster wanted to make fun of me after I tripped up the stairs on Thursday and dropped all of my books on the floor, but he just helped me pick them up and patted me on the head like a puppy. I'll give it a few days and maybe trip in front of him again. If he laughs, I’ll know we’re back to normal.

"But yeah, things have been good here. Not everything is the best it could be. It's still real awkward to be alone with Coach but he's trying. I know he's trying. I guess that's what you do when you're family – you try. That's the most I can hope for, I suppose."

Eric sighed and then sat up, glancing at his screen to ensure he was still in frame. "Anyhoo, I just wanted to give an update for those of you who have been asking. The camera on my phone is pretty decent so I think I'll film some actual baking next time, show you those latticing techniques you've been asking to see. Can't guarantee it'll turn out, but we'll give it a whirl. Until next time – thanks for being here, and I'll talk to you soon."

Editing, as usual, took longer than Eric thought, and just after he posted it, Suzanne was calling up the stairs for him.

"Come get some lunch, Dicky, and then we have to go!"

After lunch Eric loaded his gear bag into the trunk of the car and was about to sit in the front seat when both Coach and Suzanne exited the house. Eric paused and took a step back to allow his mother the front and Coach the seat behind the wheel. Coach had not yet attended a hockey game, usually too busy with football, so Eric couldn't help his surprise.

"Heard your buddies were coming today," said Coach after all three of them got into the car. "Couldn't let them have all the glory, could I? Plus, it's about time I saw what all this fuss is about. Coach Frahm doesn't shut up about how good you are."

"Yeah," said Eric, but left it at that.

None of his friends were at the rink when Coach parked, but it made sense since the puck wouldn't drop for another hour. Eric headed to the locker room and his parents headed to the bleachers, and when he got there Coach Frahm nodded to him. "Hey Eric," he said. "You ready to crush these kids?"

"Metaphorically," said Eric.

"Of course," replied Coach Frahm with a clap on the back. "Suit up and warm up with the others. Can you lead the drills? I want to focus on the other team. I think their goalie has a weak glove but I want to be sure."

"Yeah, Coach," said Eric.

He changed into his pads and skates. A few other players arrived while he was lacing up and he directed them toward the ice. Ten minutes later he was on their half of the rink leading the team in their stretches, to general complaint from everyone.

"UGHHHHHHH," said Ollie after every single stretch transition as if Eric had asked him to do fifty suicides instead of twenty arm circles.

"Ollie, seriously," said Eric. "Just do the damn arm circles and don't complain to me when your wrists are sore after the game." Ollie groaned again but did the arm circles anyway, and then Eric finally transitioned to them to blueline drills and dots passing to loosen up both the offense and the defense. In between their passing, Eric aimed shots at the corners of the net for Johnson, who always played well but never spoke, and Eric usually felt as though he were leaving Johnson out of drills.

Eric had just netted a goal in the upper right corner when he heard them for the first time.

"GOALLLL BITTY!"

"LOOK AT THAT BOY SHOOTING A PUCK LIKE A PRO!"

"ERIC BITTLE IS THE SEXIEST CLUB HOCKEY PLAYER IN THE LAND!"

Eric blushed furiously when the rest of the team stopped and stared at him. Eric glanced over to the bleachers and saw all of them sitting in a cluster next to Coach and Suzanne. Ransom and Shitty were the worst offenders of the cat calls, standing on either side of the cluster with their hands around their mouths to ensure their voices would be heard absolutely everywhere. Jack sat directly behind Coach in between Lardo and Chowder; Nursey, Dex, and Holster sat one row behind them.

"BITTY, BE MY BABY DADDY!"

Suzanne was giggling so hard her entire body was shaking but Coach finally turned around and told Ransom and Shitty to sit down. They did, albeit reluctantly, and Eric looked at the rest of his team.

"What are you looking at?" Eric asked. "I didn't tell you to stop! Ollie, Wicks, start the 'Fix Yourself' drill with Johnson right now." Eric skated toward the bench, where Coach Frahm was staring at the other team and taking notes. As he approached the bench Eric waved at his friends, who all yelled and waved back at him.

"BITTY!"

"GET IT BITS!"

"HI BITTY!" yelled Chowder and he waved enthusiastically. Eric smiled before he approached Coach Frahm.

"So?" Eric asked him. "What d'you think?"

"He's definitely got a weak glove, but he's big. Look at him." Eric looked down the ice at the goalie; goalies were usually large due to their padding, but this one in particular looked larger than normal. "I think he'll use his size to his advantage, but if you trick him he won't have the speed to catch you. Have the forwards work on changing direction. I'll let you know if I see anything else."

"Thanks, Coach," said Eric and he headed back toward his team.

When the first period began a half hour later the advice Coach had given Eric paid off in spades. Whenever he, Ollie, and Wicks were on offense they passed more often than they carried the puck, and that not only threw off the defenders, but threw off the goalie. When the first period ended, Ollie, Wicks, and Eric had a goal apiece, and each of them had been scored gloveside and always after a quick-decision pass when it looked like one of them was about to take a shot on goal.

Eric sat down on the bench to catch his breath; they were up three to zero and it looked like it was going to continue this way, but he was already exhausted. It wasn't that the other team was bad, but the Madison Club's possession time was at least seventy-five percent. Eric rested his head against the glass behind him only to be jolted into alertness by Chowder, who banged against the glass to get his attention.

"Bitty!" he said. "That was a ‘swawesome goal!"

"Thanks," said Eric.

"You rock!"

Eric looked a few rows back at his parents and his friends. Suzanne smiled at him and blew a kiss. He rolled his eyes at her but she only blew another one and he let her, then looked at the rest of his friends. Lardo and Jack waved when he looked at them and the others fought over who got to hold the sign they apparently made during the first period, reading BITS IS THE TITS .

"Chowder, this is a family friendly game," Eric said through the glass.

"It was Holster’s idea!” said Chowder; Holster held up the sign and waved it triumphantly, causing Eric to roll his eyes. He turned back to the pep talk Coach Frahm was giving them, despite the fact that no one on the team really needed it.

Johnson let one goal by in the third period, but four minutes later Eric headed back to the locker room having scored a hat trick and having earned the first star of the game, and the Madison Club hockey team was ready to celebrate their fifth win of the season. Eric waved at his friends, who had been standing and cheering for the better part of those four minutes, and then disappeared into the locker room, still hearing their voices along the way.

"Boys," said Coach Frahm, "solid game today. The direction on and off the ice was perfect and the focus was there. Next week we're against Athens. If you were here last year you know they're a tough opponent, but we've got the team here to turn that game in our favor. Go have a good rest of your day. Shower up and I'll see you Tuesday. Bittle – let me chat a second."

Coach Frahm sat next to Eric in his cubicle while Eric unlaced his skates and took them off. "You did great today," he said.

"Thank you, Coach."

"You knew just how to direct those boys when I needed to look at the other team. That's important. We haven't had a team captain this year; our last one went off to college and we haven't replaced him yet. You could fit that mold, son."

"Are you serious?" Eric asked.

"Of course! The boys respect you. They listen to you. Even Ollie listens to you and that is incredibly difficult. I put you in charge today and we had our biggest lead of the season. So will you do it?"

"Okay," said Eric. He tried to contain his smile but it just made him blush. Coach Frahm shook his hand before he walked away and the grin broke onto his lips and stayed there through his shower and until he left the locker room to meet his friends outside.

"Bits!" they all shouted, but his mother was ahead of them and gave him a hug.

"Oh, honey, you did so well! Congratulations!"

"Thanks, Mama," said Eric. Coach smiled at him and also said congratulations, but Eric could tell immediately that Coach had no idea what to say. Eric just shook his hand and then headed toward his friends, who greeted him with a combination of slaps, claps, and hugs. Shitty was the worst of all of them and hugged him so tightly that Eric was lifted off the ground and passed over to Ransom, and then Holster, and then eventually put him down when Eric yelled loud enough.

"Dude, you did not tell us you were the best hockey player in the state of Georgia," said Nursey when he held out a fist for Eric to bump.

"That's because that is definitely not true," said Eric as he connected fingers with Nursey.

"That is so true! You got a – what's it called in hockey?"

"A hat trick," said Jack.

"Yeah! A hat trick! And just skating-wise? Half those players could barely stay on their feet and you just spun right by everyone," continued Nursey. "Nobody could touch you."

"That's because it's club hockey," explained Eric. "Literally nobody can touch you."

"Oh," said Nursey with a frown. "Well it's still 'swawesome that you got those goals. Hey, are we going for ice cream or what? I was promised ice cream." Eric looked back at his parents, who nodded at him, and Jack stepped forward.

"You can ride with me," he said. Eric handed over his gear back to Coach and then headed over to Jack's truck, which was the same make and model of Eric's truck, but looked brand new and definitely did not have over a hundred thousand miles on it. Eric put his seat belt on and continued to marvel at how clean Jack's truck was. "You were awesome out there."

"Thanks, Jack," said Eric. "It's just club hockey, though –"

"Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter that it's no contact either. I don't know much about hockey but it's clear you know what you're doing. There's a reason you got three goals." Eric looked out the window and blushed, but Jack chuckled at him. "I'm serious. I get why you like it."

"Yeah, I like it," said Eric. "Um… they made me captain."

"Yeah?" Jack asked, and the way he beamed at Eric made Eric's hands begin to shake. He quickly sat on them to stop it. "When did that happen?"

"Just now. Like right after this game."

"You deserve it. You're by far the best player on that team. On either team, really."

"Thanks, Jack. I'm really glad I joined. I didn't think I would be. I just wanted to be on ice again when we moved here. It was difficult – I was on the ice three or four days a week back in Johns Creek and then we came here and I just wasn't, and I didn't really know what to do with myself."

"Did you play hockey in Johns Creek?"

"No, um," said Eric and he paused, still not looking at Jack before he spoke again, "I did figure skating. That's why we moved out there in the first place, so I could train with a better coach."

"Oh," said Jack. "Yeah, that explains why you're so good at hockey. My mom likes figure skating. That's her thing when the Winter Olympics are on, and she always tries to talk my pop into taking her to a rink but Papa has no business being on skates."

"Yeah, she told me," said Eric.

"Really? When?"

"At the game last week. My Mama mentioned something about me figure skating and she said she liked it. Did she ever take you?" Eric asked. Jack smiled at the memory and Eric felt his heart swell at the sight of it, which he found to be both unexpected and unfortunate. Jack, like everyone else on offense, had learned secondhand of Eric's sexual orientation and thus had been nicer than usual lately, but he was the star quarterback of a football team that could easily win the state championship in December. He was not the type of boy who'd reciprocate these feelings, and Eric really did not want to go through that again.

"When I was little, yeah," Jack explained, and he looked fondly at Eric when he said it. "I think I was four when the Olympics were on? She always had a big ice skating phase when they were on, so I remember her taking me a lot when I was real little. I don't remember them too well but they're really my first memories with her, holding my hand and leading me around the ice. I haven't been on skates in years."

"You should come with me sometime," said Eric. "I'll teach you some tricks."

"Yeah?" asked Jack, one of his eyebrows raised. Eric nodded. "All right. After the season's over. If I fall and bust my ankles Coach would kill me."

"And then me," said Eric with a laugh. "All right. After the season's over." Jack looked back to the road and Eric looked back out the window, his heart beating quickly and his cheeks flushing. Yeah, this was really inconvenient.

 

***

 

On Wednesday, Eric stopped at Kroger on his way home. There had been one comment on his last video about strawberry rhubarb pie, and while both strawberries and rhubarb were pretty much out of season, the thought of it made Eric's mouth water. He found the freshest fruit Madison had to offer and set to work in the kitchen. He'd mounted his phone on the counter so he could capture the chopping and mixing, and was just setting the filling in the fridge when his mother walked in.

"What're you up to?" she asked. He closed the refrigerator and looked over at her; her eyes flickered to the ingredients he'd pulled out, typical of the beginnings of a crust. He could hear her breath hitch. The apples of her cheeks dotted red with emotion. This was not her typical reaction when she found him baking in the kitchen.

"Making a strawberry rhubarb pie. Do you want to help?"

The tears in Suzanne's eyes shone from all the way across the room. She nodded before she headed over to the counter. "Yeah, honey, I do," she said. Eric handed her the dry ingredients for the crust to mix together. "What brought this on?"

"One of my subscribers mentioned it the other day and I haven't been able to get it out of my head. It's not in season so who knows how it'll turn out, but I had to try."

"Okay," she said. Her voice was thick, like she needed to clear her throat or blow her nose.

"You okay, Mama?" he asked. "You sound stuffy. You're not getting sick, are you?" Suzanne shook her head again but otherwise didn't reply. They worked together in silence for a few minutes before Eric realized the occasional sniffing and gasping was not related to sickness, nor was it going to cease without intervention. He stopped, looked at his mother, and saw the tears on her face.

"Mama…" Eric said. He wiped his hands on a towel before he put his arms around her. "What is the matter with you?"

"I haven't seen you bake in the longest time," she said. "You've been all about this hockey lately, and before that you wanted nothing to do with it. I thought I'd lost you – I thought… I thought I'd lost the one thing we could bond over and I'd never get to spend time with you again."

"Mama, no," said Eric, but Suzanne was crying into his neck. "I just couldn't do it for a while. I love baking. I love baking with you more than anything. I will always want to bake with you."

"You've just been gone for so long! I feel like I don't even know you anymore. You have all of these friends who love you so much and I barely know their names. You're so good at this sport that I can't even follow half the time, and you spend your days locked up in your room talking to people who don't even know who you are or where you live. Why can't you just talk to me?"

Eric stared into the kitchen at the reusable grocery bags on the table he hadn't yet put away and thought of all of things he wanted to tell her: how exhilarating it was to be surprisingly good at a sport (a real sport, the kind with teammates and goals); how he had multiple friends who for some reason all liked him and kept wanting to talk to him; how he had fallen in love again with someone who could never love him back; how much he'd beaten himself up over the past four days because he was an idiot; how it was Drew all over again and maybe that was why Eric both couldn't stop thinking about Drew and couldn't ever speak to him again, but he really wasn't sure and he just needed to talk to someone about it.

"I don't know," he replied.

"I'm sorry we had to come here, but we did. We had to come here. We couldn't stay in Johns Creek after what happened."

"I know," he replied.

"It wasn't a punishment but you treat us like we punished you. We did it because we love you. Both your father and I. We love you and we would do anything for you, and if something happens to you we have to do what we can to make it better. We did what we thought was the best way to make it better."

She said all of this into Eric's neck and he found himself growing angrier by the second, having to console his mother as if he were her parent.

"You didn't even ask me what I wanted. I woke up and you were packing boxes already. I didn't even get to say goodbye to the people I loved before we were in the car coming here. I lost my entire life in one afternoon and you didn't even tell me it was happening."

Suzanne let go of him and turned to the dry ingredients that had been thoroughly mixed already. She gripped the edges of the counter and continued to cry, no longer willing to be consoled by him. He waited for her to compose herself and eventually she wiped her eyes and took a breath.

"I'm not saying I'm perfect, Dicky. I'm just saying we did what we thought best. I know you didn't see it that way, and I'm sorry for that." Eric turned to the counter next to her and began to mix her ingredients with his.

"It hasn't been easy. I haven't been easy," said Eric, "but I like it here. It's grown on me."

"Good. I'm glad."

Suzanne placed her hand on his and they looked at each other for just a moment before they both took a breath and continued to make their pie together.

Chapter Text

October 2008

Eric had never been more nervous in his life. He stood outside the Ice Works Skating Club in Pennsylvania with his equipment bag over his shoulder, his parents on one side, Katya and Drew on the other. Suzanne had had her arm around him the entire walk from the car and as they stopped to look at the arena, she began to rub his back in small circles, evidently feeling how intensely he was shaking.

"Oh Lord," Eric said.

Katya had entered him in some smaller competitions in Georgia to prepare him for this event and while he did well, nothing could prepare him for the vast number of other skaters running around, ranging from juveniles already in their costumes to Seniors hoping to make it all the way to the championships to compete with the people whose names Eric had memorized. This was step one of three; place in the top four at Regionals, then place in the top four at Sectionals, and then get the opportunity to go to the National Championship and maybe, if he were lucky, get to actually meet Johnny Weir.

The US Championship was really a pipe dream at this point, Eric reminded himself. He had never competed at this level and was registered with twenty-one other boys. He really just wanted to place anywhere higher than twenty-second.

"Dicky, honey, go stand over there so I can take a picture. Katya, go stand next to him." Eric handed his equipment bag to Drew, who nearly fell over at the weight of it. It took a few minutes to maneuver into a good spot in front of the 2009 SOUTH ATLANTIC REGIONAL FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS sign, then Suzanne took several pictures of Eric and Katya, then just Eric by himself, and finally, at Eric's request, one with Drew as well.

"Why's it say 2009?" Drew asked when he stood next to Eric.

"Because it's the 2009 season," explained Eric.

"Yeah, it's 2008, though," said Drew.

"Drew! Dicky! Put your arms around each other or something," called Suzanne.

"Suzie, they're boys. They don't put their arms around each other," said Coach with an eye roll. Eric stepped closer to Drew and looked up at him; Drew had grown again over the summer and while Eric hadn't remained stagnant at five foot, he definitely was never going to reach Drew's height. Drew was nearly as tall as Coach now and Eric was finally catching up to his mother.

Drew looked down at Eric and smirked at him before putting his arm around Eric's shoulders and pulling him in closer. Eric slid his arm around Drew's waist – which was definitely more muscular than Eric remembered it to be, even over summer – and they both looked back to Suzanne. Coach wasn't looking at either of them any longer but Suzanne had her hand placed over her heart. "Mama?" Eric asked. "You gonna take a picture?"

"You boys," she said, teary-eyed. "You're just getting so big."

"I'm getting big. Eric is the same size," corrected Drew.

"You're both getting bigger. Dicky's nearly as tall as me now. Ugh! I can't handle this!"

"Just take the picture, Mama," said Eric.

Suzanne snapped a few pictures and Eric reluctantly let go of Drew's waist. Drew fluffed his hair and Eric shot him a look. "You know I have to have this lookin' nice for the judges," Eric said.

"Tell the judges they can suck it if your hair is a deduction," said Drew.

"Eric, come on. Say goodbye, you've got to warm up," said Katya. Drew attempted to ruffle Eric's hair again but Eric shoved him out of the way and he laughed before he joined Eric's parents. Eric waved at his parents – his mother ran over and gave him a kiss – and then headed inside with Katya. He changed into his costume first, black pants and a white and silver top cut deep in the chest and tied at the waist with a long sash. Katya fixed his hair and tied the laces of his skates.

"Katya," said Eric, "be real with me. What are my chances?"

"This is your first big competition, Eric," she said, "but you are very good. I would not see you every day if I did not think you were good. You have to prepare yourself for the reality that you may not do well enough to go to Sectionals. There are twenty other boys out there who are also good enough to be here and only four get to move on. If you don't get to go, you can't let that change your motivation to come back next year and do even better."

"Okay," Eric said and he took in a deep breath.

"But if you do get to go, that will be very exciting," said Katya. She finished lacing his skates and Eric stood. Katya walked with him to the edge of the rink where others were warming up. Eric removed his blade guards, handed them to Katya, and then stepped onto the ice. When he did, the bulk of his worry seemed to flow right out of him and nothing else mattered.

There were all levels of skater on the ice practicing for their short programs, but Eric felt confident in his jumps and his spins so when warm ups were over and he had to wait for his turn, there wasn't much he felt he could to do to continue to prepare. He'd drawn a lot right in the middle of the twenty-two Junior boys for his short program and then, the following day, number seven for his free skate.

"That's good," Katya had said. "You get to see what you're up against and we can make any last-minute adjustments if necessary." Eric didn't know what they were going to adjust since his program was planned down to the second, but after the competition began, it was actually helpful to be able to see how the others stacked up against him.

Most of them were very good, but there were a few that fell and a few who Eric could tell, right from their first move, that either their talent or dedication was not in the right place. When his name was called for his short program, he felt extremely confident that he would not place last, but less confident that he would be able to place well enough to make it to Sectionals in November. None of that quite mattered, though, when his music began and he had to focus on every step, every edge, every spin, and every jump.

Eric's first choice in music was Beyoncé but Katya had shut that down immediately – not only were lyrics against the rules, he'd have to pay for the rights to the music and he was entirely too junior in his career to start worrying about that. In the end he selected a classical piece from a mix she'd given him. It wasn’t exciting nor interesting like Beyoncé, but it had obvious themes that Eric could interpret into his step sequence and spins, and several crescendos that were perfect for jumps. On the plus side, Eric had not yet heard this piece used by the other skaters.

He was not as pleased with his jumps as he could have been; his triple lutz was shaky on the landing, which lost him height on his connecting toe loop. He didn't fall and he didn't wobble, so when he'd finished his routine to applause from the audience, he bowed to the judges and the crowd with a smile on his face and returned to Katya.

"You were so good, Eric," she said. She captured him in a hug before she handed him his blade guards. He looked up into the bleachers for his family and saw his mother first. She was crying, which made his eyes well up with tears and he quickly looked at Drew, who waved enthusiastically, and then finally at Coach, who gave him a thumbs-up before he placed his arm around his wife.

Eric's score on his short program was 51.24, which put him in third place and earned another hug from Katya. "That's very good, Eric! Third place!" Eric nodded, staring at his score in shock, and definitely did not look at his mother when left the floor because he knew she was still in tears. Once backstage, Katya unlaced his skates and handed him his tennis shoes, sweatpants, and a hooded sweatshirt to put over his costume.

After the final performance completed, Eric and Katya met up with his family outside the rink and Eric expected an excited, weepy rush from his mother, but as soon as he saw them, Drew ran forward and wrapped his arms around Eric's waist, lifting him bodily off the ground. Eric yelped in surprise and smacked Drew in the chest. "Oh my God, D, put me down!"

"You were so awesome, E!" Drew said but placed Eric back on the ground. "Why didn't you tell me you were that good?"

"You've sat in on practices, Drew; you've seen that routine before."

"Yeah, but you were never that good!"

"Thanks, D," said Eric. Drew laughed and hugged him again before Suzanne swooped in and took over. Eric could hear her sniffles in his ear as she pressed her face into his neck. "Mama, don't cry. You're going to kill me if you start crying."

"I'm so proud of you, honey. Third place!" she said and Eric blinked several times to keep his own tears at bay. "I was such a wreck up there, I swear. I don't think I breathed once during your routine. I don't know how I'm going to make it five minutes during your free skate tomorrow." She let go of him but kept her hand on his back, like she did on the way inside, and they all returned to the car. Eric glanced over at Coach, who looked back and offered a rough smile at him.

"Good job, son," he said.

"Thanks, Coach," said Eric.

"E, your sash is hanging out," said Drew and he tucked Eric's silver and white sash back underneath his hoodie. Coach's eyes followed Drew's hands, his expression unreadable as he watched the silky piece of material disappear underneath a University of Georgia sweatshirt. "I like that you have this thing. It looks really cool when you turn around. Does it whip you when you're spinning?"

"Nah, I'm spinning in the same direction so it's mostly just there," said Eric.

"Makes sense. I like it. Next time you should have two of them so either way you go they're always twirling behind you."

"Yeah, because I'm going to take fashion advice from you. You've been wearing the same glasses for literally your entire life."

"Hey, people dig my glasses," said Drew and he cleaned his lenses on Eric’s sash before he tucked it again into Eric’s sweatshirt. "Just the other day Claire Montague told me she liked them."

"Oh, if Claire Montague likes them they must be cool."

"Damn right."

"ANDREW!" scolded Suzanne.

"Sorry, Mrs. B."

"You better be."

They had dinner at the restaurant at the hotel since Katya wanted Eric to go to bed right away, but when Drew and Eric went back to their room, Eric had absolutely no intention of sleeping. Drew sat down on his bed and began to play on his Nintendo DS, but Eric felt restless.

"Get out yours and we can play together," suggested Drew while Eric changed out of his costume. Eric instead marched back and forth in front of the two beds. "Do literally anything besides pacing in front of the bed. You're creeping me out."

"Sorry, I'm just nervous," said Eric.

"Maybe go to bed like your coach wanted." Eric glared at Drew and Drew shrugged his shoulders. "Just sayin' – she is your coach after all, you might want to listen to her." Eric looked at his bed, which had been made by housekeeping while they were at the arena. It looked extremely uninviting. He looked at Drew's bed; Drew had kicked open the covers when he sat down, so Eric climbed in next to him. Eric curled up to two of Drew's pillows and closed his eyes. He could hear the music and battle noises from Drew's video game, but they eventually drifted away as Eric fell asleep.

"Dude," said Drew what seemed like a moment later. Eric opened his eyes and Drew's face was right next to his; he startled awake and Drew laughed at him. "Wake up. It's time for breakfast."

"What time is it?"

"Almost eight," said Drew. "You slept for twelve hours. And you were snoring. When did you start snoring?"

"I don't know," said Eric. "It's not like I can hear it."

"True. Come on, your mom just texted you. They're waiting downstairs."

There was little to do that morning apart from breakfast and warm ups. Suzanne hugged him one more time before they split, and Eric felt the nerves return in the pit of his stomach. After Eric removed his sweats, Katya helped him back into his skates and they returned to the ice for the second warm up.

It was hard to tell if he was just groggy from sleeping longer than usual or fatigued from the trip in general, but the warm ups for his free skate felt rougher than for the short program. He landed a few jumps on the wrong edges, under rotated and then over rotated, but he never fell and never had to put a hand down. It was enough to concern him and before the warm up time was over he had to skate to the boards and speak to Katya.

"What am I doing?" Eric asked.

"You're nervous," said Katya. She placed her hands on his shoulders and looked directly into his eyes. He stared back at her and took a deep breath as she did, but could still feel a knot of nerves in the pit of his stomach. "Again." They breathed again and she patted his cheeks. "You've done this a hundred times, Eric. You know what the moves are, you know what edges to take off and land on. Just feel it. Work on the combo a few more times but don't overdo it. Just loosen yourself up and come off when you're ready."

He nodded, took a final breath with her, and then skated back to the ice. His triple toe double toe combo felt better this time, but he could feel his skates slipping while he spun, causing him to travel out of his preferred distance by the time he'd finished the sequence. It was too much to think on so he just left the ice and sat with Katya, purposefully not looking into the stands for his parents and Drew. Any of their faces would just cause additional anxiety and just the thought of them was already starting to twist his insides.

When his name was called for his free skate, Katya gripped his shoulder and leaned in, "Just breathe and just feel it, Eric. You've got this." Eric nodded but still felt incredibly nervous when he skated onto the ice. He took two laps, headed back to Katya, who smiled and patted his cheek, then took position at the center of the rink and waited for his song to begin.

It felt wrong from the beginning. He was on pace with the music but each step felt forced, each swing of his arm or lift of his leg was less fluid than it should have been. He could feel the choppiness in each transition, could feel his spins skew to the left, could feel the lack of height in his jumps. He never fell, never wobbled, but the emotion he wanted to express wasn't there in every single element of his routine. Five minutes had never felt so long, and when he came out of his final spin and raised his hands above his head at the end of his music, he was not at all satisfied.

Katya hugged him when he left the ice before she handed him his blade guards. "You did good, Eric," she said. "You should be proud."

"That just didn't feel right," Eric said.

"Doesn't matter. You should be proud."

It was hard to feel proud an hour later when the last skater performed and Eric saw his name at number five on the results board. Katya was beside herself with joy but the disappointment was clear – the four names above him each had a Q in their last column, and his was the first without it. He walked into the bathroom and changed back into his street clothes while Katya was still trying to talk to him, then hoisted his gear bag over his head and stuffed his hands in the pocket of his sweatshirt as he headed out of the rink to meet his family.

His mother kissed him several times on both of his cheeks, gushing over and over at how well he had done. Coach had his usual, awkward smile on his face and congratulated him on a good performance. Drew was the only one who seemed to understand that Eric wasn't happy, so he fell into step with Eric and let him brood without a single word. Suzanne said they could order room service if they wanted, so they ate pizza in silence and fell asleep in the same bed again, facing each other and letting the day end in peace.

Chapter Text

October 2011

It was ungodly early on a Sunday morning when Eric was awoken suddenly by his phone rattling loudly against the table lamp. He opened one eye, looked at the time, and groaned, but the curiosity of who'd texted him at this hour won out over the fact that someone had actually texted him.

     Jack
     You up?

Eric's heart fluttered in his chest.

     Eric
     Now I am

     Jack
     Oh. Sorry.

     Jack
     Go back to sleep.

     Eric
     No it's fine

     Eric
     What's up

     Jack
     Do you want to go for a run?

If it had been literally any other person in the world asking this question, the answer would have been an enthusiastic "No!" It was seven o'clock and barely even dawn, but Eric sat up in his bed and typed a reply.

     Eric
     Sure be there in twenty

After he sent it he immediately regretted time-boxing himself like that; if he were intelligent he would have allotted himself longer to get ready, but instead he slipped on his running shoes, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and was in his truck in five minutes. He refused to look at himself in the mirrors, knowing that if he saw himself that close he would regret this decision altogether. They were going for a run and no amount of preparation would negate the fact that afterward Eric would look a hot mess and Jack would see all of it.

It was actually closer to a half hour before Eric pulled into Jack's driveway. Jack was outside waiting for him, wearing a pair of running shorts, a black t-shirt, and the brightest pair of yellow running shoes Eric had ever seen. Eric left his keys in his car with the window down and approached Jack.

"Hey," Jack said as he stood from his spot on the front steps.

"Hey. Where we running?"

"There's a trail that goes to the lake and back. It's about three miles altogether. That okay?"

Eric nodded.

"Sure."

They started down the driveway and Jack led the way to the trail at the end of the street. "Does your coach make your team run?" Eric shook his head.

"No. It's just a club. They'll take anyone who wants to join since it's hard to get people interested in an ice sport down here where it's hot all the time. Everyone wants to play soccer or football – no offense." Jack just shrugged. "We practice twice a week and do on-ice drills, but there's no weight training or running or anything on off days. I know he'd say he wants us to keep in shape but he's not going to require someone to run every day when it's a volunteer no-contact sport. So go easy on me. Katya – my figure skating coach – used to have me run five miles a day but I haven't really done that since March."

"Don't pass out on me," said Jack. "Tell me if I'm going too fast."

"We'll see," said Eric.

The sun was rising over the lake when they reached it, about a mile into the run. Eric was keeping up fine but he could definitely feel the burn in his legs earlier than he normally would had he been doing this more often. He wondered if Jack would have gone faster had Eric not been with him, but he didn't linger on those thoughts too long as they looked at the yellows and reds the sunrise cast upon the clear blue of the water.

"How often do you run this trail?" Eric asked. Jack looked at him from his gaze on the water; Jack’s face was an expression of awe-inspiring wonder.

"Almost every day," said Jack. He looked back at the lake. "Gahlee, it never gets old."

They continued their run along the side of the lake, silent apart from the rhythmic padding of their feet on the boardwalk and the methodic huffing of their breath. Eric sneaked frequent glances across Jack toward the lake, fixating on the pale light between the clouds, a soft sort of shade that should have been the color of Jack's shoes. Eric glanced down at Jack's feet and couldn’t hold back his chuckle, which caused Jack to look back over at him and ask, "What?"

"Your shoes," said Eric. "They're hideous."

"Thanks, Bittle," said Jack, but when he looked back toward the lake, Eric could see the grin on his lips.

At the mark of the second mile, the trail curved back into the forest. The change of scenery also changed Eric's comfort level with the silence that rested between them, so he quickly thought of something to say: "Do you really think Mr. Fernandez is going to give us an essay quiz this week? Because I have zero ability to write essays without prep."

"I think it'll be fine," said Jack. "If it's on anything it'll be on immigration policies since that's what we've been talking about for the past few weeks."

"Fuck, I don't know anything about immigration policies," said Eric. He held a stitch in his side but still kept in step with Jack. "Why am I taking AP History? I should just be taking Dual Enrollment History like all the other kids staying in Georgia. Something that for sure count toward college credit."

"You going to Georgia?" Jack asked.

"Assuming I can get in. It's not a big assumption; Coach went there and has fed them several football players over the past fifteen years. If I don't get in he'll probably raise hell."

"Must be nice," Jack said, "to have your mind made up like that."

"Well don't you know where you're going? Or are you still thinking about it?"

"I'm not sure," said Jack and Eric picked up on his change in breathing patterns immediately. Jack slowed his pace just a hair and Eric slowed too, pretending that he didn't notice they weren't running as fast. "There's a lot to think about still."

"Okay," said Eric. "I mean you don't have to decide right away. Did you get all your applications in?"

Jack nodded and continued to look forward, but Eric could see his chest expanding irregularly, his fists balled tightly. He wasn't running in a straight line any longer, veering so far right and left that he nearly ran into Eric and then nearly ran off the trail. "Jack?" Eric asked carefully. "You okay?"

Jack stopped altogether and Eric did too. Eric looked down the trail but had no idea where they were or if they were anywhere near Jack's house. It felt like three miles, but then again it had been a long time since Eric had run this distance. Jack put his hands on his hips and took deep breaths, trying to steady himself, but the action was more superficial than beneficial, his chest expanding too rapidly, and finally Jack sat down on a rock and put his head between his knees. Eric looked down the trail, his own heart beating fast; he knew the signs of a panic attack all too well, but he’d never had to guide someone else through one.

"Are we nearly back? Should I run and get your parents?"

"No," said Jack and he shook his head. "Just give me a minute."

Eric waited, struggling to hide his own panic. He was completely unsure of what to do. He couldn't see Jack's face and that was probably intentional, but he could still see Jack struggling to breathe. When it didn't get better, Eric stepped forward and placed a shaky hand on Jack's back.

"Slow down," Eric said. "You're going too fast." Eric crouched next to him and took in a slow, deep breath. Jack followed his pace four times before he finally looked up; his eyes were red and wet.

"Sorry," Jack said.

"No, it's okay," replied Eric, forcing a smile onto his face. Jack’s face was pale and stricken, but the worst of it seemed to be over. Eric didn’t have to worry about leaving Jack alone in the forest while he sought help. "You ready to go back?" Eric asked. Jack nodded and Eric kept his hand on Jack's back as they stood.

"We're almost there," said Jack. They walked the rest of the way. Eric was thankful for this, both for Jack's sake and for the sake of the lactic acid built up in his legs. He was going to be sore for sure; three miles was a lot to tackle at once after being idle for so long.

The trail let out on the opposite side of the road where it started, so they jogged the rest of the way down the street and up the driveway. Eric thought about leaving it there; he could say goodbye to Jack and drive home, leave Jack to deal with whatever had just happened in the forest, but when he looked at Jack, Jack's hands were still shaking. Eric followed him inside the house instead.

Jack led him into the kitchen ( Lord, this kitchen, Eric thought) and took two bottles of water out of the refrigerator. He handed one to Eric, who took a long sip of it, his eyes following Jack while Jack looked for something in one of the cabinets. He pulled out an orange prescription bottle, looked at it, and then dumped two pills into his hand.

"So what just happened back there?" Eric asked. He sat down on a bar stool, the granite countertop of the center island separating Jack and Eric.

Jack swallowed the pills with a lot of water before he turned around.

"It's just… I have a lot of anxiety," Jack explained. "They gave me this to calm down and sometimes it works and sometimes, mais , maybe it doesn't." Jack set the bottle on the island and slid it across the counter to Eric. It read Xanax 1 mg. Take one pill as needed for anxiety.

"Is it about football stuff?" Eric asked.

"Mostly. That's almost all I think about now. There's just so much going on and it doesn't always make sense to me."

"But you want to go to Bama, right? Coach says it's pretty much a done deal."

"Nothing's a done deal until Signing Day, and that's not until February. Anything can happen between now and then. I could get sacked bad and tear my ACL. I could sleep through finals and not be able to graduate. I could –" Jack took a deep breath and let out again; it was much more productive than his attempts while on the trail in the forest. "It's just not official yet. It's really stressful."

"But it's worth it, right? This is what you wanted. You wanted to go to Bama and they offered you a scholarship. You just have to wait for the paperwork."

"Yeah. It's what I wanted. I don't think I've ever wanted anything else."

"Listen, Jack, it's going to be fine.  You're going to finish the season and win state and you know why?" Jack raised his eyebrows. "Because Coach is going to win state. He's got the feeling. It's going to happen. So after you win state and we celebrate, you and I will not sleep through finals, and in February you are going to sign with Bama and you'll do great. Simple as that."

Jack's mouth tilted upward into a smile. Eric couldn't help it as it caught onto his own lips, and within moments they were beaming at each other.

"See? Easy peasy," said Eric.

"Easy peasy," said Jack.

 

***

 

When Eric pulled his truck into the driveway he could see the garage door was open. Coach was inside, sweating despite the fans swirling air through the room and out the open doors and windows. Coach wore a mask over his nose and mouth while he evenly applied varnish to the exterior of the eighteen-foot canoe that had occupied the entirety of this space since the summer. Eric watched from the inside of his truck, just for a minute, because Coach hadn't noticed him yet. He worked meticulously, applying the stain in slow, even strokes along the side of the cedar planks, not giving any of his attention to the television propped up in the corner of the room, two ex-football players talking to each other across a desk in increasingly louder voices.

He had seen Coach work on this final part of a build before. It was usually a tedious chore and took a series of days to complete, but Coach had never given so much intricate attention to such a task. Eric remembered, after staring the length of one plank, that Coach had no customer in mind for this particular boat, and that this attention was because this canoe belonged to the family. This was the boat that would stay with them because the family, despite being rushed into the decision to settle into the house, was here for the long haul. This wasn't the home of Eric's childhood, nor was it where he grew up, but this was Eric's home, and this home deserved a boat.

Eric also realized while he sat in his still-running truck that if this were indeed his home and his boat, he needed to help Coach finish it. He shut off the engine and hopped down to the driveway.

"Hey Coach," said Eric.

Coach looked up, a paintbrush in one hand, the can of varnish in the other. He looked surprised to see Eric there, and looked at the truck, apparently just now realizing that it hadn't been sitting in its space in the driveway the whole morning.

"Hey son," he said. "Where ya been? Did you have practice this morning already?"

"No," said Eric. "Jack asked me to go running with him."

"Did he now? You and him seem to be getting along pretty well."

"Yeah, they're all good people. I didn't really expect them to be."

"I told you, son, this is a good group. Talented as all get out and not as – I don't know how to put it – not as footbally as the other teams I've had. Dedicated for sure to the sport, but much more relaxed about everything else." Eric nodded and looked to the boat.

"You're just about done here," Eric said.

"Yep, just gotta get the varnish on, put the seats in. Finishing touches."

"Can I help?"

Eric expected him to say no based on the intensity with which he had been working, but Coach handed Eric a mask, a brush, and the second can of varnish. "Why don't you put on the first coat on that side? Go slow – thin and even layers. If you get light-headed put the can down and walk outside for a bit. Don't need another Uncle Jeffrey today."

Eric laughed before he put the mask over his face and slowly stirred the varnish with a wooden stick. He dipped his brush into it and applied a thin layer, working on small areas with his brush barely coated, making frequent returns to the can. He and Coach sat in silence while they each worked on their sides.

They were about ten feet in when Eric spoke again.

"I don't think I told you. Coach Frahm made me captain."

Coach lay his brush on the table, lowered his mask, and looked up. "Yeah? That's great news, Junior! You deserve it after that game you had last week."

"It wasn't just last week, though. He moved me to center back over the summer and asked me to run drills at practices a few times since school started. I think he's been thinking about it for a while."

"You clearly showed him something he needed to see. I'm guessing that means you're gonna stick with it. The hockey, that is. Your Mama wasn't quite sure."

"I love hockey, Coach."

"You know who has a good hockey program?"

"Georgia?" Eric asked.

"Georgia. It's a little early for you, being October and with you being a junior, but I can talk to my scouting guy. See if he knows who runs the program for hockey. If you're serious about it."

"But I just play club hockey. It's no contact. Isn't Georgia NCAA?"

"Doesn't hurt to have a conversation," said Coach.

"Yeah. Maybe."

"If you can get a scholarship, maybe we can afford a real car for when you graduate. Or maybe an apartment. Not saying I don't want you in my old dorm, but I know you’d want a place with a kitchen."

"Can I think about it?" asked Eric. "Before you talk to someone?"

"Yeah, yeah, of course."

"Coach," said Eric, and he put his brush down too. "Let me think about it. Don't push me into something because that's what you think I want." Coach opened his mouth and Eric could see the objection before it was even vocalized. "No, you always do this. Hockey is my thing. If I want to play hockey in college, I'll play hockey in college, but I wasn't thinking about that before and I don't want to think about that now. Let me just have something that I enjoy without getting in the way of it because it's a sport and you know a guy."

"I'm just trying to help you out."

"I don't need you to help me out."

Coach picked up his brush. "Okay, son," he said. "I won't ask until you do."

"Thank you."

They returned to their staining, both silent. It took until lunch to finish the first coat. They were just cleaning their brushes in the utility sink when Suzanne opened the door and called them inside.

"I'm going to wait until next Sunday to do the second coat," said Coach. "If you were thinking about helping me out again. We can watch the game together." Eric nodded.

"Yeah. And then when it's done we can take it on the lake? You and me?"

"Of course! Might have to wait until after the season's over."

"Yeah, that's fine."

"I'm looking forward to it, son."

"Me too," said Eric. Coach ruffled his hair and Eric remembered how incredibly disgusting he was after not showering that morning and then running three miles with Jack. Coach didn't seem to mind. After they sat down at the kitchen table, Suzanne served them all sandwiches and fruit salad, and the three of them ate lunch together in a peaceful sort of quiet that the house rarely felt.

Chapter Text

August 2009

Eric and Drew began their freshman year at Chattahoochee High School in August, and within minutes on their first day both of them felt overwhelmed with the vast size of the school. Taylors Road Middle School was bigger than Abbotts Hill, and it took some getting used to, but when Eric and Drew walked into the hallway of Hooch, there was no saving the sensory overload.

"This is ridiculous," said Eric. "How are we supposed to make it from one class to another in ten minutes?"

"I think I need to bring my bike inside," said Drew.

"Holy crap," said Eric.

Navigation did not get easier as the week went on, and Eric found himself frequently dashing through the hallway to get to his next class before the bell rang, Drew just as often on his tail since the two of them were able to get most of their schedules to align. Eric had never been so happy to see the weekend, but when he awoke on Sunday morning he remembered it was the day of Coach's annual barbeque, and the feeling of foreboding entered his chest once again.

He quickly picked up his phone and texted Drew.

     Eric
     Dreaded BBQ is tonight

     Eric
     Can you come over and hide with me again

     Drew
     Sorry dude grandma’s over this weekend

Eric stared at his phone and cursed under his breath; Drew had been complaining about it at lunch on Friday and Eric had not been paying attention.

     Eric
     Blow it off

     Eric
     Need rescuing

     Drew
     Wish I could grandma is the worst

     Drew
     She snores louder than you

     Drew
     And you snore like a freight train

     Eric
     I DO NOT

     Drew
     You do.

     Drew
     Get you on your back and people ask if we turned our house into grand central station

     Drew
     "Nope, that's just Eric again."

     Eric
     Shut up it's not that bad

     Drew
     I have literally told you “shut up, your snoring is so bad”

     Drew
     It's no use you’re dead to the world

     Eric
     I could always just stop sleeping over

     Drew
     Yeah okay

     Drew
     Be careful tonight

     Drew
     Seriously

     Eric
     I will

It didn't matter if Eric tried to be careful, because as soon as he set the last pie on the dessert table he looked up to see Clayton Collado standing in front of him. Clayton had grown several inches and considerably more facial hair in the past two years, and currently stood as tall as his brother had. Eric had resigned himself to the fact that five foot six was probably the tallest he would ever get, but Clayton was over six feet tall and looked more menacing now than he ever did that one year they overlapped at Taylors Road.

"Dicky Bittle," Clayton said. Eric dropped the pie with a rattle on top of the plastic folding table. "Oh, you made pie again! Look at you, Mama's little helper. So cute with your apron on too."

Eric looked down and realized he hadn't taken off his white apron; it had a few smudges of filling and flour on it, but had no embarrassing designs or kitschy phrases like the others hanging off a hook in the broom closet.

"I don't think you know my friends here," said Clayton. "This is Marcus and this is Jordan – say hi to the Coach's son, boys. I think he's a freshman now."

"You're a freshman?" either Marcus or Jordan asked; Clayton hadn't identified who was who and Eric both did not want to ask and did not want to know. "You look like you should be in elementary school still." Eric didn't reply and didn't make eye contact. He wanted to go back inside and hide in his room until everyone left.

"Dicky made these pies," said Clayton. "Spent all day making them with his mama, I'm sure. What else were you doing today? Practicing for your skating competition?"

"How did you –"

"Coach talks all about your skating competitions," said Clayton, gesturing vaguely towards the grill where Coach was flipping burgers. "Told us how you spin and flip and dance – God, if ever they made a faggot, you are it." Marcus and Jordan both laughed. "Where's your boyfriend? With the glasses? He was here last time I was, right?"

Eric still didn't reply.

"Aw, I guess you two broke up. It's hard out there. I get it. Well, listen, Dicky, I don't know what you expected tonight, but none of us are going to bend over for you, okay? That's not how we do at Hooch." Clayton violently stuffed his thumb into one of the cherry pies, and then stuffed his finger in his mouth and began to lick off the red filling. "See you Monday."

Eric waited until the three of them were sitting at a table before he pivoted on a heel and headed back inside, his entire body shaking. Suzanne said something to him, he wasn't sure what, but he ran up the stairs and quietly closed the door behind him. He sank to the floor and sat there until the sun set and it was too dark to see.

 

***

 

It was close to ten o'clock when Eric heard his parents' voices drift up the stairs. He didn't expect to fall asleep, but he had, and when he awoke he realized he never ate dinner. Hungry, he opened the door and walked down the stairs to the kitchen, hoping for something good in terms of leftovers, when he realized that his parents were fighting.

"You need to have a talk with them immediately," Suzanne was saying. Eric turned, not wanting to eavesdrop on a rare argument between his parents, when Coach spoke again:

"What am I supposed to say to them? They're high school boys. They're going to pick on kids who aren't like them."

Eric wanted to believe this wasn't about him, but he knew better. He stood silently just outside the doorway to the kitchen, watching the shadows of his parents on the white living room carpet.

"High school boys pick on other boys, yes, but that other boy is your son. Did you hear what they said to him?"

"No, I didn't. It doesn't matter. Junior's a different kid and they don't know how to act around someone like that."

"Like what, Rick?" Suzanne asked, and Eric could feel the coldness of her tone.

"Like – like a boy who likes baking with his mother and ice dancing. It's not like he's exactly helping the situation, Suzie. They wouldn't pick on him if he acted more like a man and less like a – I mean you saw the costume he picked out for his competition, right? It's pink."

"It's supposed to be pink. His music for the short program is the Pink Panther. What did you want him to wear? Football pads and cleats? He's a figure skater."

"Maybe he shouldn't be a figure skater!"

"He should do whatever he wants to do!"

"Then he's going to have to deal with the consequences of doing whatever he wants to do instead of what he should do. He's the son of the football coach and he doesn't even play sports. That means my boys are going to pick on him."

"And you're okay with that?" Suzanne asked. "Even if he doesn't play sports, he's still the son you got."

"Well he's not the son I wanted."

Eric felt the gasp surge in his throat and clasped both hands over his mouth to hold it inside, but it didn't matter. It came out through his hands in a loud sob, which cast an eerie silence in the kitchen. Suzanne was the first to move and stepped through the doorway and into the hall. She took one look at Eric, at the tears on his face and the hands over his mouth, and grimaced.

"Dicky… Honey…"

Eric bolted. He ran up the stairs and into his room, both his parents following close behind. He slammed the door behind him and cried for the second time that night, burying his face in the dusty fabric of his apron. His mother knocked fervently on the door but he ignored her as she pled with him to let her inside. It went on for several minutes, her attempts growing desperate and then, finally, defeated. She didn't knock again, but before she left he heard her speak once more:

"You need to apologize to him. Right now."

He didn't want to hear it. He ignored Coach's knocks just like he did his mother's, and waited until Coach also gave up on him.

 

***

 

The next morning, Eric didn't wait for his mother to knock on the door and say, "Dicky, honey, time to get up!" He hopped out of bed as soon as his alarm sounded, took a shower, and was out of the house without seeing either parent. When he arrived at Drew's house it was too early to leave for school, so he dropped his bike in the grass and entered through the front door.

"Eric? Is that you?" called Mrs. Lester from the kitchen.

Eric entered the kitchen; Mr. Lester was just gathering his briefcase and keys, Mrs. Lester was sipping coffee at the counter with her robe still on, and Amy and Drew were eating cereal at the kitchen table. Mrs. Lester looked at the time.

"You're a bit early, aren't you? I had to drag Drew out of bed this morning and here you are, right as rain. Maybe you should be my son."

Eric blinked back tears; it would be wonderful to be Mr. and Mrs. Lester's son. Amy adored him, he could spend every night with Drew, and neither parent was really present enough to care whether or not he was a figure skater or a football player. He'd have to settle for more frozen mozzarella sticks and cereal than he really wanted, but he could balance that out by making his favorite meals himself. They'd let him do it, since neither of them really liked to cook but always appreciated a good meal, and they had enough money that six practices a week with Katya would not be a sacrifice.

Mrs. Lester put down her coffee and placed her arms around Eric, one hand in his hair, the other on the small of his back, pulling him close to her. She was taller than his mother, so his face fit in the crook of her neck when he put his arms around her waist to return her hug. "It's okay, sweetie," she whispered and he didn't want to start crying again, but she gently ran her fingers through his hair. He felt very safe there and she didn't make any attempt to let go, softly whispering to him. "Do you want to talk about it?"

He shook his head the best he could when it was buried in the fabric of her pink robe, and she simply said, "All right," and continued to hold him. By the time Eric was ready to let go, Mr. Lester had already left for work.

"Can I have some cereal?" Eric asked as he wiped his eyes.

"Yeah, of course."

Mrs. Lester poured him a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice. He sat down next to Drew, who punched him in the arm. "Thanks, Drew," said Eric.

"You're welcome, E."

They finished breakfast and then left for school. Once out of the house and down the street, Drew looked over at Eric.

"You gonna tell me what that was all about?"

"Later," said Eric. "I still need to think about it for a while. I'll come by after Katya tonight." Drew nodded and they rode the rest of the way to Hooch in silence. They sat next to each other in homeroom and while the morning announcements played, Eric noticed Coach pass the door, peering in through the window to ensure Eric was there. Eric stiffened in his seat and Drew looked over, but didn't say anything.

He found it hard to focus in class that morning, but that was not necessarily out of the ordinary. They had their first high school pop quiz in English class. Eric expected at least a warning for when they'd be quizzed on summer reading, but he walked into class and was handed a scantron and a test. He hadn't read any the required books, but he'd seen the movies made from the books, and he hoped that was enough to help him pass.

After lunch he parted with Drew for the first time that day; Drew had painting and Eric knew better than to take art if he could avoid it, so he signed up for a graphic design course to fill his requirement. So far it was mostly learning Photoshop and editing images, but his teacher mentioned something about video editing later in the semester, which sounded much more interesting. Drew's class was in the art wing located on the first floor (their school had wings dedicated to the different departments, which was entirely too fancy and confusing, since none of the wings were actually labeled as such), and Eric's class was in the computer lab on the second floor.

Eric dropped off his books in his locker and closed it only to reveal Clayton, Marcus, and Jordan on the other side, each snidely grinning at him. Eric groaned, which caused Clayton to raise his eyebrows. "Can you please not do this today?" Eric asked. "I have had the worst day and I just don't want to deal with you right now."

"Well I came all the way over here to talk to you, Dicky," said Clayton, "and this is how you repay me. So rude."

Eric attempted to walk by but Clayton grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him violently back against the lockers. Eric winced as the left side of his body came into loud contact with the metal door. "I'm serious. I came all the way over here to talk to you. What the fuck are you doing?"

"I just want to go to class. You're going to make me late."

"Then you're going to be late. What did you say to your pops after we left the barbeque?" Clayton asked.

"I didn't say anything. Can I –"

"No," said Clayton and he shoved Eric back into the locker when Eric attempted to retreat, hoping to escape the other way. Marcus stepped behind him so that there wasn't anywhere to go. "Coach called me into his office and said I needed to be nicer to you. That if I'm a bully he might have to reconsider if I start in our first game on Friday. What did you say to him?"

"I didn't say anything!"

The second bell rang and Eric was officially late for class. The hallway was clear now and Clayton showed no sign of letting him go. Eric looked around but Clayton shoved him again and he yelped as pain shot up his arm and into his neck. "Shut up," said Clayton. "And shut up about this. You don't tell your father anything about me. I've done nothing to you." Eric opened his mouth again and Clayton looked at Marcus, who took a hand the size of Eric's face and placed it over Eric's mouth. Eric yelled into it but his voice was nothing but a pathetic muffle. Clayton looked around and then nodded toward the janitor’s closet in between the bathrooms at the end of the hall. "Put him in the closet."

Eric yelled again but it was useless; Marcus had a firm hand on his face and despite Eric's kicking and squirming, easily picked him up by the waist and carried him toward the closet, Jordan providing the block in front of any classroom windows they passed. Clayton opened the closet door and Marcus threw him inside. He landed roughly on top of the cleaning supplies, scratching his hands on the metal shelving as he attempted to soften his fall. He turned around carefully, already feeling the pain in his arms and chest from where he'd landed, and Clayton looked over him.

"You stay in here and think about who you are and what you've done. You don't talk about this. You don't tell Coach. I did nothing to you. If you say I did, this is what happens."

To reinforce his point, Clayton pulled back his fist and swung it into Eric's face. Eric closed his eyes before the impact, which only let him feel every second of it – the pain of Clayton's knuckles against his nose, the swing of his head back against the wall, the collision of his scalp and the cement. When he opened his eyes again he could barely see, but the three of them were gone and the door clicked shut, which turned off the lights. The darkness was absolute.

Eric pulled his phone out of his pocket and turned on the flashlight; the room slowly came back into focus when the tears fell out of his eyes. He wiped at his face only to see blood on his hand. He turned his phone around to take a picture of himself and then saw his nose bleeding. There was a roll of paper towels on the shelf, so he tore off a section and pressed it against his nostrils, then slowly stood up. The pain wasn't too bad, more in his wrists and the shoulder that had been shoved repeatedly into the lockers. He gingerly touched his nose, and while it hurt, it didn't feel broken when he moved it.

After he located the door handle, he put his phone back into his pocket. He tried to turn it and push, but the door was locked. He turned his phone back toward the door but there was no manual lock; a key was required from inside as well. He tried again, pushed harder with his uninjured shoulder, but the door refused to budge.

"No," he said. He dropped his phone and the tissue from his nose and pushed hard on the door, but nothing happened. "No, no, no, no." He pounded on the solid door with both of his fists, screaming, but after several minutes it was clear no one was coming to his rescue. He sat on the floor and picked up his phone again.

     Eric
     Drew I'm locked in the utility closet on the second floor

     Eric
     The one between the bathrooms

     Eric
     Please come get me

He waited; Drew was in class so he would feel his phone vibrate but wouldn't be able to check his texts, so Eric was stuck in the closet for at least forty-five minutes. He put his phone away; the darkness was better because he couldn't see just how small the room was, so he sat and waited and tried his hardest not to cry. His nose was still bleeding but he'd dropped the paper towel somewhere he couldn't feel, and he didn't want to see the room again.

The bell rang a long time later. Eric closed his eyes and waited for Drew to find him. He could hear people moving and talking and laughing just outside the door but he didn't want to be found by just anyone. If a teacher found him they'd for sure ask questions, especially if his nose was still bleeding, and he risked the chance of Clayton or Marcus or Jordan finding him again too. He waited on Drew but the bell rang again, the hallways quieted, the doors closed, and he was still alone.

It happened again; the bell rang, the hallways erupted with the sound of students, but Drew still didn't come. He didn't want to take out his phone. The room felt smaller and smaller by the minute and he didn't want to know how small it actually was. He hugged his knees tightly to his chest. It hurt his chest to grip his legs so tightly, but he couldn't feel anything apart from his body and the wall and floor, so there was no room to spread himself out further.

Eric was just beginning to wonder if he'd be there the whole night, and was trying very hard not to think about what would happen when he had to go to the bathroom, when the door opened and light poured in. He looked up; Drew stared down at him in horror.

"E, I'm so sorry. I didn't think to check my phone until you didn't show up in Spanish – I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. What happened? What happened to your nose? There's blood everywhere!"

"Just let me out of here," said Eric, and Drew held open the door for him. Eric stood and the pain caught up with him; his chest hurt, but his shoulder hurt worse. He grimaced and held onto it, and Drew carefully helped him out of the closet. Drew walked with him into the bathroom and sat him on the counter to begin to clean him up. Eric saw his face for the first time and winced; the blood was smeared across his cheek, up toward his left eye, then crusted in scarlet rivulets from each nostril, down his chin, neck, and onto his shirt. His nose didn't hurt as much anymore, but the blood explained Drew's paleness.

Drew cranked three feet of paper towels from the dispenser, and wet half of it in the sink. He carefully began to wipe away the blood, beginning with underneath the collar of Eric's t-shirt, working up his neck, and gingerly prodding Eric's face. "It doesn't hurt anymore," said Eric. "It's okay."

"There's just so much – I can't tell what's hurt and what isn't."

"It's all from my nose."

"Gross," said Drew, but he rotated the paper towel to a clean section before he continued around Eric's mouth and onto his cheek. Eric stared at him while he did; he rarely had an opportunity to look this openly at Drew, especially not from this close. Drew almost always noticed him looking, and said something or made a face to stop it. If one of them were to stay over, they usually fell asleep and awoke at the same time, and the one occasion Eric had to look at Drew in the morning sunlight before waking, Drew opened his eyes and jumped at how close Eric's face was to his. It had been difficult to come up with an excuse apart from I think I might love you , so Eric said Drew had a giant booger in his nose and Drew ran to the bathroom to scope out the situation.

Drew's glasses slid down his long nose, as they frequently did, and before Drew turned the paper towel again he patiently pushed them back up with his index finger. The black frames, which previously covered the blue in Drew's eyes, now surrounded them perfectly. His eyes were crystal clear, the color of the sky, and always opened wide enough to see the whole circle. The blue was lined in black both inside and out, with just a few flecks in the left eye that made them that much more interesting. Eric liked to focus on Drew's eyes, but for the first months of their friendship he always just saw the glasses and never what was underneath, which was a shame, since what was underneath was Eric's favorite part of him.

"There," said Drew. "You look fairly normal now. I mean, as normal as you can be while still looking like you."

"Thank you, Drew."

Drew threw the paper towel at the garbage and missed. He left the bloody wad on the floor.

"You've had kind of a shitty day, huh?" Eric nodded with a mirthless laugh. "Let's skip and just go back to my house. My mom's working tonight so there's nobody home. Maybe you'll talk to me when we get there?" Eric nodded.

"Yeah. When we get home."

Drew helped him off the counter. "Can you ride your bike? You're not moving so well."

"Yeah, it's just my chest and my shoulder. I don't want to have to walk the whole way," said Eric. Drew nodded and they headed down the back stairs together.

Chapter Text

November 2011

In November Eric was not thinking about finals at all, but with the end of the regular football season approaching rapidly, Jack seemed to think that neither of them had studied enough to prepare for Mr. Fernandez's epically long final exams.

"You don't get it," said Jack when they walked to Building B after their AP History class, the morning of Samwell's penultimate football game. The Wellies had won seven of their eight games with two competitive but beatable opponents left, and yet Jack seemed more worried about a final that was still over a month away. "It's like sitting the AP exam. But in December. Before we're ready. Definitely before you're ready."

"Yeah, Jack, but it's not even Thanksgiving yet. It's not even cold!!"

"Weren't you just complaining how cold it was out here?" Jack asked, eyeing up Eric's blue hooded sweatshirt, which was zipped all the way to his chin. "I'm just saying, finals seem closer now that we're literally seven days from the end of the regular season. I'll be okay. You, on the other hand –"

"Why're you being so mean to me?" Eric asked, frowning.

"I'm sorry! I'm not trying to be mean!" replied Jack quickly. "I'm just saying maybe we should study together."

"Oh," said Eric, and he couldn't say anything else with his stomach in his throat. He swallowed hard while Jack looked at him expectantly, both of them stopped just ten feet from the entrance to Building B. Despite what he'd said, Eric was indeed freezing but he couldn't say anything about it without getting another comment from Jack. "When?"

"Sunday?" Jack suggested, his eyebrows up. "You usually have Sundays off, right? You play games on Saturday?" Eric nodded. "Do y'all go to church in the morning or anything?"

"No, but if you asked my mother that she'd say we go to church every Sunday and we are avid parishioners. But I honestly couldn't tell you the last time we've been to church."

"Okay, great. I'll come by at ten on Sunday?" Eric nodded again and they finally entered the building. It was much warmer inside but Eric didn't relax until Jack was out of sight. He lowered his shoulders and stared at nothing as he continued down the hall to chemistry, still confused by the conversation they'd just had.

Eric was up very early on Sunday in order to have a pumpkin pie out of the oven by the time Jack rang the doorbell. He'd cheated and used pumpkin from a can because there was no way he could make his own filling by ten o'clock, but he made the crust by hand and scalloped the edges with his knuckles. He'd just set the pie on stovetop to cool when the doorbell rang, but before he could close the oven, take off his gloves, and run to the front of the house, Coach had already answered it.

"Jack!" he said, and Eric cringed against the archway to the foyer. "What brings you to this neck of the woods? We weren't meeting today, were we?"

Jack adjusted the strap of his backpack on his shoulder and looked past Coach to Eric, still standing against the wall and trying not to blush. Jack, despite his adorable awkwardness, was still his usual ivory skinned self, as if blushing was not something he could do.

"Um, I'm here to meet Bit – uh, Eric," said Jack, and he looked over Coach's shoulder again. Coach's eyes followed Jack's to where Eric stood. "We were going to study for history together."

"Yeah?" Coach asked, and the smile that crossed his lips was larger than any Eric had ever seen on his face. In any other circumstance it would have been a welcome change, but Eric just felt more embarrassed than ever. "I thought I heard Junior say something about you two having a class together. Come on in, Jack, don't stand out there in the cold." Jack entered the house but hovered near the door.

"I just made a pie," said Eric, pointing at the kitchen.

"A pie?" Jack asked.

"Yeah. Pumpkin pie. It's still too hot to eat, but if you want to go downstairs and start, we can have some at lunch?" Jack nodded. "Come on." Jack walked into the house; once he'd passed by Coach, Coach gave Eric a thumbs-up and Eric internally screamed before he led Jack to the basement. Suzanne kept most of her supplies in her craft room but further down from that there was a rec room with a sofa and the smaller TV as well as a nice table that Eric liked to sit at when he was trying to focus instead of just-kind-of-studying-but-not-really in his room. It was a little colder in the basement than upstairs, but Eric had a sweatshirt on and was overheated from baking, so it was refreshing to step into.

Jack sat in a chair next to him at the table and they took out their history textbooks and notes. The only other person Eric had ever studied with was Drew, who was a horrible study partner, so he had no idea how this was going to go. Jack opened his notes (Eric could not read his handwriting at all, but it looked laid out much more nicely than Eric’s page-long paragraphs that he often had trouble deciphering) but looked at Eric before he looked at them.

"Do you bake a lot?" Jack asked.

"Not as much as I used to," said Eric, "so sort of. I completely missed the apple harvest this year and that's disappointing. I've usually made a dozen apple pies by now."

"I like apple pie," said Jack. "I mean I'm not going to turn down a pumpkin pie, but I wouldn't say no to an apple pie either."

"I'll keep that in mind," said Eric. Jack smiled at him and Eric purposefully looked down at his notes instead of Jack’s pink plump upturned lips. "So how's this going to work? I can already tell you I am not reading your notes because no one can read your notes."

"My notes are just fine, thank you," said Jack. "I thought I'd just quiz you."

"Oh Lord, this was a terrible idea."

"Hush, you'll be fine."

Eric was admittedly not fine as Jack asked him questions and Eric fumbled through answers. He felt better after he turned the tables and started pulling questions from his own notes. Jack was not nearly as well versed as his smug look made him seem. When Eric started asking about foreign trade treaties and Jack looked at him blankly, Eric laughed and Jack said, "Okay, not fair. I asked you about the names of presidents and you're asking – why are you laughing?"

"Your accent is the worst," said Eric, laughing so hard he snorted. Jack cracked a small grin before he reset his face to look annoyed again. "You’re not chopping down trees here. It's ASK. I ASKED you."

" Mon Dieu , leave me be, my accent is part of the historic culture of a dying generation, and we – STOP LAUGHING AT ME!" Eric doubled over onto the table, his body shaking with giggles, until he looked at Jack's face. Jack was frowning at him and Eric patted him on the arm.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Jack. Your accent is very charming. Gahlee, Jack, please continue to ax me questions and tell me about all your beignets and etouffees."

"I said nothing about beignets," said Jack with a pout. "And etouffees are amazing."

"Boys," called Suzanne from the top of the stairs. "I made grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch – are you hungry yet?"

Eric looked at Jack. "It's not etouffee, but do you want some lunch?"

"Sure."

They ate upstairs at the kitchen table and after they each devoured a full bowl of soup and two cheese sandwiches with tomato and ham, Suzanne served up the pumpkin pie. Eric surreptitiously watched Jack for his reaction, but the subtle glances were completely unnecessary when he sat back in his chair, extended his leg, and made the most ridiculous happy noise Eric had ever heard.

"Good?" Eric asked, grinning.

" Ouais ," said Jack, and Eric assumed that meant good. Eric looked at his mother and she teed up another slice when Jack finished his first, which he gratefully accepted. Suzanne winked at her son and Jack was halfway through his second piece before he realized he hadn't said anything since his first bite. "You should make pie more often."

"Maybe to celebrate the end of the season," said Eric.

"Definitely," said Jack.

 

***

 

The football season ended with a win on Friday. Eric had already purchased pecans and eggs to make either a celebration or consolation pie after his hockey game Saturday, and he came home from his own win to several group texts.

     Shitty
     Kegster at my house tonight

     Shitty
     HAPPY END OF REGULAR GENTLEMEN

     Shitty
     And Lards ofc

     Lardo
     Thx shits

     Ransom
     KEGSTERRRRRRRRR

     Holster
     I AM MOST READY TO GET SCHWASTED

Eric looked at his phone, his eyebrows knit in confusion. He could generally infer from context what Shitty was saying, but he sent a text to Lardo in case a kegster was something completely different than what he was thinking; Shitty was a wild card after all.

     Eric
     What exactly is a kegster

     Lardo
     An epic party of epicness

     Lardo
     Prepare to be extremely drunk

     Eric
     Okay then

It was entirely possible that a pie at a keg party would not be welcome, and it was also entirely possible that one pie was not nearly enough for an entire football team and whoever else happened to get an invite, or whoever else happened to hear about it. Eric decided to stick to just one for Shitty (as a thank you for the invitation) and Jack (who was the actual intended recipient). About the same time that Eric set the pie on the counter to cool, Jack texted him outside of the group chat:

     Jack
     You going tonight?

     Eric
     Yeah you?

     Jack
     Miss a Shitty Knight Kegster? Jamais.

     Jack
     You want a ride?

Eric stared at his phone and then looked at the time on the oven. It was only five o'clock; plenty of time to get ready. He replied with shaky fingers.

     Eric
     Sure

Then he proceeded to launch himself up the stairs and into the shower.

Jack had texted that he'd be by at eight o'clock, which gave Eric three hours to fret over what to wear and how to comb his hair. He'd been locked in his room since he got out of the shower, ignoring both of his parents and dinner (which probably, in hindsight, would have been important), and had emptied the entire contents of his closet onto the floor in his indecision on what to wear.

"Calm down, Eric," he said to himself as he took off another shirt and threw it into the "No" pile. "This isn't a date. He's just driving you to the party. He's not gay. He's just coming completely out of his way to pick you up and drive you all the way back to a house that is literally a block from his. Oh my God."

Eric sat down in the middle of his pile of clothes and put his head in his hands.

He had to be reading this wrong. He and Jack had been spending a good amount of time together, chatting in class and going for runs, but this felt very different. The last thing Eric wanted was to read it wrong and then end up acting inappropriately and losing the most central friend that he had since moving back to Madison. If things went south with Jack, he could very easily lose every single one of them, and he did not want to spend the next year and a half friendless and alone. He also didn't want to not read the situation wrong and end up accidentally rejecting an advance from the only other person he'd ever had feelings for.

"This sucks," he said.

He grabbed the nearest shirt and put it on. He did not even bother to look at himself because he knew he would want to change as soon as he could. His shirt was not dirty nor was it wrinkly, so he left his room and the mess to be handled later. On his way down the stairs he got another text. He paused halfway between floors.

     Lardo
     Leaving in a minute

     Lardo
     You want a ride

     Eric
     No I'm going with Jack

Lardo replied with a string of hearts, heart eyes, and an eggplant followed by a spout of water.

     Eric
     Shut up not like that

     Eric
     He’s not gay

     Eric
     Right?

     Lardo
     At this point you know him better than I do

     Lardo
     He talks to you more than the rest of us

     Eric
     Don’t get my hopes up, Lardo

     Lardo
     I’m just saying

     Lardo
     It wouldn’t surprise me

Eric stared at the reply, his heart beating rapidly in his chest. Jack would be there any minute and he didn’t have time to think about what Lardo meant. He wanted to avoid one of his parents answering the door, so he ran down the rest of the stairs, but before he could get to the foyer Jack rang the doorbell and Suzanne opened it.

Eric swore under his breath and ran to the door next to his mother, cutting her off mid-hello.

"Hi Jack," said Eric. "Let's go."

"Where are you going?" Suzanne asked.

"Just hanging out at Sh- at Knight's house," said Jack politely. Suzanne looked at Eric, who tried very hard not to blush.

"Dicky, honey, don't you want to bring a sweater? It's chilly out." Eric looked between Jack and his mother and wondered if one more minute of embarrassment was worth the trade-off of being cold all night long. He groaned and ran back upstairs for a sweatshirt, leaving his mother and Jack in the foyer to hopefully not discuss anything.

"Congratulations on your season, Jack," Suzanne was saying when Eric returned with his sweatshirt and his pecan pie. "Nine and one is something to be proud of!"

" Mais there's that one in there," said Jack. "Was hoping to go out with a bang."

"You still have the chance to do that," said Suzanne. "Have a good time tonight! Don't stay out too late. And I mean it, mister. Not too late."

"Okay, Mama," said Eric.

"You boys have fun." Eric made the mistake of looking at his mother, who was grinning from ear to ear. Jack gestured for Eric to leave first. "Stay safe."

"Oh my God," said Eric and he immediately headed out the door. Jack followed behind him; Eric opened the door to Jack's truck and hoisted himself inside. He buckled himself in and set the pie in his lap before Jack climbed in behind the steering wheel. Jack's eyes immediately darted to the pie.

"What kind is it?" he asked.

Eric peeled back the tinfoil.

"Pecan."

"Nice. Can I have some?"

"If Shitty doesn't eat it all."

" Mais it's for me, yeah?" Jack asked. "It's not for Shitty. We just happen to be going to his house for a party. I was the one who asked you for pie."

"You will have to fight Shitty about that one." Jack frowned and Eric flashed a smile at him. "Okay maybe I'll save you a piece."

"Good."

Jack started the car and pulled out of the driveway. When they got onto the road, Jack's hand settled on the side of Eric's seat near his shoulder. Eric did not look at it but could feel its presence the entire ride to Shitty's house, especially when Jack began to tap his fingers against the leather. It was a low, methodic tapping that would have been soothing in any other circumstance, but he felt every single vibration from every single movement, and each caused a jolt of electricity to run through him. Jack didn't really speak, but after two months of daily walks to their next class, Eric was used to that.

Shitty's house was not as ostentatious as Jack's, but Shitty was the only child of a wealthy divorcee instead of a retired NFL quarterback, and either way it was a nicer home than Eric had ever inhabited. The vast size of the house was visible from the street and they had plenty of time to look at it because the driveway and curb were filled with cars. Jack parked down the road so Eric could hear the thumping of the music before they reached the driveway and supposed the only reason the cops had not yet been called was because like Jack, Shitty did not have neighbors.

Jack opened the front door and let Eric enter first; despite the size of the house, there were people everywhere, and Eric only recognized a handful of them. He was happy he didn't attempt to make pie for everyone, because it would not have been possible. As it was he had to hold the pie close to him to avoid it getting knocked out of his hands and onto the floor as he and Jack attempted to navigate the crush of people to find their host.

Shitty was next to the keg in the family room, which had been haphazardly set down on a white rug next to a grand piano. Beer had been spilled already and Eric winced at the damage that was going to occur over the course of the evening. When Eric and Jack walked in, Shitty raised his hands over his head and shouted, "THERE YOU ARE!"

He pushed a plastic cup of beer into Jack's hand and then looked at the pie Eric carried in his.

"Bits, what the fuck is this?"

"It's a pie," said Eric.

"This is a kegster, bro. KEGster. Why did you bring pie?"

"Because pie is good?"

"You're damn right. Give me that pie."

Shitty snatched the pie out of Eric's hand. "You have to save Jack a piece!" Eric called after him, but Shitty just laughed and left the room. Eric frowned and looked over at Jack. "I'll make you another one."

"Ha, don't worry about it," said Jack. "Do you want a beer?"

"Yeah."

Jack poured him a cup of beer and began to speak in a loud voice, trying to be heard over the driving beat of the music coming from the living room. "You know, I've been coming to these parties since I moved to Madison. I can tell you stories about shenanigans that have happened here – some I remember, most I don't – but the loud music has never been my thing."

"What?" Eric asked.

"Exactly," yelled Jack. "Do you want to go outside?"

Jack gestured to the patio doors. Eric nodded and they settled outside; now that the sun had set it was definitely chilly, but still tolerable. Jack sat down on the patio sofa and Eric sat next to him. "Okay, where exactly are we? How far away is your house?" Eric asked, looking at the forest in Shitty's backyard, which looked very similar to every forest in Georgia.

"I'm about five minutes down yonder," said Jack, pointing across Eric toward the north. "The lake isn't far away, but I'm closer to it than Shits is. Fun fact about Shitty – we moved into our house the summer before my junior year. I went for a run on that trail we took and I turned the wrong way and got super lost. It ends up over here and I ran right into the backyard. Shitty was out here smoking, saw me, looked at his joint, and said 'Fuck, is that Bob Zimmermann? I am officially high.' "

"How long did it take you to convince him you were you and not your dad?"

"He still doesn't believe it was me."

Lardo wandered out into the backyard, followed closely by Shitty, who had his hands on her waist. Eric looked over and once Shitty noticed them sitting in the dark on the patio, he let go of Lardo and stepped away from her.

"Brah," said Shitty, "that pie. I think I ate the whole thing."

"The whole thing? You were supposed to save some for Jack!"

"There was nothing left to be saved. I desecrated that pie. I'm not entire sure I chewed any of it. I'm going to be shitting pecans for days."

"Ew," said Eric.

"Shits, let's go back inside," said Lardo. "It's cold out here." Shitty just aimed a remote at the fire pit in front of the sofa; it clicked to life and Shitty flopped onto the couch next to Eric. Lardo looked at Eric and shrugged her shoulders in an apology before she sat down as well.

"We need more beer," said Shitty after he looked inside everyone's cup. "They should bring one of the kegs out here. HOLTZY! HOLSTER!"

"They're inside playing beer pong, Shits, they can't hear you," said Lardo.

"RANNNSSSOOMMMMMM!"

"SHITS, WHAT UP?" yelled Ransom.

"YO, BRING THE KEG OUT HERE!"

Ransom and Holster transferred one of the kegs to the patio and refilled everyone's beer for them before also sitting down in the chaise lounges. With Jack on one side and Shitty crowding close on the other, Eric didn't feel as cold, so he tucked his knees under his chin and took another sip of his beer.

"Bro," said Ransom, looking in Eric’s direction.

"What?" asked Eric.

"How do you get your knees all the way under your chin?" Eric looked down at his knees. "Holtzy, can you get your knees that close to your face?"

"Maybe," replied Holster; he attempted to lift his knees but ended up falling backwards off the chaise and onto the cement. Ransom looked back at Eric and didn't bother to help Holster off the ground.

"Is that a hockey thing?" Ransom asked.

"No, I used to figure skate," said Eric.

"Sweet!" said Holster, who had smoothly recovered from his collision with the ground and was back in the chair next to Ransom. "Can you do, like, spins and stuff?"

"Yes," said Eric.

"Can you do backflips?" asked Ransom.

"Yes," said Eric.

"DUDE, you immediately need to do a backflip for us."

Eric rolled his eyes.

"I'm not doing a backflip just because you asked," said Eric. "Also it's been several months since I've taken a gymnastics class. I might fall on my face."

"I want to see you do a backflip," said Jack, and Eric looked over at him.

"Yeah?"

Before Jack could reply, Ransom, Holster, Shitty, and Lardo were all chanting "BACKFLIP! BACKFLIP! BACKFLIP!" so Eric passed his beer to Jack, headed onto the grass, and stretched out his back. It was true that he hadn't done any sort of gymnastics since they moved from Johns Creek, but a back handspring had become routine at every class he took since he learned how to do it at the age of twelve. He took off running and gained the momentum to drop his hands to the grass, finish his round-off and vault himself over backwards, landing on his feet with an arch in his back.

"BITS!" yelled Holster while the rest cheered. Eric stretched his back again; he would definitely feel that in the morning. He headed back to them, took his beer back from Jack, and settled in the small space between him and Shitty. His legs brushed against Jack's several times as he scooched into the space, each touch sending a chill up his spine that didn't occur when he brushed against Shitty.

"That's all you get," said Eric.

"Bitty, you are a thing of wonder," said Shitty. "You make pie. You do backflips. You play hockey. Where did you come from and why haven’t I known you all my life?" Eric shrugged his shoulders and smiled, tucking his legs under his chin again.

When midnight approached, Eric was drunk but not nearly as drunk as Ransom or Holster, who had removed their shirts and were wrestling in the grass, shouting various insults at each other as they attempted to pin the other. Shitty and Lardo disappeared for forty-five minutes and then reappeared, smelling strongly of weed and looking disheveled, but at the present were sitting quietly next to each other on the other couch, watching with mild interest at the spectacle Ransom and Holster were making in front of them. Eric was staring at the fire when Jack nudged him.

"Hey," he said. "You want to get out of here?"

"Yeah," Eric replied, his cheeks growing warm despite the temperature. "Yeah, okay."

He and Jack stood, catching Lardo's attention. The smirk on her face said enough; Eric walked right by her and into the house. As soon as he opened the door he remembered they were at a party; the music was much louder in here and the swell of people had not diminished in the past three hours. The only measure of the passage of time was the garbage – all of the actual garbage bins were overflowing and as a result cups were strewn everywhere. The entire house smelled like beer and weed.

They passed through the living room where the furniture had been pushed out of the way and people were dancing to the music. Eric watched enviously and almost turned to Jack to plead with him not to leave just yet, since they hadn't danced, but then when he looked up at Jack he remembered they'd never clarified if this was a date. Even if they had, Jack was the quarterback of the football team and by far the most recognizable person at Samwell – he probably did not want to be seen dancing with another boy in the middle of a house party.

It seemed colder when they exited the other side of the house. It wasn't, nor was there any wind to make it rationally feel that way, but Eric buried his hands in the pocket of his sweatshirt and kept up with Jack's long legs as they walked to his truck. Once inside Eric turned on the heat and Jack chuckled. "Shut up," Eric said.

"You've got no meat on you, of course you've got the frissons ," said Jack. As Eric adjusted the temperature on his side of the truck, he noticed an auxiliary cable attached to the car deck, so his fingers followed it to the other end and plugged it into his phone.

"I'm putting on music," he said.

"Okay," said Jack. "What're you going to put on?"

"Beyoncé."

Jack nodded but didn't reply. When Eric looked over Jack had started the car and was determinedly not looking at him.

"You don't know who Beyoncé is, do you?" Eric asked.

“I know who Beyoncé is," said Jack, who busied himself with unnecessarily adjusting his mirrors. Eric stared at him until he sighed. "Is it bad that I don't know who Beyoncé is?"

"Yes, Jack, that's bad."

"Do you still like me?" Jack asked. He looked directly into Eric's eyes and Eric wanted to tease him, but he couldn't. Eric's face softened and he nodded.

"Yeah, I still like you."

"Good." Jack turned the truck around and headed back to the main road. "Do you want to go home? Or do you want to do something else?"

"Let's do something else." Jack continued down the road, thinking, until he looked over at Eric and the coy smile returned to his lips.

"Dex and Nursey told me a rumor about you," he said. Eric raised an eyebrow. "They said you are actually pretty good at football."

"They're filthy liars," said Eric.

"Either way, I have to find out for myself. Is it okay if we go to the stadium?" Eric nodded and Jack drove them there. Eric watched for Jack's reaction to Beyoncé, but apart from a few head bobs, he remained very difficult to read, as he had been both the entire night and since Eric had met him in August. Jack parked in front of the stadium and Eric realized all of the lights were out.

"Aw, we should have stopped at my house. I could have grabbed Coach's keys."

“Don’t matter,” said Jack, and his inability to enunciate the end of his words placed an uncontrollable smile on Eric's lips, “I have a key."

"Of course you do.”

Jack let them into the stadium and turned on the lights from the control room. They made another stop in the equipment room for a bag of footballs, and then headed out onto the field. Eric had never actually been on a football field (not a high school one, anyway), and took a second to look around as he followed Jack to the fifty yard line. He couldn't remember the stadium of Coach’s school before Johns Creek, but it wasn't nearly as extravagant as this one, and even the one at Hooch paled in comparison. Samwell High's football stadium was gigantic, the stands circling the entire field. The Hooch football field just had bleachers on each side, and while the bleachers were always full at games, it still reminded Eric that it was high school. Samwell's stadium gave the illusion that they might as well have been playing in the NFL.

"Stay here," said Jack. Eric stood at the fifty yard line on top of the red and white Samwell S. Jack dashed about twenty yards away and then threw the football at him. Eric put up his hands instinctively and caught the ball, but Jack's aim was so precise that he didn't need to do much else to be able to actually catch it. "Good. Now throw it back."

Jack suddenly looked very far away. Eric tried to remember when he was five years old and Coach taught him about how to properly throw a football, but that was more than a decade before and whatever Coach had said that day, Eric couldn't remember. He threw it the best he could; Jack did have to step to the side to catch it, but he still did, and Eric could see the smile on his face from even this distance.

"Not bad," he said. "Lemme see if you can catch it moving. Run that way and look at me. I'll throw it to you." Eric ran a slant route to the left, his eyes on Jack. Jack waited a moment and then threw it in front of Eric, anticipating his movement. Eric held out his hands and caught the ball just before he hit the sideline. Jack was grinning stupidly now, not even commenting when Eric threw it back and he had to hustle five yards to catch it. Jack pointed the other way and Eric took off again, catching another pass, and then another, and then another.

"Come see," said Jack, gesturing for Eric. Eric ran back to him and Jack was practically beaming. "Why didn't you tell me you were so good?"

"I'm good?" Eric asked, laughing ludicrously. "You're throwing it right at me. You don't have to be good to be able to catch a ball when it thrown right in your hands."

"You'd be surprised," said Jack. "I want to see how far you can go. Run to the end zone. Don't change your route, just run." Eric nodded and took off toward the end zone. Jack was standing at the forty yard line on the opposite side of the logo, and Eric glanced back just in time to see him vault the football into the air. Eric looked up and it disappeared in the lights, but he didn't stop running. He spotted it again as it came down and then, just as he crossed the goal line, it landed perfectly in his arms.

"YES!" Eric yelled. He spiked the ball and threw his hands up in the air; Jack was running toward him and Eric realized he was coming in for a tackle. "Don't hit me! Don't hit me!" Jack straightened out just before they collided, holding Eric tightly around the waist instead. Eric yelped, his heart in full panic mode, but when his body didn't hit the ground he released his breath. "Oh my God, you scared me."

"I wasn't going to tackle you," said Jack.

"Sure, Jack."

Eric looked up; Jack still had his arms around Eric's waist, holding Eric's body against his own. Jack was solid from head to toe, his abs pressing into Eric's torso, his chest compact under Eric's hands. Jack looked down at him, their faces very close. Jack's eyes were bright and blue underneath the stadium's lights, shining with his laughter, but after a moment softened when Jack began to lean in.

Eric panicked; this was not something he expected his day to contain when he awoke that morning, and suddenly his vision blurred and his head spun. He took a step back, out of Jack's grasp, and bent down to pick up the ball from the ground. When he stood upright again Jack looked disappointed, but Eric smiled brilliantly at him and nodded downfield.

"Your turn," he said. "I want to throw some passes to you."

"All right," said Jack.

"Am I doing it right? How's my spiral?"

Jack's mouth ticked upward again, much to Eric's relief, and he began to jog away. "Your spiral's fine, but your form isn't quite there. Make sure you follow through. All the way through, Bittle." Jack held up his hands for a pass; Eric threw it to him and Jack easily caught it. "Better. Let's see how far you can go."

Jack tossed the ball back to Eric. He watched Jack head downfield and hoped, as Jack ran away, that he didn't blow his only chance.

Chapter Text

August 2009

Eric didn't realize until they got to Drew's house that his lip had been split open. It started bleeding again on the bike ride back, so when they arrived Drew sat Eric on the lid of the toilet in the upstairs bathroom and began to dab at his face again with a wet tissue. Eric looked in the mirror and it wasn't so bad; his nose and lip were swollen and he’d managed just minimal bruising around the bridge of his nose. There were small cuts on the palms of his hands and up the inside of his forearms from the fall, which helped the story Drew had come up with on the way home: Eric fell off his bike.

"Talk to me, E," said Drew once the bleeding on Eric's lip seemed to clot again. "How'd you end up in the janitor's closet in the middle of the day looking like you got punched in the face?"

"Because I got punched in the face."

"Eric…" said Drew and Eric shook his head.

"Don't. Don't start."

"I told you to be careful!"

"I was careful! It didn't matter! My mom overheard what they said at the barbeque and told Coach about it, so he told Clayton to lay off. Clayton assumed I was the one who said something and did this." Eric gestured to his face. "I didn't even do anything and this just happened." Eric rested his head in his hand. "He's such an asshole."

"Clayton? Yeah, we knew that."

"No, Coach," said Eric and he blinked several times. "Mama told him to defend me because I'm his son and he said – he said." Eric took in a deep, rattling breath and the tears fell out of his eyes anyway. "And he said he didn't even want me. That if I was more like the son he should have had, none of this would be happening."

"That son of a bitch. He said that to you?"

"He and Mama were fighting. He didn't know I was there."

"That doesn't make it okay!" Drew said. "This is ridiculous. Did he apologize?" Eric shook his head. "What the fuck – I'm going to go back to Hooch and give him a piece of my mind. What the fuck kind of father does he think he is –?"

"No, Drew," said Eric, reaching out as Drew stepped away to leave the bathroom. "It is what it is. That's just Coach. He's going to defend them because that's what he does, because they're his team."

"And you're not?" Drew asked. "You're his literal son." Eric shrugged his shoulders. "That's not okay, E. You are who are you are. Who you are is an amazing person and fuck him if he can't see that." Drew placed his fingers under Eric's chin and lifted his face to inspect it, but seemed satisfied with the lack of bleeding. He looked conflicted, suddenly, and Eric's eyebrows furrowed.

"What?"

"He does have a point, though."

"Oh, Christ, Drew, not you too."

"I'm not saying what he did was okay. It is definitely not okay. But open your eyes, E. Look where you are. These people are not good people. We don't live in the open-minded part of the country. We live in small town Georgia where everyone is either white or they're wrong. It sucks but that's where we are and we are stuck here until we graduate. Maybe just… maybe just cool it for a bit, okay? With the baking and the figure skating. I'm not saying stop making pies for me, because I will one hundred percent defriend you if you stop making me pie, but don't talk about it."

"Yeah… maybe you're right."

"It's not like I want to be right," said Drew. He picked up the bloody tissue from the counter and crinkled his nose at it. "Ugh, this thing is bloody disgusting."

Eric laughed but then quickly grimaced and held his lip. Drew smiled a sneaky smile, which caused Eric to roll his eyes. "Don't take it the wrong way," said Eric. "I still don't like your puns."

"Yes you do," said Drew. "You love them."

"No I don't."

"You do! You love my puns!" Eric finally stood and pushed Drew out the door. Drew pushed him back and Eric yelped in pain as Drew touched his shoulder. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry, I forgot!" Drew touched it again and Eric immediately winced. "I don't like how you're reacting to that. Take off your shirt."

It was not an easy task; his ribs protested against the movement when he lifted his arms over his head, so Drew carefully helped him out of the shirt. His chest and ribs looked fine, but there was a large purple bruise covering his upper arm as it curved into his shoulder. Drew's eyes widened at the sight of it and Eric quickly covered it with the material of his balled-up T-shirt. "No, let me look at it." Drew seemed satisfied that nothing was broken, but the bruise was hideous to look at. Drew also prodded all around Eric's ribcage, but despite a couple of slightly sore areas, nothing seemed too amiss there either.

"I want my mom to look at it," said Drew when he finished his examination.

"No," said Eric immediately. "I'll be fine."

"You might have bruised ribs. You're not going to practice today."

"No, I have to go! Katya will kill me!"

"How are you going to explain to her that you can't even lift your arms over your head? She's definitely going to see that!" Drew pointed at Eric's arm.

"Fine. I won't go to practice, but we're not telling your mom. Give me another shirt to wear – this one's all bloody. If anyone asks what happened, it’s the story we agreed on. I flipped on my bike."

Drew stared at him for several seconds, internally debating Eric's conditions, until he gave up and turned around. "Fine. Come pick out a shirt. You're staying the night here, though. I'm not letting you go back to that house."

"I have to go home eventually."

"Not tonight you don't. Ask me again tomorrow when I'm not so angry."

Mr. Lester didn't even ask about the cut on Eric's lip nor about Eric's presence at dinner when usually Eric didn't come over until later on school nights. It wasn't until nine o'clock when Mrs. Lester got home that the fuss began, and it started with her seeing the two of them on the couch in front of the television. "There you are!" she said to Eric with indignation. "Your mother has been calling me non-stop since school let out. Why didn't you go to practice today?"

"I fell off my bike," said Eric immediately.

"Oh my goodness, are you okay? Come here, let me look at your face." Eric glanced at Drew but walked over as normally as he could. The swelling in his nose was all but gone but the split on his lip could not be hidden. She looked at him from several angles and gently poked around his nose before she seemed satisfied. "It looks all right. Are you hurt anywhere else?" Eric shook his head. "I don't see why you couldn't have gone to practice or at least called your mother. She's been worried sick."

"I'm sorry," said Eric.

"I'll give her a call right now." Mrs. Lester turned to leave the room but then, in the doorway, turned back. "Is everything okay? At home?"

"It's just been a rough weekend. Coach…"

"All right," said Mrs. Lester. "Are you going to stay the night here?" Eric nodded. "I'll let them know, but you need to go to practice after school tomorrow and go home after practice. You can't just disappear and not tell people where you are. Now, you boys do your homework and then go up to bed. Don't spend all night watching TV."

Neither of them brought any books home, so they watched TV until Mrs. Lester yelled at them again and then went upstairs to bed. Eric looked at the bed and frowned; he usually slept on his side against the wall, but if he did that he'd be sleeping on his bruised shoulder. "Looks like if we get robbed, you're the one who's gonna get murdered this time," Drew said. "It's just not your day, man."

"No it's not."

Drew climbed into the bed first and Eric got in after him. Eric turned onto his opposite side, which felt odd, but he curled up underneath the covers and shut his eyes. The light was still on. "E, turn off the light."

"You turn off the light."

"You are literally right next to the light. Also put my glasses on the nightstand." Drew tossed his glasses at Eric and they landed on Eric's face.

"Ugh, this is so not right. I'm on the wrong side and now everything is messed up," said Eric. He placed Drew's glasses on the nightstand and shut off the lamp, then curled back into a ball and shut his eyes. "Hey, maybe I won't snore if I'm on this side."

"E?" Drew said quietly.

"What?"

"You don't actually snore. I mean you do a little bit, but it's more like loud breathing than snoring. It's not that distracting."

"Are you kidding me right now?" Eric asked. "I've been paranoid for months about my snoring!"

"Sorry."

"You're the worst best friend ever."

"Love you too, E."

They were both still for a while, but like every other time they slept in the same room, there was always one more thing to be said. "Drew?" Drew grunted in response. "Thank you. For… I don't know. Everything. It means a lot to me."

"You're welcome, Eric."

 

***

 

The headache began sometime during the night. It was probably unavoidable after getting punched into a wall, but Eric awoke around one o'clock with his temples throbbing. He moaned a little, still aware that he was in a bed with another person, and straightened himself out from his curled ball. As his legs extended he felt the weight around his waist for the first time. He shifted again and realized it was Drew's arm – Drew at some point had flipped onto his other side, now facing Eric, who remained facing away. When Eric stiffened upon the realization that Drew was holding him, Drew’s fingers began to graze underneath the fabric of Eric's shirt.

Eric started shaking. It wasn't at all cold in the bed. Drew's closer-than-usual presence made it warmer, if anything, but Eric could feel the shakes begin in his chest first, then they spread to his arms and down to his fingers. He couldn't stop his body from overreacting to Drew's gentle touch on his stomach. It wasn't anything more than that, but it was a distinct, deliberate action that differed greatly from every dream or in-the-shower fantasy Eric had ever had.

The shaking continued as Drew's fingers trailed the outline of Eric's abdomen, his hand completely underneath Eric's shirt. In less than thirty seconds Eric was hard in his borrowed boxers, desperate for Drew to say something, do anything else besides just touch his stomach. Eric could have said something too, done something as well, since the shaking signaled that he was awake, but at the same time he was paralyzed in fear.

They'd never discussed this and Drew had never made any indication that he liked Eric as anything more than a friend. Eric didn't think he'd been obvious, either, and started combing through memories ever since the day by the pool when Drew took off his shirt for the first time that season and Eric had to immediately jump in the water to hide his erection. It was hard to focus, though, with Drew's fingers caressing him so delicately, so tantalizingly. Eric wanted Drew to move his hand lower, to touch him and relieve the tension that was becoming so distracting it hurt, even more than the throbbing in his temples. It would be so easy to just push his hand down those few inches, but that was a move that was impossible to make, so Eric suffered, shaking, until Drew fell asleep again, never taking his hand off Eric's skin.

Eric waited a long time, even after it was clear by his breathing that Drew was asleep, before he put his hand on himself and pumped four times, thinking about what it would have been like for Drew to stroke him instead, and he came in his pants embarrassingly fast.

 

***

 

The next morning Drew and Eric didn't speak.

Eric kept trying to catch his eye, but they showered separately, dressed separately, ate breakfast together, and biked to school without anything more than polite "How did you sleep"s and "Fine, and you"s. Nothing outside of trite phrases and canned responses came out of their mouths until they were headed to third period and passed Coach in the hallway.

"Son," said Coach. "Drew. Good to see you both."

Eric didn't want to look at him and Drew was ready to fight, so Eric pulled Drew by the arm away from Coach and down the hall. "Don't say anything, Drew," said Eric. "Please."

"He's still a dick, Eric."

"I know. Don't make it worse."

"If that's what you want," said Drew. Eric nodded. "All right. I won't say anything."

"Because there's nothing to be said?" Eric asked.

"Right."

They looked directly at each other for a moment before they turned and headed off to class.

 

***

 

Katya did not let him off so easy. When Eric arrived at the rink after school with his gear bag slung over his good shoulder, Katya was waiting for him in the lobby and dragged him into the office immediately. Eric sat in the chair in front of her desk, his head low, staring at the floor.

"Do you have any idea what you put me and your mother through yesterday? Your father spoke to the other teachers and you weren't in any of your classes after lunch." Eric looked at the small, mostly-healed cuts on the palms of his hands. They had all scabbed over by now, just little grazes littering the natural lines in his skin. "You didn't answer your phone. We had no idea where you were."

"I was with Drew."

"And that's enough of an excuse to skip out on your commitments?" Katya asked. "You see Drew every single day. If you wanted to spend time with him, he could have come with you. You know I don't have a problem with him being here." Katya waited for an apology but Eric didn't say anything. "Do you understand why this is important, Eric? Regionals is two months away and you have an excellent program. Much better than last year. It doesn't matter, though, if you don't come to practice."

"I know," Eric whispered.

"Your parents have sacrificed a lot so you could be here. They moved out here, uprooted their life, so you could train with me. It costs money to rent out this rink for you, for your gymnastics classes and your ballet classes. Your costumes cost money. Your music costs money. You have to be registered to compete at Regionals, you have to fly there and stay in a hotel and –"

"I know," Eric said again, and he wiped at his eyes.

Katya was silent for long enough that Eric looked up at her. Her face was unreadable, but she softened when she looked into his eyes. "Okay," she said. "Go change and meet me in the weight room."

"The weight room?" Eric asked. "It's Tuesday. We’re on ice on Tuesdays."

"Yes, and you missed practice yesterday, so we have to make up for it. We're skipping your ice time today and doing what you should have done yesterday. I'll see you there in five minutes." Eric left without a word and changed clothes as quickly as possible. His ribs did not hurt nearly as much as they did the night before, but lifting his arms over his head was still uncomfortable. He looked forlornly at his skates but put on his tennis shoes instead; ice practices were his favorite by far, and weight training was his least favorite by the same amount.

He met Katya in the weight room, hoping that she wouldn't push him too far, since he wasn't sure how much strength training his ribs would allow. Katya, unfortunately, was standing next to the pull-up bar and beckoned him over. They stretched together for five minutes, each overhead movement putting pressure on his ribs, until she gestured to the bar.

"Okay, Eric, pull ups."

He looked up at the bar, determined not to let Katya know that this was the very last thing he wanted to do, but when he raised his arms and began to lift himself off the ground, his ribs protested the whole way. Katya moved closer. "Come on, Eric. Again. I want fifteen." He pulled himself up again, much more slowly than he normally would or that she normally expected from him, so she clapped him on the shoulder, directly on his bruise.

He cried out and fell off the bar and into a crouch on the ground, gently cupping his injury as he waited for the fire to stop shooting through his nerves. "What is the matter with you?" she asked. He looked up at her and let go, but she'd seen him touch it. She pulled at the collar of his long-sleeved t-shirt and peered down it, only to immediately let go in surprise. "What happened? Why is your shoulder a bruise?"

"I fell off my bike," said Eric. Katya stared at him.

"Did you?"

"Yes!"

"Eric." She stared directly at him and he stared back, but he didn't amend his statement. Her eyes grazed over the bruising around his nose and the cut on his lip. "You need to be honest with me. Where else are you hurt?"

"My ribs. They're not broken. It's not bad."

"And you were just going to suffer through an hour of upper body training with sore ribs? Because that would help you heal?" Eric looked back down at the ground. "Nonsense. If you want to keep your secrets, keep your secrets, but never lie to me when it comes to your health and your body. If you can't do a pull up, do not force yourself to do pull ups. I don't care how it happened. Now stand up."

Eric stood up.

"Are your legs okay?" Eric nodded. "Okay. Lunges. Now. And no ice time until your ribs and your shoulder are healed."

"But –"

"I don't care. No ice time until you're healed. Until I say you are healed." Eric grumbled but started with his lunges, and was silently grateful for it.

Chapter Text

December 2011

Coach had sent teams to state championships before. For as long as Eric could remember, Coach had been part of a team that at least made it to the playoffs. Both years Eric attended Hooch, Coach's team made it all the way to the championship game at the Georgia Dome, losing once and winning the next year. Eric had never cared. Winning state championships only made the players cockier, strutting around the rest of the school year with a heightened sense of self-worth just because they could walk a football across a goal line more times than another group of boys. None of it mattered to Eric – at least, until it did.

The school held a pep rally the Friday before the state championship game, and while Eric had no plans to attend once his last abbreviated class of the day ended, he did wear his Samwell T-shirt from homecoming. The hallways were a sea of red – most students had at least a T-shirt in the right color, the football team all wore their letter jackets with jerseys underneath, and the cheerleaders were in uniform with red bows tied in their hair and temporary tattoos on their faces.

When Eric entered AP History that morning, Jack sat in his usual spot in his letter jacket. Eric bit his lip to attempt to hide any sort of unwarranted emotion that might display on his face; he could not fail to notice how much better Jack looked in that jacket. He wasn't the only one thinking this way; Trisha Banks had also been staring at Jack at least since Eric entered the room, and a roar of possessive anger ignited inside of him once he saw it.

"Bittle," Jack said, and it didn’t matter that he sounded ready to tease Eric, because Jack spoke Eric’s name like no one else. Eric’s name no longer had two T’s in it – Jack replaced them smoothly with D’s, and they flowed out of Jack’s lips underneath his smirk. When Eric sat next to him, Jack continued, "I'm disappointed in you. Where's your tattoo?" Jack tapped Eric's face.

"Where's yours?" Eric asked.

"I'm on the team. I don't have to wear one. You, on the other hand, are not nearly excited enough for this game."

"I'm sorry, I guess I missed it when they were handing them out," said Eric, but before he could even finish the sentence, Jack pulled a white square from inside the pocket of his jacket. "Of course you have one. Of course."

"After class," threatened Jack with a smile.

Forty-five minutes later Jack pulled Eric into the bathroom on the second floor of Building A, sat him on the counter, and carefully applied the white paper to Eric's right cheek. They hadn't been this physically close since that night on the field, and the electricity Eric had felt then continued to spark in unseen currents between their skin, igniting when Jack gently tilted Eric's head to the side and slowly dripped droplets of cold water from his fingers onto the transfer paper.

"Stay still," Jack whispered unnecessarily, for Eric was frozen in his spot at Jack's touch, staring straight into Jack's eyes while they were otherwise occupied. When Jack looked at him, Eric smiled. "No, stop smiling, you're going to crack it!" The serious panic in Jack's voice over a silly temporary tattoo was even worse than eye contact, and the grin on Eric's cheek spread. "Bittle, you're ruining it. If you make me do this again we're going to be late."

"This was your idea, Mr. Zimmermann," said Eric.

Jack carefully slid the paper down and off Eric's face.

"You got lucky," he said. "Look." Eric turned and looked at his cheek in the mirror. The Samwell S looked fine, but Eric only glanced at it before his gaze flickered to Jack, who had been staring at him. The tenderness in Jack's observation made Eric's heart flutter, so he jumped off the counter and to the door.

"Come on, let's get going." Jack followed him out of the bathroom and down the stairs. "Tell me about tomorrow. Do you think you're going to win?"

It was Jack's turn to uncontrollably smile. "Bittle, you don't understand. Our secondary is so good. They're unstoppable. I got sacked four times in practice yesterday. Four times. I never get sacked.”

"You have to put up some points," said Eric. "You can't win if the score is tied at zero."

"Bittle,” said Jack. “Do you have such little faith in my offense?”

“You were the one who said you got sacked four times,” said Eric with a shrug.

Mais yeah, against my own defense. Against Walton’s defense we’ll just saunter right into the end zone," said Jack and Eric laughed at the smug look on Jack’s face. “Everybody’s on fire. Special teams too. If Gordon doesn’t return a kick for a touchdown, I’ll –”

"You'll stop forcing your friends to get tattoos?" Eric teased, and Jack closed his mouth.

"I'm sorry. I'm being a douche, aren't I?"

"No, no," said Eric and he bumped his shoulder to Jack's. "I like how excited you are about it. You're not usually like this."

"You're coming, right?" Jack asked.

"Yeah, Coach and I are sharing a room at the hotel. If that doesn't show how dedicated I am to y'all, I don't know what will." Jack smiled and Eric could see nothing else.

"Good. It wouldn't be right if you weren't there." They stepped into Building B and headed up the stairs. Jack kept looking over at him as they approached the physics classroom, but didn't say anything. Eric stopped outside Jack's class.

"What?" Eric asked.

"I want to ask you to make pie, but I don't want you to think that I only like you because I like your pie. I liked you before I knew you could bake. But I really want you to make pie." Eric laughed. "So will you make pie?"

"Okay, Jack, I'll make pie. I'll make one special just for you."

"That was my second request. That you make me pie."

"All right. Just for you."

They stared at each other; this final parting before physics and chemistry class had grown longer and longer since Shitty's Kegster, even without spontaneous trips to the bathroom to force ink onto each other's faces. It took longer to stand up after history, took longer to walk from Building A, took longer to say goodbye in front of the physics room. Eric had been late three times to chemistry over the past four weeks already, but those extra few seconds there in the hallway were worth the tardy slips if it meant that Jack would keep looking at him like that. Jack's blue eyes were raking the features of Eric's face, landing frequently on the tattoo on his cheek. Jack raised his fingers and ever so gently glided them over the white ink, causing Eric's eyes to close. Just as he did, the bell rang above their heads and Eric panicked.

"Shit. Bye, Jack! See you tomorrow!" Eric bolted down the hallway and when he stopped at the door, he turned around to see Jack still staring at him. He waved, just slightly, before he stepped inside.

Eric baked four total pies Friday evening, having already planned to do so before Jack requested them. When he came home from school, Suzanne had surprised him with a crate of apples directly from an orchard. "Mama!" he said when he saw them. "Where did you get these? I thought I'd have to get gross grocery store apples."

"My friend at the farmer's market had some from her late blooming trees. I know you said you wanted to make at least one apple one –"

"This is amazing!"

Suzanne helped Eric in the kitchen for the remainder of the evening; apple pies were by far Eric's favorite to eat, but the peeling, coring, and slicing made them tedious to bake. At ten-thirty he took the last pie out of the oven and placed it on the counter to cool. Suzanne had already gone to bed when the pie went in the oven, so he started to cover the others. After ripping one sheet of tinfoil, he looked at the four pies in front of him and took out his phone instead. He repositioned them to be all in frame, took a photo, and sent it off to Jack.

     Eric
     Which one do you want

Jack replied immediately.

     Jack
     All of them?

     Eric
     No you have to share

     Jack
     Pretty sure that wasn't part of the bargain.

     Eric
     Jack Zimmermann!

     Jack
     Fine. Upper left.

Eric looked at the upper left pie. He'd cut a different design into each of them for the steam to vent – first a football, then a goal post, the Samwell S, and finally, because he couldn't think of anything else, a heart. Jack had chosen the heart and Eric had to squeeze his eyes shut when he realized it.

     Eric
     It's yours

     Eric
     Get some sleep. Good luck tomorrow.

     Jack
     Thank you. Good night :)

Eric put his phone down and distracted himself with covering the pies, determinedly not thinking about the smiley face or the real face that went along with it.

 

***

 

It had been several years since Eric had been to the Georgia Dome. Coach had taken him to a number of Atlanta Falcons games as a child, but after it was clear Eric didn't care about the Falcons or about football, Coach stopped asking him to come. Entering the Dome this time was much different, however, because he stood alongside fifty excited and nervous high schoolers. They all looked so much older in their uniforms, from Einhardt, the linebacker with muscles the size of Eric's head, even to Chowder, who probably weighed as much as Eric, despite being a few inches taller.

He stood next to Lardo on the field when the team was announced. She had a tablet in front of her that currently displayed a list of both offensive and defensive plays, but after he looked over she toggled to a live camera feed of each starting player when he was announced. From this vantage point it was easier to clearly see each of them, and he cheered for his friends with the rest of the crowd. The Dome wasn't sold out, but it sounded like it.

Jack Zimmermann was the last to be announced, of course, and when Eric looked at the screen after Jack ran onto the field, the feed cut to Jack's parents, sitting in one of the press boxes. Eric looked at Lardo, who was frowning as she quickly tapped back to the play list. "Do you think he knows they're here?" Eric asked; Jack had taken the bus and checked into the hotel with the rest of the team.

"If he didn't before, he does now," said Lardo. It wasn't possible to ignore the shot of Jack's parents on the Jumbotrons, but when Eric looked at Jack's face, he was laser focused and impassive. "He'll be fine. Despite what he thinks, he actually does play better when he knows they're here."

The opposite team won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half, so Samwell received the first kick of the game. The ball flew into the end zone, an anti-climactic beginning since no one could return it. Eric watched Jack speak to Coach before the offense took the field; Coach smiled at him and clapped him on the back before Jack ran to the twenty yard line, putting on his helmet along the way. Eric could see the team more closely from the sideline and could hear Jack as he shouted code words to players to have them reset based on the defense's lineup. Jack's voice on the field was so much different than his voice anywhere else – in between classes it was softer, full of humor; with their friends it was quiet and lilting, his accent thicker; on the field, though, it was demanding, sharp, and terrifying.

Jack threw the first pass to Shitty, who caught it but was then immediately tackled for a four yard gain. Jack dropped back for the second pass, looking at the coverage briefly before he threw it toward another wide receiver, who dropped it. Eric could hear Jack curse from the sideline, but assumed it was in French because he didn't understand it. The third snap of the drive was low, lower than Jack expected, and he had to juggle the ball in order to secure it. He dropped back again, looking for an opportunity, his eyes downfield.

Eric could see it before it happened and he shouted uselessly; one of the defensemen broke through Ransom and Dex's block on Jack's blind side and collided right into him. Jack held fast to the ball but went down at the fifteen yard line. Ransom pulled the defenseman off of Jack and immediately got in his face, drawing attention from a referee who ran in and separated them. Dex extended a hand to Jack to get him off the ground; Jack cursed at Dex all the way off the field.

The first quarter continued much in the same way; while Samwell's defense held Walton to zero points in those first twelve minutes, nothing Jack did seemed to make any sort of headway. The first first down for Samwell happened ten minutes in, but quickly was followed by a stop at the forty yard line after two runs of three yards apiece and another dropped pass. When the clock ticked to zero and the players reset to the other side of the field, Eric wondered if he should text Mrs. Zimmermann and watch the rest of the game from far away. Eric had bitten off all of his nails already and Lardo was too busy to pay attention to him.

"Just let me fucking return it already," Gordon was saying after another punt sailed into the end zone and the referee blew the whistle for a touchback. Jack and the rest of the offense headed back onto the field, but they already looked defeated, as if this would be yet another drive ending in a punt. Jack handed the first snap to a running back, who got a couple of yards before getting tackled, and on the second snap dropped back to look for a receiver. He shot a bullet at Shitty, who caught it at the forty-yard line and ran across midfield for the second first down for the Wellies and for the first possession in Walton's territory. The team on the bench celebrated as if they'd gotten a touchdown, taking a moment to pat Shitty on the helmet when he headed back to the line of scrimmage to set up again.

Coach called Chowder to warm-up after Jack threw another pass, this time caught by Dex, and they officially reached Chowder's field goal range. It was a good call too, because two passes and a run went absolutely nowhere and Jack left the field, still looking discouraged. His expression didn't change when Chowder kicked the ball perfectly through the uprights and Samwell put up the first points of the game.

They went into halftime with no change in score, and Eric elected to stay on the sidelines instead of going into the locker room; the team was leaving the field as if in an irreversible deficit instead of up by three points. He didn't want to hear what Coach had to say to bring them out of their funk, but it was clear the team took their motivation from Jack, who hadn't been happy since he was sacked the third play of the game. They returned from their twenty-minute intermission less than inspired, and everything went downhill when Walton scored a touchdown on their opening drive.

Jack threw his helmet after the successful extra point; they were down four points, an easily overcomeable feat, but nobody seemed to see it that way. As Walton left the field, Lardo appeared in front of Eric. He hadn't seen her since the game started.

"Bits," she said, her face serious. "I need you talk to Jack."

"What?" Eric asked. "Why?"

"Because he likes you and I need to do something to turn his head around. I can't promise that he won't yell at you. He might yell at you. He probably will yell at you. Just say something to him, please?"

"Um…" said Eric, who had no idea what to say. Jack was sitting by himself on the end of a bench, no one willing to look at him or speak to him. The special teams unit had just gone on the field to receive the kick-off and Eric had a minute, at the most, to encourage someone who did not want to be encouraged. He walked over to the bench and stood in front of Jack, who had his head in his hands and was looking at the ground.

"Hey," Eric said.

Jack looked up. Eric had seen that expression before, just once, when they ran together for the first time in the forest near Jack’s house.

" Mais jamais , Bittle, I’m playing a game."

"Yeah. About that…"

"Did Lardo send you over here to talk to me? I don't need a pep talk."

"Well, she said that I should talk to you because you like me. I'd like to think you like me. I did come all the way out here for you and all. Spent all night making pie. It's a shame it's going to go to waste because you're too busy staring at the ground while the rest of the team needs you to be there for them."

"Is this supposed to make me feel better?" Eric shrugged his shoulders. Walton kicked the ball and Gordon finally caught it outside of the end zone. He started running. "What do you mean the pie is going to go to waste?"

"It's celebration pie. I didn't make it for losers."

"Are you telling me I don't get any pie if we lose this game?" Jack asked, the tone of his voice icy. Eric swallowed hard, but kept the resolve on his face when he replied:

"Yep."

Gordon broke a tackle, then another, and finally was brought down by six Walton Chargers at the forty-five yard line.

"What the fuck, Bittle?" Eric shrugged his shoulders. Jack opened his mouth to speak but Coach called for him.

"Zimmermann! You're up!"

Jack grabbed his helmet from the ground and purposefully shoved past Eric on this way to the field. Eric watched him call the rest of the offense into a huddle. As Jack spoke to them, several turned around and looked directly at Eric. Shitty specifically yelled "What the fuck, Bits? I thought we were friends!" Eric lifted his shoulders and hands, his face an unconvincing attempt to stay calm while the entire offense of a football team stared him down.

It seemed to work, however. Jack connected with Shitty, then with Dex, and then with Shitty again, handed off the ball to running backs for several yards apiece, and marched right into the end zone after just two minutes. Lardo gave Eric a fist bump after Chowder kicked the extra point and they were up by three again. Most importantly, Jack was excited again, which fed quickly to the rest of the team.

"Let's get another one, boys!" he yelled after the score on the board changed to put Samwell on top. The defense kept Walton to just a field goal attempt, which went awry when the ball holder muffed the snap. When the clock ticked over to the fourth and final quarter, the score was the same but Jack was in the red zone again.

It took three tries, Jack purposefully running down the play clock in between downs, but with just ten minutes left in the game Gordon walked in a touchdown and ended up at the bottom of a pile when his team collapsed on top of him to celebrate. The referee blew his whistle as a warning; when Jack ran off the field, he stopped by Eric first.

"Pie?" he asked. Jack held out his fist for a bump and Eric stared at it.

"There are still ten minutes left, mister," said Eric.

"Come on," said Jack. He shook his fist and Eric quickly bumped it before Jack returned to the bench, the smile still on his face. Ten minutes of game time later, Samwell High officially became the state champions with a score of 17 to 7.

The rest of the team were hugging and screaming both on the field and off, and Eric could feel their excitement from the patch of grass where he'd parked himself for the game. Jack had not spoken to anyone, including Lardo, including Coach. The time ran out, he left the field, and he walked straight to Eric.

"Pie?" he asked again.

Eric smiled.

 

***

 

Not long after Coach and Eric returned to the hotel, Eric received a text from Ransom that read PARTY IN OUR ROOM BRING PIE ASAP . Eric opened the mini fridge, where he'd managed to strategically stack four pies without ruining them, and carefully began to remove them. Coach looked up when Eric set the first on the desk.

"Going somewhere?" Coach asked.

"Um. Yeah. The boys are demanding pie."

"Ah, well you shouldn't drink on an empty stomach."

"Coach…" said Eric.

"I was in high school once too, you know. I'm not an idiot. Don't make too much noise or they'll file a complaint and we'll have to find another hotel that'll accommodate fifty drunk high school boys. I'd personally rather not deal with that tonight, if you don't mind. It's been a very long season."

"Okay, Coach."

Eric placed the pies back in his carrier and headed to the door. Before he left he looked back at Coach, who sat on the bed and turned on the television. "Coach?" He looked over. "Congratulations on winning state. I'm glad you did."

"Me too, son," said Coach. "This means they'll let me stay."

"Good," said Eric. "I want to stay." Coach nodded at him, just once, before Eric left the room. Ransom and Holster's room wasn't far down the hall. When Eric knocked Ransom opened the door in a flash and stole the bag from Eric's hands before Eric was even in the room. "No!" Eric yelled. "One of those pies is for Jack. Don't just tear into them like idiot hooligans."

"Idiot hooligans?" balked Shitty from across the room.

The room was full of people already from the offense and special teams, wandering in between Ransom and Holster's room and the door that connected to Dex and Nursey's room. Shitty was in the process of dumping ice into an empty wastebasket while Chowder helped shove cans of cheap beer inside of it. There were seven cases of beer next to them, which made Eric very confused.

"Who bought the beer?" Eric asked.

"Shitty, duh," said Ransom. "No one's carding the dude with the mustache."

Ransom was still man-handling the pies. Eric checked each one as they passed down the line until he found the one with the heart atop it. He quickly pulled it back out of Ransom's hands and held tightly to it. "No, this one is for Jack. Where is Jack?"

"I texted him ten minutes ago," said Shitty. He shook the bag of ice in his hand and all of it fell out of the bag, flowed over the recycle bin, and half of it landed on the floor. Chowder stared at it in surprise, unsure of what to do. "Get another bin, Chowder. Quick, before it melts."

"Dude, no one wants ice that's touched this rank ass floor," said Holster.

"That's why I said quick!"

"What room is Jack in?" Eric pushed.

"He's in mine," replied Shitty. "336."

Eric left the room with the pie and walked the opposite way down the hallway, past his own room, to 336, located at the very end of the hall next to the emergency staircase. Eric lifted his hand to knock when he heard Jack speaking loudly in a language that clearly was not English. Eric paused and considered heading back to Ransom and Holster's room, but then Jack began to speak in English.

" Non , thank you for coming. I'm happy you were there. Mais yeah! We can celebrate tomorrow. Merci. Merci, Papa. Je t'aime. Tell Mama je l'aime aussi ."

Eric waited a moment before he knocked. Jack didn't answer, so Eric knocked again, louder. He considered leaving again when the door opened. Jack did not look pleased to be bothered, but his expression softened when he saw it was Eric, and a grin reached his lips when he saw that Eric was holding a pie.

"Hey," he said. "Sorry, I was just talking to my parents."

"Is everything okay?" Eric asked. He studied Jack's face and despite the change in expression, Eric could see that paleness in Jack's skin that had been present earlier that day during the game. Jack nodded and stepped back to let Eric in the room. Eric entered and placed the pie onto the desk only to realize he hadn't brought utensils. "Oh, shoot." He turned to see Jack dumping multiple anxiety pills into his hand and swallowing them with complimentary water. "Ransom stole my bag so I don't have any forks or plates or anything."

"That's okay," said Jack, still smiling unconvincingly at Eric. "I have fingers."

"Ugh," said Eric. "Way to be uncivilized, Jack. No, I'll just be a second. Let me go get them." Eric passed by Jack again but he reached out and took Eric by the arm, pulling him back. Eric opened his mouth to protest but before he could, Jack lifted Eric's chin with his other hand and in one swoop dipped his head and pressed his lips to Eric's.

Eric's eyes widened. Jack's grip on his arm loosened, simply holding him rather than directing him, his other hand gently pinching Eric's chin between his forefinger and thumb. Nothing else existed in the world apart from Jack's soft lips upon his own, and Eric was ruining it by not responding. He stood in front of Jack like a statue, and statues were not made for kissing. Eric forced himself to relax, forced his excitement down with a swallow, and closed his eyes. He took a step closer, which caused Jack to grin, and Eric could actually feel Jack's lips turning upward as Jack let go of his face and placed that hand on Eric’s waist instead.

Eric turned his head, searching for a better angle. Jack followed him, adjusting their lips as they slid against each other, and then carefully opened his mouth. Eric felt the warmth of Jack's tongue on his, and responded in turn, amazed by the electricity of the simple touch. It was getting hard to breathe, though, from this angle, and Eric gently pulled away. He opened his eyes to see Jack looking down at him.

"Is this okay?" Jack asked quietly. Eric nodded.

"Yeah," said Eric. Jack smiled in earnest now and Eric could see it all over his face. "Please don't eat the pie with your fingers."

"Is that what you were thinking when I was kissing you?"

"No," said Eric. "I was thinking that before you kissed me."

"So what are you thinking now?"

"After I get you a fork I want you to kiss me some more."

Jack nodded. "Okay."

They stood there together, not moving. The surprise had passed and Eric's mind caught up with him. Jack had just kissed him. They were standing alone in a hotel room, Jack's hands and eyes on him. Eric buried his face in Jack's shirt and took in a deep breath.

"I thought you were getting me a fork," said Jack.

"In a minute. I just want to be with you first." Jack enveloped him, one arm around Eric's waist, the other on the back of Eric's head, holding Eric against him. Eric breathed him in, from the clean scent of his bar soap from his shower after the game, to the feeling of his strong arms, to the rhythm of his heartbeat in his chest. Jack kissed his temple and Eric sighed; maybe they could just eat the pie with their hands.

Chapter Text

November 2009

There were no lasting repercussions from Eric's afternoon in the janitor's closet, not from Katya, not from Clayton, and not from the unexpected and unspoken moment with Drew that night in Drew's bed. Clayton must have started in the first football game of the year because Eric had not run into him, Marcus, or Jordan again. Nothing had changed in Eric's interactions with Drew (apart from another scenario to use when he was in the shower or alone in his bed), and in October, Eric placed third at the 2010 South Atlantic Regional Figure Skating Championships, earning him a ticket to Sectionals in Delaware.

Going to Sectionals meant Katya wanted to practice every single day leading up to the competition, so Eric did not get home until eight o'clock on weeknights, practiced for six hours on Saturday and Sunday, and didn't see Drew outside of class. They texted more often than they spoke, and their only conversations were in the hallway and for forty-five minutes at lunch.

Three months into high school, one of the more annoying drawbacks was that Eric ran into Coach more and more often throughout the day. Eric was fortunate enough – or the school was smart enough – to not have his father as his P.E. teacher. Instead he had Coach Farley for team sports, which wasn't as terrible as it sounded when Eric received his schedule. Eric still ran into Coach frequently in the cafeteria, on the back stairs, and in the hallway. He was inescapable and every interaction was the same:

"Junior," nodded Coach. "Classes going okay?"

Eric would mutter some version of "Yeah" before bolting in the other direction, even if the other direction was the incorrect one, to avoid having to see him yet again. Most of the time it worked, and Coach left it at that, but one day in November when Eric ran into Coach on the staircase just before final period, Coach stopped him on the landing.

"Hey Junior," he said, holding onto Eric's shoulder to prevent Eric from running away. Eric stiffened at Coach's touch and looked at the wall behind Coach's head rather than directly at him. "Do you want a ride to practice this afternoon? The boys have the day off so I can leave right after the bell rings."

"I have my bike," said Eric.

"You sure? It's on the way home."

Eric wriggled out of Coach's grasp and ran up the stairs.

"I'll just take my bike," he said over his shoulder and disappeared into the second floor hallway without a look back. Drew was waiting for him outside the classroom, having come from the other direction, and noticed the flush in Eric's cheeks.

"You okay, E?" Drew asked. Eric shook his head in an effort to brush it off.

"It's nothing," he replied. "Do you want to come to practice with me today? I can have Katya cut it short and we can go to your place after – what?"

"Um…" said Drew, and he looked away awkwardly. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"I have practice."

"What the hell for?"

The bell rang overhead and they darted into the classroom and to their usual spot in the last row. Eric opened his binder and hid his phone behind it to send Drew a text. He could see it come through on Drew's phone, but Drew was paying attention as their teacher began the lesson. Eric sent another one. Drew glanced at his phone and then, after a third text, finally typed a reply.

     Drew
     I joined the swim team

     Eric
     When

     Drew
     September

     Eric
     Why didn't you tell me

     Drew
     You're always at practice! I've gone three days a week for two months and you haven't noticed

     Eric
     Does your coach make you run

     Drew
     Yeah

     Eric
     Let's run tomorrow before school

"Drew. Eric. Don't make me take those phones away from you," scolded the teacher. Eric begrudgingly put his phone in his pocket and began to pay attention.

The following morning Eric knocked on Drew's bedroom door at six-thirty. He poked his head in to find Drew was still asleep in the bed. He bit his lip; he didn't want to enter the room without permission, but two miles could take more than thirty minutes if Drew wasn't used to it, and they'd still need to have breakfast and get ready for school.

"Drew," he said, knowing already it was completely useless. Drew didn't respond.

Eric looked around for ammo but Drew wasn't really a knick knack kind of guy, so Eric removed his own shoe and threw it across the room at Drew. It collided with the back of Drew's head, who then groaned and turned over.

"Seriously?" Drew asked.

"Get up. And give me back my shoe."

Drew threw the shoe back across the room. Eric put it back on his foot and then closed the door. He waited in the foyer for Drew, who appeared three minutes later, still rubbing his eyes and excessively blinking as he headed down the stairs. Eric pushed him out the door and they headed down the street. It was evident by the end of the block that Drew was not a fan of running.

"How much do you have to run for swimming?" Eric asked.

"I don't know. Around the track a lot."

"Katya wants me to run five miles whenever I’m not on ice."

"Oh, God, we're not running five miles are we? Are you trying to kill me?"

"No, I won't make you run five miles."

They continued in silence as they turned the corner and up the sidewalk along the main road that headed back toward Eric's house. Eric lived two miles away from Drew, which was easy to bike but a little bit too far to run, since Drew was already huffing. Eric planned on turning around before they got to the base of the hill that was a decent halfway point, but they weren't there yet.

"Do you like it?" Eric asked.

"Fuck, no," said Drew.

"No, I mean swimming."

"Oh. Yeah, it's fun. It's more work than I thought it would be, but it's fun."

"When's your first meet?"

Drew was silent and Eric had to look at him to see if it was due to exertion or embarrassment. When Drew pointedly did not look back, Eric had his answer. Eric deliberately sped up as a means to enact very petty revenge.

"You were at practice!" Drew groaned, huffing harder to keep up with Eric. "You wouldn't have been able to come anyway! Can you slow down, please? Some of us have only been doing this since September." Eric decided to just turn around, but also slowed his pace as he and Drew headed back to Drew's house. "It was two weeks ago. I did okay. I'm not the best swimmer but I'm not the worst either. My coach says I'm improving a lot."

"That's good," said Eric.

"When are Regionals?" Drew asked. "They have to be coming up, right? Are they nearby this year or do we have to fly somewhere again?"

Eric stopped running. Drew stopped too, hunched over and breathing hard, and took a moment to compose himself before he straightened and realized that Eric hadn't responded and they hadn't stopped due to fatigue. Drew took one look at him and cursed.

"Really, E? You're badgering me about the swim team and you went to fucking Regionals without even telling me? Without inviting me?"

"You told me to cool it! You told me to stop talking about it!"

"Yeah, to other people! I still want to know! I still want to be a part of your life!" Eric felt tears coming to his eyes and ran off at his usual speed to avoid having Drew see them as well. Drew struggled to keep up, at least three steps behind Eric the entire rest of the distance back to his house. Eric continued up Drew's front walk toward the door, but Drew got a hand on him before he could disappear inside.

"Talk to me, E," said Drew. "Don't just run away from me because you don't want to."

"I don't know how to talk about this," said Eric and he wiped at his eyes. Drew, still breathing hard, closed his mouth and looked sadly at him, which just made it worse. "I never see you anymore. You have this whole life that I don't even know about. Are we even still friends?"

"Of course we are," said Drew. "I don't have any other friends."

"Yeah but you're on the swim team now so you're going to make other friends, and if I'm never around because I have to practice all the time, then why are you still my friend? What even is the point of me anymore?"

"Eric, I'm not just going to forget about you because I like to swim. It's just something to occupy my time while you're busy. I still want to hang out with you. I still want to play video games and climb trees and text about stupid shit. Why would you think that I wouldn't want to still be with you?"

"Because nobody wants me anymore, so why do you?"

Drew immediately pulled Eric against him and Eric began to cry. "Stop it," said Drew. "Just because your dad is a douchebag doesn't mean everyone else is. You're still my best friend. You're always going to be my best friend. We'll make it through these next four years, be roomies at Georgia, and get the fuck out of this town."

Eric nodded against Drew's chest, and then realized he was nodding against Drew's chest. He took a step back. "Geez, Drew, why are you so tall?" Eric asked.

"Genetics?"

"This is so uncool," said Eric. He turned back, wiped his face again, and headed inside, Drew just behind him.

"So how'd it go?"

"How did what go?" Eric asked.

"Regionals."

"Oh. I got third. I'm going to Sectionals."

"What the fuck!"

"ANDREW LESTER!" shouted Mrs. Lester from the kitchen. "I DID NOT JUST HEAR WHAT I THINK I JUST HEARD."

"Shit," muttered Drew. He ran up the stairs two at a time and disappeared around the corner by the time Mrs. Lester entered the foyer from the kitchen. She looked at Eric, who hadn't quite made it yet, and placed both of her hands on her hips.

"Eric," she said, and Eric smiled sheepishly at her. "What's going on out here?"

"Nothing," said Eric, continuing to smile. "Drew and I are just getting ready for school. He went on a run with me." Mrs. Lester continued to stare at him and Eric bolted away before she could speak again. He heard her huff and return to the kitchen. When Eric reached the bedroom, Drew had already disappeared into the bathroom to take a shower. Eric stole some of Drew's clothes and changed into them; the shirt was fine, but the pants were too long, so he rolled the cuffs twice and cinched the belt an extra notch, then waited at Drew's desk until he returned.

 

***

 

Drew weaseled his way out of swim practice long enough to accompany Eric, Suzanne, and Katya to Delaware for the 2010 Eastern Sectional Figure Skating Championship. The event happened to take place the first weekend of football playoffs, so Coach was unable to attend, and Eric had absolutely no problem with that. As soon as they stepped off the plane he was nervous, and he did not want to have to pretend to be cordial to his father on top of it.

On day one, Eric drew the final lot and had to wait through eleven other routines before he could take the ice. Despite it being the same amount of time as Regionals, when he was twelfth out of twenty-one, the wait felt agonizingly long. The competitors at this level all seemed magnificent, nailing jump after jump and every spin and putting up PCS scores Eric had no chance of topping, no matter how pink his costume was or how well his transitions and choreography lined up with his music.

"Eric," said Katya, when his hands began to shake in response to the tenth skater sliding firmly into first place after a beautiful routine, "look at where you are. You've made it to Sectionals in your second year of competition. Do your best today, and think about how lucky you are to be here."

"I just don't want to be that person who comes in last," said Eric.

"You won't come in last. Not with your program. You see him?" Katya discreetly gestured to a boy in green, sitting with his coach and staring at the floor. "He's coming in last." Eric barked out a laugh but quickly put his hands over his mouth.

"Katya! You're so mean!"

"I got you to smile, so I don’t care." Katya placed her arm around his shoulders. "You are good, Eric. We’ll see what happens after tomorrow. You have so much more room to grow, and when you do we'll bump you up to Seniors and you'll get to compete with the big boys."

"What?" Eric asked, his eyes wide. "You're not serious about that, are you?"

"Not today, Eric," said Katya, "but you have potential. Like I said, we'll see."

"Katya," said Eric, and he could feel his heart beating fast inside of his chest, completely unrelated to his fear of skating next, "Johnny Weir skates in Seniors."

"If you keep it up, maybe you'll get to skate against him."

"Ho Lord," said Eric. "We need to stop talking about this. You're freaking me out. If I get to be in the same room as Johnny Weir I will probably die. No, I will die. I won't even get to compete. We'll both be on the ice warming up, he'll skate by me, and I'll just fall over and you'll have to drag my corpse back to the hotel."

"At least perform first before you die," said Katya.

"Nope. I'll see him and die."

"That's very unfortunate," said Katya. "Come on, now. Let's go out to the floor and get you set up. You're next." Eric took in a very deep breath and let it out before he stood with Katya and walked toward the rink. Just as they could see the ice, the eleventh skater landed his jump while over-rotated and fell right onto the ice. The crowd let out a collective gasp of pity, but Katya nudged Eric and smiled at him.

"You'll be fine," she said.

Eric was called to the ice a few minutes later. He glanced up into the seats where he knew Drew and his mother were sitting as he skated a warm-up lap. When he found them, they both waved excitedly at him. He smiled in their direction before he stopped at center ice. The music began and so did he; while it was not his favorite choice of music, Katya had choreographed a good routine for him, stacking his jumps more toward the end of the routine rather than the beginning.

Each spin felt in control and every jump had height and power; he landed on the correct edge every time, his arms graceful at his sides or over his head when they should have been, but when he sat down with Katya at the scoring bench, the number seven appeared in front of his name. He smiled at the camera in his face and waved, Katya gripping him tightly to remind him to do so, but he couldn't help but feel disappointed.

Drew, on the other hand, was ecstatic when Eric exited the arena and found the two of them on the pavement. "Dude!" he yelled, and he threw his arms around Eric. "You were awesome! How many revolutions was that last jump? Was it four?"

"Three," said Eric. "Four's for Seniors."

"You totally had time to do four, though. You had air for days," said Drew.

"Dicky, you did so well," said Suzanne, weaving past Drew and scooping in for a kiss on Eric's cheek, which he grimaced upon receiving. "I'm so proud of you. You just keep getting better every time I see you. Katya, is he allowed to do a quad? I bet he could."

"I bet he could as well," said Katya. "Maybe if we bump him up another level."

"Stop talking about that like it's going to happen!" said Eric, but Suzanne kissed him again and held onto his arm as they walked back to the car to return to the hotel. "Mama, after dinner maybe Drew and I could walk around for a while?"

"Yeah,” said Drew, “there's a big ass – Sorry! Sorry, Mrs. B! – big pool."

"No swimming," said Katya. "You need to rest."

"There's a hot tub. That's relaxing."

"No swimming," repeated Katya.

“You boys can walk around a little, but not long,” said Suzanne. “Katya’s right, you need to rest.”

After dinner, Drew and Eric wandered the first floor of the large hotel; most of the competitors were staying there and Eric had seen several men and women in various states of costume apparel over the past two days that they had been in Delaware. It wasn't surprising that after they passed by the indoor pool and the exercise room, they ran into two of the other skaters from Eric's division.

"Oh," said one of them. "You're Eric, right?"

He had on blue track pants and a matching zip-up hoodie, but was still wearing his costume underneath it. The silver sequins on his collar glittered in the obnoxious lighting of the hotel's lobby, but they contrasted well with the darkness of his skin. Next to him stood the last-place competitor that Katya pointed out, and Eric felt guilty for laughing earlier.

"Yeah," said Eric. "This is my friend Drew." Drew waved.

"I'm Caleb and this is Wes," introduced the boy in blue; Wes waved less enthusiastically than Drew had, but Eric remembered that his score was considerably lower than the eleventh-place competitor, so there was no chance that he would be able to advance even if he had a perfect free skate. "You had a great program today. I watched in the back. I don't know how I feel about you being in seventh, though. Your technical score should have been way higher."

Eric shrugged his shoulders. "They're just being critical, I guess."

"Did you eat already?" Caleb asked, looking between Drew and Eric but settling longer on Eric.

"Yes," said Drew.

"Oh," replied Caleb. "Well Wes and I were about to head to the restaurant. I guess we'll see you tomorrow?" Eric nodded. Caleb stuck out his hand and Drew stepped closer to Eric; Eric glanced at him, confused, before he shook Caleb's hand. "Good luck."

"You too. And you, Wes."

"Yeah," replied Wes, but he made no effort to shake Eric's hand. Caleb smiled at Eric but then Drew stepped so close he bumped right into Eric's side, knocking Eric off balance.

"Drew, what the hell?" asked Eric as Caleb and Wes left. "You nearly knocked me over!"

"Sorry," said Drew. He glanced at Caleb and Wes and then leaned in again when he spoke so he could lower the volume of his voice. "He wouldn't stop staring at you."

"Who? Caleb?" Eric looked at them and when he did, Caleb turned back around quickly. Eric could feel the heat in his cheeks and the smile on his face while he watched Caleb walk away. "Really?"

"Eric!" scolded Drew.

"What? Hey, are you still hungry? I know we just ate but I could get a coke or something."

"We are not having dinner with them."

"Why not?"

"Because!" said Drew and he headed off in the other direction. Eric stared at Caleb and Wes as they turned the corner; as they did, Caleb looked at him one more time. When he noticed Eric looking back he smiled, but Drew returned and pulled Eric away by the hand. "Come on. We're going back to our room." Drew loudly emphasized the possessive. Caleb disappeared around the corner and Eric wrenched his hand out of Drew's.

"What is your problem?" Eric asked.

"Nothing. Let's go."

"I don't want to go back to the room," said Eric.

Drew pulled him outside instead. Delaware was cold and the wind coming off the water was even colder; the hotel was on the bank of a river that separated Delaware from New Jersey. Eric could just make out the other side, there in the distance across the expanse of dark water. The sun was low in the cloudless sky and caused the short, rocking waves to shimmer when he looked at them, sparkling at him and Drew as they hopped the short fence and headed to the sand.

There wasn't much beach to be had, nor was there anything particularly breathtaking about it, but it was a beach all the same, and it reminded Eric of their visit to Lake Oconee when they were children. Drew kicked off his tennis shoes and socks and trampled through the sand barefoot; Eric followed Drew from the grass until they came across a bench. Eric sat down and Drew changed direction, toward the shore.

"That water's probably freezing, D," called Eric, but Drew shrugged his shoulders. Eric was cold even with his sweats on top of his costume, and Drew only wore a hooded sweatshirt and cargo shorts. Drew crossed the smooth tidemark, leaving his footprints in the dark, wet sand, then approached the water's edge, the shore lapping up steady waves in greeting. He approached just enough to have the river skim his toes before he turned and looked back at Eric.

"This is nice, here," he said, his voice clear despite the waves and wind.

"It's too cold," replied Eric.

"But it's still nice. We're only a few miles from the school. Maybe we come here for college."

"What about Georgia?"

"I think they'll like us more here," said Drew. He stooped in the shoreline to pick up a shiny piece of glass from the sand and then headed back toward Eric. He held it out in his hand; it was a shard from a blue bottle but had been worn and rounded by the water so it lay in a perfect circle on Drew's palm. "I think you would like it here."

"I like it at home, Drew," said Eric. "It's where we belong."

"Is it?" Drew asked. He turned and chucked the glass into the water; they both watched it fly out of Drew's hand, through the air, and crash down into the river with a splash. Drew continued to stare outward toward the beach, but Eric looked up at Drew instead – the wind had kicked up and blew Drew's dark hair over his forehead, gliding it over and over his pale skin in thin wisps. He was the opposite of Caleb but he was still Drew, and his was still the face that Eric saw most whenever he closed his eyes.

Eric's phone buzzed in his pocket, taking him out of his rare opportunity for adoration.

“We have to go inside," he said.

Drew was silent the rest of the night, opting to turn in as soon as they entered their room, and spoke little during breakfast, providing no comfort for Eric's nerves. Drew and Suzanne walked Katya and Eric to the skater's entrance, where Suzanne kissed him again. "Good luck, sweetie. I love you."

"I love you too, Mama," said Eric. He turned to Drew, who'd stuffed his hands in his pockets, awkwardly looking at Suzanne instead of Eric. Eric waited, then said, "Okay," and turned to the door.

"Good luck, E," said Drew, quietly, before Eric and Katya disappeared inside the building. She helped him into his skates and they headed directly to the rink for the warm-up, where Eric shared the ice with the other competitors, including Caleb and Wes. No one acknowledged him, nor did he acknowledge anyone else, more focused on loosening his muscles and practicing his troublesome jumps. When it was time to wait again, Caleb exited the ice with him.

"Hey," Caleb said.

"Hi," replied Eric with a smile. "Sorry we couldn't have dinner with you."

"Nah, that's okay. Are you leaving right away tonight?" Eric shook his head.

"No, tomorrow afternoon."

"We should hang out."

"Yeah, sure," said Eric. He glanced up into the stands where Drew was staring directly at them, looking unnecessarily angry. "Sorry about my friend. He was kind of rude."

"Is he, like, just your friend?" Eric thought of Drew's hair whipping in the wind but still nodded. "Cool. You're going second?" Eric nodded again. "I'm not until last. See you after."

Eric returned to Katya, who smiled politely at him as she handed him his blade guards. "Making friends?" she asked. Eric nodded.

"Yeah, that's Caleb. He's pretty cool."

"He's also going to win."

Eric looked at the scoreboard at the side of the rink and sure enough Caleb Bell had a good lead going into the free skate. It didn't surprise Eric and it didn't bother him; Caleb seemed the type to be able to go to Nationals but Eric had a very slim chance of making it there. Eric waited in a chair along the sideline with Katya for the first skater, Eric sneaking occasional glances up at Drew, who continued to look annoyed.

His free skate was better than his short program, and while it wasn't a surprise that Eric slid into first place after it, he knew that he would easily be bumped down as the evening continued. Katya helped him out of his skates again and they waited backstage through the rest of the performances. Eric refused to look at the scoreboard and instead looked at his phone.

     Eric
     Caleb wants to hang out after

     Drew
     Are you going to

     Eric
     Yeah you coming

     Drew
     Don't think I'm invited

     Eric
     Of course you're invited I'm inviting you

Drew didn't reply for three more routines, and when he did Eric stared at Drew’s text for an entire free skate performance before he looked up again.

     Drew
     I came all the way here to spend time with you. Not Caleb.

Caleb was standing on the other side of the room, stretching his arms overhead, revealing the long, muscular lines of his back. Without his sweats on, Eric could see the sculpt of his body through his black pants and silver sequined top, a jagged line cut down the back and front, revealing his shiny brown skin underneath. Eric looked back at his phone.

     Eric
     We see each other all the time

     Drew
     Then why did you tell me two weeks ago that we don't

     Eric
     Why are you being so weird right now

     Drew
     I just don't want to watch you hang out with Caleb

     Eric
     Fine I'll blow it off

Eric looked up again and Caleb smiled at him. Eric looked back at his phone without reason, done with Drew and this conversation. Four skaters later, Caleb had won first place and Eric settled with sixth. As soon as the results posted on the board, Eric avoided Caleb's eye and turned to Katya.

"Can we go?"

"Okay. Do you have everything? Did you want to congratulate your new friend?"

"No. Let's just go."

They left quickly without saying goodbye to anyone and met Suzanne and Drew outside. Suzanne hugged Eric and said words of consolation that he didn't hear. They returned to the hotel. Eric took a shower and climbed into his own bed, where he fell asleep without a word to Drew.

Chapter Text

December 2011

Eric walked into AP History cautiously, looking out for Jack. Jack, as usual, was already seated in the front row on the left side, and when he saw Eric, his face instantly switched from anxious to exuberant. It was infectious and Eric was beaming by the time he sat down. Jack's gaze followed his the entire walk and then he turned bodily toward Eric when he sat and placed his notebook on top of the desk.

"Hey," said Jack.

"Hi," replied Eric.

Eric stared at Jack but he realized quickly that they were not alone in the classroom and they had not discussed over the weekend what this would look like in public. They hadn't discussed much of anything, actually, not that night before Shitty returned to the room or the following morning in the back of the bus, several rows behind anyone else and as far as possible from Coach.

"Do you want to have dinner with my parents on Friday?" Jack asked, completely out of the blue, and Eric's eyes widened in shock.

"What?"

" Merde , I wanted that to be less awkward. It was less awkward in my head."

"Did you tell them?" Jack nodded. "And they're cool with it?" Jack nodded again. "Wow. Um, yeah! Okay."

"Awesome."

"Are you two done making dinner plans?" asked Mr. Fernandez. Eric quickly blushed and put his head down, but he sneaked a glance at Jack while Mr. Fernandez began to lecture. Jack was grinning too.

Eric had a hard time focusing in class, which wasn't unusual, but with Jack on his left, every time he looked up at Mr. Fernandez's visuals and notes, Jack's head was in Eric's periphery. It was a very distracting head, with shiny black hair and a subtle growth of beard on a chiseled jawline, with a long curve of an ear that Eric may or may not have traced with his tongue over the weekend. Eric resorted to just listening and taking notes, but since Mr. Fernandez covered significant land purchases in US History, he had a hard time geographically differentiating between Guam and American Samoa, which were both located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

When the bell rang, Jack bolted out of his seat and Eric quickly followed, eager to be away from the rest of the class and into the traffic of students travelling between buildings. Before they could even leave Building A, however, Jack had pulled Eric into the janitor’s closet and pressed their lips together again. Eric giggled, just briefly, before he kissed Jack back, his notebook falling to the floor with a loud flop. The door clicked shut and Eric opened his eyes, realizing that they were actually trapped inside the janitor's closet.

He panicked. "Oh my God," he said. "Did you just let the door close?"

"Yes," said Jack, taking advantage of their privacy to lean into Eric's neck and begin to plant small kisses against the skin there. "That's the point of us being in here."

"Did it lock? Are we stuck in here?" Eric pushed Jack away. Jack chuckled, but when Eric picked up his notebook and flung himself at the door, Jack’s expression darkened.

"Bits, it's okay. It doesn't lock that way. I just wanted to kiss you."

Eric's hands were shaking violently as he pushed at the door. "Oh my God," he said again. He tried the handle and it wouldn't turn. "Oh my God. Oh my God we're locked in. Fuck." Eric retreated to the corner of the small closet and put his hands on his head, crouching down, his breathing loud and erratic. There wasn't nearly enough room in the closet for the two of them and all of the janitor's supplies, and with the light on Eric could see the walls getting closer. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, we're locked in here."

"No, Bittle, it's fine." Jack twisted the thumb turn on the knob and opened the door. "See? It's open. Bittle, look."

Eric opened his eyes. He could see the light of the hallway through the three-inch crack, so he let out a burst of air from his lungs and rushed to leave, pushing the door violently as he bolted through it and then out the front of Building A. Jack followed behind as Eric ran all the way across the front lawn to the curb, looking up at the sky, and then finally sat down. His chest still felt tight, and panic continued to shake through his extremities, but he was outside and unrestricted.

Jack sat on the curb next to him.

"Breathe, Bittle," he said, his voice low. "Breathe slower." Eric couldn't get enough air in his lungs, so Jack's suggestion was therefore incredibly stupid, but Jack placed a hand on his back. "Breathe deeper and slower." Eric did, following Jack's rhythm on his back, and after three breaths he was finally able to take his face out of his hands.

Jack sat with him even after the bell rang, gently rubbing Eric's back as Eric looked at his hands. He ran his fingers over his palms again and again, as if he expected them to change, but they remained smooth, albeit clammy. "Bittle?" Eric looked over at Jack instead of his hands, but his fingers continued to slide over them. "Do you want to talk about what just happened in there?"

Eric quickly shook his head.

"Okay. I'm sorry. I didn't know you'd react like that."

"No, it's fine," said Eric, still shaking his head. "I just… I just don't like closets. I'm sorry. It's my fault. And now I made you late for class –"

"We were going to be late for class anyway," said Jack, smirking. Eric smiled too, just for a moment, before he looked back down at his palms again. Jack took both of Eric's hands in each of his, to stop him, and Eric took in another long, slow breath. "It's okay. We're outside. No more closets."

"Okay," said Eric, but it took several more minutes of Jack holding both of his hands, and six more deep breaths, before he could think again. His first thought, though, was of Friday. "Do you think your parents will like me?"

"They've already met you. Multiple times."

"Yeah, but that was just as Coach's son."

Jack chuckled again.

"You were never just Coach's son."

Eric smiled, and this one stuck.

 

***

 

There were still apples leftover from the pies Eric and Suzanne made for the championship game, but they were reaching the end of their life. Eric picked the best five of the remainder for a pie for dinner but fretted longer over the venting pattern than anything else. His first instinct was to draw a heart, but this was both for Jack and his parents, and furthermore Suzanne was standing right next to Eric as he hesitated with a fork in his hand.

"What's the matter, Dicky?" Suzanne asked.

"I'm just thinking about what I want to draw," said Eric.

"Just make a star. That's what I always do."

A star was incredibly boring. He could do a football again, but that seemed overkill for the boyfriend of the son of a retired NFL player and – Eric felt the nerves set off in his stomach when he realized that he and Jack had not discussed if they were boyfriends. Eric assumed so, especially since Jack had found a way to kiss him every single day since their first on Saturday, but they hadn't talked about it yet. Eric put down the fork, picked up his phone, and sent a quick text, just to be sure:

     Eric
     Am I your boyfriend

After he sent it, he realized he probably should not have sent such a thing through a text. Jack's phone could have been sitting anywhere, and Eric's name would pop up with a very clear message outing Jack to whoever happened to see it. Eric gripped the phone tightly in both hands and tried to talk himself through it; it was nine-thirty on a Thursday night. Jack was probably just at home with his parents, who knew about Eric anyway.

Eric's phone buzzed and he looked at it immediately.

     Jack
     Yes.

     Jack
     Have I not been clear enough on that? Do I need to kiss you some more?

     Eric
     Yes more kisses required ;)

     Jack
     Haha

     Jack
     You'll get plenty tomorrow night.

Eric pocketed his phone, feeling very warm all of a sudden, and decided on the heart after all.

 

***

 

Eric rang the doorbell promptly at five-thirty. Jack seemed to have been waiting for him, because the door opened immediately. Eric smiled at Jack, who smiled back, and they stared at each other until Bob yelled, " Mais jamais, stop staring and let the boy in, Jack!" Jack quickly stepped aside and allowed Eric to enter the foyer. Bob and Alicia stood nearby, grinning from ear to ear. Alicia was the first to notice the pie in Eric's hands.

"Oh, you brought a pie! That's so sweet!" She stepped forward and kissed him on the cheek before she took the pie out of his hands. "Does this need to be warmed up?"

"Yeah, it's apple, so it's better warm," said Eric.

"Come on in, then, honey, and we'll stick it the oven for a bit." Eric followed Alicia back toward the kitchen, which led them right past Bob.

"Good to see you again," he said.

"You too, Mr. Zimmermann," said Eric.

"Now you're being entirely too formal. Call me Bob," said Bob, and Eric nodded nervously, because Bad Bob Zimmermann just asked Eric to call him Bob . "We should get your parents out this way too sometime soon. Alicia adores your mother." Eric made a mental note to tell his mother that as soon as he possibly could. "And your father is a good man. He's been a good man to Jack this whole season, yeah, Jack?"

"He's been a good coach," said Jack. " Mais , Papa , Eric hasn't told his parents about us yet."

"Oh," said Bob, looking down at Eric, who blushed. "Do your parents not know?"

"They do," said Eric. "We just never talk about it. Ever. We don't talk much at all lately, really since we moved here from Johns Creek. It's getting better, but it's just not something that we do. Talk, I mean. I'll tell them eventually I just… I don't want to spring it on them at a weird time. They know I'm here for dinner but I didn't tell them why and I don't think they know it's just us, but I promise I'll tell them, and please tell me to stop talking I could go on for hours like this."

"Calm down, cher ," said Jack, placing his hand on Eric's back. Eric closed his mouth and relaxed into Jack's touch. Alicia and Bob exchanged a sweet look at Jack's endearment, the kind that made Eric fold into himself in an attempt to become as small as possible.

"Dinner's just about ready," said Bob when they arrived in the kitchen. Eric inhaled and swooned at the intoxicating aroma drifting from the stove. The entire kitchen smelled like a Cajun restaurant, the mix of onions and vegetables and garlic blending perfectly together as the scent wafted about the room. "It's simmering a bit longer and the rice still needs a few minutes, but we should be set to eat soon."

"Do you want something to drink?" Jack asked. He opened the fridge and pulled Eric to his side. The door gave them the tiniest bit of privacy from Jack's parents, and Eric took the opportunity to rest his head on Jack's chest for just a moment while he deliberated.

They sat at one end of the long dining room table, Jack and Eric next to each other, Alicia on the other side, and Bob at the head. Eric's mouth had been watering since the moment he stepped into the kitchen and he stared at the pot Bob placed in front of them with wide eyes. "What is that?" Eric asked, unable to contain his wonder. Bob laughed and ladled a serving into Eric's bowl.

"If I tell you what's in it, you probably won't eat it," he said, "but it's basically pork, vegetables, and gravy." Bob then scooped a large portion of white rice and plopped it into the middle of the bowl. Eric not-so-patiently waited for the rest of the family to be served, his fork in hand, and no sooner had Bob sat down that Eric dug in.

"Omygawf," Eric said with his mouth full and Jack laughed at him. Eric quickly swallowed, embarrassed. "I'm sorry. If my mother were here she would have slapped me for talking with my mouth full. This is fantastic. Thank you for making it."

" Pas rien , Eric," said Bob.

The family seemed to sense that Eric needed a minute alone with his food, so they spent the beginning of dinner in silence. Once Eric slowed down, about halfway through the bowl, Bob spoke up again. "Jack tells me you play hockey."

"Yes, sir," said Eric.

"And you used to figure skate," chimed in Alicia.

"Yes, Maman , we know you want to ask him about figure skating," said Jack. "Let him talk about hockey first."

"It's just so fascinating! I told you I always wanted to be a figure skater, right?" Alicia asked and Eric nodded. "It's one of those things I just wasn't that good at. You're very good, though, aren’t you? Your Mama said something about you going to Nationals–"

" Maman ! Hockey!"

"Oh, all right," said Alicia with an eye roll. "Please tell us about hockey."

"It's just club hockey," said Eric. "I like it a lot, but it's different than normal hockey. No checking allowed, no fighting or anything like that. I think that's why I like it so much. You can scoot around people or try to block them, but it's more about being able to get the puck in the net rather than if you can push someone out of the way. I play center."

"And you're the captain," added Jack, his expression glowing from his radiant smile.

"The captain, huh?" Bob asked. "You must be very good, then."

"I'm all right," said Eric.

"He's lying. He's the best player on the team." Eric glanced at Jack, who looked so proud that Eric had to blush and shove another forkful of food in his mouth. Bob waited until he swallowed to speak again.

"So how's the season going? It's year-round, isn't it?"

"Our last game for the year is tomorrow. We've won the last five. I think we have a really good team. We'll for sure go to the playoffs in April but who knows, maybe we'll win our division. It's nothing as special as being state champs," he added with a nudge to Jack, "but it'll be cool to win."

"That's really exciting," said Alicia. "We should come see you play when the season starts up again next year."

"Yeah, that would be nice."

"Jack tells me you're pretty good at football too," said Bob. Eric immediately rounded on Jack, who did not look the least bit sheepish about it.

"That is definitely a lie. I can catch a ball but there's a reason I play hockey, not football. I know Coach has always been disappointed about that, about how I'll never follow in his footsteps and become a big time starter and play at his alma mater, but I was never quite cut out for it," said Eric with a shrug.

"Well you have to do what you want to do," said Bob. "Jack always wanted to play football, but if he said when he was five he wanted to do karate instead, that would have been that."

"You're just saying that because I am playing football at your alma mater," said Jack.

"And we'd still love you if you didn't, Jack," said Bob.

"Did you decide on Bama, then?" Eric asked.

"Yeah. I mean I still have to wait until Signing Day to make it official, but it's pretty much a done deal." Eric looked back at his mostly-eaten food. He wasn't sure if it would be rude to start scraping his bowl, but he did it anyway as his mind began to drift. Talk about college and where Jack would sign had really just been talk until this point, and suddenly May did not seem very far away. He and Jack had been together for less than a week and in six months Jack would graduate and they'd have to think about what that meant – if they were going to try to stay together with Jack living in another state or if that would be the end of it.

"Are the men done talking? Am I allowed to ask about skating now?" asked Alicia and Eric smiled at her.

"Ask away."

Alicia's questions took them through the rest of the meal and into pie, which had been gently warmed in the oven. There was vanilla ice cream in the freezer so everyone accepted a scoop on top, and conversation ceased as soon as they began eating. As soon as Jack took his first bite, he reached under the table and grabbed Eric's thigh, which caused Eric to jump in his seat. Jack had been very polite throughout dinner, keeping his hands to himself, but one bite of apple pie and suddenly Eric's skin was a live wire.

"Eric, you did not tell us you baked like this," said Alicia, who finished her slice and her ice cream before either Jack or Bob. "Jack, why are we just now meeting this boy?"

"You met him before," said Jack.

"There wasn't pie before," said Alicia. "Who wants another piece?"

Everyone ate another piece; there would have been a third slice had there been more slices available. Eric gathered plates from everyone and took them to the kitchen, despite Alicia and Bob both attempting to stop him.

"It's the least I can do. Y'all made me the best dinner ever. I can do the dishes," said Eric, although he pulled Jack into the kitchen with him to dry. It was not his best decision, because with Alicia and Bob in the living room and out of sight, Jack spent more time planting kisses on the back of Eric's neck than drying the pots and pans that Eric handed him.

"Jack…" whined Eric when Jack's tongue trailed up the length of Eric's hairline along the nape of his neck. Eric shifted uncomfortably, hyper aware that Alicia or Bob could walk into the kitchen at any time. There was not much to wash and with Jack distracting Eric, it took much longer than it needed to. "Stop it, let me finish."

"How about we finish upstairs in my room?" Jack whispered, setting his hands on Eric's hips. Eric shivered and he could feel Jack's grin against his skin.

"We're supposed to be spending the evening with your parents," said Eric.

"No, I said dinner with my parents. Dinner's over. Come upstairs."

"You finish drying these, Mr. Zimmermann, and then we'll see." Eric checked Jack away with his hips and Jack laughed, but dried and put away the rest of the dishes. Once the final plate was inside the cupboard, Jack dropped the towel onto the counter, took Eric's hand, and dragged him up the back staircase.

The second floor of the house was much more normal than the first; the first was clearly the product of a long-time millionaire. The carpet was silky under Eric's feet, the furniture luxurious and expensive, and the appliances were color coordinated and new. The second floor looked like it belonged to a real family, mostly since Eric could not see in any of the bedrooms yet and the hallway was littered with photos.

Jack was pushing Eric toward one of the bedrooms but Eric stopped at a collage on the wall. "Wait, wait, what is this?" Eric gestured to a photo of baby Jack, his large blue eyes pointing in opposite directions. It would not have been so bad if baby Jack had not also been drooling excessively, his fingers in his mouth, showing off one lone tooth. "Please tell me this is you."

"Yes," said Jack brusquely, and he pushed Eric but Eric pushed back.

"No, I have to look at these. Look at you! Oh Lord, Jack, you were darling!" Eric's face was nothing but smiles as he browsed over the rest of the arrangement in the hallway, ranging from the awful baby photos (one frame was just a series of Jack gnawing on a small football that he eventually punctured, which caused him to burst into tears, the final photo depicting a red-in-the-face Jack with snot and tears running down his face, holding onto a flat football) until Jack slowly began to grow up. He was not an attractive child either; his eyes eventually aligned but he did not lose his awkwardness until his pre-teens. There was still something incredibly endearing about each photo, even the ridiculous ones, and when Eric had his fill he turned to the real Jack and buried his face in Jack's shirt.

"You're adorable," Eric said.

"Are you serious?" Jack asked. Eric looked up at him and Jack looked more embarrassed than anything else.

"Of course! You were an adorable baby, and an adorable child, and somehow you turned into this incredibly beautiful man." Eric placed his hands on Jack's chest and stood on his tiptoes to give him a quick kiss. "I think I am very lucky to be with you."

"You're lucky?" Jack asked. "I think I'm the lucky one here." Eric rolled his eyes and finally allowed Jack to pull him into the bedroom. Eric paused in the doorway, in awe of the spacious room Jack had just unveiled. He took two steps inside, trying desperately not to freak out over its size and furnishing. Jack had three bookcases overflowing with well-loved books next to a large, squishy chair, a desk with a desktop computer and a laptop computer, a television mounted on the wall opposite the bed, and the largest, most comfortable looking bed Eric had ever seen. The bed was the most inviting part of the room, so Eric sat down on it and looked up at Jack.

"So," said Eric, as Jack approached, "I believe I was promised plenty of kisses."

"I believe you were," said Jack.

Jack climbed over him, causing Eric to lie back in order to accommodate Jack’s larger body, and the bed felt as comfortable as it looked. Eric emitted a happy sigh before Jack's lips were even on him, and then they were, firm and relentless against Eric’s jawline. He emitted a tiny moan when Jack changed direction, pressing their lips together, and they kissed until they were both breathless, Jack's hands caressing every inch of skin he could get. Eric took full advantage of knowing he could touch Jack in return, his fingers flowing over the taut muscles in Jack's back, slowly lowering until he had a handful of Jack's large ass. Jack chuckled, just once, the first time Eric touched him there, before the kissing resumed.

It was by far the most intense action Eric had ever experienced, kissing with purpose, hands touching places no one had ever touched before, yet it still remained not quite enough, and there was a line that neither crossed without even needing to discuss it. Daily kisses in Jack's truck or the school bathrooms all seemed normal, as if they'd been happening for years, but Eric knew consciously that they had only been doing this for six days. There was finally a moment when Eric's lips began to hurt from the constant pressure and he pulled away from Jack to take a breath. "Lord, honey, you are going to be the death of me," said Eric, which caused Jack to smile and kiss him just one more time, just for a second. "I'm not quite used to this yet."

"Are you telling me you didn't have boys lining up the block for you in Johns Creek?"

Eric burst into self-deprecating laughter. "You're kidding, right?"

"Why not? You're gorgeous," said Jack and Eric paused a moment to look at Jack, who was in himself gorgeous, and seemed to whole-heartedly believe his statement. Eric shook his head. "Have you ever had a boyfriend? Or do I get to be your first?"

"You’re my first, Jack," said Eric, and Jack smiled at that. "There wasn't anybody back then. Well...no. No, there wasn't anybody."

"Oh there was somebody," teased Jack and he kissed Eric's cheek before he shifted to lay beside him. "Tell me."

"It wasn't anything," said Eric, but the thought of it removed the smile completely from his face. "He was my best friend. We moved to Johns Creek when I was ten and I met him the first day of school and until I left he was my…everything, really. I remember Mama used to ask why I didn't make other friends, and I didn't understand why I needed other friends. It was just him. Then when we got a little older I started noticing him differently and then that was it." Eric closed his eyes and Drew's face came into focus again, the last day of their friendship, sitting on Eric's bed, drawing on Eric's cast, beautiful and vibrant and present. Eric opened his eyes again. "He's not… He isn't gay, though. I was just in love with him and nothing ever happened."

"He's clearly an idiot."

"Hush," said Eric. He playfully shoved Jack, who just rolled back and pulled Eric close against him. "He just isn't that way. That's not his fault. What about you, mister? Have you had a boyfriend before?"

" Mais ," said Jack, and Eric grinned at the crinkle in his nose when he said it. "Sort of. I mean I dated a girl for a while last year. She was just okay."

"That Camilla girl that you took to homecoming?" Eric asked.

"Yeah. I think we were better friends than anything else, and I ended it after a month or two. I think she suspected I wasn't quite into it. But Kenny and I were friends back in Lafayette. It just sort of happened. We were the only two freshman on the varsity football team and we were both quarterbacks. We practiced a lot together because people had a tendency to pick on us a bit, since we were younger. Me especially because of my pop."

"I hear ya," said Eric.

"I don't think anyone believed I got on the team from talent, no matter how many games we won or how many passes I completed. Kenny and I were always under fire, so we spent a lot of time together, and one time sophomore year we just took it one step further. We only hooked up a few times. My parents knew, of course, because they always know everything, but I didn't tell any of my other friends or anyone else on the team."

"What happened?" Eric asked.

" Papa retired and we moved out here. I saw him for a little bit last summer at the camp at Bama, but nothing happened. It was all about football, not about what had happened in the past, but I think he was still pissed at me for never talking to him again." Jack slowly ran his fingers up Eric's arm, thoroughly distracting Eric from what he had been saying. "What about you? Do you still talk to your friend?"

"No," said Eric. "I haven't spoken to him since we left. Sometimes I feel really guilty about that. I think about him and I can see his face and it just hurts so much, but now I'm at the point that I don't know what to say. What would I even say to him? 'Sorry I ignored you for so long, let's hang out if I'm ever out that way again?' "

"You don't need to say anything if you don't want to," said Jack, his fingers caressing up and down Eric's arm, sending sparks through the veins of Eric's body. "And besides, I don't want to compete with him. I want you all to myself."

"You have me all to yourself," said Eric, looking directly into the blue of Jack's eyes. "I'm all yours."

"Good," Jack whispered and kissed him again.

Eric found himself distracted, though – not from Jack's lips or his fingers – but from the horrible thought of what would happened when Jack left him, too. Both he and Jack had a track record of disappearing and Eric didn't want there ever to be a moment when he didn't have Jack, just like this, kissing him and touching him and being near him. The thought made him shiver, which caused Jack to pull away.

"You okay, cher ?" he asked.

"Nothing. I'm just thinking too much." Jack raised his eyebrows and dodged Eric's attempt to kiss him again. "What's going to happen when you graduate and go all the way to Alabama? I just got to be with you and less than a year from now you're going to leave."

"It's not forever," said Jack. "We can still see each other all the time. It's not like I'm going to Russia or something."

"But you won't be here," said Eric, "and that's four whole years without you."

"It doesn't have to be four years," said Jack. "You can go there too."

"And become even more of a disappointment to my father? No, I have to go to Georgia."

"You don't have to do anything, cher . You're your own person and you don't have to go to a school just because your father went there. You can come to Bama and be with me." Jack pressed his face into Eric's neck when Eric sighed. "Come be with me instead."

Eric raked his fingers through the bristly strands of Jack’s short hair. Jack nuzzled further into his neck at the touch, brushing at a sensitive patch behind Eric’s ear that caused Eric’s whole body to squirm. It would be wonderful to stay with him like this, but when Eric closed his eyes he saw Drew collapsed on the doorstep of the house in Johns Creek, crying into his arms.

"Ugh, I don't want to think of this right now," said Eric. "Just kiss me some more, okay?"

"Okay."

Chapter Text

February 2010

After Sectionals, Eric's training with Katya was reduced by one day a week to give him time to rest and regroup for the next season, which meant Eric had the ability to see Drew more often, and, even better, attend Drew's swim meets. The swimming season only lasted until February when those who qualified could compete at the state championship, and Drew's 100 yard backstroke was one of the few from Hooch that made it. Eric packed into the back of the Lester family SUV and drove two hours to the meet on the other side of Atlanta, Drew antsy the entire way.

"Are we going to be late?" Drew asked Mr. Lester from the back seat where he and Eric were sitting essentially on top of each other. Amy no longer needed a car seat but was too small to sit without a bulky booster, which required Eric and Drew to smush together on the other side of the car. Eric would not have minded had Drew ever been able to sit still or shut up.

"Andrew Joshua," said Mrs. Lester when she turned around from the front seat, "if you ask one more time if we're going to be late, we'll turn around and go home and you can just forget about this meet altogether. We have plenty of time."

Drew grumbled and pushed Eric out of the way.

"Seriously, dude, get off me," said Drew.

"What am I supposed to do? Amy's seat is poking me in the butt!"

"Amy, move over so Eric isn't on my lap!"

"Boys," scolded Mr. Lester. "That's enough. There is no absolutely no need to sit so close to each other. You have plenty of room. Now, not another peep from either of you. We'll be there in thirty minutes."

Thirty minutes was a lot to ask of two annoyed teenagers, but apart from a few elbow jabs and muttered curses, Eric and Drew managed to make it the rest of the car ride without causing any additional fuss. Eric held fast to the back of Drew's shirt as they weaved through the crowd entering the arena until Drew spotted his coach and turned to the family to say goodbye.

"Drew, honey, good luck," said Mrs. Lester, pulling Drew into a tight hug. Drew crunched his face as she swooped in for a kiss, and as soon as she let go Eric filled in the gap and hugged Drew as well.

"Ugh," said Drew when Eric collided with him. "Stop it."

"Good luck," Eric said. Drew put his nose in Eric's shoulder and held him back, just for a moment, before Mr. Lester pulled him away for a short, one-armed hug and a push toward Drew’s coach. Mrs. Lester tugged on Eric's sleeve, so Eric followed them into the bleachers to find seats with a decent view of the pool.

Despite only being in one event, Drew swam three total times. His first event was a qualifying heat that took place ten minutes after the first race. Eric sat with Amy on his lap until Drew and seven other swimmers came onto the pool deck and began taking off their jackets. Drew stripped off his jacket and his pants to just a competition speedo and Eric immediately moved Amy to the bleacher next to him.

"I want to sit on your lap," Amy complained to Eric, but Eric couldn't remove his eyes from Drew.

"You're too old for lap sitting," said Eric.

"Come here with me instead, honey," said Mr. Lester, who pulled Amy onto his own lap. Eric bent forward and watched Drew jump into the pool; because he was competing in the backstroke he wouldn't be diving in, and that was probably a good thing since Eric was beginning to lose focus on his surroundings. Drew dunked himself under the water a few times before he set up at the block, and at the sound of a gun darted backward.

Eric and Mrs. Lester jumped to their feet, screaming Drew's name, but it was completely unnecessary since at the turn Drew was a full body length ahead of the next person and kept his lead all the way back to the starting point. Mrs. Lester pulled Eric up against her at Drew's sizeable victory and Eric took the moment to hug her back before he looked at Drew when he got out of the pool.

There was a significant delay between the qualifying heat and the semi-final; Eric kept his eyes off most of the male competitors, especially since Amy kept coming by to bother him when she got bored, which usually meant physically climbing onto his lap, pushing him over, or appearing unexpectedly right in his line of vision.

"Okay, Amy, seriously," said Eric at twelve-thirty, after Amy jumped in front of him when he tried to stuff a hamburger from the concession stand in his face. "I know you're bored. We're all bored. Did you eat your hot dog?"

"Yes," said Amy. "It wasn't very good."

"None of the food is very good. Look, Drew's semi-final is in ten minutes. Ask your mom if you can get a slushie and I'll share it with you," said Eric. Amy turned to Mrs. Lester, who already had a five-dollar bill out for her, and Amy ran off to the concessions. "Are these always this boring?" Eric asked her.

"Yes," said Mrs. Lester. "At least this one means a lot more."

"Ugh, I may just always have practice next year," said Eric.

Amy returned with a cherry slushie, which she and Eric shared until Drew came onto the pool deck again. Eric handed the slushie back to Amy and then watched as Drew removed his jacket and pants again, then dove into the water. Amy shoved the slushie back in his face but he pushed it away, his eyes fixated on Drew. Having made it to the semifinal, the competition was more difficult, but Drew still closed in on an early lead and kept it until the very end, sliding into first place again.

"Oh my God," said Eric when he looked at Drew's time on the scoreboard. "Mrs. Lester, he could win."

"He could win," said Mrs. Lester. "I think there's another boy from down south who had a better time in qualifying, but Drew could win. See, Josh, I told you getting a house with a pool was important."

"Yes, you certainly told me," said Mr. Lester.

Waiting for Drew's final took considerable effort from everyone in the family. Amy, now completely hopped up on sugar and bored out of her mind, dragged Eric around the perimeter of the arena several times before she tired herself out and could sit still again, and Mr. and Mrs. Lester clearly were ready to go home. The actual finals were starting, which gave every race a new sense of novelty, but Drew's race didn't occur until three o'clock. When he and the seven other finalists entered the pool deck for the last time, Eric stood with Mrs. Lester and felt the nerves of the day catch up with him. Drew's 100 yard backstroke only took about a minute, but as soon as he jumped into the water, Eric felt like he would have to wait forever to see the end of the race.

When the gun went off, Drew had a good start and going into the only turn was in the lead, but unlike the other two races of the day, his lead started to vanish with just half a pool length to go. Eric placed both his hands over his mouth and yelled into them as three others started gaining on him. Drew kept just ahead of them until the last ten yards, when it was impossible to tell by sight who had won. He turned to the scoreboard where Drew Lester was listed in third place.

"Aww," said Mrs. Lester. "Look at how close that was!"

Drew's results were just a tenth of a second away from the first place finisher, and only a tenth of a second better than the fourth place. It was disappointing, but after they met Drew at the back of the arena, Drew was beside himself with joy at his bronze medal.

"E!" he yelled. "Look at it!"

Drew shoved the medal in Eric's face and Eric laughed, but couldn't reply for Mrs. Lester had stolen Drew away into another bone-crushing hug. When Eric and Drew packed back into the car with the rest of the family, Eric leaned in close and whispered, "Okay, seriously. Is it that boring for you too when you come to see my skating?"

"Yes," said Drew.

"Why did you come, then?"

"Because you deserve it, man," said Drew. Eric flicked the bronze medal around Drew's neck.

"You too, friend," said Eric. "You deserve it."

Eric had a much different opinion on Monday morning, however, when he arrived at Drew's house and Drew came down the stairs with his medal still around his neck. Eric rolled his eyes. "You are not wearing that to school, Drew."

"Why not? It'll make me look cool."

Eric stared at Drew without saying a word. Drew stared back, defiant, until thirty seconds had passed and Drew finally went back upstairs and returned without his medal. "Better," said Eric, and they biked together to school. When they locked their bikes in the rack their classmate from first period, Anthony Berken, came up to Drew and slapped him on the back. Eric jumped at the sound, but Anthony was grinning at Drew.

"Dude," he said. "Heard you took third at state."

"Yeah," said Drew. Eric had never seen his smile so big before, even despite his poor efforts to control it. "Thanks!"

"Good job," Anthony said and then noticed Eric for the first time. "Oh. Hi." Eric nodded at him before he left.

It happened several more times throughout the day, but none of them mattered until lunch. Eric and Drew sat at their usual table; Drew had three slices of pizza on his plate and Eric had chicken nuggets and French fries. Drew had just shoveled half a slice into his mouth when Claire Montague stepped up to the table, her eyes only on Drew.

"Hi Drew," she said with a happy smile. Eric looked at Drew, who panicked and took entirely too long to chew his pizza before he swallowed, wiped his mouth, and tried to look cool.

"Hi Claire," he said. "What's up?"

"Anthony told me you placed at state this weekend," she said. Eric dunked his French fry into ketchup and tried desperately to ignore her, but she spoke louder than necessary and leaned so far onto the table her long blonde hair got in Eric's food. Eric groaned. "That's really cool. Did you get a medal?"

"Yeah," said Drew. When Eric glanced up, Drew was looking pointedly at him. "I'd show it to you, but I left it at home."

"I want to see it," she said. Eric brushed her hair out of his way. "What type of swimming did you do?"

"Backstroke," said Drew. "I mean I do all of them, and backstroke's not even my favorite, but that's the one I qualified for."

"What's your favorite?" Claire asked. She bent over further; Eric knew exactly why she was bending so far over, since the neck of her sweater dipped low in the front, but she was practically lying on top of his lunch. Despite being in Eric's line of sight, she was deliberately excluding him from their stupid conversation.

"The breast stroke," said Drew and Eric glared at him. Claire giggled and Drew beamed. Eric slid his tray out of the way before Claire's elbow ended up in his ketchup, which seemed to cause them both to remember he was there. "Claire, you know Eric, right?"

"Yeah," said Claire dismissively. "Hi."

"Hi," said Eric.

"I should get in line. See you later, Drew. Congratulations." She started to walk away but then after five steps stopped and returned. "Oh, and I forgot to tell you. I like your glasses."

"Thanks," said Drew and he instinctively pushed his glasses back up his nose with his index finger. Claire smiled at him and he watched her walk away to join the lunch line. As soon as she was gone, Drew turned to Eric. "Oh my God, dude. Did you see that?"

"Sure did," said Eric as he picked a long blonde hair off of his tray.

"Do you think she likes me?"

"I don't know, D," said Eric. "You know how good I am at understanding girls."

"Yeah, but she wouldn't have come over here and talked to me if she didn't like me, right?" Drew asked. He pushed up his glasses again unnecessarily. "And she wouldn't have said anything about my glasses. Do you remember two years ago when she said she liked my glasses? Oh man, what if she's liked me this whole time and I've been too stupid to notice?"

Eric just shrugged his shoulders.

"Do you think she's hot? She's hot, right?"

"Drew," said Eric with another glare.

"Oh, right," said Drew. "But you can still tell if she's hot, can't you?"

"I have no idea if she's hot," said Eric. "I can tell you that she thinks she's hot by the way she was practically lying on the table while talking to you."

"She was not!"

"Okay," said Eric and he picked another hair off his tray.

Drew discussed Claire Montague for the rest of lunch, even after they were done eating, and Eric had never been less interested in a conversation. He continued talking about her when they gathered their books and headed back into the main building. "She's pretty cool too, right?"

"She's, like, way into horses, though," said Eric. "Like too much into horses."

"Her family owns a horse farm. Of course she's into horses." Eric shrugged his shoulders and followed Drew inside the building. "Can you wait for me a sec? I have to pee." Eric followed Drew into the bathroom down the hall. They were inside for maybe three seconds before the door opened again behind them, and Eric saw Clayton through the mirror first, blocking the only exit. Drew turned around immediately.

"What the hell do you want?" Drew asked.

"Can't a guy take a piss in peace?" Clayton asked. Eric backed away until he hit the far wall, but Clayton made no attempt to move to any of the urinals.

"Go ahead," said Drew.

"Heard you guys at lunch," said Clayton. "Think Claire might have a crush on you, Lester, but that means you two have to break up, doesn't it?"

"Just leave us alone," said Drew. "Eric, come on, let's just get out of here." Drew gently placed a hand behind Eric's shoulder to nudge him forward, but Eric didn't move. Clayton was still blocking the exit and there wasn't a way to get around him.

"Listen, we all know Dicky's a faggot, but Lester, you've got a pair on you to be playing him and this Claire chick too. Should I tell her what you two've been up to all these years?" Drew pulled Eric again, but Eric still didn't move. "Or maybe I should just run and tell your daddy, huh, Dicky? I imagine he wouldn't be pleased with that either."

"Or maybe you could just leave us the fuck alone," said Drew. "Now shut up and get out of the way."

"Or what?" Clayton asked.

"Drew," whispered Eric. "Don't."

"Ah, see, Dicky knows what happens when you talk back. Should I lock you both in the closet this time? Or is that something you actually want?" Drew balled a fist and headed directly to Clayton, but even though Drew had grown over a foot since Eric first met him in fifth grade, Clayton was still taller, thicker, and faster. Clayton connected a fist with Drew's nose before Drew could even lift his arm.

"Drew!" Eric yelled, leaping forward as Drew staggered back, his hands over his already bloody nose. "Just leave us alone, Clayton!"

The bell rang overhead. Clayton snickered. "Yeah. Sure," he said. "Keep an eye out, boys." He gave them a smile before he turned and casually left the bathroom. Eric crouched in front of Drew and attempted to look through his hands at Drew's nose.

"Oh my God, Drew, you're such an idiot," said Eric. "Let me see."

"Fuck, this fucking hurts," said Drew. He removed his hands from his face, blood still pouring out of his nose, but his nose still looked normal, so at the very least it wasn't obviously broken. "Is it bad?"

"No, I think you'll be okay. Sit down."

Drew hopped up on the counter and Eric balled up some tissue for him. Drew shoved the tissue into his nostrils, wincing slightly as he did, and Eric set to work cleaning up the rest of him. "Now this looks familiar, doesn't it?" Eric asked. Drew cracked a smile and then winced again. "You shouldn't have provoked him."

"If I didn't provoke him he would have drowned you in a toilet," said Drew. "It's worth it."

"No," said Eric. "None of this is worth it."

The bleeding stopped after ten minutes. Drew let Eric poke at him for another five, then said, "Do you just want to skip and go home?"

"Yes," said Eric. "Isn't your mom home today?"

"Ugh, yeah," said Drew. "Let's just go hang out somewhere until school lets out and go back to yours. Do you have Katya today?" Eric nodded. "I'll come with."

It was too cold to stay outside for three hours, so they whiled away the time between the grocery store where they split a candy bar, the library where they left after Drew made a horrible pun about books, and finally decided to take the three-mile ride to the mall, where they spent the last of their change at the arcade and then wandered around until it was time for practice. Drew's nose was still noticeably swollen but no longer bleeding, and Katya immediately commented on it.

"That looks broken," she said.

"It's not broken," said Drew. "It's just swollen."

"What happened?"

"I hit it on the diving board," said Drew with a shrug. "I'm fine." Katya looked at Eric, who nodded, but it was clear she believed Drew about as much as she believed Eric the last time this had happened.

"All right. Don't get in the way. Eric, change your clothes and meet me in the weight room."

It wasn't the most exciting practice for Drew to attend, but Drew worked on his legs while Katya had Eric doing inverted sit ups while dangling from the pull up bar. "Oh my God," said Drew after Eric did four in quick succession. "How are you not ripped? That's the kind of sit-ups they do in the Marines."

"No talking," said Katya when Eric stopped to respond. "Start over and give me fifteen. Drew, if you're going to be here you can't interrupt."

"Ugh, fine," said Drew, and he started another repetition of leg weights.

Drew's impromptu workout made the bike home much longer than necessary, but both were relieved to walk through the door to the smell of Suzanne's chili. "Mama!" called Eric. "Drew came to practice and he's staying for dinner!"

"Great! We can all eat in the dining room."

Eric paused. They hadn't eaten dinner as a family since Suzanne and Coach's argument. Most of that had to do with Eric missing meal times due to practice, but even days when they were all home together, Eric had managed to eat in his room or alone in the kitchen without having to see Coach at all. Avoiding Coach at home was much easier than it was at school.

When Eric and Drew walked into the dining room, Coach was already there and Suzanne was just bringing the chili pot out of the kitchen. She set it down, took one look at Drew, and gasped. "Drew! What happened to your nose?"

"Oh," said Drew, and he gingerly touched his nose as if he wasn't aware it was still swollen. "I hit it on the diving board at practice."

"Oh my goodness, it could be broken! Did your coach look at it?" Drew nodded.

"Yeah, he doesn't think it's serious. I just have to take it easy for a bit. It doesn't even hurt anymore."

"You tell me right away if it's broken. At least it happened after the season ended and not before your big meet this weekend. Dicky, sit down."

Eric had been standing behind his chair during the entire interaction, but at his mother's insistence, sat down and accepted the bowl she handed him. She doled out three more and finally sat down herself. She looked over at all three of them, each looking into their own bowls and not at each other, and sighed.

"Well this is nice," she said. "It's been a while since we all sat down for a meal together. Drew, thanks for bringing the family back together." Drew smiled at Suzanne, but Eric and Coach didn't react at all, so Drew returned his gaze to his bowl. "How was practice today with Katya, Dicky?" Eric shrugged his shoulders but didn't respond. "You know your father was saying something the other day about your training and how many hours you spend with her. You really should be resting more often. You can't go every day for months without a break." Suzanne looked at Coach, who had nothing more to add, and then to Eric, who did not think he needed to rest more often.

They continued to eat in silence until Suzanne spoke again.

"I was thinking about making some new things for the farmer's market this year. I know it's still a couple of months away, but the pies and the breads always go like crazy every time and then I'm packing up by nine o'clock when the market hours go until three. Cecilia's got a new recipe for some really neat types of soap. I bought a new mold today for it and I'm going to try it out. I didn't think to do it for the market, but the ones I've made have already turned out really well."

"You make the soap that's always in the bathroom, Mrs. B?" Drew asked.

"I do."

"Huh. I never knew that," said Drew. "It's good soap."

Eric looked at Drew; they had resorted to talking about soap.

Coach was the first to finish. He stood a moment later, placed his bowl on the counter, and then headed into the garage without a word. Suzanne frowned as she watched him leave, but then Eric stood and placed his own bowl in the sink, and the headed toward the stairs.

"Well," she said as Eric headed up, "I guess we're never doing that again."

Eric took a shower and changed his clothes before he returned to his room, where Drew was waiting for him. Drew lay on Eric's bed with an ice pack on his nose, breathing out of his mouth and staring at the ceiling. He glanced over when Eric entered. Eric tossed his smelly training clothes into the hamper in the closet before he sat at his desk.

"How long's it been like this?" Drew asked.

"Like what?"

"With you and Coach."

Eric shrugged his shoulders. "Hasn't it always been like this?" Eric asked.

"No. You used to speak to each other."

"We sometimes speak to each other. I sometimes need to ask him things. It's not like he and I ever had anything in common so there's really nothing to say."

"Yeah, but you used to at least get along. Remember when we were at the lake that one time? After he finished the canoe? He helped you take fish off the hooks and bought us aloe when we got those bad sunburns."

"No, Drew, he helped you take fish off the hooks. He never wanted anything to do with me."

"That's not true."

"Whatever," said Eric. "I have homework due tomorrow. You can watch TV if you want but I'm going to finish this up before we go to bed." Drew turned on the television but mostly stared at the ceiling while Eric finished the wavelength calculations for his astronomy class (he'd thought when he signed up for it that it would be looking at planets through telescopes and talking about black holes, but it was actually a lot more math than stargazing), and when they finally went to sleep, Eric hugged the wall and Drew faced the interior of the room, as far apart as the bed would allow.

Chapter Text

December 2011

The Sunday after Eric had dinner with Jack's parents, Jack came over to study for finals, which began in just one week. Their study session in the basement quickly turned into a make out session. Having seen each other every single day since their first kiss, and then not seeing each other on Saturday, caused a lot of built up tension that had to be resolved as soon as they were alone. Neither had even opened their backpacks before Eric dragged Jack onto the couch, and neither came up for air for a half an hour.

When Eric finally pulled away, he immediately giggled at the redness in Jack's lips. "You look like you've been kissing," said Eric.

"So do you," said Jack. They kissed one more time before Eric sighed and placed his head on Jack's chest instead. "Is it bad that I missed you yesterday?"

"Kind of," said Eric, "but I missed you too."

"How'd your game go?"

"We won."

"Mais yeah? Did you get any points?"

"Yep," said Eric. "Two."

"Two, huh?" Jack asked. Eric looked up at him and Jack pulled him in for two long kisses before he spoke again: "We should probably study." Eric grumbled into Jack's neck and Jack laughed. "Okay. A couple more minutes. Then we have to start studying."

A couple of minutes turned into forty-five minutes, but Eric and Jack did eventually make it to the table and their books. Reading boring text was less fun than holding hands and touching thighs however, so Eric wasn't entirely sure how much knowledge he retained by the time Suzanne called them upstairs for lunch. They sat down at the kitchen table and Suzanne set down two bowls of split pea soup and ham sandwiches for them.

"How's the studying?" she asked. "Getting a lot accomplished?"

Eric glanced at Jack and very poorly attempted to hide his grin with a bite of sandwich.

"There's only so much math you can do before your eyes fall out," said Jack, "but I think we're getting through it."

"Mmm-hmm," said Suzanne. When she turned her back Eric mouthed "Liar" at Jack, who chuckled. Suzanne looked back over her shoulder and Jack shoved his sandwich in his mouth. Eric felt Jack's foot crawl up his leg and Eric kicked him under the table to stop him, but Jack just chuckled again.

Jack had to leave at three o'clock, so Eric thoroughly kissed him goodbye in the basement before he walked Jack out through the garage, where Coach was placing the final touches on the canoe. The varnish was dry, the seats were installed, and he was just painting a name on the stern when Jack and Eric interrupted him.

"Hello boys!" Coach said. "Taking off already, Jack?"

"Yeah, I promised my pop I'd be home in time for the Saints game."

"Gonna be a good one today," said Coach, nodding to the television in the corner of the room where he had on the Falcons game. The Falcons were up by a touchdown over the Panthers, which explained Coach's grin. "I can feel it. Nothing like football in December." Jack agreed and he turned to Eric to say goodbye, only to hesitate on how exactly to do it. They stared at each other for a moment before Eric held out his fist. Jack smiled and bumped it, then waved at Coach. Eric watched him until he was in his truck and down the street, then looked back at Coach's work.

"Does it need to have a name if it's just a canoe?"

"No," said Coach, "but if it's our canoe, we should probably give it a name, don't you think?"

"I suppose so."

Eric watched while Coach finished lettering The Little Bittle on the starboard stern. He resealed the small paint can, washed his brush in the utility sink, and then looked over the boat, a glimmer of pride in his eyes. "That's it?" Eric asked.

"That's it," said Coach. "Listen, Junior, I know you have finals coming up, and that's important, but it's supposed to still be pretty warm next weekend. Might be the last warm weekend before winter. What'd you say we take this out on the lake for a day?"

"Yeah," said Eric. "That'd be great."

"Great."

Early the following Saturday, Eric went on a run before the sun rose, took a shower, and then returned to the kitchen before either of his parents were awake. He finished the mini-pies he'd started the night before; Jack had called halfway through the filling, and while normally a conversation with Jack could have been conducted in the kitchen, the sound of Jack's voice was entirely too alluring to be heard within sight of Suzanne and Coach, so Eric put the filling on hold and took the rest of the call in his room.

Eric was just packing the pies into a Tupperware container when Coach wandered into the room. "Good morning," Eric said.

"How long have you been up?" Coach asked as he immediately walked to the coffeemaker and turned it on.

"A while. I went for a run and finished up these mini pies," said Eric. "When do you want to leave?"

"Whenever you'd like. We have the campsite all day."

"I think I'll let you wake up first," said Eric when Coach let out a loud, large yawn.

They packed up the truck with the fishing gear, the tent, and of course the mini pies, then lifted the canoe together to strap it to the roof. This canoe was heavier than the ones Coach had previously made, probably because he wanted this one to last as long as possible, but between the two of them they were able to lift and secure it. Just as they'd finished, Suzanne opened the door to the garage, still in her bathrobe, a cup of coffee in her hand and her hair mussed from sleep.

"You boys have a good time," she said. Eric ran over and kissed her on the cheek before he climbed into the passenger's seat. Suzanne waved them down the driveway. Their normal campsite was barely a half hour from this house, which was a welcome change to the two-hour drive Eric remembered when Drew was in the car. However, they were only down the street and not even to the highway when Eric felt an overwhelming urge to be truthful:

"Jack and I are dating."

Coach didn't respond, nor did he react, and in the ensuing silence, Eric had four separate heart attacks.

"Yeah?" Coach eventually asked, glancing over at Eric before he turned onto the highway. "For how long?"

"Since y'all won state," Eric said.

"Really? Only since state?"

"What do you mean only since state?" Eric asked, and he could hear the panic in his own voice. It sounded at least an octave too high as it came out of his mouth, and he tried to take a breath to calm himself, but it came in way too shallow. "Did you know?"

"I'm not a fool, son. I didn't really think he was coming over every Sunday to study."

"But he was!" said Eric.

"Maybe that's what you said to each other, but neither of you wanted it that way." Eric felt like his heart was going to explode. "Like I said. I have eyes."

"Oh."

They were silent again as they continued down the highway. Eric could only hear the sound of his own erratic breathing, the loud thumping in his chest, and the hundreds of thoughts racing through his brain. Coach had made no comment whatsoever on how he felt about the situation, if he was surprised that Jack was dating a boy, if he was surprised that Eric was dating a boy. There was nothing but fact in the conversation and Eric didn't know how to take it. He sneaked glances across the center console of the truck, but Coach continued down the highway, both hands on the wheel, his face impassive as usual. It had always been difficult to read him.

"Are you mad?" Eric quietly asked.

"About what, Junior?"

"You know. About me. Being gay."

Coach finally looked over at him, but there was nothing comforting about his face. Eric's eyes teared up, and it was only when he wiped at them that Coach's expression finally softened.

"Eric," he said, and Eric held in the sob that was caught in his throat. "I've known for a long while that you're gay. That doesn't change a single thing about you. You're my son. Okay?" Eric nodded, still wiping at his eyes and trying to hold in his tears. He should have waited to say something until they were out of the car. "Now, listen to me. I may not have been the best father –"

"Coach –"

"Let me say it, son. I may not have been the best father to you. Heck, you don't even call me dad, and that's my fault. I've spent these past sixteen years caring more about my players than about you and look how that ended up. I tried to see the best in them when I knew there was something wrong. I took their side. I always took their side. That's not the kind of father I want to be. I've tried to relate to you since you were a toddler, but you always liked your mama more. You always fit so easily with her. I guess I didn't know what to say to a boy who had nothing in common with me. I know I went about it the wrong way. And then I went and said I didn't want you and I never apologized for that."

"I know you didn't mean it."

"But I'm your father, Junior. I'm your father and I told you I didn't want you. That's not what a father should do."

"I didn't make it easy for you. I didn't even try to relate to you. I didn't even try to talk to you."

"That wasn't your responsibility."

"I could have done something," said Eric.

"That's why we're here," said Coach. "We've got this boat that you helped me make. We're going to spend the day together and we're going to try to talk to each other. And we're not going to cry until we get there, okay?" Eric nodded, but he was already crying. "I can't hug you while I'm driving, son." Eric laughed and continued to wipe his eyes until they stopped watering, then they sat in comfortable silence the rest of the commute to the lake.

Coach parked the truck on the grass at the campsite. Eric stepped out and headed to the back to grab the tent, but before he could lower the tailgate, Coach took hold of his shoulder and pulled him in for a hug. Eric covered his face in his hands as a barrier between his tears and Coach's chest, but his father hugged him in a way Eric could not remember ever experiencing. This was the type of hug his mother would give, and had given on a regular basis, but even as a small child, he had no memory of being this physically close to Coach.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be the son you wanted," said Eric into his hands, which caused Coach's arms to constrict around him. "I'm sorry I couldn't play football or like girls."

"Son –"

"I wish I could be like the boys on your team. I wanted that so much, but I just – I just couldn't do it. I'm so sorry."

"No, son, listen to me. Look at me and listen to me." Eric removed his face from his hands and looked up at his father, whose eyes were also red and wet. Eric felt his face pull into a grimace and Coach patted him softly on the back. "You are my son and I did you wrong. You are absolutely who you were meant to be."

"But I'm not. I'm not supposed to be –"

"You are who you should be, Eric," said Coach. "Don't let anything get in the way of that. Even me." Eric returned his face to his hands and Coach allowed him to finish crying deep, heavy sobs, Coach slowly rubbing his back as he did. Coach let go when Eric stepped away to wipe his eyes. "Let's get this tent up, okay?"

"Okay," said Eric. Coach gave him a smile and Eric attempted to smile back before Coach handed him the tent and nodded toward the grass where they would set it up. Coach unloaded the rest of the truck, leaving the canoe for last, and then began to pick up the poles Eric hadn't yet assembled.

"Remember the last time we were out here?" Coach asked. "And Drew had no idea how to help you?"

"Ha, yeah," said Eric. "We're lucky it wasn't windy or we would have blown away that night." Coach handed Eric another pole and he began to feed it into the tent's skeleton. "Was that really the last time we were here? That must've been five years ago."

"Yeah, I think it was," said Coach. Eric paused and looked at the lake as he began to think about it; it seemed like an eternity ago. "Son? What happened there? With Drew?"

Eric fed another pole into the tent and then set the frame on the ground, buying time before he needed to respond. Jack had asked about Drew the week before, and that brought several memories Eric had been unprepared to handle, and Eric found himself through the course of the week juggling feelings of guilt and regret, both for what had happened with Drew, and for thinking about him when he should have been thinking about Jack.

"I messed it up," said Eric finally. He picked up the stakes and Coach handed him a hammer. "We moved here and I never spoke to him again. He called me a lot at the beginning, texted me a lot, and I just never replied."

"Why?" Coach asked. "He was your best friend."

"I don't know," said Eric. "I missed him – I miss him. I don't think I was in a good place for a long time and I didn't know what to say. If I talked to him he would ask if I was okay, and I would have to say no. Then I kept not getting better, and I would have to still say no to him. Then he would worry about me, and I didn't want him to worry about me because there was nothing he could do. He couldn't come out here and be with me, which is what I wanted. Then it got harder to think about him, and I still don't want to think about him. I ruined it and I don't even know if he's okay. He's probably not okay."

"I'm sure he's fine, son," said Coach. "Look at you. You're better. Right? You're better?"

Eric looked up at Coach from his crouch on the ground where he had been pounding a stake into the grass. "Yeah, Coach. I'm better. That doesn't mean he's better, though. He's still at that school with the same people. I at least got to meet new people. We never listened to you and Mama when you said to make other friends so we just alienated everyone we ever knew."

"It's not too late to still call him, you know," said Coach. "It's never too late to call him and apologize."

"What would I even say to him?" Eric asked. He moved to the second stake and began to aggressively pound it with the hammer. "He would never forgive me."

"You don't know that."

"And anyway, it would be weird now with Jack," said Eric.

"So you and Drew were –"

"No, no!" said Eric, looking up and dropping the hammer on the ground as he put his hands up in the air to put the brakes on the conversation before Coach voiced anything. "Drew's not gay. Nothing ever happened with us." Eric bit his lip as he thought of Drew's fingers trailing over the lines in his stomach, and still had a hard time confirming if that moment was real. "I just – I just always liked him. It was difficult."

"Still," Coach said and he handed Eric the final stake. "It's not too late to apologize to him. Don't let it eat you up."

"Maybe when we're in college," said Eric. "Maybe he'll still be my roommate."

"You still set on Georgia, then?" Coach asked. Eric stood and wiped the dirt off his hands. He handed the hammer back to Coach, who put it with the tent case.

"Yeah," said Eric.

"I thought you'd changed your mind. With Jack going to Bama."

"Yeah…" said Eric, and he thought about what Jack had said. "We'll see. We'll see how much next year sucks."

"I'm glad it worked out for him," said Coach. "When I first met him back in March, he was so worried about it. Had a panic attack in my office just picking what camps to go to over summer. I told him that not one day after I was offered the position at Samwell, the scouting manager at Bama was already calling me about him, but he was terrified he wouldn't get a bid."

"He's still like that," said Eric. "I think he just has a lot to live up to."

"Even so, he's got the talent to back it up." Coach looked at the lake. "What d'you think? You want to try to catch some lunch?"

"Sure, Coach," said Eric.

They launched the boat into the water and Coach directed them to a spot. The water was chilly, but not freezing, and the breeze along the lake was comfortable. It was too cold for swimming, though, and Eric wore a hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves over his fingers and the drawstrings pulled tight against his neck, but felt fine as he sat with his hook in the water.

"I really hope we're not depending on me for food this weekend," said Eric about two minutes into the wait. "I don't remember the last time I caught a fish."

"We're not far from the gas station if we need emergency sustenance," said Coach. "No pressure."

They sat for several minutes in silence, neither getting a bite, until Coach spoke again.

"Tell me about Jack," he said.

"What about Jack?" Eric asked. "You know him just as well as I do."

"I know the kid on my football team, yes, but you know Jack. Tell me about your Jack."

"Hmm," said Eric, as he began to think about it, and the thought of Jack brought with it several emotions, most of them inappropriate when alone in a boat with just his father. "He's kind of a nerd. I didn't really expect it when I first met him, but he likes history a lot. I thought he took it because he had to but no, he's just a nerd. He tried to get me to watch a World War II documentary the other day when I was over there and I was definitely not having that." Eric decided not to include that he didn't want to watch it because he instead wanted Jack to kiss him. When Eric refused, Jack pouted and Eric sucked on that lip for ten minutes. “He talks about football a lot but not as much as I thought he would. I like his accent but it gets so much worse when he's around his family, and it's kind of adorable. Sometimes I have no idea what he's saying and I can't tell if it's because he's not speaking English or if he's just saying words that don't make sense."

"And he likes you?"

"Yeah," said Eric, nodding. "He likes me."

"And you boys are being careful?"

The fishing pole dropped right out of Eric's hand and into the water, and he had to quickly roll back his sleeve to grab it before it sank to the bottom of the lake. He sat back down and shook the excess water off of it, then wiped his hand on his pants to dry it off.

"Oh my God, Coach, we are not talking about this."

"No, we have to talk about this," said Coach. "It's important."

"Did you wait until we were on the boat so I couldn't run away from you?" Eric asked, and although Coach grinned, he didn’t look any happier to be having this conversation than Eric. "We've been dating two weeks. I'm not even thinking about that."

"Well you should have a talk about it. No one's gonna get anyone pregnant here but –"

"OH MY GOD."

"– but you still need to use proper precautions when the time comes." Eric pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up and over his ears, but it made no difference. "I'm serious, son. I'm glad you're not thinking about it already, but there's going to be a time when you will, and you need to have an open and honest conversation about what you will and won't do, and what sort of steps you need to take to ensure it… goes smoothly."

"Can we stop now?" Eric asked. "I promise we'll have a talk about it and I promise we'll be careful."

"Good," said Coach.

Neither spoke again, so the tension sat like a third person in between them. Eric felt much too warm but didn't want to remove his hood to show off how red his face had become. Luckily a tug on the end of his line broke the silence and Eric yelped as he tried to remember what he was supposed to do.

Two hours and four bass later, Eric and Coach rowed back to shore. Coach helped Eric clean and store the fish, then they made lunch. After lunch Eric took Coach on a hike through the hills (Coach had a harder time keeping up than Eric remembered from his childhood), and they sat at the fire eating mini pies while the sun set over the trees on the other side of the lake.

"I've always liked coming out here," said Eric as he watched the pinks and purples of the sunset reflect off the still water; they were alone on the campsite, the weather having been just a bit too cold for the locals to consider a last hurrah on the lake before winter. "Drew used to talk about moving somewhere else, maybe somewhere where people wouldn't care how I live my life, but this is still home. I still belong here."

"You do, son," said Coach. "You belong here."

Eric looked over at Coach, who ruffled Eric's hair. Eric laughed and attempted to put it back into place, and they continued to watch the day end once again.

Chapter Text

August 2010

It was the Sunday morning after the first week of sophomore year and Eric completely forgot until he walked into the kitchen for breakfast to see Suzanne peeling potatoes at the table. He blanched at the sight and backed away, but Suzanne spotted his movement and looked up.

"Good morning, sweetie," she said. "I have a quiche in the fridge if you want to grab a slice before it gets too cold."

Eric contemplated just leaving without breakfast, but his stomach grumbled and he resorted to eating a slice while his mother peeled and then diced potatoes for her potato salad. "Did you want to help?" Suzanne asked. "I made a few pies yesterday, but I definitely think we'll need more, and then there's still the macaroni and pasta salad to make. I don't know where my head went this year but I'm not nearly as prepared as I thought I was."

There were still two bites of quiche left but Eric was already out of his chair and to the garage door before she finished speaking. She looked up from her chopping. "Dicky? Dicky, where are you going?"

Eric opened the garage door, picked up his bike from its place near Coach's half-finished boat, and bolted down the driveway. He expected his mother to come running down the street after him, but neither she nor Coach made an appearance, and his phone had no notifications by the time he arrived at Drew's house. He dropped his bike in the grass and entered the house through the front door.

Drew was not awake yet, but Amy and Mrs. Lester were making breakfast in the kitchen and Mr. Lester was in the backyard mowing the lawn before the heat of the day kicked in. Eric, having only eaten seventy percent of a lukewarm slice of quiche, gravitated toward the kitchen rather than upstairs. Amy, just tall enough to work at the counter, was attempting to pour pancake batter into a heart shape on a griddle with varying degrees of success.

"Good morning, Eric," said Mrs. Lester. "No practice today?"

"No, even Katya allows me to rest on Sundays," said Eric.

"How was your first week of school?" Mrs. Lester asked. Eric stepped up next to Amy and began to direct her hand as she poured another scoop onto the griddle. She blushed furiously as Eric helped her make a heart, the entirety of her cheeks a blotchy red mess. "The most I could get out of Drew was 'fine.'"

"Yeah, it was fine," said Eric. "Amy, see how it's bubbling here? You should flip it now." Amy set down the bowl of batter and picked up a spatula to flip the pancake. "It kind of feels the same as last year, except I don't have to take P.E. anymore. I'm very grateful for that."

"You know," said Mrs. Lester, "both you and Drew complain a lot about P.E. and how bad you are at it, but you run five miles every day and Drew is in a pool ten hours a week. I think you just like to complain."

"I just don't like that they make us play with other people who are clearly better than we are," said Eric, "and then grade us poorly when we suck. I can launch myself in the air, spin around four times, and land on one foot, but I cannot hit a baseball no matter how you throw it. You know that the reason Drew and I are friends is because he hit me in the face with a soccer ball the first day of fifth grade, right?"

"And that's why you're friends?" Amy asked. "Shouldn't that be why you don't like him?"

"I have plenty of reasons not to like him," said Eric, "but that's not one of them. Amy, flip this one too."

Drew conveniently appeared when the first batch of pancakes was ready, sleep lines on one side of his face and the back of his hair sticking up. "E?" he asked. "What're you doing here? Isn't the barbeque today?" Mrs. Lester poked her head out of the pantry, where she had been searching for syrup.

"The barbeque is today?" she asked. Eric nodded. "Do your parents know you're here right now, Eric?" Eric looked down without replying and she sighed. "You can stay here if you'd like, but you need to tell them you're here."

"They saw me leave. Where else would I go?"

"You still need to say you're here. You can't just assume they know where you are at all times, even if it's obvious. Don't let them worry all day." Eric grumbled and sent his mother a text, then sat at the kitchen island next to Drew. Amy set a plate of three mostly-heart shaped pancakes in front him, blushed again, and returned to the griddle.

"Where are my pancakes?" Drew asked.

"They're coming, hold your horses," said Amy. "You can't just expect to get pancakes if you show up the second they get made."

"Ugh," said Drew. "I expected to be treated batter than this."

He hit Eric in the arm.

"Get it?"

"Yes, Drew, I get it."

"You're not laughing!"

"That's because you're not funny."

"I'm fucking hilarious," said Drew.

"ANDREW!"

"Sorry, Mama."

Eric and Drew spent the majority of the morning lazing together on the couch until Mr. Lester returned from cutting the grass in the back yard and yelled at Drew for not doing it. Eric hung around for the subsequent hours while Drew finished the front yard and weeded the flowerbeds as an additional punishment. When Drew came back inside, sweating and exhausted, he noticed Eric still on the couch with Amy and snapped, "You could have helped me, E."

"You were the one who forgot to mow the lawn, not me."

Eric returned home only after he knew the barbeque was over and everyone was gone, and avoided both of his parents when he did. He ran up the stairs and into his room, ignoring their questions of where he'd been all day. He slept fretfully, terrified of what would happen at school the next day when Clayton inevitably confronted him. He could still remember with unnecessary detail what had happened a year ago inside of the janitor's closet, including each of the minutes he had to wait for Drew to find him.

Eric never ran into Clayton, and he wasn't sure what was worse – expecting to see him around every corner, jumping at every sudden sound, and holding his bladder all day in fear of being confronted in the bathroom again, or the few minutes of pain that would have accompanied an actual interaction with him. Eric had absolutely no relief until he headed to the bike rack after school and Drew ran up to him.

"Hey," he said, "quick before you go to Katya – just overheard some guys on the football team talking. Clayton's got the stomach flu or something and didn't come to school today. Didn't even go to the barbeque last night."

"Seriously?" said Eric. "I've had to pee since third period and he's not even here today? Well, thanks for telling me."

"No problem. See you tomorrow."

Eric biked quickly over to the ice rink and peed before he changed his clothes and put on his skates. Katya had increased his on-ice time in preparation for Regionals, where he was competing for the first time in the Senior competition. Being in Seniors meant he had no chance of going to Sectionals without at least three decently executed quad jumps, and Eric had trouble with each one of them. Katya's decision had come over the summer, and as he faced yet another practice of falling on his ass, Eric could not help but think that her choice was overhasty.

Katya tightened his skates before she let him on the ice. "What did you think about that costume I sent you Friday?" she asked as she pulled at his laces with the weight of her entire body.

"Ehhh," waffled Eric.

"What was wrong with it? It was the sash, wasn't it? You've worn a sash before."

"Yeah, but I wore a silver sash before. This was a purple sash."

"Purple fits the theme," said Katya. She knotted the lace on his left shoe and tapped his leg. He stood, checked his balance, and then walked with her toward the ice.

"Can we maybe do something less, I don't know, maybe less flamboyant this time?"

Katya waited for him to hand her his bright purple blade guards but did not comment on them before she nodded. "Sure. I'll send you some other options this week." Eric stepped onto the ice. "Laps first,” she said, “warm up a bit, then we're working on the quad combo."

"Again?" Eric asked.

"Yes, again. And again and again until you have it."

The quad combo was not easy, and Eric supposed that was why it was reserved for the highest level of competition. Katya played the music from his short program, which he felt very confident about apart from just the very first jump. After she was satisfied with his warm up, she started the music from the beginning and he knew within thirty seconds he'd have to face it again. He could feel his body tense in anticipation and attempted to relax, knowing the resulting tightness was not going to help, but it didn't matter. His left toe pick jammed into the ice for height, and he was able to rotate four times, but when he came down his right foot was not underneath him. He slammed onto his knees, his hands scraping along the ice to break his fall, and he slid ten feet away from when he intended to land.

"It's okay, Eric, get up! Try again!"

Katya turned off the music. Eric took in a deep breath; he could feel the pain in his hands at a result of the fall. When he turned them over to look at them, there were multiple tiny cuts along the natural lines. Very few of them were bleeding, and barely at that, but after one look at them his entire body heaved and he vomited onto the ice.

"Eric!"

Katya was by his side in an instant. His body began to shake, distorting his vision from the tears that sprang into his eyes. It didn't matter, he could still see the cuts on his hands, and he heaved a second time when Katya placed her hands on his sides.

He couldn't breathe and could barely hear himself speaking, but knew he was speaking at the same time. "Oh God," he thought he was saying, and he gagged and coughed a third time, but had nothing left to expel from his stomach. He could feel the vomit on his lips and his chin, along with the snot dripping out of his nose. He attempted to breathe but couldn't, and instead continued to cough viscerally, tears streaming steadily out of both eyes.

"Eric, calm down. It's okay. Calm down," Katya was saying. She pulled him away from the mess he'd made, sat him upright, and began to wipe at his face with her sleeve. There wasn't enough air to be had in the rink and he was certain this was going to be the end of his life, sitting on the cold ice in Madison, Georgia, having just failed his quad, having just vomited the entire contents of his stomach. It was not how he wanted this to end. "Eric, look at me. Please."

He looked up at her; she nodded at him, attempting to smile to soothe him, but he could see the panic on her face too. "It's okay. Take a big, deep breath, okay? Just one very long one." Her chest expanded when she breathed in, and he attempted to mimic her, but followed more of her exhale than her inhale, and she began to grow fuzzy. "One more time, Eric. Breathe in this time. Breathe from your stomach." She placed a hand on his stomach and he inhaled, pressing against her hand, then exhaled again. He blinked and she reappeared clearly in front of him. "Good. One more, okay? One more for me."

He breathed again with her, in and out, but when she let go he let out a horrible sob and began to cry in earnest. "Oh my God, Katya," he said.

"Sweetie, it's okay."

"Katya," he said, still panicking, but at least the sudden rush of death no longer felt so imminent. "Katya, I need to tell you something."

"Of course, Eric."

"Katya." Katya nodded and waited. "Katya, I'm gay."

"I know, sweetie. It's okay."

"It's not okay. It's not. I'm not supposed to be gay."

"It’s okay, Eric,” Katya repeated. “It's not a bad thing."

"It is! It is and everyone thinks it's bad! They terrorize me at school and they don't even know for sure. Clayton locked me in the closet and punched Drew and – oh God, Katya, don't tell my parents, okay? They can't know. Please don't tell them, okay?"

"Okay, Eric."

"They can never know."

Eric continued to cry and Katya held him closely to her, whispering lowly to him, letting him take his time.

 

***

 

Eric walked through the door at six o'clock. He could hear his mother on the phone in the kitchen and thought nothing of it until he reached the stairs and heard his name.

"Dicky did what?" Eric froze. Both of his parents were in the kitchen; he could see their shadows on the living room carpet and tried very hard not to remember what he heard the last time he noticed this. "Oh my goodness, is he okay? Is he on his way home?" Eric looked up the stairs; only a couple of them would creak and he hadn't yet memorized which ones they were, so he wouldn't be able to quickly ascend them without alerting his parents to his presence. He took one step and waited. "What do you mean bullied?"

Lord, Katya , he thought, closing his eyes. He knew better than to trust her.

"No, I've thought as such for a while. Did he tell you why? I figured. He won't tell us either." He opened his eyes and ascended another stair. "Thank you." Eric took the sound of Suzanne's phone rattling on the table as an opportunity to climb two more stairs. "That was Katya. Dicky had a bad fall at practice today and, well, had a bit of a meltdown. She thinks he's being bullied at school."

"Did he say anything else?" asked Coach.

"No, but Katelyn's said the same thing too. I think this has been going on a while. You remember what those boys said about him last year, and then he disappeared for a day and came back with a busted lip. And Drew? I don't think he broke his nose on the diving board."

"You think it's both of them?"

"You know how protective Drew is. I don't think it's both of them."

Eric changed tactics; if they caught him on the stairs or in his room, they'd know he overheard the conversation. He carefully padded down the stairs again and toward the front door, avoiding the entrance to the kitchen. He could see Coach's back at the kitchen table, rubbing his face with his hand, but could not see Suzanne, so he darted to the front door and waited there for them to finish.

"So what do you think we should do?" Coach asked.

"You know what we should do."

"We're not having this conversation again. I can't just up and leave at the beginning of the school year. We're already a game into the season."

"That's why I said we should leave over the summer but you didn't even look for another job."

"It's not that simple. You can't just walk into any school here and be a coach. There are legacies built at the big ones, and competition –"

"This is your son, Richard," said Suzanne, and Eric jumped at the sound of her fist hitting the kitchen table, "and your boys are bullying him. Think about your family for once in your life."

"You don't even know that it's my boys who are doing it."

"Who else is doing it?"

"Anyone could be doing it! It doesn't mean that it's my kids! Why would they even do something like this when they know me so well? I've worked with some of them for years and I've been with them all summer. They're a good group of kids!"

"I can't believe you. You always take their side. Every single time, Richard."

Eric had heard enough. He opened the front door and loudly shut it again, then saw Coach freeze at the kitchen table. Eric walked directly to the stairs, still wanting to avoid them, but his mother appeared at the doorway. "Dicky? You're home early," she said. Eric shrugged his shoulders. "Katya called. She said you fell at practice today?"

"I fall a lot at practice," said Eric.

"Well she said it was pretty bad. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." He headed up the stairs and Suzanne let him. Before he closed the door to his bedroom he heard Coach speak again, his voice low but still audible.

"Next year," he said. "I'll look for something for next year."

Eric shut his door and then sat down at his desk and opened his computer. He still had a version of Adobe Premiere on his computer from his graphic design class freshman year, so he opened it and turned on his webcam.

When Eric finally could move after his fall on the ice, Katya sat him down on the bench to remove his skates. While she carefully pulled them off his feet, she said he needed someone to talk to (someone besides Drew, she had said specifically), and when he couldn't think of anybody, and didn't want to venture down the path of a therapist, she suggested he start a blog.

"Just write it down," she said, "or do a video blog. Just start talking about something. It doesn't have to be how you feel or what's happening. I just think you need to get all of those words out of you."

He stared at the webcam for a while without having much to say. He could see himself on his computer screen. The lighting in the room wasn't great, but he could at least see his face clearly. Over his left shoulder was the poster of Johnny Weir, over his right, just out of frame, was Beyoncé. He didn't want to talk about them, because both of them led down the slippery slope toward topics he very much wanted to avoid. He didn't want to talk about Drew or about school or about his parents, but then he remembered the baking his mother had asked him to do the previous morning, and he finally began to speak.

"So I really like baking," he said. "It doesn't seem like something that would be calming, especially if you're one of those people who doesn't know how to bake, or has trouble baking, but for me it's calming. There's a good amount of stress relief too if you have to knead dough for bread, because you can really get your aggression out on it. Not too much, of course, because you never want to over-knead, but it's a good way to just punch something that isn't a person. Not that I'm a violent person. I'm really not."

He spoke for twenty minutes and, surprisingly, he felt better. After covering his favorite types of baking, he closed with a promise: "If you like this, and you want to see me again, I'll tell you how to make my favorite pie of all time – apple pie with a sugar crust. Just in time for fall, y'all. If you don't like this, and you don't want to see me again, well, that's a darn shame."

Chapter Text

December 2011

Finals ended on a Wednesday. Eric only had one that morning, since he'd had three on Tuesday (which was absolute torture). He didn't want to go home without Jack, so he lay in the back of his truck underneath a blanket, scrolling through the comments on his last vlog while Jack sat a Calculus exam. He tended to avoid his personal life in his videos, occasionally deviating from baking to update his one thousand subscribers (Lord, he still wasn't used to that) on hockey or school or the house, but in the video he'd posted Monday he casually dropped that he had a boyfriend, and every single comment was about that.

It wasn't a secret to his subscribers that he was gay, but he usually kept away from the topic as much as possible. However with Coach's blessing and plans to have the Zimmermanns over for dinner that weekend, he felt it was time to tell others. Jack didn't yet know about the blog, and Eric didn't want to name drop him without permission, so he just mentioned "my boyfriend," and the comments exploded with requests for more details. There were a few not-so-kind remarks as well, but the positive significantly outweighed the negative, so Eric had difficulty controlling the smile on his face as he continued to scroll.

"Yo," he heard. He looked up to see Lardo's head peeking over the side of the truck bed. "What're you still doing here? Aren't you done?"

"Yeah," said Eric, "but I told Jack I'd wait for him."

"You two are so gross," said Lardo. She climbed up via the tire and hopped into the truck bed with him. "It's hella adorable, but still gross. Don't bogart the blanket." Lardo sat down next to him, their backs against the cab of the truck, and Eric adjusted the blanket over the two of them. "You coming to the Kegster tonight?"

"Um, no, because nobody invited me," said Eric.

"You were totally invited. It was on the group chat."

"I must have missed it. The last time I scrolled through there Dex and Nursey were fighting about polygons or contronyms or something that really didn't make any sense."

"Nah, it was before that. Jack said he was coming so I assumed you were too, since you're kind of a package deal now." Eric closed Youtube and put his phone in his pocket; even with the blanket on it was quite cold, so he snuggled closer to Lardo, who in return curled up against him.

"Is everybody cool with this?" Eric asked. "We weren't really going to tell anyone but then everyone just sort of knew."

"Yeah, it’s cool," said Lardo. "I think some of the guys were mostly surprised by Jack, since not everyone knew he swung that way, but they like you. Not everyone knows, though. Mostly just the offense."

"Good. We haven't talked about telling people. I don't want to deal with that – not here, at least. Maybe in college," said Eric. Lardo nodded and closed her eyes as they continued to lie together in the back of Eric's truck. Eric checked the time on his phone again. "Jack needs to hurry up with this math because I am not going to have enough time to make pie for tonight as it is."

"I would be polite and say you don't have to make pie, but we both know that's not true," said Lardo.

"Exactly."

Jack appeared about thirty minutes later, after Lardo and Eric fell asleep together, and awoke them by jumping into the bed of the truck with all of the grace of an elephant.

"Holy shit, Jack," said Lardo after she startled into consciousness.

"Who said you could snuggle my boyfriend?" Jack asked. Lardo laughed and rested her face in Eric's neck. Jack possessively placed his hand on Eric's leg underneath the blanket, causing Eric to squirm and Lardo to immediately move away.

"Whoa, I do not want to be part of that," she said. She stood and vaulted over the side of the truck and onto the pavement. "I'll see you boys tonight?"

"You bet," said Jack. Lardo headed down the row to her car and Jack scooched up in the back of the truck so he could place his hands above Eric's knees. "You do want to go, right?" he asked. Eric nodded. "Okay. What do you want to do until then?"

Eric looked at Jack's face and his plan was plain as day, but Eric shook his head.

"Nope,” Eric said, “we have to make pie."

"Do we?"

"Yes. Come on, we're going to the store."

They spent the rest of the day making pie in Eric's kitchen. Coach was proctoring exams until three o'clock and Suzanne was out running errands, so Jack took advantage of their time alone to thoroughly distract Eric while he tried to bake. "Mr. Zimmermann!" Eric scolded after the third time he had to push Jack out of the way in order to fetch a new ingredient from the cabinet or fridge, "while we both know I enjoy your mouth, you best keep it away from me until these pies are in the oven."

"But we're all alone," said Jack. He placed both his hands on Eric's shoulders and pressed his lips to Eric's neck. Eric closed his eyes for just a moment as Jack kissed a soft, slow trail onto Eric’s skin and into his collar, causing tingles to spread like fire through the entirety of Eric's body. He attempted to whisk the eggs in the bowl but Jack hit a spot that made his knees buckle and the bowl fell onto the counter with a loud clatter. "We haven't gotten to be alone."

Jack's right hand slipped down Eric's arm, to his hip, and underneath his apron. Eric sighed loudly when Jack caressed him through the fabric of his jeans; all of the colors in the room seemed to brighten in a flash, then slowly began to dim as he lost sight of his surroundings. They were no longer in the kitchen, no longer anywhere except in the sensation of Jack touching his bulging erection. Eric’s head leaned back against Jack's shoulder, gripping the edges of whatever was in front of him, and his breath sputtered in short bursts when Jack's hand began to move. "Maybe we can go upstairs?" Jack suggested, but just as Eric nodded the front door opened.

They jumped apart. Eric quickly adjusted his apron over the front of his pants and hid himself by facing the counter. Jack sat down at the kitchen table and pulled his chair all the way in, and they just looked presentable when Suzanne entered the room.

"Oh hi Jack," she said with a smile. "Finals all done?"

"Yes, Mrs. Bittle," said Jack.

"Good! I hope you both did well this semester. I know there was a lot of studying going on," she said, rolling her eyes before she set her bags on the counter and began to unpack them. "What're you making, Dicky?"

"Pecan pie," said Eric. His voice sounded very unlike his own and he was afraid to move even an inch away from the counter. "We're going to Knight's house tonight."

"Ah, okay," she said, "and is this going to be a 'we're going to Knight's house to sit and watch movies' or is this a 'we're going to Knight's house to get fall-down drunk and make bad life decisions?' "

"Mama! How can you even ask that?" Eric teased, looking over his shoulder. "Our interactions with Knight are the height of decorum."

"Really?" asked Suzanne. "And what's Knight's first name?" Eric frowned and looked back at his bowl. "Uh-huh. I'm flattered you boys feel the need to be proper in front of me, but I'm well aware of what you call him when I'm not around. Just be careful. And don't stay out all night. If I wake up at dawn and you're not here, it's curtains for you two."

"Um, what exactly does that mean?" Eric asked.

"It means bad news, Dicky. Home before dawn."

"All right, all right," said Eric. Suzanne began to put her groceries away and Eric finally felt calm enough to be able to turn to the stove and pick up the pot of melted corn syrup and butter that he needed to add to his whipped eggs.

They made four pies together (Jack placed pecans on top of one pie and insisted Eric say he helped) before they drove Jack's truck over to Shitty's house. They were early, and while everyone was still setting up, it didn't necessarily mean everyone was still sober. When they walked through the living room, Dex, red in the face from more than just anger, was arguing with Nursey over the music for that evening:

"What is this coffeehouse bullshit you've got on your phone?" Dex asked. Nursey snatched his phone out of Dex's hand and placed it on the dock, which fed into the mounted speakers. A soft guitar ballad filled the room and Nursey began to nod his head along with it. Dex just facepalmed as Jack and Eric passed into the den. Ransom and Holster were moving furniture to clear room for the two folding tables that were leaning against the wall. Chowder was in here as well, holding onto several bags of red cups and following Lardo as she deposited stacks near drink stations.

"Hey Jack! Bitty!" Chowder said. "Did you make pie?"

"Pecan," said Eric. "I made four since Shitty ate all of it himself at the last Kegster. I'm slicing it up now if y'all want some before the general population get here." Eric and Jack entered the kitchen from the den and set the pie on the counter. Eric found a pie server in one of the drawers and set to slicing while Jack observed from behind, his chin on Eric's shoulder, his hands on the edge of the counter on either side of Eric's body.

"I think you should be doing this, Mr. Zimmermann," teased Eric, "since you made these pies and all."

"Oh, no, I only helped," said Jack into Eric's neck. "Anyway, I just want to watch you."

"Gross, brah. Keep that shit at home," said Shitty as he entered the kitchen. Jack made no attempt to move away from Eric, who had sliced one pie and just began on the second when Shitty's hands placed atop Jack's on the counter.

"Um," said Eric.

"Shh, Bits, we're having a moment,” said Shitty. Eric glanced over his shoulder to see Shitty pressed up against Jack. When Shitty picked up Jack's hands to move them around Eric's waist, Eric sunk to his knees and crawled out of the impending love fest. Shitty wrapped their arms around Jack instead, who rolled his eyes.

"I'm gonna let you two have your moment while I find Lardo," said Eric. "Don't eat all the pie."

"C'mon, Jack," said Shitty as he pulled Jack away from the counter by the waist. "Let's do a kegster. I am in the mood to get all kinds of wasted this evening."

"Shits, I'm not doing a kegster with you. Last time you dropped me."

"I've been working out since then!"

Jack and Shitty sidestepped out of the kitchen, Shitty still holding Jack from behind, while Eric headed back toward the den to find Lardo. She'd dropped off the last of the cups next to the keg by the beer pong table Ransom and Holster had finished assembling. With her hands empty, she had the freedom to look up at him when he entered the room.

"BITTY!" she yelled.

"LARDO!"

Lardo jumped into his arms for a quick hug before she thumbed toward the beer pong table. "You want to go?" she asked, but before Eric could answer, Ransom stepped in between them.

"Bits, you are still fairly new here, so I feel obligated as Jack's left tackle and fellow Cajun to inform you that if you accept Lardo's invite for what seems like a friendly game of beer pong, she will absolutely destroy you." Eric raised an eyebrow at Lardo, who shrugged her shoulders and attempted to look innocent, but Eric could see the malicious smirk on her face.

"You are on, girl," said Eric.

"JACK!" yelled Ransom, and even over the music from Dex's playlist in the living room, they could hear the distinct sound of a body hitting the floor.

"DAMMIT JACK!" yelled Shitty.

Jack and Shitty entered the room; Jack had a cup of beer in his hand and Shitty was rubbing his head. Eric and Lardo were already setting up the table when Ransom tattled on them. "Dude, your boy is trying to take on Lards at beer pong. Solo."

"Bits," said Jack. Eric looked over his shoulder and Jack was quickly approaching. "You don't know what you're doing."

"I'm about to play some beer pong with my best girl," said Eric and he shot at look at Jack. "Unless you want to join me." Lardo bounced the ping pong ball on the table and grinned at Jack. He sighed and pulled Shitty forward.

"Come on, Shits. Let's do this."

"You are so on after that concussion you just gave me," said Shitty. "Come on, Lardy Lards, let's show these idiots how it's done."

They began to play and house began to fill. Eric and Jack had the ability to see the rest of the house, and as cups began to disappear from both sides of the table (Eric and Jack's more frequently than Shitty and Lardo's), they witnessed how many people began to wander inside. Eric recognized a few – some from the football team, some from classes or in the hallway – but the vast majority of the partygoers were total strangers. Dex's playlist drifted throughout the house, something much more suited to dancing than whatever Nursey selected, and Eric swung his hips back and forth from his side of the table, his moves growing looser as he downed more and more beer. Jack, who'd stood close to him on the first throw, now stood at friends-only distance.

Lardo tossed the ball across the table, one of her eyes closed and her tongue just poking out of her mouth in concentration; it worked and the ball landed directly into a half-filled cup of beer right in front of Eric. He picked it up and began to chug yet again. When he slammed the cup back down on the table he realized the room had started to spin. The inclusion of Jack was a good call – instead of Eric dying from alcohol poisoning, both Eric and Jack were hopelessly drunk together.

The music in the living room changed and Eric recognized Beyoncé in one note.

"LARDO! DANCE! NOW!"

There were still three cups left in front of Jack and Eric, seven in front of Shitty and Lardo, but Eric was already out of the room, dragging Lardo behind him, before lyrics even began. Jack attempted to follow but Shitty stopped him. "No way, Zimmermann, we are going to finish this."

There were thirty teenagers on the dance floor in various states of inebriation when Eric began to move with Lardo. He wasn't used to having a partner, but Lardo knew exactly what she wanted him to do. He placed his hands on her hips and let her guide him in the right direction. Then, as the room spun and the speakers pulsed steady rhythms at them, Eric lost himself with her for hours.

It wasn't until eleven, when the edge of the intoxication began to fade, that Lardo said she wanted more beer and left him alone. He didn't want to stop dancing so he continued on his own. When he turned around he noticed Jack standing against the doorframe, a cup in his hand, his eyes glassy and half-lidded with desire.

Eric started directly at Jack and continued to dance, his hands running messily through his hair. Jack glanced at Eric's hips before he swallowed hard and looked back into Eric's eyes. No one else was in the room anymore, it was just Jack and Eric, and Eric began to think of that afternoon when Jack touched him for the first time, how intense and blinding it had felt. Eric let his own hand trail down the flushed skin on his neck, over his chest, down the center line of his stomach, and finally over the front of his jeans, watching Jack's eyes watch him to the whole way.

The song ended. During the transition, Jack downed the rest of his beer and headed to the stairs. Eric followed. Walking was a little more difficult than dancing, the room still fuzzy, but his memory of their encounter in the kitchen was not affected at all, and Eric desperately wanted to finish what they'd started. Jack met him at the top of the stairs and pulled Eric into the first unoccupied room. He locked the door behind them, and the sound of the latch caused Eric's body to hum with anticipation.

"I didn't know you could move like that," Jack whispered, loud enough to be heard over the music that drifted up the stairs. "I guess I'm not surprised."

"I can move in all sorts of ways," said Eric.

"Mmm, let me see," said Jack. He pulled Eric with him to the bed; Eric had no idea what room they'd entered, nor did he really care – all he cared about was that he could climb on top of Jack, straddle his hips, and lean over to kiss him. Jack responded eagerly, his hands quickly sliding from Eric's back down to his ass, causing Eric to grin. Jack had no time for grinning, though, because he used his grip to pull Eric's hips to his.

"You're so needy," teased Eric.

"I just want you," said Jack. Eric looked over his face; Jack's desire could be seen everywhere, from the darkness of his pupils, the glow on his cheekbones, the purse of his lips, and the set of his jaw. Jack studied Eric just as intensely, using his finger to trail the features of Eric's skin, but then he touched the scar over the top of Eric's lip. "What is this?"

"It's nothing," said Eric. "Just a scar." Jack traced it one more time with his finger before he replaced it with his mouth, and Eric had to giggle with Jack's uncoordinated ferocity. "How much have you had to drink since I last saw you?"

"A lot," said Jack. "Shitty killed me at beer pong. But I've wanted you all day."

"What do you want?" Eric asked, punctuating his question with a long, slow kiss.

"Whatever you'll give me, cher ," said Jack. He paused and then gently brushed away the hair that had fallen into Eric's face. "I know we haven't talked about this yet. Whatever you're comfortable with."

"Hmm," said Eric, thinking about it. "I think I'm comfortable with this." He slowly rubbed his hips against Jack's, and Jack's face quickly slipped into bliss. Eric watched him when he did it again, Jack closing his eyes and quietly moaning his name. Eric was pleased that he was the cause of that look, but he wanted to capture the overwhelming feeling from that afternoon in the kitchen, and just rubbing their fully-clothed hips together wasn't enough. "What d'you think, honey? Are we wearing too many clothes?"

" Merde . Yes," moaned Jack.

Eric sat up and tugged up the edge of Jack's sweater, revealing a six pack of abs that Eric had not yet seen, and which distracted him to the point where Jack had to take off his own shirt. Eric swallowed hard, his eyes raking over every inch of Jack's exposed skin, and then quickly ducked his head to run his lips over it. Jack inhaled sharply as Eric began to kiss over his stomach, his chest, his collar, and up his neck, before he realized Jack was also tugging at Eric's shirt. Eric helped him remove it, and they spent a moment studying each other with their eyes and their hands. Every touch from Jack's fingers were paired with the visual of Eric touching Jack in the same place, until it got to be too much and Eric had to lean forward and kiss him again, letting Jack's hands wander his skin.

"Jack, you're so gorgeous," Eric said into his mouth, and Jack murmured some kind of mutual assent before Eric felt Jack's hands unbuckling Eric's belt and unbuttoning his jeans. Eric kicked off his shoes first before he let Jack slide his pants down and off, then they worked together to remove Jack from his own. Eric opened his eyes and for the first time could see the heavy outline in Jack's boxers, full and erect and waiting for Eric to touch it.

"Can I?" Jack asked, his fingers at the waistband of Eric's briefs. Eric hesitated but was unsure why he was hesitating, knowing that he wanted to touch Jack so badly and wanted Jack to touch him. "I don't have to. We can keep them on." Jack slipped his hand over the outline of Eric's erection and Eric's eyes closed; the friction was heady, but it still didn't feel like enough.

"No, take them off," said Eric.

"Here, you can take mine off first," said Jack. Eric did, sliding the length of Jack's body with his boxers and then finally looking between his legs. Eric's breath hitched as he inhaled, taking in the sight of Jack's fully erect cock resting against the chiseled cut of his stomach.

"Wow," said Eric, which caused Jack to chuckle, but Jack stopped laughing when Eric wrapped his hand around the base of his cock and took one stroke up and back down.

"Fuck, Bitty," he muttered. "Don't stop." Eric continued to stroke him, staring at the overwhelming girth and length of Jack in his hand, tightening his grip and going faster until Eric couldn't take it any longer and needed Jack to touch him too. He used his other hand to push at the sides of his briefs; Jack's hands took over immediately, pulling them down and off and throwing them onto the floor. Jack took control and rolled Eric onto his back, then climbed atop him and lined them up. Jack rolled his hips and a loud moan escaped Eric's mouth, which he then covered with both his hands.

"No, it's okay," said Jack. "Let me hear you."

"But – others –"

"I doubt anyone knows or cares that we're in here," said Jack. "I want to hear you." Eric nodded and put his hands on Jack's back instead, gripping tightly when Jack took both of them in his hand and began to pump them together.

"Fuck," said Eric, "Fuck, that's so good."

"You like that?" Jack whispered into his ear, pausing to kiss his neck. Eric moaned in response, which caused Jack to smile wider, caused his hand to stroke faster. This wasn't going to last very long at all, Eric wrapped in passion and emotion, surrounded by Jack's body from all angles. Jack's calves rubbed against Eric's feet, his chest pressed into Eric's chest, his face in Eric's neck and his hands both everywhere and just there, where he held onto them together.

"God, Jack, you're going to make me come," said Eric, his voice a high whine. Jack groaned into Eric's ear and then Eric came, spilling all over Jack's hand and their stomachs. Jack stroked him through it until Eric keened from oversensitivity, then let go and proceeded to continue with himself. "No, let me," whispered Eric. Jack let Eric take over, but wrapped his own hand around Eric's and guided him through how he wanted it done, until he too came onto their skin.

Jack rolled off of Eric and they both stared at the ceiling, breathing hard.

"Wow,” breathed Eric, “that was –"

"Amazing?" asked Jack.

“Messy,” replied Eric, looking down at his stomach. Jack laughed before he put his arm around Eric's waist, carefully avoiding the streaks of their come that remained there. “And, yeah, amazing. I really hope I'm sober enough to remember that tomorrow.”

"If you don't we'll just do it again," said Jack. He gently ran his fingers up and down Eric's arms. " Mais , even if you do, we'll do it again." Eric giggled and Jack kissed him once before resting in the crook of Eric's neck, closing his eyes. Eric did as well, and they soon fell asleep.

 

***

 

Eric awoke abruptly at four o'clock. He bolted up in the bed but the room began to spin, so he waited just a moment for the world to right itself before he looked out the window. It was still dark. Jack was fast asleep beside him, so Eric roughly shook him to awake him.

"Qu'est-ce que c'est, cher ?" Jack mumbled.

"You can guess all the says you want later, honey. Wake up, you have to take me home. It's almost morning."

"Hmm?" Jack said. He cracked one eye open. "What time is it?"

"Four. Come on, get up. We have to go home." Eric scrambled around the room looking for his clothes, finding them in a multitude of places and uncoordinatedly putting them on. "Dammit, I'm still drunk. Are you still drunk?"

"Yes," muttered Jack as he slowly sat up. "Wait." Eric paused, one of his legs in his jeans. " Mais la , you are hot." Eric blushed and continued to put his jeans on.

"Your accent is thicker when you're wasted," said Eric. Jack opened his mouth to retort and Eric shook his head. "If you say 'that's not the only thing that's thicker' I will come over there and slap you." Jack shut his mouth but continued to watch Eric get dressed. Eric put his shirt on uncomfortably, the evidence of their encounter now dried and tacky on his chest and stomach. Eric threw Jack's clothes at him before he put his shoes on and determinedly did not watch as Jack began to cover himself again, knowing that he really did need to get home and really would not if he saw any more of Jack's body.

A half hour later when Jack pulled into the driveway of Eric’s house, Eric unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned over the center console for a kiss. "Be safe driving home," Eric said. Jack kissed him with vigor but Eric quickly pulled away. "Nope. You kiss me like that and we'll have to relocate to the truck bed."

"We've still got time before dawn," said Jack, but Eric shook his head. "Fine. I'll call you later, okay?"

"Okay. Good night."

"Good morning," said Jack, and they kissed just one more time before Eric jumped out of the truck and entered the house. He removed his shoes at the door but otherwise did nothing but collapse into his bed and immediately fall asleep.

It was daylight when he was abruptly awoken again, but this time when he opened his eyes, Coach was sitting on the edge of his bed. Eric took one look at him and immediately shut them again, the piercing light of the sun driving pain straight into his temples.

"Ugh, go away," said Eric. "It's too early."

"No, son, you have to wake up," said Coach, shaking Eric's shoulder again. Eric opened his eyes at the panic in Coach's voice. "It's Jack. He's in the hospital."

Chapter Text

March 2011

 

Eric and Drew made a stop at their lockers after lunch when Eric found the note.

Son –

Need to talk to you before school lets out. Can you swing by my office at the stadium before seventh period?

Coach

"Ugh," Eric grumbled and threw the crumpled note on the floor before he took out two notebooks, his Spanish workbook, and a copy of The Iliad. Drew stooped and picked up the note from the floor to read it, but then also crumpled it again and threw it in the trash can behind him.

"Why does he need to talk to you now? What's so important that it can't wait until y'all get home?" Drew asked.

"Probably because he knows I have Katya after school and then I'll just lock myself in my room when I get home," said Eric. "Should I blow it off? He'll give me a note if I'm late to Spanish but I'm sure ' Lo siento, Senora Garcia, mi padre es a giant idiot' just doesn't quite cut it."

"I would," said Drew with a shrug. "If he really needs you, he'll come find you. Why do you have to go all the way down to the field?" Eric shrugged his shoulders and they headed down the hall toward class. "How's it going with Katya?" Drew asked. Eric shrugged again. "Come on, E. You're getting the quads now, right?"

"Yeah," said Eric dismissively. "Not like it matters now."

"Dude. You placed tenth at Regionals at the Senior level. At fifteen. That's nothing to sneeze at." Eric blew it off again, and they sat down in literature class together, where the class took turns reading The Iliad aloud along with Mr. Wright's interactive gestures every time a character would smite something or attack something with a spear. Eric rather liked literature class, although Drew almost always fell asleep on his fist.

When the bell rang, Drew held out his hand for Eric's books. "I'll leave them at your spot," he said, "and I'll tell Senora Garcia you'll be late." Eric handed them over and Drew added them to his own pile.

"Thanks. I don't think this'll take long."

Eric headed down the back stairs and toward the stadium located behind the cafeteria. He rarely had a reason to come this way. When he started at Hooch freshman year, he visited Coach's office next to the home team's locker room on the far side of the stadium, but since then he never wandered that far on campus. The pathway alongside the bleachers was caked in mud; it had been raining on and off for most of March, and Eric frequently needed to put his pants through the wash after the cuffs dragged through puddles of stagnant rain water. He kept to the gravel path, carefully avoiding the worst of it, glancing occasionally at the bleachers which cascaded in rows high above his head, straight steel beams and diagonal supports holding them in place. It was very quiet over here, the bustle of the school far away, so he was surprised to hear someone call his name.

"Dicky Bittle!"

He froze in place and slowly turned toward the sound; Clayton, Marcus, and Jordan were there together, smoking cigarettes and laughing at how he'd startled when they called his name. Eric glanced down toward the end of the field; he'd only made it halfway and while he could run, there was a chance that at least one of them could catch him, and the punishment for running would be worse than just dealing with it. Eric decided not to reply, but kept walking.

"Where are you going?" Clayton asked. "I hope it's not to Coach's office to tell him we're out here."

"No," said Eric. "I wouldn't."

"I think you would," said Clayton. He dropped his cigarette onto the ground and smashed it underneath his Vans with such force that Eric hurried his steps. "What're you so worried about? Let's just all get back to class, k?"

"I was supposed to meet my dad,” Eric called over his shoulder.

"And I already said that's not happening," replied Clayton, who by now caught up to Eric on the pathway. "So let's go back to class."

"The bell already rang. We're going to be late."

"Nah, that's okay," said Clayton. He swung his arm toward Eric, who flinched, but it rested lightly on Eric's shoulders. Clayton turned them back toward the school. Eric looked over his shoulder, toward Coach’s office, but Jordan and Marcus were right behind him.

"If we just asked Coach I'm sure he'd write us all a note,” said Eric. “I can say I ran into you –"

"I told you," said Clayton, whose arm slipped above Eric's shoulders and instead caught him by the neck and pulled him closer, "that's not happening."

"Please, Clayton, just let me go."

"You are the worst," Clayton said and threw Eric bodily against one of the support beams. Eric collided with it and the clang reverberated all the way up the beam, just like the pain that shot up his spine.

"Marcus. Jordan. Keep an eye out," said Clayton. He approached Eric, who sidestepped the support beam and backed up underneath the cover of the bleachers. Eric had no help and nowhere to go, and the realization of it brought tears to his eyes. "God, you're such a pansy ass. Look at you, I haven't even touched you and you're already crying."

"Please just let me go. I'll go back to class and I won't tell my dad."

"You've run to him before! How do I know you won't do it again?"

"No! That wasn't me!" Eric yelled.

"Keep your mouth shut, you little shit," said Clayton and his fist collided with Eric's mouth. The momentum pushed him backward again, but without something immediately behind him to catch him, he toppled over into the wet, sticky mud. When he turned onto his back he wiped at his lip with the back of his hand; it was already bleeding heavily. Clayton loomed over him, blocking the sun and encompassing Eric's entire view. "You're a liar and the last thing I need is you running to someone and telling them about this. I’m going to play football at FSU and you're not going to get in my way."

"I won't, I promise," pleaded Eric.

"Shut up!" Clayton yelled. He raised his foot to stomp on Eric, who anticipated the movement and lifted his left arm to defend himself. Clayton's foot came down hard on Eric's arm, crunching it underneath the sole of his shoe and snapping the bone in two. Eric yelped in pain and Clayton immediately stomped on his face with another shout to "Shut up!"

"Clayton," called Jordan.

Clayton's foot came down again and again, on Eric's face and neck and chest, until Marcus and Jordan both took him by the shoulders and pulled him back. "Clay, stop it," said Jordan. "You broke his arm."

"I told him to shut up," said Clayton.

"He's not talking anymore. Come on, let's get out of here. Coach might come looking for him." Eric couldn't see through the mud, hair, and blood caked onto his face, but heard them retreat. He waited there, not moving, until he was positive nothing else would happen, then slowly began to sit up.

Pain radiated from his arm worst of all so he brought his right arm to support his left until he was upright and could lean it against his chest. He wiped his right hand on his shirt but his ribs screamed at him for the action. He then used the mostly-clean hand to wipe at his eyes. It helped one, but blood dripped again into the other when he opened it, so he sat with just one eye open and took in his surroundings. He was hidden under the bleachers, the placement of a garbage can and several steel beams obstructing his view of the gravel pathway. He couldn't see anyone, though, and as deserted as this part of the school tended to be, he knew there wasn't much hope of being discovered. That was probably for the best; he didn't want someone to randomly see him there until he could really assess what had just happened.

He shifted and the pain came from several places at one – his arm, then his ribs, then the crown of his head. It explained the blood that continued to flow over his right eye. There was no way he could get up on his own, and definitely no way he could go back to school or to Coach's office. He definitely did not want to go to Coach's office; he didn't want Coach to see him like this.

The steel beams were beginning to sway in front of him and he knew it wasn't a good sign. He patted at his pants to look for his phone, wincing every time he touched anywhere, then found it in the front pocket of his jeans. He took it out only to discover the screen was shattered and the force of the blow had rendered it unusable. There was no way he could contact Drew.

He sat back against the beam behind him. Breathing was difficult, not just because of the pain with every inhale, but because he couldn't tell if his breath was actually doing anything, or if he was just breathing in nothing. If he passed out that would probably be for the best, but nobody knew he was there and he wasn't sure how long it would be before someone found him, all the way in the corner, blocked by garbage, in an area of the school only used during football season. The bell rang in the distance and he wondered how long he'd been sitting there.

"Son?"

Eric was sure he hallucinated the sound, his vision so blurry that there was no distinction between what was what, but then Coach came into view and Eric was not prepared to look at him yet. He immediately began to cry.

"No," Eric moaned. "No, not you. Go away."

Coach crouched in front of him and reached out his hand, which Eric could see only briefly before it swirled away; his vision was still spinning.

"DON'T TOUCH ME!" Eric yelled and he balled himself up. Pain sparked everywhere but he needed to get away from Coach. He slid off the beam and into the mud, screaming when he connected with the ground.

"Son, we have to take you to the hospital. You're bleeding everywhere and I think your arm's broken. Come on, son, get up."

Coach's hand reached out again, pale and trembling, but Eric shouted to stop him. "NO! LEAVE ME ALONE!" Coach's fingers touched his skin and the pain was excruciating so he screamed again, but Coach was still touching him. "STOP IT! STOP TOUCHING ME!"

"Okay, okay," said Coach. He let go. Eric opened his eyes to see Coach, mostly in focus, his face pale as a ghost. The shock looked worse than Eric felt. "What happened to you?" Coach asked.

"You know what happened to me!" Eric yelled. "You knew this was going to happen. You know who did this so don't ask me what happened! Just leave!"

Coach continued to stare at him, trembling. Eric curled closer into himself, his ribs pinching at his insides as he did, but he lay there and closed his eyes until he heard Coach leave too. The pain continued with every breath, escalating and fading as he inhaled and exhaled, again and again until he heard hurried footsteps and a gentle voice very close to him.

"Eric?" Drew asked quietly. "Eric, we've got to go the hospital."

Eric opened his eyes; Drew looked as white as Coach, but the sympathy on Drew's face was real. Coach stood behind him, back near the pathway, keeping his distance. Eric looked at Drew and fresh tears fell out of his eyes. "I know," said Drew. "We gotta go, though, okay? Let's go see my mom. She can x-ray your arm and see if it broken."

"Drew, it hurts," Eric whispered.

"I know, E, but it's gonna keep hurting until we get you to the hospital and fix you up. Can I help you up?" Eric attempted to sit up but groaned heavily at the effort. "No, don't try it by yourself. Let me help you. Tell me if hurts too much." Drew's hands were gentle as together, they slowly sat him up; Eric emitted muffled screams through his closed mouth as he did. Once upright again, Eric could see his father over Drew's shoulder. Drew noticed him looking and turned.

"Go away," Drew snapped. "Go get the car. I'll get him there. Don't you say a thing."

Eric expected Coach to scold Drew for his tone, but Coach just ran down the path toward the parking lot. Drew turned back to Eric and gently wiped at his face. "You've got a pretty bad gash up here. It's full of mud right now so it doesn't look like it's bleeding, but it's bad. Your arm – your arm is definitely broken."

"What else?" Eric asked.

"I can't tell. It's a lot. It's going to hurt more to get up because I think it's your ribs too. Can you get up? We have to get you to the car." They waited there, Eric breathing shallowly and Drew holding him upright, until Coach pulled the truck in front of them. Drew stood first and carefully helped Eric up, which involved more muted screaming and an attempt to assist from Coach. "No, I've got it,” said Drew, “stay with the car."

Eric leaned on Drew, which put pressure on his chest, as Drew held him by the hip and hobbled with him to the truck. "No, the back," said Eric when it was clear Drew was leading him to the front seat. "I don't want to sit next to him." Drew redirected them to the back seat, opened the door, and slowly settled Eric there. Drew buckled him in, but before he could climb out Eric looked him directly in the eyes. "Can you sit next to me?"

"Yeah, of course," said Drew. After he closed the door, Drew appeared on the other side of the truck and climbed over the seat so he could be right next to Eric. He buckled himself in and then put his arm around Eric, who rested his head on Drew's shoulder. It was painful, but it was Drew, and his presence felt better than comfort.

Eric felt like Coach hit every bump on the way to the hospital, wincing frequently and earning a concerned touch from Drew each time. Drew was careful, though, never squeezing or pushing too hard, just resting his face gently in Eric's hair and waiting with him until they arrived. Once they did, Coach exited first and darted through the sliding glass doors into the emergency room.

"Was it Clayton?" Drew asked.

"Yes."

Drew slid his fingers through Eric's hair and sighed, and they both continued to wait together.

 

***

 

Eric lay in the hospital bed in the ER, shivering underneath a hospital gown. He'd been mostly cleaned off, his shirt cut off his body with scissors to be able to assess the damage underneath. He was given an IV and so far had several different medicines pumped directly into his veins through it, and he was beginning to feel sleepy. The doctor had injected him directly in the face with some kind of anesthetic, so he couldn't feel his lips or his hairline, but it was necessary for the stitches. He was positive he was drooling since every time he wiped his bottom lip with the back of his right hand, it came back wet. Nothing was serious enough to require surgery, at least not immediately, but he was scheduled for the x-ray room to look at both his arm and his ribs. He'd been told already his arm was broken, but the extent of the damage required a scan.

He was alone, the curtains closed around him. His heartrate monitor beeped steadily, which was both reassuring and annoying. He'd asked Drew for a blanket and Drew left to find one, but he hadn't returned yet. It had only been a minute or two, Eric assumed, since he was drifting in and out of sleep from his pain medication, but the reason for the delay was evident when Drew and Coach's shadows appeared just outside the curtain.

"Drew, you need to stop talking to me like this. He's my son and he's in the hospital."

"Do you even know why he's here?" Drew asked. "Do you have any idea at all what happened to him?"

"I'm well aware –"

"Are you? Because if you were well aware we wouldn't be here at all. He's been bullied for five years by the same people and you always take their side. There's nothing wrong with your team and everything wrong with your actual son who is in the actual hospital because Clayton Collado stomped the life out of him and you don't even care!"

"Of course I care, Drew. Sit down and learn your place here."

"I'd say the same to you," replied Drew. "He doesn't want to see you. He's never wanted to see you. Definitely not since you told him you don't want him."

“You have no idea what you're talking about,” Coach replied. He was angry but Eric had never heard him sound so unsure of himself.

"I have no idea? Do you even know him at all? Do you know anything about him? I have not seen one attempt in the five years that I have known you to understand him. Ever since y'all moved here he's been alone and afraid and going through shit that has flown so far under your radar because all you care about are your state championships and your football boys and how wonderful they all are. And what does it matter as long as your little faggot son –"

"Andrew!"

"That's what you think, isn't it? You don't want a gay son so you do everything you can to surround yourself with the right boys. The real boys. They're the ones who will make you proud. I hope this made you proud. Now get out my way – Eric is cold and he wanted a blanket. Or did you not notice that either?"

Drew flung back the curtain and entered the room with a blanket, but Coach did not follow. He took a look at Eric's face and sighed. "I'm sorry," he said. He began to tuck the blanket around Eric's body. It was warm, like it had been sitting in a low temperature oven. "Did you hear that?"

"Yes," said Eric.

"I shouldn't have gone off on him like that but – God, he refuses to act like he cares that you're here. We've been here for two hours and he hasn't even called your mom yet." Drew finished tucking the blanket around Eric. "Better?" Eric nodded. Drew sat down on the edge of the bed and gently brushed Eric's hair away from the stitches on his forehead. "He really did a number on you. I should have come with you. I don't know what I was thinking."

"You didn't know," Eric said.

"I should have known. I should have known and I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Drew began crying and Eric reached out to him to stop him, but Drew just shook his head and cried, so Eric cried too. "I'm so sorry, E. I could have stopped him."

"No, you would just be here with me," said Eric.

"I should be. I should be here with you. I shouldn’t be the one who can fetch you blankets and yell at your dad. I should be in the bed instead of you because you don't deserve this. You don't." Eric pulled Drew's hand away from his face and held it in his own, and Drew continued to cry.

Ten minutes later Drew was better, albeit still fairly blotchy in his cheeks, when the curtain flung back and Mrs. Lester appeared on the other side. "Eric!" she said. "Oh my Lord, look at you! What happened?" She looked at Coach first, who shook his head, then she looked at Drew.

"Clayton," said Drew.

"Drew! Don't tell people!" Eric yelled but Drew shook his head.

"Clayton Collado and his stupid friends who've been picking on us for years. They did this."

"I cannot believe this," said Mrs. Lester. "Eric, honey, how are you feeling? Is your pain medication okay?" Eric nodded. "Okay. I can't x-ray you myself but I'm here to bring you to radiology. They didn't even tell me you were here until just now. Where's your mother?" She looked around and then Drew shook his head. "No one's called your mother? You were admitted two hours ago. Drew, get off the bed and go outside to call Suzanne. This will only take a few minutes."

Mrs. Lester lifted the guard rails on Eric's bed and attached his wires and drips to the bed post instead of the wall, then unlocked the wheels and began to push him down the hall. When she passed Coach, who sat stoically just outside the room on a chair, she shook her head. "I can't believe you haven't called Suzanne."

Coach didn't respond or react. Drew walked with the bed as far as Mrs. Lester would allow, and then she directed him out of the ER where he could use his cell phone. Eric watched him leave, then looked at the ceiling, at the passing panels of light as Mrs. Lester wheeled him to radiology, trying to fight back her own tears.

Chapter Text

December 2011

Eric cried in the waiting room. His head had been pounding since he leapt out of bed and Coach had to stop on the way to the hospital so he could vomit on the side of the road, but he'd felt completely sober since their arrival. Coach inquired about Jack at the information desk and was given absolutely no information until he gave his name and presented his driver's license, then he and Eric were directed to wait in a row of chairs along the wall. Eric's knees bounced over and over again to the point where Coach placed a hand on one to stop it.

"They didn't tell you anything?" Eric asked, leaning on his knees to keep them still. It didn't help and the movement made his nauseous, so he sat upright again.

"No, son," said Coach.

"Do you know why he's here?"

"No, son," said Coach.

Eric had asked the question in his bedroom, in the car, when they walked into the hospital, and again now, as if expecting Coach to have magical new information each time. Coach was patient with him, though, even when Eric began crying. Eric wiped and wiped at his eyes and stared at the floor until he saw a pair of shoes head in their direction. He looked up to see Bob Zimmermann in front of them.

Coach stood up first and shook Bob’s hand. "Is he all right?"

"He's awake," said Bob. "I was just with him and Alicia's there now. He should be okay but –" Bob glanced around; despite it being a hospital, they were still very much in public and Bob was a legendary NFL athlete. "Let's go upstairs." Eric followed the two of them to the elevator, which was occupied by a pair of doctors and a woman with a small child. Bob did not speak in front of them.

They got off the elevator on the third floor. Several people looked at Bob as he passed, and Eric was beginning to grow antsy with wonder. Bob stopped in front of a room with the blinds down but twisted open. Eric could see Jack sitting up in bed, his mother sitting in a chair in front of him. Eric pressed himself against the glass, desperate to ensure Jack's safety. Jack looked up and caught eyes with him, but Jack's lip trembled and he looked down quickly. He looked normal – no scratches or bruises or bandages – Eric could not see the reason Jack was lying in a hospital bed wearing a thin gown.

"Junior," said Coach. "Over here."

Bob and Coach entered a waiting room across the hall. Eric pulled himself away from the glass and followed them; it must have been meant for more than just their family, but discretion was important and no one else occupied it. Bob shut the door behind Eric, who stood next to his father and waited impatiently for an explanation.

"Jack overdosed this morning," explained Bob.

"Overdosed?" Eric repeated. "On what?"

"His anxiety medication," said Bob. "Alicia found him this morning but he hadn't been out for long. He was still unconscious when they got him here and it was…not good for a while. His heart stopped."

"Oh my God," said Eric. He placed his hands over his mouth; tears fell out of his eyes and he felt very much as if he would vomit again.

"He's been awake for about a half hour but is still pretty out of it. The doctor seems to think he'll be fine, but there's definitely going to be a recovery period." Bob looked at Eric, who couldn't hold in his sobs. Coach placed an arm over his shoulders. "Eric. What happened last night?"

"What do you mean?" Eric asked.

"You were at a party last night at Knight's house with him," said Bob. "He said he dropped you off at home this morning. Was there any… anything illegal?"

"No!" said Eric. "No, it was just beer!"

"Were you with him the whole night?" Bob asked.

"Of course!" said Eric, but then he remembered that he actually wasn't, and he and Jack had been apart for several hours before they went upstairs. "Well, no, but Jack's not like that. He's not going to just do something like that. We were just drinking."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes!"

Bob seemed satisfied and nodded. "All right," he said. "You can wait here and I'll make sure it's okay for you to see him. Just – Eric, listen to me. You need to calm down. He's had a very rough morning and it's important that he stay as stable as possible. I know he wants to see you but if you're like this –"

"Like what?" Eric yelled, then realized he was yelling. He hadn't stopped crying since Bob began to speak and his hands were still shaking as he placed them on his mouth and took them off again. "No, I get it." Bob left the room and closed the door behind him. Eric collapsed into a chair, unsure of how he was going to control himself when he saw Jack.

Coach crouched in front of him and placed his hands on Eric's knees. "Son," he said. Eric looked up. "Son, it's going to be okay. You didn't do anything wrong. You went to a party and you had a good time. It's what you do when you're in high school."

"But he – he could have died." Eric couldn't breathe and Coach placed one hand on the side of his face as Eric gasped for air.

"He didn't die," said Coach. "He's awake and he's talking and everything will be okay. Okay?" Eric nodded but he continued to cry. Coach pulled him forward and wrapped his arms around Eric, who clutched Coach's shoulders. He struggled through his tears, but Coach held tightly onto him until he finally calmed a few minutes later. When Coach let go and sat next to him instead, Coach’s phone rang. Coach took it out of his pocket and Eric looked at the screen, expecting to see his mother's name, but the phone displayed Andy (Bama) and Tuscaloosa, AL underneath it.

"Jesus," said Coach. He slipped the phone back in his pocket.

Bob opened the door again. He looked at Eric, who clearly was still not ready, and then nodded at Coach. "Rick, if you want to see him, go ahead." Coach patted Eric on the shoulder and then stood. On the way out the door, he showed his phone to Bob. "He just called me too. I'm not even going to think about that today."

They left Eric alone in the room. Eric had not thought about the potential repercussions of this, but Bob had said it himself – Jack overdosed. If someone from the University of Alabama was calling both Coach and Bob, word had already spread, and it would only be a matter of time before his college scouts learned what had really happened. It was still three months until Signing Day, so while Jack's scholarship and bid to play on the Crimson Tide were all but confirmed, it still wasn't official. This brought on a fresh wave of anxiety for Eric but he tried desperately to keep it inside when the door opened again.

He could see across the hall and through the window on the door into Jack's room. Coach had his arms wrapped around Jack like a son and Jack was in tears; Eric looked up at Bob and Alicia but before either could close the door his face had contorted again, and Alicia sat with him as he cried yet again.

It was over an hour before Eric was in a right mental state to be able to see his boyfriend. Coach had been with Jack most of that time until Jack fell asleep. "Can I go sit with him now?" Eric asked.

Bob's brown eyes raked over Eric's face. He seemed satisfied with the result because he gave a curt nod and opened the door. Eric crossed the hallway and entered Jack's room. Jack lay silently asleep, the head of his bed propped upright, his neck tilting just slightly to the side as he chased his crooked pillow. His blanket had fallen to his waist where his right hand settled. His IV had been affixed to his skin with square transparent tape on the back of the hand. Another wire snuck down the front of his hospital gown; Eric followed it back to the heart monitor, which beat steadily with white numbers. That was it. Eric had expected more wires and tubes, but without those two that Eric could see, Jack looked just as he had earlier that morning when they lay naked in bed in Shitty's guest room, Eric's body tangled together with his.

Eric crossed the room silently, afraid to breathe. Jack didn't stir during Eric’s cautious approach, but Eric continued to remain quiet, to move carefully, as he deposited himself in the chair next to the bed. He desperately wanted to touch Jack – his skin looked sallow now that Eric was closer. Jack's expression was disturbed as if he were dreaming of bad things, and Eric wanted to soothe him. Eric reached out an experimental hand and touched Jack's skin, watching Jack's face as he did. Jack didn't budge. Eric leaned forward, his legs on the chair behind him, and rested his head on Jack's hip. Jack shifted and Eric froze, afraid he'd woken him, but instead Jack placed his left hand on Eric's back and let out a content sigh. Eric closed his eyes, listening to Jack as they breathed, until he too fell asleep.

Eric awoke first from a kink in his neck. He adjusted his head, which caused a shot of pain down his spine. He sat up slowly, rolling his shoulders to alleviate his discomfort, and saw Jack slowly shifting. He leaned in and gently traced his fingers along the length of Jack's jawline. He needed to shave, his lower half of his face shaded with the growth of his beard, which prickled Eric's fingers as they ghosted Jack's skin. Jack let out a soft sigh, and leaned into the touch, his eyes still closed, so Eric did it again, and again, then rested his hand along the side of Jack's face.

"Honey," Eric said. "Come back to me."

Jack's eyes flickered open. Eric smiled at him, cognizant that tears were just under the surface. He was determined not to let them spill over again. "Hey you," Eric whispered.

"Good morning, cher ," Jack whispered. He turned his face to plant a kiss into the palm of Eric's hand, then his eyes flickered around the room, as if he'd forgotten where he was. "Oh. Right."

"Yeah, you're still in the hospital," said Eric. "You're going to be okay, though. They said you could go home tomorrow as long as the rest of tonight is fine."

Jack rolled over onto his back and sighed deeply. Eric drew back the blankets and climbed into the bed with him, then Jack's arm hooked around Eric and pulled him close. Eric rested his face in the crook of Jack's neck, tangling both of his legs around one of Jack's, and placing a hand gently on his chest, below the sticky patches that measured the rhythm of Jack's heart. They lay there in silence for a few minutes, Jack drifting in and out of sleep again until they shifted and Jack kissed the top of Eric's head.

"Are you cold?" Jack asked against the skin of Eric's forehead. "You're shaking."

Eric tried to stop it but it was pointless. He could feel the tremble in his whole body. He tightened his grip on Jack's waist, pulling him even closer than before, although the proximity was not nearly enough.

"You scared me," Eric whispered, but refused to let himself say more in fear of losing his already unstable composure.

"I know, cher . I scared myself too." Jack kissed him again before he took in a long breath. Eric lifted his head from Jack's chest to see that Jack was nearly in tears as well, the edges of his eyes red, his gaze glossy.

"It's okay," said Eric. "It's okay, honey. You're okay."

"I don't even know what happened," said Jack. He opened his mouth to continue but Eric shook his head and gently kissed him.

"Shh, honey. You don't have to talk about it."

"But I don't remember what happened! We were still drunk – I dropped you off at home, then I went home. I was getting ready for bed and then my anxiety got really bad. I don't know why, it just was, and my pills were on the counter –"

"Sweetie, it's okay," Eric insisted. Jack pursed his lips together but a tear still fell out of his eye. Eric quickly brushed it away and used the motion as an excuse to sneak a glance at Jack's heart monitor, which had ticked up a notch.

"I think I took too much," Jack whispered. "I don't know how much I took, but it must have been too much. I just remember the room was spinning and my chest hurt, like someone was sitting on it, and it was so tight, and my heart was beating too hard so I tried pushing it off, and I pushed and I pushed –"

"Jack –"

"Then there was nothing, and then I was here. And they say I overdosed. I don't understand. I didn't mean to do it and it wasn't supposed to happen like that. They tell me when I get like this, I'm supposed to take them."

"You did what you were supposed to do," said Eric, nodding supportively. Jack's heart rate continued to increase and more tears fell out of his eyes. Eric's shaking intensified as he tried to comfort Jack – he wiped away Jack's tears, he rubbed Jack's arms, but Jack persisted.

"Then why are they saying I overdosed? They keep using that word and I don't even know what that means. Are they going to tell people I overdosed? Are they going to tell Bama that I overdosed? What are people going to say?"

The monitor next to Jack’s bed started beeping, the numbers now red instead of white. A nurse threw open the door and Eric hopped off the bed.

"Out," she said to Eric.

"No, Bitty," said Jack but Eric still left, the tears spilling out of his eyes. The door to the waiting room was open, Bob, Alicia, and Coach on their feet, but Eric didn't want to see any of them. He ran down the hall and into the bathroom, where he shut and locked the door behind him. He took in a long, deep breath before he turned and looked at himself in the mirror.

His skin was blanched white, his eyes bloodshot from several hours of tears and his hangover. He was still in his jeans and long-sleeved shirt from the party, his hair disheveled from Jack's fingers when they touched each other – he could still feel the crusty stretch of their come on his skin, and suddenly he couldn't have it there anymore. He pulled his sweater over his head and threw it on the floor, then cranked two sheets of paper towel and wet them under the faucet. He began to scrape at the translucent mess over and over again, but the paper towel began to tear apart. In his desperation to be clean, he rubbed harder and harder, the towel flaking into tiny, crumply bits until he held white shredded pieces of nothing. He opened his hand, looked at them, and the gorge rose in his throat. He threw up violently into the toilet before he collapsed onto the floor, his head in his hands, his body shaking.

 

***

 

Coach wanted to leave. Eric did not want to leave without seeing Jack again, although he knew it would be a bad idea. Bob and Alicia were gone for a long time, but eventually Bob did return and Eric stood when he did. "I'm sorry," Eric said immediately. "I didn't want him to talk but he just started talking."

"No, it's okay," said Bob. "He's still fine. Listen, Eric, Rick. When they release him we're going to take him back to Lafayette for the rest of break. I think we just need to get him out of Georgia for a while and let him spend time with the family. We'll be back before school starts again." Eric nodded, but his heart tightened in his chest at the thought of not seeing Jack for another three weeks. "Rick. You'll handle Andy?"

"Yes," said Coach.

"Whatever happens… it is what it is. Try to talk him down, but if they have to withdraw the bid, I understand. I just don't want to handle it in front of Jack." Coach nodded. "Eric. Jack asked if you would come."

"To Lafayette?" Eric asked.

"Yes."

Eric looked at Coach.

"I don't see why not," said Coach. "Not all of break, though. Your Mama's going to want you home for some of it."

"All settled, then. I'll let you know when we're leaving," said Bob in a very final sort of way. Eric glanced at the door.

"Can I say bye?" Eric asked.

"Quickly," said Bob. He led Eric across the hall and while Bob and Alicia gave them space, neither left the room. Eric stepped up to the bed and Jack looked sadly at him. Eric felt useless, full with the knowledge that Jack's heart had stopped, that he had died, and Eric was at home asleep in his bed when it happened. Their conversation in the truck, when Jack had wanted to kiss him more and Eric pushed him away, would have been the last time they spoke to each other. Eric attempted to clear his head by taking Jack's hand in his.

"I still have to ask my Mama, but I can probably come to Lafayette with you," said Eric.

"Yeah?" Jack asked, and his face broke into a grin.

"Yeah, but I have to go home now. I'll see you tomorrow?" Jack nodded. Eric gently kissed him, softly on the lips and then again on his cheek. "Get some rest. I'll see you soon." Jack nodded again. Eric could see his eyes shining; they had both cried entirely too much for one day, so Eric let go of his hand and exited the room. Coach was waiting for him in the hallway and Eric walked directly into his arms.

"Dad, I'm so scared," Eric said.

"I know, son," said Coach. "He'll be okay. You'll see him tomorrow." Coach turned toward the exit, his arm around Eric's shoulders, and together they left the hospital.

Chapter Text

March 2011

Suzanne made up the bed in the first floor guest room for Eric so he didn't have to climb the stairs. Stairs weren't too bad, really, but the three that led to the front door pulled at his ribs when he ascended them, so it helped a bit knowing he wouldn't have to go all the way up to the second floor. He was groggy and disoriented as she helped him through the house, having spent the last four hours drifting in and out of sleep in the hospital bed. There wasn't much to be done about his three broken ribs apart from restricting his activity and doling out painkillers, but his arm had been placed in a cast and wrapped in a blue bandage.

Eric slept until mid-afternoon the following day. He opened his eyes and looked around, confused, until he moved and the pain shot through his torso. The first floor guest room was a horrible shade of mauve, matching from the walls to the curtains to the flowers on the bedspread, and the sight of it made him want to vomit. He very slowly sat up to see a glass of water and his bottle of painkillers next to the bed. The last time he’d taken one, he fell asleep almost immediately, so he elected to just handle it for a while and got out of bed.

He opened the door to the hallway and heard shouting from the kitchen.

"I don't care if we have to live in a hotel for a month," Coach was yelling into a phone. "He is not staying in this city. Get us anything, anything at all, as long as we can leave today. He can't stay here another day."

Eric padded into the room when Coach slammed the home phone into its cradle. He turned and noticed Eric in the doorway. "Oh, son," he said sheepishly. "I didn't know you were up."

"What's going on?" Eric asked. Coach glanced toward the stairs. Eric turned to see Suzanne on the second floor landing holding a box labeled Dicky clothes (1 of 5) . "Mama, what's going on?" Eric asked again. Suzanne froze.

"Dicky!" she said. "You're awake. You took another pain pill, right?" Eric looked between them and then dashed upstairs, ignoring the horrible sting and burn of the air in his lungs and the excruciating pull of his ribs. He entered his room to see his drawers and his closet empty, his skating gear packed up along with his computer and the start of his bookshelf.

"What the hell is going on?" Eric yelled when Suzanne appeared in the doorway. "Why did you pack up all of my clothes?"

"Dicky, honey, you need to calm down. You're still very badly hurt." Eric waited and while he did, Coach entered the room behind Suzanne. Suzanne continued: "You've been asleep for almost a day. Decisions had to be made and neither one of us wanted to wake you. Your father's accepted a position at another school.”

"And that's just it?" Eric asked. "Just going to pack everything up and leave? What if I was still asleep? Were you just going to load the car with me in it and I'd wake up in a different town?"

"Honey, you're being ridiculous," said Suzanne.

"Am I? You didn't include me at all!"

"This is for you, Dicky," said Suzanne. "We should have done this a long time ago. We're going back to Madison. We'll figure out where we're going to live when we get there – your father will sub until the school year's over, then next year he'll start his new position at Samwell.”

"What about skating?" Eric asked.

"Honey, you've got three broken ribs. Your arm is broken. You can't skate."

"But is that just it?" Eric asked. "We moved here so I could train with Katya, and now we're going back to Madison? I can't drive all the way out here every day to see her." Suzanne's face was impassive and Eric shuttered a breath that hurt so badly it sent stars in front of his eyes. "I see. I don't get a say in that either, I guess. And I don't get to say goodbye to Katya? Since we're leaving today."

"We can't stay here," said Suzanne and Eric scowled at the tears in her eyes.

"Fine. I'll finish in here. Get out."

"Dicky –"

"Get out of my room!" yelled Eric. "While it's still my room." Coach left without another word. Suzanne hesitated, looking at her son, and then fished a phone out of her pocket.

"Here," she said. "It's the best I could do this morning, since your old one was destroyed from… you know." She handed him the phone and left the room. He closed the door after her and slammed his fists against it, which only temporarily distracted him from the pain still throbbing in his ribs. He looked to the left, at his poster of Johnny Weir holding his gold medal from the US National Championships several years ago, then tore it down and threw it on the floor with the rest of the garbage.

 

***

 

     Eric
     I'm at home need you immediately

     Drew
     Still in class

     Eric
     Skip

     Eric
     It's urgent

 

***

 

Eric was lying on his back in his bedroom when he heard Drew enter through the front door. "Drew?" Coach's voice travelled up the stairs. "You should be at school."

"Yeah, I should," said Drew. He opened Eric's bedroom door a moment later and immediately looked over the scene in front of him; Suzanne and Coach had carried out the rest of the boxes and, apart from the bedding and one bookshelf, the room looked empty. "What the hell is this?"

"We're moving," said Eric.

"Now?"

"Apparently."

"Where?"

"Back to Madison. Coach got a new job."

Drew stepped into the room and closed the door behind him before he sat next to Eric on the bed. Eric slowly pulled himself up before he looked at Drew, whose expression was impassive and whose hands were trembling. Eric placed a hand on top of Drew's, and Drew grasped it tightly. "When are you leaving?" Drew asked. His voice was barely a whisper but Eric could hear the quaver in it, and he refused to look at Drew's face, afraid of what he would see there.

"I don't know. Today."

"Oh God," said Drew. He let go of Eric's hand and covered his face. "I woke up this morning and waited for you to come to my house so we could go to school together. When I remembered that you wouldn't be going, it felt like you were gone, but I just said 'No, you'll go to school together when he's better.' But that's not true. You're gone. I'm never going to ride to school with you again."

"No, Drew, it's not forever," said Eric, and he could feel the tears welling. He blinked several times. "It's just for, what? Two years?"

"Oh God," said Drew again.

"But then we'll be at Georgia together! We'll be roomies and we'll go to class together every day. There's only a few more weeks of school, I can come back for the summer, or you can come to Madison and see me –"

"What about everything that we have here?" Drew asked, finally looking over at Eric. Eric's lip trembled at the sight of Drew's tears behind the sheen of his glasses. "What about skating?" Eric shook his head. "What about school? I don't have any friends, Eric. Oh God, what am I going to tell Amy? She has such a huge crush on you. This is going to be devastating for her."

Eric stared at Drew's face and thought the same thing: he would miss the length of Drew's nose, how it turned up just the slightest at the end. He would miss the pink in his lips and the plumpness of them. He would miss the easy blush of his cheeks, the blotchy patches of rose when he got emotional. He would miss the rich thickness of the black of his hair, how it used to fall into his face when they were kids, but how he now styled it into a swoop that showed off his high forehead and full eyebrows. He would miss the indent on his temples when he took his glasses off. He would miss the black rims of those glasses. Most of all, he would miss the clarity of Drew’s eyes, the blue that Eric could see in the sky and always reminded him of his favorite part of his best friend, a color he could stare into for the rest of his life if given the opportunity. He would miss Drew, and perhaps, after enough time, even his horrible puns.

"You should start by telling her I'm gay," said Eric, and Drew barked a laugh before he lifted his glasses and wiped his eyes. "Maybe that'll soften the blow a bit."

"God, E, I'm going to miss you so much."

"I'll miss you more, Drew," said Eric. Drew looked over and sighed.

"This sucks,” he said. "Let me sign your cast. Did your mom – there it is." He picked up a black Sharpie from on top of the desk. Eric held out his left arm and Drew rested it on his thigh, carefully outlining a large shape.

"What the hell are you doing?" Eric asked. "You said you were going to sign it."

"I have to mark my territory here," said Drew. "Give me a minute."

It took Drew about five minutes, but then there was a clear drawing of Iron Man in his suit, holding a pan. Eric narrowed his eyes at it. "Why is he holding a skillet?"

"It's Iron Man. On your cast. Holding a cast-iron skillet."

Eric groaned. "Oh my God, you did not just pun my cast."

"Oh I punned your cast," said Drew. "Here, since you're too stupid to get it, let me explain in case any of your new friends in Madison ask about it." Drew captioned it Cast-Iron Man and then signed his name and date underneath. "Then you can tell them about your awesome best friend Drew who's probably the coolest person in the world."

"That's seriously debatable." Eric gestured toward the poster on his wall. "You have Queen Bey and Johnny Weir to compete with here." Drew looked at the wall.

"Where's your Johnny Weir poster?" Drew asked.

"Oh, right. I got angry and ripped it down. Dammit, I liked that poster."

"I'll get you a new one for your birthday," said Drew, and then he quieted. "If I get to see you on your birthday. Fuck, I thought we'd be together for that. It's our sixteenth. We were going to take our road tests together."

"Like you were going to wait eleven days to take your road test."

"Fine, I wasn't, but I really was going to pick you up every morning until you passed yours and make you sit in the back seat like a child. I found Amy's old booster seat in the garage and everything. God, this is the worst decision your parents have ever made." Eric agreed. Drew threw the Sharpie back on the desk and then repositioned himself next to Eric on the bed. Eric rested his head against Drew's shoulder and Drew rested his cheek against Eric's head, careful to avoid the stitches at his hairline.

"Clayton wasn't at school today," Drew said. "Marcus or Jordan either. I think they got expelled."

A chill shimmied painfully down Eric's spine at the thought of it; Marcus and Jordan were barely a threat without Clayton. Clayton knew where he lived, though, and it would not surprise Eric in the slightest if he showed up at some point, even if Coach and Suzanne were home.

"I'm surprised he hasn't come by the house yet," said Eric. "Maybe he did while I was sleeping. Maybe – maybe it's not a bad thing that we're leaving."

"No, maybe not," said Drew. "I just wish you weren't."

The door opened and they looked up. Suzanne looked apprehensive but she quickly changed her expression to resolute. "Dicky," she said. "We're leaving."

"We're not all packed!" said Eric. "What about the furniture?"

"Your father and I will come back and get the rest of the furniture after we close on a new house. We have enough to get us through until then. We're leaving now." Eric clutched at Drew's arm, who held him right back. "I'll give you two a minute to say goodbye. Drew, honey, come here and give me a hug." Drew didn't move from the bed until Eric pushed him, then he reluctantly stood and gave Suzanne a short hug. "I know this is sudden. I'm sorry. We just can't stay here after this."

"I know," whispered Drew. "Goodbye Mrs. B."

"Goodbye, Drew."

Suzanne squeezed him before she headed out of the room and shut the door behind her. Drew turned to Eric, who pressed his lips together and took him in; the length of his body, the fade of his jeans, the buttons on his flannel that lay open atop his white t-shirt, his black tennis shoes –

"Hey, are those my shoes?" Eric asked. Drew looked down at his feet.

"Yeah, I think so. Do you want them back?"

"Nah," said Eric. He pulled himself forward on the bed and carefully stood. "I'm surprised they fit you, with you being such a beanpole now."

"Maybe you just have giant feet," said Drew.

They stared at each other, struggling not to cry.

"Can I hug you?" Drew asked. "How are your ribs?"

"They hurt," said Eric, "but please hug me."

Drew stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Eric’s shoulders. Eric sunk his face into Drew's neck, his hands encircling Drew's waist, and they held each other, breathing together. Eric wanted to commit this to memory – the way that Drew felt against him, where Eric's lips could potentially touch, where his nose fit, the place where he could rest and feel the most comfortable. Drew's neck and collar were perfect for Eric's head to settle. That was important to remember, and he didn't know until this moment how important it was to him.

"I wish we had more time," Drew whispered.

"What would we do with it?" Eric asked.

"I don't know. I just know there was more we were supposed to do. I think there was more we had to figure out."

"Would we, though?” asked Eric. “If we had more time?"

"Maybe," said Drew.

Suzanne called Eric's name up the stairs. Eric held Drew closer but Drew pulled away. Eric reluctantly let him, and then Drew guided him out of the room and down the stairs. Suzanne attempted to take over, but Eric shook her hands away. "No, I can walk on my own," he said. She followed him out of the house and to the truck, where he sat in the back seat and closed the door. He twisted as much as his body would allow to look over his shoulder; Drew waved, and Eric waved back. Coach started the truck and headed down the driveway. Eric's eyes watched Drew the entire way, who stood at the front door, his hands on his hips. Once the truck began to turn, Drew collapsed onto the stoop with his head between his knees, and Eric already missed him.

Chapter Text

December 2011

 

They arrived in Lafayette late in the evening after a full day of travel. Everyone was exhausted from the long trip, but Jack looked dead on his feet. He tired very easily and couldn't stand or walk for even normal periods of time, which made the everyday steps of a plane ride that much longer – they had to rest after checking in, had to rest after security, had to rest after deplaning in New Orleans, and had to rest after picking up the car. When they finally arrived, Eric had never been so happy to see a house.

Jack's childhood home had been sold when the family relocated to Atlanta, but Bob's mother, Grand-Mère Zimmermann, still owned what Eric could only describe as an estate. It was easily the same size as Jack's home in Madison, but the property seemed to go on forever, a large square of green grass, hedges as tall as people, and trees strategically placed near ponds or benches or the gazebo that could fit everyone Eric knew.

Grand-Mère Zimmermann was in her nightgown but met them at the door and attempted to help Bob with the suitcases. She was an old woman, her hair short and so gray it was blue, but Eric knew within seconds that she had an inextinguishable fire within her that Eric hoped to also retain at her age. Not only did she pull the suitcase right from Bob's hand, she scolded him with a literal slap on the wrist for preventing her from taking it.

"Let me help, cher," she said to him. "You told me you'd be here no later than seven. It's nearly ten o'clock! I'm completely unpresentable to meet our petit cho cho's boy for the first time." She turned to Eric and he smiled at her. "Désolé, cher, but I could barely wait up for y'all. Come on in and chat with me. I'll show you upstairs. Whose case do I have?"

"That's mine, grand-mère ," said Jack.

"We’ll settle Jack in first, then we'll go to your room. And it'll be your room, won't it?" Grand-Mère Zimmermann asked.

Eric nodded. "Yes, ma'am,” he replied.

"Mais la , I can definitely tell a liar when I see one, but you're sweet," she said. Eric blushed furiously but she still smiled at him. Eric took Jack's hand as they walked up the stairs, but Jack seemed more concerned about his grandmother than himself. "I'm fine, I'm fine, cho cho ,” she said while swatting him away. “You're the one I'm worried about. Don't fall down my stairs, the hospital's a half hour away."

Jack made it up the stairs fine, but seemed relieved that they stopped in his room first. He sat on the bed and kicked off his shoes while Grand-Mère Zimmermann set down his suitcase. Eric had no time to look around before Grand-Mère Zimmermann shoved him out of the room and down the hall. "You'll be in here, cher," she said. "Let Jack sleep."

"Okay," said Eric. "Um, grand-mère ?"

"Oh, cher , your accent is awful. It's grand . Don't pronounce the d."

"Grand-mère ?"

"Better. Soften your A a bit. Now what's your question?"

"What did you call Jack? Cho cho?" he asked. Grand-Mère Zimmermann nodded. "What does that mean?"

She smiled at him and patted his cheek. "It means fat. Fat baby. I'm sure you've seen pictures." Eric nodded. "It just turned into a nickname,” she explained, “like how all of our names end up as nicknames. I'm sure I'll have one for you before you go. Maybe we'll call you plateau . Like a pancake."

"Because I'm…flat?"

"Because you're skin and bones," said Grand-Mère Zimmermann. "Give me some time, plateau, and I'll get some meat on you. If you're hungry, which you should be, there are leftovers in the icebox. Otherwise you can go to bed too and we'll make breakfast in the morning. Alicia tells me you're a good cook."

"I'm a good baker," corrected Eric.

"It's all the same, plateau . Good night."

Grand-Mère Zimmermann left the room. Eric set his suitcase on the bed and changed into pajamas before he began to look around; he was in one of what Eric assumed was many guest rooms in the house, but it looked larger than the master bedroom in any house Eric had ever lived in. It had an old farmhouse theme with pictures of fields of crops and horses and pigs, the hardwood stained to look like the planks of a barn floor. Eric tested his weight in a few spots but nothing creaked, which was a relief, so he carefully walked to the door and peered into the hallway. It was empty.

Eric almost entered the wrong room, which could have been disastrous if it were Bob and Alicia's or Grand-Mère Zimmermann's, but Eric figured he ended up in the correct spot once he opened the door and saw a photo of five-year-old Jack standing with Bob on the field of the Superdome. This was just one of many childhood photos that lined the walls of the room, enshrining Jack as a child. Jack lay in the large, fluffy bed, his eyes closed. Eric contemplated just leaving him be, but not even the threat of Grand-Mère Zimmermann would keep him from Jack tonight.

When Eric climbed into the bed, Jack opened his eyes. "Mmm, hello, cher ," he said, shifting to place an arm around Eric and snuggled close to him.

"You know your grandmother called me cher ," said Eric. "I thought it was something special."

"No, everyone's cher around here,” said Jack before he gently kissed Eric's shoulder and settled his head on Eric's chest. "You're still special, though."

"Go to sleep, honey," said Eric. "I'll stay here with you."

"Bitty?" Jack asked. Eric kissed the top of Jack's head. "I'm glad you're here."

"Me too," said Eric. Jack fell asleep quickly but Eric stayed awake for another hour, running his fingers through Jack's hair, over the muscles on his back, along the planes of his face, and against the softness of his skin. Jack breathed steadily, in and out against Eric's side, proving with every movement that he was still alive and still there.

Eric awoke the next morning to Jack's lips kissing his neck. Sensing he was awake, Jack dipped deliberate fingers underneath the waistline of Eric’s pajama pants. Eric didn’t open his eyes until Jack's hand wrapped around him and began to tug. Eric looked down; Jack was awake, his hand really was down Eric's pants, and Eric had just seconds to decide if he should let this continue.

"Jack," he whispered breathlessly. Jack nuzzled his face into Eric's neck, and Eric could feel the graze of Jack's beard on his skin, which did not help Eric pull away from the overwhelming emotions Jack was wrenching out of him. "Jack, quit it."

Jack let go of him but lifted his face from Eric's neck and looked into his eyes. Eric's heart dropped at the sight of the anxiety there, as if Jack had done something wrong. "I'm sorry," Jack said. "I just – I woke up and I could feel you were hard and I –"

"No, no, I'm sorry," said Eric. "It's not that I don't want you to. God, I want you to." A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of Jack's lip. "I just don't think you should. You need to rest." Jack rolled his eyes and lay on his back, no longer touching any part of Eric.

"It's not like I was suggesting we go for a run," said Jack.

"I know, but you're supposed to be taking it easy. Not jerking me off two days after you died."

"I didn't die," said Jack, his voice low. Eric bit his lip, not wanting to start an argument, so instead he rolled over and cuddled up to Jack's side. Jack's eyes trailed over his face, which Eric felt was greasy and gritty from sleep, but Jack had a fondness to his gaze. "I'm fine, you know."

"Not quite," said Eric. "I think your brain thinks it's finer than your body."

"Are you saying my body is not fine?" Jack teased. Eric snorted and put his face in the crook of Jack's neck to hide the volume; he had no idea if Jack's parents or if Grand-Mère Zimmermann were awake or nearby, and he didn't want to be immediately discovered as a rule-breaker.

Jack took Eric's hand and placed it on the bulge in the front of his pants. Eric whined into Jack's neck in a half-hearted attempt to resist, but he remembered the way Jack’s face looked that evening in Shitty’s guest room, and he wanted to see it again. "What about this? As soon as you leave me alone I'm going to take care of it, so I'd rather you give me some assistance." Jack moved Eric's hand in long, slow movements along the outline of his erection. Eric's own had not abated during their conversation and had suddenly become incredibly interested in what was happening.

"You're so bad," Eric whispered.

"Please?" Jack asked.

"Fine, but know that if your heart gives out I'm going to have to run for the hills before your grandmother kills me." Eric sat up and slipped his hand underneath Jack's pants, grasping his erection firmly and tugging on it. He glanced back at Jack – Jack was staring right at him, desire etched over the lines and curves of his face. Eric kissed him, just briefly, before he looked at his hand in Jack's pants, moving faster. Jack grasped at him, gripping Eric's arm tightly, but Jack remained completely silent until his body tensed from top to toes. Eric panicked, just briefly, afraid that he'd killed him, but instead Jack came and then began to breathe normally.

Eric stroked him through it, then let go and planted a brief kiss to Jack's lips. "That's it for you. I'm staying in my own room tonight."

"No," said Jack. "Stay with me again."

"You need to rest and not think about me or if I'm hard when I wake up," said Eric. "No more sex for you, Mr. Zimmermann." Eric attempted to climb out of the bed but Jack held fast to his arm. "What?"

"Let me finish you," said Jack.

"Nope," said Eric. "You rest. I'm going to take a shower." Jack frowned, but Eric kissed him one more time before he left the bed and the room. Luckily there was no one in the hallway, which allowed Eric to avoid both awkward questions about Eric's location and the obvious tent in his pants, so he was able to grab fresh clothes and run into the bathroom without seeing anyone else.

Eric entered the kitchen a half hour later, clean and satiated, to find Grand-Mère Zimmermann chopping up vegetables at the island in the center of the room. It was still technically breakfast, albeit a later breakfast than Eric was used to, so she set down a plate of something wonderful at the counter when Eric approached.

Comment ça va? ” Grand-Mere Zimmermann asked when Eric sat down.

“Um…”

“How are you, plateau? Comment ça va? Now you say ça va bien.”

Ça va bien ,” Eric replied tentatively.

“Good!” said Grand-Mère Zimmermann.

"What's this?" Eric asked.

"Grillades and grits," she said, which only somewhat explained the dish of what looked like meat and vegetables on top of grits. He decided just to eat it anyway, which was a good decision, as it was as fantastic as it smelled. "How is Jack this morning?" Eric glanced up and Grand-Mère Zimmermann looked back at him as if she could see right into his soul.

"He's fine," said Eric. "I don't think he's going to do well with the whole 'you need to rest' recommendation. I wouldn't be surprised if he tried to go for a run."

"Mais, mon plateau, that's why we brought you here. You need to keep him in line."

"I think he'll listen to you more than he'll listen to me," said Eric. "I've only been his boyfriend a few weeks and you – no offense – are terrifying." Grand-Mère Zimmermann smiled a tight-lipped smile, which just made her look more frightening.

"I'm the Grand-Mère he grew up with. I fed him beignets and boudin when he was twelve and his parents wanted him to get in shape. He'd look at me with those big blue eyes and I'd give him whatever he wanted. I don't think he's quite as afraid of me as you are, cher ."

"Oh," said Eric. "Well I still think you're terrifying."

"That's because you went to his room last night when I asked you not to."

"True," said Eric into his food. Grand-Mère Zimmermann continued to chop onions on a cutting board at the counter. She had enough raw vegetables in front of her to feed a small army, but she lived alone in the large house and as far as Eric knew, they'd only brought four people with them. Eric watched her work while he finished his breakfast; she was smaller than Eric by three inches, thin with the illusion of frailty, but Eric saw her lift a crate of tomatoes with little effort, then began to wash each of them in the sink.

When Eric finished there was nothing to rinse off his plate, so he placed it in the dishwasher, washed his hands, and then stepped next to Grand-Mère Zimmermann. She slid the cutting board and her knife over, then begin to hand him tomatoes to dice. "What are we making?" Eric asked.

"Tomato sauce," said Grand-Mère Zimmermann, "for the crawfish etouffee for lunch." Eric looked at the case of tomatoes on the counter; she'd washed nearly all of them by now.

"All of this sauce is for the etouffee?"

"Non, plateau , but if we're going to make sauce, we might as well make all of the sauce." It made sense, so Eric continued to chop the tomatoes she placed in front of him. After five tomatoes, Jack wandered into the kitchen. He'd showered as well, his hair still wet at the nape of his neck. From his running shorts to his tight t-shirt, he looked very much like he was ready to head outside instead of veg on the couch as required.

"Good morning," said Grand-Mère Zimmermann. "Sit down, I'll pour you a bowl." Jack sat at the counter and before he'd been there a full five seconds he had a serving set in front of him.

"Merci, Grand-Mère ," said Jack.

"Pas rien, mon petit cho cho ," replied Grand-Mère Zimmermann. "How did you sleep?" She glanced at Eric when she asked, and Eric quickly looked back down at the tomatoes in front of him.

"Bien ," said Jack. "I don't know how much more sleeping I can do, though. I feel like I haven't done anything else in two days. I just want to go outside."

"Maybe in a few days, cher ," said Grand-Mère Zimmermann. "Don't push yourself too much today." Jack frowned into his food, which Eric was surprised he could do while eating something that incredible. Jack didn't say anything further and Eric chopped the rest of the tomatoes before Jack finished his meal. Grand-Mère Zimmermann stole Jack's plate before he could attempt to clear it himself and handed it to Eric, who put it in the dishwasher while she began scooping the tomatoes into a large stock pot on the stove.

"What're you making?" Jack asked.

"Tomato sauce," replied Eric. Jack stood and approached the stove where they worked, placing one hand on the small of Eric's back and slowly beginning to rub it. Eric was instantly reminded of the touch that awoke him that morning and just as quickly felt guilty for remembering it. "Jack, hun, you should go back upstairs and rest."

Jack scoffed. "I've been in bed since we got here. Take a walk with me."

Eric glanced at Grand-Mère Zimmermann, who glared right back at him.

"No, honey," said Eric. "If you don't want to go back to bed, then go watch television. Don't get in my way in here." Jack frowned. "I'm making lunch with your grandmother. Does she let you hover around her when she's in the kitchen?"

"Sometimes," said Jack, looking at Grand-Mère Zimmermann.

"When you were too little to get in the way," she said. "Shoo. You can have your boy back after lunch." Jack's hand stilled on Eric's back. Eric looked back at him just in time for a kiss before Jack let go and left the room.

They continued to work together through the morning, Grand-Mère Zimmermann showing Eric the more intricate details of the recipes she'd known by heart for decades, telling him by her internal timer when to stir the sauce and when to add spices. Everything was done by sight and by feel, which was usually how Eric baked. It was much different to stand in a kitchen and have his mouth water from various aromas despite not really being hungry, since he never had a temptation from the pies and turnovers and cobblers he would make in his own kitchen with his mother.

"Tell me," said Grand-Mère Zimmermann at ten-thirty when she showed Eric how to peel apart crawfish, one of the more disgusting parts of their preparation for lunch, "your father was Jack's coach, yes?" Eric nodded. He threw another crawfish tail in a bowl, the rest of the meat into a different bowl, and the shell into the garbage. "Is it over, then? With college?"

Grand-Mère Zimmermann had not looked vulnerable the extent of the morning, but Eric could see the affection for her grandson in her eyes when she asked the question. When Eric nodded she bit her lip, holding back tears, and continued to pull shells off tails.

He had not wanted to overhear any of the conversations with the college scouts, but he heard every single one of them as he packed his bags in his room with the door open. Coach's voice carried naturally through the house, and Eric usually was able to tune it out, but it was hard to do when he was so invested in each outcome. It started with the University of Alabama. They hadn't even gotten home from the hospital when Andy called Coach again. The decision was made before the hello, and Coach spent the next twenty minutes -- the rest of the ride home and then into the house -- trying to talk Andy out of it. Jack had not done anything illegal and simply took a higher dose than recommended of his prescription anxiety medication. The conversation ended with Coach at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, and Jack without an offer to the school he'd been pushed toward for the entirety of his life. The rest happened throughout the day Friday, each bid dropping like flies until every single one had been withdrawn, including back-up choices, including safety schools, including those Eric didn't even know were on the table. Jack still had options in front of him – or at least that was what Coach had said when Bob came by the house to pick up Eric on Saturday morning. His admission to the schools had not been revoked, just his opportunity to play on the football team.

"What is he going to do?" Grand-Mère Zimmermann asked.

"I don't know," said Eric.

"Does he know what he's going to do?" Grand-Mère Zimmermann asked. Eric shook his head. "That's an important thing to figure out."

"He hasn't even said anything about it," said Eric. "I was there when Bob told him and he just didn't react. Didn't say anything then and hasn't said anything now. I think he still needs to wrap his head around it."

"You should talk to him," said Grand-Mère Zimmermann. "Don't let him avoid it. I think he'll do whatever he can to avoid it. Do you understand, Eric?" Eric looked at her. "He's not out here to spend time with me. He can come out here whenever he wants to see me. He's out here to be away from the distractions he had in Madison so he can think about what he wants to do now. His entire life was planned for him and now it's not. He doesn't need to figure out everything. Just whatever’s next. He needs someone to push him to understand that."

Eric stared at her and she smiled at him, looking more like a grandmother and less like an important maternal figure that Eric felt the need to impress. She placed a hand on his shoulder and gave him a gentle squeeze, a gesture meant to be comforting, but Eric was left with an unsettling feeling in his stomach.

They served lunch to the family at noon. When Eric set a bowl in front of Jack, Jack kissed Eric's hand before Eric stepped away to scoop another bowl at the stove, and Jack's eyes followed him the whole way. Eric sat in between Alicia and Jack at the table and after his first bite realized that he should have written down what Grand-Mère Zimmermann showed him.

"Eric, did you help make lunch today?" Bob asked.

"Yes," said Eric.

"He did a wonderful job," said Grand-Mère Zimmermann. She looked at Jack. "He's got quite the talent in the kitchen."

"You should let him make a pie while he's here," said Jack.

"Yes, you should make a pie while you're here, Eric," said Alicia. " Marie , he made us one in Madison. It was fantastic." Jack placed his hand over Eric's on top of the table and Eric gently smiled at him. "Jack, honey,” Alicia continued, “what did you do this morning while Eric was making lunch?"

"Did some reading," said Jack. "Nothing special."

"You should take a nap after we eat," said Alicia. "You look a little worn out."

Eric could feel Jack's hand tense in his, but Jack didn't otherwise respond. When Eric looked up at him, he could see what Alicia saw, which was an internal struggle to not show how exhausted the effort of coming downstairs, eating breakfast, and then staying awake had had on Jack.

After lunch Jack attempted to help them clean up, but only got as far as placing a few bowls in the dishwasher before Grand-Mère Zimmermann began to shoo him again. "Vas," she said. "Fais do do. Come on, now. Upstairs."

"I'm not tired," said Jack. "I just want to help."

"I'll come up in a minute," said Eric. "Okay?" Jack looked at Eric, and then his grandmother, but then left the room and headed up the stairs. Eric could hear his footsteps, which were heavier and more sluggish than usual. He finished cleaning up the kitchen and the dining room before he headed up the stairs too. Jack was pacing in his room on the opposite side of the bed. When Eric entered, Jack barely waited for the door to shut behind him before he pressed Eric up against it, crushing their lips together. It was both enthralling and distracting, which must have been Jack's purpose.

"Jack, stop it," said Eric. "Come on, let's go lay down."

"I don't want to lay down," said Jack. "I want you. I want you right here against the door."

"Jack, you're being ridiculous," said Eric. "Look at you. You're exhausted. Don't say you're not because I can see that you are. You can tell me all day that you don't want to lay down or you want to go for a walk or you're fine, but you are not fine. Go lay down and rest or you'll end up in the hospital again."

Jack stared at him, infuriated, but let go and flopped onto his bed. Eric cautiously followed and sat down on the edge of it, but kept his distance. Jack reached out for his hand and attempted to pull him closer, but Jack's strength had rapidly weakened during his short tantrum so Eric easily remained upright.

"We're not having sex," said Eric.

"I just want to kiss you," said Jack.

"Have you thought at all about what you're going to do now?"

The question was much more abrupt than Eric had originally planned. He didn't want to be irritated when he asked it and he didn't want Jack to be frustrated when he asked it either, but it popped out of his mouth and Jack let go of his hand.

"No," said Jack. "Can you come kiss me now?"

"Jack, you need to think about what you're going to do. That's why we're here. To think about these things."

"I don't want to think about these things. I don't need to think about these things right now. We don't have to be in school for three more weeks. Let's just be together." Jack tugged on his hand again and Eric sighed. "What?"

"I shouldn't have come here,” said Eric.

"Bitty."

"No, this was a mistake," said Eric. He stood and Jack sat up. "You need to work on yourself."

"No, Bits, I need you," said Jack. Eric shook his head. "Please. I've lost literally everything. No one will take me anymore. I don't want to lose you too." Eric returned to the bed, to Jack's sad eyes, and knelt down in front of him. Jack possessively wrapped both arms around Eric's waist and maneuvered him into Jack's lap.

"You're not losing me, Jack," said Eric. He placed both his hands on either side of Jack's face, tilting Jack's gaze upward to him. "I won't be far away. I just can't be here. You get yourself better and you think about what you need to do now. I'll be waiting for you on the other side."

Eric gently kissed him and Jack responded with a hunger that Eric knew was not going to result in leaving like he should, so Eric pulled away. "Bits," said Jack, his eyes slanted downward, his expression open and vulnerable and so incredibly inviting.

"I'll see you soon."

Eric pulled easily out of Jack's grip, hopped off the bed, and walked purposefully out of the room. He didn't stop until he was downstairs in the den where Bob was sitting with his computer in his lap. He looked up when Eric entered and Eric didn't know how to say it, but Bob already knew.

"Do I need to find you a flight?"

Eric nodded.

"All right. Is he okay?"

"I have no idea." Eric hastily wiped at his eyes; he didn't want to cry about it. "Can you just book whatever's soonest?"

Bob stood. "Get your bag. We'll leave now."

Five minutes later Eric was in the car with Bob, still wiping at his eyes, leaving for what felt like forever.

Chapter Text

January 2012

 

While Eric was eating breakfast at the kitchen table, Coach walked in. When he passed Eric's seat, he ruffled Eric's hair, sufficiently destroying the style Eric had spent ten minutes trying to perfect in the mirror after his shower. "Dad!" yelped Eric, his hands flying to his hair to assess the damage. Coach laughed before he sat down and Eric looked at his mother, who was also smiling. "Mama, did he ruin it?"

"Yes," said Suzanne. She set a plate of eggs and bacon in front of Coach. "Hurry up and eat if you want to fix it before you're late for school."

"You know my first class is with Jack, Dad," Eric complained. He shoved a final piece of bacon in his mouth before he ran to the nearest bathroom and began to comb his hair back into place. The style was salvageable and just as Eric tamed each strand back into its swoop, Coach appeared at the bathroom door. "Don't you dare,” said Eric.

"I'm sorry, son," Coach said with a laugh that meant he was not at all sorry. "You look great. You always look great."

"Sure," said Eric.

"Do you want a ride to school? Not sure if the novelty of being able to drive yourself has worn off yet, but we are going to the same place after all."

Eric nodded. "Yeah, okay."

Coach handed Eric another piece of bacon. Eric shoved it in his mouth before he followed Coach through the kitchen and toward the garage. Eric paused to give his mother a kiss on the cheek. She hugged him tightly before she let him leave.

"Have a good day, sweetie," she said. "It is a new semester, please try to start this one off on the right foot."

"Mother!" said Eric. "I'm offended you would think my feelings toward school were anything less than noble. I'm a model student."

"You're just lucky those AP classes inflate your GPA," said Suzanne, "otherwise we'd be having a serious discussion about your options for college."

"Georgia will take anyone born here with a pulse," said Eric with an eye roll. "Anyhow, I've got Mr. I've-Given-You-Your-Starting-Line-Every-Year-For-Fifteen-Years over here who would be happy to make a call on my behalf."

"My calls can only do so much, son," said Coach.

"May I remind you my cumulative GPA is a 3.7?"

"3.7 isn't a 4.0, Dicky," said Suzanne.

"Ugh, you are the worst parents ever," said Eric. "Dad, let's just go to school now, please?"

Suzanne kissed his cheek. "I’m just teasing. I am very proud of you, honey," she said. Eric picked up his backpack before he stomped through the rest of the kitchen and out the door, but he took a step backward upon realizing that Coach's truck was parked inside the garage for the first time in recent memory.

"What is this?"

"Don't have any boats to work on right now," said Coach. "I can finally use the garage as the good Lord intended."

"I don't think I like this at all," said Eric. He opened the front door and hopped inside. Coach climbed behind the wheel, opened the garage door, and backed out to the driveway. Eric fiddled with the radio until he found something too upbeat and obnoxious for seven-thirty in the morning, so when Coach decided to speak, he had to lower the volume.

"Have you spoken to Jack at all since you've been home?" Coach asked. Eric shook his head. "I'm sure he's all right. I spoke to Bob briefly after they got back this weekend. He says Jack is doing better. Doesn't get worn out as easily so he should be able to sit through a full school day."

"Good," said Eric.

"Are you two… you know? Still together?"

"I don't know," Eric whispered.

Coach squeezed Eric's shoulder before returning his hands to the wheel, and they drove the rest of the way to school without speaking, listening to Rihanna on the radio. Eric got out of the truck and said goodbye to his father before he headed to his locker in Building A, where he dropped off his backpack then grabbed his chemistry and history notebooks. He glanced at the back cover of one; there was a heart with the initials JLZ and an arrow through it, which felt much more literal than metaphorical. He slammed his locker shut and headed to homeroom.

He took his time when walking to AP History, dreading seeing Jack again. He purposefully avoided Jack for the rest of break in an attempt to give him the space he needed, and after three weeks, Eric was left with more doubt than anything else. He attempted to keep himself busy, cooking in abundance for Christmas and then New Year's, and then hockey began again. His first game was Saturday already and he felt considerably unprepared, especially since he hadn't gone for a run since before Jack's overdose.

Jack was already sitting in his usual chair when Eric entered the room, but Mr. Fernandez was speaking to him. The rest of the students who'd already arrived were sneaking furtive glances in his direction. While it was not unusual for people to sneak glances at Jack when he walked down the hallway, people in his classes had long gotten over the fact that he was Jack Zimmermann, son of Bob Zimmermann. These glances were new.

Mr. Fernandez clapped Jack on the back before he headed back to the front of the classroom, noticing Eric who stood just behind him. "Good morning, Eric," he said. Eric smiled at him, half-heartedly, because he'd drawn Jack's attention. Eric cleared his throat and took his usual spot next to Jack.

"Hi," said Jack.

"Hi," replied Eric.

"How was your break?" Jack asked.

"Fine. How was yours? When did you come home?"

"We flew back Saturday. It was…relaxing."

"Good."

Mr. Fernandez called them to attention and Eric opened his notebook, confused. The conversation solved nothing and Eric just wanted to reach across the gap to take Jack's hand. When class ended, they stood together, looked at each other, and just walked across the campus in silence until they parted on the second floor of Building B. Eric looked up at Jack when they stopped in front of the physics classroom. Jack gazed longingly at him for a few moments, then entered the classroom without a word.

The new semester also meant a different lunch period and this time Eric shared lunch with Jack, Lardo, Ransom, and Holster. Lunch felt less awkward than history because there was a buffer between them; while Jack sat right next to Eric after going through the line, Lardo, Ransom, and Holster sat across from them. "Jacko," said Ransom once he set down his tray of three chicken sandwiches and a large cup of frozen yogurt, "it is good to see you, man. How you feeling?"

"Fine," said Jack, but he didn't speak further. Eric gripped his bottle of soda to prevent himself from placing a reassuring hand on Jack's thigh. The three looked at Jack expectantly, but when nothing happened, Holster leaned forward.

"Y'all," said Holster, "Rans and I signed up for ballet this semester, and Lord was this the best decision we have ever made. We are the only men in the class and every single woman wears nothing and is limber as fuck. I think I had half a chub the whole period."

"You had more than half a chub," said Ransom. "It was totes obvious."

"Doesn't matter. I get to stare at leotard-clad boobs for three more months. It's just going to get more and more obvious until I've nailed every one of them."

"Bits, you took ballet, right?" Lardo asked.

"Yeah, for a couple of years while I did figure skating. I was also the only boy in my class and I can promise you I never cared what the girls were wearing."

"Yeah, but then you were the hot one with the leotard on, weren't you?" said Ransom with a nudge across the table at Jack. Jack stiffened and Eric leaned away from him, but then Holster quickly interjected with his other new class that semester, graphic design.

"I took graphic design at my old school," said Eric. "It was really cool. I still have Photoshop and Premiere on my laptop even though I took it freshman year. I use it all the time for my vlog."

"You have a vlog?" Jack asked. Eric looked over and nodded. "What do you talk about?"

"Baking, mostly," said Eric. "I mostly ramble on about that, but sometimes I talk about hockey or, you know, my life." Jack raised an eyebrow. "Not always. I don't mention names or anything like that, but if I get on a roll things just come out of my mouth."

"Yo, do you ever talk about me?" Ransom asked.

"Why would I talk about you?" Eric asked.

"Because I'm your favorite person you've ever met. Doi."

"Um, I'm pretty sure that's me," said Holster.

"Rans. Holster," said Lardo, "neither of you are anyone's favorite person." Ransom and Holster both frowned, but then leaned toward each other and each whispered, "Bro. You're my favorite person. "

The week continued this way; Eric and Jack shared polite but formal conversation during class, sat next to each other at lunch, said hello and goodbye in the hallway, but did not text and did not instigate new interactions. Eric felt drained after his first week back at classes and was very pleased to wake up on Saturday for his first game of the season.

Coach Frahm seemed to notice his attitude on the ice during warm ups. Tony asked for a faceoff drill and Eric roughly pushed him out of the way after Eric won. Coach Frahm called Eric over when Tony fell into the boards, and Eric knew he'd made a mistake.

"Bittle," said Coach Frahm. "You know better. Absolutely no checking."

"Sorry, Coach," said Eric. "I think I just have a lot of pent-up aggression today."

"Well maybe ten laps will get it out of you," said Coach Frahm, and as he said it Eric saw Shitty, Lardo, and Jack sit down two rows behind the glass. Lardo and Jack waved, and Shitty stood back up when he realized Eric was at the bench.

"Bits! Kick some ass today!"

"Don't listen to him," said Coach Frahm. "Do not touch any asses today. Now go give me laps." Eric waved politely at his friends before he headed back to the ice, apologized to Tony, and then began his laps around the rink, which did not help since each one passed by Jack, and Jack looked at him each time he did.

Eric successfully did not check anyone during the game, but the game itself was brutal. Eric knew it would be the moment the other team took the ice; club hockey had its pros and cons, and the worst con of all was the variety in player experience. Eric did what he could with the people on his team, running skating drills more than anything to ensure everyone was comfortable just going from one end of the rink to the other, but it was clear the opposing team did not take practices seriously. After twenty minutes of play, Eric's team was up by ten goals and the two coaches agreed to enforce the mercy rule.

Eric handed his stick to Ollie and skated over to Lardo, Shitty, and Jack, who stood just over the wall, waiting for him. "Hey," he said to them, bumping Shitty's fist and hugging Lardo. Jack looked at him, and he looked back at Jack, but they didn't touch.

"Is that it?" Shitty asked. "You only played one period."

"Bro, they destroyed that team," said Lardo. "Do you want to two more periods of that?"

"But Bits, you were on fire!"

"Yeah," said Eric with a shrug. "It's never as fun when the other team isn't good, though. You can tell they have a team just to have a team. Thanks for coming, though. All of you." Eric looked at Jack. "I appreciate it."

"We have nothing left to do now that football's over," said Shitty, "and I'll be damned if I have to spend my Saturday studying like a chump. Lardo and I were going to go for lunch – do y'all want to come with?" Jack shook his head.

"Nah, maybe next time," said Jack. "Bits – can I stick around?" Eric nodded.

"Yeah, sure."

"Okay," said Lardo. "We'll see you two later. Good game, Bitty." Eric bumped her fist before she and Shitty exited, Lardo casting a worried look over her shoulder. Eric smiled the best he could at her and waved before he looked up at Jack, who was still taller than Eric despite Eric's skates.

"What're you doing now?" Jack asked casually. Eric shrugged his shoulders.

"Nothing, really. I should probably get lunch at some point but I'm not really hungry yet. I really expected that game to go on longer." Jack looked around the rink; most of the people had left already, and apart from Eric, nobody was left on the ice. Coach Frahm was cleaning up leftover cups and water bottles from the bench, but soon he too headed back to the locker room.

"You know, you look different when you're on the ice," said Jack. "Focused. Happier, I guess. It's interesting to watch. Not that you don't look happy normally, or you aren't interesting normally, but it's just a different side of you I don't get to see very often."

"Yeah, I like it out here," said Eric. He did a large, slow circle on his skates and matched Jack's smile when he returned to the boards. "It just fits me, you know? I thought figure skating was really what I was supposed to do, and while I liked it, and I was good at it, I think this is really where I should have ended up. Here in Madison."

"Yeah," said Jack.

Eric bit his lip, looking into Jack's eyes before he asked the question. "Where are you supposed to end up, Jack?"

"I don't know," Jack replied, and Eric was disappointed until Jack continued: "I thought about it. I really did. You went home and I stayed in my bed and read a lot and thought even more, mais I don't know what's out there for me. I think I need more time to think about it."

"Okay," said Eric, terrified of what that meant.

"I think I'm going to take a gap year," Jack said. "Do some peewee coaching or refereeing or something. Try to think about it. Then once I know more I'll go to college. Maybe I'll play if someone will have me. Maybe no one ever will. I just know I don't have all the answers yet and it's not realistic for me to think that they'll just drop in my lap."

"Okay," said Eric again.

"You know, I haven't been on ice skates since I was a kid," said Jack, looking wistfully over the expanse of the rink. Eric followed his gaze and realized the rink had emptied. His hockey club still had the building reserved for another hour, so Eric held up a finger.

"Wait here," said Eric. He darted toward the locker room, fumbled down the carpet on his blades, and grabbed a pair of skates in Jack's size from the equipment room. Jack smiled at him when Eric returned with the skates in his hands. "Put these on and join me."

Eric watched Jack put them on. He corrected how Jack tied them and ultimately jumped over the board and tied them himself, then he vaulted back over and took Jack's hands as Jack placed his blades on the ice for the first time. His ankles wobbled but Eric gently tugged him forward until he found his center of gravity and didn't need leading any more.

"There you go," said Eric, releasing Jack's hands. "You're a natural."

"You're going to catch me if I fall, right?" Jack asked.

"Of course," said Eric. "You said you used to skate all the time with your Mama."

"Yeah, but that was forever ago, and I'm pretty sure we had different skates on. These feel really loose."

"It's so you can stop and turn better," explained Eric. "It took me a bit to get used to them too from my figure skates, which Katya used to tie so tightly I thought I'd lose circulation in my toes. Come on, skate to the end and back with me." Eric pushed off, gliding considerably slower than normal, and Jack followed, only reaching out to Eric once for balance. Eric laughed and pulled him along, and after a few lengths of the rink Jack was able to start and stop on his own.

"This is nice," said Jack.

"Yeah. It’s not too much for you, though, is it?" Eric placed his hand over Jack's heart and could feel a strong, steady thumping underneath. "How's it going in there?"

Jack placed both of his hands over Eric's. "Still ticking away."

"Good," said Eric. He looked up at Jack, whose eyes darted periodically to Eric's lips. Eric felt uneasy all of a sudden; they were alone on the rink, no one to interrupt them, but he desperately wanted something to interrupt the uncertainty that tugged him away from Jack over and over. It had been like this all week, some unseen force dragging Eric away before he could ask any of the questions he'd wanted to ask. He slid forward, closer to Jack than he'd been in a month, and quietly asked, "What is this?"

"I don't know," said Jack, shaking his head. "I miss you."

"I miss you too," said Eric. "I just wanted to give you time to figure it out, and you're saying you haven't yet. How long do I have to wait for you?"

"I need to figure out my life," said Jack, "not you. I want to be with you. That hasn't changed." Eric nodded; he could feel his hand trembling underneath Jack's, and Jack just held him tighter. "Can I kiss you?"

"Yes, please," said Eric.

Jack leaned in and tilted Eric's face up, his other hand still gripping Eric's against the now-heightened rhythm of his heart. Jack kissed him without urgency, softly touching their lips together over and over. Eric responded with the same delicacy, letting Jack gradually overwhelm him from head to toe, taking their time to be with each other without emergency or agenda.

When Jack let go, he brushed his fingers over Eric's face – down his nose, over his cheeks, and against his lips, before Jack gave him a smile.

"Can I take you on a date?" Jack asked.

"Have we never been on a date?" Eric asked.

Jack shook his head. “No. Not for real.”

"Okay. Yes. Let's go on a date. Tonight?"

"Yeah, tonight." Jack kissed Eric one more time, just quickly, before he let go and carefully touched the tip of his finger to the scar on Eric’s lip. "And maybe you can tell me about this?”

Eric’s initial reaction was to run, but Jack still held him tenderly, and he knew Jack deserved both the best and worst of him. “Yeah,” Eric said, “yeah, I’ll tell you.”

“First, though, I want you to teach me hockey."

"You're on, Mr. Zimmermann."

Eric fetched a bucket of pucks and two sticks. Eric handed one to Jack, corrected his grip, and then passed him a puck. It went sailing by Jack's stick and Jack took off to chase it. Eric followed closely behind; Jack caught the puck in a beam of afternoon sun, turned with ease, and passed it back to Eric. Eric, distracted by the light in Jack's rich black hair, let it slide right by and took the moment just to appreciate what he had: an unwritten future with a boy like this.

Chapter Text

September 2013

 

It was only two weeks into their first semester at the University of Georgia when Jack got the call. Eric whined when Jack shifted to reach for the vibrating phone on the table; he received a gentle touch on his back as a result. Eric adjusted his head on Jack's chest and closed his eyes when Jack said an obviously annoyed "Hello?" The call had interrupted their quality snuggle time, which occurred daily now that they could freely lay on their couch in their apartment.

Eric had to mentally correct himself as he thought it – Jack's apartment. Jack's couch. Jack's parents signed the lease and Eric's parents believed he was sharing a dorm room with Tony from the hockey club. They probably knew Eric had moved into the apartment; in retrospect, his insistence that his parents only drop off his belongings and not help unpack was probably a dead giveaway. He couldn't, however, let little possessives like ours confirm he was lying about where he slept at night.

His contentment only lasted a few seconds before he was unceremoniously tossed onto the floor as Jack sat up. "Ow!" Eric complained, rubbing his head and looking to Jack for sympathy, but Jack's gaze was a thousand miles away.

"When?" Jack asked. Eric stared at him, looking for context on whether it was a good when or a bad when, but Jack's features were, per usual, unreadable. "Today? Can it – can it wait until tomorrow? I need to call my father. No sir, I understand. First thing tomorrow, then. Thank you for thinking of me."

Jack hung up the phone and dropped it onto the couch before he raked his hands over his face. Eric watched; Jack's entire body tensed, from the curl of his toes inside his white socks to the expanse of his thick thigh muscles, up his back and into his shoulders. He gripped his hair tightly in his fists, so Eric reached out a tentative hand to calm him.

"Sweetpea?" Eric asked, his palm connecting with the crook of Jack's elbow, just beneath the sleeve of his red Samwell High Varsity Football T-shirt. The tension seemed to melt out of Jack's arms and he let go of his hair before he looked toward Eric on the floor.

"Oh, cher , désolé ," Jack said and he reached for Eric. Jack pulled him up and into his lap. "I didn't mean to knock you off the couch."

"What happened?"

"You know Tanner Madewell?" Jack asked. Eric couldn't control the sass that crossed his face; Jack asked him if he knew the quarterback of the Georgia football team as if Eric were not the son of a high school football coach. "He was in some sort of car accident last night. Messed up his knee really bad. They think he’ll be out the whole season. Maybe indefinitely."

"Oh, that's terrible," said Eric, and when he noticed the carefully concealed joy in Jack's eyes, Eric felt his stomach leap into his throat. "Oh! So there's an opening on the roster?"

"They want to talk about it tomorrow. There's no way I'd be a starter. They have other quarterbacks on the team. This just means there's a vacancy."

"That's a big deal, Jack," said Eric. "Do you think you'll do it? Do you think you can do it? You haven't played since…well, since we've been together."

"I can do it. I'll be rusty, mais that's why I'll be third string. Maybe even just practice squad. I – I need to call my pop."

Eric nodded and climbed off Jack's lap. "Then I'm going to take a walk across campus. This is something you two need to discuss and I don't want to be in your way.”

Jack pulled Eric back and tilted Eric's chin upward. "I'm going to tell them about you," Jack said.

"I don't know if that's a good idea,” replied Eric. “They're taking a big chance on you, Jack, and this might be the only opportunity you ever get to play again."

"I'm not going to hide you," said Jack. "You live here with me –"

"I have a dorm room!"

"– but you live here with me. I love you, yeah? I've had over a year to think about what this would look like, about what I would do if something like this happened, and I don't want to pretend I'm something I'm not. If I do this, I'm going to do it the way I want to." Eric looked over the features of his boyfriend's face. Jack had not physically changed much in the year and a half they had been dating. He kept up with his workout routine so his muscle tone and weight had barely changed, but there was something very different about this man. The anxiety had never really gone away, and there had been scary moments in the middle of the night where Eric would hold Jack in his arms while Jack shook for hours, but Jack was exuberantly happy most of the time.

"You talk about that with your dad," said Eric. "Think about what that means, sweetie. I'm here no matter what." Eric gently pressed his forehead against Jack's. "And I love you too."

Jack kissed him briefly before Eric headed to the door. He stopped for his keys and his shoes and was about to leave when Jack spoke again.

"Bits?"

Eric turned.

"Don't spend your day looking for him."

Eric tensed.

"I'm not looking for him," said Eric. "I'm just taking a walk and leaving you be. Maybe I'll stop at the store and make us something good for dinner. Something other than Bagel Bites and PBJ." Eric looked at the keys he twirled around his index finger to avoid Jack's examination.

"Okay. Love you,” said Jack with hesitation.

"I love you too, hun. Be back later."

 

***

 

Eric couldn't sleep that evening. He tossed around on his side of the bed while Jack rested soundly; Jack's conversation with Bob must have gone well because when Eric returned after three hours, Jack was happy and chatty and fell asleep without any trouble. Eric, however, stared at the alarm on the nightstand and saw eleven o'clock, then midnight, then one o'clock, and finally at two decided to get up.

He sat at his computer in the second bedroom and began clicking around to attempt to cure his middle-of-the-night boredom. Outside of class, he was rarely on the computer, gravitating more toward his phone to switch between the same apps over and over again. He knew why he was there, though, and within moments he'd pulled open Facebook and hovered over the search bar.

Despite his frequent tweeting and his growing population of Youtube subscribers, he’d never gotten into Facebook. Suzanne and Coach wouldn't let him make an account until he was sixteen and because of that, he and Drew had never been Facebook friends. Since creating an account Eric had hovered here several times, staring down the search bar until he chickened out and reverted to mindless scrolling on other platforms to distract himself.

Jack had warned him that afternoon not to go looking for Drew again, but as soon as Eric's feet touched campus grounds, his eyes darted feverishly at every passer-by. Georgia was a big school, but even with its thousands of students and vast acreage, they were bound to cross paths at some point. Just in the four weeks on campus, Eric had run into Ransom and Holster three times, and they didn't even have classes together. Eric wandered campus for two hours before he gave up and went to the grocery store, defeated and disappointed.

Eric typed in the ten letters of Drew's name and several results populated before he even pressed enter; the simple name of Drew Lester, some kind of business where Drew was a verb instead of a name, and an upcoming concert with both Drew and Lester in the title. Eric hesitated, dread seeping into his chest and sinking him deeper into the chair, but then he clicked.

Drew's face with his thick rimmed glasses popped up as the third result. Eric's heart skipped a beat.

Then Eric saw it, just under the name, and his eyes filled with tears so quickly that everything disappeared in a hazy, shadowed blur.

     Drew Lester
     University of Delaware
     Lives in Johns Creek, Georgia

Eric hid his face in his hands, crying without control. He wasn't even able to process the thought, wasn't quite ready to decipher what this meant and how it had happened, when he felt gentle hands on his shoulders.

"Bits?" Jack asked quietly.

"He's not here!" Eric sobbed. "He's not here, Jack."

Jack allowed Eric to violently cry, his hands a simple reassurance of his presence, until Eric had nothing left and wiped at his eyes. It took several minutes, but Jack’s hands never left Eric’s shoulders. At particularly heavy heaves, Jack’s grip tightened, but there was no controlling it until it was over. "I'm sorry," Eric said. "I shouldn't be crying about this."

"No, this is a big deal. You thought he'd be here and he's not. You've been looking for him since we moved in."

"But – ugh, Jack, why are you so wonderful?" Eric asked, looking over his shoulder at a sleep-ruffled Jack and his patient, empathetic smile. "This isn't fair to you. You shouldn't have to wake up in the middle of the night and find me crying about other boys."

"It's not other boys. It's Drew. He was your best friend. He was a big part of your life."

"But he – he was more than just my best friend."

"He was still your best friend," said Jack, gently. "Come on, get up. Let's check him out."

Eric reluctantly let Jack onto the chair and then settled on top of him again. Jack clicked on Drew's profile and Eric's breath hitched in his chest. The privacy settings were on so there wasn't much to look at apart from profile pictures. Jack picked one and Drew's face popped up with someone else who, after close examination, Eric recognized as Claire Montague.

"So this is Drew," said Jack, a light chuckle in his voice. Eric looked back at Jack's face, dimly lit from the glow of the computer screen. When Eric looked back at Drew's picture, the resemblance was staggering and unsettling. Eric shook his head to clear these thoughts before he settled onto Jack’s chest.

Jack clicked through a few of the profile pictures; Drew with his swim team, Drew in front of a new car, Drew standing next to the University of Delaware sign. Claire was in most of them. "Do you know this girl he's with?" Jack asked after clicking on what was obviously a prom photo; Eric felt a surge of jealousy. He and Jack didn’t go to prom.

"Claire," said Eric. "He's had a crush on her since I've known him. I guess he finally asked her out."

"They look happy," said Jack, and continued before Eric could contradict him. "He looks happy, cher ."

"Yeah," conceded Eric. "I just – I just wish I could talk to him again. You would really like him, Jack. He's ridiculous." Jack cracked a smile.

"You should friend him," said Jack.

"No, he'd never accept me."

"You don't know that."

It was true; Eric didn't know what would happen. He watched Jack hover over the Add Friend button, then turned away and buried his face into Jack's neck. "Do you want me to click it?" Jack asked.

Eric thought about the happiest of outcomes, where Drew accepted and sent him a message full of puns and plans to meet up over Thanksgiving break. He thought of Drew transferring back to Georgia for sophomore year and playing video games on the couch, then going to swim meets and football games and hockey games. Then Eric opened his eyes and saw Jack in front of him: Jack, who first told Eric “I love you” the day they were caught in the rain in the middle of Lake Oconee; Jack, who sat cross legged on the bed when they opened their Georgia acceptance letters on the count of three; Jack, who lifted Eric on his graduation day and kissed him in front of the entire school; Jack, who just that morning said he’d hold Eric forever, for as long as Eric wanted. Jack was everything Eric needed --

“Bits, I can hear you thinking a mile away. This isn’t about me. I’m here no matter what. This is about your friend. What do you want to do?”

“Click it,” Eric whispered, then buried his face in Jack’s shirt again.

“Do it with me,” replied Jack. Eric turned the screen, where Jack continued to hover the mouse. He reached out his hand and rested it on top of Jack’s, and together they clicked it. The blue button changed to display the word Added!

“Oh God,” said Eric.

“Now come back to bed,” said Jack.

“Wait, what if he doesn’t --”

“It’s two o’clock in the morning, cher . Let’s go to bed.”

Eric hesitated but eventually stood with Jack, and they walked hand in hand into their bedroom. Jack pulled Eric up against him, and despite the whirlwind of emotions, Eric quickly fell asleep in Jack’s arms.

In the morning, Eric woke to a notification.