Jack is good with kids. The Falconer’s charity office knows that, and usually, he only has to do skating or teaching events, or the occasional arts and crafts project, but this year, Thanksgiving at the Providence homeless shelter is mandatory. Well, by mandatory, he means mandatory for all Canadians who don’t have family obligations, which means just him, Willis, and Erikson.
Traditionally, Jack struggles with this kind of appearance. There are cameras where no one wants cameras, shoved into the faces of homeless people who are just looking for some decent food and a warm place to sit. The one redeeming factor is that he has his Falconers cap low enough that his face is somewhat covered and the people he’s serving seem to be too tired to care who the local celebrity spooning them mashed potatoes is.
Every Thanksgiving for the last five years, Jack has been in the Haus, and later, in his Providence apartment, Skyping Shitty, who regularly hides in his parents’ bathroom raving about “entitlement” and “first world problems” like there being only one maid and no one to take coats at the door. Jack sighs and commiserates while eating his rotisserie chicken, a Thanksgiving cheat he allows himself. He eats the whole thing, skin and all, standing over the kitchen sink with his phone propped up on a gallon of milk.
This year, he has an apron on and is listening to too-early Christmas carols being pumped through tinny speakers while he offers canned cranberry sauce to the downtrodden.
He feels for these people, he really does. It isn’t lost on Jack that he had every luxury as a child and every opportunity as an adult, but as much as he wants to, he can’t relate. The homeless of Providence have real problems, and Jack’s parents make sure that the Zimmermann Foundation does what it can to support the local shelters, but that doesn’t stop Jack’s heart from breaking every time he sees someone’s frowning face.
The people in his food line are hungry, cold, and more than a little dirty. Jack smiles at each of them as he spoons potatoes, giving an extra helping when he sees someone particularly thin, but he can tell it doesn’t meet his eyes. Jack is faking this, just like he fakes most public appearances, and that’s even more depressing than usual, given the circumstances.
His frown is made even more pathetic by the bubbly shelter worker who’s just a few stations down handing out bowls of apple and pumpkin pie a la mode. Jack can tell that the pie is hot because the ice cream has melted into a pool around it, soft and delicious looking. More than the food, he’s attracted to the southern lilt he hears each time the man hands over a slice.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” a soft, but bright voice says. “Ain't nothin’ like a bit of pumpkin pie to get your spirits up, right sugar?” the voice says to a young girl, her mother wrapped tight around her shoulders.
Jack can’t see the person, his visibility is limited by the brim of his hat and there are several people in between Jack’s potatoes and cranberries and the pie at the end of the line, but he wants to.
“Extra whipped cream for you, darlin’,” he hears, the twang getting thicker with each endearment.
He leans backward surreptitiously, trying to catch a glimpse, but all he can see is a bit of blond hair before he needs to get back to scooping. Whoever the southerner is, he’s petite, short enough that he doesn’t even come up to Willis’ shoulders.
Jack thinks about the small southerner for the rest of the evening, always listening, taking in each word spoken in that accent like a prayer. It feels soothing somehow, the cadence of it, and Jack lets it wash over him as he scoops the last bit of potato out of his chafing dish at the end of the night.
It’s only as he looks down into the empty tin foil tray that Jack realizes how hungry he is. They’ve been serving for three hours straight, the line never stopping. His chafing dish had been switched out over a dozen times, and the thought of all of those potatoes making their way into hungry bellies makes Jack’s own hunger seem silly. He has a whole refrigerator of food at home.
Just as he’s thinking about stopping for a piping hot rotisserie chicken on the way home, that same voice speaks much closer to him, just a few feet behind his back. “Thank y’all for working so hard tonight. There’s a small little batch of everything waiting in the kitchen for all of us if you’re interested in staying for dinner.”
Jack feels his eyes widen as he turns around. The voice belongs to a young man. He can’t be more than 22, which is closer to Jack’s age than the man’s height suggested. The man is dressed nicely, a checkered shirt and a navy blue bow tie. He has on brown leather loafers that look well-loved and worn in blue jeans. The whole ensemble looks lived-in and warm, more inviting than it has any right to be. The man himself is pale, but there are freckles scattered across his nose and a shine in his hair that also suggest he spends time in the sun.
Jack can’t stop staring.
Nodding mechanically, Jack follows the group into the kitchen where a small table is set up. Willis has slipped out and Erikson is deep in conversation with a woman who Jack remembers as the manager of the shelter. An entire camera crew is clustered around them and the spotlight makes Jack wince. He turns away, silently thankful that he isn’t on point tonight and doesn’t need to sell himself for the camera much more than he did when he walked in.
As the team’s top scorer and captain, Jack is interviewed plenty, but most of the questions are centered around his gameplay. His robotic answers make it clear that personal questions will not be tolerated. They save the community appearances for the veteran Falconers that have been living in Providence for years. They come across as more genuine with the locals than Jack does.
"Lord, that looks awful,” the man says, not six inches from Jack’s elbow, passing him a plate.
“Trust me,” Jack says, fighting a blush. “It’s worse than you could possibly imagine.” There’s something about the honey-gold eyes that make Jack’s hands start to sweat. It’s in complete contrast to the sound of his voice, which is slow and soft enough that it makes something in Jack’s brain go calm and fuzzy.
“I’m sure you do just fine,” the man says, holding out a spoon full of cranberries above Jack’s plate with his eyebrows raised.
Jack nods dumbly, mouth going dry. He swallows hard, forcing something coherent to come out of his mouth. “They call me a hockey robot for a reason,” he finally manages. “I’ve never been great at dealing with the press.”
“Well I can’t imagine it’s easy for anyone,” the man says, eyes twinkling brightly in Jack’s direction as he holds out a basket of rolls. They look buttery and soft, and Jack mentally scolds himself for taking two. Not only are carbs a bad idea this late at night, but a homeless shelter is the last place he should be seen looking greedy.
“Having a camera shoved in your chubby little baby face must have made you a little gunshy, Mister Zimmermann.”
“Just Jack, please,” Jack replies, voice softening at the wry little smile he gets in return.
“Eric Bittle,” the man says, holding out his free hand.
Jack discreetly wipes his sweaty hand off on his jeans before taking it. It’s dry and chilled, even though it’s more than warm enough inside. The bones feel almost delicate under his hand and Jack does his best to soften his grip. He knows from past experience that he’s stronger than is comfortable for most people.
“Nice to meet you, Just Jack.”
Jack smiles. It’s a small thing, but as soon as he sits down next to Eric, it begins to grow.
First, it’s the roll, soft and honey brown, dwarfed by his hand. Jack takes one bite and moans. “I see you like my baking,” Eric says, chuckling. Then it’s Eric’s laugh. The sound of it seems to fill Jack’s entire chest with light. He chokes on the roll, but can still taste it. It’s amazing.
“You made this?” Jack asks, swallowing roughly. The roll is soft and rich with that smooth eggy flavor that Jack is accustomed to in the context of omelettes and other protein-heavy foods he allows himself to eat. He rips the next one in half before eating it this time, marveling at the way the yellow square pulls apart.
“You bet your bottom, I did,” Eric tells him, still laughing as Jack savors every last chew of his second roll.
His hair is too long. Eric keeps reaching to brush it out of his eyes like he’s unused to the length. “And I’ll tell you a secret, too,” he says quietly, leaning in like it’s a particularly vicious piece of gossip. “That’s dollar store butter. You wouldn’t believe what I can do if I have the money for the good stuff.”
“There’s good butter?” Jack asks, curious. “Isn’t all butter just… butter?”
“I’m not gonna smack you, because we just met,” Eric says, pursing his lips, “but you should know that I’m thinking about it. Telling me all butter is the same? That’s just blasphemy. Don’t even get me started on the canned pie filling.”
“Is that what’s in these?” Jack asks, slipping his finger under the rim of a nearby pie tin.
Eric nods, face set in what Jack can only describe as fury. His face flushes and he looks down.
Jack can feel his own face heat at the sight. It's strange. The anxiety is almost welcome in this instance. It’s a sensation Jack has never felt before. He grows a bit more nervous every time Eric’s long fingers brush his hair, but he’s also eager not to sound like a complete idiot.
“And that’s… bad?” he asks, struggling to see the problem and already failing at not sounding stupid. The pies look amazing. The apple one even has that criss-cross pattern of crust on the top. It could be photographed for a magazine. In fact, Jack isn’t entirely sure it hasn’t been already as part of the Falconer’s philanthropy spread for the holidays.
“It’s a tragedy,” Eric says, looking down at his hands. “It’s shameful. But it’s what’s available. You don’t know what I’d give for some fresh nutmeg.”
Jack smiles, already formulating a plan for a return trip. If nutmeg and butter can put a look like that on Eric’s face, he’s very interested in finding out what a whole crate of groceries could do.
“How long have you been working here?” Jack asks next. He knows he isn’t great at keeping a conversation rolling, but his listening skills get better with every therapy session with Blaire. The way Eric’s voice makes him feel has Jack thinking he would have no trouble listening to the man speak for the rest of the evening, if not longer.
“Oh,” Eric says, startling for a moment. “I just come in to bake every once in a while. I’m not here all too often.”
“Do you have another job?” Jack asks. “These rolls are so good, I’m sure you could have your own bakery if you wanted.”
“Maybe someday,” Eric replies, cutting a slice of apple pie and sliding the plate over to Jack. He cuts a piece of pumpkin for himself and takes a small, careful bite, his other hand clenched in a fist on the table. “I’m just seeing where life takes me right now… doing a few part-time things.”
“That sounds nice,” Jack says, finding himself staring at Eric with his chin on his hand. He changes positions quickly and picks up his fork, taking a large bite of the apple pie. It’s delicious, flaky and rich and everything a pie should be. Jack can’t remember the last time he’s had such a fulfilling cheat day.
“You look like you’ve died and gone to heaven,” Eric says, hand covering his mouth as he chews another bite of pie.
“Crisse,” Jack says, swallowing his own mouthful. Eric is chirping him. It has no heat behind it, it almost feels like flirting, but Jack doesn’t have a real frame of reference. When women and the occasional man fling themselves at him, it’s obvious and for lack of a better word, dirty. Sometimes it’s downright disgusting and makes Jack’s skin crawl. He isn’t overly comfortable with sex, and he definitely doesn’t like hearing about it from strangers.
Eric is nothing like that. When Eric continues laughing and touches his arm briefly, Jack can feel his heart beat in his chest, but for once, it’s in a good way. He isn’t nervous; he’s excited.
“Imagine what I could do with real butter,” Eric says, smiling around his next bite of pie.
Now Jack is sure Eric is flirting. He shoves another bite of apple pie in his mouth and chews thoughtfully. Was the butter thing supposed to be dirty? Was it some kind of gay thing that flew right over Jack’s head? It wouldn’t be the first time. Besides Kenny, Jack doesn’t have any experience flirting with men. Hell, he doesn’t even watch porn. Maybe there’s butter in gay porn now? He makes a mental note to ask Shitty about it.
Feeling like a complete idiot, Jack takes another big bite of pie so he doesn’t have to answer. Eric takes that opportunity to put another slice on his plate. Jack smiles, even though his mouth is full.
“Listen to me going on and on about pie. You tell me more about yourself, Just Jack,” Eric prompts, smiling encouragingly.
“Uhh,” Jack begins, forcing himself to put down his fork and actually make conversation. “I play hockey.”
“You don’t say?” Eric says, smile widening.
“Chirp, chirp, chirp,” Jack says, desperately looking for something else to say.
Thankfully, Eric saves him from himself. “I used to skate as well,” he says, taking a sip of water before continuing. Jack notices that his hand shakes a bit, sloshing water almost out of the glass. “Trust me, teasing teammates is not limited to hockey. We figure skaters did our fair share of smack talking.”
“You were a figure skater?” Jack asks, looking down Eric’s body appraisingly. He’s small and compact, but out of shape. His wrists and arms look thin even under his long sleeves and his waist is impossibly small. There are several misshapen holes that looked to have been added to his belt leather.
“South Atlantic junior men’s champion three years in a row,” Eric says, puffing his chest out slightly. Jack can see the pride on his face, though it’s been quite a while since he’s seen the look in the mirror himself. Eric has the attitude of a champion that hadn’t quite made it. It only takes one more sentence for Jack to be proven right. “Would have medaled at Nationals, too, if I hadn’t had to move away from my coach.”
“You should come skate with us some time,” Jack offers, glancing around the room. Erikson is nowhere to be found and the camera crew has gone with him. “I bet you’re really fast, being so small.”
“I am not small!” Eric says sharply, offended but halfway to smirking. “I’m average sized for a skater, and trust me, honey, I could skate circles around you on your best day.”
“Circles, huh?” Jack asks, lips twitching with amusement.
“Quads,” Eric says, and then snaps his mouth shut when Jack raises his eyebrows. “Okay fine, triples. I’m out of practice.”
“Triples then,” Jack replies, letting his mouth curl into a smile. “You’ll have to show me sometime.”
“Sounds like fun,” Eric says, taking his last bite of pie.
Jack continues eating his slice, unable to keep the grin off his face. After helping clean up, he offers Eric a ride home, but the man refuses, saying he has some work to finish up. Jack walks away reluctantly, but turns back to wave, knowing he’ll return before too long.
Eric waves as well, and the glow of his smile makes Jack’s cheeks heat again. He has a shameless crush on a former figure skating champion. It’s an entirely foreign concept to him, and yet Jack knows exactly what he was going to do about it.