Eric stares at the computer screen, unseeing, as his hands go through the motions of shutting down the machine. Even when the monitor goes dark, he can still see the browser history open in front of him. He was scrupulous about clearing his tracks-- his father, clearly, was less so. He’s heard of those “ranches” listed in the URLs, places parents sent kids like him. Kids who were different. Troubled.
Well, he’d have a hell of a lot fewer troubles if the players that Coach loved more than his own son had just let him alone. He knows it isn’t his fault that his family had to move. The job offer that brought them back to his mama’s hometown came over a year after the closet “incident” his parents don’t talk about. Still, Eric considers it a perk that it got him away from his tormentors before he actually started school with them. Coach probably considered it a perk that it got him away from his figure skating instructor.
But this. They’d only just moved to Madison, and they already wanted to send him away?
Well, if he is gonna go to hell anyway, it may as well be for something he chooses.
The thing about growing up a good Christian boy in the South is that you don’t really know much about raising hell in a literal sense. He knows his “unnaturalness” is sin enough, but being gay ain’t Hogwarts and no one sent him detailed pamphlets about calling up the devil. He figures he’ll make do with what he can find: his hunting knife, a jar of his Papaw’s moonshine, and a crossroads. He sneaks out his bedroom window in the light of the full moon, half an hour till midnight.
If you believe in God, you’ve gotta believe in the devil , Eric tells himself as he digs a shallow hole in the intersection. And if God ain’t up there, and the devil ain’t down there… This is the closest Eric has allowed himself to come to even thinking blasphemy. He pours the moonshine.
The sudden appearance of a dark-haired man causes Eric to jump, fumbling his knife and slicing his palm open as the blade falls. Blue eyes glint in the moonlight.
“You’re just a kid.” There is an accent in the man’s voice that Eric doesn't recognize.
Eric, injured fist pressed to his chest, purses his lips and juts his chin out. He’s not here to take bullcrap from anyone. Especially from someone, Eric realizes, who can’t be more than a few years older than himself.
Eric shifts to cross his arms, and blood splashes onto the moonshine-soaked ground. The other fellow closes his eyes, shuddering, and when they reopen, Eric could swear they glow.
“I know.” Jack pauses, looking at the objects scattered around. “You’re here to make a deal.”
“What kind of deal are you looking for?”
“Can’t you tell that, if you know who I am and why I’m here?”
Jack glares at him, although it doesn’t seem that much different from his general expression.
“I can… read intent, I guess.” The glare sharpens, then tapers off. “Only certain kinds of intent, maybe. I know what you were prepared to do, if I didn’t show up.” His eyes drop to the knife, shining in the dirt. “It’s not worth it.”
Eric takes his turn to glare. “What would you know?”
“Being dead gives you perspective.”
It hits Eric, then, that this is happening. He’s standing at a crossroads in the moonlight, ready to make a deal with the devil. Or a devil, maybe. A blue-eyed devil who, he thinks hysterically to himself, is only reinforcing the evidence of the sin that brought Eric out here.
“I want to be safe. I want… protection. And revenge. I don’t care about the cost, you’ve seen that I don’t.”
“Don’t tell me it’s not worth it, if you can’t see anything else then you don’t know what I’m living with!”
Jack’s mouth snaps shut.
Eric stares at him, daring him to argue.
Jack relents first. “Look, I still think you’re--”
Eric stamps his foot, which probably doesn’t help his argument but at least gets Jack’s attention.
“Fine! You want to make a deal? How about this: Don’t.”
Eric’s jaw drops indignantly, but Jack cuts him off before he lets loose.
“I mean, don’t get revenge, just… I don’t know, just be nice.”
“Are you kiddin’ me right now?”
“Look. Listen. I mean. I’ll… I’ll have your back, alright? If someone’s…” Jack trails off, looking at Eric.
Eric can nearly see the gears working as Jack figures out just what people have been—causing grief—over and how. Jack swallows, and Eric watches his throat work.
“If someone deserves it, be nice to them. But with intent . And I’ll take care of it. You shouldn’t… you shouldn’t dirty yourself with that kind of thing.”
Eric thinks about this.
“You’ll take care of it?”
“Them. Whatever. I’m already here. You… you don’t need to make the same mistakes.” Jack looks pointedly at the knife on the ground.
Eric follows his gaze, then thrusts out his bloodied hand.
Jack’s hand is much larger than his, his palm wide. Eric feels the cut tingle, as well as the points on his wrist where Jack’s long fingers wrap around.
Eric wakes up early the next morning, hardly feeling his late night. The only proof he has that something happened are sneakers that smell faintly of moonshine, and two burn marks on his right wrist in the shape of fingertips.
He sets the coffee pot on its coaster, turning back to the eggs he’s scrambling. He can hear his parents’ conversation as they come down the hallway, Mama protesting something that Coach is saying.
“Look, Suzie, a boy only goes away to college once-- and these boys are like sons to me!”
“They’ve got daddies--”
“Yes, but they also need all the hands-- and trucks-- they can get! Suzie, you know I promised those boys back before we moved that I’d help them set up before training camp! Today’s the day, and that’s that.”
Eric's parents enter the kitchen, his mama casting him grateful eyes for the coffee he’s got sitting fresh on the table. Coach doesn’t pay him any mind but drinks his coffee all the same.
“It’ll be fine, it’s just a day trip. Worse comes to worst, we’ve gotta make a couple trips and I stay the night in Athens.”
After breakfast, Eric wraps his arms around his mama as they watch Coach drive off.
“That man never remembers our anniversary,” his mama sighs.
“But heaven forbid he miss those boys’ moving day.”
“Oh Dicky,” she replies, squeezing his arms tight around her.
Bless their hearts , he thinks.
It was a blessing, his Moomaw said afterwards, that they’d already moved back to Madison.
The life insurance would’ve paid off the mortgage on their new house, but Eric and his mama decide they’d rather get a smaller place, one with no den and a nicer kitchen. The cottage they find even has fruit trees out back, and isn’t far from Moomaw’s at all.
The truck was totaled, of course, but Eric talked his mama into replacing it with a hatchback, so now they’re stood in an honest-to-god new car dealership looking at a hybrid.
“It’s not practical, Dicky,” she exclaims, but he’s long familiar with how his mama looks when she desperately wants something, and when she needs reassurance.
“Mama, neither of us has any cause to be hauling things around.” He sneaks his hand into hers, never too old for affection. “Besides, imagine the mileage we’ll get out of her. We could drive all the way to Memphis on one tank of gas.”
“I’ve… never had a new car before.” Not one that I wanted , he can almost hear. Not one for me. Eric doesn’t say anything about the new trucks Coach would get like clockwork every three years, or the Corolla she drove that was older than he was.
What he does say is, “Well, I’ve called dibs on old Mildred, so you’ve gotta pick a new one anyway.”
“Lord, Dicky!” His mama laughs, smacking him in the arm. She freezes for a moment, her eyes widening. “Oh bless my heart, you’re almost old enough to drive.”
He pulls her in for a hug, resting his cheek against her temple. “Don’t worry Mama, I’ve got some growing yet to do.”
The nice lady at the dealership follows them home in Mildred. His mama rolls all the windows down and they sing Lesley Gore at the top of their lungs.
Eric’s not sure what worked, exactly, the first time. Jack showed up before he cut his hand, but he’d been aware of what Eric was gonna do if it had turned out the devil wasn’t real. Was it that intent that made him show up? He packs his knife in any case, safely sheathed for the moment. The zipper catches the moonlight coming through his open window.
Eric’s thinking so hard about Jack he doesn’t notice till he turns away from his desk that Jack’s in the room with him. The backpack he’d been about to sling over his shoulder instead ends up knocking over his desk lamp as he yelps.
He freezes, wide eyes watching Jack, panting quietly and waiting in case he woke his mama.
A soft tap at his door.
Eric gestures furiously at a suddenly-grinning Jack— Lord, that boy is just too pretty —and shuffles to the door, hoping she doesn’t notice the worn jeans he’s wearing. He leans around the door a bit in any case.
“Sorry about that Mama, I was just getting up for a glass of water and ended up knocking over my lamp.” She’s in her bathrobe, hair mussed, and he loves her so much in that moment.
“Okay, honey. Just checking.”
“I know. Love you, Mama.”
“Love you too, Dicky.”
He leans out of his room to peck her on the cheek and closes the door as she turns back to cross the hall. Resting his head on the door, he takes a moment to gather himself before facing the devil behind him.
“Dicky?” Jack’s still grinning, and Eric cannot handle that.
“You shut your mouth, mister. Like you ain’t never had a mother!”
Jack’s smile dims, and Eric thinks about their last conversation. Manners insist he change the subject, and his own nerves start him babbling.
“Oh hey Jack, I just wanted to, to catch up with you! And lord, you were right about intent, I think about calling you and here you are. Lord, you gave me a fright though...” He prattles on a bit as he goes to pick up his desk lamp, only nicking himself a bit on the shattered bulb as he scoops it all onto a sheet of paper to drop in the basket. Jack inhales sharply, and Eric slows himself to take a breath of his own.
“She called me Jackie.”
Eric turns then, hands empty, and goes to Jack, who’s still standing next to Eric’s bed. Jack’s eyes are glowing like the first time, and Eric fusses over him a bit, urging him to sit down, apologising for bringing it up.
“Non , no, it’s okay. I just. Don’t spend much time thinking about her.” Jack’s jaw is tight.
Eric perches next to him, patting his hand.
“That’s okay sweetheart, I didn’t mean to hit a sore spot. You don’t have to tell me about her if you don’t want to.”
“I miss her.” Jack’s shoulders are shaking lightly, almost more of a vibration than genuine motion. Eric wants to cry for him, but instead wraps an arm across his shoulders and squeezes. Jack turns into him, tucks his face in. Eric wraps both arms around Jack and holds him as he cries.
The tears sting, a bit, but Eric doesn’t notice, wondering instead what Jack does do with his time.
Eric looks him up the next day, fingers against his collarbone where tiny blisters have formed. Eric knows you shouldn’t trust a devil, but Jack’s eyes were so sad, and something in his hushed confession rang true.
And there he is, round cheeked and messy-haired, a half-smile on his face and his dad’s arm around his shoulder. Jack Zimmermann , hockey player, sudden death the night of the 2009 NHL draft. Overdose, Jack had told him. Anxiety, booze, meds. An attempt to quiet his head that was, at the end, successful.
He’d died two weeks before Eric called him.
Eric had known, after the tragic highway pile-up, so many young lives cut short , that Jack--that their arrangement--was real. But he hasn’t felt a lick of sadness until now. He watches videos of Jack on the ice, blushing a bit at the way his big body moves, pushing down any guilt with the thought that Jack wouldn’t have brought it up if he didn’t want Eric to know.
He opens a new tab, and looks up ice hockey in the Madison area.
His mama’s smile is tight, but the man leaning over her doesn’t seem to notice or care. Mildred’s in the shop, and Suzanne let him drop her off at work that morning so he could attend the skating clinic in Atlanta. He’s not very late, and he’d texted to let her know when to expect him, but he doesn’t like the way she seems to have shrunk down into her shoulders. The man is still smiling at her, gesturing with one hand while the other is braced next to her shoulder. The walk from the parking lot is too long right now.
“Hey, Mama!” he calls as he strides up, cheered and concerned by the way her eyes light up when they catch on him. He barges right up as if the man isn’t there as he goes to give her a hug. He can sense the man stumbling back, but ignores him as he guides his mama away from the wall just as gracefully as he once completed scratch spins.
“Ah, you must be Dicky. Suzie here talks a lot about you.”
Eric brings his own tight smile around to face the man, positioning himself in front of his mama.
“Eric Bittle. Sir.” He doesn’t offer his hand, but he can feel his mother’s on his arm. She squeezes gently, but doesn’t move from behind him.
“This is Gary, the accounts manager,” she says, in a voice as sunny and warm as a midwinter storm.
“A pleasure I’m sure,” Eric replies, nodding his head and turning to the parking lot. “Lord, mama, I have a lot to fill you in on, you would not believe--”
“You skate hockey, right? You must be good, ain’t never seen a boy take so after his mama in size.”
Eric tosses a grin back over his shoulder as he maneuvers his mama away.
“You’d be surprised what we’re capable of, us. You just have a great evening now, ya hear?”
He tosses Suzanne the keys as they approach the car. He does take after his mama, so he knows she’ll need to feel in control of something. He trusts her absolutely, even and especially in this mood.
“Dicky, I don’t know if I tell you enough how much I love you, and how proud I am of the young man you are.”
Eric smiles and reaches out to touch her hand as it grips to the gearshift.
“Oh, you only tell me once or twice a day, Mama. I love you, too.”
“That man is the worst kind of creep.”
Eric turns in his chair a little, enough to glance over his shoulder as they pull out of the parking lot. He watches a shadow move across the well-lit parking lot towards the office building, following Gary at a distance. Eric’s smile gets smaller, but no less sincere.
“I honestly wouldn’t worry about him anymore. I won’t let anything happen to you, and the good Lord has a plan for folks like him.” Eric’s eyes fall closed as he takes a deep breath and releases it. “Anyway, it’s the weekend now, and I snagged a gorgeous new canning recipe book on my way out of the city that oughta give us something to do with the last of the hothouse tomatoes.”
“Ooh, that reminds me, have you had a chance to check the Pinterest board today? There were these absolutely precious refurbished garden benches I wanted to get your opinion on for the orchard.”
“Four trees are not an orchard, Mama!” The argument is an old one, and their laughter carries them off into the night.
Gary doesn’t make it to work the next day, or the next week. Or ever again, actually, after they find his cherry red Mustang parked in his garage ten days later, windows rolled up and gas tank run dry.
At first, Eric feels bad about calling Jack for a chat, rather than a thank-you or a rant, but Jack assures him it’s not a problem. Eternity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, it seems, and Jack seems to be adapting to his “coworkers” about as well as Eric to his hockey team. Perfectly friendly when on the job, but not the folks you hang out much with in your downtime.
Eric gets up the courage to ask him, eventually, about how exactly his time is spent. Jack is surprisingly pragmatic, given how upset he’d been with Eric that first night.
“It’s a choice people get to make for themselves,” he says, reclined on the bed as Eric sits in his desk chair, pretending he’s not memorizing the curve of Jack’s bicep when his hand is tucked behind his head. “And most of the people don’t get to make a lot of choices.” Blue eyes meet Eric’s, and Eric ducks his head in acknowledgement.
Suzanne’s at Wednesday night bingo, so they have the house to themselves for now. Eric tries real hard not to think about that, either.
Jack’s eyes go back to the ceiling as a smile crosses his face. “And a lot of the rest of it-- well, they deserve it.”
Neither of them needs to mention the guidance counsellor who really had too many opinions about the kind of “extracurriculars” Eric should get involved in.
“You’re good at what you do,” Eric says, and Jack’s smile loses its hard edge.
“Yeah, I guess I am. I used to think I wouldn’t be good at anything but hockey.”
“Well, I’ll admit it’s not a very traditional calling, but.”
Jack laughs, and Eric tries not to beam too brightly. Not much later, Jack disappears, citing Eric’s need to pack and Jack’s unwillingness to enable his procrastination.
Eric will leave for college in two weeks, but Jack’s already promised that he’s not tied to the crossroads in Madison.
Eric didn’t choose Samwell solely because it was where Jack’s mom went to school, but the connection played in his mind as he considered their scholarship offer, and the blogs that mentioned, “One in four, maybe more.”
Suzanne wasn’t thrilled that he was moving so far away, but she had to admit that Eric wouldn’t be able to be himself in Georgia, no matter that she, Moomaw, and Eric had had a blast at Atlanta Pride the past couple years. Besides, Eric had it on good authority that the thoroughly-vetted chef Mark had already bought a ring that would provide an adequate distraction from any empty nest. The cottage, Eric knew, would make a lovely base of operations for Suzanne’s growing catering company. It was time for the next step.
Later that night, Eric’s thinking of messy hair and big biceps and a wide chest, droopy blue eyes and long fingers. His room is dark, his breathing is heavy, and he imagines Jack’s voice curving around his name as he comes across his fist.
Eyes closed tight as he comes down, he doesn’t notice the brief flare of blue three feet from his bed. If the shadows are a bit darker than usual for a few moments afterwards, he’s not awake enough to notice.
Eric had been apprehensive about joining the hockey team, lingering worry over frat boys and athletes still coloring his mind despite it having been years since he’s been afraid of anyone. Having a personal demon at your beck and call does wonders for self-confidence, as it turns out.
Still, the worry that was present quickly dissipated as his pies were embraced perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, and he was rechristened Bitty by a junior with a moustache Coach would have been proud of, mayherestinpeace .
Bitty, it seems, is a hit, and slots into the hockey team naturally, swiftly taking over both the Haus kitchen and a spot as a winger on the first line. The kegsters are a blast, his pies are unevenly heated but delicious, and his weekly phone calls with his mama are unending strings of good news.
It takes him a bit to settle in socially, outside of the team, but Ransom and Holster set him up for Winter Screw, and Bitty’s ready to experience what it’s like to really be out of the closet.
Things are going well, too, getting hot and heavy against the wall outside the dance, and Bitty was just about to invite Rugby Guy back to his room when, out of nowhere, the guy breaks the kiss, bends over, and vomits all over Bitty’s shoes.
Disgusted, Bitty stomps away, each step he takes towards the Haus and a garden hose squishing unpleasantly. He tries not to think too unkindly of the fellow—when did he manage to have so much to drink, anyway?—but Jack still ends up walking beside him.
“Oh Lord Jack, you did not do anything to that boy because of my shoes, did you?” Although Bitty’s angry, he’s not feeling unjustly treated.
“Nope,” Jack replies easily. “Not at all.”
“Well good, I love these shoes, but they’re not worth it.” Bitty grins and sneaks a look at Jack from the corner of his eye. Jack’s hands are in his pockets, but he’s got a small smile on his face. The moonlight accents his high cheekbones, his long lashes. This boy , Bitty thinks, but says nothing.
The rest of the walk is silent.
Bitty was surprised when he heard that Rugby Guy had been brought to the hospital later that night with severe alcohol poisoning, but given that the guy’d already ruined a very expensive pair of dress shoes, Bitty wasn’t exactly upset for having left him outside for his teammates to find.
Besides, Ransom and Holster had looked so abashed when they found out what had happened, they’d promised not to set Bitty up again for at least two months.
Of course, that didn’t mean Bitty wasn’t able to find men on his own, which is why he is currently sat at a table in Annie’s, apparently being stood up for his third date with Jason. Bitty was able to find men, clearly, but keeping them was a different story. Just when he thought things might be getting good, too.
The chair across from him is pulled back, and Bitty looks up to see Jack easing himself down.
“Lord, but I need to control my thinking if you think me getting stood up is bad enough to put in an appearance.”
Jack grins, stretches out his legs, and tucks his hands behind his head. Bitty tries not to stare at his arms, his chest, his smile.
“Nah, I was just in the neighborhood, figured I’d stop by.”
“Oh, well. In that case. Can I get you a coffee?” Experimentation, years before, had shown that Jack was capable of appreciating food, so long as it was offered with intent. He’d tried a lot of pies before they’d figured out his favorite.
“Nah, I’ll just keep you company. How’s your French class going?”
“Tu ne veux pas savoir, Monsieur Zimmermann.”
“Too nuh voo pah savwah?”
“Oh hush up, you.”
Jack laughs, and Bitty ends up having a pretty good afternoon at all, and doesn’t even notice when he doesn’t hear from Jason again.
Bitty does notice, however, as playoffs approach, that he has not managed to get past second base with a single fellow at this university. A bit of a Google and Facebook binge points him to an answer he wasn’t sure he wanted to see.
“Dammit all, Jack Zimmermann, you cannot keep killing off my potential boyfriends!”
“It is unutterably rude, and I cannot imagine what you were thinking!”
“Explain yourself, Mr. Zimmermann, or so help me God--”
“Fat lot of good--”
“JACK LAURENT ZIMMERMANN.”
Jack, seated in Bitty’s desk chair with five feet, seven inches of blond fury bearing down on him, shuts right up. Silence reigns as they stare at one another, and finally Jack turns away.
“I’m sorry,” he says softly, and Eric hates that those Canadian vowels are so effective on him. “But you-- you were nice to them, and you had sinful intent, and it’s not like we’ve ever really talked about the others and how it was you were intending things…”
Eric feels all of his anger drain from him. Jack’s right—aside from the first couple of thank-yous, Eric’s never even brought up their arrangement again. He feels guilty for using Jack like that—when along the way had he lost his manners? He sits down on his bed and looks at his hands.
“Oh.” The bed sinks, and Jack’s sitting next to him. He blames the mattress for the way it tips him into Jack’s body, but he acknowledges to himself that he’s the one that lets his head rest on Jack’s shoulder. Jack’s arm comes up around his back.
“It’s fine, I mean, I didn’t talk about it either.”
“Right, but my mama didn’t raise me to be rude! I’m so sorry, Jack!”
“It’s… it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
They sit in silence for a bit, neither moving.
“Is it wrong,” Bitty starts, “that-- that I don’t feel half as bad about those boys as I do for hurting your feelings?”
Jack shrugs, and Lord Bitty can feel Jack’s muscles shift beneath his cheek. His mind ignites, and then his cheeks flare, because oh god if Jack had been able to read the sinful intent from fooling around then --
Bitty jumps up, dislodging Jack’s arm, and immediately turns to his desk to close his computer and shove it in his backpack.
“Oh Lord, I nearly forgot-- we’ve got the game against the Bobcats this evening, and I’ve hardly got my things together for the rink. I’ll-- I’ll catch up with you later, Jack. You’ve enabled my procrastination enough, mister!” Bitty throws that one over his shoulder with a grin that may or may not border on a grimace. A small smile curls Jack’s lip, but he nods and stands.
“Good luck, Bits,” he says, and disappears.
That night, a hip check from a monster of a defenseman sends Bitty flying. His helmet flies off, he hits the ice at an awful angle, and he doesn’t skate off the ice.
He doesn’t skate ever again, actually.
What does happen is he finds himself standing on the ice, looking around at the horrified faces of the people all around the rink, and then at Jack, who’s standing bashfully beside him.
“So, euh, remember when we made that deal?” he asks, his eyes looking everywhere but at Eric’s face.
The sudden flash of perspective is startling. Eric grins.
“I reckon that being nice idea didn’t exactly work?”
Jack kicks at, or through, a shaved up bit of ice. The crowds around them may as well not exist, or maybe it’s Jack and Eric that don’t. After all, the paramedics seem to be moving just fine even though they ought to have to go around a body, rather than barging on through. Eric laughs.
“Lord, Jack, normally when people get messed around by deals with the devil, it’s not the devil himself that’s getting the short end of the stick!”
“I didn’t.” Jack’s eyes are glowing a bit, now that Eric has the chance to meet them straight on.
“I didn’t get the short end of the stick. I get, well, if you want. I mean, I know you didn’t want, but...” He trails off and kicks at the ice again.
“Oh bless your wicked little heart, Jack Zimmermann, of course I want.” The paramedics don’t seem to sense them, but Eric can feel Jack just fine. “You’re absolutely right, you do get me.”
Jack’s arms wrap tight around him, and after a minute he leans back to get a look at Eric, who’s propped his chin on Jack’s chest.
“Well, maybe I did get the short--oof!” Yep, Jack can definitely feel Eric, at least judging from his reaction to an elbow in the gut.
“I was tryin’ to be sweet and you had to go make a short joke!”
Jack honest-to--well, someone giggles, and Eric just has to lean up and kiss him square on the lips.
“I can’t believe I signed up for this. An eternity! An eternity chirped to death by this man…”
No one notices when they disappear, and it’ll be a while yet before Eric thinks back on who and what he left behind. But in the meantime, there’s a whole lot of sinning he’s been denied these past years that he fully intends to catch up on.