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tonight, the foxes hunt the hounds

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In the last gasp of his sophomore year, after he's already left his teen years behind him forever and just as he’s ready to pack up his bags, Eric Bittle is voted captain of the Samwell Hockey Team.

It’s unanimous.

Eric goes a little light-headed and flushed all over when they make the announcement, and barely registers the coaches’ wide smiles and ready handshakes, or Ransom and Holster’s relentless chant of BITTY BITTY BITTY. He doesn’t know how this happened -- how, after the year they’ve had, after they went all the way to the Frozen Four -- why would they choose him?

There’s a soft touch at the small of his back, steadying him – Jack, of course, because it’s always Jack – and Eric leans into it, drawing in a deep breath and taking it all in, but still, there’s a small voice in the back of his head, a voice that he hates, that he wishes he could silence forever that wonders, now, is it enough?

.

There was this kid, Jim, in Eric’s year in high school – president of the theater club, a regular member of the Church choir, talented and smart and couldn’t catch a break for it because it didn’t matter that he wasn’t out, everyone looked at him, at what he did and how he dressed, and thought that they knew his whole story from top to bottom.

They never hung out, never really spoke much at all; they nodded at each other in the hallways of school, sneakers beating out a silent acknowledgement against the linoleum tile, an act of solidarity in passing.

Everyone always says that you’re stronger in numbers but sometimes grouping together doesn’t feel like anything more than creating a bigger target to shoot at.

Eric was really, really tired of being shot at.

Jim was hanging around by the front curb of the school one day as Eric trucked out with his team – the public rink was closed for repairs for a few days, so they played some ad-hoc field hockey on the back soccer field behind the chemistry lab for a few hours. Eric waved goodbye to his team before settling down on the curb to wait for his mama to pick him up, dropping his gym bag to the concrete with a thud.

“I don’t get it,” Jim had said, rocking back and forth on the balls of his heels. He towered over Eric, then, for all that they were about the same height and the contrast was giving Eric whiplash. “Why do you bother with all that?”

It was a chilly evening, and Eric had tucked his hands into the pockets of his track jacket, clenching and unclenching his near-frozen fingers together to get circulation into them. “With what?”

“You know – you’re on the track team, you have that coed hockey team. Sports and all that crap. Wouldn’t it be better to just…stay out of their way?”

After, Eric went home and sat in his room and thought about what he should’ve said – how he should’ve turned it back around, asked Jim questions like, “well, why do you bother with theater club?”

After, Eric realized that what he should’ve told Jim is this: because he loves it; because he doesn’t know any other way to be; because it’s part of him.

At the time, though, Eric could only shrug, shivering in his thin cotton jacket, hoping that his mama would show up soon.

.

Hockey isn’t figure skating; it’s not football, either, but there’s a common thread that ties them all together, and that’s this: the rat-tat-tat of your heart, the thrum of adrenaline that runs through your veins, the way it gets your body moving, moving, moving. It’s the push of a well-disciplined body into exactly the right direction, a smooth kata of one, two, three, giterdone. A well executed slapshot, a triple salchow, hell, even a quarterback sneak – it’s all the same thing, in the end, all driven by the same kind of passion that gets people on their feet and screaming.

Eric couldn’t play football; he doesn’t have the build for it and never will, not without throwing everything of himself into making it happen and he just didn’t love football that way, not the way he loves the ice. He never felt at home on a football field the same way he does whenever his skates touch down onto ice, never enjoyed the scent of freshly cut grass the way he does the cool air of a rink. He was never going to be the next Rudy Ruettiger but it never mattered – he never wanted to be, for all that one of the hardest things he’s ever done was admitting to himself that that’s okay.

Eric has always liked the process of being a spectator, of showing up and cheering others on. He tunes into the World Cup every four years, sits on the edge of his seat all through the Stanley Cup playoffs, and keeps up a running commentary to anyone who will listen on 2015 Worlds, but nothing, nothing compares to actually being out there on the ice with his boys.

They’ve got his back and he’s got theirs – what could be better than that?

.

Eric’s sitting on the couch next to his father, resting a rapidly warming can of Bud Light on his thigh and scrolling through his twitter feed, when Kent Parson comes out on national television.

Eric’s head had already snapped up when Parse’s interview began, that familiar voice tugging him out of his post-Stanley Cup twitter lull. He’s still trying to fit the pieces together in his mind, trying to figure out how that sweet boy who’d pulled him in close for a selfie at the EpiKegster could be the same person who got into that fight with Jack because the contrast gives him whiplash just to think of it. He’d been a little drunk that night but he hadn’t been that drunk and my God, Kent Parson had been so nice.

Eric gets now that there are things between Jack and Parse that aren’t his business, not really, that maybe he’s just not supposed to get whatever happened there. Just like there are things that Jack still hasn’t told him, still hasn’t put into words or made real through action, but that doesn’t stop Eric from wondering at it all.

On screen, Parse looks shell-shocked, surprised at the words that just came out of his mouth (“actually, there’s never going to be a special lady because – because I’m gay”) but mostly, he just looks tired. Eric stares at the screen, phone forgotten in one hand and beer can listing slightly to the side.

Next to him, Coach lets out a derisive snort. “I should’ve known. Look at how flashy he is. He’s just like that Ronaldo guy.”

Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t gay, Eric almost says, but he bites his tongue on it at the last minute, picking up his beer and his phone and getting up to go to his room without another word.

.

The thing with Jack is, nothing happened and yet somehow, everything happened. When Eric flips through the mental scrapbook of his sophomore year, Jack is all over it, a presence that inched his way into every corner of Eric’s life until it felt like Eric’s Story became Eric’s Story, Co-Starring Jack Zimmermann.

Jack, knocking on Eric’s door first thing in the morning to go for a run. Jack, wandering into the kitchen whenever Eric’s baking, both trying to help and making a nuisance of himself in equal measure as he chirps Eric over some spilled flour that got all over them both. Jack’s hands, steady and warm wrapped around Eric’s ankles as he held Eric up on his shoulders during Spring C. Jack, all sad eyes and thin smiles as he left a clean, folded Zimmermann Samwell jersey on Eric’s bed.

They ran the full breadth of that drawn out, painful goodbye to your college sweetheart only Eric didn’t realize he was Jack’s sweetheart until it was too late, until Jack was hugging him real tight and pressing an absent kiss to Eric’s forehead, murmuring about how sorry he was, about how he’d been so selfish with this and he just didn’t know how to stop.

It’s been weeks and weeks since that day and still, Eric can’t quite figure out what Jack meant by that, only that he knows thinking of it pulls at an ache in his chest that he’s not sure he’ll ever be rid of.

.

”I’ve never had much of a love life,” he told his followers, once, and it wasn’t the whole truth, not exactly, but it was as much truth as he was willing to share with them.

Eric’s vlog is about telling his own story; he doesn’t have the right to go around blurting out anyone else’s.

He’s never had much of a love life, maybe, except -- except for Parker. Parker, who was the star quarterback at Madison High, who was Coach’s favorite player, who used to come over for dinner sometimes or drop by to talk tactics, and who was always nice to Eric, in defiance of all common high school sense.

Except for Parker, who’d kissed Eric one day when they were alone in the back of the library, working through their AP calc homework.

They had exactly two weeks. Two weeks of making out in storage closets and empty locker rooms and the back row of the library where no one ever bothered to go. It was a quick, furtive thing, all hands and knocking teeth and pulling clothes down but never, ever off. Still, nothing had ever lit Eric up quite in the same way before. Nothing had ever made him feel quite so aware of himself, of every inch of his body and how fully capable it was of colliding with another at breakneck speed.

And then it just stopped. Parker met Eric’s gaze in the hallway exactly once, after that, and there was a fear in his eyes that stopped Eric in his tracks.

Eric didn’t ask. He didn’t try to push -- what good would it have done? It’s not like he didn’t get it. It’s not like he wasn’t just as scared half the time, and getting angry about it wouldn’t change anything. It’s just how things were.

He never spoke to Parker after that. He never expected to see him again, really, not after Parker got that football scholarship to Michigan, which is why it’s such a surprise to turn a corner in the giant house party he’d been invited to by some of his old high school hockey teammates and find Parker, in the kitchen, mixing himself a drink in a red solo cup.

He looks the same, almost. Same sandy blonde hair, same blue, blue eyes, like the Georgia sky after too much rain. He’s paler, maybe, but that’s what happens when you go north for college.

“Eric,” Parker says, looking up from his solo cup with wide, surprised eyes. “I didn’t -- I, uh. I wasn’t expecting you to be here.”

Eric shrugs, moving to prop himself up against the fridge. “I ran into Hillary when I was at the store with Mama, she invited me.”

“Yeah, I know, it’s just -- you never come to these things over break. Or at least, I’ve never seen you at any.”

“Were you looking?” Eric blurts out, flushing immediately. He resists the urge to raise a hand to the tips of his ears; he already knows they’re turning red.

“Yeah, I was,” Parker says flatly.

Eric opens and closes his mouth a few times before snapping it shut, turning away. Lord, he doesn’t know what to do with that.

“Do you want a drink?” Parker asks, drawing Eric’s gaze back to him. “I was just fixing myself a screwdriver.”

“Yeah, alright,” Eric says, and then winces, wondering where on Earth his manners wandered off to. “Thank you.”

Parker looks up, giving a quick smile, before setting to work, pulling out a fresh red solo cup from the stacked plastic bag on the counter. “You’re welcome.”

Eric stares off into space for a minute, very aware of himself and the space that he’s taking up in this kitchen in a way that he usually isn’t. Hillary’s parents have a beautiful kitchen -- state of the art appliances with dark, marble countertops -- but there’s almost something too done about it, too much, too clean, with none of the character and love that makes up the Haus kitchen. Eric finds himself wondering what the kitchen looks like in Jack’s new apartment; he never asked, too afraid that he would find it so easy to picture himself fitting right in.

Eric comes to himself again when Parker presses a cup into his hand and Eric looks up, startled, into Parker’s blue eyes and small, hesitant smile.

“There’s a gazebo out back -- do you want to get some fresh air?”

Parker is standing close but not too close, and there’s a familiar sort of intent in his gaze -- Eric knows through the too clear vision of twenty/twenty hindsight that he was embarrassingly oblivious with Jack but right here, right now, with the weight of what used to be between him and Parker heavy in the air, he’s pretty sure that he gets exactly where this is leading.

So, Eric smiles right back. “Yeah, sure. Lead the way.”

.

“Congratulations, by the way,” Parker says, leaning over and clinking his solo cup against Eric’s. They’re seated pressed close together, shoulder to shoulder, on the bench in Hillary’s gazebo. In the distance, the party noise has dampened down to a dull roar. There’s a few stragglers hanging around down at the pool but the two of them are separated from it by a small crop of trees and so it’s easy to give themselves the illusion that they’re alone out here. “Your hockey team, I mean. You had a damn good season.”

“Thanks,” Eric says. “It was….it was something, alright. I almost couldn’t believe it when it was happening, you know?”

“That’s usually how it goes, I guess,” Parker says. “I felt the same way senior year of high school when we made it all the way to state. How’s your team? On the TV -- I don’t know, it seemed like y’all were pretty close.”

Eric ducks his head, pleased in spite of himself at the thought of Parker making time to watch ECAC hockey all the way in Michigan. “Yeah, the boys and Lardo -- that’s our team manager, Lardo -- I love them,” Eric says. “They’re hands down the most ridiculous creatures I’ve ever known in my life and I...I adore them.”

“Do they….” Parker starts, and then pauses. “Do they know?”

Eric huffs a laugh. “Yeah, they know. Holster and Ransom, our d-men...they’ve made it their personal goal to find me a boyfriend. They keep setting me up on dates.”

“You’re shitting me,” Parker says.

“I am not,” Eric says. “And they’re entirely unsuccessful, I might add, but bless them for trying, I guess.”

“Samwell, huh,” Parker says. “I guess the rumors are true.”

“One in four, maybe more,” Eric says, in a sing-song voice, before quieting, and taking a small sip of his drink. “Yeah. True enough. What about your team?”

“Nope,” Parker says, and then, “no, I just -- there’s a chance I could go pro, you know? It’s not out of the picture just yet. I can’t risk that.”

“Yeah,” Eric says, taking another sip of his drink and trying not to think of Jack. “Yeah, no. I know.”

Parker slumps, a little, and there’s a defeated look set into his face that Eric knows a little too well, that he’d do anything to wipe off so he shakes his head, casts around for something, anything else to talk about.

“Are the northerners any less weird over your way then they are in Boston?”

Parker chokes out a laugh. “Lord. They’re so fucking weird, Eric. It drops down to forty degrees and they’re all fixing to go for a long walk like it’s the middle of the summer.”

“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘it’s nice and sunny outside today, eh?’ when there was snow on the ground,” Eric says, letting his voice drop down into Jack’s low, Canadian rumble.

“‘Eh?’” Parker asks, incredulous, and it comes out extra funny in his soft Southern accent.

Eric curves a smile into the lip of his solo cup. “I play hockey, remember?”

Now, they drop into a more comfortable lull, sitting in silence. Eric sets his cup down on the floor of the gazebo; it tastes good enough but he’s not really feeling the urge tonight, not really. The night is too warm and the stars too bright and familiar in a way that they aren’t up north and Eric’s feeling good, like he’s on the edge of something that matters, even if he doesn’t quite know what it is just yet.

It takes him a few more minutes of staring out at the night sky before Eric notices that Parker is looking at him and when he does, he turns and faces him head on, and that was an inevitable sort of thing, maybe, how now they’re close enough to kiss.

“What’re you looking at, mister?”

Parker gives a small shake of his head. “You look….different. You look good, Eric,” he says, and it was Parker who made the first move, so many years ago now, but this time Eric does, leaning forward and brushing his lips against Parker’s in a soft, barely there kiss.

Two and a half years ago, this was all clacking teeth and teenaged desperation; now, it’s something a little bit slower, like moving through molasses, a slow and steady rise that sees Eric climbing into Parker’s lap and exchanging kisses that are more for the pleasure of knowing, now, that it’s something they can do, and the world won’t quite end the way they always thought it might.

“Do you suppose….” Parker says, pressing a kiss to Eric’s forehead, a mirror image of Jack that twists at Eric’s heart, unbidden, “do you think this is something….something you’d want to do? With me? I know…Jesus, uh. I know we haven’t kept in touch but I’ve...I’ve thought about you a lot.”

“What, like -- “ Eric starts, puzzled. “Like dating? Each other?”

“Yeah.”

Eric sits back, resting on Parker’s knees, and lets himself really, really think about it -- about Parker, who he liked so much so many years ago, and about the realities of it -- about dating someone you couldn’t tell anyone about, about how hard it would be, to find time for each other across distance, and Eric -- Eric knows himself. He knows his own needs and wants, his quirks and his downsides, knows that he’s not as good at lying as he’d like to be, that he wears his heart on his sleeve and wants nothing more than to share it with someone else, and my word, there will be days when it’ll just be too hard, and -- oh.

Damnit.

Now he gets it.

“Parker….sweetheart,” Eric says. “I don’t want to be anyone’s secret. I think….I think I’m pretty tired of closets altogether, actually.”

And it’s not -- it’s not the same with Jack, not entirely, because he and Jack have been everything to each other in the past year except for what they really wanted to be, but Eric’s starting to get a pretty clear picture of what Jack meant by “being so selfish.” Lord, that boy. One of these days, maybe he’ll learn to use his words and actually talk to Eric about it.

Eric clambers out of Parker’s lap. “Give me your phone.”

Parker hands it over, wordlessly, and Eric swipes it open, moving to add a new contact, swift fingers typing out his contact info.

“If you need to talk….whenever you need to talk, about anything -- you call me, you hear?” Eric says, placing Parker’s phone back into his hand.

“No chance I can change your mind, huh?” Parker asks ruefully. He draws in a deep breath and it comes out a little shattered; there’s that small, sad look on his face again and Eric hates that he was the one who put it there, but -- but lying about it would be even worse, in the end. It wouldn’t do either of them any favors.

“Sorry, honey, but no,” Eric says, but he leans down and presses a kiss to Parker’s cheek. “Have a good night, Parker.”

.

Eric’s only a good short ten minute walk a couple streets over from his parent’s house, but still, he waits until he’s well clear of the party before he presses call on his phone.

“Bittle?” Jack says, voice sleep-heavy and coming out a little muzzy over the phone. Typical Jack Zimmermann -- of course he’s already asleep at 10:00 on a Friday night.

“I want to make a deal with you, Jack Zimmermann,” Eric says, stopping along the side of the road and plopping down beneath someone else’s crabapple tree by the curb.

“What kind of deal?” Jack asks, sounding more awake now. Eric can just picture him running a hand through his close-cropped dark hair, and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, and there’s a smile spread wide across Eric’s face, he can feel it, because somehow he just can’t seem to help himself when it comes to Jack.

“If we….” Eric starts, hating how the words suddenly stick in the back of his throat. He raises his chin, for all that Jack can’t even see him, determined to soldier all the way through this. “You and me, if we still feel the same way about each other after, I don’t know...after your first season in the NHL, I think we should do something about it.”

“Bitty…” Jack says, low and soft and unbearably fond into the receiver, and Eric doesn’t know how he spent all year missing that. “I don’t -- “

“Jack,” Eric says, interrupting him. “It’s okay to be selfish every once in a while, you know. I want to be, with you.”

“Bitty, you’ve got to be the least selfish person I’ve ever known.”

Eric’s breath catches, and he finds himself pressing a hand to his heart, overwhelmed. Damn you, Jack.

“Well, then I guess you have to listen to me, then,” Eric says, with only a small amount of teasing.

“I never wanted to make you wait for me, Bitty,” Jack says. “I know that’s not fair.”

Eric smooths out the wrinkled lines of his shorts, shifting so that a tree root isn’t digging into the small of his back. It’s a beautiful night; he wishes Jack were here to see it in person.

“Sometimes life’s not fair, Jack."

Jack huffs a laugh. “Tell me about it. You know, a lot can happen in a season of hockey.”

“Goodness, I know,” Eric says. “You could get all your teeth knocked out and then I wouldn’t be attracted to you at all anymore.”

“Was that a chirp?”

“Maybe,” Eric says. “Was it a good one?”

“Eh. Could use a little work,” Jack says. “What happens if my season goes on for longer than usual? Like, say, what if I win the Stanley Cup?”

“Then you win the Stanley Cup,” Eric says. “And I’ll bake you a very big pie.”

“Okay,” Jack says, and then again, stronger, more sure of himself: “Okay, yeah. You’ve got yourself a deal, Eric Bittle.”

Eric gets up from the base of the tree, pausing to shake the leaves and dirt off his clothes. “Sorry I woke you up.”

“S’okay,” Jack says, but he’s starting to sound a little muzzy again, like he’s trying to fight off sleep. “How was your night?”

“It was alright,” Eric says. “The stars are beautiful down here tonight. I went to a party and kissed a cute boy who wanted to date me. Can’t complain.”

“He wanted to date you, huh? And what’d you say?” Jack says, and it’s a relief, how he sounds more amused than anything else.

“Well, I’m talking to you now, aren’t I?”

“Yeah,” Jack says, and it’s a low sort of mumble, soft and quiet. “I’m glad you are.”

“Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“You should probably go back to bed,” Eric says. “Growing hockey players need lots of rest, or so I hear.”

“Ha,” Jack says. “So many chirps tonight, Bittle. Have you been drinking?”

“Just a little,” Eric says. “This is hardly Spring C level drunk chirping, young man.”

“I want to stay up and talk to you, though,” Jack says, and it sounds like it cost him a lot, to finally say those words, and Eric can’t stop himself from rising a hand to his heart once more.

“Yeah, well -- you’ll have all year to talk to me, you know?” Eric swallows around the lump in his throat. “This isn’t a goodbye; this is just you and me, making a plan.”

“I’ll call you in the morning,” Jack promises. “Soon as I wake up.”

“Lord, no thanks,” Eric says. “How about I call you as soon as I wake up.”

“Alright, alright,” Jack says. “Good night, Bitty.”

“Good night,” Eric says, and then hangs up, turning a corner and heading straight towards home.

.

Eric is a lot of things.

He’s the captain of the Samwell Men’s Hockey Team. He’s in love with Jack Zimmermann. He’s a retired figure skater and a weekend runner and well on his way to owning way too many J. Crew shorts in just about every shade of pastel possible. He’s the best amateur pie-maker on either side of the Mason Dixon line, probably, if he’s not tooting his own horn too loudly by saying so, and he’s pretty sure that he’s Beyonce’s biggest fan, no matter what anyone else has to say about it.

He also knows way, way too much about football and these days, admitting that doesn’t bother him as much as it used to.

He is Eric and Bitty and Dicky and Junior, and somehow, all of these things are possible at once. All of these things are enough.

Eric pushes open the screen door to his parent’s house and clambers over the high step into the kitchen to find that it’s already flooded with light, with both of his parents sitting at the worn, old wooden kitchen table, their heads bent together over a half finished pie.

“Junior,” Coach starts, surprised. “We didn’t expect you back so early.”

“Grab a fork, dear,” Mama says. “Your father and I shouldn’t be allowed to finish this whole thing by ourselves.”

“Yeah, okay,” Eric says, stepping all the way inside and letting the screen door close after him with a thump. “It’s good that y’all are up, actually -- there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”