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is it too late now to say sorry

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“I was baptized in that lake!” is the first thing Eric says when he hears. This is obviously untrue, because Eric was baptized in the font at Tennille Baptist Church, but it might as well be true.

“That’s a patent falsehood,” Lardo says, flick flick flicking through headlines on her tablet without pause.

“It might as well be true!” Eric hisses. “And if it wasn’t going to be culturally binding, why did y’all dump me in there in the first place?”

“Because it was hilarious,” Ransom says seriously.

“Bro,” says Holster without looking up, and they gently bump fists.

“Everybody who moves here has to get dumped in the lake,” Lardo says. “Otherwise, what will their first Facebook profile picture be?”

“That sounds awfully conformist for somebody who is constantly sent into a rage spiral by the hegemony of existence,” Eric says suspiciously.

“It’s not like we’re going to stop dunking new residents when it’s Lake Zimmermann,” Holster points out, adjusting his glasses so that he’s looking at Eric over the top of them. “It’ll just be the Zimmermann Splash.”

Next to him, Ransom can’t seem to help the twist to his mouth. “Doesn’t sound right without the alliteration,” he says. “I’ll admit it.”

“Blasphemer,” says Holster, affectionately. “They’re gonna come for your citizenship for that.”

“The Zimmermann Zinger?” Ransom suggests.

“Ew,” Lardo replies. “Oh, hey, Bits, it looks like they might get The Lobster at the Film Forum next month--you wanted to see that, right?”

“The Zimboni Macaroni,” Ransom says. He’s leaning back in his chair now, frowning thoughtfully at Eric’s ceiling. “Cannelloni?”

Holster has begun to crack up. “Zero sense, man,” he says. “That makes zero sense.”

“Yes,” Eric says to Lardo over their cackling. “I want to see it.” When he looks down into his lap, he realizes he’s twisted his napkin into some kind of crumpled fabric snake. “For goodness sake, who’s in charge of that lake? They can’t just go willy-nilly changing the names of things. How much will it cost to change all of the hiking maps?”

“I’m pretty sure Stacey’s just going to write LAKE ZIMMERMANN on them with a Sharpie,” Lardo says. She finally looks up from her tablet to see if there’s any sliced strawberries left, frowning comically down into the empty bowl in the middle of the table. “Bits--”

“Stacey’s handwriting is atrocious,” Eric says sharply. “That woman should never have been allowed near a sandwich board with a piece of chalk in the first place.”

“The Zimboni Moroni!” Ransom caws.

Holster says, “That’s actually a dude from the Book of Mormon. Not, like, a plural form of moron.” He’s still laughing. Eric is determinedly ignoring them because they ate the last of the frittata while he was in the bathroom and he’d already called dibs on a second slice.

“True,” Lardo says, with the cruel heart of a woman who has the best handwriting in a hundred kilometer radius. “Hey, Bits, are there any strawberries left?”

“Check in the fridge.” As Lardo sighs, puts down her tablet, and pushes out her chair, Eric adds, “Would you mind grabbing the coffee carafe, honey? I made more cold press but I wanted it to stay cold.”

Lardo makes a face, says, “Honey,” in a bad imitation of Eric’s accent, and then knuckles him in the head as she walks by. Eric flips her off and then pulls out his phone.

“Oh oh oh!” Holster says. “The phone appears!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Eric says sweetly, thumbing open his Twitter app. After a moment’s consideration, he types, I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS. THIS IS LIKE RENAMING LAKE WOEBEGONE “LAKE SCOTT WALKER.”

He pauses and considers it for a second, which is how long it takes Ransom to nudge his pointy chin into Eric’s field of view. “I don’t know,” Ransom says, “most Canadians don’t know who Scott Walker is. He’s a uniquely American problem, I think.”

“Aw, come on, Bits,” Holster says. “Calling him Scott Walker’s a bit low, don’t you think?”

“Fine,” Eric tells them through narrowed eyes. “I can get more Canadian than that.”

~

It’s Lardo who changes Eric’s ringtone to Jack Zimmermann’s monotone, “Who’s Justin Bieber?” She picks the Mister Groovi remix.

“It’s the call and response nature of it, I think,” Holster says at supper later that week. “The shattering glass noise and then the air raid siren really contextualize the deadpan nature of the quote.”

“I will murder all’y’all with this frying pan and I will get away with it because Sheriff Chalabi asks me to bake his daughter’s birthday cake every year,” Eric threatens. He’d shake the wok in question at them but he’s too busying frying rice in it.

“For all that talk about rage spirals, I really didn’t think you’d be this invested,” Lardo tells him quietly. She’s squeezing kimchi over a small bowl and then chopping it, more haphazardly than if Eric had done it himself but not too badly. “It's just a name, Bits.”

“It’s more than a name,” Eric replies, sharply flicking his wrist. The rice makes a nice shushing noise as it swishes, the oil hissing loudly in counterpoint. Eric loves making fried rice. Often he finds it very calming. “It's an institution,” he continues, and the next wrist-flick nearly sends a wave of rice over the side of the wok onto the stovetop.

“You’ve lived in Samwell for like five years, Bits,” Lardo points out.

Five years!” Eric nearly shouts. He hefts the wok in a sudden movement and dumps the neatly browned rice out into a nearby mixing bowl. “That’s five years more than Jack Laurent Zimmermann!”

“Did you know that was his middle name?” Holster asks Ransom quietly; as Eric throws another cup of rice into the wok, he hears Ransom reply, “Dude.”

“Samwell is my home,” Eric informs the contents of the wok. “It’s our home,” he amends after a second, shooting Lardo a bland and very bad false smile over his shoulder. “It’s our lake. It doesn’t belong to some--French! Man!”

Lardo ducks out of the way as a dozen grains of rice fly through air space recently occupied by her head.

“Some French Man,” Ransom repeats, intoning it with something solemn. “Lake Some French Man. That’s great. Bitty, where’s your phone?”

Eric impatiently wags his butt. “My pocket,” he says. “If you tweet that you better put quotation marks around it, Mr. Oluransi.”

~

“‘Actually, I’m Quebecois,’” Eric mutters under his breath as he pulls the last of the bakery boxes out of the back of his car. “Well, excuse me, Mister It’s A Completely Different Language.” About half a dozen tiny high school freshmen are scurrying behind Eric, ferrying two-liter bottles of pop and bags of paper napkins. “Goodness, thank you,” Eric says to the smallest one, who is carrying a bakery box the size of her entire torso.

“You’re welcome, sir,” the tiny freshman says breathlessly. Holster’s tiny freshmen are so adorable, it near about squeezes the air out of Eric’s lungs. “Thank you so much for your help, sir.”

“Nonsense,” Eric tells her briskly, kicking his truck’s door shut behind him with the flat of his foot. “As soon as Mr. Birkholtz told me about your bake sale I was happy to donate a few things.”

“A few things?” Eric hears one of the freshmen whisper behind him. Hopefully it’s not the one carrying the box of macarons--they never forgive a clumsy hand.

“We really appreciate it,” the tiny freshman continues. “Nobody seems to mind about the lake. Can you believe it?” Looking adorably furious now, she says, “It’s an affront to the history of our community!”

“I know,” Eric assures her. “I agree completely, dear.”

Holster is standing at the top of a short flight of stairs, holding the school’s front door open with a butt that is still expertly sculpted despite not having played anything more intensive than a game of shinny in years. “He’s one of you,” Holster tells the tiny freshman.

“Mr. Birkholtz, you should be one of us,” the tiny freshman says as she breezes past Holster. “It’s unconscionable.”

Unconscionable, Holster mouths at Eric behind her back. “I recognize the validity of your argument, Antoinette, which will have to be enough.”

“Hmph!” Antoinette says pointedly. She’s shaping up to become a frog after Eric’s own heart. “Has Mr. Zimmermann ever even been to Samwell?” she asks as she stomps down the hallway. Eric trails behind her, caught up like he always is at the perfect time capsule of Holster’s school. It could almost be where Eric had gone in Georgia--although, of course, all of the trophies in the glass-fronted cases are for regional curling and hockey championships.

“Not to my knowledge,” Holster says mildly after her. He waits until the last of his minions have come in to close the door and follow them to where a set of folding tables have been propped against the wall outside of what looks like the entrance to an auditorium. “Technically, having won the Cup again for Canada I think makes Mr. Zimmermann”--Holster infuses mister with the kind of passive aggressive sarcasm that Eric encourages in his friends--“a national hero.”

“Mr. Birkholtz,” says Antoinette pityingly, “he won it for Toronto.”

“Yeah, Mr. Birkholtz,” another freshman says, “that’s, like, a million kilometers away from here.”

Holster pauses in the act of unfolding a picnic table to put his hand over his face. “Thanks for helping me decide what your problem sets will be about tonight, Paul.”

“Mr. Bittle?” says someone who has not yet grown into their adult teeth. “Can you show me how you folded that box out, so that it sits like that?” He’s looking at Eric’s bakery box full of mini cheesecakes, the lid of which he’s collapsed flat for ease of presentation. Little details like that have made Eric the most successful bakery in town--that, and he lets the bed and breakfast owners place their bread and croissant orders the night before over the phone instead of having to come and fight it out in the wee hours of the morning.

“Of course, hon,” Eric says to him, briskly opening the box and showing him the collapse points. “And what’s your name?”

“Minh,” he says shyly. “My mom gets muffins from your shop for the PTA meetings and she says that they won her the presidency.” Eric is so overwhelmed with the urge to squeeze Minh’s cheeks that he nearly crushes the bakery box’s lid between his fingers. They’re all so cute! How does Holster ever get any work done?

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Minh,” Eric tells him instead of squealing something incomprehensible and high-pitched. “You tell your momma that the next time she comes by the shop those muffins’ll be on me. If she raised such a sensible and polite young man she must be doing awfully well with the PTA.”

Minh says, “Aw, thanks, Mr. Bittle!” and then crushes a mini-cheesecake in his excitement.

Right before he leaves, Eric says, “Everybody get around the table now, I want to tweet this. All’y’all okay with this going up on Twitter?”

“Yeah!” they enthuse in bloodthirsty unison. Holster refuses to join them, but he offers unsolicited advice on framing as Eric focuses on the sign taped to the front of the table: SAVE LAKE SAMWELL BAKE SALE, written in red Sharpie on a piece of lime green poster board. There’s a little drawing of a blobby circle in the bottom right corner that is probably supposed to be the lake.

Come by the high school, get some mini-cheesecakes & sign the petition to keep Lake Samwell! Eric tweets, attaching the photo. Only a few hundred of Eric’s Twitter followers live nearby, but he hopes--viciously, he acknowledges--that Jack Zimmermann manages to see this tweet like all the others of Eric’s that have gone viral. THESE ARE THE CHILDREN YOU ARE HARMING, he wants to add, but he shoves his phone back into his pocket instead.

~

“Hello, A Little Bit of Heaven, this is Eric,” Eric says on autopilot when he answers the bakery’s phone. It’s 4pm and he’s technically off-shift but Cheryl had called crying about an exam and Eric had told her not to come in. Eric, who has been awake for twelve hours, wants to die right now more than he wants to answer the phone, but he was raised better than that.

“Hey, is this--uh, Eric Bittle?”

“Yes indeed,” Eric says as cheerfully as he can. “How can I help you?”

“Hey man, this is Sherford Knight,” says--Sherford Knight, apparently. “I’ve heard that you’re the organizer for the Save the Lake fund in Samwell?”

“Yes,” says Eric cautiously. He feels awake in a sudden, icy way. “That is correct.”

“Rad,” says Sherford Knight, Esq. “So I’ve got a client that wants to make an anonymous donation to the fund. Can you walk me through the fund’s aims and, like, what you’re doing with donations? Additionally, if you’ve got a copy of your 4001 that you can send me, I’d appreciate it. Are you a registered charitable organization? Gotta know for that tax shit.”

Tax shit. “Oh, sure,” Eric says loudly. “I’ll do that right away.” He peels away from the phone for a second to check the area code on the caller ID--it’s Toronto but it’s not Lardo or Holster’s. Probably they got another one of the teachers at the school to call, or one of Lardo’s douchey art scene hipster friends. “You want a copy of the 4001, you say? Do you want me to email that to adam-dot-birkholtz at gmail-dot-com or would you rather I just light it on fire and shove it in your mailbox?”

“Dude,” says Sherford Knight, Fake Lawyer. “There’s no call for that.”

“Oh really?” Eric insists shrilly. “I really think it is! Who told you this would be funny? Are you friends with Lardo? Just because that woman beat you at beer pong doesn’t make her your supreme overlord, you know!”

“Uh,” says Sherford. Who would believe that Sherford is a real name? How dumb do they think Eric is, honestly.

The bell in the front door of the shop rings brightly; Eric turns, sees that it’s Mrs. Kline, who owns Marigold Cottage on the lakefront and is Eric’s best customer for rye bread, and holds up his index finger, mouthing, One moment please.

“And for another thing,” Eric continues loudly as Mrs. Kline nods at him, “You should know that we are a registered charitable organization and all of our paperwork is in order, because unlike Holster, who thinks that laughing at the impressionable young students under his guidance is appropriate, I am a responsible adult! You can submit a donation through our Donor’s Choice page, sir, and good day.”

Eric slams the phone down.

“Well, shit, Eric,” says Mrs. Kline. “What the fuck was that?”

“A prank call, that’s all,” Eric tells Mrs. Kline. “It’s lovely to see you, hon. How can I help you?”

~

As he’s closing up at seven that night, Eric tweets, Pranks at places of business are not allowed!! New rule!! Both Lardo and Holster favorite it, and Eric takes that as tacit agreement that this incident is going to be forgotten--at least until Holster decides to go as Sherford Knight, Esq to Ransom’s Halloween party this year, presumably.

~

This July has been unbelievably gorgeous and, Save the Lake campaigning aside, Eric has spent most of it while not working draped on various pieces of aluminum furniture at the beach. His tan is gorgeous, his hair’s gotten to that particularly cute pale gold, and his tentative line of frozen custard-stuffed cream puffs has been getting along with his customers like a house on fire.

“This is perfect,” Eric says to Lardo as he downs half of a bottom of lemonade.

Lardo, who is tying a bandana around her head like she’s going to star in a Rambo remake, grunts.

“You know what would make it even better?” Eric continues. He doesn’t wait for Lardo to straighten and put her mirrored aviators back on to say, “If someone got rid of that hideous sign.”

Lardo sighs.

“It has to hurt you,” Eric cajoles. He lowers his Ray Bans and gives Lardo a single raised eyebrow over the top. “Look at that design scheme. Is that what passes for sans serif these days?”

Stretching her arms over her head, Lardo says, “Let it go, Bits.”

Deliberately trying to stay nonchalant, Eric adjusts his sunglasses across his nose and settles back into his lawn chair. “I was just remarking on the scenery, hon,” he says. “Speaking of which--goodness, look at them.”

Across the sandy beach, Ransom is applying sunscreen to the back of Holster’s neck as the latter obnoxiously stretches. They’re in their matching SUN’S OUT, GUNS OUT tank tops and very tight swim trunks.

“They’re going down,” Lardo says simply. The sun chooses this moment to glint off of her aviators, making her spiky hair as it flops out of her bandana look demonic and powerful. “Loser pays for margaritas, so you better bring your A-game tonight, Bits.”

“Always,” Eric assures her. “Leave them a little bit of dignity, please.”

“What do you take me for,” Lardo says, disgusted, and off she goes.

Eric has brought the new Diane Arbus biography with him and he flips it open as Lardo charges over to the volleyball net. He hears her loudly say, “Arms up, losers,” and then he has to tune them out, lest he be completely distracted. He makes sure to stay hydrated and has his phone alarm on so he remembers to re-apply sunscreen--it’s the Gorilla Guys remix of “Who’s Justin Bieber,” an appealingly tropical jam for the summer--but otherwise he’s occupied, so he doesn’t notice it at first.

“Oh my god,” from a passing teenager is what drags him out. At first Eric thinks it’s for his ringtone, but when he turns it off and sits up to dig his bottle of Aveeno out of his bag, he sees that there’s been a sudden opening of his line of sight.

“Man, I don’t know what to say,” Lardo is saying to a lifeguard; Eric can barely make them out. Lardo is standing next to a crumpled piece of foam board that says LAKE ZIMMERMANN OPENING CEREMONY, AUG 4TH. COME AND MEET CANADA’S HERO! The volleyball is hooked under her arm. “It was a sick shot,” Lardo is saying. There’s an ugly hole where the sign used to be stapled to two plywood planks sticking out of the fence by the washrooms.

The lifeguard--it’s Jimmy Adebisi; Eric made the cake for his sister’s wedding last year--has his head lowered, defeated. “Miss Duan,” he says feebly, “this sign is property of the mayor’s office.”

“You can tell the mayor to take it up with me, son,” Lardo tells him. Her expression is impossible to read with her mirrored sunglasses covering half of her face.

“I’m not--going to do that,” Jimmy says wretchedly. “I’ve never met the mayor.”

Lardo claps Jimmy on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it,” she suggests. As she lets go of his shoulder, she jerks her thumb over her shoulder towards the lake. “Why don’t you go rescue those middle-schoolers before one of them drowns?”

“Which middle-schoolers?” Jimmy gets out, and then he blanches and yells, “TERI, VIVIENNE,” and bolts towards the water.

As Lardo saunters back to the volleyball net, she deliberately ignores Eric. Eric nonetheless takes a creeper shot of her striding across the sand, sun against her back and hair sticking up above her bandana, and tweets it along with Stealth badass and four heart-eyes emojis.

~

The protest on August 4th isn’t until 8AM--the ribbon-cutting at the lake is scheduled for ten--so Eric has time to get up and do the morning’s baking before he has to head out. He’s just finished sending off all of the bread orders with Mrs. Kline and the other B&B owners, all of whom had been gossiping up a storm about the Zimmermanns and their odious offspring, when the bell on the door jingles at a little after seven.

“One moment!” Eric shouts over his shoulder. He dumps the rest of the baguettes into their wicker basket and lugs the whole thing back across the kitchen as quickly as he can. “Hey there!” he says in a whirlwind, hefting the basket up onto its stand and then turning, brushing his hands on the front of his apron. “Good morning!”

“Hey,” says Jack Zimmermann, Canada’s Hero. He’s looking over Eric’s shoulder, maybe at the basket of baguettes that Eric’s shop-owner’s sixth sense is telling him is listing sideways, and then his gaze drifts over to Eric’s face. “Are you--” He freezes.

“Hey,” Eric says, and then he spins around to save the baguettes. When he’s not facing Jack, he mouths to himself, Hey? The loathing is immediate and deep.

“Wait,” Jack Zimmermann says. “You’re--you.” Eric lifts five baguettes out of the basket and replaces them one by one, slowly. “I thought this is where the Save the Lake guy works?”

“Yes,” Eric says, glacially, to his bread wall. “I run Save the Lake. How can I help you?”

There’s a long pause. It’s possible that this is as awkward for Jack Zimmermann as it is for Eric, but it’s also possible that Jack Zimmermann is a heartless hockey zombie who deserves to have nothing good in life--certainly not a Stanley Cup, nor to have a lake named after him whose very presence defines Eric’s home.

“You’re--I mean. It is you, right?” Jack Zimmerman finally says, when Eric has run out of baguettes to organize and has to turn around lest he be labeled a coward for the rest of his life.

Eric thinks about lying, or prevaricating, or letting his deeply ingrained Southern charm spin him out of his situation--but, really. What’s the point? “Yes,” he tells Jack Zimmermann. “It’s me. Goodness, what’s brought you to my store?”

“I thought you were a figure skater,” Jack finally says. It’s spoken just as flatly as every other soundbite Eric has unwillingly consumed in the last decade, as a person who lives in Canada and is not a hermit.

“I was,” Eric tells him. He realizes too late that he’s fiddling with the hem of his apron, so he puts his palms flat on the counter. “Now, I own a bakery. Can I get you something?”

“I don’t eat--sweets,” Jack says, flicking left and then right along the glass-fronted cabinets full of mini-pies, quiches, and croissants. “I wanted to talk about Save the Lake.”

“You’ve come to break my legs personally?” Eric says, saccharine. “How sweet.”

“That’s not it,” Jack says, awkward pauses filling the space between each of his words. “I just--I don’t need a lake. I don’t want a lake.”

Eric flicks an eyebrow up. “Well, gosh,” he says. “I never would have guessed. Bless your heart.”

Jack doesn’t quite flinch but he’s clearly been around enough Southerners to recognize the sentiment behind that one.

“What with, you know,” Eric continues, “how the only words I’ve ever heard you say are”--here he holds up two fingers--“eat more protein and yes.”

The world is an unfair and cruel place--which Eric has known since he represented the United States at two junior world championships and the Olympics and never medalled in any of them--but it feels like a kind of benign gift when Jack’s face turns burgundy from the outside in. It starts in his ears and ends in his nose.

“I said more than that,” he finally says.

“Grunting does not count,” Eric says sharply.

“I didn’t,” Jack tries.

“You did,” Eric says. “Lord, honey, what you said to get sex doesn’t matter. I was eighteen, not twelve. But you were awfully rude to me afterwards.”

“Yes,” Jack says, and it sounds somewhat tortured instead of directly awkward. “I’m really--sorry about that.”

Eric looks down and realize he’s gone back to twisting his apron. What’s even the point of having these lovely polka-dotted aprons if he’s just going to ruin them with his sweaty palms and nervous tics? “I’m sure you are,” he says. It’s not as sweetly vicious as he wants. Jack looks tortured but it’s not as fun as Eric had imagined over the years when he recast their meeting again with lines from Gossip Girl.

“I really don’t want the lake,” Jack says; it’s sudden and loud. “But they won’t take it back.”

That sounds very sincere. It’s not that his apology hadn’t, it just lacked the passion of this statement. Eric peers at Jack more closely and recognizes the cornered-rat look in his eyes. Eric had seen that one in the mirror of skating rink bathrooms and dressing rooms for two full years before he’d been able to admit to himself that he wanted to stop.

“For goodness’ sake, hon, it’s not a puppy,” Eric says, and he surprises himself by laughing.

Jack flinches.

“Oh--lord,” Eric huffs under his breath. He feels like he’s been pricked by a needle and all that hot air is squeaking out. “You couldn’t have continued to be an asshole and justify my hatred of you, I suppose. The world isn’t fair enough for that.”

“I wasn’t--things weren’t good,” Jack hedges. “Back then, I mean. I did a lot of things I regret. I’m sorry for saying what I did.”

“And kicking me out,” Eric prompts.

“And kicking you out,” Jack repeats.

“And for stealing my sequin gloves,” Eric adds.

“And for--what?” Jack says.

“I never found them,” Eric says. He leans forward to prop a hip against the counter. “I don’t know where on earth they could’ve gone. I searched for them for ages--you should’ve heard Tanya ripping me a new one, it was like she was Putin and I was the tiger.”

“The little cute ones?” Jack says, waggling his the fingers of his left hand. “I didn’t take them.”

“Oh, you thought they were cute,” Eric says, and he laughs delightedly. “I knew it!”

For the most part Jack’s blush has settled down into a level pinkness, but there’s still some real red happening in his ears. “They were fine,” he says. “But I didn’t take them.” He looks down at the hand that he doesn’t have awkwardly stuffed down the pocket of his cargo shorts. “I doubt they’d have fit me.”

It is inexcusable that Eric’s body does a delicious full-body clench at that, but there’s some things you just can’t help.

“God, I really am sorry,” Jack is saying softly when Eric has managed to get control over whatever is happening to himself. “I--liked you a lot. I messed a lot of things up then.”

“Well, I don’t know how much we really got to know each other,” Eric says, trying to sound nonchalant while at the same time bring much-needed oxygen into his lungs.

“I saw you skate,” Jack says. It’s said gravelly, the same way that people who have tried to pick Eric up in bars have said I want to fuck you.

“Oh dear,” Eric says faintly.

“Bitty!” Lardo yells, busting through the door of the shop in a sudden wave of bell-jangling with Holster and Ransom, wearing her fuck-you leather jacket--which says Fuck You in spikes on the back--even though it’s August and boiling outside. Eric loves her so dearly that it hurts. “Dude, you’re late--oh, fuck.”

A bare second later, Eric’s phone, to a grainy drum beat lifted from Sorry, intones, “Who’s Justin Bieber?”

“Shit,” Ransom says. He’s holding his phone against his head and staring at Jack. Eric’s apron pocket is vibrating, singing, “Is it too late now to say WHO’S JUSTIN BIEBER?”

“Shit!” Holster says, scrambling for Ransom’s phone. He takes it and ends the call, which at least stops Eric’s phone from ringing but does not salvage the rest of this situation.

“Uh,” Eric says. If this is how deer feel when confronted with headlights, Eric is never driving ever again. “This--is Jack? Jack, this is--um. Everyone.”

~

“I’m just saying,” Antoinette says as she lifts a tray of cooling brownies and carries them to the front of the shop. “It’s a betrayal, Mr. Bittle.”

Eric says, “Now, Antoinette--”

“If you say it’s complicated I’m going to be very disappointed,” Antoinette shouts as she disappears around the corner, her microbraids whipping around behind her. “It’s not complicated! It’s being morally resolute!”

“I’m very resolute,” Eric says, unsure if he should be offended.

“Oh, Mr. Bittle,” Antoinette says, her voice drifting through to the back. “I mean, sure. If you think so.”

“I am!” Eric insists.

He doesn’t hear the bell but a moment later Antoinette yells, “LAKE SAMWELL IS HERE FOR YOU, MR. BITTLE. CAN I SEND HIM BACK?”

“His name is Jack, Antoinette,” Eric yells back. “And go ahead!”

Eric has returned most of his attention to the cupcakes he’s icing for Sheriff Chalabi’s youngest’s birthday party when he sees Jack come back into the kitchen. “Hey, hon,” he says, steadily icing the wings onto a bumblebee. “Can you take a seat? I’ll be just a couple more minutes--I need to drop these off on our way.”

“Hey,” Jack says, leaning over the counter and pecking Eric on the cheek. For a man who kisses like most of his technique was gleaned from Christina Aguilera’s triple-x phase, Jack is very respectful about Eric’s workplace. It’s honestly just, like. Incendiary. “No problem. What are these?”

“Omar Chalabi is into bugs right now,” Eric tells him. “Originally he wanted beetles and centipedes but then he saw something on Netflix about the threats against bee populations and the sheriff called last night to ask if I would add some bees.”

Jack is quiet; when Eric looks over his shoulder, he sees that Jack has his DSLR out and is taking a picture of a cupcake with a centipede piped onto it in blue and black icing. “This is incredible,” Jack says. “How did you make it look right without all of the legs?”

“Goodness, Mr. Zimmermann, I need some secrets,” Eric says, grinning down into the last cupcake. “Can you go get two of the bakery boxes from the stack by the office? The ones that have the cupcake rings inside.”

“Sure,” Jack says, sounding distracted, and when Eric takes another peek he’s caught by the big black eye of Jack’s wide-angle lens.

“Jack!”

“Shh,” Jack says. “Look natural.”

“The only thing you’re getting from that angle is my butt,” Eric says, obligingly leaning back over the cupcake. “Which, frankly, is nothing you haven’t seen before.”

“I like the apron,” Jack says, in his simple and extremely filthy way. “Okay, how many boxes?”

“Two, please,” Eric says. “ANTOINETTE, WE’RE GONNA HEAD OUT. YOU NEED ANYTHING ELSE, SWEETIE?”

Criss,” Jack mutters; Eric ignores him.

“NO PROBLEM, MR. BITTLE,” Antoinette yells back. “HAVE A NICE DAY AT THE LAKE.”

“Why did she say it like that?” Jack asks suspiciously when he’s come back with the two bakery boxes and cupcake inserts.

“Oh goodness, hon, I have no idea how that girl’s head works,” Eric tells him blithely. “Pack up the beetles for me, would you?”

~

While all of the pictures of Jack emerging like a wet cat out of the lake are, obviously, incredible, Eric decides not to post any of them. He has to share Jack’s abs with enough people already; he doesn’t feel very generous.

Instead, after some fiddling, he picks the one where Jack is airborne, tripped off of the dock by Lardo’s expertly placed combat boot and helped on his way by Holster’s elbow to the lower back. He tweets it with, Welcome to Lake Samwell, Zimmermann.