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All the Best Parts

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“Can you stop at Cheskie’s for a babka?”

Jack was five minutes away from his parents’ home when he got the phone call, and Cheskie’s was 20 minutes in the other direction.

“A babka? Sure,” he said as he quickly made a U-turn, hoping no one would see.

“Bubbe didn’t feel like baking one, so she said Cheskie’s would do,” Alicia said.

Jack could hear his Bubbe Esther in the background.

“Tell Jacky to bring two, if they still have any at all—and look fresh!”

Jack smiled. His bubbe was one of his most favorite people in the world, and he would do anything for her. He looked forward to Friday dinners at her house whenever he didn’t have a game. Brisket, roasted chicken, kugel, tzimmes; it was always delicious and plentiful. Those dinners always reminded Jack of childhood evenings spent at his bubbe and zayde’s house. His time there was a delightful mix of good food, music, hearty laughter, papa and maman playing cards with his aunts and uncles, hockey banter, and Bubbe making Jack feel he was capable of anything.

“Look at this boy,” Esther would say as she’d squeeze Jack’s chubby cheeks and kiss the top of his head. “He’s going to be a heartbreaker when he grows up, and so smart.”

Jack would feel his face burn as he’d help himself to another one of bubbe’s sufganiyot. He would believe her, feeling, if only for a moment, as though he were on top of the world.

Jack pulled into a parking space in front of Cheskie’s and was thankful there wasn’t a line out the door. A good sign. The bell over the door dinged, he walked in and got into the small line and quickly examined the situation. He could see there were exactly three babkas left, and only two people were ahead of him, so the odds were definitely in his favor.

The line moved.

One gone. Two left.

The line moved again.

“Can I get a babka, please?” the man in front of him asked in English. “Merci,” he added messily.

His accent betrayed that he wasn’t local.

“Wait! Make that two.”

The woman behind the counter nodded.

“Oh, come on!” Jack muttered under his breath.

The man turned to look at Jack over his shoulder. "Pardon me?"

“You took the last two babkas.”

“Yes, I did.”

“There’s only one of you.”

“And?”

“My bubbe wanted one.”

The guy snorted. “Well, sorry, but...”

He then shrugged without any real commitment as he handed the cashier his money, and waited for his change.

“Let me buy one from you,” Jack said.

The man took his bag, shook his head, and rolled his eyes as he walked out of Cheskie’s without looking back.

“Come on,” Jack said as he followed him without thinking. He didn’t mean to be creepy, but there was no way he was going to disappoint Bubbe Esther.

“Are you for real?” the man asked as he paused on the sidewalk.

He was definitely not local. Southern. His accent was southern. And straight away, Jack noticed he was cute. Very cute. Marde.

“Um, yes?” Jack asked, seriously doubting his life choices.

“How about, um, no,” he said as he waved goodbye and began to walk away once again. “So much for Canadian politeness. Have a good day.”

Jack felt like such a dumbass about the whole exchange, embarrassed he basically harassed an attractive stranger over baked goods. Over baked goods!

Tabarnak,” he muttered to himself.

The man stopped dead in his tracks. “Hey, now! I might not speak Québécois, but that, that I know.”

Jack wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I just--I just hate to disappoint her.”

“Your bubbe?” the guy asked, eyebrow firmly raised.

“Yeah,” Jack replied, hands in pockets, ineffectually kicking a nearby pebble.

“Sounds like you’re pulling my leg,” the man said as he looked Jack up and down. He stood in front of him with arms folded, the Cheskie’s bag swung to and fro slowly. “Show me a picture of her.”

“What?”

“Show me a picture of her,” he repeated. He pointed at Jack’s pocket. “You must have a picture of her on your phone, right?”

Jack fumbled as he pulled his phone out and scrolled until he found one of Bubbe Esther sitting in her kitchen, proudly showing off some challah she had baked. Her cat, Stanley, sat on a chair next to her, trying to sniff the bread.

“See? That's her.”

The blond man scooted in close to Jack and looked at the screen.

“That's the little old lady that's going to be disappointed if you don't let me buy a babka from you,” Jack continued with a smirk, knowing he was laying it on thick.

“Is that her kitty?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, that's just playing dirty,” the man said, then sighed. “Here.”

He reached into his bag, pulled out a babka, and handed it to Jack.

Ben là? Really?” he said with a blush.

The man smiled and playfully shoved at Jack.

“Like you weren't gunning for it. Come on, handsome, no point being shy now.”

“Thanks so much.” Jack pulled out a twenty. “Euh, do you have any change?”

The man laughed. “Lord, just take it. Consider it my good deed for the day.”

“What? No, I want to pay for it.”

“Take it,” he said with a smile so genuine, Jack couldn’t help but smile back. “And give your bubbe a big ole hug.”

“Thanks, really.”

The man smiled at Jack once again, then shook his head, and playfully rolled his eyes.

“Have a good one,” he called out as he walked away.

Jack stood there, grinning as he watched the cute stranger disappear around the corner.

It's a little fudgy, a little yeasty, and a whole lot of chocolatey. This trans-Atlantic Jewish delight is a delicious hybrid between bread and pastry, and without a doubt, Cheskie's babka is the best. If you’re lucky enough to snag one. The texture, with its coiled layers of pure bliss, houses luscious chocolate within its beautifully laminated pastry. It’s rare for a loaf to make it home in one piece as you can’t help but nibble on it. The lines at Cheskie's are not unwarranted, and the history of babka and Cheskie’s are just as delicious as the treat itself...

+++

When Jack wasn’t on a roadie, his routine was the same each morning. He’d get up at five, go for a run, stop at St-Viateur for a bagel and coffee, make his way home, shower, eat breakfast, and head to Centre Bell. There was comfort in routine. And so it was that one week later, Jack arrived at St-Viateur at 7:00 a.m. and got in line not thinking much of it.

The bagel shop had its usual size crowd, not too bad for a weekday morning. A man ahead of him took a picture of the menu on the wall with a very expensive DSLR camera—with flash, no less. He then turned, saw Jack, and did a double-take. The man excitedly whispered to his wife and nodded at Jack, who, in turn, nodded back.

Living in Montréal, Jack was used to tourists, to cameras everywhere; being on the Habs, doubly so. This was life in Montréal. This was life as a hockey player in Montréal. Jack averted his gaze and looked at the brown and white fan lazily whirling overhead. He moved up one step as he exhaled softly.

“Please don't take the last bagel,” a voice said behind him. “My MooMaw wants it.”

Jack turned, and it was him. The guy from Cheskie’s, and he was just as attractive as Jack remembered.

Jack smirked and squashed down the butterflies dancing in his belly. “No guarantees.”

“Fancy meeting you here,” the guy said.

“We’re probably neighbors and don’t even know it,” Jack said.

“Well, it’d be nice to actually know some people in the neighborhood, that’s for sure.”

The line moved again.

“Yeah?”

“I just relocated here from the states. You know, in case the accent didn’t give it away.”

“Really? I could have sworn you were a native Montréaler,” Jack chirped.

The guy grinned. “I could see how you would think that.”

They moved up closer.

“Well, you seem to know all the good places already,” Jack said. “You've already been to Cheskie’s, and now you’re here.”

“Those were easy. Everyone knows about St-Viateur, and my coworker told me about Cheskie’s. I wish I had some more intel, though. Someone to tell me all the Secret Squirrel places in the city.”

“Secret Squirrel?”

“You know, Secret Squirrel?”

Jack shook his head.

“It’s an old cartoon from, like, the ‘70s or something. Anyway, it means the secret places. The good places only locals would know about. All the best parts.”

Jack smiled and realized every time he had run into this guy, that’s what he did. He smiled. Maybe it was his open, friendly manner or how he chirped Jack as easily as anyone on the team. Of course, Jack knew the fact that he found him so good looking might have also had something to do with it.

“I wouldn’t mind--” Jack began.

The guy pointed with his chin that the line had moved.

“You’re up.”

“Oh.”

Jack looked at the guy, all big brown eyes and warm smiles.

“What would you like?” Jack asked as he stepped up to the register.

“What? No, I couldn’t,” he replied.

“It’s only fair since you gave me your babka.”

“I gave it to your granny, not you. Totally different,” the guy said.

“I’m good for it. Please, let me.”

“Um, okay,” he said as his face lit up. “You pick.”

"Deux bagels au romarin," Jack said to the cashier.

“And two coffees, please,” the guy added cheekily.

Jack turned to look at him as he smirked.

“What? I wasn’t going to choke it down dry. Besides, I have it on good authority you’re good for it.”

Jack chuckled. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew he liked it. He handed the guy his coffee and the little paper bag; an illustrated blue bagel waved at them.

“Here,” he said. “Enjoy.”

“Now, there’s the Canadian politeness I’ve heard so much about.”

“Only to be rivaled by Southern politeness, I guess.”

The guy laughed as they exited the bakery. “Well, thanks for breakfast.”

They paused, and both stood awkwardly on the sidewalk, apparently waiting for the other to say something.

With the early morning sun shining on the guy’s sweet face, his hair gently whipping around his forehead in the soft fall breeze, Jack found he easily pictured himself with the guy. Could Jack date right now? He surprised himself by even asking. For starters, Jack didn’t know if the guy was straight or not. Hell, he didn’t even know his name for crying out loud.

Dating was a complicated thing for Jack—always had been. It wasn’t easy when he’d dated women, much less men. Not that his team wasn’t supportive, they were. Marty, Guy, Tater, Holster, Ransom, Pricey, George—everyone had his back. The team wasn’t the problem; it was usually the people he would date. They didn’t know how to handle being in the public eye, constantly under a microscope. It was fine during the off-season, but Jack knew it could get a little intense during the rest of the year.

The guy frowned and finally broke the silence as he looked a little embarrassed.

“All right then... Guess I should go. Thanks again.”

“But--”

He quickly turned and crossed the street, and Jack was once again left watching him walk away.

In 1953, Myer Lewkowicz arrived in Canada with not much more than a handful of dreams and great ambition. A survivor of Camp Buchenwald, he’s often quoted as saying, “At Buchenwald, all I wanted was a piece of bread.” Mr. Lewkowicz didn't know the first thing about baking, so it's extraordinary that with his journey from Poland to Montréal came the birth of St-Viateur bagel shop. Their wood oven-baked bagels are a thing of beauty that should be held as often as possible...

Chapter Text

«What’s up with you, kiddo»? Marty asked. «You’re being a bit of an ass today».

«More than usual»? Ransom chirped.

Jack towel-dried his hair. «I don’t know what you mean».

The locker room was filled with the usual post-skate cacophony: monumental chirps, jockstraps being hurled across the room, Holster sang selections from Pirates of Penzance, the sound of pads being tossed onto the floor as the smell of musty hockey gear permeated the area.

“What did he do now?” Snowy asked as he walked in from the showers.

The truth was, Jack knew he’d been on edge for the last week or so. And if he were being even more truthful, he knew it was ever since he saw the Cheskie’s guy and didn’t get his number. He realized it was all on him because the guy just stood there waiting for Jack to make a move, one that never came.

“Nothing. I just…” Jack shrugged. “I’m kind of in the moon today.”

Holster studied Jack for a beat.

“Hold the phone! HOLD THE PHONE!” Holster bellowed. He marched right up to Jack and pressed his face up close to Jack’s so they were nose to nose. Jack blinked and pulled back slightly as Holster stared intently through his glasses which began to fog up.

“I knew it,” he whispered. “I KNEW IT!”

“What?” Marty asked. “What do you know?”

“This one,” Holster said with glee as he danced and pointed at Jack, “has a crush!”

“How the hell did you know?” Jack asked, completely taken aback.

“Dude, I didn’t,” Holster cackled. “You’re just so fucking easy!”

Everyone laughed as Jack pouted.

“Jack, you like someone?” Snowy asked.

“I guess so? Maybe? I ran into him twice and totally blew it. I didn’t even get his coordinates. I can’t call him or anything. En tout cas, it’s not like I’ll run into him again. So that’s that.”

Tater shook his head and whistled. “Sound like you definitely blew it, Zimmboni.”

“‘Chyeah, I know.”

“You know what you need?” Ransom asked.

Cinq à sept! Cinq à sept!” Holster began to chant, gaining volume after each refrain, “Cinq à sept! Cinq à sept!”

“No, I don’t feel like going out.”

“Come on, Jack. You never go out with us,” Snowy said. “A little cinq à sept will do you some good.”

“I don’t know,” Jack said as he pulled his t-shirt on.

“Jack, as your captain, I am ordering you,” Marty said.

“You’re not that kind of captain, Marty.”

“We’re going to Le Mal,” Guy said.

“That hipster tiki bar again?” Poots asked with a scowl.

“Hey, it’s the hipster places that let us drink in peace. They don’t care that we’re there, man,” Guy said as he clapped Poots on the back.

“Come on, Jack. Just this once,” Ransom pleaded.

One drink, Jack thought. One drink with his friends wouldn’t kill him.

+

Jack looked at his watch again. Ugh. He gave himself an hour and then he’d head home. He sipped at whatever fruity cocktail it was that Ransom placed in front of him, and then began to chew on the pineapple slice that sat on the rim of his glass.

Jack looked at his teammates and couldn’t help but chuckle. Guy poured something from a huge pitcher into Poot’s glass—Poots, who was now wearing a lei—Ransom and Holster scrolled through Ransom’s phone and burst out laughing at something or another. Snowy tried throwing tiny dumplings into Tater’s mouth from across the table, and Marty and Thirdy swayed to the beat of the loud music that was getting to be a bit much for Jack. Jack was just happy they could be out together in relative peace and not be harassed by overzealous hockey fans.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” Jack said to no one in particular. Guy gave him a thumbs up.

Jack gently pushed through the crowd making his way toward the general direction of the bathrooms.

«Bathrooms»? Jack asked the bartender at the bar in the back.

«Down there, to your left».

«Thanks».

“You’re welcome,” a voice he recognized replied.

He quickly turned, and sitting at the bar was the Cheskie’s guy.

“It’s you,” Jack said with a huge grin.

“Yeah, it’s me,” the guy said then casually took a sip of his cocktail. “You stalkin’ me?”

Jack frowned. “Euh, no.”

“Oh, sorry. Is this your drink or something?” he asked sassily and raised his glass in Jack’s direction.

“Haha. No, it’s not.”

“I know that, silly,” he said with a grin. “I’m just messing with you.”

The woman sitting next to him cleared her throat.

“This is Marguerite,” the guy said. “We work together. Marguerite, this is… um…”

“Jack,” he said as he extended his hand.

“Yeah, hi,” she said with an excited smile.

“This is the babka fella,” the guy said to Marguerite.

Marguerite’s smile grew exponentially. “This is babka fella! Him?!”

The guy gently elbowed her as she giggled.

Jack then offered him his hand. “I’m Jack. Nice to officially meet you.”

“Eric,” the guy said brightly.

The two grinned at each other without saying a word. Jack wasn’t sure if it had been for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, he just knew it felt good, then Marguerite cleared her throat again.

“Eric, sorry. I just remembered that I have to go.”

“Go? Where? We just got here. It’s barely 5:30!”

She smiled at Jack as she hopped off the barstool.

“I have to go… uh, to the dép for something.”

“The dép?” Eric asked. “Right now?”

“Yeah, super important.” Marguerite nodded and grabbed her purse and kissed Eric on the cheek. “See you on Monday. Very nice meeting you, Jack. Good luck on Sunday! À la prochaine.”

Eric watched her with wide eyes as she quickly left.

“Good luck on Sunday? What?” He watched as Marguerite waved one more time, then turned to look at Jack. “So… she was acting totally weird. No clue what that was all about. Sorry.”

“Haha, yeah.”

“Don’t you have a bathroom to go to?” Eric asked as he folded his arms across his chest.

“What?”

“Bathroom?” Eric said with a dismissive wave. “Don’t let me keep you.”

Jack frowned then realized Eric’s last memory of Jack was him standing, silently, outside St-Viateur. So he could understand why Eric wouldn’t be too thrilled about seeing him again.

“Right, bathroom. Will, euh, you still be here when I get back?”

“That depends. How long you planning on taking?” Eric asked.

Jack laughed as he shook his head. “Be right back.”

“Well then, I guess I’ll be right here finishing my drink.”

“Okay, let me go tell the people I’m with that I’m going to sit with you.”

“Oh, you are, are you?”

Jack froze. “I mean, if you want me to.”

Eric laughed. “Sure. But don’t you have to use the little boy’s room first?”

“Right. Yes.”

Jack scrambled toward the bathroom.

+

“I ran into a friend and I’m going to catch up with them, so I’ll see you later,” Jack said as nonchalantly as he could while he pointed toward the back.

“Friend? What friend?” Ransom looked around the table and counted everyone. “We’re all here, and so which friend are you taberfucking talking about?”

“I have friends.”

Everyone paused to look at him.

“Bubbe Esther is back there?” Tater asked. “Mardey?”

“We haven’t even ordered a Dragon Boat, yet, man,” Thirdy said sadly.

“It’s the guy. Okay? The guy! I have to go, bye.”

“Atta babe!” Holster called out as everyone clapped.

“Where are you sitting?” Snowy asked with a smile, a mile wide.

“Nowhere. Leave us alone. Bye,” Jack said as he grinned and walked back to Eric.

He settled into Marguerite’s empty bar stool.

“I’m back.”

“I see,” Eric smiled.

“Do you want another drink?” Jack asked.

“Sure, another one of these,” Eric said to the bartender as he tapped his glass.

Jack held up two fingers and the bartender nodded.

“So,” they both said at the same time, then smiled.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Jack said.

“Really? I didn’t think you wanted to see me again.”

“I’m... shy?” Jack supplied.

“Shy, right. You were definitely super shy when you accosted me for my babka.”

Jack covered his face as he blushed. “I have no idea where that came from.”

“Clearly from your love for your bubbe.”

“Yes, that’s it,” Jack said, face still red.

Eric smiled. “You really are shy, huh? Too bad. I’m only looking to make outgoing friends here in my new city.”

Jack smiled. “And how long have you been here?”

“Mmm, about two months. I came here for work.”

“What do you do?” Jack felt that was capable of maintaining that level of small talk.

He wanted to keep talking to Eric. He didn’t care about what. There was just something joyful about Eric that Jack really liked. He had Tater’s humor, Holster’s brashness, but could see some softness underneath it all. He seemed like a really kind soul.

“I’m a food writer, and an opportunity to work for Quench came up. I just couldn’t pass it up.”

“Quench?”

Eric took his cocktail napkin and began to fold it. He kept talking as he did.

“It’s an amazing food magazine. I’m surprised you’ve never heard of it. I write print and online stuff for them.”

“Recipes and things?” Jack asked watching Eric continue his folding.

The bartender put their drinks down.

“Sometimes. But most of the time I write about the food world: people, restaurants, slice of life kind of things.”

“And you’re writing about all that here?”

“Uh-huh.”

“So are you bilingual?”

“Bilingual? Lord, no. Unless you count Southern. Then, yes, I’m fluent in passive aggressivity, bless your heart.”

Jack laughed. “I don’t know what that means.”

Eric laughed. “That’s good—if you don’t know what that means you haven’t gotten on my bad side.”

After the last fold, he handed Jack a simple origami dog. Jack smiled, charmed. Eric’s eyes met Jack, and Jack felt his stomach do a pleasant flip. Eric cleared his throat and took a sip from his drink.

“Sadly, no French. A little bit of Franglais, though. I’m trying. I'm taking a French immersion class. News flash! I suck at languages. I’m basically the reverse of yes, no, toaster.”

Oui, non, pamplemousse,” Jack replied with a smile.

“What?”

“No, nothing. Go on.” Jack appreciated all the Quebecois slang Eric was using like a natural. “How do you like Montréal so far? You have enough to write about?”

He felt like he could listen to Eric speak forever.

“I like it a lot. Can you believe some guy just up and bought me breakfast the other day?”

Jack laughed. “Is that so? Génial.”

“Yep, a bagel and coffee. Canadian politeness, I guess,” Eric replied with a smirk. He sighed and continued, “I’m getting settled. Learning about the city every day. The cost of living here is way more affordable than back home, so I love that. I have a really cute three-and-a-half in La Petite-Patrie that I’m crazy about. There’s no way I’d ever be able to rent a place like that in the states.”

Jack nodded. “That’s a nice area. I had some really good pupusas at a place there once. A really small place, blink and you’ll miss it—but the food was so good.”

“See? That’s what I need!”

“A pupusa?”

“No, someone to tell me all the places I need to know about. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em hidden gems.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that when we got bagels.”

“Aw, and you remembered?”

“I did,” Jack said, voice a bit husky.

It was then Eric’s turn to blush. Jack was about to invite Eric for some pupusas when he felt a pair—or several pairs—of eyes on them.

“Uh...” Eric said and pointed. Jack turned and groaned.

The entire Habs gang was there, clustered together, smiling right behind them.

“Guys, this is Eric,” Jack said as he sighed and scrubbed his face. “Eric, that’s Poots, Snowy, Tater, Guy, Thirdy, Marty, Ransom, and Holster.”

“Hi, y’all,” Eric said with a shy wave.

“Y’all?” Snowy said. “Wow, you are American with a capital A.”

“Okay, you came and said hello, and now Eric and I would like to continue talking. You can leave.”

“Fine, but if he gets too boring,” Holster said to Eric, “come and sit with us.”

“Leave,” Jack said. He shooed them away and was met with several boos as Eric giggled.

“Nice meeting you,” he called out as they made their way to their table.

The guys waved and laughed, then Poots scampered back, gave his lei to Eric and left again.

“Those your friends?” Eric asked and put the lei aside next to his drink.

“Coworkers, I guess?” Jack said as he saw Tater waving at them maniacally. Jack grinned. “Yeah, they’re my friends.”

“They seem like a fun bunch,” Eric laughed as he waved at Tater.

“They make work fun, that’s for sure. So… do you like hockey?” Jack asked. "I can get tickets for the next Habs game.”

“Can't say I know much about it. I know! Major sin since hockey is God here, but I come from the land of holy football. Still, it might be fun to go watch a game together.”

“Watch a game together?” Jack was confused. It then dawned on him what Eric was saying, and he broke into a huge smile. “Yeah, that would be fun but… wow.”

“Wow, what?” Eric asked. “What’s so funny?”

Jack began to chuckle and shook his head.

“What? What's going on?" Eric asked. “Don’t tease me! I don’t like it. What did I do?”

“It's just that, well, I'm… I’m on the team.”

“What team?”

“The Canadiens. You know, the Habs?”

“You’re on the team?" Eric laughed. "Lord! See? I told you I don't know much about it!”

Jack averted his gaze. “No, it's okay. I...”

“What?”

“I really like that,” Jack said softly as he ducked his head to fiddle with his drink.

Jack was so used to people immediately recognizing him, people wanting things from him, taking without asking, that meeting someone who had no idea about his family, his fame, his past—it delighted Jack to no end.

“Oh,” Eric replied just as softly. “Yeah, a game might be fun.”

Eric pulled out his phone, began typing rapidly, then showed it to Jack.

“Look at you!” He had the team website up. “This looks like your mugshot.” Eric laughed. “So serious!”

“I don’t like having my picture taken.” Jack frowned despite being charmed by Eric. “I always end up looking like that! Like I robbed a Burger King.”

Eric laughed. “You're really funny, anyone ever tell you that?”

“No,” Jack said smiling earnestly. “I try, so thanks for noticing.”

“Oh no,” Eric said with a grin. His face was rosy and flushed. Why?

“What?”

“No, nothing.” Eric shook his head then drained his glass then looked down at his phone. He exhaled and continued scrolling through the website. “I just had to set myself straight there… anyway, wish I knew what the heck these numbers meant, but I’m gonna assume it’s all good.”

“Yes, it is, but that’s not important. Listen,” Jack said as Eric put his phone away, “if you want, I can help you.”

“Help me?”

“You know—find all the best parts,” Jack said quickly before he lost his nerve.

“Find all the best parts?”

“In the city.”

“Really? Me and you?”

“Sure. It’ll be fun. A couple of friends hanging out around town.”

“Friends,” Eric said, nose wrinkling slightly.

“Yeah, friends,” Jack said with a tight smile. “Right on.”

Often times, Jack realized he was his own worst enemy. There was no worry in anyone else sabotaging him when he was perfectly capable of doing it to himself, brilliantly.

“I’d like that,” Eric said as he raised his glass to Jack. “To new beginnings, new cities, and new friends.”

“To new friends,” Jack added.

“It’s nice to meet you, Jack.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Eric.”

There's happy hour, and then there's cinq à sept. No other city does after-work drinks quite like Montréal. The cinq à sept offers coworkers a chance to unwind, have a drink, and maybe even make new friends. If you find a bar with a gorgeous terrasse, what else do you need?

Chapter Text

Jack: Did you eat yet?

Eric: I had a late breakfast but I could eat.

Jack: Wilensky’s?

Eric: Will I like it?

Jack: Do you like processed meats?

Eric: Am I from the south?

Jack: Then you Will-ensky! Meat at 12?

Eric: I see what you did there.

Jack: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Jack: :-)

Jack and Eric had begun texting while Jack was on a long roadie. The texts first began as simple inquiries.

Eric: Jack! Someone told me to calm my pom-pom. What the hell does that mean?

Jack: On se calme le pompom?

Eric: Gesundheit!

To more important things:

Eric: If you were a pie, would you be cherry, peach or pecan?

Jack: 3.1415926

Eric: This boy!

Jack: 5358979

Eric: Oh lord!

Jack then began offering his own quips.

Jack: Did you know that there’s over 350 kilometres of bike paths in Montreal?

Eric: OMG! This is amazing.

Jack: Right?

Eric: No I mean it’s amazing that I didn’t realize what a big nerd you were.

The two soon fell into a daily rhythm and were texting all the time, and Jack couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so… giddy.

“So tell us about your boy. The boy you’ve been talking to that has you smiling all the time.” Esther had asked as she gave Jack a cup of tea.

He tore off a piece of freshly baked challah and put it on his plate.

“He’s not my boy,” Jack said as the blush betrayed him. “He’s just a friend.”

Alicia and Esther exchanged a look.

“Hmm. If you say so. So tell us about your friend,” Esther asked again.

“He’s a food writer for Quench and just moved here a few months ago from the states, so I’m showing him around the city. Eric. His name is Eric. He’s really funny and insightful, you know? He just notices everything and can chirp like an NHL pro. We run in the mornings whenever our schedules line up—and he’s fast. Real fast. He likes to eat as much as I do, which is funny because he’s kind of small and could definitely use more protein, but he’ll get there. And can you believe, he doesn’t know anything about hockey?”

Jack paused to take a breath and then realized how much he’d just given away.

“Marry him, Jack. Marry him immediately,” Alicia teased as Esther laughed.

“Maman!” Jack shoved a piece of challah in his mouth so he wouldn’t have to say another word.

“Have you taken him to Wilensky’s, yet?” Alicia asked. “He might like it.”

“No, I haven’t,” Jack replied.

“Share a cherry cola with him,” Esther said with a wink. “Then, who knows?”

Alicia chuckled watching Jack squirm as Bob walked into the kitchen.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “What are we chirping Jack about today?”

“Jacky has a boy,” Esther said. “He sends him texts all the time.”

“And he doesn’t know anything about hockey,” Alicia added looking like the cat that got the cream.

Bob’s face lit up.

“No. No, I don’t have a boy!’ Jack argued. “We’re just friends. Friends.”

“The best relationships start out as friendships,” Esther added with a warm smile.

Jack’s phone, which sat on the table, beeped with an incoming text message. They all stared at it and Jack decided it was the perfect time to take a long, long, long sip of tea.

“Don't spit in the well, Jacky. You might drink from it later,” Esther said as she squeezed Jack’s shoulder.

“Disgusting,” Jack said as he stared at his mug and smiled softly in spite of himself.

And so, Jack stood outside Wilensky’s, on the corner of Fairmount and Clark, waiting for Eric.

His phone rang and he quickly answered thinking it might be him. It was Holster.

“How’s life on the freeway of love?” Holster asked.

“Please don’t ever say that again,” Jack groaned.

“Don’t shoot the messenger.” Holster snickered. “I promised that I would ask you, and I always keep my promises. Besides, I have an entire audience here egging me on.”

“Yeah, well tell your promise maker Eric and I are just friends.”

“With consensual benefits?” Holster replied.

“Mardey’s been rubbing off on you, man.”

Holster laughed. “Jack, just tell him you like him and put yourself out of your misery. You’ve been texting forever, right? Just ask him out already.”

“It hasn’t been forever,” Jack said looking around to make sure Eric wasn’t there. “And like I said, we’re just friends.”

Jack saw Eric round the corner and smile as soon as he saw Jack.

“I gotta go,” Jack said quickly. He heard Holster yell out, “Kiss him!” as he ended the call.

Jack shoved the phone in his back pocket and waved.

“Sorry! Sorry, I’m late. I had to stop at the guichet for some cash,” Eric said as he trotted over toward Jack.

Guichet! Look at you. I’m impressed.”

“I know, right? Using the lingo like a native! I thought you’d approve,” Eric said with a wink.

Jack opened the door for him and swallowed dryly, trying not to read anything into it.

There were two seats available at the counter. Eric sat and looked around, taking it all in as Jack watched.

“Look at that ceiling,” Eric said.

Jack studied the pressed-tin ceiling and smiled. “I love places that still have ceilings like that.”

“What’ll you have?” their waitress asked.

“Can I have two specials? One with Kraft and one with Swiss,” Eric said.

“Pickles? I have sour and half-sour.”

“Ooo, half-sour, please.”

"I’ll have the same,” Jack said, “and can we get two cherry sodas?”

“Water for me, please,” Eric said. “I’m trying to cut back on Coke. Do you want to share one?”

Jack’s eyes grew. “Share?” he finally squeaked out.

“I don’t have cooties or anything, you silly. I just want a sip,” Eric said and took a straw. He looked around some more, turning on his stool. “Wow, this place is awesome.”

“It’s frozen in time in the best possible way, that’s for sure,” Jack said. “They used to have more stuff on the menu, but just a few things now.”

"I was looking at their website," Eric said, face shining with delight. He leaned in and whispered in Jack’s ear, “It says they have tops and bottoms.” He grinned and sat back in his stool. “I thought this was a family establishment, Jack.”

Jack flushed to the tips of his ears as Eric chewed on his straw with a self-satisfied look on his face. Eric wielded innuendo deftly, and lord help him, it made Jack feel things… all sorts of things. Eric spun around on his stool and smiled, as Jack watched.

“Fidget much?” Jack said trying to change the subject.

“Oh, hush,” Eric said and playfully pushed Jack on the shoulder, giving him a quick squeeze on his bicep.

Their food and beverages were placed in front of them; the sandwiches were served on small napkins.

“You just get one at a time,” the waitress said. “Here are your pickles.”

“I just have to say, I love that you don’t let people omit the mustard,” Eric told her. “It’s brilliant. Eat the food like it was intended to be served.”

“Exactly,” she said with a smile. “Salami, bologna, mustard and cheese. No need to mess with perfection. Enjoy!”

“Cheers,” Jack said as he toasted his sandwich to Eric then took a bite.

Eric took a bite and moaned—a moan that was low and husky and quite unexpected. He rolled his eyes and muttered as he chewed, “Lord have mercy, SO GOOD.”

This, of course, immediately caused Jack to snarf a piece of sandwich down his windpipe.

“Oh my god, are you okay?” Eric said as he began to slap Jack’s back vigorously.

Jack nodded and violently coughed some more as tears began to roll down his face. Everyone at the counter turned to look at them.

“Someone save him!” a voice called out. “He has a game tomorrow!”

Eric grinned as Jack gave them a thumbs up and exhaled raspily.

“Here you go,” the waitress said as she gave Jack a small cup of water.

“Thanks,” he huffed out.

He shakily gulped it down.

“You okay there, champ?” Eric said casually stroking Jack’s back. “I don’t want all of Montréal hating me if you die here."

“I’m okay,” Jack said, finally able to talk. God, could he be goofier? One moan from Eric and he was practically choking to death.

Eric grinned and slid a pickle over. “Here. Eat this and try not to choke.”

“Don’t chirp me when I almost died, Bittle.”

“Bittle!” Eric’s eyebrows flew up as he grinned. “Must be serious if you’re Bittle-ing me. You’re fine, big fella. You survived.”

Jack then noticed the man at the grill smiling at them as he gave Jack a look of approval.

“Is your dad going to come by again someday?” he asked. “Tell him we miss him!”

“Yeah, I’ll tell him,” Jack said with a shy smile.

“Your dad?” Eric asked.

“Uh, yeah… he’s sort of famous around here?”

“Here?”

“Yes. Here, there… euh, everywhere,” Jack said sheepishly.

“Bad Bob Zimmermann is a goddamn legend, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise,” a man two stools over yelled.

“Bad Bob Zimmermann? He sounds like a wrestler,” Eric said and took a big bite of his sandwich. “Wait... Hold on! Oh my god! I have heard of your dad.”

Eric began to laugh, a laugh so infectious, Jack soon joined him.

“My mama has a big ol’ crush on your daddy.”

“Ew! What?” Jack replied which caused Eric to laugh even harder.

“Mama and Aunt Judy were going on and on about him one time when they were talking about teenage crushes. And Bad Bob Zimmermann definitely came up! They called him, and I quote, ‘a total dish.’”

“I have a hard time wrapping my head around papa being anyone’s dish,” Jack said with a moue.

“Their big old platter of poutine, their sugar pie, their piping hot steamé!” Eric said while he poked Jack in the side.

“Stop,” Jack said as he wrinkled his nose and laughed at the same time. He let out a hearty snort, which caused Eric to squeak.

“Did you just snort?” he asked, holding back a laugh.

“No!”

Le snort?” Eric said through his giggles.

Non,” Jack replied as he began to snicker.

“You are too much, Jack Zimmermann.”

When their attack of the giggles finally died down—especially after they began to get dirty looks from their counter neighbors—they ate in companionable silence, occasionally nodding at one another.

The waitress finally slipped them their bill and they both immediately reached for it—their hands grabbing the other’s.

“You always pay. Let me, please?” Eric said.

Jack pulled his hand away slowly. “Okay.”

Eric handed the waitress his cash. “This one here? A millionaire hockey star and he’s making me foot the bill.”

She laughed when Jack squawked, “Hey!”

Eric chuckled and patted Jack’s hand. It occurred to Jack that he found himself looking for those small touches, putting himself in Eric’s path, somehow.

After they’d paid, Eric walked up to the enormous bookcase of used books and CDs for sale.

“Mind if I look?” he asked Jack.

“No, go right ahead.”

Jack picked up an old dog-eared Stephen King paperback and watched as Eric ran his hand across the books’ spines. Jack followed the movement of Eric's fingers.

“This is so cool,” Eric said. He then paused to look at the labeled photos of frequent Wilensky’s visitors taped above the bookcase. “Hey! Bad Bob Zimmermann!” Eric said with delight and pointed at an old photo of Bob.

Jack leaned in. It was a photo of his father holding up a sandwich in one hand and giving a thumbs up with the other. He couldn’t have been more than 25 in that photo; full of piss and vinegar. Younger than Jack was now.

“Yeah, that's him. He doesn't come as often as he used to—cholesterol—but when he was younger he was here all the time.”

“Lord, he looks just like you.” Eric gingerly touched the photo. “Guess Mama and Aunt Judy were right.”

Jack paused at the underlying implication there and remembered what Bubbe Esther said. Could there be more than friendship? Should he risk their friendship and let Eric know how he was feeling?

“Do you have to be anywhere?” Jack asked.

Eric shook his head. “I have an article due tomorrow, but I still have time. It's done, just editing. How come?”

“Want to go for some coffee?”

Eric smiled. “Sure.”

They made their way to a small coffee shop across the street; their arms continually bumping into one another as they walked.

“What do you want?” Jack asked. “On me.”

“Seems only fair since I paid for lunch, you cheapskate,” Eric said as he studied the pastries in the case. Jack could see he was struggling to keep from smiling. Eric then bumped Jack’s hip with his own. “I believe that’s what one calls a check—for those of you that aren’t familiar with hockey speak.”

Jack stepped aside. “I had no idea you such a goon, Bittle.”

Eric grinned as he walked to the register to place his order.

“Mr. Zimmermann,” he purred, “my depths are hidden and spectacular.”

That’s when Jack realized he was in trouble. Big trouble. Oh boy.

+

They sat on a bench on the sidewalk just across the street from the cafe. Jack pulled his snapback down lower to avoid being recognized, hoping his vintage Expos t-shirt would serve as camouflage.

Eric reached into the small paper bag and pulled out a cannoli. He eagerly took a bite.

“How is it?” Jack asked.

“Good. There’s something in there,” Eric paused mid-chew then continued, “that I can’t quite place, but it’s good.”

“Are you one of those supertasters I’ve read about?” Jack blew on his coffee and took a small sip.

“No, I just know my bakes. I’ll have you know I’m an excellent baker.”

“I know. You’ve mentioned it a couple times. You know, like fifty or so. ‘They call this an apple pie, Jack?’” Jack said in a terrible Southern accent. “‘Jack, this tiramisu is a travesty, bless their hearts!’ ‘My sugar pie is better, Jack!’”

“One, I do not sound like that.” Eric pouted as he poorly hid a smile beneath it. “And two, anyhoo, like I was saying, I’ve been baking since I was five. My MooMaw taught me everything I know.”

“Show me a picture of her,” Jack said. “Of your MooMaw.”

“Mmm, okay. Hold on.” Eric put his coffee down on the bench, handed Jack his cannoli, and licked his fingers. “Don’t eat it.”

“Promise,” Jack smiled.

Eric looked at his phone, scrolled for a bit then showed Jack his screen. It was a photo of Eric gardening with a tiny woman wearing a large sunhat. They were both on their knees, wearing gardening gloves. MooMaw had a huge cauliflower in her hands. She had the same enormous brown eyes and open, carefree expression as Eric. Jack swallowed dryly when he took in Eric’s tiny shorts and tight-fitting tank top.

“That’s a cute photo,” Jack said trying to sound neutral.

“Yeah, I love her. That garden is her pride and joy. Her house was one of the few places I felt like I could really be myself…” Eric’s gaze became sadder the longer he looked at the photo.

“What about home?” Jack asked.

Eric shrugged as he put his phone away.

“It had its ups and downs. I have a good relationship with mama and Coach now--”

“Coach?”

“My dad. Local football coach and legend. It took him a while to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be one of his macho football boys—a good ol’ boy—but we got there. You know how it is being the son of a legend.”

Jack nodded. Yes, he absolutely knew what that was like.

“In the meantime, I had MooMaw. MooMaw who never missed a play, a skating competition, a baking lesson.”

“Skating competition?”

Eric smiled and took his cannoli back from Jack. Their fingers grazed softly.

“That, my friend, is a story for another day. She’s the main thing I miss about moving here, you know?”

“I bet,” Jack said as he carefully pressed his knee against Eric’s. “I don’t know what I’d do without being able to see Bubbe all the time.”

“See? You get it.”

Eric didn’t move his knee. Instead, he smiled and gently shoved Jack with his shoulder.

The two remained quiet, just people watching until Jack spoke.

“I’m going out of town tomorrow morning, but I’m back next week. Would you like to come see a game when we’re back home?”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You can meet the rest of the team—and Mardey—and finally be properly indoctrinated.”

“You mean today was just hockey proselytization in disguise?”

“Yes, did it work?”

“I feel so used.”

“Are you a convert?”

Eric looked up at him. His eyes swept across Jack’s face intensely and then broke his gaze.

“Hmm, too soon to tell.” Eric bit his bottom lip, and let it go. “Guess I’ll have a better idea after the game.”

Jack smiled. “Good. I’ll wait.”

On a quiet corner in Montréal's Mile End, you can find a sandwich that is unassuming yet anything but forgettable. At Wilensky's Light Lunch, the Wilensky Special is there waiting for you. A sandwich decades in the making, grill man, Paul Scheffer will create a Wilensky's Special for you. The all-beef salami and bologna beauty features a kaiser roll pressed flat giving the sandwich a wonderful crunch. The tang of the meat, the melty cheese... it's bliss. Wash it down with a cherry soda and just don't skip the mustard—and don't even think about asking for it cut in half. Ever.

Chapter Text

Crisse, what are you wearing?”

Eric looked down at his t-shirt.

“What? What's wrong with it? You like it? I found it at Renaissance,” Eric said as he pulled at his Maple Leafs shirt.

“You can’t wear that here. You'll get murdered,” Jack said. He quickly pulled Eric into his apartment and closed the door.

“Where? Your apartment?”

“No, here—Montréal!”

“Oh please! It's still Canada. What's the big deal?”

Jack shook his head. “The big deal is I don't want American blood on my hands. Montréal doesn't care what the R.O.C. is doing, only what Montréal is doing. Hold on. I'll be right back.”

Jack could hear Eric laugh as he ran to his bedroom and rummaged through his drawers. He pulled out a well-worn and loved Habs t-shirt. It was the first t-shirt he received after he was signed to the team.

“Here,” he said as he returned and found Eric sitting on the couch.

He tossed it to Eric, who in turn held it up. “I can't wear this. It's huge!”

Eric tossed it back to Jack.

Marde. Okay, fine. I’ll buy you a t-shirt when we get to Centre Bell.”

“I'm perfectly capable of buying my own t-shirt, thank you very much.”

Jack eyeballed Eric’s Leafs t-shirt. “Obviously, you’re not.”

“Oh, you’re exaggerating,” Eric said with a dismissive wave.

Jack sighed. “We're going to get our asses kicked at home ice, and I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Eric smirked as he took a fishing magazine from the coffee table and began to leaf through it. “It’ll be fine. Lord, what am I looking at here?”

Jack smiled, in spite of himself. “Let me just finish getting my bag together and we can go. Make yourself comfortable.”

Eric gave him a salute.

“You know I'm just gonna nose around your kitchen, right?” he called out as Jack left the room.

“I figured!”

Jack put the t-shirt back in the drawer and caught his reflection in the mirror. He was smiling. He looked flushed and happy. Shit. It occurred to him that his huge crush on Eric wasn’t going anywhere. He thought it might be okay and he’d get over it, and honestly, the way his stomach was so squirrely every time he was near Eric, Jack thought maybe it was indigestion. This was very inconvenient, to say the least.

For starters, he had no clue if Eric felt the same way. Sure, there were glances and touches, but maybe Eric was just naturally flirty. Yes, they’d text each other constantly, but what did that even mean? Jack ran his hands through his hair and exhaled.

Okay, for now, he would just continue on the friendship path and squash any desire he had to kiss Eric (which frankly, was present all the time… inconvenient) deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down. He did not want to spit down that well. Wait, or did he? Now he wasn’t sure which one was the good one. Damn metaphor had Jack all confused.

“Just act normal,” Jack told himself as a bead of sweat ran down his temple. “‘Chyeah, right. Tabarnak.”

When Jack returned, he found Eric looking at his photos on the bookshelves. He held up Jack’s bar mitzvah photo.

“Look at you! The day you became a man,” Eric said as he grinned. “Aw, you’re so cute.”

“God, don’t look at that,” Jack said.

“Come on, if you didn’t want people to look at it, you wouldn’t have it up here on display for the world to see.”

Jack grimaced. He got closer and peered over Eric’s shoulder. He could smell Eric’s soap or shampoo or whatever; an intoxicating concoction of vanilla, fresh linens, and pine. Jack scrubbed his face and exhaled.

“I was going through my awkward phase.”

Jack studied the 13-year-old Jack in the photo—all shaggy hair and a floppy smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. His yarmulke just barely visible in the photo; his tallit slightly askew around his shoulders.

“Awkward? No. You were just a shy little boy,” Eric said.

“Technically, a shy little man,” Jack said with a grin.

Eric smiled softly. “Look at your little suit.”

“I look like I could offer someone good interest rates on a bank loan.”

“Hush, you. You’re adorable, and I guarantee you, I would have had a crush on you. Of course, I was eight at the time, so maybe not right then and there—but 13-year-old me would have been into 13-year-old you.”

Jack coughed a little and watched Eric squirm with delight.

“That’s Bubbe Esther, right?”

“Yeah, that’s her, and that’s my mom.”

“Your mom is so pretty,” Eric said. “You have her eyes.”

Jack smiled then remembered how that day actually went. “They butted heads so much that day.”

“Why?” Eric asked with a frown.

Jack took the picture from Eric’s hand and sighed.

“They each had their own idea of how they wanted the day to go. Bubbe finally told maman she really didn't have a say in the day and things got pretty tense. Hence the constipated expression on my face.”

“How come?” Eric said turning to look at Jack.

“She's Irish Catholic… my mom. Or was, I guess. She’s from the U.S., too. Born in Boston.”

“Oh. Do they not get along?”

Jack shook his head and put the frame back on the shelf.

“No, no, they totally do—it’s just that back then, once in a while…” Jack shrugged. “Head butts.”

“That stinks. And you and your poor dad were stuck in the middle, huh?”

Jack stroked the picture frame and recalled the tension of that day. Maman wanted something more low-key while Bubbe wanted to go all out—neither one asking Jack what he wanted.

“Bubbe loves maman, she really does. They both have very strong opinions and sometimes they’re equally stubborn about things. In the past it was always interesting navigating the holidays,” Jack said with a shrug.

Eric stroked Jack’s arm. “But everything is okay now?”

“Yes, thankfully. It’s not like maman was active in the Catholic church back then or anything. She’s more active in the synagogue now.”

Jack looked at Eric’s hand and felt that love indigestion again. Jack pulled away slightly.

“I hope you don’t mind getting to Centre Bell so early. The game won't start for another couple of hours, but Mardey said he’ll show you around and watch the game with you.”

“No, it'll be fun. I don't mind. I finally get to meet the infamous Mardey.”

Jack’s phone beeped. He took it out and smiled. “Quand on parle du loup. It’s him wondering if we were still coming. Hold on.”

Jack shot Mardey a quick reply and grinned.

Jack had met Mardey when they attended McGill for undergrad and were both on the hockey team. Jack had been committed to getting his life back on track: school, hockey and that would be that. He hadn’t expected Mardey’s persistent friendship. In him, Jack soon found the brother he never had. Their senior year, Mardey announced he’d be staying at McGill for law school, and when he got a job working for the Habs legal team, their life-long friendship was solidified.

“He’s originally from Boston, too. He and my mom get along so well, Mardey said he’s unofficially a Zimmermann now.”

“Boston, really? Wouldn’t it have been crazy if our paths had crossed when I was at school? It’s not too far from Boston, you know.”

“Where did you go to school?” Jack asked.

“This tiny little school—you’ve probably never heard of it. Samwell University.”

Jack paused. “You went to Samwell?”

“Uh-huh. It’s a liberal arts college about 30 minutes from Boston.”

“No, I know Samwell.”

“You do not!”

“I do! My mother went there,” Jack said stunned. “I almost went there.”

“You did not!” Eric said incredulously.

“Why would I make that up?” Jack said smiling.

“That’s so bizarre! You meet how many people in your lifetime, and then you move to a different country and bam! The mom of one of your closest friends went to the same school as you did. Guess it’s kismet, Jack.”

Eric grinned and booped Jack’s nose.

“Did you just seriously boop my nose, Bittle?”

“Bittle?” Eric laughed. “Wow, must have touched a nerve there.”

Jack leaned in. “It was more like my nose, actually.”

Eric booped his nose again. The two smiled, leaning ever-so-slightly closer toward one another.

“You ready or what?” Eric asked with a teasing voice, their faces a few inches apart. “I have some hockeying to watch.”

The two looked at each other for a moment, then Eric finally stepped away.

“Let’s go, Canadiens! Let’s go!” he began to chant.

“Please don’t call it hockeying when we’re there,” Jack said as he hitched his duffle over his shoulder.

“Pssh! It’s just hockey, Jack. Don’t take it so seriously,” Eric deadpanned as he followed Jack to the front door.

“Can you close the lights?” Jack asked, keys in the lock.

“Excuse me?”

“Close the lights?”

“Do you mean turn them off?”

“I guess, yeah.”

Eric smirked. “Lord, fine.”

+

“Uh, okay, Mr. Zimmermann,” Eric said with a chirpy grin. “Excuse you! You did not tell me your gigantic modelesque mug was going to greet us here.”

The two stood in front of the enormous mural at the main entrance of Centre Bell which featured Jack, Tater, Pricey, and Thirdy. The arena was oddly quiet, only a few people making their way to and fro as concession stand workers began to set up shop.

“Haha,” Jack said uncomfortably while Eric posed for a selfie in front of it. “It’s not a big deal. You, euh, don’t have to pose with it.”

“The hell, you say,” Eric said posing exaggeratedly for another selfie, tongue sticking out throwing out a peace sign. “I bet your face is on a bus, too, huh?”

“The STM fucking loves that beaut of a face,” someone behind them said.

Jack and Eric turned and there stood Mardey, greeting them with arms opened and mustache twitching.

“B.S. Knight, Esquire, at your service,” Mardey said. “Bring it in, Jacko and company. Bring! It! In!”

“Ignore that,” Jack laughed. “Eric, this is my best friend, Mardey. Mardey, this is Eric Bittle.”

"Shitty,” he said.

“Excuse me?” Eric replied.

“Shitty. I told all of these fuckers my name is Shitty, but they went all international with it and it stuck. So now I'm Mardey, as in marde, but you, young squire, can call me Shitty."

“Are--are you sure?” Eric asked, forehead wrinkled.

Mardey threw his head back and laughed. “I like him, Jack. I like him a lot. I see what you mean.”

Va chier, Mardey,” Jack muttered under his breath as Mardey grinned. “So Mardey is going to give you a tour, and then bring you to the locker room a bit later.”

“Sounds fun,” Eric said.

“But first,” Jack said as he leaned in and stage whispered to Mardey, “he needs a new t-shirt. Can you take him to one of the gift shops and get him something? On me?”

“Oh, sweet Mary,” Eric said with an eye roll.

“Why? What’s wrong with what he’s wearing?”

“Show him.” Jack nudged Eric. “Go on.”

Eric sighed and unzipped his hoodie.

“Holy shit!” Mardey roared with laughter as Eric quickly zipped it back up again. “Holy fucking shit, that is amazing. Brah, I think I love you.”

“I still don’t get what the big deal is!” Eric said as he threw his arms up.

“Bitty, you’re from the south, right?”

“Bitty?” Eric said.

“Georgia, maybe?”

Jack and Eric exchanged a glance.

“Yeah…”

“So imagine, if you will, that you’re at a Dawgs game. You got your brew in one hand, a UGA pennant in the other, pile of nachos on your lap, but what’s this? Someone made you show up wearing a Gators’ t-shirt?!”

“Oh… OH!” Eric said as his eyes grew wide with understanding.

“He gets it now, Jackabelle,” Mardey said as he elbowed Jack in the ribs.

“Lord, Shitty. Point me to the gift shop, tout suite,” Eric said zipping up his hoodie a little bit higher.

“I’ll take care of you, Bitty. No worries!”

“Again with the Bitty, what in the world?” Eric said as Shitty flung his arms around his shoulders.

“Don’t worry, Jacko. I’ll take good care of your boy. I’m gonna show him the place: the lounge, the VIP room, the stick room. Unless you wanna do that, show him the stick room...” Shitty said then wagged his eyebrows.

Jack sputtered and looked at Eric who appeared positively confused.

“So, bring him to the locker room in an hour?” Shitty asked innocently.

“Euh, yes. That works.”

“Break a leg, Jack,” Eric called out as Shitty began pulling him away.

“Eric, wait!”

Eric jogged back to Jack, “Yeah?”

“I’ll try to get you a hattie,” Jack said shyly.

“Along with the t-shirt?” Eric asked.

“God, he’s adorable!” Shitty yelled.

+

“You have the little cutie here today, right?” Snowy asked.

“Who told you?” Jack groaned.

“Mardey!” everyone replied in unison.

“That crosseur,” Jack muttered.

He knew that the guys would realize Eric was at the game—he was coming to the locker room after all—but he didn’t think he would have to endure chirping so soon.

“Yes, he’s coming here,” Jack said sounding defeated.

Jack’s phone beeped and he practically dove for it as it sat on the end of the bench.

“Damn, Jack. Show a little restraint and decorum,” Guy said as Thirdy tsked behind him.

Eric: How big of a TV screen does a bar need? Good lord!

Jack: Haha. Are you at Taverne 1909?

Eric: Shitty took me there for a beer and sugar pie. Remind me to make you a decent sugar pie soon.

Jack: Oh, you bake?

Eric: >:(

Jack: Also I want to apologize in advance for whatever the guys are going to say when you get here.

Eric: that makes me nervous Jack! I’m not gonna lie.

Jack: No! Sorry! It’s nothing like that. I just mean they are probably going to be chirping and inappropriate. So sorry.

Eric: Is that all? Pssh! That I can handle. I know my way around a locker room you know.

Jack smiled, and knew that Eric was right. He knew Eric well enough to know that he could hold his own almost anywhere.

Jack: Did you buy a t-shirt yet?

Eric: YES DAD. Sheesh! Also, I met Lardo. She’s the best! <333

Jack: Ouais. She is.

Lardo was Shitty’s partner. They all met their second year at McGill. Like Shitty, Lardo was also from the Boston area. Lardo was the hockey team’s manager and Shitty was gone on her the second they met. She now owned an art gallery in the area. Lardo was a tiny bundle of energy, sarcasm, and honesty that hid a very sweet personality. Eric and Lardo were similar in many ways, so Jack wasn’t surprised that they got along.

Eric: You still want us to come by and say hi? I don’t wanna get in the way of your game routine or anything.

Jack: Please come. Remember, the guys are waiting for you.

Eric: Okay! We’re almost there. See you in a bit. ( ˆ ‿ ˆ )

Jack began to feel a bit nervous. What if the guys chirped Eric so much he’d never want to come to another game? What if Jack lost? What if Eric ended up hating hockey? He pulled his socks over the shin guards and sat, waiting for Eric.

“It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry. We’ll behave for your chum,” Marty said as he clapped Jack on the back.

“He’s just a friend, so please don’t say anything… weird,” Jack pleaded with everyone.

“Just a friend?” Poots asked.

“Yes, a friend,” Jack said once again.

“Joy killer!’ Holster called out. “Ransom, you hearing this shit?”

Ransom shook his head. “It’s like you don’t even care about us, Jack.”

“Knock! Knock!” Shitty called out. “Cover up, you hosers. We have visitors so say hello,”

Eric and Lardo walked in behind him.

“I swear to god, if I step on anyone’s loogies, there will be hell to pay,” Lardo shouted.

“Hey, Lardo!” Holster called out as he gave her a fist bump.

Eric smiled shyly when Tater quickly approached.

“E! Is good to see you again.”

“Tater, right? Yes, nice to see you.”

“And, by the by,” Shitty said, “his name is Bitty now. Eric is dead, long live Bitty.”

“Really?” Eric asked as everyone yelled out, “LONG LIVE BITTY!”

The team gathered near Eric saying hello, asking questions, and Jack began to panic wondering if Eric would feel like he’s under a microscope. Eric finally made his way to Jack.

“Hey,” he said softly.

“Hey, you survived,” Jack said.

“Was I meant not to?” Eric teased. “And lord, are they serious with this Bitty business?”

Jack laughed. “Yeah, I think they are. That means you’re part of the team now.”

“I guess I’m flattered?”

“You excited for your first hockey game?” Jack asked.

“Totally! I’m about to try a Centre Bell steamie, so you know.”

“Oh,” Jack said trying not to sound crestfallen.

“Jack, I’m kidding!” Eric said. “Of course, I’m excited to see you play—not just the food I promise. Now, will you promise me something?”

“Anything.”

“Promise to win.”

Ouais,” Jack said with a smile. “I can do that.”

“See you when you’re done,” Eric smiled shyly. “‘Cause, you’re my ride home and all.”

Jack laughed. “See you.”

+

Jack quickly looked over his shoulder and saw Mardey, Lardo, and Eric watching him intently jumping up and down pressed against the glass. Jack skated quickly to help Poots who was battling in the corner. When the Jets D-man flubbed the puck into his own skates, Jack quickly seized the opportunity. He spun around and shot the puck which flew straight in between the goalie’s legs. The goal sirens shrieked as the crowd exploded into cheers, and Jack’s celly extended all the way to the glass in front of Eric who screamed and cheered as he watched him, eyes shining brightly.

The Habs beat the Jets that night, six to one—thanks to Jack’s two assists and hattie.

There are as many opinions on who has the best steamé as there are on who is the best hockey player ever. This Quebec classic is a steamed hot dog lovingly encased in a pillowy bun. The opinions are the same, however, it that it should be ordered all-dressed just as nature intended. Topped with a vinegary coleslaw, relish, mustard, and chopped onions, the steamé is a regional classic that doesn’t disappoint. Some people pledge allegiance to Gibeau Orange Julep, while others still swear by Chien Chaud Victoire. Oddly enough, hockey and the steamé come together to create a perfect celly at Centre Bell, not so much for its taste but for the overall experience. A beer in one hand, a Centre Bell steamie in the other, while watching the beloved Canadiens play—what could be better?

Chapter Text

“Am I dead? I think I'm dead.”

“You're not dead, Bittle.”

“You don't know my life, Jack Laurent Zimmermann!”

Jack smiled as he settled deeper into his couch to enjoy his phone call with Eric. He was off for the next couple days after a grueling set of back-to-backs (which Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge won, thank you very much.)

Eric had sent him a message just before he got on the ice...

Promise me something, Eric had texted.

Anything, Jack replied.

Promise to win.

Ouais :)

Ever since that first “promise” worked so well at Eric's first game, Jack had cajoled Eric to text him before he got on the ice. Jack knew it was just an excuse to have Eric message him prior to a game (“You don’t mess with routine, Eric.”) but he didn’t care. He really loved getting those pre-game texts.

Now that Jack was back at home, all he wanted was to rest on his couch, eat chicken tenders, and watch The Rocket for the umpteenth time before heading back to the gym and all-things-hockey tomorrow, but then, something occurred. It started last week while Jack and Eric were at the cineplex watching some god-awful romantic comedy that Eric had picked.

(“Is this supposed to be romantic, Bittle?”

“Not everyone considers chirping to be the same thing as a romantic overture, Jack.”)

Eric complained of a headache that wouldn’t go away and gradually became worse.

“Are you sure it’s not brain freeze?” Jack had asked. “You’re drinking that Sloche pretty fast.”

“No, it’s definitely a headache-headache.”

After the movie, Eric had to cancel their dinner reservations and went straight home. This was unlike him as Eric never canceled plans. Their weekly dinners were always a highlight of Jack's week.

Eric: It’s been two days and this dang headache won’t go away. AND I HATE THE COLD.

Jack frowned as he typed out his response.

Jack: I hate to break to you, bud, but if that’s true you moved to the wrong place.

Eric: If it wasn't for those damn tunnels, I would never leave my house. I've moved to Montreal... to become a hobbit!!!

Jack: A hobbit? Be nice. You'd never leave your place if it wasn't for the RÉSO.

Jack: Besides! It’s not even that cold yet.

Eric: You’re part yeti. you feel the cold differently than non yeti folk.

Eric: Seriously though I feel like im going to get something nasty.

Jack: Drink plenty of fluids. Get some vitamin C and D.

After a few days, Eric’s headache turned into body aches and pains which opened the door for a fever and now, there they were.

“It's a cold,” Jack teased.

“You know,” Eric’s voice sounded husky over the phone, “I read a dang pros and cons of Montréal list before I came here. The plague was not listed under the cons!”

“Haha.”

“I’m glad I could be here to amuse you, bless your heart. My head is killing me, my bones ache, I’m shivering non-stop.”

Jack rolled over onto his side and placed a throw pillow between his legs. “Maybe it's the flu and not a cold?”

“Or maybe I died!” Eric cried out. "People won't find out until days later when the stink is too much for the neighbors to bear. ‘There goes that sweet little American,’ they’ll say. ‘He leaves behind a lot of bakeware and a cute three-and-a-half.’"

"You're not dying."

"Fine," Eric sighed wearily. "I'm not dying, but it feels like it. I miss my MooMaw and her chicken soup."

"Bittle, I can practically hear your pout.”

“Dying…”

“Remember, plenty of fluids."

"Uh-huh. I’m going to crawl back into bed and shuffle off this mortal coil. See ya never, piehole.”

+

“Who is it?” Eric said from the other side of his door, barely a whisper.

He sounded so small.

“The Grim Reaper,” Jack said.

He had his hood pulled down low for comedic effect. The door cracked open, and Jack’s heart clenched when he saw how terrible Eric looked.

“What are you doing here?” Eric croaked out.

“You’re obviously on death’s door and have no one to take care of you. So...” Jack shrugged as he pulled his hood back down

Eric smiled weakly and opened the door all the way. “Mr. Reaper. Come in, I've been expecting you.”

Jack, ladened with shopping bags, followed Eric into the apartment.

Eric hugged a box of tissues to his chest and dragged a huge blanket on the floor behind him. He plopped himself onto his couch, pulled the blanket up high, and closed his eyes. A visible shiver ran through his body.

“I gotta say, bud, you do not look good at all,” Jack said as he placed the bags on the kitchen table and began to unpack them.

“You don’t say,” Eric mumbled. He peered over at Jack who was putting things away in the fridge. “I don’t want you to get sick. You have some games coming up."

Eric curled up into a tight fetal position as Jack returned to the living room.

“You’re not contagious anymore, it’s fine."

Jack turned on the television and put on some cartoons; an old episode of Totally Spies was on.

"Here, take this,” Jack said offering Eric some flu medicine.

Eric swallowed it down a grimace and settled back on his pillow as Jack tucked Eric's blanket tighter at the sides.

“Thanks, Jack,” Eric said as his eyes began to flutter shut.

"Of course," Jack replied with a smile.

 

When Eric woke a few hours later, he found Jack sitting on the floor with his back against the couch, watching tape on his laptop and drinking tea.

“Hey, mister,” Eric said quietly.

“You’re awake,” Jack said. He closed his laptop and turned fully to look at Eric. “How are you feeling? You ready to caller l’orignal?”

“Huh?” Eric said as he sat up slowly.

“Nothing, just a funny way to ask if you’re going to throw up.”

“Heh. No, thank god. What does it mean?”

“It means you’re going to imitate a moose, you know, bellowing like a moose.”

Jack made a funny dry heave noise.

“That’s goofy,” Eric said with a sleepy grin.

“Yeah, it totally is.” Jack smiled softly and placed his laptop on the coffee table.

He leaned over and put his hand across Eric's forehead.

"Still warm. Do you have a thermometer?"

Eric closed his eyes. "Bathroom cabinet."

Jack nodded and made his way to Eric's bathroom. Eric's three-and-a-half was a perfect reflection of who he was: everything was sweet and cozy—right down to his bathroom; the walls a sunny yellow. Eric's toothbrush sat in a mug that had rabbits on it. Jack smiled at the two rabbits frolicking. He opened the medicine cabinet and found the thermometer.

"Have you used it yet?” Jack called out to Eric. “Do I need to clean it?"

"No, the bathroom seemed too far away for that nonsense."

Jack returned to the living room and knelt in front of Eric.

"Open."

Eric looked up at Jack through lowered lashes, licked his lips once, and slowly opened his mouth.

Jack stared at Eric's wet pink lips, the flush on his face, and suddenly his thoughts began to wander. He frowned as he forced himself to concentrate on the matter at hand and noticed Eric studying him.

"Well?" Eric asked, a shit-eating grin appeared on his face.

"Right. I was just… figuring out how to turn it on," he fibbed.

"Honey, that'll never be a problem."

"What?"

"Nothing,” Eric grinned.

Jack placed the thermometer in Eric's mouth, whose face still smiling, in spite of how sick he was.

Jack looked at the floor to avoid Eric's gaze at all costs. He could feel the weight of Eric's eyes on him but was afraid to look up lest he is swallowed whole by their depths. Jack knew how painfully corny that sounded—even in his head—but he couldn't help it.

After a bit, the thermometer beeped.

"38.0°."

"38.0°? In American, please!"

Jack smiled. "You have to learn how to adapt, Bits."

Eric stuck his tongue out and Jack chuckled.

"Let's see. Subtract 32, add pi, multiply by five, divide by nine, carry the one…" Jack counted on his fingers as Eric chuckled. "About 100.4°."

"Show off."

"Haha. You like it."

Eric gave Jack a tiny smile. "Maybe."

That maybe sent Jack in a temporary tiny tizzy. He finally got his wits about him and asked, “You feeling up to having some soup?”

“Yeah, I think I could eat a little something.”

“Great. I got you some chicken soup from Snowdon.”

“You got me chicken soup? Jack… I thought you were just going to make me some ramen or something,” Eric said. “That’s so sweet.”

“Bittle, I keep telling you you need more protein. This is just a ruse to get you some.”

Jack ruffled Eric's hair much to Eric's chagrin. He then went to the kitchen and took out a small saucepan from the cupboard.

As the soup began to warm up, Jack plated the sandwich and pickle he also picked up at Snowdon. He’d been so busy that afternoon, he hadn’t realized how hungry he was.

He looked over and saw the back of Eric’s head just poking out from the sofa again.

“What are you doing?” Eric asked.

“Heating up your soup. It’s almost ready.”

“You really are full service, aren’t you?”

Ouais.”

After a few minutes, Jack sat a steaming bowl of soup, and his sandwich, on the coffee table.

“Here you go. We take our deli very seriously here, so trust me… this is good.”

Eric picked up his bowl and closed his eyes as he inhaled deeply. He sipped it slowly and smiled.

“Yep, that’s the stuff. Not as good as MooMaw's, but it'll do," Eric said with a wink.

Jack grinned and he took a bite of his sandwich.

“And what do you have there? Yours smells amazing,” Eric asked.

“Slices of smoked meat, rye bread, mustard. Want a bite?”

“No... I don't think I should have that much solid food yet but it looks really good.”

“You need more protein, Bittle.”

“Stick a sock in it, mister,” Eric said as Jack smirked.

“Are you always so sassy when you're sick?”

“Bless your heart, Zimmermann,” Eric deadpanned.

Jack’s laughter echoed through the apartment.

“All right, bud, finish up your soup and I’ll get you another dose of medicine. And drink that,” Jack said as he pointed to the steel water bottle on the table.

“What is it?” Eric asked as he brought it to his mouth.

“It’s like Gatorade, but better. Go on, drink the pink.”

"Drink the pink? You sound like a spokesperson."

Jack's blush gave it away as Eric grinned.

"Oh my lord, I'm gonna have to see those ads!"

"Aren't you too sick to be chirping? Drink!"

“Gosh, you’re bossy.”

Jack smiled. “Coming from you, that’s really saying something.”

Eric looked at Jack, and took the Tylenol he offered from his hands. “Thank you.”

“Sure. No problem.”

“No, I mean… thank you. Really.”

Jack nodded and blushed. He then walked to the kitchen to put the plates in the sink.

“Do you want to watch a movie?” Eric asked from the couch.

Jack returned with a plate of mohn cookies from the deli.

“Sure.”

“But, don’t sit on the floor, that’s not comfortable. Come on, let’s pull out the sofa bed.”

“Oh… euh…” Jack said as the weight of what Eric proposed hit him.

“You said it yourself, I’m not contagious. Come on. Let’s get comfy, I’m dead tired.”

Eric pulled himself off the couch and began to remove the cushions. Jack opened the sofa bed and stood there silently hoping he didn't look as awkward as he felt.

“I’m going to get some pillows from my bed,” Eric said.

Jack stared at the sofa bed, wondering if this was the best idea. Not that he thought anything would happen—of course not, Eric was sick and as far as he was concerned, Jack was a friend and nothing more. At that point, Jack was more worried about his own emotional well-being. Could his poor heart deal with that much closeness, that much pining?

Eric shuffled back into the room, wearing a different set of pajamas. The back of his hair stuck up in a cluster of cowlicks. He climbed into bed and pulled up his blanket.

“Well, come on. I won’t bite,” he said to Jack looking slightly annoyed.

Jack swallowed dryly and climbed in.

“Did I mention how much I freaking love this blanket. It’s an Ugg blanket,” Eric said as he sighed. “Best money I ever spent.”

Jack noticed the stuffed rabbit now placed firmly under Eric’s cheek His lips quirked into a smile.

“Who is that?” he asked.

“Bun.”

“Bun?”

“Uh-huh.”

Salut, lapin. Je m'appelle Jack.”

“He says likewise, now shush and pick a movie,” Eric said with a yawn.

Jack scrolled through the Netflix menu and grinned.

“Here we go.”

“The Rocket?”

“You’ve never seen it?”

“Okay, well, right off the bat I can see it’s a hockey movie, so no—I’ve never seen it.”

“It’s about Maurice Richard.”

Eric had a blank look on his face.

“You know, The Rocket? Legendary right winger for Le Club de Hockey Canadien.”

Eric blinked a couple of times.

“My team? The Habs?” Jack laughed. “Hockeying?”

Eric waved at the television. “Well put it on, Mr. Zimmermann. By all means.”

“Want some tea to go with our cookies?”

“What kind of cookies?”

“Mohn cookies. They have lemon and poppyseed.”

“In a bit…” Eric said, voice sounding groggier by the minute.

“They’re really good with tea. I used to make them with Bubbe when I was a kid. I would zest the lemons and I just remember how sharp and sweet the kitchen would smell.”

Jack smiled to himself as he remembered cutting the shapes out on the dough, putting them on the baking sheet—oh so carefully. There, in his Bubbe’s kitchen, he was just Jacky without anxiety or pressure or anything else. Just eating cookies and feeling at peace.

“Then we’d watch old movies while they were baking in the oven.”

He turned to look at Eric who was watching him, a soft look on his face.

“We’ll have to bake some together when you’re feeling better,” Jack said.

“I’d like that, Jack.”

Jack looked at Eric and knew he was way in over his head. Part of him felt that perhaps Eric also felt the same way. Could he risk their friendship? He was thinking that maybe it wasn’t a risk at all, but the next logical step in their relationship—a relationship he truly cherished.

"Maybe I'll start my vlog again and we can bake mohn cookies."

"Your vlog?"

"Uh-huh." Eric turned on his side to face Jack as he hugged his pillow. "When I was in high school, I had a food blog. I'd talk about different recipes and would bake."

"That sounds… scary?"

Eric smiled. "I mean, it could be but I loved it. By the time I got to college, it was almost a confessional vlog. After I graduated, I did it less and less until one day, I stopped."

"Why?"

"I don't know. Maybe I felt like it was time for me to move on? Like I should have outgrown it by then. It seemed silly, maybe?"

"Your words are saying one thing but your tone is saying another."

Eric gave him a rueful smile and shrugged.

"Sounds like you miss it, and maybe you should start it again,” Jack said. “You don't have to stop doing something you enjoy just because you think you're too 'grown up' now or whatever."

"I know."

"It's exhausting trying to follow people's expectations. Believe me, I know. It's good to do things for yourself, Bittle."

"Look at you, being all sage and junk."

"Vlog about all the best parts of Montréal," Jack said with a chirpy expression.

"Maybe," Eric said with a sleepy smile. "Maybe."

"Okay, shh. We're missing The Rocket."

Jack smiled and turned to watch the movie. He let out a content sigh as he realized there was nowhere he'd rather be in that moment. Eric’s feet shuffled under the blanket and suddenly his toes rested gently on Jack’s calves. Instinctively, Jack placed his hand on Eric's leg.

“Is that him? The Rocket?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh, that actor’s cute.”

“I guess.”

“Jack?”

“Hmm?”

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too, bud. Me too.”

They each fell asleep halfway through the movie, and it was the most solid and peaceful sleep Jack had ever had in this entire life.

The traditional Jewish deli is one that can come in many shapes and forms, whether it is a tiny hole in the wall or a behemoth owned by a Canadian goddess. The main ingredient across the board is the same: comfort. Comfort of soul, comfort of spirit, comfort food... and no one has deli like Montréal. It is here where a sandwich can feel like a hug from home, a cup of soup is akin to saying, "I love you.”

Chapter Text

“Dude, thanks for making time for me. I was beginning to feel like chopped liver,” Mardey said as he and Jack sat at their usual table at Park.

“What are you talking about? We have lunch together once a week.”

Mardey had declared their lunches special unbreakable brah time and as such, Jack and Mardey had a standing reservation at Park every Tuesday at noon provided the team was in town. Every Tuesday after breakfast, taping sticks, team meetings, warmups, and practice, they’d have the biggest sushi lunch their stomachs could possibly hold.

“Hey, did you know that Lardo and Bitty went out the other day?” Mardey asked.

“To the movies, right?”

Jack looked at the menu, though he wasn’t sure why since they always got the same thing. So much so, that their waiter nodded at them and promptly entered their order.

“‘Chyeah and lemme tell you, Lards is thrilled she has a new bestie.”

“I know Eric really likes her. He kept going on and on about her while we were cooking dinner the other night.”

“Oh and yeah, she wanted me to remind you that you both cannot back out of going to the opening tomorrow. She won’t say as much but she’s really glad you two met.” Mardey smacked Jack’s hand with the menu, leaned in and added, “As am I…”

He then wagged his eyebrows.

“What the hell are you doing? What does that mean?”

Their waiter came in and gave them each a cup of green tea and filled their water goblets.

“Thank you,” Jack said.

Once the waiter was gone Jack asked again. “What does that mean?”

Mardey smirked and wagged his brows once more. “It means, my Canadian Adonis, that I can see what that cute little Southern button is doing to your disposition, ands I approves.”

“I don’t know what--”

“Yadda yadda yadda, you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Mardey said as he made some air quotes. “I mean, being in love—or lust or whatever—is doing wonders for your complexion.”

“Love?” sputtered Jack.

Mardey blew on his cup. “I said or lust or whatever, too, but I like what you chose to pick up on.”

Jack quickly took a gulp of tea, and instantly regretted it as the roof of his mouth was painfully scalded.

Mardey sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Jack. Jacko. Jack Laurent Knight Zimmermann.”

“Yes?”

“Do you like him?”

“Of course I like him!”

“Listen to me, and listen carefully, do you like him like him? Check one, yes or no?”

Jack swallowed dryly. There was no way around this any further; he couldn’t ignore what he was feeling.

“Yes, I like him. I like him a lot, Shits.”

“Holy fuck, you called me Shits. Your brain must be totally scrambled! Brah! This is the best news I’ve heard all month. You two boneheads are perfect for each other. You’ve both been dancing around your feelings for months and I’m fucking stoked this is gonna happen.”

“Happen? Months? Mardey, we’re not--I mean, we haven’t even gone out on a date or anything.”

Their edamame arrived and Mardey quickly took a pod and opened it.

“Haven’t you though? You’ve been on like a bazillion dates already. You’re both just too dumb to realize.”

“We’re just friends.”

“You’re totally in love with him! And I am here for it!”

“But--” Jack began to protest.

Mardey’s eyebrow shot up.

Jack thought about waking up next to Eric the time he was sick. How natural it felt. There was no awkwardness about it at all. Eric’s fever had finally broken and when he awoke, he smiled sweetly at Jack. The two stared wordlessly at one another until Jack finally spoke.

“Hey,” he had said.

“Hey,” Eric had replied softly.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like I need a million showers and my teeth feel like they’re wearing fur coats, but other than that, I’m okay.”

“Good. That’s good. You had me worried there.”

“Aw, you were worried about me?”

Jack reached over and brushed Eric’s hair off his forehead.

“Always.”

Eric blushed

“Pancakes?” Jack asked.

“Sounds perfect.”

Jack then made them some pancakes. The two grinned as they ate, neither one really spoke much—but their expressions screamed volumes. And when Jack went home later that morning, he was walking on air the rest of the day. They didn’t talk about Jack sleeping over and what that might mean, but after it happened, Jack felt a shift occur. He noticed they were both flirtier, warmer somehow.

“I don’t... know if it’s love,” Jack said shyly. “Yet,” he quietly amended.

Mardey raised his water goblet. “Here’s to falling in love, and getting off your bodacious hockey ass to do something about it.”

Jack smiled, in spite of himself, and raised his glass as well.

+++

Gallerie L.P. Duan, in the Griffintown district, was an up and coming gallery in the Montréal art scene. Word was if you had a show at Duan's you were moving up in the art world. Of course, it was Mardey who said those words but still.

"If I say it often enough, the universe will make it happen," he simply said.

"Someone from Magazin'Art is supposed to come tonight," Lardo said the night of the opening. “And if they come and think it’s a total shitshow, well then… I can’t think about that right now.”

Lardo had put months of planning into the show. It featured work by an older painter, a woman who started painting in her 50s.

"Her work is tight," Lardo said. "It's like if Ivan Albright and Marion Peck had a baby with a wicked sense of humor. I don’t want her work to be judged harshly because of a fuck up by the gallery."

“It’ll be fine,” Jack said. He studied one of the paintings on the wall. His mouth quirked. “I like these, Lardo. I like these a lot.”

“Right? Her work is amazing.”

Lardo exhaled forcefully; her tousled bangs flew up. She ran her hands through her pixie as she paced back and forth.

"Lardo, honey, do you need any help with anything?" Eric asked. He sat at the front desk, arranging the show’s postcards.

“Thanks, Bitty. When the food comes can you just double-check it? Make sure it's okay?” Lardo asked.

“Sure. Who's doing your catering?”

“Son's Maison. Just some canapes, fruit and cheese. Simple stuff.”

Jack looked at Eric and noticed the microexpression that flickered across his face. Imperceptible to everyone else, but Jack saw it clearly.

“Got it,” Eric said with a bright smile. “Anything else?”

Lardo shook her head. “Shitty should be back soon with the booze if you two wouldn’t mind setting out the wine and stuff. I'm going to go change. Elizabeth should be here soon and I want to be all ready when she comes in.”

“No problem,” Jack and Eric both said in unison.

Once Lardo walked to her office, Jack sidled up to Eric.

“What? What is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I could see it all over your face, Eric,” Jack said.

“Lord, okay.” He lowered his voice. “Everyone I've known who has hired Son’s has had some sort of complaint, either they'd get the wrong thing or not enough. That's why they're so cheap, they're trying to win back clientele. I wish I would have asked Lardo who she was using sooner, I would have told her to steer clear of them.”

Jack frowned. “Maybe it'll be okay?”

“Yeah, maybe they'll get it right this time.”

Just then, Shitty walked in with two cases of wine.

“Hey, it’s two of my most favorite people just casually hanging out being friends,” Shitty said.

“Hey, Shitty!” Eric said.

“Need help?” Jack asked.

“I have three more cases of wine in the car and two cases of sparkling water. Thanks, brah.”

“I'll help.”

Eric followed Jack outside to Shitty’s car parked in front. At that moment the caterer’s van pulled up in front of Shitty’s car.

“Is that for the gallery?” Eric asked the driver.

“Yeah,” he replied.

Eric frowned when he saw that what the driver pulled out of the van looked a bit paltry.

He exchanged a worried glance with Jack who was carrying in cases of wine. They all went back inside the gallery, where Eric took a closer look at the delivery.

“Um… is there more?” he asked.

The driver pulled out the work order and read it over.

“One dozen mushroom crostini, one dozen chicken vol-au-vent, a dozen veggie gyoza, and a small cheese plate. That’s everything.”

“That can’t be right,” Eric muttered.

“What’s wrong?” Shitty asked. He looked at the food which sat on the glass table and his eyes bugged out. “Where’s the rest of it? And are you the bartender?”

The guy shook his head. “Bartender? No, I’m just the driver. That’s everything that was given to me, man. If you have any questions, call the office.”

“What‽” Lardo asked as she entered the gallery again. She was dressed in a pair of black leather pants, a tuxedo jacket, and a white t-shirt. “What’s happening?”

The guy gave the paperwork to Lardo and shrugged. “Like I said, you can call them but they’re going to be closing in a bit so you better make it quick.”

The guy hastily retreated before anyone else asked him another question.

“Are you kidding me? What the hell‽” Lardo reread the order, looking as though she hoped it might somehow change.

“Let me call them,” Eric said as he took the receipt from Lardo and walked to the reception desk. “How much were you supposed to get?”

“Six dozen of each, and the large fruit and cheese plate. I can’t not have food! Or a bartender, I was supposed to have a bartender.” Lardo threw her arms up in surrender. “The person from the magazine is going to be pissed!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll handle this,” Eric said as he picked up the gallery’s phone and dialed the caterer’s number. “You look very pretty, by the way.”

She gave him a watery smile. “Thanks, dude.”

“Hi, your driver just delivered an order to Gallerie L.P. Duan, but there’s a problem with the order.” Eric frowned. “Yeah, I’ll hold.”

He rolled his eyes.

Lardo sat on a chair next to the desk and nervously looked at Eric. He patted her hand, and quickly shot Jack another worried look then pointed with his chin at the table with the cups and napkins. Jack immediately understood.

“Shitty, why don’t we unload the wine and set up the bar?”

“Great idea, Jack.”

Eric smiled at Jack.

“And, euh, I can bartend!”

Eric positively beamed at Jack, and Jack grinned as though he had just won the Loto-Québec.

“Hi, yes! Hello, hi,” Eric said. “I’m calling from Gallerie L.P. Duan, and we just received our order but there’s a problem with it… Yeah, that’s the order but we were supposed to get six dozen of each, and we only got a dozen.”

Lardo jumped out of her seat and rummaged through the reception desk drawers. She pulled out a printed receipt and quickly gave it to Eric. He took a look.

“Well now, I’m looking at my order confirmation and would you look at that, it clearly says six dozen of each—and we were charged for six dozen, plus a bartender. Not one dozen and no bartender.”

Jack and Shitty organized the wine on the table and listened carefully.

“I see, well, we have an event tonight and now we’ll be short food, and mistakes happen, but clearly you are not acknowledging yours nor are you even trying to make amends.” Eric paused and his face began to flush. “Yes, but--well, I have an invoice… could you please let me speak?”

At that point, Shitty, Jack and Lardo surrounded Eric, who was growing more agitated by the second.

“Excuse me! I’m not sure you’re aware that y’all have a reputation—a not so good one—and it seems you are doing every gosh darn thing possible to live up to it. No, I’m not finished. I expect a full refund for this. Yes, sir, a full refund. Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I have to clean up your mess but you will be seeing me on Monday so we can finish sorting all this out. I will stop by, with my confirmation print out, on my way to work at Quench where I am a writer, a writer with plenty of words to write. Good evening!” Eric slammed down the phone and huffed.

“Dang, Bitty,” Lardo said. “Don’t hold back now.”

Shitty began to laugh and clap. “Brah, I’m giving you a superhero name! Southern Justice: fighting food crimes everywhere.”

“Ooo, they were just so rude, and no one messes with my friends!”

“Because you’re a writer with plenty of words to write,” Jack chirped.

He resorted to chirping at that moment because seeing Eric all riled up and fighting for his friends did something to Jack. Yes, it certainly did.

“Hush, you!”

“Dude, are you really going to write something about them?” Lardo asked.

“What? Heavens, no! I’m not that petty. I just wanted to make them sweat a little. They didn’t once even say they were sorry. They made it seem like it was our fault somehow.”

Lardo looked at the trays of food. “Shit… I mean, I guess we can go get some chips and dip.”

Shitty perked up. “I’m on it. Ketchup chips sound good?”

“Shitty Middle Name Knight, we are not going to serve ketchup potato chips at this lovely art opening. Okay, lemme think…” Eric looked at this watch, he pulled out his phone and quickly began tapping away. “Okay, we can do this. Team, assemble!”

Eric typed some more with a steely look of determination. He then looked at Shitty, Jack, and Lardo.

“Jack, you’re on bartending duty. Thanks for volunteering, sweetpea. It should be pretty simple since it’s just wine, beer, and water. Also, there’s a tapas place a few blocks over on Notre-Dame. Go and buy a bunch of whatever they have ready—most likely some curried chicken salad, marinated olives, and a Spanish charcuterie. Make sure they give you plenty of bread. Shitty, I just placed an online order for Sushi Taxi. Go and pick that up. I’m heading to the cheese shop down the street and will be back ASAP. All right, we can do this!”

“What about me?” Lardo asked. “I can do something.”

“No, Lards, you stay here, wait for your artist, and finish getting ready. Don’t worry, I have everything under control. Tonight’s gonna be great, you’ll see.”

Eric smiled sweetly at Lardo and she nodded. She nodded as though she believed him and trusted him 100%. Jack felt so in love with Eric at that moment, he didn’t even know what to do with himself or all those emotions.

Eric turned to look at Jack.

“What? What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?” Eric asked as he rubbed at his nose as if to check if he had anything on it.

“I… uh… what? Tapas? Nothing!”

Eric wrinkled his brow. “Okay, weirdo. Let’s go! We have some food to get ready!”

Shitty elbowed Jack as he walked by. “Nice save there, Jackabelle. You’re so fucking discreet,” he whispered with a snort.

+++

“A red wine, please.”

Jack plastered on a fake smile as he poured what seemed like his one-millionth glass of wine that evening.

“Here you go.”

“Aren’t you Jack Zimmermann?” a man asked with confusion.

“Oh, yeah. Haha,” Jack said as he gave the man his drink. “Um, be sure to buy some art.”

Jack looked up and noticed Eric watching him from across the gallery. He was putting a fresh chunk of brie onto the cheese platter. He smiled and shook his head, then laughed when Jack shot him a thumbs up.

The art opening had a continual stream of people coming and going throughout the night. Most people lingered for quite a while, and every time Lardo put a “sold” dot underneath a painting she would throw Shitty a quick grin.

When the writer from Magazin'Art finally arrived, Lardo and Elizabeth spoke with him at length.

Shitty, Eric, and Jack stood next to one another at the bar watching the entire interaction. (Jack could not leave his post, after all.)

“Look at her,” Shitty said with the biggest heart eyes. “She’s amazing.”

“They’ve been chatting it up for a long time,” Eric said with a smile as he excitedly swatted Shitty’s chest.

“Do you think he’s going to buy a piece?” Jack asked.

“Unfortunately, probably not on a writer’s salary,” Eric said with a sigh as he reached over and took Jack’s wine glass from his hand. He took a sip, then gave it back.

“I’m going to get some more ice from the freezer,” Shitty said. “I shall return!”

Eric surveyed the room and sighed happily. “I’m so glad a lot of paintings have sold.”

“Yeah, it’s nice for them,” Jack said.

Eric was standing so close, Jack could smell what he imagined were all the aromas from the food at the table—a heady mix of salty and sweet.

“You smell so good,” Jack said without thinking.

Eric stilled. “What?”

“Like food,” Jack quickly added. “You--you smell like cheese.”

“I smell like cheese?” Eric laughed. “Ew, gross.”

“No, I mean, I’m starving,” Jack said.

“Me too. I didn’t want to take any of the food just in case we were still short. I had an olive, that’s it,” Eric said.

Shitty came back with the ice bucket full of ice. Right at that moment, Lardo took Elizabeth by the hand and walked to the center of the gallery.

“Attention, everyone, attention,” Lardo said, holding a glass of wine. “I wanted to thank you all for coming this evening and showing your support for Elizabeth Valdes, an amazing local artist.”

Lardo appeared luminous. While she loved creating her own work, her heart was in championing the work of others. Her dedication to the artwork and the creativity of those around her were what drove her. Shitty was positively beaming as Lardo continued.

“Elizabeth’s work is passionately researched, utterly gorgeous, and challenges us with themes of how political power is embodied in archetypal figures, from mother and child to animals of the forest. This is her first show, but I know it won’t be her last and I’m honored that her work is shown here at Gallerie L.P. Duan.”

It was then Elizabeth’s turn to speak. “I’d like to thank Larissa for giving me an opportunity when no one else would. It’s rare for someone to want to take a chance on a new painter, even more so when someone is my age and just starting out—but she did, and I’ll forever be grateful.”

Everyone applauded as Lardo and Elizabeth hugged. Lardo then added, “And thank you to my partner, and my friends, who stepped in when we had a major catering snafu. I love you, guys.”

Shitty wiped a tear from his eye as he blew Lardo a kiss.

“Now everyone, drink up and buy some paintings!” she said.

Eric toasted Lardo and Elizabeth, and whispered to Jack, “Thank god we were able to pull that off.”

“Never had a doubt,” Jack said as he looked directly at Eric. “You’re amazing.”

The two smiled shyly at each other.

“Do you want to go get something to eat when this is done? Just the two of us?”

“Yes,” Eric said, eyes shining. “Absolutely.”

 

Two hours later, Jack was taking the empty bottles to the recycling bin out back as Eric wiped down the food table, and Shitty and Lardo collected empty glasses, cups and various detritus tossing them into garbage bags. It was well past eleven when they were finally done with clean up.

“And that’s that!” Shitty said as he tied off his bag.

“Whew! Well, I’d say the evening was a success,” Eric said as he took a swig from the bottle of wine Lardo offered him.

“How’d you do, babe?” Shitty asked.

“We sold all but five, but the show is up for the rest of the month, so you know—pretty fucking good!” Lardo grinned as Eric returned the bottle.

“I want to buy the rabbit one,” Jack said.

“Jack, you don’t need to buy a painting,” Lardo protested.

“No, I know but I want to. I just really liked that painting,” Jack said.

“It was my favorite, too,” Eric said. “I love that one.”

“So, you want to come get some food with us?” Shitty asked. “Our treat.”

Jack and Eric exchanged glances.

“Um, Jack and I were going to--”

“Say no more, say no more! You two enjoy yourselves and, Jack, call me tomorrow.” Shitty grinned then leaned in and added in Jack’s ear, “With deets.”

Jack covered his eyes and turned bright red as Eric laughed.

“Good night, you two, and thanks again. You’re both lifesavers,” Lardo said as Jack handed Eric his coat.

“Good night,” Jack said.

Eric and Lardo exchanged hugs—and Shitty got in on the act—and soon he and Eric were walking outside.

The streets were starting to quiet down in that part of town and the wind felt extra chilled as they walked toward Jack’s car.

“I’m so hungry, I think I’m going to pass out,” Eric cried as he reached for the passenger side door. Jack got in front of him and opened it.

“Here, let me.”

“Thank you, Jack.”

Jack closed the door and trotted over to his side of the car. He took a deep breath and decided it was now or never. He definitely wanted to let Eric know how he felt, and he’d do it tonight—or die trying.

“So, what are you in the mood for?” Jack asked as he turned on the car and pressed Eric’s seat warmer setting it to high.

“God, is anything open? I’ll eat just about anything, but something greasy and positively sinful sounds amazing right about now.”

Jack smiled. “I know just the place.”

"Will they be open?"

"Yeah, casse-croûtes are usually opened really late."

"Casse-croûte," Eric said, trying to imitate Jack's accent.

"There you go, you got it."

"Not quite, but I appreciate the compliment, you charmer."

The two chatted idly as they made their way to the Plateau neighborhood. Jack smiled as Eric spoke a mile a minute, relaying tidbits from the opening.

“And then this other guy said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the show sold out. Can you imagine?” Eric said while he looked through Jack’s CDs. “Lord, this is like looking through Coach’s collection, I swear.”

Jack shrugged and smirked. “I guess we both have good taste, what can I say?”

“‘Chyeah, right,” Eric chirped back. “You know, Jack, there is such a thing as satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify…”

“You don’t say?” Jack replied.

“So then,” Eric said waving a copy of a Cars CD, “this other woman said that she can’t wait to see the next show at the gallery. Go, Lardo!”

“Is that right?”

“You’re not even listening to me, are you?” Eric said as he put the CD in and skipped to song number three which Eric knew was Jack’s favorite.

Eric began to hum the song and Jack was so happy, he felt like he was going to float away.

When they arrived, the parking gods looked favorably upon them as Jack found a parking space right across the street from Patati Patatá.

“This is it. Have you been here before?” Jack asked as he turned off the car.

“No, I haven’t. It looks so cute!”

They approached the colorful tiny diner and went inside. It was packed despite how late it was. The counter was full with four people sitting there, and both of the small two-seater tables were occupied, but the people sitting at one of them looked at Eric and Jack and signaled that they were getting ready to leave.

“It’s cozy in here,” Eric said as he was shoved against Jack by some people exiting.

“Yeah, and it’s always crowded, but their poutine is good.”

“Well, if you’re recommending it, it must be good.”

At that moment, Eric’s smile was so open, his eyes so warm, Jack let instinct take over. He took Eric’s hand and linked their fingers together. Eric looked at them and then back up at Jack.

“Jack?”

“Is… I--is this okay?”

Eric nodded and a huge smile bloomed on his face. “Yeah. Definitely. More than okay.”

Jack blushed and squeezed Eric’s hand once.

“It’s all yours, man,” one of the guys sitting at the table said as he walked by.

“Come on,” Jack led Eric toward the teeny table, still holding his hand, letting go only to take off their coats.

And just like that, their relationship had changed. It moved to the next stage, and it felt so natural and right, and easy.

Jack was so giddy, he didn’t even know where to begin.

“Are we just going to sit here and smile goofily at each other all night?” Eric asked.

“Haha. No.”

They both grinned as they looked at one another, hands intertwined on top of the table, neither one letting go.

“Poutine?” Jack finally said.

“Yes, please!”

Jack got up and placed their order.

“I got us the cheeseburger platter. It comes with a salad or a side of poutine.”

“Uh, you got the poutine, right?”

“Come on, Bittle. You act as if you don’t even know me.”

Eric grinned. “I'm so hungry I could eat the north end of a south-bound goat.”

Jack laughed. “The what of a what?”

“You’ll learn Southern yet, just you wait.”

“We’ll eat soon.”

“Promise?”

Ouais, promise.”

Jack found himself grinning again and wondered if it was possible to grin too much but frankly, he didn’t give a damn.

Eric looked around and took the diner in.

“I love how cozy it is. Places like these make me so happy.”

“Places like these?”

“Yeah, you know where it’s all about the food and love—no flashy distractions, no twenty-page menus. Just honest cooking, friendly faces, and a small welcoming environment. Like you’re eating at a friend’s house.”

“Have you ever thought about opening your own place?”

“Me? I don’t know… maybe? If I did, it would be a place similar to this. But that’s really a pipe dream that I can’t afford myself letting have.”

“Why not? You would be great, you can do anything.”

“You’re sweet to think so. You almost make me believe it.”

Jack gently stroked the top of Eric’s hand with his index finger and he heard Eric’s breath quietly hitch.

“So, this is new, huh?” Eric said watching Jack’s finger trace patterns on his hand.

“Is it though? Mardey made me realize that it’s really not.”

“No,” Eric blushed. “I guess not.”

“Eric, it took me a while to realize, but--”

Just then their food was placed in front of them.

“How did we get this so fast?” Eric asked.

Jack frowned, his big declaration interrupted.

In front of them were two huge plates, each one with a juicy cheeseburger, grease dripping down the sides, and an enormous pile of poutine, slathered in gravy; cheese curds beginning to wilt just so.

“Oh my lord, look at this,” Eric cried out. “Look at it, Jack! I’m sorry! I’m totally going to inhale this without manners or shame.”

Jack laughed as he picked up his burger.

+

It was almost one in the morning when Eric and Jack walked back to the car.

“Do you want to go home already?” Jack asked, their hands locked together swinging as they walked.

“No, I’m not ready yet.”

“Can I show you something?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Jack turned on the car and Eric’s seat warmer and began to drive.

“Is it far?”

“About ten, fifteen minutes.”

They drove along silently for a few blocks.

“Guess what I did the other day?” Eric asked.

“What?”

“I started a vlog post.”

“Really? That’s great, Eric.”

“Yeah... it was nice, you know? I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started again.”

“Did you post it?”

“Not yet. I’m still tweaking it, but it felt good. I think I’m going to keep doing it and incorporate a lot more recipes and my experiences as a newbie in Montréal.”

“That sounds fun.”

“Just me, the city, and my baking table.”

“We’re here.”

“The park?” Eric asked as Jack pulled into the parking lot at Lac aux Castors.

“Yeah, I wanted to show you the lake. Have you been here before?”

“I haven’t.”

“Come on, bundle up, Bittle. Don’t want you getting sick again.”

The evening was silent and still, and Jack could almost taste the cold air. They walked through the park until they reached the small lake. Eric could see a skating pavilion nearby.

“It’s pretty,” Eric said. His frosty breath shot out into the night air.

“This is where I first learned to ice skate.”

Jack smiled as he looked out onto the lake. Thick patches of ice sat atop the dark waters.

“Up until a few years back, you could actually skate on Lac aux Castors. There wasn’t a rink back then. I remember being about four and my father laughing as he held my hand. It’s just flashes really, bits of memory, but I remember how fun it was—and how much I trusted him and myself. And I fell in love with the ice that day. I remember how safe and free I felt as I glided across it, even as wobbly as I was.”

Eric looked out onto the lake and smiled. “I bet you were so cute.”

Jack took him by the hand. “You make me feel like that. Like the memories of my first skate. You make me laugh, I love spending time with you, and you make me feel safe. Is it weird?”

“No, not at all.”

“It’s not weird how easy this is? Me and you. How natural it all feels? How right it is, even from the start?”

“No,” Eric said, sounding sure of himself and Jack, “I think it was meant to be. You coming into Cheskie’s that day at that particular time. It was meant to be. Always.”

The two turned to face one another completely.

“But you know what is weird?” Eric asked.

Jack shook his head.

“That you haven’t even tried to kiss me, yet.”

Jack smiled as Eric’s eyes fluttered shut the moment Jack cupped his face. Jack wanted to tell him everything— everything he felt, everything he thought, how he could see himself growing old with Eric. He tried to tell him all this, and more, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, he stroked Eric’s cheek with his thumb.

Eric tilted his head back and it’s then, finally then, that Jack leaned down and kissed him; his lips gently touching Eric’s. Once, twice, three times, soft and easy.

“I've been wanting to do that since the snack bar,” Jack said as he pressed his forehead to Eric’s.

“I’ve been wanting you to do that since the gallery,” Eric said with a shaky breath, eyes still closed.

“Look at me, please,” Jack whispered.

Eric’s eyes opened and he smiled shyly at Jack.

“I’m in love with you,” Jack said.

Eric’s wide gaze swept across Jack’s face. He finally spoke.

“Jack,” he said somewhat breathlessly. They kissed again, warm and tender. It could have been for thirty seconds or thirty minutes, Jack wasn't sure. When they parted, Eric smiled.

“I knew you were extra when you stole my babka, but I had no idea,” he chirped sweetly.

“You don’t have to say it--”

“Jack, I love you, too. I’ve been loving you.”

The two began to kiss again and this time, the kiss grew more heated. Eric’s hands dug into Jack’s back, and Jack wrapped his around Eric’s waist. The two pressed greedily into one another until Eric finally broke the kiss.

“Um... you need to get me out of here,” Eric said as he grasped Jack’s jacket tightly, kneading it in his hands.

“Do you want to go to my place?”

Eric pressed several kisses onto Jack’s face then nibbled on his ear and hotly whispered, “Take me home, sweetpea.”

It’s late at night, and you want… something. The casse-croûte is there for you. More than just a cousin to the American greasy spoon, the casse-croûte represents a culture that's distinctly Montréal. Translated as “break crust,” the casse-croûte fills that space of longing, giving you what your heart and soul need when you need it the most with staples such as hamburgers, steamés, and the ubiquitous poutine, lovingly prepared, reminding you of all that is great and good. You know what you want and are ecstatic that it’s there for you, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Chapter Text

Jack fumbled with the keys as he tried opening his door while kissing Eric. The impatient jingle-jangle turned into a clunk when Jack dropped them in favor of being pulled down by the neck for another filthy kiss.

“Inside,” Eric said into Jack’s mouth. “Now.”

Jack took Eric by the shoulders, gently pried him off, and said, “You. Stay right there and let me concentrate on this dumb door.”

He looked at Eric one more time, whose hair was all disheveled and lips kiss-swollen, and dove in for another kiss.

Eric giggled. “Open the door, you moose!”

“Right, okay.”

Jack bent down, picked up the keys, and finally—finally—got the door opened.

He kicked the door shut behind him as the frantic kisses continued while they stumbled into the apartment. Eric crowded Jack against the door and pressed his eager mouth to Jack’s as he unzipped his coat. Jack, in turn, frantically pawed at Eric’s coat, fumbling with the zipper, all the while neither broke their heated kiss.

Jack gave up when the zipper got stuck halfway down and pulled Eric’s coat off him. Eric smiled as he stepped out of his coat. It was fun and sexy, and Jack couldn’t wait to get Eric into bed. And if Eric kissed like he was born to do nothing else, Jack could only imagine how amazing the rest of their evening would be.

“You’re so beautiful,” Jack said as he pressed kisses onto Eric’s neck.

“Take me to your bed, you charmer,” Eric said wrapping his arms around Jack.

Jack lifted Eric and took him to his room, still kissing. The two stumbled into Jack’s bed and smiled as Eric sat up and pulled his sweater off, tossing it into the corner of the room.

“Now you,” Eric said.

Jack stood up at the foot of his bed and unbuttoned his shirt slowly, as Eric knelt in front of him and ran his hand down Jack’s chest.

“I’d like to thank all the gods for rewarding me in this life for being such a good boy,” Eric said, “so that I get to see all this.”

Jack covered his face. “Stop, you’re making me shy.”

“Honey, you have nothing to be shy about.” He pulled Jack’s shirt off his shoulders as he muttered, “Lord have mercy.”

“Pants?” Jack asked softly.

“Yes, please.”

The two made their way back into bed, and Jack pulled Eric on top of him, cupping his face as they kissed. Eric’s soft lips made Jack feel as though they were melting into one another; his scent enveloped Jack in a way that was warm and soothing.

Jack's hands traveled up and down Eric's back, he then gripped Eric's waist and pulled him tightly into his embrace. The two pressed greedily into one another; it was all at once too much and not enough. Eric arched his back and threw his back as Jack pressed open mouth kisses onto his neck and shoulder; the only sounds in the room were of the two of them panting.

And as Jack took them both into his hand and stroked, he couldn’t help but also thank all the gods for bringing them both there. Finally.

+

“The first time I met you, I thought you were a hot jerk.”

The two were in bed, legs intertwined, sheets kicked down low, sated and tired, and completely happy. Eric snuggled deeper into Jack’s embrace.

“Hot jerk,” Jack laughed softly. “Sounds like something you eat.”

“Hmm, I’m definitely open to that,” Eric said as he ran his fingers through Jack’s chest hair. “And well, you are a dish.”

Jack laughed and nuzzled the top of Eric’s head.

“Hot jerk,” Eric smiled, “with your babka demands and stupid gorgeous wolf eyes.”

Eric looked up at Jack, who immediately planted a soft kiss on his lips.

“But then, I got to know you and realized you weren’t just some hot wolf-eyed man. No, you were the sweetest, kindest, biggest nerd I had ever met. You approached everything with this quiet intensity—although sometimes, let’s be real—it’s not so quiet. You make me laugh, and every day you make me feel welcomed and heard.”

The two kissed tenderly.

“You showed me all the best parts of Montréal,” Eric continued, “without realizing that you’re the best part.”

Jack studied Eric’s face, again so open and warm. He sat up, reached over to this nightstand, and pulled something out.

“I want to show you something,” Jack said. “Close your eyes and give me your hand.”

Eric immediately closed them and smiled as he held out his hand.

“Here, open them.”

Eric looked down, and his expression instantly grew soft. It was the origami dog that Eric had given Jack back at the tiki bar all those months ago.

“Jack…”

“I kept this because I knew you were special, and that one day I’d kick myself if I didn’t keep this—or you.”

Eric smiled as he looked at the half-smushed dog.

“Jack Laurent Zimmermann, you are the sweetest, handsomest, silliest boy on this planet, and I love you so much.”

“I love you, too, Bits.”

Eric began kissing him again and Jack sighed between their lips as his world shifted its axis again, in the best possible way. And when Eric sucked Jack's bottom lip into his mouth, Jack felt himself slipping, slipping, slipping into a place where he knew he'd never be able to return from. His heart belonged to Eric forever now; there was no way around it.

+++

“Oh my god, what if she hates me?” Eric said as he walked up the front steps of Bubbe’s home.

“Who could ever hate you?” Jack said simply.

“There have been some misguided souls, Jack, lemme tell you,” Eric said. He looked at the pie dish in his hands. “And I’m bringing a pie to a master baker’s home? Who do I think I am? The hubris!”

The two had officially been a couple for a few weeks now. Jack was walking on air, and everyone on the team—hell, everyone FULL STOP—was chirping him within an inch of his life, and he just couldn’t be bothered to care.

"Zimmboni? Why are you so happy?" Tater had asked.

"Yeah, man," Snowy added. "You were literally whistling a minute ago. Whistling!"

"Maybe," Jack said, "it's because I'm here with all of you jerks."

The locker room fell quiet. Jack stopped lacing his skate and looked up. "What?"

"TABER-FUCKING-NAK!"

Jack blanched when he saw Holster barreling toward him with Ransom close behind.

"Jack Fucking Zimmermann! Did you just get laid‽"

Jack swallowed dryly. "Euh..."

Mardey suddenly jumped out, as though he'd been hiding in the locker room all along, as Jack looked at him bewildered.

"CAN CONFIRM!" he bellowed, his mustache twitching in delight.

The entire locker room erupted in cheers as they threw socks and towels at Jack, who couldn’t help but blush and laugh.

 

The night of the art opening, Jack and Eric stayed up well past dawn, laughing, kissing, exploring one another until they were exhausted. And as the sun came up, each of them sleepy-faced and happy, talked about what it all meant.

“I know you don’t do things half-assed, Monsieur 110%, so I was wondering…”

Jack yawned without shame. “Hmm?”

“Will you be my boyfriend?” Eric said with a yawn louder than Jack’s.

Jack offered him the sleepiest of smiles. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, silly.”

“So formal. Ouais, I’ll be your boyfriend.”

“Great, it’s settled.” Eric grinned, sleep finally overtaking him. “You’re mine now. Now snuggle me and let’s sleep.”

Jack didn’t remember falling asleep; he only remembered dreaming of Eric well into the afternoon.

 

“Okay, how do I look?” Eric asked just before Jack rang Bubbe’s doorbell.

“Perfect.”

“My stomach hurts... Do I have anything in my teeth? My cowlick was extra unforgiving today!”

“You know, you were never this nervous when you were being sassy and flirting with me.”

“You were easy,” Eric shrugged. “If your bubbe rejects me, I’ll be crushed.”

Jack turned to face him. “You’re going to be fine. Everyone is going to love you as much as I do.”

He leaned down and kissed Eric when all of a sudden, the door swung open, and there stood Alicia and Bob.

“You’re here!” Bob said as he pulled them in.

“Sweetheart,” Alicia said. She opened her arms to Jack, then looked at Eric. “You must be Eric.”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s wonderful to meet you both finally.”

“Maman, Papa, this is Eric Bittle. My boyfriend,” Jack said, smiling from ear to ear.

Bob and Alicia stood there, grinning as though their faces were about to split in half.

“We’ve heard so much about you.”

“And you brought treats!” Bob said as he took the pie dish from Eric’s hands.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Alicia said, eyes shining. She opened her arms to Eric, just had she done with Jack.

“A hug? Um, okay,” Eric said as she pulled him in.

“My family is big on hugs,” Jack said as Bob got in on the action. “You’ll see.”

“Nice to meet you, Bad B--uh… Mister Bad--ah, um…”

Bob’s grin was almost identical to Jack’s.

“Mister Jack's dad!” Eric finally blurted out as he turned a bright red.

Bob threw his head back in laughter. “That looks like a top-shelf pie, son. And please, call me Dad.”

“Oh god,” Eric and Jack both said in unison, equally mortified.

Alicia finally took pity on them.

“Bobby, step back and give them some breathing room. Eric, sweetheart, thank you for the pie. Would you like to take it to the kitchen, and Jack can introduce you to Esther?”

Bob took their coats, and Jack led them to her kitchen where Esther was making dinner. There she was with her back to the doorway, working something in a large bowl, humming as the scent of vegetables roasting filled the air. Stanley turned to look at Jack and Eric with the sort of feigned interest only a cat can possess.

“Bubbe?”

She turned and smiled. “Jacky!”

Jack ran over, picked her up, and spun her around as Stanley skittishly fled the room. He pressed a kiss to her cheek then carefully put her back down. Eric stood back and watched.

“How are you, handsome?”

“Good! Great, in fact.”

“That last game’s goal? Clutch shot!”

“Glad you thought so,” Jack smiled. He leaned in and whispered, “And, I didn’t spit in the well.”

She smiled and shooed him away as she turned her attention to Eric.

“Come here, let me take a look at you.”

Eric walked over as she wiped her hands on her apron; they were almost the same height.

She took his face in her hands and gently moved it from side to side. She looked into his eyes for a moment, then smiled.

“You have a good heart.”

“Oh,” Eric said as he inexplicably began to tear up.

Esther pulled him into her arms, gave him a quick hug and said, “Would you like to bake with me?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Eric said as he quickly wiped his eyes. “I would love that.”

“Come on. I’m about to braid the challah and then make Jack’s favorite cookies.”

“Mohn cookies?”

“Yes, exactly!”

“He told me all about how you used to bake those together.”

The two nestled themselves near the kitchen counter, and Esther removed some dough from a cloth-covered bowl.

“Have you braided bread before?”

“It’s been a while, and it always comes out terribly,” Eric said as Esther handed him an apron. It had cats playing hockey printed on it.

“Well, we’ll change that right now,” she said as he placed the dough in front of Eric. “Do you like challah?”

“I love it,” Eric said. “It’s so beautiful, too. You make it into different shapes depending on its use, right?"

Esther patted Eric’s hand. "Yes, that's right. For Shabbat, it's braided. For Rosh Hashanah, it's round—like a crown."

She handed Eric a scraper and looked over her shoulder at Jack.

"Jacky, you got me a smart one!"

“And he’s cute, too,” Jack added, delighted to see Eric blush furiously.

“The best challah should have a pillow-soft interior—light as a cloud,” Esther said as she pulled out a second bowl of dough from her proofer. “But it should also have a richness to it, with just the right amount of sweet.”

“That dough looks amazing,” Eric said.

“Let’s braid them, and then they have to prove for another hour. We’ll make two challot tonight, sound good?”

“Yes!” Eric said as Jack could hear the smile in his voice.

Jack smiled as he sat down at the kitchen table and watched Eric and Bubbe work together. Two of his worlds, merging seamlessly together.

+

“I like Montréal a lot. Jack and I are always discovering these cute little restos. It’s nice to be with someone who loves food as much as I do.”

The conversation never stopped, and after Alicia and Bob had thoroughly embarrassed Jack during pre-dinner cocktails (“Really, Papa? You had to tell him about Le Coupe Stanley?”), they all got to know Eric some more.

It suddenly occurred to Jack that had the shoe been on the other foot, he wasn’t sure how well he would have fared. He was not blessed with the gift of small talk and loved that he never felt verbally stilted or awkward around Eric; talking to Eric had always been easy, right from the start.

“And Jack said you went to Samwell?” Alicia asked.

“Yes, a Wellie through and through. Class of 2017.”

“Samwell done! What was your major?”

“American Studies with a concentration in Food Culture.”

“Really? That sounds fascinating! They didn’t have that as a major when I went there.”

“It was a relatively new major during my time there.”

“That’s like history, isn’t it?” Bob asked.

“A bit.”

“Jack was a history major at McGill, did you know that?” Esther asked. “He graduated with honors, but he’s too modest to say so. He’s always been so smart.”

Eric smiled and playfully elbowed Jack, who, in turn, squeezed his knee under the table.

“He is,” Eric said softly. “He’s brilliant.”

Alicia smiled wistfully, unaware of the impending game of footsie right under her nose.

“My time at Samwell was some of the best years of my life. Everything about that place was magic—except those awful Lacrosse boys.”

Jack discreetly poked Eric in the thigh.

“My mama was so worried there were so many jocks at Samwell, but I told her she had absolutely nothing to be worried about. She’s generally a worrier by nature, no matter what,” Eric said as he slapped Jack’s hand away under the table.

“Do you get to see your parents often?” Bob asked.

“I haven’t yet since I moved out here, but I make it point of calling them, and my MooMaw, once a week.”

“Your MooMaw?” Bob asked. “Is that your grandmother?”

Eric nodded. “Yes, sir. The move has been hard because I don’t get to see her almost every day like I used to—but we Skype as much as we can.”

“You’re close to your grandmother?” Esther asked.

“Yes, ma’am. She’s amazing, and I miss her something fierce, so I can’t even begin to tell you how soothing it was to my soul to be baking with you tonight.”

Esther smiled and looked at Jack, then back at Eric. “Well, you’re welcome to come here any time, .”

Bob took the tea towel off the challah and passed the plate over to Eric.

“Thank you,” he said as he tore a piece off and handed the plate to Jack.

Esther smiled and she and Bob exchanged a look.

“What is it?” Eric asked.

“They’re impressed you didn’t want to slice it,” Jack said.

“Impressed? I didn’t know I’d be graded today,” Eric replied. “How am I doing?”

“Flying colors,” Jack replied with a chirpy grin.

Attache ta tuque, Eric! These two are going to be all over you.” Alicia shook her head. “Knock it off and leave the poor boy alone.”

Pantoute. We’re just trying to get to know him,” Esther replied as she winked at Eric. “It’s nice that he knows how to eat challah properly, that’s all.”

Eric wiped his mouth and put his napkin back on his lap.

“With work, whenever I write about something, I try to learn as much about tradition as I can,” Eric said. “It’s important for me to be respectful.”

Jack remembered all the times Eric asked for more information about foods they’d eat—especially Jewish foods. Eric showed genuine interest and cared about the history of everything they consumed.

“For so many people,” Eric said, “what they eat is more than just nourishment, it’s family and history… and I think that’s beautiful.”

“Hear hear,” Esther said as she raised her glass of wine.

“And whenever I hear someone refer to challah as 'challah bread,' it’s like nails on a chalkboard.”

Everyone laughed and were just as charmed by Eric as Jack had been from the start.

+

“Remember, you’re welcome to come here anytime you want to bake and spend time with a boring old woman.”

“You are not a boring old woman,” Eric said as he hugged Esther. “Thank you.”

Alicia and Bob each hugged Jack, and she said low in Jack’s ear, “I’m so happy for you, Jack. You two are perfect for one another.”

“Yeah,” Jack smiled as he watched Esther and Eric hug one more time, careful not to squish the challah he was taking home with him. “I think so, too.”

Nothing says home like a loaf of challah. This rich, eggy bread is baked every week for the Jewish Shabbat, and the eggs in challah are what make it richer, tastier, worthy of its prominent place at the sabbath table. There are many personal recipes out there, and, as you can imagine, each one claims to be the best. As special as Shabbat dinners themselves, challah serves as a bridge between the past, present, and future. Grandparents, parents, grandchildren—the love in one’s challah is felt cross-generationally and remembered eternally.

Chapter Text

Twelve seconds were left on the clock. Jack battled in the corner for the puck then swung around and passed it to Thirdy who took off across the rink. Jack pushed hard, his quads on fire, as he skated past one of the Hawks' D-men only to be checked by another. He pushed through it as the puck was back in his line of sight. Go! Jack took the shot, sending it Marty's way, who swooped in. With a strong flick of the wrist, it glided across the rink, right through the goalie’s legs. The goal sirens shrieked as Marty threw out his well-loved celly.

Jack quickly looked over his shoulder and found Eric, against the glass, screaming and hugging Lardo; the pom-pom on his Habs toque bounced vigorously. Jack grinned and joyfully slapped Marty's helmet.

 

"Oh my god, what a barn burner!" Eric said as he entered the locker room carrying a container filled with an assortment of cookies and pastries.

Ransom and Holster took the box away from Eric and eagerly dug in. The team surrounded Eric, smiling and laughing and enjoying their treats.

"Dude, if you ever want to break up with Jack, remember, we're totally available," Ransom said and helped himself to another macaron. Tater frowned in the background.

"And total gentlemen," Holster said as cookie crumbs flew out of his mouth.

Eric laughed. "Tempting, but I think I'll stick with who I got."

Jack's stomach pleasantly swooped as Eric winked at him.

"See you later, handsome," Eric said to Jack. "Enjoy your treats, fellas."

"Thanks, Bitty!" Everyone called out.

“See you at Mardey’s?” Poots asked.

“You know it.”

Eric waved goodbye and left.

"Hey, did you read Bitty's article about that WWII vet's French onion soup?" Snowy asked.

"Yes! Tabarnak, that was so good," Guy called back. "Who knew an article about soup could make you teary-eyed?"

Jack smiled with pride hearing the guys talk about Eric. Jack knew he was brilliant and loved it when others saw it as well.

"He's writing a follow up to that piece, you know." Jack added

"He's too good for you. You know that, right?" Snowy chirped.

Holster grinned. "Nah, they're just right."

+++

Jack pulled up in front of Mardey and Lardo’s loft. Eric’s car was already there, and if Jack knew Eric he could already predict he was hard at work making snacks and desserts for everyone. Jack looked up at the window and could see movement. He smiled picturing Eric and Lardo dancing together, enjoying their close friendship that had developed.

“Hey, loverboy! Snap out of it!”

Jack turned to find Mardey standing outside his car window, a goofy grin planted firmly on his face.

“What are you doing there, you lurker.”

“Lurking.”

Jack laughed.

“I’m heading to the dep around the corner for some ice. Wanna come?” Mardey asked.

“Yeah, okay,” Jack replied.

He got out of his car and followed Mardey as they crossed the street.

“You ran out of ice already?”

“Nah. Lards thought I was getting some, and I thought she was and bam! No ice.”

The two walked silently for a bit then Mardey began to whistle. All of a sudden, he started to comically jostle Jack, trying to push him into a nearby bush. Jack laughed as he tried to trip Mardey. It continued for a few steps until Mardey snorted and called for a truce.

“All right, all right! If I come back all muddy or disheveled, Lards will have my head.”

“Why? How is that any different from most days?” Jack smirked as he took Mardey’s hand and shook on their truce.

“Fine, but let the record show you started it.” Mardey smiled as he opened the door to the dep. “After you, my lad.”

Jack quickly perused the candy counter.

“So, things still going well in paradise?” Mardey asked taking two bags of ketchup potato chips from the shelf.

“It’s hard for things to go bad with Eric around, you know?”

Mardey chuckled. “Brah, brah, braaaah….”

Jack pulled out two bags of ice from the freezer. “What?”

“I know you love Eric, but wow, you’ve got it bad,” Mardey said taking two Coffee Crisps from the counter.

Jack blushed. “So?”

“So nothing.” Mardey took a bottle of 1642 Cola from the refrigerator. “In all the years I’ve known you, it’s just great to see you like this. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You are perfect for each other.”

Jack smiled as he recalled an interaction he had with Mardey in their sophomore year at McGill, many years ago…

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” Shitty had asked as they sat on the lower field, people watching and eating their lunch.

“Love at first sight? Sounds complicated,” Jack replied. He took a bite of his sandwich and thought about love in general.

He recalled his parents’ interactions. How many times had Jack entered a room to find them kissing, hugging, whispering secrets in their own special language—the language that two people in love made up just for one another. He remembered how Zayde always gave Bubbe flowers at every Friday dinner. Bubbe would smile as she’d tell him he shouldn’t have but would put the flowers in a vase at the center of the table.

“If you can find it, I guess it’s great, but I don’t think ‘at first sight’ is a thing, man,” Jack said.

“Lards and I were hanging out in the couch room the other day, and I looked at her and thought to myself, ‘This is it.’ She’s who I want to be with for the rest of my life, but not like one of those—what do you call it? The dog thing?"

"Un chien de poche?"

“Right, that... I want to be her partner, brah. Then I realized that I always thought that about her. Like, from day one.”

Jack smiled at Shitty, seeing him so moony-eyed. Shitty laid back on the grass, put his arms under his head, and looked up at the clouds.

“She’s cool, she’s smart, she’s funny as fuck, and she doesn’t take shit from anyone but even more, she gets me, you know?”

“Huh,” Jack replied, the only thing he could think to say.

“I can tell her the secrets of my heart, all the best parts, and the worst parts, and I know they’ll be safe.”

“That’s pretty deep, Shits.”

“It has been known to happen, Jacko. Now gimme a bite of that grinder.”

Jack smiled as he handed his sandwich to Shitty. They stayed on the lawn as the afternoon slowly rolled by...

 

“Ten twenty-five,” the dep cashier said.

Mardey handed her the money and waited for his change. They took the bags and left.

“Here,” Mardey said. He gave Jack a Coffee Crisp.

They walked back toward the condo in relative silence and Jack became lost in thought. He knew that with Eric he had found someone to cherish, and was cherished in return. He trusted Eric implicitly with everything—his past, present, and future, and knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Eric felt the same way. Had it been love at first sight? Did it matter?

“I can tell Eric the secrets of my heart,” Jack said as he took a bite of chocolate, “and I know they’ll be safe.”

Mardey grinned broadly, and Jack could have sworn he began to tear up.

“Jack-of-all-Trades, you remember that? My mind is blown! Fucking A, brah! If I wasn’t destined to be with Lards, I’d totally shack up with you.”

Jack smiled and shook his head as they reached the condo.

+

“So how exactly did you two meet? Thirdy is terrible at retelling stories,” Carrie asked as she stood in the kitchen with Eric.

Lardo laughed. “It’s really cute in a dorky kind of way. Total Jack.”

“He stole my pastries,” Eric said.

“He did what?”

“I was standing in line at Cheskie’s and that one,” Eric said as he pointed at Jack who was sitting on the couch with Tater, “pouted because I took the last babka.”

“Jack? Can you come here, please?” Carrie called out.

"If you're going to defame my good name, the least you can do is get the story right," Jack said as he joined them in the kitchen. "He took the last two babkas, and then I pouted about it."

Carrie laughed and Eric settled into Jack's arms.

"So he said his bubbe really wanted one and basically guilt-tripped me into giving him a babka."

"Jack, no!" Carrie laughed.

"I like how you conveniently leave out the part where you harassed me for photographic proof of Bubbe’s existence."

Eric looked up at Jack and grinned. "Sweetpea, that was just an excuse to see if there was a significant other on your phone screen."

Everyone laughed.

"Imagine my surprise when I saw you had some weird team mascot as your lock screen," Eric said as he playfully poked Jack in the chest.

"It’s not some weird team mascot. It’s Youppi!" Jack said blushing. “Youppi!"

“This boy,” Eric said and pulled Jack down for a kiss.

Mardey turned down the music and walked into the middle of the living room.

“Everyone! Everyone! Can I have your attention, please?”

He held two champagne flutes and looked at Lardo who grinned and walked toward him. She had a bottle of champagne in her hands.

“Shitty and I wanted to thank all of you for coming tonight,” she said. “If you’re wondering why we’re throwing a random kegster, it’s because this isn't a random post-game kegster at all.”

Jack looked at Eric, with confusion, as Mardey kissed Lardo’s head. She wrapped her arms around his waist.

“After years of shacking up together, Lards and I decided to stop living in sin. We tied the knot in la belle province last week. Conjoints no more!”

“What?” Jack asked softly as everyone appeared happily shocked.

“We got hitched, you hosers!” Lardo cried out.

Everyone cheered while Lardo and Mardey kissed.

“Right on!” Jack said.

Eric ran out of the room and returned from Mardey and Lardo’s bedroom with a two-tier wedding cake.

“It’s cake time!” he said.

“You knew?!” Jack asked incredulously.

“I am an excellent secret keeper, Mr. Zimmermann. Besides, they knew better than to ask someone else to bake their dang wedding cake.”

Mardey and Lardo eagerly cut into the cake, as everyone cheered and the champagne flowed. Lardo's white t-shirt and white jeans suddenly took on a whole new meaning. After the congratulations died down, Mardey scooped in and gave Jack a giant bear hug.

“Sorry we didn’t tell you, Jack. No one knew. It was sort of spontaneous and we knew we wanted to do it but didn’t want to make a big production about it. We’ve been together for so long, it just felt right. You know?”

“I get it, man. No need to apologize. I’m so happy for you, really.”

“Yeah, you get it, dude,” Lardo said as Jack pulled her in for a hug and a kiss.

“Mazel tov,” Jack said warmly.

Eric stood at the other side of the room, face shining with a huge smile.

The evening continued and Jack sat on the couch drinking some coffee taking in the room’s energy. He was thrilled to see his best friends so happy. Mardey and Lardo were slow dancing to some silly song from the ‘90s Jack couldn’t quite place. Everyone was smiling and laughing and it turned out to be a great wedding reception.

“Zimmboni, when am I going to be best man?” Tater chirped as he helped himself to another piece of wedding cake.

“Best man?” Jack asked without really thinking.

“For you and Little B.”

Eric looked at Jack from where he was chatting with Ransom, Holster, and Marty. He gave Jack a soft, sweet look.

“Hey, hey, hey!” Mardey called out, stopping his dance. “Don’t you even fucking dare, Mashkov. You’re in my house, drinking my booze, and you just got here!”

Jack threw his head back in laughter as Tater jumped off the couch and began to dance with Mardey, dipping him dramatically while Lardo doubled-over with laughter.

"Oh, god! Marty mentioned he wants to start doing shots of Sortilege, and I am not prepared for that," Eric said as he plopped himself onto Jack’s lap.

Jack pressed a kiss to Eric’s neck. “I can’t believe you knew about the wedding.”

“They told me well after the fact, if it's any consolation. I was dying to tell you. I hated keeping anything from you,” Eric said, “but I was sworn to secrecy until the big wedding party reveal.”

Eric snuggled up close to Jack.

“Do you know how difficult it was to bake an entire wedding cake on the sly?”

“I can only imagine.”

Jack grinned and yawned, sleepy-eyed and cozy.

“You ready to go home, mister?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

+++

“Eric, can you stir the cholent?”

“Yes, Bubbe.”

“Are you sure I can’t help with anything?” Jack asked.

“Listen, mister, don’t be getting jealous because I’m in here with Bubbe,” Eric said.

Esther laughed. “You can help with the cookies later, Jacky.”

Normally, Jack would have pouted being ousted from the kitchen, but seeing Eric and Esther have such a good time, he couldn’t help but smile.

“Is the cholent for tomorrow?” Jack asked as he peered into the slow cooker.

A waft of steam escaped. The richness of the short ribs combined with the smell of the beans, potatoes, onions, and paprika made Jack's mouth instantly water.

“Yes, and you and Eric are welcomed to stop by tomorrow to take some home with you.”

The oven beeped and Esther pulled out a loaf of challah.

“Look at this beauty!” she said. “Someone’s braiding skills are up to snuff”

Eric smiled as he admired his own handiwork.

“It’s pretty good, huh?” he said.

“Let’s not get cocky,” Esther chirped.

“Is dinner ready? Should we set the table?” Bob shouted from the living room.

L’affaire est ketchup!” Eric replied.

“Nice one, Bits,” Jack said as he fist-bumped Eric.

“Can you please tell my son to stop yelling, and yes, Jacky. Can you all set the table?”

Eric took off his apron and hung it on the hook behind the door.

+

“Did he tell you about his promotion?” Jack said.

“Promotion?” Alicia asked.

“It’s nothing permanent yet, but I did get hired by Bon Appétit to write a couple of articles.”

“That’s amazing, son!” Bob said.

“Oh, stop. It’s not a big deal,” Eric said as he blushed.

“It is a big deal. They loved his WWII French onion soup story and reached out to him—not the other way around,” Jack said.

“Eric, that’s wonderful. I bet soon enough you’ll be writing for them all the time,” Alicia added.

Eric took a sip of water. “It’s exciting, that’s for sure. Some articles here and there are nice, but I don’t want to get my hopes up too high.”

“Nonsense, they looked for you when they saw something they liked,” Esther said.

“That’s what I told him,” Jack quickly added. He looked at Eric, who was visibly blushing. “You’re so good at what you do. It was only a matter of time for everyone else to see it.”

“Y’all are gonna give me a big head. I mean, eventually, I’d love to write a book, so this would definitely be a step in the right direction.”

“That’s my boy,” Esther said.

Jack heartily agreed.

+++

Sometimes it was too much; the feelings and intensity of it all were overwhelming. When Jack pressed against Eric in bed, and all Eric could do is bite at Jack’s shoulder—breath hanging heavy in the air—grasping wildly, pushing and pulling, sometimes, it was just too much.

As they both tumbled toward the precipice, it’s all Jack could do to anchor himself to keep from floating away forever lost in a whirlwind of love and lust, never to return. Was it ever like this before Eric? No, never. The two had such an easy, loving relationship, Jack wondered how he could have ever thought what he had with anyone else was any good.

Every night they spent together, Eric loved taking Jack apart. Jack would quiver as Eric dismantled him with his mouth, with his fingers, with his body, only to put him back together and start all over again. And each time, Jack was more than willing to be Eric’s jigsaw puzzle.

The slow roll and snap of the hips; the hot, damp kisses frantically exchanged; the hands that clutched greedily as voices begged. Jack slotted his lips together with Eric’s, then parted his lips. Jack shivered as Eric slipped his tongue in, lush and warm. Their legs slowly intertwined as toes touched toes. He ground his hips into Jack and made Jack moan softly.

“Do you know how beautiful you are?” Jack asked.

“No,” Eric said with a soft laugh, “tell me again.”

Jack smiled and kissed Eric’s neck. Eric threw his head back and giggled as Jack sucked gently onto his neck.

“You’re beautiful,” Jack said as he pulled back and caressed his face.

Eric blushed and wrapped his arms around Jack’s neck then dove in for a kiss. The scent of Eric encapsulated him.

“What do you want?” Eric asked.

“Anything,” Jack said and began to kiss him again.

The kisses were messy and wet and became deeper and deeper. Jack stopped abruptly and looked into Eric’s eyes.

Eric stilled. “What is it?”

Jack kissed Eric slowly and whispered, “Let’s live together.”

“What?”

Jack smiled and kissed Eric’s nose. “Let’s live together.”

Eric stared at Jack incredulously. “I just… we’ve never talked about it.”

“You don’t want to?”

“No, it’s not that. Just...”

“Just what? I want to take steps with you Eric, and this seems like the next logical step. If you’re ready, that is. If you want to—and if you don’t, I’ll wait. No pressure.”

Eric began to laugh. “You’re serious!”

“Yes, I am!”

“I swear, Mr. One-hundred and ten percent.”

Jack urgently pressed his mouth onto Eric’s, becoming momentarily lost in deep kisses only to pull away with a gasp.

“What do you say, mon p’tit loup?” Jack asked.

Eric wrinkled his nose. “I’m not a wolf. You’re the wolf.”

Jack smiled.

“Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s move in together.”

“Really?”

Ouais,” Eric said.

The two began to kiss some more as Eric’s clever hands moved lower. It was at that point that Jack’s mouth fell open, and the only sound coming from inside the room was the heavy breathing that accompanied each rock, each roll.

+

The oven beeped, rudely interrupting their discussion.

“So we can either move into my place or get a new place altogether,” Jack said.

He pulled out the cookie sheet from the oven and placed it on top of the stove.

“I like how you’ve just altogether eliminated my place as a possible contender,” Eric said.

“Sorry! I didn’t mean anything! I--”

“Jack it’s okay. I was kidding,” Eric said, rolling out the last bit of mohn cookie dough.

“We can move in here if you want. I don’t care where we live; I just want to be with you.”

Eric grinned and shrugged. “Keep talking like that, and you’ll get lucky again tonight, mister.”

“I’m exhausted!” Jack teased.

The two grinned, and Eric began to cut out the cookies with his round cutter.

“This place is too small. It’s great for me, and I love it, but we both can’t live here.”

“Anywhere you want to live. You name the arrondissement, and we’ll move there.”

“Okay, I can’t think straight with you putting cookies on a cooling rack wearing nothing but your undies and an apron,” Eric said. “It’s totally unfair how hot that is.”

Jack smiled and shook his butt. He offered Eric a cookie, who took a bite.

“That’s a good cookie,” Eric said.

“Yeah? I learned from the best,” Jack said as he leaned in for another kiss.

Sometimes, the feelings he had for Eric felt like too much for Jack, and in the end, they were never enough.

 

One year later...

Eric: Are you almost here? The line is starting to get longer.

Jack: Two seconds away.

Eric: I’m just going to get in line and get the babka.

Jack: Wait for me!

Jack sprinted to Cheskie’s and found Eric patiently waiting outside. He turned and as he looked for Jack. Eric’s face lit up when they locked eyes, and instantly Jack smiled.

The past year had been monumental for them both. The Habs won the cup, Jack began researching graduate schools, Eric’s YouTube channel began to really take off, they had gone to Madison to visit Eric’s family, and Eric was writing regularly for Bon Appétit. But more importantly, they also moved in together.

It was a bit of an adjustment (“Really, Jack? If I find your duffle bag in the middle of the hallway one more time!” “Bittle, would it kill you to close the lights?”) but overall their new living arrangement was filled with laughter, respect, mutual understanding, compromise, and above all, love.

“There you are,” Eric said as Jack gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

“And there you are,” Jack teased.

“Come on, they’re almost out.”

The two walked in and got in line. Five people stood ahead of them, and the line moved quickly.

“A babka, please,” Jack said.

The woman at the counter smiled. She nodded and gave Jack a babka tied with a red ribbon.

“Just one?” Eric asked. “I thought Bubbe Esther wanted one, too?”

“Just one,” Jack said.

Eric shrugged, “All right.”

They left Cheskie’s, hand in hand, and passed a quiet garden as they made their way to Bubbe’s. Jack paused.

“Do you want a piece?” Jack asked.

“That’s okay. I can wait. I don’t want to take a half-eaten babka to dinner.”

Jack gnawed on his lip. “Euh...”

“What?”

Jack took Eric by the hand and led him to a bench inside the garden.

“Let’s just sit and eat a piece, okay?”

Eric smiled, looking somewhat confused. “Okay. If you really have a hankering.”

The two sat, surrounded by hydrangeas and daisies. Jack pulled the babka out, ripped a chunk off the top and gave it to Eric.

“Here.”

Eric took a nibble and pulled it back abruptly.

“What in the world? There’s something in here,” he said as he looked closer.

He squinted and then his eyes grew wide. He pulled out a ring and looked at Jack, who was already on one knee.

“Eric, it was here where we met in a way that appeared to be purely by accident, but I think we were meant to be all along.”

Jack took Eric’s hand—Eric who was now crying—and continued.

“I showed you all the best parts of Montréal, but in the end, what we have is the best part. Eric Richard Bittle, will you marry me?”

“Yes,” Eric said as Jack took the ring and slipped it on his finger. “Yes, I will.”

Jack cupped Eric’s face and the two happily kissed.

Eric wiped his tears and laughed. “Oh god, what would you have done if I would have swallowed the darn thing, or cracked a tooth?”

“Ask you to marry me at the dentist’s?”

“Come here, you moose!”

The two kissed again as some people across the street cheered them on.

Review: All the Best Parts by Eric Bittle-Zimmermann.

Perhaps you fell in love with food writer, and pastry chef, Eric Bittle-Zimmermann’s work on his YouTube channel, A Baker's Table, or maybe you've been to his tiny café, MooMaw + Bubbe’s, in Montréal’s Plateau neighborhood. Either way, you’ll love All the Best Parts. Both memoir and cookbook, All the Best Parts is Bittle-Zimmermann’s love letter to Montréal. A Montréal resident for the past ten years, Bittle-Zimmermann’s book delves into the history of Montréal’s favorite eateries, bakeries, bars, and coffee shops as well as sharing family-inspired recipes from his biscuits and gravy to his kugel. The book is a joy to read for anyone interested in food, history, nostalgia, and, above all, love.