Like all summers do, this one passes fast.
The Sharks win the Cup and they celebrate at home, calling Chowder the moment he has a minute. Elli has his dance recital at the end of June, and Jack shows up at the theater in a full suit, holding onto a ridiculously big bouquet and his camera. They sit down and they watch the show, two hours of rather awful dancing (but lord, so cute) to see Elli on stage for two minutes. Those two minutes are glorious, though, as the little ballerinas dance to some classical air Eric doesn't recognize.
He takes Jack's hand in his own and they watch Elli and the girls do their best to hold their positions. Their pliés are a thing of beauty — they bend their knees so far it looks like they're carefully squatting over one of those hole-in-the-ground camping toilets, and Eric can't help but chuckle. When he turns his head to glance at Jack, he's smiling hard, too.
There's a break in the middle of the show so that the youngest groups can go with their parents and not have to stay for the rest of the evening, considering how late it's getting. One by one, the dance teachers ask the kids to stand up so that they can give them their end-of-the-year goodie bag, and call their parents to fetch them on stage.
Once it's Elli's turn, Jack and Eric stand up and make their way towards the end of the row.
"Do you see your mommy?" one of the ladies asks Elli on stage, and Elli shakes his head.
"I don't have a mommy," he says, loud enough for them to hear, before his gaze lands on Eric and Jack. "I have a daddy and a Jack, though, and they are there," he adds, pointing at them.
A daddy and a Jack. Goodness. He squeezes Jack's hand and smiles at him. Jack smiles back, tentative and soft.
They've talked about it, since Elli asked if, in his own words, he could have two daddies someday, something Eric relayed to Jack.
"I thought we were going slow," Jack said. "I was trying to go slow."
Eric had laughed and kissed him. "And you did wonderfully." Even though they're basically living together over two apartments since the day they got together, but he didn't expect anything less from Jack 110% Zimmermann. "It's no wonder that boy wants more."
"But… do you?"
"Jack, if you're asking me if I'm sure, I am. Absolutely. And maybe he's not ready yet but you know Elli, it's a discussion he'll want to have sooner than later. It's up to you two. If you're ready."
Jack's face was pale, but he nodded assertively, and that was that.
Jack wants it. It's clear to Eric that Jack wants it, and that his hesitation has only to do with not wanting to overstep boundaries. Boundaries that have crumbled by now.
The role comes naturally to him. There always was an easiness between him and Elli, and even if Jack doesn't have the official title, Elli sees him as a father figure already. He now knows he can go to Jack when he has questions, requests, when Eric is busy, or when he already told Elli no about something (a seemingly cunning strategy that has yet to bear fruit). Jack Zimmermann — Pokémon master, Lego builder extraordinaire, and grand storyteller — is the third piece of their little unit, and Eric has stopped caring about timetables a long while ago.
Once they're back in the dressing rooms, Eric picks Elli up, who buries himself against his chest, ruffling a bit his flower costume. "I did it, Daddy!"
"You did," Eric says, smiling. Coordination doesn't come easily to Elli but Eric could see the monumental improvement he had this year. His boy is trying so hard. "You were amazing. Such a big boy already, dancing like that on stage!"
Jack, grinning at them both, insists on taking no less than a hundred pictures of them. Elli poses with Eric, and with the bouquet Jack offered him, the dramatic flowers nearly as tall as he is.
Jack's taking a picture of Elli and his teacher when Eric's phone buzzes in his pocket: Eleanor.
He sighs, and steps away, answering the call. "Hi, Eleanor!"
What is it about, this time? He sent the revised proofs last week, and the book should be printed in the next few days. Has she found a mistake or something? Oh, lord, maybe there's a recipe that's completely off. He did check everything over and over again, though.
There is no mistake, in the end, but a long series of explanations on her end, along with a few congratulations. He sits down on the nearest bench and stays there, phone in hand, long after the call has ended.
Wow. Okay. Wow. Really?
He blinks. Is this really happening? He needs someone to pinch him, or shake—
When his eyes focus again, Jack's in front of him, with Elli, changed back in his daily clothes, holding on to his backpack.
"Everything okay?" Jack asks, with increasing concern.
Eric stands up, pocketing his phone. "I— uh—"
"I— hm— I might have gotten a deal with Netflix?" They were Eleanor's words, but it suddenly feels very real now that he's speaking them. "They— they've been following my vlog for a while now, and, uh, they want me to host a baking contest?"
Kind of like GBBO but American. If that isn't his dream come true.
"Oh my god!" Jack's hands fly to Eric's shoulders, squeezing hard. "That's amazing!"
He's going to be on TV. On Netflix. Hosting a baking contest. Doing what he loves most. For good money.
"Oh my god," he breathes out. "Jack, oh my god!"
He starts laughing, and Jack brings him into a tight hug. They must look like absolute maniacs to the other parents and kids, but he doesn't care.
"I have to audition," he says, muffled against Jack's shoulder. "But they said they really wanted me."
"Of course they want you, Bits. A Netflix show, woah!"
He takes a step back — Jack's grin is wide and bright. Eric presses his hands to his face. "Goodness, I can't believe it."
He laughs, picks up Elli, and kisses him on the cheek. "Your Daddy's gonna be on TV! If everything goes well."
"On TV ?" Elli squeals.
"Yeah!" He raises Elli, arm extended, before he brings him back down, against his hip. "On TV!"
Around them, some people have started to stare — clearly, a few are recognizing Jack.
"All right," Jack says. "Let's get back home for now, and decide what we want to do tonight. We have two stars to celebrate," he adds, with a wink.
Eric groans and stretches his limbs over the half of the mattress that had been occupied by Jack minutes ago. The July sun is splaying over the white sheets, and somewhere, in the distance, he can hear the sound of a shower turning off. He turns on his back, a smile on his face, and gathers the duvet back over his naked body. It's ridiculous to think that in the six months they have been together, he and Jack didn't get a single chance at slow morning sex before today. Bless Alicia and Bob Zimmermann.
They've been lovely since Elli, Jack and he arrived yesterday afternoon by car. This way, they avoided airport crowds and inevitable autograph scenes, even though Elli is still a bit bitter about not having taken the plane. Well, considering the surprise they've planned for later in the summer, he won't be disappointed for too long.
Bob and Alicia — without surprise — instantly doted on Elli, showering him with gifts (a large lighthouse Lego set and a Pens teddy) and food. Eric's seventy percent sure that boy ate some candy before dinner last night, considering how hyperactive he acted for the rest of the night.
In any case, Bob and Alicia adore him, and Elli fell in love with them in under five minutes. So when Alicia told Eric and Jack last night that she and Bob could take care of Elli in the morning, Eric couldn't refuse, could he?
Half an hour later, he's showered and dressed, and steps into the kitchen. Elli is sitting on top of the counter, licking what looks like to be chocolate cake preparation off a whisk like an absolute prince while conducting an enthusiastic discussion with Alicia. From what it looks like, she's been showing him kitchen items and ingredients, pretending to forget her French.
"Oh, non! Et ça, qu'est-ce que c'est? Une— une—" she asks, showing him a spoon, acting as if she hasn't seen one before. ["Oh, no! And that, what is it? A— a—"]
Elli laughs, delighted. There's chocolate on the tip of his nose. " Une cui— cui-llère. " ["A sp— a sp—oon."]
"Ah, oui!" Alicia gasps, faking remembrance, and Elli laughs harder, rocking back and forth. "C'est vrai! Une cuillère!" ["Ah, yes! Of course! A spoon!"]
This woman has an Oscar, somewhere in this house.
Eric grins and steps up to Jack, sitting at one of the stools in front of the counter and watching the situation unfold with an amused look on his face. Eric passes a hand around his shoulders, and Jack wraps an arm around his waist, before handing him what seems to be a freshly made cup of coffee, with the right amount of milk and sugar.
"Thank you," he whispers, and Jack looks up, a soft smile on his face.
He leans in a bit, for a good morning kiss.
"Good morning, Eric," Alicia says, just as Elli shouts, "Daddy!"
"Morning! You two look like you're having a lot of fun."
"Yeah," Elli says, "We're making a cake and I'm teaching French 'cos French is hard!"
"He's doing a very good job," Alicia says, with a wink. "You've got a clever boy, there, Eric."
"Quite right," Eric agrees. "We also have a great French teacher," he adds, rearranging a wild strand of hair on Jack's head by replacing it behind his ear.
Jack glances at him and quirks an eyebrow. "Wait. Since when I've been teaching you French?"
"Uh, well, I listen when you're teaching Elli."
Surely that's enough French for one adult person, but Jack gives him a doubtful look. He's about to reply when Bob enters the kitchen, four or five albums stacked in his arms.
"I've found them!" he says, victorious.
Elli whips his head towards him and extends his arms, whisk and all.
"Papy!" he squeals, as Bob lets the album fall on top of the counter, in a heavy cloud of dust too close to the food for Eric's liking.
This is followed by three very distinct reactions:
Alicia waves a hand to disperse the cloud of dust and pushes the mix away from the albums, nose wrinkled, while Jack has half-risen from his stool, eyes wide and mouth half-open.
Elli is the first to speak, looking at Eric. "What? Papy means old people in French."
"Oh my god, Elliot," Eric says.
Bewildered, Jack just repeats, "Papa…"
"What?" Bob asks, and for a moment, both he and Elli are staring at them with the same innocent expression.
"It's rude to say people are old, Elli," Eric reminds him, as he places a hand on Jack's shoulder, squeezing once.
Okay, so, he's not sure what exactly Bob told Elli, but Eric knows enough French to understand that papy is grandpa, like mamie is grandma. It's not a bad thing — after all, Elli has a good dozen uncles and aunts that aren't related to them, but Bob just sprung it a bit on Jack like that.
"It's fine," Eric whispers to Jack and kisses his temple.
Jack, lips around the rim of his cup of coffee, mumbles something indistinguishable.
"Your dad is right," Bob tells Elli, with an air of wisdom. "You shouldn't call people old, but you can call me old because I'm really old." He bumps a giggling Elli on the nose, getting some of the chocolate off it in the same motion. "Wanna take a look at those hockey cards, now?" Bob asks.
Bob picks Elli up, sets him against his chest, still sitting on the counter. He opens the albums and starts going through pages and pages of 90s hockey cards.
Eric hasn't seen a collection more extensive than this one, but it makes sense, considering to whom it belonged. Even Jack seems somewhat amused at seeing it again.
"I forgot we had that many of them," he says, standing up to get a proper look.
He and Bob start explaining to Elli some kind of obscure names Eric hasn't heard of, and when they fall on a card with a famous name (often signed), Bob launches in some kind of funny anecdote about Gretzky or Lemieux or Jágr that has Eric interested as well. He's not sure to which point Elli understands that Bob played with or against all those famous players, or how famous he is himself — knowing both Jack and Bob, Elli probably thinks having a Stanley cup is no big deal at this point. Still, Elli seems to be hanging on to every single word coming out of Bob and Jack's mouth.
"This is my favorite," Jack points out, showing a signed card of Maurice Richard.
Goodness, that's something every collector would die for. Has Bob gotten Richard to sign it himself? Sounds plausible.
"Why?" Elli asks.
"Because he was one of the best players, but he also had an important political impact here."
Predictably, Elli answers with, "Why?"
Jack launches into a detailed analysis of the very beginnings of what he calls the Quiet Revolution and something like the discrimination against francophone players in hockey, Bob validating or discussing certain points.
Eric lets them have their fun and moves to the other side of the counter to give a hand to Alicia, who's been watching them with a fondly exasperated expression.
"It's all about indoctrinating the next generation," she tells him, with a wink.
"Goodness, do I know, but the work's already done here," he says, looking back at Elli, who might as well develop a crick in his neck from turning his head between Bob and Jack every two seconds.
They spend a quiet morning in, Elli, Jack, and Bob going through every single album while Eric helps out Alicia in the kitchen. It's been a while since he baked for fun, but now that the book is done, he can do whatever he wants.
Just before lunch, they decide to go visit the monster by the lake, and Bob prepares a few slices of sausage he had in the fridge. Elli's running between Eric and Jack's arms by the time they're near the lake until he and Jack get closer to the water, leaving a small trail of sausage on the sand. Eric sits on the sand and looks up, the sun blessing his face as it has been a rather rainy summer up until now. Jack's squatting down by the water, cap on, and animatedly discussing something with Elli, which Eric can't hear because of the wind. He imagines it's the type of stories where the fish — or well, the monster, in this case, gets bigger in every iteration.
They watch the water for long minutes, and sometimes a fish comes up to disrupt the calm water and Elli runs back to Eric to be wrapped in his arms. After a good half-an-hour and not a single monster apparition, they get back to the house, a spark in Elli's eyes as he rambles on about the monster.
They get on the road after lunch, the five of them jammed in a single car. Elli spends an hour singing the Tigger Song and the other hour telling Bob and Alicia a few of his ridiculous stories, which make everyone laugh. Then, he recounts Jack's story, about the dragon that was afraid of heights, and Eric doesn't miss the way Alicia looks at Jack and the way Jack shakes his head at her.
There's nothing on Earth that could calm Elli down when they arrive at the zoo, as he bounces all over asking about capybaras.
"I don't think this zoo has Pokémons, sweetie," Eric tells him, and Jack shoots him a funny look.
"Silly Daddy," Elli says and skips towards the ticket booth.
It's a beautiful day outside, warm but not too warm, and under their caps and sunglasses, none of them gets recognized more than two or three times. For a while, Alicia and Bob lead their group, with Elli running at the front, Jack and Eric at the back, following with the stroller. They look at penguins, at deers, at elephants, and every time, Bob reads with great care every information panel to Elli. Jack, in turn, with his camera, takes quite a few pictures of them all.
It isn't long before Eric has to take Elli to the bathroom, and it's the first time the two of them are alone together since they arrived yesterday. And from the look on Elli's face, Eric knows he's feeling guilty about something.
"Daddy," Elli whispers, while Eric is helping him with his pants. "I have a secret to tell you."
Ah. He might just learn what exactly happened yesterday evening before dinner. "Yes?"
"Yesterday, Papy gave me dessert before dinner 'cause he said that there ain't no rules with Papy."
Ah, yes, the fundamentals of grand-parenting. It's not like Eric can disagree — he remembers too well spending his Sunday afternoons with Moo Maw who kept feeding him pie at any hour of the day. "That's okay, sweetie. He's quite someone, huh, your papy?"
"Yeah, he's super duper cool. And mamie too!" Lord. Jack might have a heart attack by the end of the day.
They get back to the rest of the group and enter the reptile building, which Elli seems particularly excited about. Ugh. Eric can get the appeal of bears and elephants, especially when there are cute babies around, but reptiles? No, thank you.
This time, Jack is walking in front along with Elli, while Eric sticks with Alicia. Bob is somewhere behind, still reading the information panels.
"It's a pain when we go to museums," Alicia tells Eric. "He's always four rooms behind."
He laughs because Jack definitely takes after Bob — they just have to get things right by giving it a great deal of attention and conscientiousness. It's far from being a flaw: it's what makes them so caring and attentive around the people they love.
"I hope you managed to get some sleep, this morning," Alicia says, with a sly smile curling her lips.
"Oh my god, yes," he answers, feeling the blush spreading on his cheeks. Not only sleep, really, but Alicia knows that already, from the look Bob gave them yesterday when they told him and Jack they would take care of Elli in the morning. "Thank you so much, again."
She laughs. "Don't you worry, I remember how it was, those first few years with Jack when Bob was always away." Eric isn't sure if she's talking about the sleep, or the sex, or both, perhaps. "And Elli's delightful. We can babysit anytime."
He smiles because it really sounds like Alicia and Bob would be ready to jump on a plane to take care of Elli for a single evening.
He's about to reply when Jack and Elli come to a stop a few meters in front of them. They're at the top of a small wooden bridge, and going by the large panel in front of Eric, it looks like they're coming into crocodile territory. Lovely. What wouldn't he do for his child?
"I don't see it!" Elli complains as he tries to peek through the horizontal panels of the wooden fence.
"He's just down there," Jack says, pointing downwards. "C'mere."
He picks Elli up and makes him stand on the fence — half of his body slightly leaning over it. There's a net between him and the crocodiles, and Jack has a steady arm around Elli, but that doesn't discourage Eric from calling a quick, "Careful!"
"We are," Jack assures him, and both of them turn their heads back to the crocodile, somewhere beneath them.
Elli points a tiny finger at it. "He's sleepy."
"He sure looks like it, coco. Maybe he just ate."
"D'you know that crocs have their nose on top of their face so they can swim around and still breathe?"
"Yeah, tha'ss like, sw'awesome."
Jack nods, and Elli goes on about what he knows about crocodiles, while Jack watches him with his usual intensity, like there is nothing else that matters more right now than the fact that crocodiles have a different set of teeth than alligators.
It makes Eric smile and when he turns towards Alicia, he notices the same kind of expression on her face: joy, but also something more emotional, a feeling Eric knows too well.
"I see it too," he tells her. "I see it too."
She throws him a bit of a wobbly smile, and Eric's heart swells even more. He can't even begin to imagine being in the Zimmermanns' shoes, going through with what happened to Jack. He can't even imagine how painful that must have been, to think they might have lost their child, and he prays to God nothing like that will ever happen to Elli.
And now, for Alicia and Bob to see Jack happy — not only having a partner but also a small child in his arms, a child that he loves and that loves him in turn…
"Why ain't he dancing?" Elli says as they both stare at the crocodile.
Jack frowns. "Dancing?"
"Yeah. Doing the croc rock."
"Oh," Jack chuckles. "I don't think this crocodile dances, Elli."
Eric laughs and joins them, just before Elli can ask why again.
Disappointment at non-dancing crocodiles doesn't last and they stave off emotional subjects as the afternoon drags along.
Eric shakes the shivers off his back the moment they get out of the insectarium, Jack's face just a bit pale after Elli insisted to look at the millipedes for long minutes. That's a thing Eric didn't know about him.
Just as his eyes acclimatize to the intense sunshine, Eric's gaze lands on another information panel, and while he's able to read the words, his brain seems unable to register them.
"Capybaras! Daddy! Jack!" Elli shouts, running towards the fence.
Eric stares for a long time until Jack wraps an arm around his shoulders and kisses his head. "Dancing crocodiles and zoo Pokémons," he laughs. "I thought you two would have better animal knowledge by now."
"Ugh," Eric groans. "What would we do without you?"
"Forget to bring sausage to the lake monster, I bet."
Laughing, Eric shoves him off.
Elli's fringe is plastered against his forehead and his cheeks are bright red from the heat. They've been driving for three hours now, and Elli still believes they're on their way home to Moo Maw and Grandpa from Madison's shopping center. His legs are swinging against the leather of the Tesla, and he's got Number One bunched up under his arm. He's been mumbling at him for the past half-hour, but now he's staring at whatever portion of the sky he can see from outside the window.
"Daddy, Jack," Elli finally says, "are we there yet?"
"Not yet, sweetie," Eric says.
From behind the wheel, Jack shoots him a look. All right, they've kept this secret longer than he thought they would be able to.
"We have to tell you something," Eric says. "We're not going back to Moo Maw and Granpa's right now."
Elli stares at him. "Ben là…" he sighs, with the exact resigned tone Jack uses when Elli does something particularly illogical like feed pie to the dryer while it's twirling clothes. Jack smelled of apples for two weeks after that.
The two of them chuckle, and Elli frowns. "We going where?"
"It's a surprise," Jack says, "but you'll like it."
It helps that Elli can't read signs yet: with every passing hour, they're nearing Orlando, Florida. It took them a while to find a moment to take a few days off, between Eric's audition process and Jack's summer training, but one simply does not disappoint Suzanne Bittle. In the end, they managed to get two weeks off — one where they left Elli with his grandparents to have a bit of alone time on a Caribbean resort, followed by three (very long) days spent in Madison, and now two days of… adventure.
They park the car near the main park, Jack gets the stroller out and they walk the rest of the way, Elli still in the blue, until Eric stops and gasps, pointing in front of him. "Elli, do you see that?"
Elli looks in the distance and narrows his eyes. The sun is hitting his face. "I dunno. It's a castle."
As if pastel-blue castles naturally sprout in Florida, but Elli, being four, might not know that.
"Can you guess where we are?" Jack asks him, a grin on his face.
"I dunno. Not at Moo Maw's." Lord, this boy has an attitude, today.
"Can you maybe guess who lives in the castle?"
Elli looks up at him, not understanding the point of these guessing games. "A king and a queen?"
"And maybe a lot of mice?" Jack says, his smile growing.
"Cinderella?" Elli gasps.
"Not only Cinderella," Eric says. "We're going to meet a lot of princes and princesses. We're at Disney, sweetie."
Eric hasn't seen pure joy until here and now, as Elli starts bouncing around, screaming at a high-pitched frequency that actually hurts his ears. Eric and Jack laugh along until Elli takes off in a sprint towards the crowd gathering at the gates.
The excitement hasn't died down a bit as they get inside the park. They've planned it all out — not down to the exact minute, but the Falcs PR team arranged a few things: they'll have to take pictures with some princesses, but it's a bonus since Elli is going to be able to meet Anna and Elsa away from the crowds and spend some time with them.
First thing first, though: they buy Mickey ears for the three of them, because as cliché as it is, it's also the cutest thing ever. They have to. They just have to.
Jack only wears them because Elli insists, places them over his cap, and forgets about them as soon as they're there. Standing here, looking a bit haggard in the middle of the hurried crowd, wearing Mickey ears and pushing a stroller, arms bent and sweat gathering around the neck of his tee-shirt, Jack looks… kissable. He looks more than that, and Eric's gonna show him tonight. A whole Dad. Lord. It's silly how hot parenthood has become.
At some point in the afternoon, after a lot of exploring around, they get inside and meet with Anna and Elsa, which raises even more excitement and squeals than when Elli met Kent. Okay, he probably shouldn't compare, but still.
Once Elli stops being shy, he has a long discussion with Anna and Elsa — both of whom are delightful and charming. They take a few pictures for social media, and then Jack insists on taking ones of his own, while they both chuckle as Elli goes on about his own icy powers of hockey goaltending.
Eventually, the princesses bid their goodbyes, and Eric's about to ask Jack what they should do next when Jack drops a hand to his shoulder.
"Bits," he says, and Eric turns around to—
She's just so pretty. Oh, lord.
Elli turns his head as well, and beams. "Miss Cinderella!"
Eric gapes before he whips his head back towards Jack. "You did not!"
Jack shrugs and smiles, and Eric doesn't know what to do. Oh my god. She's so pretty. Her dress is so pretty. Pale blue and scintillating and like out of a dream. Maybe he doesn't understand much about comics and animated movies, but lord, he doesn't need to when it comes to that dress.
Cinderella smiles back, and bows elegantly towards them. "Hello, sir Elliot, I believe?"
"Yeah, that's me!" Elli replies. "D'you have the mouses with you?"
"Mice," Eric breathes out.
"D'you have the mice with you, Miss Cinderella, please?"
She smiles kindly but shakes her head. "Unfortunately not, they are having a fun time back at the castle, though. I will definitely tell them you visited us today."
"Okay, thank you. My daddy thinks you're pretty."
"Oh my god, Elliot!" Now he sounds like an absolute creep. "I meant to say," he says, controlling his voice, "that you have a pretty dress. You're pretty, too, of course, lord, but I— uh— I really like your dress."
Jack takes his hand in his own and squeezes. Ugh, get a hold of yourself.
"Well, thank you!"
"Daddy also says that your movie is boring."
He gasps. "Elliot!"
That is not something he's supposed to be saying to Cinderella herself, even though she only laughs, and he tries to convey it with a look that Elli doesn't get.
"Yeah," Elli continues, undisturbed, "he says it's 'cause it's not true that a girl can fall in love with a rich prince and go live in a castle 'cause there aren't any princes and you should work hard and also girls ain't need no princes to rescue them."
Cinderella crouches down, her dress bunching around her, as she listens to Elli. "It is true that girls do not need princes to rescue them."
"Yeah, Jack said that, and Jack's right, but I'm gonna tell you a story now." Lord. He's bound to overshare, isn't he? "When I was born my Daddy saw me and we are family and we had a ton, more of a ton, like a million ton of fun together. Daddy ain't have a boyfriend so I tell him he gotta have a friend and then he can bake something and they can be boyfriends. One day Daddy meets Jack and they're friends, and, uh, I dunno if Daddy baked something but then Jack is his boyfriend now and we have a lot of fun together. Daddy's not a girl and he doesn't have a dress but he works a lot at Youtube and Jack ain't a prince but he got a big home even if it's not a castle like yours, so Daddy is wrong when he says your movie can't happen in real life. Daddy and Jack ain't married but I think they're gonna. Do you think they're gonna? Maybe if you ask Daddy pretty please he'll say yes."
Oh my god. He's living the fairy tale. He's living the fairy tale they tell Elli at night to go to sleep. Goodness. He passes an arm around Jack's waist, who kisses the side of his head.
Elli looks at him, back at Cinderella, and then back at him again, with a victorious grin.
Also, wait— they are not getting married after seven months of dating. It is good to know that Elli is… open to the idea, though. Good lord. Why wouldn't he be?
"A princess should not enquire about the private life of others," Cinderella tells Elli, with wisdom the little one needs, "but I can tell that your Daddy and Jack are very happy. I wish you three all the best," she adds, with one of the brightest smiles Eric has ever seen.
They're still talking about movies and stories as they're driving back to Madison, the three of them exhausted but happy.
"Jack," Elli asks from the backseat. "What's your favorite story when you was a kid?"
"Were," Jack corrects. "That's a good question. My mom used to read me the brothers Grimm, so I'd say… The Bremen Town Musicians?"
Eric frowns. "I've never heard of that one."
"Tell us, Jack!" Elli says. "Tell us!"
"Sure." Jack clears his throat. "A long long time ago, a donkey lived on a farm. He had worked for the farmer for many many years, but now he was old and wasn't as strong and as fast as he once was. One day, he hears the farmer telling his wife that they should perhaps get rid of the donkey if he's unable to do his work."
"Yeah. But the donkey hears about it so he decides to flee the farm to become a musician in Bremen, a town he's heard about before. He sets on the road and meets a dog, who tells him that after many years of service, his masters also want to get rid of him. The donkey suggests the dog should join him so that together they can become musicians in Bremen. A bit further down the road, they meet a cat, whose owner didn't want to do anything with him. The donkey and the dog explain their plan to become musicians, and so the cat joins them. They're near the forest now when they see a rooster perched on a fence. The rooster tells them that his family has set on cooking him for their Christmas dinner. What does the donkey say again? Something like… We're going to Bremen. You can always find something better than death. You have a good voice, and when we make music together, it will be very pleasing. So the rooster joins the merry band as they get into the woods on their way to Bremen.
"By the time night has fallen, the musicians want to find a place to stay the night, and they come upon a cabin. The donkey peers inside the cabin, and he sees four men, four robbers feasting around the table celebrating their most recent enterprise. The animals are cold and would like very much to get to sleep inside the cabin, so they devise a plan: the donkey gets near the window, and then the dog jumps on the donkey's back, the cat on the dog, and the rooster on the cat. And then, together, they can make their music for the robbers.
"And so the donkey brayed, the dog barked, the cat meowed and the rooster crowed, and the robbers, seeing that shadow and hearing that horrible noise thought that a monster was watching them. They cried out, fled, and the cabin was free for the animals to use. They ate and sat down by the fire, and they liked it so much that they decided to stay there, where they are still living to this day."
In the mirror, Elli's eyes are wide, but Eric can't help but frown. "That's lovely, but… What does it mean?"
"Well," Eric says, "a fairy tale usually has a moral. But these animals wanted to become famous musicians and they just… didn't? Why not?"
That makes no sense. Evidently, the Germans don't — or didn't — have a Disney mindset.
Jack shrugs. "Sometimes you want to get to Bremen and end up elsewhere, and maybe that place is a whole lot better than Bremen could ever be."
"Sure." He grins. "And sometimes you can be a Bremen town musician without having ever performed in Bremen."
"Hm. I like that," Jack says, eyes on the road.
"That makes no sense," Elli says. "I think it means… I think… Jack, you are the donkey." (Fitting. Jack has the best ass, after all.) "Daddy, you can be the dog. And I'm the cat! But we don't have a rooster. D'y'all think we could adopt Mr Duck and he is the rooster?"
"I like that, too. It's like they found each other along the way and now they're a family," Eric says, with a smile. "We're not adopting Mr Duck, though."
"But Daddy! Then we don't have a rooster and the story doesn't make sense! We can't sing if we don't have a rooster."
"Nope. That's not happening, young man."
Elli slams his back against his seat, crossing his arms. "All fairy tales have the moral?"
"A moral. Pretty much all of them, yes," Eric says, and shoots a look at Jack, in case he's getting something wrong here.
"Jack? Lighthouse dragon and friends have a moral?"
There is no end to Jack's story, not really, but Dragon has made friends with the little boy and all his animals, and they're trying to teach him and encourage him to fly again, despite his fear of heights.
Jack looks in the mirror. "If I say yes, can you tell me what you think it is?"
"I dunno!" Elli says. "Daddy, what do you think it is?"
"Hm, let me think for a second," Eric says. "I think that the moral is that even if you'd think Dragon is made to fly and to be the best at it, he can still be scared and that's okay. It doesn't change the fact he's a dragon."
"Okay," Elli says, clearly not listening to Eric but coming up with his version. "I think it's that Dragon is scary 'cause he's a dragon but he makes friends with the little boy and the animals so that they can have fun together."
"That's great," Jack says. "Very clever."
"What about you?" Eric asks him.
"I like both of yours. I think it's also about not being scared to try new things, even though you might not be the best at it at first. It's all about letting go and jumping off that lighthouse, eh?"
"And friends!" Elli insists.
Jack nods, serious. "And friends."
"Can we go back to the lighthouse?" Elli asks. "I wanna try and be like Dragon so I'm not afraid anymore."
Eric and Jack glance at each other. Lord, he wants to say yes, but knowing Elli, it'll probably be another failed experiment. But then again, his son is trying to be brave, and he can't discourage that.
"We can, sweetie," he says. "We can go back if you want."
They don't get to go back to the lighthouse until the very end of August, days before Elli starts school. The climb is as hard as it was a few months back, but at least now Jack takes Elli part of the way.
By the time they're on the last floor, Elli's positively shaking in Eric's arms, clinging hard onto him.
"We've made it, sweetie!" Eric says, kissing his temple. "You okay if we go outside now?"
Elli nods through a sniff, and Eric's about to step out of the door when Elli throws both of his arms at Jack.
"J'veux toi!" he says. ["I want you!"]
"Ok, ok, coco, viens-t-en," Jack says, as Eric transfers Elli to him. ["Okay, okay, sweetie, c'mon."]
Eric chuckles. He gets it — he too would like Jack to hold him through a fearful experience. There's just something about him.
They get outside, finally, and the view is beautiful, miles and miles of ocean before them. Elli's eyes are closed, though, as his face is mashed against Jack's shoulder.
"Do you want to take a look, sweetheart?" Eric asks.
"No, I'm gonna fall."
"We promise you're not going to fall, Elli," Jack says, rubbing a hand over Elli's back. "We're not even close to the edge. You'll see if you open your eyes. Nothing bad's going to happen."
"Like in the story?"
"Just like in the story," Jack says, adamant.
It takes another moment or two, but Elli finally opens his eyes and uncurls to take a look at the view.
Eric watches his face, carefully, and after a moment or two, Elli's chest stops heaving.
"The water's very big," he says, transfixed, though his body is still pressed against Jack's chest.
"It is," Eric says. "Good job, sweetie. It ain't that bad, right?"
Elli sniffs. "It's fine."
Lord, that was a whole lot of drama for nothing. Still, Eric couldn't be prouder.
They stay on top of the tower for another fifteen minutes, as Jack walks with Elli to show him around. While they're busy doing that, Eric steps right up to the fence and leans his arms on it, taking in the view and the fresh summer breeze. It's the last long weekend when they can fully relax before the ball gets rolling again, with school, followed by Jack's season and Eric's last series of auditions. It's going to get hectic soon, and it'll go even faster than last year, as it always does. Still, things are looking up. More than ever.
When he turns his back to the ocean, Jack and Elli have returned to the front of the lighthouse, quietly chatting away a good distance from the edge of the floor.
Still in Jack's arms, Elli's looking down, the chubby curl of his chin against his neck as he plays with a part of Jack's camera strap. "Jack," he says, slowly. "I gotta question. It's important."
"Yeah? What's going on, coco?"
Elli looks up. "D'you want to be my papa?"
Eric's heart skips a beat, while Jack blinks, gaze intent on Elli. "Of course I can be your papa," Jack says, throat tight. "If you want that. Of course I can."
"Okay," Elli says, as he throws his arms around Jack's neck. "I want to," he adds, voice muffled. "I love you."
"I love you too, Elliot."
Elli eases his hold on Jack's neck and Jack kisses his forehead, eyes closed, for a full second. Eric, with shaky fingers, manages to get his phone out of his pocket and snap a picture of the moment, just before it ends.
"Daddy!" Elli says, beaming. "Jack's my papa, now!"
"I've heard the news!"
He steps up to them, and lord— he has no idea who took control over his face but he can't stop smiling.
Jack glances at him, and his eyes are a bit red. Grinning even harder, Eric squeezes his arm and gets on his toes to kiss his cheek. "Papa," he whispers to him, before kissing Elli's head. "And you, sweetie! Look at our little family!"
Oh, God, this is it, right? Whatever happens from now on, he'll always have these two.
It's not like life has always been kind to him and Jack — it sure gave them quite a few obstacles, throwing in anxiety, addiction, fame, bad break-ups, coming out, and with a baby in the mix… Hell, Eric would have never anticipated all of that, when he received his Samwell diploma years ago. He always imagined his life as a straight road: get his diploma, get a job, get a boyfriend, start a family. Even getting married became a possibility, when the laws passed.
But life had other plans, in the end, and he wouldn't have had it any other way. He wouldn't change any of it — not even the bad break-ups, because he wouldn't have had Elli, and without Elli, he wouldn't have… all of this. He doesn't mind the detours, now. They've made his life so much more interesting. They're what brought him here and now, to Elli, to Jack, to this specific life, and he wouldn't exchange it for the world. They're his family. This is his family. He did it a bit backward, but he did it anyway. He found his boys.
No, Eric didn't know this is where he'd be at twenty-eight, because some things aren't as inescapable as Elli's voice, clear and loud, coming from the backseat as they're trying to make him nap, on their way home:
"Daddy, Papa, when I was on top of the lighthouse I saw France!"
A beat. "Elli…" Jack says. "I'm pretty sure that was an island."
"Nah. It was France. On another continent like in the bath!"
And then, inevitably:
"Are we there yet?"