Four and a half seasons. Eric has to keep reminding himself that Jeff has survived four and a half seasons without him. Sure, two and a half were with Jordy watching over him, and maybe Eric didn’t quite trust his little brother with Jeff, so there may have been some “back seat Domming” going on, or at least that’s what Jordy complained about. But for two of those years, Jeff has been right here in Buffalo, with Eichs as his captain, so he’s not Eric’s rookie anymore, and Eric isn’t his Captain either. He finds himself having to pull his hand back when he’s reaching out for Jeff, having to remind himself that Jeff isn’t his responsibility anymore, and more than that, that Eichs is his Captain and won’t appreciate Eric asking him questions about how he’s Domming Jeff.
Still, Eric can’t help but wonder whether Jeff is getting what he needs, and he bites his tongue to stop himself from offering because it isn’t his place. It’s not that nobody Doms outside of being the Captain but, as a Captain, it’s your responsibility to ensure that every sub on the team is taken care of, had someone to keep them balanced. Eric hadn’t looked after everyone himself in Carolina, that would have been ridiculous, he’d have exhausted himself, but Jeff had been one of the ones he had, unable to pass him off to anyone else, not wanting to pass him off to anyone else – Eric has always had a soft spot for Jeff, roughly the size of his heart.
Jeff seems fine at practice, and during games, he’s always smiling but Eric learnt long ago that Jeff smiling doesn’t always mean Jeff’s happy, and the first half of the season he seems balanced, even if he isn’t visibly kneeling for anyone in the locker room the way he used to for Eric. Then, halfway through February, he gets scratched – he’s not been bad, he’s just not performing the way the coaches want him to, and Eric bites his tongue for what feels like the thousandth time, not wanting to criticise his coaches, but at the same time knowing deep down that punishing Jeff isn’t going to get the results that they want. Jeff’s always been the kind of sub who responded better to praise when he did well than to punishment when he was doing badly.
After the game, Jeff appears in the locker room, subdued in his suit, and waits patiently by the door. Eric knows he should just ignore him, he’s clearly there waiting for his assigned Dom, but Eric also wants to know who Eichel has assigned to Jeff, so he takes a little longer to change that he normally would, taking things slow so he’s one of the last to leave the locker room. He can’t help but notice that Jeff is stood stiffly, as if he’s locked his knees to stop them from buckling, and Eric wonders if it wouldn’t be kinder to have let him kneel while he waited.
“Come on then Skins,” Jack says with a sigh, one hand on the back of Jeff’s neck, as he steers him out of the locker room.
Eric almost reaches out to stop him; has to ball his hands into fists to stop himself from doing anything. Dynamic play is usually kept mostly out of the locker room, aside from kneeling, anything more tends to be done in private – still, you get to know your teammates, even if it’s just through chatting and laughing over beers, and Eric knows exactly what kind of Dom Jack Eichel is.
Growing up, Eric had learnt to live with, and love, three other Doms who were all very different to him; his Mom first of all, and Marc and Jordy are both completely different types of Dom to him, and he loves and respects them. He’d be the last person on the planet to judge another Dom’s style, and he certainly doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with being the kind of sadist that Eichel is -- the great thing about dynamic play is that there’s a sub that suits every Dom, and a Dom to suit every sub. Eric’s problem is more that it’s Jeff, and Jeff is the furthest thing from a masochist a sub can be. Sure, some subs need a firm hand, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, but all Jeff has ever seemed to need was to be kneeling at Eric’s feet, for a few moments of quiet, where he was the centre of Eric’s world.
Jeff’s at practice the next morning but he’s quieter than usual, his smiles are dimmer, and it makes Eric’s heart physically ache.
“Hey,” he can’t stop himself from skating close to him in a moment of quiet. “How are you doing?”
“I’ll do better,” Jeff promises him, quiet determination in his voice.
“I didn’t ask that,” Eric starts, but Jeff has already skated away.
The second game that Jeff is scratched for works much the same, he appears after the game and traipses home with Eichel, looking every bit like he’s going to the executioner.
“Look,” Taylor Hall grabs Eric by the sleeve, clearly noticing how uncomfortable he looks with the whole situation. “I know Skins is your friend, but he’s fucked up, he has to be punished, you know the rules.”
Eric shakes his head. “He hasn’t,” he says under his breath, “He hasn’t fucked up.”
Hallsy snorts, “He’s scratched, that means he’s fucked up.”
There’s reasonable privacy on the plane back, nearly everyone has their headphones in, so Eric can sit next to Jeff and talk in peace, as long as they keep their voices down.
“Can we talk?” Eric asks softly. Jeff nods in response, so Eric pushes on, “I’m worried about you.”
Jeff rolls his eyes, “I said,” his voice is insistent, “I’ll be better.”
“Jeffy,” Eric says, and it’s been a while since he used that particular nickname, but it feels right. “I’m not worried about your fucking hockey, I’m worried about you.”
“Oh," Jeff says quietly, staring at his knees. “I just…” he looks up at Eric, brown eyes filled with tears, “I don’t know how to fix it.”
Eric shifts so he can wrap an arm around Jeff. “You don’t need to,” he promises. “You’re perfect just as you are.”
Jeff shakes his head in disagreement. “Not according to the team,” he says insistently, and then, a little quieter, “Not according to Jack.”
“Can I ask what your punishment was?” Eric asks.
“Same as usual,” Jeff tells him. “Stinging nettles,” he shudders, “They’re kind of Eichs’ favourite.”
“Jesus,” Eric can’t help the arm that tightens around Jeff’s shoulders, he knows he shouldn’t ask the next question, Eichs is his captain, but at the same time, he cares more about Jeff that he does about adhering to some stupid rules, “And he looks after you afterwards?”
Jeff nods insistently, “Always puts cream wherever the nettles have touched, always makes me drink a Gatorade and eat a protein bar before I go to sleep.”
Eric sighs because technically there’s nothing wrong with that. Technically Eichel has done everything he’s required to do but, at the same time, Jeff isn’t in need of punishment, Jeff needs to get out of his own head. He racks his brains, trying to think of a way to fix this without fucking up either Jeff’s relationship, or his own relationship with his captain. “Leave it with me,” he promises. He’ll have to find some way to sort it. He wishes he could put Jeff on his knees right there and then on the plane, but he can’t, so he settles for keeping his arm around Jeff’s shoulders, his thumb stroking his bicep.
They have practice the next morning, no skate, just tapes, but he manages to catch Jack alone for a minute. “Hey, Eichs,” Eric says quietly, “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure,” Jack grins at him, despite the face he presents to the media, he always tries to be approachable to his teammates.
“It’s just a little thing,” Eric scratches the back of his neck awkwardly, it’s a conscious movement, a submissive movement, making sure Jack feels like he’s the stronger Dom in this situation, “I just,” he glances over his shoulder to make sure no-one is listening, another calculated motion to make himself seem more awkward – he knows he should feel bad for manipulating his Captain this way, but it’s for Jeff, so it’s worth it. “You know I was Skins' Captain for a while back in Carolina.”
“For sure,” Jack nods.
“Well, just, if you need any tips on how to manage him, I know he sometimes needs a bit of special handling, and he’s clearly struggling at the moment.”
Jack snorts, “I don’t know what he was like for you,” he glances disparagingly at Eric, and Eric tries not to let it rankle him, “But Skins is a dream sub, he takes his punishment with no argument, and his aftercare is easy as shit, make sure he’s fed and watered and he’s back to his usual smiley self.”
Eric clenches his jaw so hard he’s not sure how his teeth don’t crack. Just because Jeff is smiling doesn’t mean Jeff is happy, it’s never meant that.
“Honestly,” Jack continues, clearly not noticing Eric’s discomfort, “He’s never wanted maintenance punishments, so this is the first time I’ve really had any kind of dynamic interaction with him, but like I say, he’s been a dream,” he claps Eric on the shoulder, “Thanks for looking out for me, but maybe he’s just grown up a bit, learnt to do as he’s told.”
Eric nods and can’t bring himself to speak, jaw clenched too tightly, he watches as Jack walks off to the kitchen to make himself a drink. He forces himself to take a breath. He’s been in enough teams in his time to know that each team deals with things differently, but the idea that Jack thinks that if a sub doesn’t need punishment, they don’t need attention makes him want to scream. In Carolina, Jeff had knelt for him before and after every game, even if it had just been five minutes, five minutes with his hand stroking through Jeff’s soft brown curls. It had grounded them both, after winning it had toned down Jeff’s bouncy energy to a level that the others wouldn’t get wound up by him, after losing, Eric could watch the tension slipping away from Jeff’s shoulders, knowing that Eric had him, knowing that Eric was keeping him safe.
Jack’s out for the game, just his groin playing up, but he wants to take it easy. That doesn’t stop the coaches from scratching Jeff for the third game in a row.
“Hey,” Eric makes sure to catch Jeff in the locker room before the game, “You still going home with Eichs today?”
Jeff shakes his head, “We’re both in the players' box, he says we can do it there.”
Eric feels a tension headache coming on, the idea of Jack punishing his soft delicate boy in public, even if the cameras won’t be on them, makes him want to be sick.
“Come back to mine,” he says eventually, “After the game.”
“It’s against the rules, isn’t it?” Jeff asks, sounding so uncertain that Eric just wants to pull him into his arms.
“If you’re allowed to go back to Eichs’, you can come back to mine,” Eric says, and he can hear the bitterness in his own tone. “If anyone finds out and has a problem with it, they can fucking scratch me for it.”
“Ok,” Jeff nods, quiet and subdued and so not the Jeff that Eric knows, “Ok, I’ll see you then,” and he grins at Eric, and Eric knows that it’s his tired grin, the one he plasters on when he’s trying to hide what’s going on inside, the one that Eichs has undoubtedly been misreading.
They lose to the Devils in overtime, but Eric doesn’t even care, his only focus now is Jeff. He can’t make eye contact with Eichs when he appears in the locker room after the game, knowing he’s been punishing Jeff while the rest of them were playing hockey, while Jeff himself should have been focusing on the game.
Jeff is hovering awkwardly near the door and Eric forces himself to look up at him, give him a little grin. Jeff smiles back, but it’s empty, and it’s clear to Eric, even if it’s not clear to anyone else, that he’s still shaken after his scene.
The one advantage of the COVID regulations is that he doesn’t have to make an excuse as to why he’s not going out with the team. Eric just pulls on his suit as quickly as possible after his cooldown and shower, and as he passes Jeff at the door, he lets his hand catch on Jeff’s shoulders. “Come on Skins,” he says under his breath.
Jeff looks to Jack for just a moment, and Jack gives him a nod, clearly releasing him from any lingering power exchange from his punishment, and silently, Jeff follows Eric out of the locker room.
“Your car here?” Eric asks.
Jeff nods in reply.
“We’ll pick it up in the morning,” Eric tells him decisively. “I don’t want you driving right now.”
Jeff gives a little shuddery exhale. “Thank you,” he murmurs quietly.
They’re silent as they walk through the car park, Jeff slipping into the passenger seat of Eric’s car, and for just a moment, it could be three years ago, driving home after a game together, but then Jeff winces trying to grasp his seatbelt and Eric’s jolted back to the present. “Let me,” he orders quietly, reaching across the car to buckle Jeff into the seat.
“Thanks,” Jeff says, and it’s louder than the first time he’d spoken, and Eric can hear how raw his voice is, “My hands are still a little sore.”
Eric takes a breath just to try and keep the judgment from his voice before he asks, “Am I allowed to ask what your punishment was?”
“Nettles,” Jeff swallows. “Nettles resting on my hands for every second the top line were on the ice.”
Eric’s biting his lip as he starts the car, and it takes him a few moments to collect himself, so it’s not until they’re on the highway that he asks, “Has something changed Skins? Because last time I checked you weren’t a masochist.”
Jeff huffs out a little sarcastic laugh, “Still not a masochist Cap,” and even though he sounds so hurt, the nickname warms something in Eric’s heart, “But I’m not supposed to enjoy my punishments.”
“Still,” Eric sighs, “They should be within the realms of acceptable to you.”
“It’s not…” Jeff starts to protest, “I deserve this Cap, I’m not pulling my weight.”
Eric shakes his head, “See, here’s the thing Skins,” he reaches over and pats Jeff on the thigh, “Punishments aren’t about what a sub deserves, they’re about what they need, and I don’t think this is what you need.”
Jeff’s quiet for the rest of the ride, and Eric hopes he’s digesting what he said, because whilst Eric can’t step in and tell Jack that he should be the one Domming Jeff instead, they absolutely will listen to Jeff himself if he requests a different Dom.
He parks under the building, and as they’re going up in the elevator he feels a moment of nervousness, Jeff hasn’t actually seen Eric’s Buffalo apartment. “It’s not…” Eric falters, “My place here isn’t quite as homey as my place in Carolina was.”
Jeff nudges his shoulder against Eric’s, “Much though I miss yours and Jordy’s place, I’m not here to judge your home décor.”
It’s hard not to put a hand on the back of Jeff’s neck and steer him into the lounge, but Eric resists the habit and instead offers him a drink. He has his own post-game protein shake, sitting down on the couch. For a minute they sit there in silence, and then Eric remembers that he’s going to have to start this conversation, he’s going to have to make the first move, it’s all on him. “Jeffy,” he says gently, “I know I’m not your Captain these days…”
Jeff scoffs and interrupts him, “You’ll always be my Captain Cap,” he says, emphasising the nickname just to make the point.
“I know,” Eric can’t not smile at that, “But Eichs is responsible for your dynamic needs now,” he glances pointedly at Jeff’s hands. “Still,” he takes a breath, “I was wondering if you’d kneel for me.”
Jeff looks up at him, hope sparkling in his eyes, “Really?”
Eric shrugs, “I’m not Domming for anyone at the moment,” he says honestly, “And I’ve missed you.” It’s painfully honest, too honest perhaps, but Jeff looks like he needs it.
“Now?” Jeff asks, the hope evident in his voice as well as his expression now.
The tension eases from Eric’s chest as he nods, “Yeah Jeffy,” he says with a smile, “Now.”
Jeff grins, wide and bright, and that’s his happy smile and it feels to Eric that it’s been far too long since he saw that happy smile.
“Come here,” Eric says, taking one of the cushions off the couch and throwing it on the floor between his knees, since that’s how Jeff would always kneel in the locker room for him. Jeff comes over so eagerly and kneels so easily Eric can’t help feel his heart swell with love. He reaches out and smooths his hand through Jeff’s hair.
With a quiet sigh, Jeff leans his head against Eric’s knee, his eyes fluttering shut, a quiet smile on his face and he seems to relax properly for the first time Eric’s seen since he came to Buffalo.
“You’re my good boy Jeffy,” Eric tells him, he should feel guilty for how possessive it comes out sounding, but he doesn’t. “You’re a good boy and you’re definitely a good hockey player.”
Jeff whines softly against his knee.
“You are Jeffy,” Eric says insistently, “They haven’t been supporting you here, they haven’t been meeting your needs, and that isn’t on you.” He can’t see it, but he can tell Jeff is pouting, so he slides one hand down to Jeff’s cheek, tilting his face up so he’s meeting Eric’s eyes, “You’re a good boy Jeff.”
Jeff pouts even further.
“Come on,” Eric coaxes, one hand going down to scratch at the base of Jeff’s skull, “I want you to say it for me, tell me you know you’re a good boy.”
Jeff presses his face against the inside of Eric’s thigh, his nose rubbing against the inseam of Eric’s suit pants in a way that is far too distracting. “I can’t Cap,” he whines.
Eric tugs on his hair softly, “Yes you can Jeffy,” he says, “You’re my good boy.” He strokes his hand through Jeff’s hair once more, “Can you say it for me? What are you?”
“I’m not,” Jeff mutters, “I’m not though.”
Eric hums, “You know better than me then?” he asks, his tone perhaps a little teasing.
Instantly Jeff is looking up at him, blushing heavily, “I didn’t say that Cap!” he protests.
“Then you’re my good boy,” Eric lets his thumb stroke across Jeff’s cheek, “Because I say you are.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Jeff nods.
“Good boy,” Eric tells him, and then, his hand still cupping Jeff’s cheek, “What are you Jeffy?”
Jeff whimpers, and buries his face in Eric’s thigh once more, but he does mumble the required answer, muffled completely by Eric’s suit pants.
“Sorry?” Eric teases, tilting Jeff’s face back towards him once more, “I didn’t quite catch that.”
Jeff is grinning now, his face flaming red, but it’s definitely the good kind of embarrassment as he bites his lip, staring up at Eric before admitting softly, “I’m your good boy Cap.”
“Yeah you are,” Eric grips his face in both hands and is seized by a sudden urge to kiss him, which he circumvents, by planting a soft kiss to Jeff’s forehead. “Sleep in my bed tonight,” he tells him. It won’t be the first time, it had happened occasionally after terrible losses in Carolina, when Jeff was really struggling, and Eric feels it would be good for both of them.
Jeff nods in agreement, but he doesn’t move, just buries his face further into Eric’s upper thigh.
So, Eric lets his hand card through Jeff’s hair, it won’t hurt them to stay where they are for a little while. He keeps a careful eye on the time however, because while Jeff hadn't played a game that day, he'd scened with Eichs, and that would be sure to have exhausted him . He lets Jeff have some time though, before Eric’s tugging softly on his hair, “Come on Jeffy,” he coaxes, “Let’s go to bed.”
Jeff doesn’t say anything, but he stretches as he drags himself to his feet and follows Eric silently through to his bedroom. It’s been a while since they shared a space, but it doesn’t feel unfamiliar to stand next to Jeff while they brush their teeth together.
Eric can’t help but grin when he offers his clothes to Jeff, he has to sleep in something, and seeing him in a worn Petes’ t-shirt with his boxers makes something stir in Eric’s chest. It’s not until they’re lying in bed, face to face, the lights off, that Jeff finally speaks.
“I wish…” he says softly, “I wish there was a way we could have this.”
Eric reaches out, a soft hand on Jeff’s waist, his thumb slipping underneath Jeff’s t-shirt to caress bare skin. “I know, but…” and then he pauses, because something has just occurred to him, “I mean… there is one way?”
Jeff frowns, “Not really Eric,” he sighs, “I don’t think Eichs will be happy handing off my discipline to someone else.”
“Still,” Eric pushes, he’s not quite ready to admit to his idea just yet, but he’s pretty sure he can get Jeff to work out what it is, “There are other subs on the team, who don’t just get dynamic care from a teammate.”
“Well yeah,” Jeff waves him off dismissively, “I could be getting it from a partner if…” he trails off and suddenly blushes, refusing to meet Eric’s gaze.
Eric moves his hand so he’s cupping Jeff’s cheek, “I know,” he sighs, “I know it’s a lot, but I worry about you Jeffy, and I want you close, always.”
“You mean that?” Jeff asks, and once again there’s hope in his voice, “You’d be willing to do that for me?”
It tugs on Eric’s heart the way he says that. “Not for you,” he corrects, “For us. I want you Jeff, you’ve got to know I’ve always been weird about you.”
Jeff shrugs, “Was too busy being weird about you,” he admits, a flush to his cheeks, but he’s smiling, dimple under Eric’s thumb.
“God,” Eric sighs, “You’re too much Jeffy. Can I…” he wants to ask, but it takes a moment to draw the courage. “I’d really like to kiss you,” he finishes, his thumb brushing across Jeff’s lower lip, “Would that be alright Jeff?”
“Yes,” Jeff grins, “Yes.”
Eric presses their foreheads together before gently, softly, pressing his lips against Jeff’s. The kisses they share are so soft, they almost don’t exist, but he can feel Jeff’s smile against his lips, and he wraps his arm around his waist to pull him in tight. “God Jeff,” he whispers, kissing him again, this time daring to let his tongue just wet the seal of Jeff’s mouth, “You are such a good boy.”
Jeff pulls away with a whimper and buries his face in Eric’s shoulder. “Too much,” he breathes softly.
“Sorry baby,” Eric says, carding his hand through his hair, “How about we just stay like this for a bit.”
They stay there for a moment, one of Eric’s hands stroking through Jeff’s hair, the other sliding soothingly up and down his back.
“If…” Jeff falters, “If this scratch turns out to be a bit more permanent…”
Eric can see exactly where his mind is going, “Jeff,” he says sternly, “I want to be your Dom, whether you are playing here or somewhere else.” He’d rather not think about being traded away, or Jeff being sent down, not when he just got him back, but the fact still remains, he’s wanted Jeff for years, loved him for years.
“Oh,” Jeff says quietly.
“Me loving you isn’t conditional on your hockey,” Eric reinforces, and it’s not until Jeff looks up at him, brown eyes wide, that he realises what he’s said.
“You love me?”
Eric sighs, and presses a kiss to Jeff’s forehead. “Always,” he admits, because he’s been gone on Jeff for far, far too long.
“Oh!” Jeff grins at him, wide and bright, and Eric can’t stop himself from bending to press a kiss to one of his dimples, the way he’s been aching to do for years. That just makes Jeff laugh, and he winds his arms around Eric’s neck, pulling him in for another kiss. “I’d love to be your sub, Cap,” he says gently, “For real.”
“Good,” Eric kisses him firmly, resolutely, “I’ll talk to management about it tomorrow, I don’t think it’s something we should keep from them.” He doesn’t mention the fact that it’s also because as soon as Jeff is back in the line-up, Eric wants him kneeling in the locker room again.
Jeff nods and snuggles into Eric’s embrace and Eric feels himself relax for the first time in days. Sure he might not have fixed all of Jeff’s problems, to even think that he could do that in one evening was unrealistic, but they’ve taken a step in the right direction. Besides, now, at least, Jeff will let him care for him the way he really wants to, and whether that has an effect on Jeff’s game or not, Eric really doesn’t care, because it will have an effect on Jeff, and in Eric’s mind, that’s what really matters.
“Sleep now,” he mutters, pressing a kiss into Jeff’s hair, “I’ve got you.”