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If Jeff has to eat another serve of this week-old carbonara, he is going to lose it. He prods at the limp fettuccine with his fork and sighs as he twirls it around his fork.

As he swallows down his mouthful, he curses his inability to judge portion sizes. Even with eating hockey-player sized portions every day he’s still got leftovers. It’s not the first time this has happened either. He’s too used to cooking for eight, plus whatever random guests inevitably end up at their house.

Logic would tell him he’s not hurting for cash and he could just throw something once he gets sick of it, but Jeff’s been raised on a strong diet of waste not, want not. Six kids playing hockey was expensive and even though his parents made good money, things had been tight sometimes. He still cringes at the thought of throwing something out.

“I can’t eat another bowl of this,” he mutters to himself as he puts the leftovers back in the fridge. They glare ominously at him. “I cannot.”

Despite his despair, he gets through the carbonara. He’s been feeling tired and uninspired lately so he makes a stew in the slow cooker. It’s only once he’s served himself a bowl over mashed potatoes when he realises he’s made the same damn mistake. He eyeballs his bowl and the stew in the cooker. He’s barely made a dent, there’s at least enough for ten more serves there.

*

At the end of the day Jeff feels wrung out and sleepy. Thankfully they don’t have a game tonight, but bag skates are never fun.

Next to him, Eric peels off his sweaty shirt, tosses it to the laundry basket, and leans back in his stall, head thumping against the wall. “I’m so hungry,” he groans.

“Well you’re not coming over to mine for dinner again,” Cam hollers from the corner. “Cody’s sick of your ass.” He throws a sweaty sock so it lands on Eric’s face.

Several of the others call out their own pre-emptive rejections of Eric’s company at dinner, and Eric pouts.

“You should learn to cook, Staaler.”

“I can cook!” Eric defends. “I just don’t like eating alone.”

“Right,” TK says sceptically. “Keep telling yourself that, man.”

Jeff waits until they’re all starting to leave and the attention has died down a bit and gets Eric’s attention. “I’ve got heaps if you wanna come over to mine,” he suggests. “It’s just leftovers but I can’t eat it all anyway, so.”

Eric smiles at him. “No, Jeff, it’s okay, I can actually cook for myself,” he says gently. “They’re just chirping.”

Jeff’s stomach sinks and he feels like an idiot, but he can’t help himself. “Please?” he practically begs, thinking of the mountain of food in his fridge. “I’m actually an okay cook.”

Eric hesitates and Jeff sighs, resigning himself to a no. “Never mind,” he says quietly. His disappointment must show in his face though, because Eric makes a strangled noise in the back of his throat.

“No, no, okay, I’ll come,” Eric agrees.

Jeff grins. “Cool! Do you like stew? I made that last night.” He frowns and bites his lip. “I’ve also got pasta if you prefer? It’s frozen but it won’t be hard to defrost it,” he says, mentally making a list of things to grab on the way home for sides. He wonders what Eric’s feelings on garlic bread are. Does he like the store bought stuff or should Jeff make some?

“Stew’s great,” Eric promises. “What time do you want me over?”

Jeff thinks quickly - stew sides are a bit quicker to whip up, but he’s still lacking some ingredients. He also needs to tidy his kitchen into a presentable state, and he should probably clean the bathroom just in case Eric needs to use it. “Say, an hour and a half?” he suggests.

“Sounds good. I need to go home and have a proper shower anyway,” Eric says, wrinkling his nose in the direction of the locker room showers.

*

Jeff zips around the supermarket like a whirlwind, and the moment he gets home he peels the potatoes and puts them on the boil. While they’re cooking he shoves three days worth of bowls and cutlery into the dishwasher, uses a damp cloth to sweep all the crumbs off the counters onto the floor, and quickly vacuums up all the resulting mess. He stabs a potato with a fork and frowns when it’s still hard in the middle but gets to work on the salad. When that’s complete and in the fridge he grabs the stew and tips in in a pot, putting it over low heat with an extra splash of water. He sticks the lid on and hurries to clean the bathroom.

By the time there’s a knock on his door, Jeff is just finishing up mashing the potatoes. “Coming!” he calls, scraping them into a nice bowl. He hurriedly hides the pot in the washer and puts the potatoes on the table as he makes his way to the door.

Eric’s eyes widen as he takes in the spread Jeff’s set out. “This looks great!” his stomach grumbles on cue.

Jeff does his very best not to let his face give away too much about how pleased he is about that. “I’ll just get the stew, sit down.”

When Jeff gets back with the steaming bowl Eric’s plate is still empty and he stands as if to help Jeff with something. Jeff waves him down and plonks into a seat. “Go on,” he urges.

Eric grabs a scoop of mashed potatoes, a spoon of stew, and a little salad. It’s a very small serving to what he’d normally eat and Jeff frowns in concern as he serves himself. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. What if Eric doesn’t like his cooking? “It’s just a pretty simple recipe,” he says nervously, trying to manage Eric’s expectations. “Nothing fancy, but you know. It’s not bad.”

Eric piles a fork with potato and a chunk of beef.

Jeff tries not to be too obvious about watching him chew then swallow, looking down at his plate every time he thinks Eric might look at him.

“Oh my god, Jeff,” Eric says when he’s finished. “You’ve missed your calling as a chef. That was amazing.”

Jeff flushes and smiles. “Yeah?”

“It’s great,” Eric promises. Without even having finished what’s on his plate, he reaches for the bowl again, loading his plate to almost overflowing.

Jeff grins and beams at him so strongly that he’s pretty sure his left dimple makes an appearance, but he doesn’t manage to summon any actual words.

Dinner passes slowly, Eric prompting conversation in bursts about the team and how Jeff is finding the NHL. He shares a few stories about his own experiences as a rookie and Jeff just barely keeps up his end of the conversation. In the several months that he’s been on the team, he’s never really been alone with Eric for any extended periods of time, and now that he is the tiny, tiny crush he’d had on Eric when he first arrived is rearing its head and making him muddle-tongued and awkward.

He’s not in the least surprised when Eric takes off pretty soon after they finish eating, but the handshake-hug of thanks Eric pulls him into when he says goodbye was definitely an unexpected but positive development. Jeff lays on his bed with his eyes squeezed tightly shut and a grin pressed into his pillow when he thinks about it later.

*

Jeff’s surprising culinary skills get a bit of a reputation around the locker room after that. Eric couldn’t stop moaning about the leftovers he took home afterwards and Justin Peters had chimed in with a casual “Yeah, when he was living with me he did most of the cooking, it was pretty great,” and that had been that.

It takes two weeks of nagging before Jeff finally bothers to dignify it with a response, pointing out that no matter how they try there is no way an entire team of hockey players can fit in his apartment and he’s not cooking individual meals for each of them. He’s feeling pretty pleased with himself for having made such a foolproof argument when Eric pipes up that he’s welcome to do it in his house. Eric’s hilariously oversized bachelor pad is the butt of more than a few jokes around the locker room and there’s definitely enough space there to host the team. Jeff could say no but he is painfully aware of his position as the rookie so he hesitantly agrees.

He spends the next week cooking every night, regardless of whether they’d had a game or not, and by the time the agreed date comes around he’s got enough frozen batches of stews and casseroles that all he has to do on the night is defrost, reheat, and assemble salads.

Eric makes a sheepish entrance just as Jeff’s stacking empty containers in the dishwasher. “Can I help with anything?” he asks, gesturing broadly.

“I’m pretty much done.” Jeff straightens and looks at Eric. “But you could help me get this out to the masses.”

The guys whistle and hoot as Jeff and Eric start bringing out dishes, and several of them pitch in to help. In no time at all the table is groaning under the weight of all the food and the team crowds around it, filling their plates.

Jeff stands back and watches, making mental notes on what they all take. He still hasn’t served up any for himself when Eric comes up behind him. “It’s all amazing,” he says.

Jeff startles, jumping backward and colliding with Eric’s chest. He tries to scramble away, embarrassed, but Eric laughs lightly and grabs his wrist loosely, pulling him back closer. “You make great food, but I can’t help noticing you’re not eating it. What did you do, poison us?”

Eric is so funny. Jeff giggles. “Nah, be a bit awkward trying to get the Cup by myself.”

“Probably impossible,” Eric agrees, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Unless you’re a goalie, maybe.”

“What’s that then?” Cam startles the both of them, and Jeff starts to stammer out an explanation.

Eric waves it off. “Inside joke,” he says, grinning. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Cam snorts but wanders off to talk to Gleason after only a brief conversation, leaving Jeff and Eric in a conversational lull. Eric nudges him with an elbow. “Go on,” he teases. “Eat. It’s good, and you need to put on a bit more weight anyway.”

Jeff rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah,” he agrees. “Okay.”

Eric claps him on the shoulder and hands him a beer. “Good work, rookie.”

*

It takes Jeff a couple of months but eventually he manages to get his portion sizes down to reasonable, only getting three or four meals out of one dish. It’s a huge relief to have some more variety in his diet at home, but he’s a bit disappointed that he no longer has a good excuse to invite Eric around all the time.

“Hey,” Eric slings an arm around Jeff’s shoulders as they make their way out of the arena one afternoon, faux casual. “Got any leftovers?”

“Oh,” Jeff scratches the back of his neck. There’s maybe just enough chilli left for one person. They’ve got a road trip coming up and he’d wanted to clear out his fridge beforehand. “Um, not at the moment.”

Eric’s face falls and Jeff feels abruptly guilty and like he has to somehow fix this. “I was going to stop at the store and get some ingredients though, so you could come over anyway?”

That perks Eric up and he grins. “Oh cool! What were you going to make?”

Jeff scrubs at the back of his neck with his palm. “I- Uh- Um.“ His face is turning red. He needs to get better at lying on the fly. “I was just going to figure it out when I got there. What do you like?”

“Oh, you don’t have to - I’m easy, I’ll eat whatever.”

Jeff hums thoughtfully. “Okay well, do you want to come to the store with me or meet me back at mine?” Maybe he can push Eric into a decision at the store.

But Eric glances down at his watch and grimaces. “I’d love to come, but I’ve got a few things I need to do first. Is it okay if I meet you there? I can help.”

Jeff shakes his head. “No, don’t worry about it, seriously. I’ll see you there.” If Eric won’t tell him, he’s just going to have to try and remember what Eric’s favourites are. They’ve eaten together enough as a team that he knows he can’t go wrong with chicken or pasta, so he’s got a few dishes that he can work with there.

He’s halfway through browning the chicken when it dawns on him that he’s trying too hard to impress Eric. His crush is probably visible from a mile away and now that he’s making a dish solely to Eric’s tastes. Maybe he should scrap it and make something else.

He flings open his pantry and stares at the contents, wondering what he could use. There’s some canned stir fry vegetables and a few sauces he could combine. He’s got fresh veggies in the fridge he could add. A plan is starting to come together in his head when the doorbell rings.

“Yum,” says Eric, seeing the ingredients for the pasta laid out on Jeff’s counters. “My favourite.”

Jeff quietly shelves the stir fry plan and tries not to die of complete humiliation.

They work side by side in comfortable silence for the next while until Eric finishes chopping and goes to stand on the other side of the counter, watching while Jeff works and asking him about what he's doing. "So when I was about thirteen Mom told me I had to pick a night to start cooking for the family and this was one of the first dishes I made." Jeff says. "It seemed basically impossible then, nearly everything went wrong. I undercooked the penne, added enough garlic to kill a horse, and burned the sauce. Everyone was pretending they loved it until Jilly took a bite. She spat it right back out into the bowl and begged Mom to ban me from the kitchen."

Eric laughs loudly. "Well lucky for me she didn't get her way then," he grins. "I might starve to death."

"Don't know how you fed yourself before I got here," Jeff jokes. "Anyway, I got my own back when she started cooking. She's absolutely the worst cook in the family. I don't know how she does it but no matter what sauces and flavourings she uses, everything always ends up tasting bland as hell. It’s a gift, really.”

“Must be one she and Jordy share,” Eric comments, and it quickly devolves into trading stories about their siblings’ cooking disasters, then their families in general. By the time the dinner is ready, Jeff relaxes enough to get past his earlier embarrassment and their conversation is the easiest it’s ever been.

“I really like this,” Eric says abruptly, part way through the meal. “Eating with you, I mean. Cooking with you. You’re pretty good company.”

Jeff is apple-red. “Me too,’ he admits. “You’re welcome anytime.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Eric promises him, pointing with his fork. “Just you wait.”

*

The season is over before Jeff knows it and quicker than he'd hoped it would be, several points out of a playoff spot. Locker room clean out day finds him mopey and disappointed, and when he gets home he has no inclination for healthy eating. He stares blankly into his fridge for several long moments and then his pantry.

The door rattles just as he's putting the lemon meringue pie into the oven, and Jeff stares at it in semi-horror. Though Eric has become a semi-permanent fixture in Jeff's dining room over the last several months, he hadn't expected to see him tonight. He'd been planning on going into full on wallow mode, complete with unhealthy food and terrible movies, and he didn't want Eric seeing that side of him. Giving him a key had seems like a good idea at the time, but now he's regretting it.

"What's cooking, good looking?" Eric calls as he enters, sniffing prominently.

Jeff blushes. "Just, um. Pie," he says, a bit shamefaced.

"Yum," says Eric, licking his lips.

Jeff scratches the back of his neck and fixes his gaze on the oven. "It's just a packet lemon meringue," he admits. "And I wasn't really planning on having anything else."

There's a pause and Jeff doesn't dare look for Eric's reaction.

"Well, I can leave if you would prefer," Eric starts a little stiltedly, awkward.

"No, no," Jeff hurries to assure him. "No you can stay! There's plenty!" He looks into the oven where the pie is sitting sadly, already browning on the top, and hurriedly turns down the heat, double checking the instructions on the box. "Maybe we could order some pizza to go with it?"

Eric brightens. "Sounds good!"

The pie comes out of the oven just a few minutes before the pizza delivery arrives and in the true spirit of eating unhealthily to ease their woes, they start eating them both more or less simultaneously. A bite of lemon meringue followed by a bite of chicken pizza doesn't really match all that well but the ridiculousness of the situation makes them smile so neither of them so much as think about changing their methods.

"We had a good season," Eric tells him consolingly halfway through his pie. "We got close. There's always next year."

Jeff sighs and frowns. "I just feel like if I had tried harder..." He trails off, not sure how to articulate how he feels.

"Hey," Eric says, waving around a slice of pizza. "Come on, cheer up. How do you think I feel? Only one in the family to miss out on the playoffs. Marc beat us to the wildcard spot by three points."

Jeff laughs humourlessly. "Maybe he'll get the cup this year."

Eric smiles. "That might be nice actually. Then I might have more luck convincing him to ask for a trade here."

"It hasn't worked on Jordy," Jeff points out.

Eric shrugs. "I think I'm making progress on that front, actually."

Jeff plucks a glob of meringue topping from his shirt and licks it off his fingers. "Maybe if you succeed they'll trade him for me."

Eric scoffs, incredulous. "No fucking way. We're not trading you for anything if we can help it. You were amazing this season. Calder-worthy."

It's not that Jeff hasn't heard the talk about it, but hearing Eric say it so confidently warms him. "Thanks," he smiles. He ducks his head. "But I mean, wouldn't you rather have Jordy here than me?"

Eric makes a wounded noise but doesn't answer right away, clearly considering his response carefully. Jeff swallows and looks up. Eric's eyes are dark and serious. "Jeff," he says, weighted.

"I know," Jeff sighs, edging on uncomfortable, cutting him off.

But Eric presses on. "No," he says. "You don't know. Jeff, you mean so much to me."

"More than just a free meal?" Jeff jokes, trying to keep the moment light.

Eric doesn't take the out, keeping his serious gaze steady on Jeff's face. "So much more than a free meal. Jeff, you have to know this is more than just friends and teammates."

Jeff swallows heavily, pie sticking in his throat. "Yeah," he says eventually when he can't come up with anything else, heart thudding like a jackhammer in his chest. "Yeah, I know."

Jeff is keenly aware of the contact between them when Eric rests his hand on Jeff's knee and squeezes, light but firm.

"Good," Eric says. He doesn't make any more blatant moves, but that contact is enough to get Jeff feeling giddy and he gets the courage to reciprocate the touch.

"I guess the year has been pretty good," Jeff says after a while of long reflection. He grins at Eric and gets one back in return. "We'll make next year even better."

*

Spending his sophomore season lying down in a dark room and fighting nausea with every movement had not been part of Jeff's plans but the concussion gives him little choice. Every waking moments for the first few days is utterly miserable and he hardly eats, and after that he has someone bring him food he can only bring himself to pick at over the nausea.

"Just leave it on the kitchen bench," he calls miserably from the couch when he hears someone coming in. He's not even sure if he'll eat it, but he listens to the footsteps track into the kitchen and the sound of grocery bags hitting the counter, loud in the otherwise silent house. The noise doesn't track back out his front door though, instead the footsteps come toward him, and when they stop he cracks open an eye and squints through the darkness.

"Hey," says Eric in a soft, low voice. "It's dinner time. Have you eaten today?"

Jeff involuntarily lets out a whimper.

"No, no, shh," Eric soothes, smoothing down the hair on his forehead with gentle hands. "I'm going to make scrambled eggs, okay?"

Jeff sinks back into the couch. "Sounds good," he manages. Then, apologetic, "I'm not very good company. I don't want to move or talk much."

"That's okay," says Eric. "Just rest. I'll bring you the eggs in a bit."

Jeff drifts off while he's waiting and next thing he knows Eric is gently shaking him awake and helping him sit up. There's a plate of steaming scrambled eggs on the coffee table and Jeff's mouth waters a little.

"Thanks, Eric," Jeff says bringing the plate toward him. "This looks good."

Eric beams. "I know my cooking isn't as good as yours but I hope you like it," he says earnestly, just as Jeff brings his fork to his mouth.

The eggs are over cooked and flavourless but Jeff grins as the swallows down his first mouthful. "They're perfect," he says, and he really means it. He's had better scrambled eggs for sure but he's never had any that made him feel this warm and cared for that weren't made by his mom.

He finishes off the plate without much fanfare and puts it aside.

"I'll take care of the dishes," Eric promises. "Do you want me to go after that? Let you get some rest?"

Jeff hesitates. He does want rest but at the same time - "Can you stay? And we can cuddle?" He feels dumbs saying the words.

Eric's face goes soft and affectionate. "Of course," he says. "I'd love to. But I think we're going to need more space than the couch for that. Go on, have a shower and get into some fresh pyjamas. I'll join you when I'm done."

He's half asleep already by the time Eric slips into the bed beside him, immediately wrapping around Jeff as the big spoon and slinging an arm over Jeff's side "Missed you," he murmurs.

"Hasn't been that long," Jeff points out sleepily.

"Yeah. Still missed you. Doubly because I was worried about you."

"Well," Jeff mumbles. "Missed you too, then."

Eric's arm tightens around his waist and he drifts off to sleep.