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Balancing Act

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JEFF


Contrary to popular media depictions, bonding at first touch is not actually a thing. At least not in most cases. Jeff and Eric bond after they’ve known each other for months, and they don’t even realise until the summer break. They spend a lot of time after that texting and talking, and eventually narrow down the day the bond started to Jeff’s thirtieth NHL goal, off an assist from Eric, probably when Eric had swung his sweaty arm around Jeff’s shoulder after the game.  

In the leadup to the end of summer, they make plans for their flights back to Raleigh to arrive the same day and almost the same time. When Jeff touches down and heads to baggage claim, Eric is already there waiting, two cardboard coffee cups in his hands. His face splits into a grin when he sees Jeff, and instinctively Jeff goes to him and wraps him in a tight hug. Eric returns it without question, near crushing Jeff’s ribs, but Jeff doesn’t mind. There’s a gentle buzzing beneath his skin and he feels more at home here with Eric than he had in his parents house.

Eventually, the carousel starts up and they pull away from each other to watch for Jeff’s bags. Eric hands Jeff a coffee - long black, which is Jeff’s least favourite, or used to be, but apparently the bond made his tastes more like Eric’s, so when he takes a sip it’s almost pleasant. It could probably still do with a few sugars.

Now that he’s standing next to Eric and the bond feels tangible, Jeff is suddenly struck by the reality of it. Somehow they’d avoided discussing exactly what this was going to mean for them and well - Jeff looks Eric’s up and down out of the corner of his eye - Eric isn’t unattractive but... but Jeff can’t imagine kissing him. Jeff would gladly share the rest of his life with Eric. That’s not even a question in his mind. But he doesn’t feel that way. At least not yet. Maybe it will come later? He bites his lip. 

“Stop worrying,” Eric tells him, squeezing his shoulder. “I know we have a lot to talk about, but maybe once we get home, eh?”

Jeff lets himself breathe.

As it turns out, Eric doesn’t feel anything more for Jeff than really close friendship either.

“At the moment, to me you’re like another brother - but different,” he explains, stumbling over his words. “If you-,”

“No,” Jeff says in a rush of relief. “No, I agree. That’s good. That’s very good.”

Eric laughs and runs a hand through his hair. “If any of that changes I’ll let you know and we can discuss it again, okay?”

Jeff nods. 

Eric’s eyes are bright and smiley again, and he quickly wraps Jeff in another hug. That makes two, now. Jeff likes it. He feels warmed from the inside out. It’s not really like hugging a sibling - Ben goes stiff as a board and his sisters fake complain and pretend to push him away - but it’s definitely not like hugging a lover. Soulmates are their own special thing, apparently.

They don’t go out of their way to hide their bond, but they don’t advertise it either. Eric is worried about perceived impropriety and Jeff doesn’t want to deal with the pressure to marry and adopt because that is absolutely not going to happen. Their teammates put their sudden closeness down to mentorship, which is fine by them.

It only comes up again at the end of the season. Eric’s been working on Jordy for ages to come play on the Canes with him, and with it looking more and more like a possibility, Eric brings up the idea of telling Jordy. “It wouldn’t stay a secret for very long if we did. But if he’s here I don’t think I could keep it from him for long, either.”

Jeff shrugs. He’d never been under the impression that they’d never tell anyone ever. He’d just been happy to put off dealing with it for a little while.

“He’s your brother, it’s up to you,” he says eventually. “But I don’t mind.”

It takes three days after Jordy’s trade for Eric to tell him, then about three hours before Jeff is fielding calls from all the Staals. He ends up heading to Thunder Bay, and spends 90% of his first week trying to avoid the various relatives and their wedding plans. Gentle attempts at redirection are followed by more blunt denials that are also ignored, until Eric announces loudly at dinner that the bond is not romantic and that he and Jeff have never had and never will have sex. His cheeks are almost as red as Jeff’s feel, but it shuts down the conversation once and for all. Jared, Marc and Jordy all think this is hilarious, but their parents are obviously disapproving.

“I don’t think your parents like me much,” Jeff confides in Jordy at the breakfast table one morning. The two of them are the earliest risers of the bunch, and Jeff figures it can’t hurt to spend time with his new teammate. Brother-in-law-ish? Either way, Jordy would be a part of Jeff’s life for the foreseeable future.

Jordy shrugs. “They just want Eric to settle down. They’re in it for the grandkids.”

Jeff makes a face. “They have three other kids.”

“Ah, but Eric’s the oldest. And the best with kids. Plus, the rest of us are single. I don’t see anyone offering to shack up with me.”

Jeff can’t help his giggle. Jordy, like all the Staals, is extremely attractive. He’s friendly and funny, too, as far as Jeff can tell. “I’m sure you’re just not looking hard enough. Plenty of people must want you.” Jeff swallows, realises how that sounds, cringes and looks down. 

“Oh, plenty,” he agrees airily. “But none of them meet my very exacting standards, you know.”

Jeff giggles again, not sure how else to respond.

Jordy grins back at him, and Jeff’s stomach flips. Maybe befriending Jordy isn’t a great idea. He should probably resolve to only ever talk to him about hockey and very boring things like taxes. Jeff can’t help himself though. “And what would those standards be?”

As Jordy lists them off, Jeff is already mentally checking off the components that could apply to him.


 JORDY


During his second season with the Canes, one of the houses in Jeff and Eric’s gated community comes up on the market and Jordy doesn’t hesitate to snap it up. It’s a win/win. He gets to spend more time with his brother, they can carpool to the rink most days, and he gets a running companion in Jeff. They both like to get up just before sunrise and jog around the neighbourhood.

Eric thinks they’re insane, but he appreciates that by the time he gets out of bed they’ll both be at his place and breakfast will be on its way, so he doesn’t complain. Jeff clearly enjoys the  companionship. And Jordy likes the challenge. Jeff goes harder than Jordy is accustomed to, by just enough of a margin that he really has to work to keep up some days. Doing stretches on the front lawn at the end of the morning one day, Jordy’s lungs feel like they’re on fire. “How far did we go today?"

Jeff sounds distracted when he answers. “Uh, around ten ks, I think.”

Jordy glances at his watch. Thirty five minutes. Not bad, and definitely explains how exhausted he feels right now, especially given how he’d had to sprint the last few hundred meters to catch Jeff. “I feel like I need a nap already,” he complains.

Normally, Jeff would make a quip about Jordy’s old age or something in response to that, but all Jordy gets today is a murmur of agreement. Having reached the count, Jordy drops his left foot out of the stretch and frowns at Jeff. “What’s eating you?”

Jeff mops at his forehead with a towel. A curl sticks to his forehead. “It’s nothing,” he says. “Sorry, I was just distracted.”

Jordy eyes him, but picks up his other foot and begins to breathe into the stretch. “All right then, you weirdo. You can talk to me though, okay?”

Jeff smiles sweetly at him, a dimple making an appearance. “It really is nothing. Don’t worry. And I do know.”

They finish up their stretches and Jordy chugs down some water. “Omelettes?” he asks.

“Yeah,” says Jeff, his hand on the doorknob. He doesn’t open it. “Uh, hey, did you want to come out to dinner with me tonight?”

Jordy laughs. “We haven’t even had breakfast and you’re already thinking about dinner? Greedy guts. But yeah, sure. Seven?”

Jeff nods mutely, his cheeks blotchy red. He must be more tired than he was letting on. Jordy smirks to himself as he follows him in the door.

A little before seven rolls around, Jordy pulls a pair of jeans out of his cupboard and considers his shirts. Jeff hadn’t said where they were going - a polo is probably a safe bet. He’s finished fixing his hair when Jeff knocks on the door. He’s in a casual but slightly too small button down. It takes all of Jordy’s self control not to comment, but he grins as he grabs his wallet and keys from the hall stand. “Where are we headed?”

Jeff names a nice steakhouse downtown that they’ve been to a few times with the guys, and Jordy’s mouth starts watering in anticipation. He spends so much of the drive discussing the various menu options and trying to decide what he might like that he doesn’t realise until they’re seated at a table for two that they’re alone.

“So what’s Eric up to tonight that he couldn’t come?” Jordy asks.

Jeff makes a noise like a squeak toy and looks at Jordy wide-eyed. His mouth works soundlessly before he sputters, his face turning bright red. “I-, he... it. I didn’t. I meant - did you not-,”

Fuck, Jordy realises, immediately embarrassed for both of them. “Oh,” he says intelligently. He doesn’t colour like Jeff does, but if he did, he’s sure he’d be a similar shade of red. “This is a date.”

Jeff ducks his head, focussing intently on his fork. He’s rubbing the back of his neck in a way that’s familiar, one of his mannerisms that Eric definitely got over the bond. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “I - misread the signals and,”

Jordy sighs, interrupting him. “No, you didn’t.” Under the table, he knocks their feet together gently, and Jeff looks up at him through glassy, ashamed eyes. “It’s fine. I just didn’t think we’d ever get beyond... you know.” They’ve been flirting accidentally-on-purpose almost since day one. In his weaker moments, Jordy has considered doing something about it, but he’s always crushed it down because, well. Jeff is Eric’s soulmate.

Jeff looks a little less worried now, and there’s something that almost resembles a smile on his face. “I figured there’s no point beating around the bush for eternity.”

A valid point, especially since even over a few years nothing had really changed. Jordy’s feelings had only become stronger and more difficult to ignore as time went on, he could only assume it was similar for Jeff. Now he knows what Jeff had been distracted by in the morning. “I guess.”

“I shouldn’t have sprung it on you.”

Jordy shakes his head. “No, it’s fine.” He almost asks for time to think about it, but he’s done plenty of that already. Jordy isn’t exactly an expert on soulmates. He’s never had one, and if the statistics are anything to go by, he probably never will. Eric’s pretty close-lipped about the side effects, and Jordy had always thought it was too invasive to ask Jeff about it directly, so most of what he knows has been gleaned from locker room talk and primetime TV. “Don’t get me wrong, I like you. But won’t Eric... feel it?” He makes a crude gesture.

Jeff’s laugh snaps out of him and leaves twin dimples on his face. “No!”

“Because that would be weird,” Jordy finishes in a smaller voice, sheepish.

“It’s not telepathy. And I can block him out when I want to. You think I haven’t jerked off or got laid since the bond?”

Jordy had honestly not thought about that at all, but now that Jeff’s put the thought in his mind he has to swallow dryly. “I guess not,” he croaks.

“I just think we could give it a go?” Jeff’s gone back to shy and hopeful.

Jordy licks his lips. “Can’t argue with that, I guess.”

They take it agonisingly slow from there, both of them fully aware of what the professional and personal consequences of this going sour could be. It’s half a dozen dates of brushing feet under the table, reaching for one another’s hands, and not-so subtly pressing into one another’s sides at the slightest opportunity before Jordy finally gives in to the temptation to kiss Jeff goodnight. Jeff beams at him, pulls him in for another kiss, then pushes him away with a flirty smile and sends him back across the street to his own empty house. By the time he falls asleep, his cheeks are sore from smiling.


ERIC


Ever since Jordy and Jeff got together, all of their mutual friends have been giving Eric sympathetic looks like he’s a jilted lover. The thought makes Eric screw his nose up, since being anyone’s lover is the last thing he wants, and far be it for him to deny his brother and his soulmate from being happy with one another. Mostly people are willing to accept that explanation, either because they don’t want him to dwell on his apparent misery, or they’re too polite to actually press the issue.

Cam has never been one for holding back though, and especially not when he’s drunk.

“Doesn’t it bother you though?” He says, waving vaguely in the direction of Jeff and Jordy, who are currently getting very touchy-feely for a public dancefloor. Not that they’re the only ones.

Eric raises an eyebrow. “We’ve been through this.”

“I’m glad that they’re happy, yap yap yap.” Cam mocks, rolling his eyes. “I don’t mean the sex thing, I know you’re not into that, but the companionship.”

Eric mulls that over. “I still spend time with them.”

“But you’re not their number one, man. I don’t know. With Cody it’s like... I know that no matter what, I’m always going to be the first one she comes to. She’s always going to be the first one I go to. It would suck if I didn’t have someone I could count on for that.”

“I’m still Jeff’s number one,” Eric protests, but even as he says it his gut is churning. Cam’s not totally wrong. In the last months, Jeff’s spent more and more of his nights at Jordy’s place. They still come over for breakfast, and Eric hasn’t felt it fair to say anything, but the house does feel empty.

It bugs him, after that, and when he overhears Jeff planning a special event for Sunday night, the seed of jealousy becomes a full grown ugly weed. Maybe Jeff is going to propose to Jordy? Or ask him if he can move into his place instead of with Eric? Or one of a thousand other things.

Whatever it is, judging by the reservations he’s made, it’s going to be a big step up in their relationship, meaning a big step down for Eric. Worst of all is the thought that Jeff didn’t even think of discussing it with Eric first. Did he think Eric would stop him? Or did he think Eric just wouldn’t care? By Sunday morning, he’s resolved that if Jeff isn’t going to bring it up, then he is.

“What are your plans with Jordy tonight?” Eric asks.

Jeff frowns at him like he’s just asked something incredibly stupid. Eric mentally double checks - it is Sunday, i.e. date night, and he’s sure Jeff confirmed for Sunday night when he overheard. He keeps his silence and waits for an answer.

“I don’t have plans with Jordy tonight.” Jeff says it’s like it’s obvious, after a long wait. His eyes widen. “Do... you have plans for something?” There’s an unmistakable tinge of hurt in his voice then.

Eric is completely lost.

“It’s April fifth?” Jeff prompts. “We have a game tomorrow, so it's not the right day but it's the closest...”

Eric could smack himself. He’s a fucking idiot. Jeff’s special event isn’t about Jordy at all. It’s for their bonding anniversary. He folds his arms in front of him on the table, buries his head in them, and laughs.

“Are you okay?” Jeff sounds worried, standing at his shoulder.

Eric shakes his head and finally sits up to face the music. “No,” he says frankly, and confesses his entire ridiculous chain of thought. He expects Jeff to laugh, since Jeff laughs at everything, especially Eric’s stupidity, but instead he looks stricken.

“I’m sorry,” Jeff tells him when he finally finishes. He wraps his arms around Eric  and buries his nose in his neck. “I didn’t realise - I  should have thought about it more.”

Now Eric feels guilty. He hadn’t intended to guilt trip Jeff. It wasn’t like he had anything to be guilty for. “No, come on,” he says. “It was my problem. And apparently not even a problem.”

“Still,” Jeff says. “I don’t want you to feel like that. I’d pick you, okay? Every day.”

“I don’t want you to feel like you have to pick!”

Jeff shrugs. “And that’s part of why I pick you. Especially today, it can be just for us.”

Eric likes the sound of that, and for the most part, he enjoys it, but it doesn’t take him long to realise that this isn’t what he wants out of their relationship. One on one bonding time is great, but he misses Jordy too. So when Jeff gets up from their very fancy meal to go to the bathroom, he takes the opportunity to slide his phone out of his pocket and send a text.

When they get back home, Jordy is ready and waiting for them on the couch with a stack of DVDs. “I invited him over,” Eric says, nonchalant. “Thought it might be nice to hang out for a bit.”

Jeff’s obvious happiness when he wriggles in between the two brothers on the couch makes Eric’s own chest swell. He meets Jordy’s eyes over his head and shrugs.

He drifts off during the movie, wakes up when the credits are playing. He blinks a few times in the dark, fumbles for the remote to turn off the TV, and yawns. At his side, Jeff and Jordy are still asleep, now spread out over most of the couch, curled into one another. Jordy has one leg slung over Jeff’s and an arm over his waist.

“That cannot be comfortable,” Eric says sceptically.

Neither of them stir.

Eric sighs, and pulls out a blanket. He tucks a cushion under their heads, drapes the blanket over them, and kisses both their foreheads. He has nothing to worry about. Not in this family.