It’s one-thirty in the morning. Jeff should have been asleep two, three hours ago but he doesn’t want to go to sleep. Sleep means he’ll eventually wake up to ‘tomorrow’ and it’ll be game day.
He loves his job. He loves playing hockey. He knows how lucky he is. But, for two games a season, he really, really hates his job. And yeah, two games out of a regulation eighty-two? That doesn’t sound too bad. That’s only .02 percent of the season. But if something was .02 percent poison, you still wouldn’t want to take any chances.
Okay, that’s a bad analogy but tomorrow is game day against the Wild (against Eric) and Jeff knows they’re going to lose. Not just because how the year is going, but because his head won’t be in the game (no matter how hard he tries and God, does he try) and when he’s off so is Jack and if Jack’s off so is the whole team.
So, they’re going to lose at home and next day will be terrible and honestly? He may need a full week to recover emotionally from just this one game he’s about to lose and he hates it. It sucks.
How can one person have so much power over another, for years, even after they leave you? He truly doesn’t understand it. It’s like, your heart is still working and everything but there’s a scar, a big one, and every time he has to play the Wild (Eric) the scar reopens, bleeds, and his heart takes a while to work properly again.
He’s twenty-seven goddamn years old. Why can’t he get his shit together? Every time he has to play against the Wild (Eric), he feels like a kid again. He gets sad and nostalgic and sad. He feels like he’s back in high school. He feels dumb and clueless and dumb.
He looks at the clock. It’s almost two am now and he thinks, Fuck it. I’m taking a sleeping pill and knocking the fuck out. I’m going to regret tomorrow anyway.
It takes a lot of strength, mental and physical, to make it to the rink on time. He tries to smile at everyone like usual but it’s hard and everyone gives him a pity smile back because they also know they’re going to lose tonight, and they also know why.
Everyone knows about his storybook rookie year, his chemistry with his first team (with his captain) and everyone knows about his temper, his injuries (his broken heart).
At practice, everyone gives him space, not wanting to upset him because everyone knows.
Jack gives him a reassuring shoulder squeeze and promises he’s there for him, no matter what.
Sometimes, Jeff wishes he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. Sometimes, he really wishes nobody knew.
Jeff is bouncing his leg, anxious to get this game over with. Warm-ups have just started, and he already wants to go home and ignore the messages from all of his sisters. They always check his schedule to know when he may need them. He appreciates it of course, but it’s both comforting and depressing.
His teammates are talking about something, but he’s not listening. They know he’s not, but they allow it for tonight. Then, he feels it.
There are around 19,000 seats in the arena. It’s not completely full but there are still thousands of eyes on him, but he only feels one pair. Eyes he would dream about it, eyes he’s looked into countless times, eyes he can no longer meet.
He takes a deep breath, and shifts slightly, and even though he tells himself not to, he looks out of the corner of his eye, sees blonde hair and the brown eyes he used to know. Jeff takes another deep breath and wills himself to stop looking. He turns back to his teammates and feels the eyes track his every movement.
Apparently, he’s not the only one who’s noticed the attention he’s getting from across the ice because his teammates slowly surround him, blocking him from the Wild’s (Eric’s) view.
For the rest of the warm-up he specifically doesn’t look to the other side again, keeping his head down the best he can but every now and again he still feels watched. He must be right, because his teammates circle him more than usual and he overhears Jack telling the other lines to feel free to check the Wild (Eric) as hard as they can for wandering eyes.
They get called back to the locker room and everyone hits his arm or pats his head to show support.
As he sits in his stall, half-listening to coach, he tries his best to psych himself up for the face-off. Repeatedly telling himself to look at the puck and the only the puck.
Then, they’re heading out and Jeff has to face them (him).
As they line up, Jeff keeps his head down, staring at his skates and stick. Jack nudges him and he gives a small nod in return, still not looking up, feeling the gaze from the Wild’s (Eric’s) front line.
He hears Jack say, “Keep your eyes up front, Staal”, and he sucks in a deep breath. It must have been louder than he realized because he can feel more eyes on him now.
“I’ll keep my eyes where I want them, Eichel.”
And wow, hearing that voice again hits harder than any check.
The ref is lining up now, the whistle should blow any second, but not before Jack scoffs, “Wherever you want, huh?” They all lower themselves down and Jack bites out, hatred clear in his voice, “If only they wanted you back.”
Jeff snaps his head up at the blatant lie, and for the first time in eight months, he meets Eric’s eyes and sees the hurt and disbelief. He doesn’t know what his eyes say back. Looking is too much, too overwhelming, like he knew it would be.
The puck drops.
Eric’s eyes never leave him.
He doesn’t know if they ever will.
He doesn’t know if he wants them to.
He just knows what he can’t have. What he lost. What he’ll probably never have again.
He goes home, sucks it up, and answers his sisters’ texts. He tells them he’s okay, but they all know he’s lying.
He doesn’t know when it’ll get easier, when the scar will stop reopening, stop bleeding, but hopes it’s soon. He hopes a lot, he always has. (And look what that got him in the end.)
He closes his eyes to sleep and sees blonde hair and brown eyes in his dreams.