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No Matter How Small

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A person's a person, no matter how small. — Dr Seuss

 

Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge
Font ensemble des projets d'avenir
Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge
Savent très bien ce qu'aimer veut dire

— Françoise Hardy

 

 

"Uncle Shitty!" Elli screams once the video connects.

He bounces on the stool and hits the back of his head against Eric's chest. "Just a second, sweetie, I'm trying to set you up."

Eric props up the tablet against the nearest bowl and when he leans in to see if everything is working, he meets Shitty's wide grin and smiles back. 

"Elli, my man!" Shitty says, once Eric has stepped aside. "I swear you're getting taller by the minute. How's it going, bud?"

Elli sticks his hands under his thighs and bounces a few times — he's bursting with excitement at the prospect of showing Shitty and Lardo his latest artistic project. Conventional greetings first, though: Eric raised him with manners. 

"Super-duper good! Daddy's making pie and yesterday we watched a movie that's called Frozen with a talking snowman!"

Yes, and Eric has had Let It Go stuck in his head ever since.

"Whoa, really?"

"Where's Aunt Lardo?" Elli asks, cutting to the chase.

"Not very far," Shitty says, throwing a look over his shoulder. "She's just finishing something, you know she wouldn't miss this for the world."

"Good, 'cause I have a surprise!"

So, that took about 2.5 seconds.

"A surprise?!" Shitty asks, but Elli is already off the stool and running back to his bedroom.

Eric can't help but chuckle. Elli adores Shitty and Lardo — Shitty always talk to him like an adult and Lardo gives the best cuddles, or so Elli says. It's a bit unfortunate that Elli goes around calling his uncle and aunt Shitty and Lardo at preschool, but Eric has to pick his battles at some point. Parenting has been one hell of a learning curve — four years of it has taught him that he can't control everything. Slightly unconventional nicknames had been at the bottom of his list of worries by the time Elli learned to talk, and have remained there since.

He lets go of the dough and steps in front of the tablet. "Don't laugh," he whispers. "I know what it looks like, but that's not it."

Lord, Elli loves a lot of things: animals and Pokémons are on the top of his list, along with hockey and baking, two passions Eric does his best to share with him. Occasionally, the kid picks up new stuff, as kids do, but… but this is quite something.

"Me?" Shitty gasps, mock affronted. "I would never." 

Eric rolls his eyes and steps away, just as Elli runs back into the kitchen.

"Daddy!" he says, extending both arms. Eric picks him up, a sheet of paper hitting him in the face, and places him on the stool again. "Here," Elli says to Shitty. "For you!"

He opens the folded paper, places it in front of the screen, and rolls on his knees to see if Shitty can absorb the drawing in its glorious entirety.

It takes a moment for Shitty to react.

"That's for us? Thanks, bud! That's a sw'awesome looking…"

"Lighthouse!" Elli completes.

Eric can hear Shitty's thoughts reorganizing. All right, so his son's lighthouses are probably the most phallic drawings Eric's ever seen, and he has seen Lardo draw actual penises. So what?

"A lighthouse!" Shitty repeats. "And all the yellow around it…?"

"That's the light that comes out of the tip! And it has grey stone and the sea around it and the birds in the sky, too."

"Terrific," Shitty laughs. "Lardo, come and see what Elli drew for us," he calls over his shoulder.

Done with the dough, Eric sets it aside, washes his hands, and when he looks back at the tablet, Lardo has appeared on the screen. At six-and-a-half months, she's not supposed to be working at this point, but the flickers of paint on her half-attached overalls say otherwise.

"Aunt Lardo!" 

"Hello, little one." Her breath is short and it takes her a few seconds to sit down in front of the screen.

Eric goes to open the fridge, yet he very clearly hears the, "You're so big," Elli lets out.

"Elliot!"

"Don't bother, Bits," Lardo laughs. "And I'm supposed to get bigger, can you imagine?"

"What fruit is it now?"

Lardo shoots Shitty a look and smiles. "Should be around the size of a pineapple, now."

"Daddy!" Elli looks up. "You hear? Uncle Shitty and Aunt Lardo's baby is like a pinpple big now!"

"Yeah, I heard. Big baby, huh?"

"I was like a pinpple too?"

Eric's heart squeezes in his chest. "You sure were, sweetheart."

"So…" Shitty starts, and Eric wants to sigh. He knows that tone. "Have you thought about what we discussed last night?"

"Lord, I don't know, Shits."

"C'mon, bro, how long it's been since you went to a proper game? It'll be fun!"

"Leave him alone," Lardo says, "if he doesn't want to, he doesn't have to." 

Elli's eyes are set on him, already imploring even though he has no idea what they're talking about. "A game, Daddy?"

He groans, rubbing at the back of his neck. Shitty called him yesterday about two tickets he's received from Bob and Alicia Zimmermann: they had a last-minute change of plans and couldn't fly in, and it's only later that Shitty realized that he had something with Lardo on the same night. Or at least, that's what he says — it might still be a ploy to get Eric to that game.

They're amazing seats, right in front of the ice, and if Elli loves watching hockey on the television, and he's never been to a real game before. But it's the Falconers , and Eric isn't sure if he can do that. He hasn't seen Jack Zimmermann since Jack slammed the door to his Haus bedroom the morning of his graduation, leaving Eric alone in his bed, angry and brokenhearted, and never came back.

It's not like he's not blameless either, but… To see Jack again? After eight years? 

"Yeah, a hockey game, sweetie," he says, slowly.

Elli bounces on his stool. "Can we go? Please? Please, please, please!" 

Eric glances at Shitty and that grin of his. "I know what you're doing, Shitty Knight."

"And it's working."

Elli tugs at his sleeve. "Daddy? What teams?"

"The Falconers against the Leafs, right?" he asks, and Shitty nods.

"Oh." Elli deflates instantly. "No Aces?"

If someone had told Eric, eight years ago, that Kent Parson would feature more prominently in his life than Jack Zimmermann, he would have laughed. The Aces are, for unknown reasons, Elli's favorite team, which saves Eric quite some trouble — they don't play that often against the Falconers.

"No, not this time," he says. "But we can stay home and watch the Aces on TV if you prefer."

Without much surprise, Elli shakes his head. "No! Real game!"

"All right. You win," he tells Shitty, with a mild glare.

"Great, that's settled, then," Lardo says. "Shits will send you the tickets. Go back to your pie and let us talk to our nephew a bit."

"How did you—" he starts, but before he can finish, the oven's timer rings. "Right. Have fun, y'all."

Elli wiggles on his stool, and looks back at the tablet. "Aunt Lardo. Have you ever go to a lighthouse?"

 

 

Even though they make it early to the arena, there's enough of a gathering around the ticket booths to make an impression on Elli, who requests being picked up. Eric holds him tight for the rest of the way to their seats. Fans are already causing a raucous, showing off their team's paraphernalia. There are a lot of men drinking beer, getting pumped up, and shouting profanities — he really wants to cover Elli's ears, right now.

"Daddy? What this m'sser says about Smith's mama?"

"Ugh, don't listen to that, sweetie. Let's find our seats."

He can only hope they'll get seat neighbors that will behave throughout the game. And that there won't be too much violence on the side. And that no one will get injured—

Oh lord, and to say his mama was worried when he got his place in SMH. It's like another life altogether.

A few minutes later, they're sitting front row, the ice in front of them, not too far from the goals. The Zimmermann's original tickets were family suite, but Shitty had them switched for something a bit more exciting. Of course.

"Daddy! We can see everything! We can see the ice and the goals and the lines and the big point box and I bet the puck, too!"

He should be thankful — lord, Elli is ecstatic, smearing his little hands over the plastic glass and putting prints everywhere — but he can't quite quiet down the uneasiness that has settled like a knot in his throat.

"Sorry it's not the Aces, sweetheart."

"'S’okay, the Falconers are cool, too."

"What about the Leafs?"

Elli shrugs as if he couldn't care less, and Eric laughs. Bless his heart, the boy spends too much time with Shitty.

They talk about hockey for a bit, but there isn't much to explain that the kid doesn't know. They watch a lot together, Elli has hockey nights with Shitty, and Chowder keeps him updated on the Sharks from the other side of the continent. Whenever they call Ransom and Holster, they always make a point of explaining a specific hockey concept to Elli. It's become their thing, now, because Elli always asks about "hockey stuff with Uncle Ransom and Uncle Holster" when they haven't called in a few weeks.

So, Eric shouldn't be surprised — he really shouldn't be surprised that when the teams make it on the ice, back after their warmups, Elli points at the two captains on center ice and says, "That's Jack Zimmermann."

Eric gapes. "How do you know that?"

Elli looks at him like he's just hit his head. "Daddy, he's won three Stanley cups."

"And you've seen him play before?" Because they sure as hell haven't been watching the Falcs at home.

"Yeah! Uncle Shitty likes the Falcs."

"Of course he does," Eric sighs, but he can't blame the man either. 

It's anyone's fault, it should be his: nobody stays hung up on a crush eight years after the break-up. It wasn't even a break-up, just two friends who hooked up once, had a fight, and then never spoke again.

Eric lost a friend that day, his best friend. It hadn't even been his decision — Jack left and cut all ties. It made sense for Eric to follow suit: no asking their mutual friends about Jack, no Falcs games, not even on TV, not even when they win the Cup. Nothing. 

He can't recall the day it stopped hurting, but it must have been between two diaper changes, a crying toddler in his arms, and dried milk on the soft skin of his wrist.

No, nothing in Eric's life could ever point to the fact that he went to college and befriended a now three-times Stanley Cup champion. Nothing apart from an old signed Falcs' jersey hanging at the back of his closet and a five-year-old article saved in his favorites, which reads JACK ZIMMERMANN COMES OUT.

"That's Martin Diouf," Elli says, as he points at the Leafs' captain.

"What position?"

"Forward left."

He ruffles Elli's hair, which makes Elli laugh. "Goodness gracious, you're a clever boy."

"When's starting?"

"Soon, sweetheart, look, they're getting ready now." 

Elli cranes his neck, trying to see better. "Was it like that when you played?"

"A bit," Eric says. "Though we played in smaller arenas and there weren't as many people in the crowd."

"And Uncle Shitty was there?" 

Eric smiles. "Yes, and Aunt Lardo, too."

"Daddy, it's starting!" 

Elli bounces on his seat, just as the rest of the crowd erupts in a cacophony of noise as Jack wins the face-off. Some things never change.

The rest of the game passes in a blur. At some point, Eric places Elli on his knees, because it's easier for him to see, even though it cuts the circulation in his legs as Elli keeps bouncing. Eric takes the time to explain what's happening on the ice, using the voice of an overly enthusiastic commentator as he whispers in Elli's ear.

"Like on TV, Daddy!"

What he hadn't anticipated is that watching Jack on the ice fills him with something akin to… joy. Eric hasn't played much since college, but he can recognize good hockey, and what they're witnessing from Jack tonight is damn good hockey. It's been eight years and his style has evolved since then, but it doesn't change the fact that Eric has played with him. He knows Jack. He can read him, and his game, as well as he could all those years ago.

"Zimmermann's going for it," he says into Elli's ear, and Elli giggles.

"No way! He gonna pass to that guy."

"I'm telling you he's going for it," Eric says, and Jack does, indeed, go for it. 

It's a beaut of a slap shot, as Shitty would say, not the most technical of goals, but Jack nets it without difficulty. The home crowd goes wild and Elli laughs, his head bumping against Eric's chest.

"Again! Again!"

"All right, sweetie."

He keeps up with the commentary, but the game starts to grow tense: the two teams are fighting hard for it, and the end of the first period feels like a much-needed break. He can only imagine.

The crowd is getting loud by the start of the second period, and Eric winces at the smell of spilled beer. It doesn't seem to bother Elli, whose eyes are riveted on the game: Jack's got the puck again, and is steering it towards the goals, skating at high speed in their general direction, an opponent close behind. 

He knows it's going to happen half-a-second before it does: his heart sinks in his chest, and like all those years ago, his first instinct is to close his eyes and curls up — around Elli, this time. Jack's shoulder, under the weight of the other player, hits the glass so hard that it trembles. There are gasps and shouts and Eric squeezes Elli against his chest, a hand over his head in case the plastic breaks.

It does not. Jack shakes off his opponent, who skates back in the game with the puck, the crowd on its feet and calling names. 

Eric's throat goes dry. Jack is mere inches away from him, unaware of his presence. Eric can see the details of his face, the blue of his eyes, as Jack looks up again, over his shoulder.

For a single second, their gazes meet.

Jack's lower lip drops and a wrinkle appears between his eyebrows, a wrinkle that means I don't understand

The referee whistles and the moment is gone. Jack skates away, not before throwing another look over his shoulder as if wanting to confirm that what he saw was real.

Eric can't do anything but stare at him.

Elli's voice is the first thing that puts order back in his mind. "Daddy," he sniffs, his voice breaking midway through the word.

Shit. "Whoa, that was a big check, huh?" he says, trying to sound somewhat cheery as he bounces Elli up and down with his knee. "Hey, hey. Sweetheart. It's okay. We're fine."

Tears well up in Elli's eyes and Eric kisses his head, passing a thumb over that soft, round cheek, before he turns Elli back towards the ice. "Look, they're playing again."

Elli sniffs once more, but it only takes for a Leaf player to get close to the Falconer goalie for him to ask Eric to start commentating again. Bless children and their ability to stay in the present.

 

*

 

It's late when the Falconers win, 5-2, and even though Elli is pumping his tiny fist up in the air when they do, he's going to crash the minute they leave the arena. Eric's going have a cranky kid on his hands tomorrow.

The stars of the game are announced, and Jack comes back on the ice, along with a Leaf rookie with impressive speed, and Mashkov, a Russian giant that made headlines on the very same day Jack came out, announcing that Mashkov was dating Kent Parson. How that came to be, Eric has no idea, but they've been together for five years now. 

He takes his time zipping Elli back into his coat since the bus isn't coming for another twenty minutes. It's a bit like trying to subdue a wild cat into taking a bath, but Elli's not to blame. It's his first game after all.

"Did you have fun?" Eric asks, with a grin.

"Oh yeah, when he did that with his stick," Elli says, and mimes the motion of a slap shot, "that was sw'awesome!" 

Eric laughs. "You spend too much time with your uncle, young man. But I'm glad you had fun. We're going to catch our bus now, okay?"

It isn't that easy: once they're in the not-so-busy-anymore main hall, Eric checks his phone again, just to see that they've missed the bus. The next one is in half an hour, but Elli is starting to fall asleep on his shoulder.

He doesn't have the stroller with him so he carries Elli to the front of the closed souvenir shop, dramatic lights showing off the Falcs' memorabilia.

"If you could choose a jersey," he asks, pointing at the blue jersey lined up above their heads, "which one would it be?"

"Number 90," Elli says, with a yawn.

Lord, this boy is single-minded. "There's no number 90 in the Falconers, sweetheart. Look, they have caps too, and blankets."

Elli smears his finger over the glass, over a brown teddy bear wearing a blue jersey. "I want that one."

"Bittle?"

He turns on his heels and finds himself in front of Jack Zimmermann, freshly out of the shower, hair not completely dry and looking dead gorgeous in his dark press suit.

He swallows. 

"Eric—" Jack winces and takes a step closer. "Bittle. I didn't know you'd be here tonight."

"Hi, Jack. Uh— Shitty and Lardo gave us their tickets, they had something else tonight, unfortunately. Actually, those were your parents', right? Please thank them for us," he adds with a smile, as he glances back at Elli.

"For sure." Jack hesitates for a moment, before he crouches slightly, to get to Elli's height. "Hi, there."

Eric hikes Elli higher up on his hip. "Why don't you introduce yourself, sweetheart?"

At his words, Elli buries himself against Eric's shoulder. It's the kind of behavior Suzanne wouldn't have accepted when Eric was young, but he has never been able to apply the same rules to Elli. Jack is tall, a stranger, and an NHL star. The sudden shyness is understandable.

It doesn't bother Jack too much, who smiles at Elli. "That's okay, you don't have to if you don't want."

Jack is good with kids. Of course, Jack is good with kids. 

"Elliot," Eric says instead, "this is Jack. Jack, this is Elliot."

"I'm Elli. And I'm four!" he adds, as if it is vital information Jack must know.

Jack nods along, looking impressed. "Four? That's a big number. It's great to meet you, Elli. Tell me, do you play hockey?"

Elli shakes his head.

"We went a few times," Eric explains, "but I think we prefer watching hockey on TV, right?"

The truth is that skating gear is pricey, and Elli grows fast. They haven't been able to go skating as much as Eric would like after Elli outgrew his first pair of skates. It broke his heart a bit, but now Elli's got swimming, art, and ballet, and he's a busy kid all-round. 

"That's cool," Jack says. "Who's your favorite player?"

Oh lord. Here we go.

Elli squirms, and mumbles a quick, "Kmmmson," one finger stuck in his mouth.

"Euh, sorry, I didn't catch that?"

He takes his finger out of his mouth before he sputters a small, "Kent Parson."

It's irony upon irony, but Jack throws his head back and laughs so good-naturedly that Eric chuckles along. He forms a silent sorry on his lips the second Jack's glistening eyes are on him again.

"You've got good taste, kiddo," Jack tells Elli, and from his tone, he must really mean it. "Did you enjoy the game?" he asks, but this time he steers the question towards Eric.

"Of course!" It sounds like he means it, and he's glad. He does, he does. But it wasn't easy to get to the game in the first place — he would have flaked if it hadn't meant disappointing Elli. "Are you okay, though? That was a pretty big check."

Jack passes a hand over his shoulder and stretches it a bit. "Oh, yeah, I'm fine. Sorry for the scare. You know how it is, more fear than harm, in the end."

"Lord knows, yes," he snorts.

Elli tugs at the collar of his coat. "Daddy?" 

"Your dad and I used to play hockey together," Jack explains. "When we were at school." 

Elli looks at him, and then back at Eric, disbelief written all over his face. "You?" he gasps. 

Eric grins. "I did tell you that I played hockey."

"With Uncle Shitty and Aunt Lardo and Uncle Ransom and Uncle Holster and Uncle Chowder," Elli says.

Eric glances at Jack. "Yeah, Jack was there too." 

"Him?" Elli points at Jack, which Eric keeps saying is not very polite. "But you're tiny!" 

"Hey!"

"He was not the biggest player on the ice," Jack says, "but he sure was the fastest." 

At that, Elli stares at Eric with some kind of renewed adoration in his eyes. "No way!" 

"I'm telling you."

"That's how you knew, Daddy," Elli says, mid-yawn, as he drops his head against Eric's shoulder, "when you said Number 1 was going for it in the first period."

Jack throws him a look, both curious and surprised.

Eric smiles at Elli. "Yeah, that's how I knew."

When he looks back at Jack, there is something soft in the way he smiles at him. It doesn't last: it gets replaced right away by Jack's Captain Face.

"Listen, Bittle… I was wondering if you'd like to get coffee, sometime? I never, uh, properly apologized for what happened back then. I understand if you'd prefer not to, of course—"

"Sure," he says, before he can stop himself.

This is the kind of thing he had both dreams and nightmares about. He never thought he could face Jack again, not when Jack has so clearly moved on, not when Jack is an NHL superstar who comes back at night to his luxury apartment where his partner waits for him. Not that the media ever confirmed anything more than rumors, but Jack is the type to keep that kind of stuff private.

No, he never thought he could face Jack again, not when he's still heartbroken over what happened years ago. Not when he's only the author of one semi-successful and one rather disastrous cookbook. Not when he only has a part-time baking job to cover the rest of his monthly budget, and not when he doesn't have anyone waiting for him at home — his latest relationship had been before Elli, years ago.

He's not jealous — he loves his life, his family, his friends, his projects — but their lives have diverged, have taken such different paths that it seems difficult to reconcile them now. 

But accepting Jack's offer might make him hope that Jack would be in his life again. That they could be friends once more. He's missed that. Good lord, he's missed that so much.

"Oh, yeah?" Jack asks, sounding a bit surprised. 

"Yes, of course. My number hasn't changed, by the way. If you want to…"

"Okay, yeah, sure, I'll text you sometime." 

Ah, Jack, the pinnacle of casual. 

Eric grins at him. "Good." He glances down at his phone. His bus is arriving in five. "We have to go, actually, we're a bit late."

"Of course. You have a lift? Your partner's not into hockey, eh?"

Oh. Uhm. "No, we're catching the bus," he says. "And it's just us. I mean, not only at the game tonight— there's no partner."

He winces. He's sure put his foot in his mouth, there.

"Okay, all right." Jack is sporting his usual neutral expression. "I can give you a ride if you want."

"No, it's fine, really. The bus always knocks this one out," he says, with a nod towards Elli's head, who's already half-asleep, slung over his shoulder.

"All right," Jack says, and Eric is slightly surprised he isn't insisting. "If you're sure. Good night, then."

"Good night, Jack." 

"It was… great to see you." 

"You too." 

Just as Eric starts walking away, Jack calls after him. "I'll text you!" 

"You do that!" he laughs, as he pushes the door towards the exit, making Elli squirm from the noise.

He can breathe again once he's sitting down in the bus, looking over the blur of lights as they travel through the city, Elli sleeping against his chest.

He thought that meeting Jack again would give him confirmation that he is not in love with him anymore.

That couldn't be further from the truth.

Now that he's seen him again, he knows. It all came back in a rush the moment Jack stepped up to them: Eric still loves him. Perhaps even more profoundly than he did back then, the years stripping that feeling to its barest form. A quiet undercurrent running through his soul, never to leave. It's not the bumbling excitement that used to build up when Jack would tell him about saving the Haus from the football team, it's not the heat that would rise to his face when Jack would practice-check him into the boards.

No, it feels like a statement: I loved you eight years ago, I love you today, and I will love you tomorrow. And it doesn't feel unhappy. It feels irrevocably there, on the solid ground of what he can now recognize as his mended heart. It feels like I am happy that you are happy.

It feels like coming to terms.

Finally.



Chapter Text

 

Elli is cranky the whole day after the game. No surprise there, but it's a relief when Eric shuts Elli's door behind him that night. He always tries to do his best and knows that a majority of first-time parents are improvising just as he is, but on days like these, parenting feels more like a failure than anything else.

He sits down at the kitchen island, pours himself a glass of wine, and takes his phone out of his pocket. He received a text from Jack earlier today, but he had a yelling four-year old on his hands at the time and hasn't answered yet.

Jack: Hey, Bittle. Still on for that coffee?

Jack: This is Jack, by the way.

Eric chuckles. As if anyone else would call him Bittle by text.

Jack's still in his contacts, since Eric never felt the courage to delete his number, with a silly picture of him rolling his eyes in the kitchen Haus attached to it. If he thought that Jack hadn't changed a lot, seeing him so young in that picture makes his heart clench in his chest.

At least none of their old messages are on his phone. He's not sure he would be able to answer Jack's text if they followed the last one they exchanged eight years ago. (Bitty: Where are you? Jack: Upstairs. Jack: Waiting for you.)

He bites on his lip, and slowly types out an answer.

Bitty: Hey. 😊 Sure, when are you free?

He sends the message and a few seconds later, ellipsis appears at the bottom of the screen. That's… surprising. Jack had never been that fast at answering his phone.

Jack: We're flying out tonight. Ottawa.

Jack: Is Wednesday good?

Eric grins at the screen. That boy is trying so hard.

Bitty: Wednesday's great!

Jack: What time are you done with work?

Bitty: I'm working from home, actually. I'm free in the afternoon, but I gotta pick Elli from school at 3.

Jack: Is 1:30 good?

Bitty: Sure! Have you ever been to Nelly's?

Bitty: Unless you had another idea.

He sends that last text quickly, considering that Jack might already have a place in mind — something more private, where he won't get recognized, or, at least, bothered too much.

Before he can overthink this, his phone buzzes in his hand.

Jack: Sounds great.

Bitty: All right, then. I'll meet you there. 😊 And Jack? There's no need for you to apologize, you know.

The answer takes a minute to come.

Jack: I still want to talk. Is that okay?

Oh, lord.

Bitty: Of course that's okay. See you then. And good luck tonight! 🏒🏒

Jack: Thank you

It's pretty clear that the conversation is over, so he stands up, picks his glass of wine, and selects another contact on his phone.

Lardo answers on the second ring. "Bitty? What's up?"

He sighs, and the tension melts right away from his shoulders. "Just put Mr Cranky to bed. I love him to death, but there are days when I don't know how I manage."

"Stop making it sound so scary," Lardo says, teasing.

"Too late to go back now, girl," he says, just to hear her snort.

"So," Lardo starts, with a tone that means business. "You went to the game."

"Yes."

"And?"

He groans and drops on the couch. "The weirdest thing happened."

"Oh my god."

"Yeah."

"Oh my god, Bitty," Lardo repeats. "Jack?"

"Yeah," he sighs.

"What?" Lardo urges him. "You two hooked up?"

"Oh my god, Lardo!"

"Just checking, I guess."

"I'm not that dumb."

"Around Jack?"

He groans. She might have a point there. "No, goodness, Elli was there. They, uh, they met. And yeah, Elli might have told him Parson's his favorite player?"

"Shit!" Lardo laughs. "I would have paid to see his face."

"He… He laughed, actually? He was really cool about it."

"It's Jack and kids, Bits, what did you expect?"

"I don't know." He pauses. "So… Jack and I are getting coffee, later this week."

It takes Lardo a moment to answer. "Holy fuck, bro. Really? How do you feel about that?"

He takes a sip of wine. "I’m not sure. He said he wants to apologize?"

"Really? Just like that, after eight years?"

She sounds more careful than doubtful — Lardo's always been on his side, from the start, just as he knows that Shitty kept in close contact with Jack. Not that he always supported Jack's decision: Shitty had a stern conversation with him at some point, as Lardo reported to Eric, but whatever had been said hadn't led to a positive outcome. For the past few years, Shitty and Lardo have been juggling both friendships, two circles that never overlapped. In any case, he's glad they stuck with him through the years.

"I mean," Eric says. "Now's better than never, right? We might could be friends again. I don't know."

"Do you want that? To be friends with him?"

"Yes," he says, truthfully. "Of course I want that. Goodness, we'd been friends for a year before— yeah. I miss that."

A pause. "And what about being… more than friends?"

"Larissa Duan! I went down that road nine years ago, it's a potholed dead end, and I'm not getting back on it again!"

"I bet it did have some nice holes, though."

"No comment," he laughs. "So, tell me, how's the baby doing?"

She groans. "The one I'm carrying or the true baby in the house?" she asks, and it's a well-deserved break from his problems to hear her complain about Shitty making the vile mistake of not including pickles in her PB&J this morning.

 

*

 

It's 1:27 when Eric pushes the door to Nelly's, breathing hard. Three minutes early is ten minutes late in his book, but his agent monopolized him all morning about a jam recipe and he missed the bus he had planned on taking.

He glances around the shop and his eyes land on Jack, sitting in the far corner of the room, wearing a snapback and poking at the screen of his phone. His shoulders are tense, but that's to be expected.

"Hey, Jack," he says, as he pulls out a chair and sits down in front of him.

Jack looks up and smiles. "Hey."

"Congrats on your win in Ottawa!"

"Thanks. We were well-prepared and it paid off. The Senators aren't having the best season, but they fought hard and it was a close call in the end."

Eric smiles. He's even missed press-talk Jack.

"Anyway," Jack says, shaking his head. "How are you?"

"Fine, thank you," he laughs. "It's been a whirlwind of a day, though. I'm glad to have a minute to sit down. And you?"

"Good, thanks. Before I forget…" Jack leans down to take something out of his bag and places a Falconer teddy bear on the table between them. "For Elli."

It's the same one Elli was pointing at seconds before Jack made himself known to them. "Aw, you didn't have to!"

"It's no problem at all."

"He's gonna love it," Eric says. Elli loves all animals and teddies — he'll be thrilled to add it to his collection.

Jack's lips stretch into a half-smile. "He's a great kid."

"He is! Thank you," he adds, with sincerity, even though it feels like they've been thanking each other back and forth for the last two minutes.

They smile at each other for a few, long seconds, before Jack looks down at the table. "So, listen—"

It's about then that the waitress steps up to their table, and they order coffee awkwardly before the waitress goes back to the counter.

"Bittle," Jack finally says. "I want to apologize."

Eric swallows. He wants to look away and pretend nothing ever went wrong between them. They could go back to talking about Elli, or baking, or hockey — lord knows they would never be able to get to the bottom of a subject like hockey. Anything else than what happened at Samwell all those years ago. Just… anything else. But they’re adults now, and with it comes the responsibility to tackle things the mature way, however much Eric would like to run away from it. 

He cocks his head to the side and tries to smile. "It's fine, Jack, really."

"No. No, it's not. Let me, okay?"

Under his snapback, Jack's eyes are pleading. Eric nods, his throat tight.

The conversation stops once more as their coffees arrive, and they both take a moment to sip at their cups.

"I'm an asshole,” Jack starts. “I mean, you already knew that back then, but the way I acted before graduation… I reached new heights. I panicked. Shit," he chuckles, unhappily. "Sorry."

Eric frowns. "You panicked?"

He closes his eyes for a second and sees it all again: Jack throwing his rumpled shirt on his back and buttoning it furiously, while Eric was still tangled in the bedsheets. Shouting at each other, until Eric made a frustrated sound and curled right back up in bed, Jack slamming the door behind him.

It was clear, even back then, that Jack had been pushing him away, but his cold words weren't something Eric had associated with panic.

"Yeah," Jack says, staring at his coffee. "I thought it was pretty obvious. I couldn't handle it, the idea of us, being together. It felt… too good to be true, to be honest. Good things don't usually work out for me."

Eric closes his eyes and breathes. He swore to himself he wouldn't cry about this. So, the reason it didn't work out is that Jack's anxiety convinced him they were doomed to fail. Because Jack thought they were too good to be true. Fuck.

"I should have known," he whispers, mostly to himself. 

He’d known Jack had anxiety issues. Why didn’t he get that, at the time? He’d been too wrapped up in his own mind, thinking that Jack didn’t really want this with him. He should have put two and two together. He really should have — they would have talked about it, Eric would have reassured him, and they wouldn’t be here today, talking like near-strangers.  

"No," Jack says, leaning in. "This isn't your fault. It's not your job to manage my feelings, my anxiety. That's all on me. And it's definitely not an excuse for the way I acted. I'm so sorry."

Eric sniffs. "I'm not exactly blameless either." He remembers too well the words he said back then, frustrated and scared. "We sabotaged ourselves, didn't we?"

"Yeah. The whole coming out thing…"

Eric winces. He definitely had not helped with that part. ("So, what, you're just going to stay in the closet forever? Because hockey's worth it? More than who you are, more than what you feel? Don't you see how many levels of wrong that is?!" — "Don't come to me talking about coming out when you're not even out to your parents, Bittle!")

"I freaked out," Jack continues. "I really wanted to go out there and prove myself before any of these guys could judge me for my sexuality. At that time, I didn't see any possibility of coming out, and I guess that made me bitter. I didn't want to impose that on you. You shouldn't have had to be my secret. No one should."

Jack's hand is contracted into a fist on the table. Eric reaches for it and covers it with his own. "I would have waited, you know. I would have. One year, two years, maybe three," he adds, eyes welling up, knowing full well that Jack came out in his third year in the NHL.

Jack shakes his head. "You deserved better. You still had two years of college left, while I would have been all over the country. You deserved a normal college experience, with a normal college boyfriend, who could be there for you, be with you—"

His voice breaks.

"Jack," Eric says, softly. "Did you ever think about asking me what I wanted?"

Jack looks up. "I'm sorry. I was pretty horrible at the whole relationship thing."

"You weren't the only one," Eric chuckles. "I shouldn't have pushed you. Coming out is a pretty big decision that you make for yourself, not because you're with somebody."

"Shit, Bittle, the stuff I said back then… If I could take it back, I would. In an instant. I regretted it every day since then."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"I tried, I guess. Shitty made it pretty clear that you weren't interested in talking to me. He said to back off for a while."

"He didn't mean eight years!" Eric laughs wetly, and even Jack cracks a smile.

It breaks the tension between them, but the laughter exacerbates his tears, and it takes him a moment to recover. He takes his hand away from Jack's and reaches for a wipe cloth from his bag to blow his nose.

"Lord, sorry, I'm such a mess."

"No, it's fine. Really."

Eric pads at his eyes with the napkin, bunches it up, and sets it aside. At least his hands aren't trembling when he brings his cup to his lips.

"In retrospect," he sighs, "we would probably have been horrible together, back then."

Considering the way he kept avoiding conflict to the point of being unhappy with his first few boyfriends, he's not sure it would have worked out with Jack. Especially an anxious Jack experiencing his first NHL season. It’s a bitter truth, but it’s not like he can lose himself in the what-ifs either. Being with Jack probably wouldn’t have put him on Elli’s path, and that is one thing he could never regret. He can only hope Jack and him can move on, now, and get to be friends again.

Jack smiles over the rim of his cup. "I didn't dare to say, but I think so, too. Neither of us was ready at the time, eh? Fuck, especially not me."

Eric huffs. Sounds like Jack has figured out a few things as well since Samwell.

"This is very late," Jack says, "but congrats on winning the Frozen Four."

These must be the right words because they make Eric's chest fill with warmth. Getting over Jack hadn't been easy, but Eric had to be there for his team, and it was what helped him through those two final years at Samwell.

"I still can't believe I made Captain!"

"C'mon, you were one of the best players out there, and you were holding that team together long before you got the C."

Heat rises to his face. "Well, I should congratulate you on the three Stanley Cups," he whispers, just in case anyone nearby is listening. They haven't been bothered yet by fans and he'd rather keep it that way.

Jack's face lights up, and they start talking about hockey. It's like old times, a safe compromise that steers them away from emotional topics. By the time they're both done with their coffees, Eric looks down at his phone, and swears.

"Everything all right?" Jack asks.

"Ugh, I just missed my bus."

It's 2:35, and if he wants to make it in time to Elli's preschool he's going to have to take another route, but looking at the bus schedule, he’ll probably end up being a few minutes late anyway.

"I could give you a ride."

He stares at Jack. "Really?"

"Yeah, for sure. I don't have to be anywhere any time soon, so…"

Eric bites on his lower lip, and considers. He's fine with taking the bus, but he doesn't want Elli to worry if he's late, even though he knows he's in Anika's good hands.

"If you’re sure you don't mind, then… I would appreciate it, yes."

Jack insists on getting the check, and just as they're about to leave, he slips a pair of sunglasses on while Eric grabs the Falconer teddy bear.

It doesn't deter a couple of fans from recognizing Jack as they walk towards his car, but Jack manages to plead an appointment and they let them go after one or two autographs. Jack's tone is kind and not as annoyed as it was back when he was dealing with fans at Samwell, but still not entirely casual. If there's a world of difference between Jack now and then, he's still fundamentally the same, and it makes Eric smile.

Thinking about it now, it's funny how many times he thought of himself as an adult: when he turned twenty-one, when he won the NCAA, when he graduated from Samwell. And then, the years passed too fast to look back, focusing on Elli, and Eric grew up somewhere in there. Jack did too.

"Hey, sorry about that," Jack whispers. He leans into him as they're walking side by side, and points at a sleek, black Tesla parked between two cars. "Here."

Eric's eyes widen. He was kind of expecting a truck.

"What?" Jack says, catching the expression on his face. "We fly around so much I figured I could do my part and cut down on gas."

Eric huffs a laugh and sits down in the car. All right. He knows next to nothing about cars, but this must be the nicest Tesla model out there. He feels slightly out of place, sitting on the fancy black leather.

He gives Jack directions, but silence settles between them when they reach the highway.

"Can I ask you something?” Eric says. “You don't have to answer, if you don’t want to.”

"Shoot anyway."

He bites on his lower lip. "What made you decide to come out?"

He glances at Jack, wondering if his question will be met with a rebuttal, but Jack only cocks his head to the side. "Ah. Euh, nothing in particular? The Falcs knew already, and I was planning on it with PR and management for some time. And then… I woke up one morning and decided I’d had enough."

He remembers the tweet (goodness, Jack Zimmermann on Twitter!) that started it all. It was on every news website within minutes, and even Shitty had broken his golden rule of don't-talk-to-Bitty-about-Jack by texting him the second it was out.

"PR gave me hell," Jack chuckles, "because they had to scramble to release a statement and everything, but yeah, I don't regret it."

"Oh," Eric lets out. "I thought that…"

"Yeah?"

"I don't know, I thought that you might have been with someone at the time and… I mean, you never said anything about…" Ugh, he doesn't even know what he's trying to say.

"No, not back then," Jack explains. "Not now, either. There's been… uh, people, but yeah. I did it for myself. The closet gets kind of boring, after a while," he adds with a smile.

"I'm glad it went well."

"Yeah, me too. You can say that you told me so."

Eric gasps. "I would never!"

He lets his head fall back against the seat, a comfortable silence between them before he turns his head to get a better look at Jack, finally relaxed behind the wheel. 

He hasn't changed much — twenty-five to thirty-two can make a big difference when you're playing professional hockey, but Jack seems to be holding up. No major injuries or Eric would have heard. Even Jack’s nose looks fine — maybe a bit crooked to the side, but it's barely visible, just like the few soft-grey hairs around his ears that Eric can see now that he's this close. Does Bob Zimmermann dye his hair? The thought makes him smile.

The car comes to a stop, and Jack turns his head. For a second, Eric thinks he's going to say something, but Jack only looks back at him.

A moment passes, and another.

Jack clears his throat. "I think we're here."

Eric nearly jumps out of his seat, and peeks out of the window. "That's it! And just in time," he adds, as he checks his phone. "Thank you so much!"

"Do you need a ride back home? It's no trouble, really."

"Thank you, Jack, but it's fine. Elli likes taking the bus." Mostly because he can press the bell button that makes the bus stop.

"All right." Jack hesitates. "Listen, Bittle, can we do this again? Or not, if you'd rather—"

"No, that would be lovely!"

"All right, then."

Jack's smile is a small one, and Eric can see the way his shoulders drop with relief.

"Oh, c'mere you," he laughs, and reaches for him over the armrest.

It's a bit awkward at first, but once he's got his arms around Jack, it's like Jack is melting against him. He allows himself to hold him for a few seconds, but the moment is gone the instant he lets go.

They exchange quick goodbyes, and Eric knows he's lingering, halfway outside the car, as the parents and kids are starting to come out of the school. Elli is waiting, but Eric doesn't want this to be over yet. Although, according to Jack, it doesn't have to be.

"Okay, bye," he says, finally, and steps on the sidewalk.

"Bittle? Don't forget your protein!" Jack calls, just before he drives off, leaving Eric laughing.

Bitch, you did not.

 

*

 

"Does it have a name, yet?" Eric asks, raising his voice so that Elli can hear him from the kitchen.

He picks two gummy vitamins from the jar, fills a small glass of water, and walks back to Elli's bedroom.

On Elli's bed, all of his stuffed animals are set in a precise order Eric has long abandoned trying to understand, but tonight, the lucky one who gets to sleep under Elli's arm is the Falcs teddy bear.

"Is it really really from Jack Zimmermann, Daddy?"

Eric laughs and sets the glass down on the nightstand. "Yes, it is."

"You really was his friend at school?"

"Were," he corrects. "And yes, I was."

"That's so cool!" Elli lifts the bear to his face and gives it a shake. "I'm gonna call 'im Number One! Because number one Jack Zimmermann is the best!"

It doesn't take much for a boy to change allegiance. "What about Parson?" Eric asks.

Elli shrugs. "I mean Number One is the best on his team."

Ah. So not that big of a change.

Elli pulls the bear to his chest, and squeezes hard, closing his eyes. Eric chuckles, and ruffles through Elli's brown hair with one hand. That boy needs a haircut.

"All right, Elli, vitamin time, now."

Elli extends his hand, palm up, and Eric hands him the vitamins.

Elli takes a look at the vitamin and laughs. "Daddy, you're silly! They can't be the same color!"

Damn. He's forgotten about the Very Serious Vitamin Rules for a moment. "Maybe you could make an exception for tonight, sweetheart?"

Elli crosses his arms over his chest and shakes his head.

With a sigh, Eric goes back to the kitchen, opens the vitamin jar, and makes sure now that the two small animals aren't the same color.

He returns to Elli's room and watches as Elli inspects the orange lion closely and what looks like a blue antelope.

"But the lion is going to eat the antelope!"

"I'm pretty sure you're the one who is supposed to do the eating, Elliot."

Elli shakes his head. "I can't eat the lion and the antelope together if the lion is going to eat the antelope in my tummy!"

Kids…

Defeated, he goes back to the kitchen yet again, drops half of the jar's content in his palm, and looks for another carnivore to go with the orange lion. It can't be an orange hyena because of the color rule, so he chooses a blue hippo instead. Are hippos carnivorous, though? What the hell does a hippo eat, in the first place?

He groans. Maybe he should have listened more the last time they went to the zoo. He's pretty sure lions don't eat hippos, though. Unless they're very hungry lions. But all cats are scared of water, right?

Lord, he's about to have an aneurysm over this.

He goes back to the room with the lion and the hippo, and watches, somewhat anxiously, at Elli's inspection of them.

"Are you sure the lion isn't going to eat the hippo?"

Good thing he came prepared, this time. "Do you remember when we watched Madagascar? How Alex the lion wanted to eat Marty?"

Elli's eyes widen. "Yes."

"Well, one of Alex's friends was Gloria the hippo, right? And Alex didn't want to eat her when he was hungry."

And just like that, the vitamins disappear.

"Daddy," Elli whispers, once he's done with his glass of water and Eric is standing through the doorway, lights off.

"Yeah?"

"Jack Zimmermann is not like Kent Parson, but he's all right, I guess. He's the best on his team. He's the best in Providence. He can be the best in this confre— conference, and Kent Parson can be the best in his conference."

"All right, sweetheart. That's very smart of you. I'm closing the door now, okay?"

Elli's voice is small and tired. "Okay, nighty night."

"Good night, baby. I love you."

"I love you too, Daddy."

 

*

 

In the morning, Elli is sprawled out on his bed, Number One tucked under his arm. Just before opening the blinds, Eric snaps a quick picture of him.

It's only around midday that he remembers it, and texts it to Jack.

Bitty: [picture attached]

Bitty: He loved it! Thank you again.

Jack: Does it have a name? And is that Señor Bun under the pillow?!

Bitty: It might be. 😉 But LORD that thing is old. Elli doesn't want me to throw it away.

Jack: Don't you dare, Bittle.

Bitty: And yes, Elli baptized it Number One, after "Jack Zimmermann, who is not like Kent Parson, but he's all right, I guess."

Bitty: So you know where you rank. 😇

Jack: :-)

 

Chapter Text

 

They text.

Jack texts him first, in fact. Eric's still cautious, and although he knows there's nothing to fear this time around, he's glad for the visible effort Jack makes to show that this is important to him as well.

After a few more conversations, it's easy to stop overthinking and settle into the day-to-day texting routine they had back at Samwell.

Eric starts watching the Falconers' games, on Elli's insistence, who now doesn't want to miss a single game. At first, Eric turns the TV off for Elli's bedtime routine (there's been a few tantrums about that), but after a few times, he finds himself returning to the game once Elli is asleep.

He watches highlights with Elli on the tablet in the morning, and, needless to say, there's suddenly a lot of Jack in his life, now.

"Daddy," Elli moans, from the dinner table.

Eric looks up. He's supposed to be working on the cookbook, but he might have been staring at his phone instead.

"Yes?"

"Can you help me with homework?"

He tries not to sigh. Why are preschool assignments a thing in the first place? The boy is going to spend the next twenty years of his life doing homework if he goes to college. He might as well enjoy the first few years of his life without it.

"Of course, sweetie, what is it?"

He joins Elli by the coffee table, sits down, and ruffles Elli's hair. A box of crayons is splayed on the table, the yellow one stuck between his fingers as Elli looks down on a sheet of paper depicting three shapes.

"Miss Anika told us to color the sun," Elli explains.

Indeed, the text on the assignment says: IS THE SUN… A STAR, A TRIANGLE, OR A CIRCLE?

Eric stares at it for a moment.

"Daddy?"

"Yeah, give me a moment, Elli."

What?

Obviously, the sun is a star (triangle, seriously?) but the instruction is to color the right shape, and the sun is round. Do they mean figuratively, or… linguistically?

"Daddy, the sun is a triangle? It can't be a star!"

"Actually," Eric says, slowly, "the sun is a star."

Elli glances at him as if his answer is not to be trusted. "Really?"

"Yes, of course," Eric laughs. That's pretty much the only thing he's sure of.

"Okay," Elli says, cautiously, as he starts coloring the star shape.

It's only a few hours later, when Elli's in bed, that Eric finds the assignment again. He takes a quick picture of it and sends it to Lardo and Shitty, along with a string of interrogation marks.

Shitty: A triangle???

Eric shakes his head and sends the picture to Jack instead. Maybe he'll understand his dilemma.

Bitty: Take a look at what they teach my child.

Jack: Triangle? Really?

Bitty: Oh my god, what's up with y'all?

He laughs, and without thinking about it, presses on the button to call Jack. He doesn't have the time to change his mind: Jack answers right away.

"I don't get it," Jack says. "A triangle? Why would anyone think the sun is a triangle?"

Eric makes a sound. "Shitty said the same thing. It's made for four-year-olds, Jack, four-year-olds."

"It doesn't even look like a triangle."

"Well, it doesn't look like a star either, but here we are. It does ask to color the sun, though, and, the sun is round, right?"

A silence. "Yes…?"

"Lord, I don't even know why I bothered."

"Are you all right, Bittle?" Jack wheezes. Oh. He's missed that sound. "You know, the moon and the Earth are round too, if you were wondering."

"Hush up, mister, you know what I meant. The sun is a star, but if you're going to draw it, it should be round, hence why you should color the circle but call it a star."

By now, Jack is fully laughing.

"I'm awful at this," Eric groans.

"Hey, that's not true."

He sits down on the sofa, crossing a leg under him, and sighs. "I am. And these are preschool assignments. It's only going to get harder and harder from now on. Oh my god," he realizes, "in a few years, he's going to ask me about math. I can't do math."

"You did calculus in college. I'm sure you'll be fine."

"I'm gay , Jack," he deadpans, "my inability do to math is genetically encoded at this point. I'll have to ask, I don't know, Dex or Holster. And then I'll spent nights trying to explain the most basic concepts to Elli and he'll resent me because I can't teach math for shit and—"

"I'm trying out a new recipe," Jack cuts in.

He frowns. "Okay?"

"I'm trying a new recipe, and it's asking for half a cup of sugar, but I want to cut the recipe by three."

"You'll need one-sixth of a cup. What the hell are you cooking that would require one-sixth of a cup of sugar?"

"You'll be fine."

Oh. Oh. "Fine. I see your point. Still, there are more complicated things than fractions."

"You'll be fine," Jack repeats, with an air of certitude. "And who says he won't be great at math on his own? He's a smart kid."

Eric smiles. "You've met him once and you're already so sure."

"Of course I'm sure," Jack says. "He takes after his dad."

Eric shakes his head, but his smile doesn't fade away. "Now, I'm pretty sure intelligence is genetic. Of which we don't share much."

If Jack is curious to know, he doesn't ask. "The old debate between nature and nurture, eh? Not everything can be explained with genetics."

…says the Hockey God whose father is also a Hockey God, Eric doesn't point out.

"You're right," he sighs. "Raise them at the best of your abilities and hope for the best. I guess it's what all parents wish for, to have their kids end up taller and smarter than them," he adds, with a smile. "And I've already set the bar pretty low."

Jack chuckles. "C'mon, Bittle, don't sell yourself—"

"Yes, please finish that sentence."

"You know what I mean."

"I do, I do."

He yawns and checks the clock on the oven. It's getting late, and he hasn't even had the time to work on the book tonight. Maybe he should give up and go to bed. The book can wait, the small child climbing in his bed at six in the morning, not so much.

"I'm keeping you up," Jack says.

He hums. "Actually, yes, but I was the one who called."

"Anytime. And I do mean it."

"All right," he says, and can't help but smile. "Good night, Jack."

"Good night, Bittle."

 

*

 

He's in the middle of Shitty and Lardo's kitchen, dressed in a fashionable shirt and flattering skinny jeans. Not that anyone can see , since they're under the ugliest pair of beige overalls he's ever had the misfortune to look at.

"I told you I would do the cooking," he tells Lardo, glaring at her.

He's safe, on the other side of the island, and he's fairly sure he can outrun a heavily pregnant woman should the need arise.

"No," Lardo says, "you said that you would come to the baby shower, and we explicitly told you everyone would partake in the painting. You're not backing off now, Bittle."

He groans. "Why can't you do this like everyone else? Have people shower you with gifts and let me bake in peace, without any ritual involving paint."

It's about the sentimental value of having their friends paint the baby's room together, he knows, but couldn't they have chosen something less messy? He already lives with a child, there's no need to make that washing machine suffer more than it has to.

Lardo glares at him. She looks like she's about to leap, so he braces himself against the island, trying to read if she'll go left or right — when they're both distracted by the knocking at the door.

"OPEN UP," Holster yells from the other side. "WE'VE GOT BOOZE!"

College bros never grow up, apparently, but Eric wouldn't have it any other way.

The moment Lardo opens the door, she's engulfed in two pairs of arms that somehow manage to get around that huge belly of hers.

"Holy shit, Lards," Ransom says, holding her by the shoulders. "You're glowing."

Holster runs his thumb over a spot on her forehead, and it comes back yellow. "Might be from the paint."

"You guys," Lardo says, as she hugs them again, "thank you for coming, it's been a while."

It has. Holster and Ransom live in Boston, which isn't that far away, but everyone's been busy lately.

"Wouldn't miss this for the world." Ransom hooks his chin over her shoulder, and when he looks up, his gaze meets Eric's. "Bitty! Get your ass over here, bro!"

Eric laughs and steps up to them, only to be greeted similarly.

Once they've let go of him, Holster squeezes his shoulder. "So, how's our man Elli? Are construction trucks still the rage?"

"Thank god, not anymore," he says. He knows next to nothing about construction sites and such. "That lasted about two and a half minutes. He's all about lighthouses, now."

Ransom's eyebrows quirk up. "Lighthouses? Really?"

"Yup. He makes these sick drawings of them," Lardo says, a hint of artistic pride in her voice, "I'll show you later."

Eric sighs. "I don't even know. They read a book about lighthouses in preschool and now he's obsessed."

"Damn," Holster says. "Next time we drop by, we'll take him to the movies, bro."

"I'll take you up on that."

Holster grins back at him and Eric feels his heart swell in his chest. He might be Elli's only parent, but the boy has been raised by a whole village. And Elli adores every single one of his uncles and aunts, however mad they are.

"So," Ransom says, as he drops his coat on the back of the couch. "You're putting us to work, Lardo?"

Holster nods and lifts the beer. "Let me drop this in the kitchen, and I'm your man."

"Actually," Eric says, reaching for the beer, "I was going there anyway, so I'll take it and let y'all have fun—"

Ransom's hand drops on Eric's shoulder. "I thought we were all supposed to help? You've even traded your apron, Bits!"

"Not a word about the atrocity I'm wearing, mister."

"Right," Holster says as Ransom directs Eric down the hallway.

Holster is bracketing him from the other side, ending all possibilities of escape. "You're already dressed for the job, we're just going to get in there and splatter a bit of paint around and we'll call it a—"

Holster gapes and Ransom halts them under the doorframe: in the middle of the room, Jack's tipping his brush in the paint, and when he straightens back up again, their gazes meet.

"You know what?" Ransom says, already steering Eric back towards the hallway. "Let's go have a look at that kitchen."

Eric groans and shrugs Ransom's hands off him. "It's fine. We're fine."

Holster shakes his head. "You and your manners."

"I'm telling you it's fine."

So, Holster and Ransom have always been a bit overprotective. They were his captains the year after that fateful hookup — and even if it was their official role at the time, Eric couldn't be more grateful that they stuck by him. He’d been a mess. The team's support had been everything, but he felt guilty about their friends having to choose. He knew he’d been part of the problem as well, and seeing Holster and Ransom rant about Jack’s behavior was sometimes too much. Eric couldn’t help but worry: was Jack getting as much support as him? After all, Jack had told him, that night they were together, that he didn't regret Samwell. What felt as first as a detour brought him friends he never knew he deserved.

Holster and Ransom were a few of the ones Jack lost that following morning.

At the time, Eric wanted to hate Jack for what had happened, but he couldn't stop worrying about him either. But Jack didn't contact him, so he mustn't have cared that much about him and his old team after all. As far as Eric knew, Jack had severed all ties with the guys on the team, apart from Shitty and Lardo, and went on with his life.

In retrospect, Eric couldn't have been more mistaken. Jack's anxiety probably made him believe in the worst-case scenario, that Eric wouldn't take his apology, and so he cut all ties instead.

"I swear we're fine," Eric insists. "We had coffee, and we talked about… things."

Ransom stares at him, doubtful. "Bro, really?"

"Yes, really."

"And," Holster says, "you're okay with it? You know you don't have to forgive him."

Eric glares at him. "Do you think I'd be here today if I wasn't okay with it?"

Truth be told, he knew the moment he heard Shitty's tone on the phone last week — "Bitty. Bits. Bruh . You are one fabulous motherfucker and you know that I love you…" — he knew that something was up with the upcoming baby shower/painting party. It wasn't a surprise when Shitty asked him if he was okay with Jack being there since Shitty and Lardo wanted to get all their close friends together that day. Eric would have agreed even if Jack and he hadn't been on speaking terms, but quite fortunately, it's not the case anymore.

Holster doesn't look so sure, though. Ugh, these boys.

"It's fine," Eric repeats. "Let's get back in there, and you two, please act civilized."

Lardo walks up to them, holding a tall glass of peach juice with a cocktail parasol dipped in it. "So, you're going to paint?" she asks, quirking an eyebrow at him.

"Lord help me," he sighs, "but I will." At least it ought to prove his point to Holster and Ransom.

Half an hour later, he's back in the kitchen, overalls thrown over the nearest chair and not a single splatter of paint on his clothes. Thank goodness. He got cheered on as he gave the wall a few brushes of paint, before declaring to general laughter that his part was done. He even caught a smile on Jack's face, before Jack got back on the step-ladder to continue painting the upper part of the wall with methodic precision. Soon enough, Ransom and Holster were busy enough that Eric could escape their surveillance.

He turns the oven on for the lasagna he's brought. There are three pies, too, waiting in the fridge. Is three enough, though? They're a good dozen of painters, which means four people per pie. But Ransom and Holster are here.

"Taking a break from the painting?" Rani — one of Shitty's coworkers, a brunette woman Eric wouldn't particularly want to stand against in a courtroom — asks as she joins him in the kitchen.

"I was taking a break from cooking, truth be told. What about you?"

"I don't mind the painting," she laughs, "but I admit that I have a limited capacity of how much time I can spend in a room full of ex-hockey players."

He chuckles. "You get used to it." She gives him a look, and Eric laughs outright. "I swear!"

Rani shakes her head and takes a sip from her beer. "Not that it's any of my business, but… is everything okay with, you know, er, William, I think, and Derek? They keep bickering at each other. Have they been going through a rough time, lately?"

Eric laughs. If only she knew. "That's Dex and Nursey for you. They've always been like that. I hope they're behaving," he adds, just as the sound of gasps, yells, and paint splatters echo down the hallway.

"That didn't take long," he sighs. "That has to be Ransom and Holster," he says, judging by the shouts they're hearing.

"Those two are definitely married," Rani says, smirking. "Anyway, I thought Shitty was exaggerating when he talked about his old hockey team, but… are any of you straight?"

He laughs and goes to put the lasagna in the oven. He wants to say that Ransom and Holster are, but he still doesn't know what the deal is with them. They're living together seven years after college, but it's not like there's an expiration date on being roommates either. He's pretty sure that Ransom had a serious girlfriend a few years ago, which he hasn't heard of since. Whatever they have, it works for them.

"Well, there's Shitty, and uh—" Ollie and Wicks got married pretty soon after they graduated (or was it before?) and they didn't invite anyone, which, like, whatever. (He sent them a complimentary pie, so it's not like they're on bad terms or anything. But seriously? They spent four years of college together, on the same team!) Whiskey has had a serious boyfriend for a while now, and Eric hasn't heard from Johnson since he sent a baffling congratulatory card the day Eric officially adopted Elli. ("Congratulations! I hope this plot device helps you achieve everything you want in the future!"). "Chowder! He plays for the Sharks, he's married, with two kids and everything."

They're due for a call, soon, now that he thinks about it.

Rani's about to say something when a man with an impressive mane of dreadlocks enters the kitchen and drops on a stool beside her with an exaggerated sigh — Leonardo, or Leo, as he insisted earlier. He's Lardo's colleague at the gallery, and he seems pretty… nice, if only a bit hipster-y. The type of man who is above the abstract concept of sexual orientation and has probably done a painting with his blood to illustrate artistic suffering. He must have some good qualities, Eric thinks, if he's friends with Lardo.

"How is it, back there?" Rani asks him, a sly smile on her face.

Leo sighs again, as if neither of them can understand his desperation. "I don't think any of these people have seen a paintbrush before."

"That's probably true," Eric chuckles. Apart from Dex, maybe.

He checks the cupboards — there's enough flour to do another pie. Three are definitely not enough. Oh lord. What was he thinking? He brought three pies to a gathering of the biggest pie enthusiasts ever. It's like bringing whole-grain bread to the preschool potluck all over again. He ain't gonna make that mistake twice.

"Know your audience," he mutters to himself, bringing the flour to the island.

"Eric, right?" Leo asks, flashing him a wide, genuine smile.

Okay, he can see how it works, now.

He smiles back. "Yup. You work with Lard— Larissa at the gallery, right?”

Leo is about to answer when a shout comes from down the corridor: Shitty. "Rani, c'mere, I need a non-biased third party to settle this fucking debate once and for all!"

She chuckles, and sets her beer on the counter. "I'll leave you two gentlemen to it," she says, her tone implying that she was going to do it anyway, intervention or not.

He starts mixing his dough, and for a moment, his gaze meets Leo's, and… Fine. The man's got nice eyes, what can he say? He's not exactly Eric's type, but it's not like he's gotten any in ages. Even if it's only attention, it's… nice.

He clears his throat and concentrates back on the dough.

"Yeah, I work with Larissa," Leo says. "I think I saw you at one of our exhibitions? The one where we did the combination of shadows and oil paintings? I did the sculpting for that."

Eric lifts his head. "No way!"

He goes to Lardo's exhibitions when he can, but it doesn't mean he knows a single thing about art. That last one, though, made his jaw drop to the floor. Lardo's oil paintings had been aligned on the wall, bits and pieces of metal floating in front of them, attached to the ceiling with invisible thread. When you stepped behind the floating bits, at the right angle, the strong lighting created figures that displayed on the painting — people, objects, animals, shadows you discovered as you walked around the room, changing angles each time. It was like stepping into an animated world, and Eric brought Elli along on the second evening, holding him in his arms and smiling at each of his amazed, tiny gasps.

"No way!" he repeats. "That was you ?"

Okay, so maybe not painting with his blood, then. His eyes settle on Leo's fingers, curled around his beer. He's always liked talented hands.

Leo lifts both of his hands and grins. "The one and only."

"Goodness, that was so impressive." He leans in a bit, abandoning the dough for a moment. "I've never seen anything like it."

"I can show you some more if you want to," Leo says, suggestively.

So it is going there.

Eric bites on his lower lip. "I'd like that. Let me get your number. Give me a second," he adds.

He goes to the sink to wash his hands — he'd rather not have butter all over his phone — and just as he's about to turn back to Leo, a hand settles on his waist, out of nowhere.

"Watch out," Jack warns him, but Eric was already moving and his back collides with Jack's chest, his head bumping against Jack's elevated arm.

"Hey!"

He frowns, and looks up, to see Jack fumbling around the top cupboard. His hand feels hot on Eric's waist. It irradiates the skin under his shirt.

"There you go," Jack says, as he steps away and shows him the carton of peach juice he retrieved from up there. "Juice?"

He rolls his eyes and is about to say no when he notices the amount of yellow paint staining Jack's old grey tee-shirt.

"Jack Laurent Zimmermann," he gasps, contorting his arm to swap the back of his shirt. "If I find a single stain on my shirt—"

"Don't worry." Jack passes a hand on the front of his tee-shirt. "It's all dried up."

"For your sake, I hope it is," he says, returning to his dough. It's one of his nicest shirts — he doesn't have a lot of these anymore, so he really hopes he hasn't ruined it — but he can't keep the smile from growing on his face.

Until he notices Leo, looking at him, eyebrows high on his forehead.

"Okay," he says, clearing his throat. Jack is still behind him, pottering around the cupboards, probably searching for a glass. "Where were we?"

Right. At the part where he was washing his hands to write down Leo's number in his phone. Lord.

He closes his eyes for a second and presses the back of his wrist to his forehead, his hands all buttery again.

He can do this.

He turns once more towards the sink and nearly collides with Jack again .

"Bittle. You've got paint in your hair."

"Argh!" He sticks his head between his shoulders. "Take it out!"

"Don't move," Jack says.

Eric leans his head towards him and feels Jack's fingers tugging at a strand of hair, at the back of his head.

"There." Jack lifts his hand, a blob of paint crushed between his fingers.

"Thank you," he says, but Jack has already turned his back on him, going for the sink.

He turns back towards the island, but Leo's already half-risen from his stool.

"Never mind," Leo says, "I'll go see if they need any help. Talk to you later, Eric?" he adds, his tone polite, but Eric can tell that he's lost interest.

"Of course!"

Once Leo is out of sight, he groans and lets his head fall against the cool stone. Oh well, he wasn't that much into him anyway, but it's not like he can afford to be picky.

"Don't pretend like I don't know what you're doing, mister," he tells Jack.

Jack blanches at that. "What did I do?" Of course, Jack wouldn't know — Eric can see the wheels turning in his head. Three… Two… One… "Oh. Oh." Jack frowns. "C'mon, you can do way better than that guy."

He doesn't dignify that with an answer but starts working the dough again, handling it with more vigor than necessary. Great. He'll have made an awful pie on top of everything else. Just great .

"Bittle?" Jack asks, carefully.

Eric sighs, and glances over his shoulder. "Jack…" He doesn't even know where to begin.

Ugh. Truthfully, Jack probably saved him some trouble down the line — he's heard from Lardo that Leo doesn't really like kids — but the fact is Eric doesn't need anyone to save him. Especially not Jack, who doesn't have a claim on him but still subconsciously acts like an asshole in the presence of anyone who's ever shown a tiny bit of interest towards Eric. Since Samwell . Old habits die hard. But now that Eric's moved on, he can't let Jack interfere anymore.

"Shit. Sorry. Sorry."  Blue eyes blown wide, Jack genuinely looks like it. "He didn't— you can still— or I can fetch him for you—"

He shakes his head. It was a long shot with Leo, and he doesn't want to risk his shaky friendship with Jack over it.

"Are you saying you'll wingman for me?" His words throw Jack off track and he's so obviously regretting his suggestion that Eric laughs. He reaches for the pie pan and starts molding the dough. "Don't worry. You're right, he wasn't my type, to begin with." He bites on his lower lip. "It's just… harder now, you know? When you have a kid. Men aren't exactly lining up at the prospect of dating a nearly thirty years old single father who's got three jobs to make ends meet. Glasses are in the cupboard left of the sink," he adds for Jack's benefit, who's still going around the kitchen.

"Right," Jack says, followed by a pause, as he reaches for the glasses. "They're missing out, then." It's said with such honesty that it makes Eric's heart squeeze in his chest. "Seriously, Bittle." Jack steps up to the island, a slight frown on his face. "You're worth it, okay? You're hard-working, no one should give you trouble for that, and if they have anything against Elli, then they don't deserve either of you in the first place. I mean it, you can do better than Leonardo." He leans in, conspiratorially. "I don't think that's even his real name."

Eric gasps, faking surprise. "You don't say. I'll give him points for the accent, though."

"Oh, anyone can do that," Jack says, accentuating his québécois accent to the point that Eric chuckles. "I'm just saying, if that accent has ever smelled an Italian spaghetti before, it must have been a Western one."

"Don't be rude!" His point doesn't come across: he's wheezing. Jack is right, though, Eric's dated an Italian guy before, and there's no comparison to make.

"Leonardo da Providence," Jack snickers, and Eric takes the cloth off his shoulder and whips Jack with it on the ass (he was actually angling it for the small of his back), as Jack turns towards the fridge.

They're still laughing when Shitty enters the kitchen, bright-eyed. Without a word, he moves between them to leave a smack of a kiss on Eric's cheek first, then on Jack's, grabs the juice and the glasses, and leaves.

A single glance at each other, and they're losing it again.

"All right," Jack says, once he's regained control over himself, and points at the unfinished pie. "I have a question for you."

"About that, if you're not going back there, then you might as well peel some apples for me."

Jack nods and fetches the bag of apples from the counter. Half-concentrated on the dough, Eric watches from the corner of his eyes as Jack obediently starts to peel an apple. It feels easy, as if they're back in the Haus's kitchen, baking together for that seminar they took together.

"What did you want to ask me?" he says, once Jack is done with his first apple.

"Oh, right. Euh, I'm not sure exactly. It's just that when I followed your recipe for the pecan pie, it didn't really taste like when you make it?"

He lifts his head and stares. He's so convinced that Jack's going to crack a smile and admit it's a joke that he doesn't even correct him on the pronunciation of pecan .

"Pardon me?"

Jack looks slightly lost. "Er, which part? I got your cookbook, yeah. Well, cookbooks."

Jack Zimmermann has bought and used his cookbooks. Jack Zimmermann has bought and used his cookbooks. Jack Zimmermann has BOUGHT and USED his cookbooks.

"Oh, lord," he chuckles, nervously. "That might be my fault, then, the second one was a disaster."

Both content-wise and financially — his life was in shambles and he had a very tiny baby in his arms while writing it. God bless his agent and the fact that she's willing to make the third one happen anyway.

"That's not true. I like that bagel recipe in the second one."

Eric rolls his eyes. "Of course you would, you Montreal-born woodsman," he chirps. "Anyway, did you use the right flour?"

"Sorry?"

"For the pecan pie."

"Right." He frowns. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure I followed that recipe closely."

They go over every step of the pecan pie, trying to see where Jack went wrong before Eric gives up. It seems like Jack did everything by the book. Eric did teach his boys right.

"I don't see what you're doing wrong. Maybe it's your oven? Though baking results tend to vary from person to person. You wouldn't believe my mama's blueberry cobbler and mine come from the same recipe. I guess I'd have to see you do it to say what you're doing differently," he reflects out loud.

"Would you mind?"

He stares at Jack for a whole second. He was being polite, not thinking Jack would take the offer, but now that he's made it, he's not going to take it back.

"Of course not," he says, trying to sound casual. "Just let me know when you're free."

Before Jack can reply comes a raucous of paint cans clattering against each other down the hallway.

"ALL RIGHT, WHERE'S THE CHAMPAGNE?" Shitty shouts, and just like that, a dozen pairs of feet stampede towards the kitchen.

"Lord, here they come," Eric says, and Jack laughs.

 

 

Chapter Text

They end up meeting two weeks later, at Jack's place. Elli is at a sleepover with his best friend, Maya, and Eric's quite glad for the promise of a full night of sleep and not having to wake up early tomorrow. He needs it: Elli climbed in his bed last night after a nightmare and spent the rest of the night finding ways to kick Eric while in a fitful sleep.

Now, standing in the middle of Jack's condo, facing the bay windows and watching the busy city as workers are driving back home, Eric can only hope he won't fall asleep nose-first in the pie they're supposed to bake together.

It's still early, but the sun is setting, as it's bound to do at this hour in February, and in the background, he can hear the faint noise of a shower running. The bus left him early in front of Jack's building — better early than late, in his book — just in time to meet him on the way in. He's had a practice, this afternoon, and told Eric to make himself home while he's showering.

It's a nice condo — minimalist but cozy at once, all in good taste. It feels very much like Jack, yet the decoration is, surprisingly, not all about hockey. The "Be Better" poster has been replaced with a few abstract pieces signed with Lardo's name, and an impressive book collection covers the wall behind the couch in the living room. There's a bag of golf clubs by the entryway (in February?), a pool table, and game consoles stacked under the impressive TV set — most likely for when the team is around, judging by the number of controllers. The kitchen is clean and the huge fruit bowl in the middle of the island is reassuring: Jack's diet isn't only composed of protein shakes, thank goodness. That oven is making Eric feel things, so he doesn't linger — Jack is doing the baking tonight, after all.

He moves down the hallway and finds himself in front of the only indication that the apartment might belong to a hockey enthusiast: four posters, made digitally but in a cool vintage design, depicting Gretzky, Lemieux, Richard, and Orr.

He's about to walk back towards the kitchen — nosiness never did anyone any good — when his attention is caught by the constellation of photographs on the wall just in front of the posters.

The first one he sees are, without surprise, the three times the Falcs have won the Cup. Jack is standing in the middle of his team, looking ecstatic, wide grins on every face. Eric's throat grows tight. He’s missed a lot in their years apart, and this hits him hard. Well, Jack will only have to win one more this season, and this time, Eric will be there when he does.

The photographs seem to move somewhat chronologically, and most of them depict Jack's friends. Eric can tell which ones Jack took himself because the angles are still a bit wonky and sometimes the lighting isn't very good, but it makes them that much more charming. There are some of Jack's teammates, one as they're celebrating something in a bar, another one showing the man Eric knows as Lachance, number 7, grinning as he's wearing fake moose antlers. There's something private in his smile as he looks directly at the camera. Does it mean something? Or is he reading too much into it?

There's a lot of Shitty and Lardo, and one showing Jack golfing at an event with his father, along with famous players — Eric recognizes Lemieux, Lafleur, Gretzky, and Lapointe. On another one, Jack is stuck under Mashkov's arm, Kent Parson on Mashkov's other side. Eric frowns. Are they friends, now?

"Aw," he whispers to himself, as his eyes land on the most adorable picture of the bunch: it shows a four-year-old Jack in his tiny Canadiens jersey, wearing even tinier skates and a huge helmet, propped between Bob and Alicia.

If he had enough money for hockey gear, this is what Elli would look like at hockey practice.

He nearly misses it, disturbed by the sound of a door closing between what he guesses is the bathroom and Jack's bedroom, but it's there nonetheless, a picture from Jack's senior year that they took at the beginning of the playoffs, still when they thought they had a chance to win the Frozen Four. They're all beaming at the camera, and Eric looks so small, tucked under Jack's arm, with Ransom on his right.

It's the single picture on the wall in which he features.

He barely notices that Jack has stepped up to him, smelling of that same body wash he used all these years ago, his hair still wet.

Eric winces. "Sorry, I shouldn't be snooping around like that."

"It's fine. I told you to make yourself at home." He follows Eric's gaze to the wall, and for a second, Eric wants to turn his head and pretend that he wasn't looking at that particular picture. "That's a good one, eh?"

"Oh my god," he gasps. "We looked like babies."

Jack smiles. "That we did."

"I know that you've won three Cups and everything, but it still sucks we didn't get the championship that year."

"No, I get it. It would have been amazing to get it, at least once. But you went ahead and did it anyway," Jack adds, with a wink.

Eric shakes his head. "It wasn't all me."

"Do you miss it? Skating?"

"Every day," he sighs. There's no need to bother hiding the truth — he always felt like he could be honest with Jack.

Jack looks at him and frowns. "Why aren't you doing it anymore?"

He stares back, and when the look on Jack's face confirms that he truly is clueless about it, he lets out a nervous chuckle. "I used to, before Elli. I coached figure skating and hockey during the weekend at the local rink, when I was not working on the book, but then Elli came along and I didn't have time anymore. Three jobs, remember?"

"You could go with Elli. Though you said he prefers watching?"

"No, I took him a few times, he likes it. It's been… more complicated since he outgrew his first pair of skates. It's not like hockey's the cheapest sport out there."

Jack winces as if finally understanding. "If you'd like, the, er, Falconers have a program. Or I could ask around, I'm pretty sure one of the guys has a pair that they don't use and that would fit."

"I'll think about it," he says, with a slight smile. "Elli's pretty busy anyway, he's already got swimming, ballet, and art class."

Jack raises an eyebrow. "Ballet?"

"Yeah, he started back in September. At this age, it's mostly running around waving hands, but it's great for coordination, and lord knows that kid needs it. He likes it, but it just looks… so hard for him." He sighs. "Maybe it's just a matter of time. I shouldn't compare, I was way older when I started."

"Wait. You did ballet?"

Eric throws him a look. "I was a figure-skater, Jack, of course, I had dance training. It wasn't specifically ballet, though."

"You never told us that."

"I thought everyone on the team knew. Rans and Holster wanted to make a play out of it."

Jack shakes his head in disbelief. "Well, the most important thing is that Elli's having fun, right?"

"Yes, of course. Before I forget!" he says, walking back towards the kitchen, "he wanted me to give you this."

He fetches the drawing from his satchel at the door and hands it to Jack.

"For me?" Jack asks, a frown on his face, looking a bit stunned.

"As a proper thank you for the teddy. Now," he warns, crossing his arms over his chest, "I know what it looks like and that's not it."

Jack's beaming smile transforms into something shakier as he unfolds the paper.

"It's a lighthouse," Eric says.

Jack puts the tips of his fingers against his mouth. "That's, that's—"

He chuckles. "Very phallic, but you're not supposed to say."

"No," Jack says, "I mean, it's great. It really is. Thank you." He looks up, still smiling. "You'll tell him, right?"

"Of course! It's supposed to be Falconer blue, by the way."

They didn't have that exact shade of blue, which is surprising considering the number of recycled colored pencils Elli inherits from Lardo. Under the lighthouse, Eric's neat handwriting spells out the message Elli dictated to him — Thank you for the teddy, Mr Jack. His name is Number One, just like you! — Followed by Elli's wobbly signature.

Jack springs up from the stool and goes to fiddle around the magnets on the fridge until the drawing is splayed out in its glory. He takes a step back to get a good look at it as if it's a gigantic Renaissance painting he needs to seize in its entirety.

He looks so elated that Eric feels warm all over.

"I love it. Now I have to think of something to thank him for that."

"Don't you dare, or you two will go around in circles forever," Eric says, though he knows nothing will ever stop Jack from being generous with his friends. "Weren't you supposed to make your pecan pie?"

"Ah, right."

Jack casually fetches Eric's cookbook from one of the shelves in the kitchen, his ears slightly pink, and they go over the ingredients together — Jack had texted him earlier this week to even get the brands right. That boy is nothing short of dedicated.

"I did a vlog about this one," he points out, but Jack shakes his head.

"Uh, no, I only have the books," he says, the red from his ears pooling towards his cheeks now, nose in the book in front of him.

Eric could tease him — just to make him blush harder — because the guys chirped him forever about getting a link to his vlog, and now that it's out there in the open, Jack hasn't even watched it. But after all, he stayed away from Jack's career all those years, so it only makes sense Jack did the same. At least, most of his old, embarrassing vlogs from Samwell are on private now. He didn't have as many followers as he does now, but he still can't believe how many personal details he spilled in there. He tries to keep the two separate now, especially after having Elli — he doesn't want to become one of those Insta parents who monetize their kids, thank you very much.

Jack gets to work since he's supposed to try the recipe on his own, and Eric sits down and watches him go. Naturally, the conversation deviates towards hockey.

"I haven't been following much, lately," Eric says, and that's an understatement. "Y'all have a spot in the playoffs, this year?"

"If we keep going as we have, we should, yeah. The team is doing well, even though we had to rework lines since Lucky had to get ankle surgery."

"Lucky?"

"Sorry — Lachance? He's one of my wingers. Fast as hell, like you. One of our bests, really, so it's been an adjustment to play without him, but we're coping. Better than him, he's been moping around, but he might get back on the ice if we get far enough in the playoffs," he adds, tone careful, as he's concentrated on mixing the dough.

Eric watches Jack's hands, for a moment.

"Not to jinx y'all, but do you think you will?"

Jack looks up and shrugs. "Ah, I guess we'll see. We're doing well, but the competition is tough. The Pens and the Flyers are pretty strong this year, they won't be easy to beat. I'd like it, though. Not getting any younger."

Eric swats a hand at him. "Ugh, come on, you're only thirty-two."

"That's like, close to a hundred in hockey years," Jack snorts, though he doesn't seem too deterred about it; he throws Eric a smile.

What does Jack plan to do, after the NHL? He's kind of curious about it, but it doesn't seem to be the best line of questioning, considering Jack.

"Who knows, maybe you have another decade or two in you and you'll beat Jágr."

Jack snorts again. "I seriously doubt that." He looks up, eyes lost on the wall in front of him. "I have a bad knee," he says, softly. "Not like, bad bad, but it'll get there eventually. I just don't want to slow the rest of them down."

"Jack," Eric says, with a long look. "I know they say you're at the height of your physical abilities when you're twenty-five or something, but the way you played last month can't even begin to compare with the way you played at Samwell."

"Really?" Jack asks, looking surprised. "I mean, I know I've improved, but—"

"Hush. Take the compliment," he chuckles. "The Falcs should be happy to have you for as long as your health allows, and that's that."

Jack smiles and returns to his dough, but the color hasn't left his cheeks. Taking pity on him, Eric asks for the bathroom.

A few minutes later, after Jack has assured him he's got everything in control, Eric moves to the living room, eyeing the impressive shelves of books. An author comes back a few times — Michel Tremblay — and features notably on an absolute brick of a book. Curious, he picks it up and skims over a few pages.

"Which one are you looking at?" Jack asks, from the kitchen.

"This one?" Eric lifts the book for Jack to see, and it nearly strains his wrist it's so big. "Seriously? When do you find the time to read all that?"

"We travel a lot. And there are five novels in that book, actually."

Jack often carried around schoolbooks and history books on roadies, and even though it was clear he enjoyed these, Eric's not quite sure he's seen him read fiction for pleasure.

He opens the book again and notices the five titles splayed on the first page. "What is it about? La grosse femme d'à c—" he starts reading, but stumbles on the right pronunciation.

"La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte," Jack corrects him.

"What's that?"

"Literally? The big woman next door is pregnant."

Eric's eyes widen. "Okay, now you've got to tell me what it's about."

Jack laughs. "It's a day in the life of a working-class family in Montréal in 1942. Most of the neighborhood is composed of pregnant women as men could escape military service if they had young kids at home."

Three hundred pages describing a single day? Ugh. Also, the most Jack thing ever.

Jack seems to catch on to Eric's expression, because he chuckles, and shakes his head. "You don't understand. It's okay."

"No, tell me," he insists. "Why do you like it?"

Jack's putting the pecans on the pie now, and there's a slight frown on his face as he takes a moment to think of his answer. "His work is a pretty big deal because he was one of the first to write the way we speak, in joual. Uh, slang, I guess? Yeah. It was deemed unliterary, but then you'd read books in school in which characters are speaking clean French and sounding like strangers. And it's set in Montréal, so that's always pretty fun to revisit when I haven't been there in a while." He looks up and smiles. "He's one of the only québécois authors who manages not to be depressing as hell, too. Or well, you laugh at first, but then you think about everything that's hidden under the humor. That first book in the series is pretty light, though, it has an atmosphere…"

"Yes?"

Jack licks his lips and looks down at his pie. "There are a few words, as the whole family is gathered at supper, and for once they're not arguing with each other… It says sometimes like they're on the eve of the apocalypse. It struck me, at the time." He pauses. "I guess I always felt a bit like that."

"On the edge of an apocalypse?" Eric asks, voice low.

"Yeah."

"Now, still?"

Jack looks up, his expression… soft. "No, not for a while."

"I'm glad."

For a moment, they smile at each other, before Eric turns back towards the shelves and replaces the book in its rightful place. Just as he's about to do so, he notices another book, with two embracing figures on the cover, both of which are male. It's from the same author.

He picks it up. "La nuit des princes charmants." He actually knows what that means: something like the night of the charming princes.

"Oh," Jack chuckles. "This one is fun."

Eric bites on his lower lip. "What is it about?"

"It's a young guy who gifts himself a ticket to the opera for his eighteenth birthday, but since he's also becoming legal, he sets on to lose his virginity that night."

He makes a sound, and Jack laughs, "I know."

"What happens?" he asks because now he's properly curious.

"He, as he puts it, falls in love with a man in line for the opera."

Eric barks out a laugh.

"What? Come on, he's eighteen."

Oh, honey, he wants to say, I'm not doubting you, I know the feeling.

"An anglophone, waiting with his mother," Jack continues, oblivious, "so nothing can happen because she's there. They get inside, and he falls in love with another man, an extra in the opera. At that point, he's basically having an existential crisis over polygamy, but he settles on the man in the opera instead."

Eric bites on his lower lip. "Does he get one of them in the end?"

"Yeah. He goes out with the opera guy — there's an interesting bit about gay bars in 1960s Montréal — but he soon discovers that he's not that much into him, and vice versa. He bumps into the anglophone at one of the bars, and they dance together, get to a hotel, and well—"

"Virginity lost?" he chuckles.

"Yep."

"Uh," Eric reflects, considering the book in his hand. It isn't even that big. "Maybe I should give it a try."

"I'm pretty sure this isn't translated."

"I meant in French."

Jack frowns. "You speak French?"

"No need to sound so surprised, mister. I took French class senior year, so I could go on a six months internship at a bakery in France after I graduated."

"Really?" Jack asks, still sounding doubtful, as he picks up the completed pie and opens the oven's door.

"Uh-uh. Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir? See?"

He should have anticipated the effect these words would have on the poor man: Jack half-drops the pie in the oven, saving it midair like a goalie scrambling for the puck, but then, that's what Jack gets for chirping his French.

"If you're wondering why your pies taste different," Eric says. "I ain't dropping mine in the oven."

Jack makes a show of rolling his eyes at him while closing the oven's door, but there's a growing grin on his face. "Did you actually do any work at that bakery? Please tell me this isn't the only thing you learned in France."

Eric gasps because of course, Jack doesn't know Lady Marmalade. "You disrespect me and Christina Aguilera for not knowing that this is a song, Jack, and a song I knew well before going over there. My French ain't that bad, I'm telling you."

" "

" ," he says, playing dumb, which makes Jack laugh.

"Three euros for a baguette? Isn't that a bit much?"

" "

Jack rolls his eyes again. " "

"Pardon?" he teases. That man's accent is to die for. " "

"Calvaire," Jack grumbles. " "

" " he laughs. "Chirp, chirp, chirp."

"Oh my god," Jack buries his face in his hands. "But seriously, how was it, over there?"

Frankly, not that great, though Eric doesn't say as he recounts his time in France, freshly served glass of wine in hand. The language barrier had been difficult to overcome, and even though he had a boyfriend for the last few months — Matteo, an Italian man who thankfully spoke very good English but who didn't care enough to try the long-distance thing after Eric got back to the States — he felt lonely, away from his friends. At the time, he thought it had been the right thing to do, to cut the umbilical cord still attaching him to Samwell. A world he needed to learn to live without.

He focuses on the fun bits instead: his charming boss at the bakery, the impressive amount of French cuisine he learned over there.

The conversation diverges from éclairs and macarons to the book he's currently writing. He tells Jack about the jam conundrum — his Mom still hasn't forgiven him for adapting aunt Judy's recipe rather than her own, though she hides it under a thick layer of, "The best family jam needs to stay a family secret anyway."

"It better read death by jam on my headstone," he sighs, leaning his chin on the back of his hand. "I currently have twelve strawberry jam recipes, and my editor only lets me have one per fruit. That doesn't make any sense."

He takes a sip of wine and Jack nods along, his eyes wide.

"What about strawberry and rhubarb? It doesn't taste at all like regular strawberry jam! How am I supposed to choose? All jams are good jams!"

By the time the pie is ready, he's on his second glass of wine, discussing Lardo's latest sonogram.

"Goodness, that smells divine," he says, as Jack places the warm pie on the countertop.

"Let's taste it before you start praising my nonexistent baking skills," Jack says.

He looks just a bit proud — and Eric gets why, considering what happened to the lattice last time they baked together.

Pie distributed on plates, they relocate to the living room, on Jack's insistence that they will be more comfortable there. He didn't have a chance to sit down since he came back to practice, and Eric wonders if his knee is bothering him.

They sit down on the couch, a very platonic distance between them, glasses of wine on the coffee table. Jack bends a leg and sits on his heel so that they can be somewhat face-to-face.

In front of them, the city's lights are bright sparks dancing in the bay window.

"All right, moment of truth," Eric says. He takes a forkful of pie and raises his plate towards Jack. "Cheers."

"Cheers."

That first bite is good — it's more than good, and he coughs a bit to dissimulate the moan that nearly escapes his lips. What? People don't cook for him that often.

Beside him, Jack tenses up. "What? Is it awful?"

"No, no, it's good. It's really good," he says, and it's his turn to feel his face heat.

"Don't you think it tastes different?" Jack asks, frowning a bit.

Eric takes another bite, just to check. It sure tastes different, but not like Jack's made a mistake or followed another recipe altogether. Sure, it's not exactly the same as Eric's, but it's decent for someone who doesn't bake that often.

"It's because you made a pecan pie, and not a pecan pie."

Jack barks out a laugh, inhibited for the first time tonight, and it melts into a soft expression on his face. Lord, that needs to happen more often.

"Oh my god," Jack breathes out, "when will you let that go?"

"Uh, when you'll start pronouncing it right. But seriously," he adds, taking another bite of pie, "this is really good. The crust is just a tiny bit dry, but that's easy enough to fix, I'll show you. For the rest… It doesn't taste exactly like one of mine, but that's not bad either. Each baker has their style."

Jack pouts, a bit. He actually pouts. "It's not yours, though."

Jack misses his pies. It's been eight years and Jack still misses his pies. Why does it surprise him that much, when he missed Jack's hockey, Jack's quirks, Jack's… Jack?

Maybe it's just nice to know that the feeling is reciprocated. He'll take it.

"Goodness, you flatter me." Before he can stop himself, he adds, "No need to try to emulate my pies when I'm around and can bake you some."

Jack's face is impassible. "Really?"

"Yes, of course."

Jack looks down and picks up his fork again. They eat in silence for a few minutes, before Jack asks if he wants another glass of wine. He agrees, even though he's kind of drinking Jack under the table, here, but he's had a long day. He has to learn to enjoy himself on nights he's not taking care of Elli — says pretty much anyone in his life.

Just as Jack comes back with the wine, Eric sets his empty plate on the coffee table and yawns.

"Sorry, I'm being rude."

"Not at all. Long day?"

"You could say that," he sighs. "Elli kept me awake until three in the morning. He gets nightmares, sometimes, so I let him spend the rest of the night in my bed. Not sure if I should allow that, but…"

He shrugs. Elli is a pretty well-disciplined kid, but one thing Eric's not able to do is to let him cry alone in his room because of night terrors. Manning up is not a thing he believes in, especially not when talking about a four-year-old.

"It's just not very conducive to sleep," he explains with a smile. "He kicks a lot."

"He sounds like an amazing kid, though."

Eric beams. "He really is. I just don't know what's sleep, anymore."

"Sorry, am I keeping you up?"

"No, not at all!" he insists. "This is nice. Everyone keeps telling me I should go out more. Shitty and Lardo usually take him for a sleepover every week, but then I'm so tired the only thing I want to do is go to bed. And that's bound to change when the baby will be here. Ugh. Sorry, I know I sound pathetic."

Jack frowns. "No, not at all. And, uh, if you ever need a babysitter… I could fill in."

He gapes at him. Is he hearing this right? "Seriously?"

"Euh, yeah, I mean, I have a pretty busy schedule, but I'm free on most nights I don't have a game," he says, a bit sheepishly.

Eric blinks. "Goodness, thank you, that's duly noted."

Jack smiles and rubs a hand around the back of his neck. Eric lets his head against the back of the couch and looks out of the window. It's starting to snow, outside, but the living room is warm and comfortable. There's a voice in the back of his mind reminding him that Jack is still looking at him.

"I—" Jack starts. "You can totally say no, but…"

He turns his head and raises his eyebrows. "Yes?"

Jack wraps his free hand around his ankle, and Eric stares, transfixed, remembering how ungodly those had felt on his skin.

Lord. Maybe he should stop drinking now.

"I was wondering… How did you get Elli?"

Oh.

"Oh."

"Never mind," Jack says, quickly. "That was stupid."

"No, not at all. It's just that it's a long story."

Jack licks his lower lip. "We have time. And more pie. Only if you want to, of course."

Eric lifts his head and straightens himself. Where should he start? All the important people in his life — apart from Jack — had been there when it happened. He always gives a quick rundown to those who have asked, but it's only fair to give Jack the full story.

"My cousin," he starts and crunches his eyes shut for a second. "Not really my cousin, more like the daughter of the cousin of my mom's cousin — that sort of thing, with big families, you know? She showed up at my door, five years ago, and told me she was pregnant." He remembers it with a strange vivacity, her standing on the porch of the first-floor apartment he shared with Connor at the time. "I was out to my parents for a while already," he says and feels Jack shifting on the couch.

"How did that go?"

"That's another story." He smiles. "It was mostly fine. Mama cried a bit and Coach… well, he didn't really acknowledge it at first. It took him a while, but he got there eventually."

"I'm glad," Jack says, gravely.

"Yeah, me too. Anyway. Miriam — the cousin — showed up on my doorstep and she was in a state… I guess she saw me in the role of the gay cousin living a life of debauchery in the big city," he says, rolling his eyes a bit at that, "and asked me for my help. She had dug herself in a corner: she was pregnant and didn't know who the father was. She didn't want to say much but it was kind of obvious that there were… drugs involved, some minor crime, too. A gang. Lord, I don't even know."

He looks away. It doesn't bode well if he's already getting emotional about it.

"I tried to help her out. I really did. But she was eighteen," (Jack sucks a breath in,) "and she was terrified. Goodness, I can only imagine. She didn't want anyone at home to know, and from what I understood, the people she was… hanging out with were not happy either. So I let her stay with us — I had a boyfriend at the time — and we talked about different… options."

That part doesn't get better with time. In fact, he's pretty sure it only gets worse.

"She didn't want the baby, that much was clear. And there are so many options… She made up her mind and I drove her to— I drove her to the clinic."

He sniffs, and Jack's hand lands on his shoulder, squeezing a bit.

"I know— I know," he says, trying not to cry too hard, "it's her decision. I'm not against it. I've never been against it, fuck, I drove her there. I would have gotten inside and waited for her, and I would have come home that night and nothing would have changed at all. But now when I think about it, I think of Elli and— he wouldn't be here. We nearly—"

There are two arms around him as Jack pulls him close against his chest, and Eric lets himself cry. Not cry, sob.

He's never really told that part to anyone, apart from Connor who was there at the time, who asked him that night in a condescending tone what exactly Miriam was going to do now since she didn't go through with it. And what they were going to do.

He sobs, because there's still so much guilt, and guilt he doesn't understand. Guilt because he nearly ended it all before it began, guilt because he shouldn't feel guilty in the first place. Women have their damn right over their bodies, and he rationally agrees with that, but there isn't anything rational about this. It's infuriating, and he's tired and being pathetic again, crying all over Jack's shirt.

"It's fine, Bitty," Jack whispers in his ear. "You're fine, Elli's fine. You made the right decisions, the right calls. As always. You let her choose, you went with her, you helped her along the way."

"When she— she got scared— I tried to— to convince her—"

"You were helping her make the right call. It's not an easy decision to make, but you listened to her. You can't start thinking about the what-ifs, or you'll run yourself mad. What you're thinking about right now, that didn't happen. Look at me," Jack says, his hands soft on either side of Eric's face. "Look at me, Bits. That didn't happen. You have Elli now, and he's a wonderful, bright kid."

"Yeah?" he asks, trying to smile.

"Of course," Jack says, bringing him back against his chest. "And it's okay to feel different ways about something. Even if those feelings are conflicting," he adds, and it sounds right out of the mouth of a therapist, which, well… might be the case.

After a minute or two, he pushes himself away from Jack's arms. "Would you have—" he starts, and a box of tissues materializes in his hands. "I'm sorry, you're right. Of course, you're right."

"Don't apologize," Jack says, gently.

"All right," he says, taking a big, shaky breath. "Where was I? We were— we were in the parking lot, and you know, there's always like one or two protesters at those clinics, and it was enough to scare Miriam. They were confirming everything her family taught her — unmarried sex is a sin, abortion is a ticket to hell, you know how it goes. She got scared and decided to have the baby and put him up for adoption. I made her stay with us. Well, only with me, since Connor and I broke up."

"Because she was staying at your place?" There is clear judgment in Jack's tone.

"That was one of the reasons. The other one was that I was working too much, which apparently justified him fucking his coworker in our bed, but whatever."

"Holy fuck," Jack lets out, straightening himself on the couch as if he's about to spring on his feet and go punch someone. "I'm sorry. What an asshole."

"Yeah. I was glad it was over, to be honest, but I didn't need to find out that way, ugh."

He liked Connor, even though he felt like it was more of a comfortable relationship than a passionate one. That was fine by him at the time — he was approaching twenty-four, and it seemed like everyone else around him was already paired up. Lord, to be that age again, fearful to miss the train of life…

It had been his longest relationship but they resented each other at the end. Connor wanted them to be together all the time, to the point he would make snide remarks about Eric working overtime to make ends meet. Not that Connor ever understood anything about that, considering he was from a pretty comfortable family. The whole Miriam thing didn't help, and Eric isn't the type to take venom without biting back. But Connor cheating on him still broke his heart, and it didn't help when Connor tried to manipulate him by promising eternal love and devotion.

Thank you, next.

"Yeah, I can imagine," Jack sneers. "I hope I never get to meet him."

Eric snorts because that would be a sight: all of Jack's 200 pounds, against Connor's mere 140. "I think he'd run the other way."

"Good," Jack says, with a determined nod.

"Back to the story," he says, with a slight smile. "So, we split, and I kept an eye on Miriam because I suspected she wasn't entirely done with her… business, and I sure as hell wasn't going to let her get back on drugs or anything while she was pregnant. And then, she went into labor two months early."

Jack makes a sound, but Eric goes on because he needs to get over that part.

"It lasted fifteen hours." He can remember every single second of it. "The longest night of my life. But then, at the end of it… He was so tiny. Lord, you wouldn't believe how tiny he was. His little fingers, his toes!" He grins — it's a good memory, even though it's also a scary one. "Only 4.2 pounds. Can you imagine? A fully functioning human being weighing 4.2 pounds?"

Jack's eyes widen. "I'm not sure I can…"

"Wait, I'll show you," Eric says, picking his phone from his back pocket. "He was so silent at first, I thought there was something wrong, but then he screamed the whole room down. Miriam… She didn't want to do anything with him. Not even hold him, or—"

He breathes in again and notices that Jack's hand hasn't left his shoulder for all this time, his thumb tracing small circles over his shirt.

"Not that she could, they were taking him away and they rolled her out. That was the last time I saw her. When I asked they told me she left the hospital that morning, and lord knows where she is now. They placed Elli in the NICU, and I couldn't let him on his own. He had no one, Jack, no one . So I visited him, every day. I got to name him. And the first time I held him… I was in love. I know it's something all parents say but there are no words to describe that first moment. You go on thinking you know what love is, but that's nothing compared to what happens at that moment." He smiles to himself. "He wasn't even mine, but I already knew I would do anything for him. I would die for him, on the spot, no questions asked. I'm not even being dramatic," he adds, with a chuckle.

"He was already yours," Jack says, and Eric nods.

"The nurse would have agreed with you. Apparently, I had that one special look on my face," he laughs. "I liked the idea, but it scared me shitless, too. I was twenty-four, single, with no clue how to raise a child."

"You've always been good with kids."

"The perks of having an extended family, yeah, but we're talking about raising a kid, here. And sometimes, love isn't enough."

"But you did it."

He nods. "I did. Just the thought of seeing him go with another family… I called Shitty, and he lawyered his way through adoption papers. It took a while, but Elli was mine. That's how Shitty started working with kids, by the way, if you were wondering."

Jack's eyebrows quirk up. "He never told me that."

"I think he took us falling out pretty seriously. We should probably gift him a weekend at the spa, or something."

Jack chuckles and Eric knows they're both thinking the same: Shitty's naked ass lounging at the spa, aviators over his eyes, a margarita that has probably appeared from thin air in one hand.

"We probably should, yeah," Jack says. "In the end, you managed, with Elli?"

Eric sighs. "I sure did. It wasn't easy, especially at first, but my mom came to live with me for a while, bless her, and Rosaline let me get last-minute parent leave at the bakery. But eventually, my mom went back home and I was left alone with the little one." He chuckles. "It felt like the police would burst in at some point and ask me what the hell I thought I was doing. I know that twenty-four-year-old people have kids all the time, but I barely felt like a functioning adult at the time."

"Been there, yeah," Jack says, his voice low.

"So you can imagine. I was scared all the time, and Elli didn't help, lord knows that baby cried a lot. And it was some kind of desperate crying that left me thinking I had forgotten something about babies that no one ever told me, like they need to be rolled around three times in their cots when the sun is setting or something."

"Do they?" Jack teases, chuckling, and Eric gives him a look.

"I was so damn tired and he just kept crying, ugh. At some point, I thought it'd be like that forever, but then he started learning words, and we could communicate if you can believe that."

He presses one hand to his cheek and remembers he's still holding his phone in the other.

"Oh, let me show you."

He opens his camera roll, goes a few years back to the first picture he ever took of Elli: only a few hours old, sleeping in the NICU plastic cot, a mess of wires and tubes tied to his tiny body. Eric's gently holding on to Elli's fist with two fingers, and his hand looks huge in comparison. He tilts the screen towards Jack.

"Wow," Jack breathes out, leaning in closer. "Didn't know they made them that small."

"Right?"

He settles against Jack's side and shows him picture after picture: the first photo of him and Elli together as he's holding him, sitting down in a rocking chair in the NICU, taken by Lardo on the first time she visited Elli. There are a couple of these in which he's smiling at the camera, dark circles under his eyes. Another one shows him nearly in the same position but fast asleep, his head on his shoulder, Shitty crouching beside the chair and grinning at the camera, finger-gunning the small bundle in Eric's arms.

Jack snorts at that.

"You think I was in love with that boy when I first saw him? Please imagine Shitty," he laughs, even though he knows it's apples and oranges. He swipes to the next picture, which happens to be a video, and one he knows well. "There you go," he says, and presses on play.

It's Shitty, sitting in the same rocking chair, arms open, looking somewhere above the camera. "Bring it on, Bits. Uncle Shitty is motherfucking ready."

"Ugh," Eric says, through Jack's laughter, "there was no talk about adopting but Shitty already decided he was uncle ."

"To be fair, anyone would like to have Shitty as an uncle."

Shitty is holding Elli now, bringing him closer to his face. "One day you'll be sixteen and you'll be in trouble of epic proportions that will scare your dad shitless if he learns and you'll call me."

Shitty's voice is tight with emotion, and he whispers the words as if Eric isn't a meter away from him and hearing it all.

"You don't say," Eric chuckles, answering Jack's previous statement. Truth be told, he could have used a Shitty himself before his years at Samwell.

He swipes again, as it's Lardo's turn to hold Elli, putting him to sleep instantly with the strange, calming power she's always had over him. There are approximately a bajillion more pictures of Elli alone, Elli with Eric, Elli finally at home with him, Elli with the gang, and Jack sits through them all. There's a picture of Ransom with a chubby Elli propped against his chest as they're watching the snowfall through the window. Another one with Holster this time, as they're dressing Elli in his first tiny SMH jersey — Eric still doesn't know where they got that. Dex building Legos with an Elli definitely too young to understand whatever law of physics is being taught to him, and Nursey reading him Neruda, as Elli listens raptly, eyes wide. There's a couple of pictures of that time he went to see Chowder and Farmer in California, Elli and his slightly-older cousin Claire sitting side by side in matching teal outfits.

"I'm sorry I missed all that," Jack whispers, after Eric's closed his phone, to save the last percentage of his battery.

"You're here now," Eric says because he's been dwelling on the past too much, these last days. "You don't have to miss anything anymore."

No, he doesn't: it takes a village to raise a child, but this particular village was missing just one person. Eric found him again.

Jack smiles back at him, and a companionable silence sets between them as they get a second serving of pie and watch quietly as the snow accumulates around the bay windows. It's not exactly like it was eight years ago but it doesn't have to be — this is even better.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

A minute after he sinks into his hot bath, the bathroom's doorknob turns in a slow, unnerving motion.

"Daddy?"

He tries not to sigh, as Elli peaks into the bathroom. "Yes, sweetheart?"

"I'm done with my drawing."

"Maybe you could do another one."

"No, I want to sit with you," Elli declares.

Of course. He's had the craziest day: he spent the morning going over some technicalities with his agent, then edited a video while eating lunch, and spent the rest of the afternoon at the bakery after a quick jog. He wasn't even baking, but filling in for the sick cashier, and if he knows everyone is tired from this never-ending winter, it's not a reason to be an asshole client either . And it feels like his day has barely started: Mama promised to call, and then Jack's coming over for dinner to watch a movie with him and Elli.

Eric would like to have five minutes alone in the bath. Is that too much to ask?

Elli closes the door and hoists himself on top of the toilet lid. "Daddy, I am going to sing a song and you have to guess what it is, okay?"

Apparently, he doesn't have much of a choice. "All right."

Even before he starts, Eric knows Elli is going to choose Let It Go, so he lets him hum a few verses before he makes the correct guess. "Mmmh," he says. "Let It Go?"

Batting his legs in the air, he hums a single note and clears his throat. "No, I'm gonna start again. Unless you know?"

Eric chuckles. "Not after a single note, sweetheart, no."

"Okay-dokay."

Elli starts humming again, and Eric sinks further into the bath until the warm water covers his shoulders. Elli 'sings' for a good while, and when he's done, there's a moment of silence.

"Daddy? Are you 'sleep?"

"No, no," he says, blinking as he opens his eyes again. "I don't know what the song is, though. The friend song from Toy Story?"

"No!"

"Uh, the song from Moana?" he asks because he's blanking.

"No!" Elli laughs.

"I give up, then."

Elli smiles, victorious. "It's the elephant song!"

Eric frowns. "The elephant song? Where is it from?"

"I made it up!"

Eric groans, but he can't keep himself from giggling with Elli, although for a different reason. That boy is going to be the death of him. A suffocating, loving death, but still. "Maybe we should change the game, a bit?"

"No, I don't wanna play anymore. Do I sing well, Daddy?"

"You sing very well, sweetheart." Better than him, anyway, which isn't hard to achieve, but still.

"Aw, I love you, Daddy."

It's moments like these that make up for the bath intrusions and the singing. Although, in retrospect, the singing is precious too. "I love you too, Elli."

Elli squirms on top of the lid. "How much?"

Enough to let him sing while he's trying to take a bath.

"Hmmm, let me think." He brings his index finger an inch away from his thumb. "This much."

Elli laughs, that wonderful belly-laughter children have perfected like it's the funniest thing Eric has ever said. "No!"

"No?"

"No, more!"

Eric gasps. "More than that? Then, maybe… This much?" He widens his fingers another inch.

"No!" Elli slides off the lid, and hands curling around Eric's fingers, trying to pry them apart as far as they can go. "That much!"

"Oh!" Eric lets out as if realizing something. " That much?"

"More, more!"

He raises both his index fingers five inches apart, and shows Elli. "Like that?"

Elli laughs and pushes on both of Eric's hands until they're so far away he can't quite reach. "Like that!"

"I see." Eric takes a moment, pretending to consider if such a thing could be possible. "That's a lot, though, are you sure?"

"Yes!" Elli sits down on his knees and crosses his arms over the rim of the tub, on which he rests his head. "You're silly. Tell me. No joke."

"I love you to the moon and back, sweetheart," Eric says and bumps Elli's nose with the tip of his finger.

Elli beams at him, but the smile fades away as he rolls his head to let his cheek rest against the back of his hands. Eric can always tell when Elli's about to share something important because he's usually a bomb of energy about to go off. This time, Elli sighs so hard that all the air in his lungs seems to have left his body. Lord, his son is a drama queen. But then, Eric guesses, they learn such things from their parents.

"Daddy, I have a problem."

Eric frowns. "What's going on?"

"I think I have a girlfriend."

He sits up in the bath so fast the movement creates a small wave that nearly spills over.

He clears his throat, trying to contain his surprise. "A girlfriend?" What? Why? When? How? "You think?" he adds before he corrects himself — no need to sound panicked about it. "I mean, why ain't you sure?"

"'Cause it's Maya and she's my friend but Tommy at school said that when a girl sleeps beside you at nap time it's 'cause she wants to be your girlfriend and today Maya sleeped beside me at nap time, is that true?"

"Slept," he corrects. The tension melts away from his shoulders: Maya's been Elli's best friend since they both arrived at preschool. Elisa, Maya's mom, is a single parent as well and they developed a friendship over the months, planning regular sleepovers for the kids. They even went out together a few times, hiring a babysitter for the two kids and treating themselves to a restaurant meal. Eric wonders how she will react if Maya tells her the same story. Which he doubts because it seems like Maya isn't aware she's in a relationship at the moment. "I don't know, sweetheart. Maybe she wants to spend nap time with you because you're best friends."

Elli cocks his head to the side as if he hadn't considered that fact before. Maybe it's all a bit of a ruse because he wants to be her boyfriend. Lord, Eric thought he would get at least another couple of years before having to give relationship advice.

"But how do I know if she wants to be my friend or my girlfriend?"

"Well, I think the right thing to do would be to ask her."

Elli blushes and looks down. "No, that's silly… What if she says no?"

"Then you have to accept her decision, and you can stay friends like you are now."

"Okay," Elli sighs. "Maybe I could make her a gift?"

"Yeah! We could bake something for her," Eric suggests.

"And then she'll say yes?"

He wants to groan. "Maybe, or maybe not. You can't force anyone to be your girlfriend or boyfriend, sweetheart, that's not how it works. But giving her a gift would be a nice gesture, even if you only stay friends."

"We can bake a muffin!"

He chuckles. "Sure, we can do that. Not today, though, your Moo Maw's about to call, and then Jack is coming over."

"Okay. Tomorrow?"

"Sure, sweetheart."

"This is really, really hard, but then if I give her a gift and she says yes it is really really easy." Well, actually— "Daddy? Why you don't have a boyfriend?"

Eric laughs, mostly out of surprise than anything else.

Elli knows about him, of course, and that if there should be a third person in their lives, it would be a man and not a woman. They even discussed different family types at preschool, which Eric chose carefully, to make sure Elli wouldn't be bullied for having a single gay parent. Still, it's not a subject they talked about in depth in the past, so Eric can give him that, at least.

"Well," he says, trying to sound casual, "it's a bit easier when you're at preschool than when you're my age, sweetheart. I'm pretty busy because I have a lot of work, so I don't really have the time to find a boyfriend. Besides, we're pretty neat together, just the two of us, aren't we? I wouldn't want to have a boyfriend who isn't friends with you, too."

"You could find a boyfriend who is already friends with me and you!" Elli says, like it’s the simplest thing in the universe. "And you give him a gift or you bake him a muffin and then you're boyfriends!"

He laughs. "You're very sweet, Elli, but it doesn't quite work like that. And who would be that boyfriend, that we both know of?"

It takes Elli a few seconds to come up with the perfect answer. "Uncle Shitty!"

He bursts out laughing, covering his face with his hands. Oh, lord. Shitty and him— No, he can't even think about it.

When he's able to open his eyes again without fully crying of laughter — accompanied by Elli, but not for the same reasons — he clears his throat and considers how to break the news to Elli, that his favorite uncle is definitely not going to become his dad in the future.

"I think— I think Uncle Shitty is very much in love with Aunt Lardo, sweetheart. And they're about to have a baby."

"But they ain't married."

Ah, yes, marriage, the pinnacle of love. For some reason, every couple is by definition married in Elli's mind, and it was a shock when he learned Shitty and Lardo weren't. He cried so much it took Eric a few minutes to calm him down, and a few more to explain to him that you can be in love and live together without being married. Elli's still so hung up about it that Eric's half-convinced Shitty and Lardo are going to tie the knot just to bring that boy some peace, one day.

"They don't have to be married to be happy together."

"When Maya is my girlfriend," Elli says, "I'm gonna ask her to marry me!"

Eric blanks at what to say to that, but he's saved by his phone, which starts ringing by the sink. "Can you get that, sweetheart? It's your Moo Maw, I bet she's dying to talk to you."

He stands in the bath and reaches for the towel, as Elli fetches the phone, and answers it. "Moo Maw!"

Eric opens the door for him, and watches as Elli strolls down the corridor, his free hand on his hip, not unlike Eric himself when he's on the phone. He's already telling her about Maya, and Suzanne is bound to be delighted with the news.

It's cute. It doesn't have to mean much, apart from the fact that Elli's good friends with her and is trying to emulate the adults around him. It's what kids do. Still, it doesn't stop his heart from pinching in his chest at the thought of it. His kid is growing up. It's already going so fast.

He shakes his head. There's no need to mull over that, not when they lead a happy, busy life.

He gets to his room and dresses up, something nice, but not too nice — is he overthinking this? — and steps back into the main room of the apartment. Elli is sitting on the couch, legs batting in the air, talking to his grandmother.

Eric listens to him, a smile on his face, as he busies himself with the cookbook. He's nearly done with it, and he'd better be since his agent is waiting for the final draft by the end of spring. If "nearly" means he only has to solve the jam conundrum, figure out the placement of a few recipes and edit all the accompanying vignettes.

"Daddy," Elli says, stepping into the kitchen. "Moo Maw wants to talk to you know. Can you turn the TV on, please, I wanna watch Pokémon?"

"All right." He puts the phone against his ear, as he follows Elli to the living room. "Hi, Mama, how are you?"

"Dicky!" Suzanne says as if it's a surprise Eric should be at the end of the line even though she called him in the first place.

He listens to the latest Madison gossip while he fiddles with the TV until Pokémon is on.

"Your Daddy's is fine too," Suzanne concludes, as Eric steps back into the kitchen, an eye on Elli. "He's still at practice at this hour, but he should be back in half an hour if you're still around. How are you?"

"We're fine. I guess you heard about the girlfriend news already," he adds, and Suzanne makes an excited sound. "I'm afraid I'll miss Coach, though, I have guests tonight."

"Oh, guests?" She sounds surprised that Eric still has a social life. Ugh.

"Yeah, uh, do you remember Jack… Zimmermann? From Samwell?"

They've met just the once, but judging by the way Suzanne behaved around Bad Bob… She ain't going to forget about the Zimmermanns anytime soon.

"Of course I remember Jack! That nice young man." Eric rolls his eyes. Clearly, they don't remember Family Weekend the same way, not when it comes to Jack. "Didn't you two have some sort of a falling out?"

To say the least, but he never told Suzanne the details of it, and he'd rather keep it that way. "We did, but we met again a while back, and, uh, we're hanging out, I guess."

"That's wonderful news, Dicky, I'm glad to hear it." A pregnant silence, and Eric braces himself for what he knows she is going to ask next. The Pokemon theme song is playing, and he's going to have that tune in his head for the rest of the night. "Isn't he… Isn't he… like you? I've heard, a while back, it was all over the news."

She has never said the exact words, and by now, Eric's made his peace with it. It could be a lot worse. "Uh, not exactly," he says because if Suzanne isn't going to be specific, he can't confirm. "But yeah."

"And tonight… Oh, Dicky, is it a date?"

"No! What's up with y'all?"

First Lardo, then Elli, and now his mother. Truth is, Suzanne has been dead set on finding him a partner for a while, now. It doesn't come from a bad place, and he knows she worries about him, but it's starting to get annoying. The last time his parents came to Providence, Suzanne had thrown him out of his apartment, told him to go and have some fun. He never thought he would see the day when his own mother would be concerned about his sex life — or lack thereof.

In any case, her obsession with him being paired-off is becoming slightly unhealthy.

"Mama, no," he says. "We haven't talked for like, eight years. We're just friends."

"But he's such a wonderful gentleman. And the hockey he plays… He ain't bad looking, either. Don't be like that!" she fusses when he makes a sound. "I've seen interviews! You know how your Daddy is about hockey, since you played, and your Jack is all over the place."

He passes a hand over his face. Jack was never his, to begin with.

"Has he met Elliot?" she asks, pressing him.

"Yeah, once. We went to see one of his games."

"And?"

"What do you want me to say, Mama? He likes him. He likes kids."

It remains to be confirmed if Elli likes him back, but Eric guesses he'll find out tonight. He really needs this to go well. He wants Jack back in his life — as a friend — and Elli getting along with him is a condition to that happening. Well, not a condition, but it would make Eric's life a whole lot easier.

Obviously, none of that comes to Suzanne's mind as she exclaims, "See!"

He sighs. "Mama… I doubt he's interested."

"Oh, hush. He would be a fool not to be. A charming boy like you!"

Ugh, he could do without this today. "Mama…"

"All right, all right, you don't want to talk about it," she chuckles. "How's the book coming along?"

He rambles on for a few minutes about the cookbook, and the discussion gets heated once they start talking about jam, only to be disturbed by a knock on the door.

"Lord, that's gotta be Jack," he says and doesn't register what his mother answers back.

He opens the door, smothering the phone against his shoulder. Jack is standing on the other side, coat hanging over his arm.

"Hi." Jack smiles, and it's slightly awkward. "Oh, uh, I brought this for tonight."

He presents him with a bottle of wine — a nice one.

"Goodness, thank you, you didn't have to!"

He takes it, and goes for a quick hug, forgetting about the phone he is still holding until Suzanne's distant voice reminds him.

"Dicky? Dicky? Are you still here? Is that Jack I hear?"

It's loud enough for the both of them to hear, and if Eric rolls his eyes, Jack grins at him. "Hi, Suzanne," he says, in the phone's direction.

"Jack! Hello, it's been so long! Dicky, don't be rude and put me on speakerphone!"

Like hell that's gonna happen. "Mama, really?" he says into the phone. "I'm gonna call you back, all right? Tell Coach to take care, and to be careful with that hip of his."

He bids her a quick goodbye and steps into the kitchen with Jack.

"Sorry about that," Eric says. "I didn't think the call would last this long but then she got me talking about jam."

"How are they?" Jack asks, sitting down on a stool. "Is your father injured?"

"Oh, nothing like that, he's got arthritis, though, and he's being… Well, you know. He just ignores it. Bless him, that hip ain't gonna heal if he's up and about all day long."

Jack's lips stretch into an even bigger, shakier smile.

Eric quirks an eyebrow at him. "What?"

"It's just… your accent."

He whips the hand towel off his shoulder and swats it at Jack. "Hush, it's nothing you haven't heard before," he says, trying to tamper his accent down a bit. Ugh, it's hateful, and he always forgets when he slips back, talking to his family.

He's about to chirp Jack about his own accent when Elli pops his head over the couch's edge.

"Hi there," Jack says, but Elli doesn't answer.

"Come on, sweetheart, come to say hello to our guest, at least."

There's a thud as Elli rolls off the couch and scrambles towards the kitchen. He wraps his hand around a free stool's leg and looks up at Jack. "Hello, Msser Jack," he says, his tone cautious. "Thank you a lot for your gift. Number One is a good teddy and he fights monsters at night with S'nor Bun and the others, he was shy the first night but they're friends now."

"Ha, I'm glad to hear that." Jack reaches for the wrapped package he's got on his lap, something Eric hadn't noticed before. "I have a gift for you."

Eric shoots him a look because of course Jack brought a gift. "Il va attendre une cadeau tous les fois, maintenant," [He'll wait a gift every time, now,] he says, as Elli tears through the wrapping paper, after a quick, distracted thank you to Jack.

"Tant mieux," [Just as well,] Jack says, and Eric rolls his eyes at him, with more fondness than anything else.

"Whoa, Daddy, look!" Elli squeals, lifting the tiniest Falconer's jersey Eric has ever seen.

Elli turns it around, revealing the number 90 embedded in the back — Parson's, Lord — along with the block letters spelling BITTLE across the shoulders. It looks so impossibly small.

"Oh my, that is too cute."

"'Sw'awesome! Thank you, Msser Jack!" Elli says as he bundles up the jersey against his chest. "Can I give you a thank-you hug?"

"Yeah, sure," Jack says, blinking through his evident surprise.

He gets down on his knees and Elli wraps his arms around Jack's neck. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

 "You're very welcome, buddy," Jack chuckles, once they've separated. "I wanted to thank you for the great drawing you did for me. It's up on my fridge and everyone's been asking me about the artist."

Pleased but evidently trying to remain modest, Elli stands there twisting his fingers, with no answer in sight. Instead, he turns towards Eric and shoves the jersey towards him. "Daddy, help me put it on, please!"

"All right," he chuckles, along with Jack. "Arms up!" he asks and pulls the jersey over Elli's head.

"It's a bit big," Jack says.

"It's fine, he's growing so fast, it'll last a few months at least. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Daddy, can we watch the movie now?"

It's the reason Jack is here, after all. They got talking about Elli's obsession with Frozen on their last phone call after Jack caught Eric mindlessly humming Let It Go.

"I got to get him interested in another movie," Eric had told Jack. "So we can stop watching Frozen on repeat."

They established a quick list of movies before Eric confessed they hadn't seen The Lion King together yet.

"But it's like… the best Disney movie out there," Jack said because of course he would.

"I know, I know. I like it too, but I might need some emotional support if we're going to watch it."

And just like that, Jack had offered to visit on his next free night, to watch a Disney movie, of all things. As if he doesn't have anything more important to do in the few hours he isn't required at the rink.

"There is no way I am giving you popcorn before dinner, mister," Eric tells Elli. "We have to eat first."

The food isn't ready yet, so Elli returns to his Pokémon episode while Eric and Jack stay in the kitchen, discussing the Falcs' most recent loss.

"Y'all will get them next time," he says, operating the pots and pans at the same time. They lost 5-1 against the Caps and Jack's tone is still bitter.

"Yeah, we'll see. We really didn't give them our best game. We had to pull Boski there at the end, which doesn't happen often." Jack shakes his head. "Now everyone's frustrated. That's a big loss right before the playoffs, not that we lost our spot, but…"

"Nobody likes to lose."

"Right. We're playing the Aces in two weeks, that's going to cheer up Tater, and hopefully, it'll bleed through on the rest of the team."

"Mashkov and Parson, uh?" Eric smirks. "I wonder how's that working."

Jack chuckles. "You'd be surprised. They've been together forever, now. I guess they balance each other out."

"If you say so." He has his doubts, but he's ready to trust Jack on this one. "And, uh, you don't mind when Parson's around?"

He remembers too well the time Parson showed up at Samwell, trying to convince Jack to drop school while simultaneously calling him a piece of shit.

"Ah, no. We spoke after the first game we played against each other. We're… friends, now."

Eric shoots him a look. "Really?" he asks, because Parson would be the type to bury the hatchet for means of further manipulation.

"Really," Jack insists, "in fact—"

Eric's phone rings and the screen displays his agent's name. Good lord, it's six in the evening, but he knows for a fact that Eleanor never stops working.

"Sorry," he says, but when he goes to silence the call, he hesitates.

"Take it," Jack says. "Looks important."

Eric sighs. "My agent is the sort of person who will always make you believe that."

"Take it," Jack repeats, and Eric answers the call.

"Hi, Eric, how are you? I hope I'm not disturbing you at the moment?"

"Hi, Eleanor! Actually, I'm in the middle of something," he adds, a bit shortly.

"I'm only asking for two minutes. It's about the jam recipe."

He sighs. It's kind of his fault, he knows, not being on schedule and all.

"Sorry," he tells Jack. "Do you mind if I take a minute?"

"Of course not. Do what you need."

Eric points his chin towards the living room, where Elli is still watching TV. "Could you keep an eye on him? Thank you, thank you ," he whispers after Jack nods.

He goes down the hallway and closes the door to his bedroom, laptop in hand. Two minutes turn into five, then ten, then fifteen, and after twenty, he tells Eleanor that he really needs to get going. He might have lied about his phone being on low battery, but it's less rude that way.

There's no sight of Jack when he comes back to the kitchen, to a pair of socked feet dangling over the edge of the couch.

"You two look cozy," Eric says, as he comes to lean against the back of the couch.

Jack is lying down, Elli scooted under his arm, as they're both staring at the small Nintendo Jack is holding up. Elli tends to be shy around strangers, but once the initial barriers are down, they're down for good. It seems like Jack has earned that place.

"We're playing Pokémon!" Elli exclaims, not even bothering to look up.

"I can see that. Didn't know you knew how to play," he adds, to Jack.

"I spent most of my childhood on the road, of course I know how to play Pokémon. It's not hard."

He snorts. "Okay, Elle Woods."

Elli must have told him that Eric can barely wrap his head around the game. He knows it's not difficult, but he finds it hard to care about made-up animals even for Elli's sake.

"Okay," Jack asks Elli, "water attack, or normal attack?"

"Water!"

"I'm going to leave you two to it," Eric says. Clearly, they don't need him hanging around. "But only until dinner time. And if Jack says he's had enough, you have to listen to him, okay?"

Elli hums, too distracted to care, while Jack lifts his chin upwards shoots Eric a smile. There's a streak of sunlight that crosses over his face, making one of his eyes nearly grey. "We'll be fine."

He lifts his hand to run his fingers through Jack's hair when— shit. It's not something he's supposed to be doing. He blinks and diverts to squeeze Elli's shoulder, who tries to squirm away.

"No, we're fighting an Abra now!"

"All right, all right, have fun."

Half an hour later, Eric is setting up the table for the three of them on the kitchen island. He's been listening along to Jack and Elli's conversations about game strategy — they're just so cute.

"D'you wanna capture that Bidoof or are we fighting him?"

"Capture!"

"You sure? You already got a few of these."

"Capture! They're like big fluffy capybaras 'cept they're hamsters."

"All right," Jack chuckles, "we'll do that and then we've got to pause the game and go help your Daddy set the table, okay?"

There's clear disappointment in Elli's voice, although he agrees with Jack. He must be a better Pokémon… trainer? than Eric is.

"So," Eric explains, once they're all seated around the island, "we've got meat pies, mashed potatoes, carrots, and peas."

He would have done something a bit more elaborate, but even though Elli isn't picky, boiled carrots and peas are the only way he'll eat them. It's bland, and he would have prepared another version for Jack if he had the time to.

"Can you pass me the peas, sweetheart?"

"Sure," Jack replies.

He reaches for the bowl and hands it to Eric, Elli moving half-a-second behind him.

Oh my god.

Eric stares at him, eyebrows high on his forehead, as the bowl hangs in the air between them. It takes Jack a moment, then another, and…

"Oh. Uh. Sorry."

It's too good not to laugh at, as he takes the bowl off Jack's hands, and even Elli snickers a bit. "Silly Msser Jack. I'm sweetheart!"

"Okay, okay, I get it," Jack insists, looking down at his lap, his face a shade redder than what it was a moment ago. "This looks amazing, Bittle. I've never seen meat pie shaped like that before?"

It's an evident change of subject, but Lord, he told himself to play nice tonight.

"They're Nigerian meat pies because someone likes the shape," he adds, with a wink at Elli. They're half-moons of dough and meat, and Elli loves to eat them directly with his hands. "All right, y'all, let's dig in."

"They're fun!" Elli explains, lifting one in his hand, showing Jack.

"They are," Jack says. "Are you working on these for the book?"

"Ugh, not at the moment."

He stops and watches Elli, who has decided to bite off the tiny edged crust of the pie first, meat free-falling on his plate and placemat. He pushes Elli's plate towards him, catching a few crumbs falling.

"Elliot, if you can't eat these without making a mess, I'm going to cut them for you." Seriously? They have a guest. He taught that boy better than that. "No," he answers Jack, as Elli starts handling his pie with more care. "I'm still working on the jam thing. I made a few meat pies recently because I'm not so sure about their placement in the book…"

Which would never be solved by baking more of them, something Jack picks on right away. "So now that your job is baking, you're procrastinating by baking something else?"

He rolls his eyes at Jack's smirk. "Don't you look so happy about it, mister."

"What's prorasnating ?" Elli asks.

"It's when you delay an important task by doing something else."

"Like when you say you're not stopping your shower 'cos you're not done singing?"

Jack snorts, and Eric shakes his head. "No, that's called preserving good mental health."

"What's good metal health?"

Eric ruffles through Elli's hair. "It's when you feel happy because you're singing in the shower."

Elli ponders that answer, seemingly for not very long, because he turns towards Jack and asks, "Msser' Jack, do you have a girlfriend?"

Jack's fork clinks against his plate.

"Elliot!"

Elli glances at Eric. "I'm sorry Msser' Jack, do you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, 'cos that's okay too."

Eric presses one hand to his cheek. It's… not what he meant, but bless that boy. He glances at Jack, who is blinking, probably trying to think of an answer to a frankly nosy question.

"You don't have to call me mister, Elli," Jack says, with a smile. "And no, I don't have a girlfriend, or a boyfriend for that matter."

"It's okay," Elli answers Jack, with so much understanding in his tone he could have just been told Jack's most embarrassing secret. "Daddy doesn't have a boyfriend either."

Eric chokes on his wine, and it nearly comes out through his nose.

"What? 'S true!"

"Yes, everyone around this table is aware of that, Elliot, thank you."

He shuts his mouth the moment the words leave it — he didn't mean to be so bitter, but why did everyone choose today to keep reminding him of that fact?

"Daddy," Elli says, deflating.

Eric sighs. Good, he's made things awkward, now. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, I shouldn't have snapped at you like that. It's just that it's not a very polite thing to ask other people, okay?"

"I was just sayin' because I got a girlfriend!"

Here we go.

Jack's eyebrows spring up. "Whoa, really?"

"Technically, she is not your girlfriend yet," Eric points out.

"I'm gonna ask her to marry me!" Elli says, not minding him at all. "Her name is Maya and she's my best friend and she's really funny and she sleeped beside me at nap time and Tommy says that means she wants to be my girlfriend and that also means I gotta marry her."

Jack glances at Eric, clearly trying to stay composed, and Eric shoots a look back at him. I knooooow, he wants to say, but then he shouldn't laugh at his son's love life.

"She sounds like a great friend," Jack says, and Eric makes a mental note to come back to the topic of  consent with Elli as soon as possible.

"She is! Daddy says we gonna bake something for her so she'll say yes."

Eric groans. "I said she'll maybe say yes."

"Do you think that's gonna work?" Elli asks Jack because Eric has apparently turned invisible.

"Ha," Jack chuckles. "If something's gonna work, it's your Daddy's baking."

"Don't encourage him!" Eric laughs. Lord, is it him or is it hot in this kitchen, suddenly?

"See?" Elli says as he raises both of his hands, in a clear demonstration that the argument has been won. "We have to bake something. Muffins!"

"All right, all right, we'll try."

"Tomorrow?"

"If I have time, sure."

A shiver runs through Elli's body as if the prospect of baking something for Maya is an electric shock of renewed energy.

"Msser Jack, did you go to a lighthouse ever?"

Elli asks that question to every single person he knows — and usually gets a negative answer. This time, though, Jack nods. "Uh, yes, actually."

"No way!" Elli squeals, bouncing on the stool. "Tell me! Please?"

 "Ha." Jack rubs a hand on the back of his neck. "It's been a while, I think it was with my school when we did a trip to the Maritimes."

"Was it very big?"

"Oh yeah, pretty big. There was a nice view once you got at the top, but the stairs were a good workout."

Elli asks him every possible question in the book, and Jack does his best to answer with as many details as possible. The discussion doesn't seem to bother him or bore him. In fact, Jack's got his focused face on, and he doesn't answer Elli curtly, as if he's an obstacle to having an actual, mature discussion with Eric. It's clear that he enjoys talking with Elli.

Eric excuses himself at some point to go to the bathroom. He takes a moment to stare at his reflection in the mirror. Everything is going well. Elli likes Jack, and vice versa. Not that he doubted they would, but sometimes Jack can be complicated to understand, and Elli oscillates between intense shyness and knowing no boundaries. As he just demonstrated. Lord.

The chatter is still going on as he exits the bathroom, along with a lot of suspicious giggling, and it's when he's at the very end of the hallway that a single pea comes rolling on the floor and bumps against his foot.

"Elliot, what have I said about playing with food?"

Hands on his hips, he enters the kitchen only to witness Jack Zimmermann making a pea float an inch above his mouth by blowing air at it, Elli cheering him on.

As soon as Eric's words resonate in the kitchen, Jack catches the pea with his mouth, and he and Elli turn their heads towards Eric in a single movement.

Jack's Adam apple bobs up and down as he swallows the pea. "Sorry."

"Jack Laurent Zimmermann," he says, faux-disciplinary, "what are you teaching my child?"

"Ooooh. Full name, biiiiig trouble, Msser Jack," Elli says, which he has most certainly learned from Dex and Nursey.

"I'll clean it up," Jack offers.

"Thank you. After we're done with dinner, though."

He sits down at the island, and Elli offers him a pea, holding it carefully on the tip of his fingers. "You try, Daddy!"

He sighs. "What have I just said, sweetheart?"

"But it's funny! Msser Jack says his daddy and mama teached him that."

"Yes," Jack tells Elli, "but the rules in my house are different from the rules here, and that's okay too."

"You learned that from your parents?" He can't imagine Bad Bob, or Alicia Zimmermann, ever trying to make peas… fly.

"Yeah, of course. It was a family thing. I thought everyone did that."

 It feels counterproductive now that he's told Elli he shouldn't play with his food, but the boy is looking at him with puppy eyes, and frankly, Jack isn't far behind.

"Okay, fine. I'll try it once." Elli and Jack exchange a gleeful look. Elli raises his pea-bearing finger a bit, and Eric plucks the pea from him. He stares at it for a second. "And how are you supposed to do that?"

 "Put your head back," Jack says, demonstrating at the same time, "hold the pea a centimeter above your mouth or so, and…" He lets go of the pea, blowing air at it at the same time, and it floats for a few seconds before it falls to the side, caught at the last minute by Jack's hand. Jack smirks at him. "Your turn."

This is about to get embarrassing. Eyeing the pea, he throws his head back and places the pea above his lips. He must have not blown hard enough, before the moment he lets go of the pea, it falls on his face and tries to enter his left nostril. He throws his head forward and slams his hand against his nose and mouth, snorting and laughing at the same time as the pea falls back down somewhere in his palm.

Both Elli and Jack start laughing at his ineptitude.

"Oh my lord," he says, as he goes to the trash and dunks the pea in it. "I am not doing that again."

"Nooo, Daddy, again!"

So, of course, he does.

They take turns, and Eric doesn't remember the last time he had that much fun during dinner. It reminds him of the kind of hectic energy of team breakfast at Samwell, and it's only now that he, Jack, Elli are horsing around that he realizes he's missed it.

They're finishing up the fifth round when Eric gives up — unlike Jack, he's barely able to make a pea float, and even Elli succeeded for a few seconds, just the once.

"Jack wins!" Elli declares, bouncing on his stool. "He's the best at blowing!"

Eric and Jack share a glance before they dissolve into laughter again. They're joined by Elli, and that makes them laugh even more because he has no idea why what he said is embarrassingly hilarious. Once they've calmed down, Jack's ears and cheeks are pink, and they remain so as they clean the table and the dishes. Eric would chirp him about it, but honestly, there isn't much to say. Eric's dated his fair share of guys, but… Jack Zimmermann? Pretty much up there, yeah.

Uuuugh. It's been so long.

After cleaning up, they settle down on his old couch with a bowl of popcorn. It's been a while since Eric watched The Lion King — although it's an amazing movie, it hadn't been his favorite growing up. He just never really got into cartoons, for a reason he can't explain. Elli, in turn, is enthralled by the iconic dawn on the savannah opening. Maybe this will be the thing that will break the Frozen curse that has taken over the household.

As much as he's mentally prepared himself for that scene , there are tears in his eyes the moment the music starts, almost like an instinctive reaction before anything happens on the screen. Elli has been half-hiding against his chest since the confrontation between Mufasa and Scar, and Eric himself has closed the few centimeters between him and Jack.

"Daddy?" Elli asks, his voice trembling, as Simba is approaching Mufasa's body. "Is he gonna be okay?"

He swallows, throat tight. How can he answer that? He would have never imagined that watching this part would be harder as a parent than as a kid, but just imagining for a brief second Elli without him—

No.

"Daddy," Elli says, still staring at the screen and fully crying now.

"Hey," Jack whispers, softly, as the arm he had on the back of the couch comes around Eric's shoulders.

 "It's fine, baby," Eric finally manages to say. "Simba is going to be fine."

Which is one hell of an understatement, considering he just saw his father die before his eyes. Lord, why on Earth would anyone make their children watch this? Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe they should just rewatch Frozen again.

"I'm sad," Elli hiccups, fists bunching in Eric's shirt as he hugs him back.

"I know, sweetheart, I know. But I swear he's going to be fine."

"Hey," Jack says, with a nod towards the TV, "it's my favorite song."

Elli turns his head to the screen, and Eric can feel his tiny fists releasing his shirt, slowly. He throws Jack a look, who offers him a soft smile, because there isn't a chance in hell that Jack's favorite song is Hakuna Matata, but it's the right distraction right now. It's placed appropriately in the plot and soon enough, Elli is laughing along, dramatic moments already far behind.

It's only when the movie ends that Eric notices Jack hasn't removed his arm from around his shoulders, but Elli is yawning and whatever thought materialized in Eric's head is pushed away for later analysis.

"To bed, with you," he tells Elli after a quick round table has proven that The Lion King is an amazing movie, and might even be a tiny, tiny bit superior to Frozen. He can't wait to show Elli Beyoncé's version of Can You Feel the Love Tonight, but it'll have to wait.

"Say goodbye to Jack, sweetheart."

"Can Msser Jack sing me a goodnight song, Daddy?"

Even though they've gone from lullabies to reading books in the evening for quite some time, it's something Elli requests quite often from his various uncles and aunts when they visit.

"Fine, but you have to ask Jack if he wants to, not me."

Elli turns towards Jack and clenches his fist in Jack's jeans. "Msser Jack, will you sing me a lullaby maybe please?"

Jack clears his throat. "Ha, it's just that I don't really sing well."

Lie , he wants to point out, you sing way better than me, but he doesn't want to put Jack on the spot, either.

"Please please please please please!"

Jack chuckles. "All right. Let's get you ready for bed and I'll think of something."

Jack comes back into the room once Elli's snuggling in bed with Number One under one arm, eyes still wide open from the earlier excitement from the movie. Eric knows that he's tired, though, so it won't take long.

"All right, I'll be in the kitchen," he tells Jack, because it's one thing to sing to a child, and another to sing in front of an audience. "Goodnight, sweetheart."

"Nighty night."

Eric smiles at them one more time, before he walks down the hallway, Jack's voice in his back, "So, er, I don't really know any lullabies in English."

"Why?"

"Well, my mom used to sing me those in French."

"Why?"

"Because I was raised speaking French."

"You can sing in French, Msser Jack, that's okay."

"Okay," he says, and clears his throat.

Eric putters around the kitchen as he listens to Jack's soft singing.

Comme les garçons et les filles de mon âge connaîtrai-je bientôt ce qu'est l'amour

Comme les garçons et les filles de mon âge je me demande quand viendra le jour

Où les yeux dans ses yeux et la main dans sa main

J'aurai le cœur heureux sans peur du lendemain

Le jour où je n'aurai plus du tout l'âme en peine

Le jour où moi aussi j'aurai quelqu'un qui m'aime

From what he understands, it's about boys and girls finding love, unlike the singer, wondering when it will happen to them. There's something melancholic, angsty about the song — the feeling of being left out, by others, by life, the fear of never finding that kind of love.

He props his chin against his palm and leans over the island, smiling to himself. It reminds him of the time he was thirteen and full of hormones, an uncomfortable truth at the back of his head that he hadn't dared to put a name on yet. The song bears it too, the hopelessness, the feeling of being too different to even deserve that kind of love. He remembers it too well, how it was before Samwell. Before Jack.

There's a moment of silence as Jack finishes the song, and Eric turns on his heels and opens the fridge to busy himself with something — anything.

"He's knocked out," Jack says, as he enters the kitchen.

"Aw, thank you, you didn't have to do that."

Jack chuckles. "Not sure anyone can say no to those puppy eyes."

"You're learning fast," Eric says. He closes the door and turns to face Jack. "That was a lovely song, by the way."

"Thanks, I guess my singing is not that bad if he can fall asleep to it."

"It really isn't, but you shouldn't take that as a criteria. I still have war flashbacks of Shitty trying to sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to him once."

"Shit," Jack snorts. "I think I would have paid to see that happen. The one I sang is by Françoise Hardy, if you were wondering. She's French. From France, I mean."

"Your mom sang in French to you?"

"She did, sometimes. She always liked Hardy and even met her a few times. Listen to the original version, if you can, it's much better than what I did tonight."

"Will do."

They spend the rest of the evening talking about work, hockey and whisper excitedly about the latest sonogram Lardo and Shitty sent them of the baby. They don't want to know the baby's gender and are keeping the gender-neutral name they found a secret — no matter how hard he tried to extort the information with their favorite pies.

They bid each other goodbye as Eric's yawns get out of control, contaminating Jack until they're both quietly giggling in the kitchen.

"Thank you, again," Eric says, as they're both standing in the doorway. "That was pretty intense and I'm glad you were there."

"Ha, it's fine. That scene ended up being more intense than I remembered. I don't know if it makes sense."

"No, it does. Sorry I nearly cried on you again. Lord, I swear I'm not always like that, it's just been pretty wild, lately."

"It's fine, Bitty, really," Jack says. "Looks like you've been working hard."

"Right, I'm the one working hard," he chirps. "But seriously, at some point, I thought it would be better to turn the TV off and never address that movie again. He's only four!"

"My mom always says you should show kids the sad and the scary stuff. It's like… You have to expose them to those feelings, but in a controlled environment, right?"

Eric hums, crossing his arms over his chest as he leans against the door. "That's actually good advice. Not sure if I'd be able to follow through, though."

"Hey," Jack says with a smile. "She did it to me, and I survived, eh?"

"You sure did." He doesn't know how long they've been standing in the doorway, but neither of them seems to be inclined to part. "Still, I'm glad you were here."

"Me too." Jack pauses. "I— euh— I'm glad— I mean, I'm glad Elli's all right around me."

"Are you kidding? He adores you. He usually doesn't open up to strangers that fast, especially not six-foot-tall hockey players."

Jack beams, so genuinely it makes Eric's heart go wobbly in his chest. "I'm glad. I'm really happy about that. I, uh, I want to be around, okay? For both of you."

"You are. Of course, you are, Jack."

"Good."

They stare at each other, and it's only when Eric smothers another yawn that Jack puts his hands up. "Okay, I'm definitely leaving now. Goodnight, Bittle."

"Goodnight, Jack. Good luck on your next game."

They hug, and Eric closes the door behind Jack. His shoulders drop. It went well. Everything went well. Elli loves Jack, and Jack loves Elli. Jack wants to stay around, for him and Elli.

The relief is so strong, tears prickle at the back of his eyes.

"Oh, stop it, you," he laughs at himself before he makes his way towards the bathroom.

An hour later, he's turning in bed, restless. He picks up his phone, checks notifications — nothing new, unsurprisingly — and opens Youtube to search for Françoise Hardy. He listens to the original version: it's a lovely song, but the words sounded so much better from Jack's mouth, the vowels more rounded, the voice deeper. He finds a translation, and even though the phrasing is awkward, Eric's initial thoughts about the song were right.

The translation leads him to another version — written and performed by Hardy herself, but this time in English. The lyrics are not the same, adapted to the language, and this time, they mention a search for a boy, unlike the French version, which remained gender-neutral.

Eric closes his eyes and listens.

So many friends that I happen to see have been steadily falling in love

Oh how I wish it could happen to me and I'm asking the stars up above

Won't you find me a boy, just a nice looking boy

Who will show me the way, who will teach me to say

"I love you, yes I do", and who'll promise me too

That he'll always be true, so that I'll never be blue

I just wish for a gentle boy

Someone who's sweet and kind

Just a nice sentimental boy

That's all that I'm really longing to find

How would it sound if Jack sang it?

The thought makes him want to cry, again, and so he buries his face in his pillow. The words are clear, but he isn't entirely sure what this means.

He can't fall into the same pattern he did all those years ago. It's nothing short of a miracle that he's got Jack back in his life. They didn't work out as a couple that first time and Eric can't make the same mistake twice. Jack is his friend again. It's better than nothing. He completes their small circle of friends, of Elli's aunts and uncles. Eric must be content with that —  he can't risk all of this a second time by starting to feel again for Jack.

No. He has to do something.

He should probably start dating again.

He swallows and hides his face in the crook of his elbow. He'll have to think it through in the morning.

He listens to the song, again, and again, and again, and some time in the middle of that, finds sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 

Jack keeps his promise and stays around. They hang out more often than not on Jack's free nights when he doesn't have games or roadies, or some sort of event or meeting — he's doing a lot for You Can Play and the Make a Wish foundation, which, honestly, is— aaaargh.

Elli is always included unless he has a sleepover, and he and Jack get along like two peas in a pod.

After a few deliberations, Eric gets skates and hockey gear for Elli from Smith, a Falconer with two rapidly growing kids.

Elli is ecstatic about going to the rink to play hockey like Kent Parson, and Eric can't help but feel guilty about not having found a way to buy cheap gear before. He's also worried Jack will get tired of Elli bringing up Parson, but every time he does, Jack laughs it off or tells Elli a funny anecdote about the two of them. And Elli listens politely as if he doesn't believe Jack truly knows Parson but is indulging Jack's desire to show off or something. It's like upon knowing him, Elli has forgotten all about three times Stanley Cup winner Jack Zimmermann, and maybe it's for the best. After all, Jack's most impressive skill is, without doubt, his extensive knowledge of Pokémon.

The three of them go to the rink together and Eric gets a thousand pictures of Elli all geared up and looking way too cute, drowning in layers of snow pants, coat, jersey, neck protector, mitts, and helmet.

"Is he even going to be able to move?" Jack whispers to him, as Elli walks stiffly, his hand curled around Eric's index finger.

"We'll see," he chuckles.

He's wearing his old pair of hockey skates, but it always feels different without his pads and jersey on, while Jack is also dressed in a simple coat and jeans. Maybe, when Elli will be older, they'll bring the whole gear and play games. That would be fun.

"All right, sweetheart," he tells Elli as they're arriving at the entrance to the ice, Jack behind them. "I'm going to lift you, and you're going to put your feet on the ice, one by one, okay?"

"You ain't gonna let go?"

He smiles at him. "I promise I won't." A deep breath. "Okay, let's go."

Elli's first steps on the ice are tentative — he doesn't remember much of the last time they came here, more than a year ago. Eric holds him up, nearly bent in half. He's going to feel that tomorrow.

He hears Jack getting on the ice behind him and effortlessly skates half a circle to face them both. "Whoa, you're a natural," he tells Elli, who's more walking on the blades than skating. "Great job, buddy."

Elli shrugs. "I'm not going very fast."

"Ha, you'll get there." Jack seems to notice something, and says, "Just a second."

He skates off to God knows where, and Eric transfers his hold from under Elli's arms to his hands. "You okay? Wanna try to lift a leg and push?"

Elli tries the smallest push with his left leg, his whole body wobbling back and front. He's already better on the second try but still uses the same leg to push himself forward.

"There you go," Jack says, skating by them and holding up some sort of plastic penguin, with two handles coming out of its head. "Will be easier that way."

Carefully, Elli lets go of Eric's hands and grabs the penguin.

"Lord," Eric says, "when I was a kid we didn't have fancy penguins, you just pushed a chair around."

Jack looks thoughtful for a moment as he hums. He probably can't remember needing any aid on the ice ever.

"Daddy, it's a pengweng!" Elli says, before taking off, pushing himself with the same leg over and over again.

"Awesome, sweetie." Staying a good meter behind him, Eric turns to Jack, and whispers, "You'll have noticed by now, but he loves animals. Just ask him what he wants to be when he grows up."

 Jack quirks an eyebrow. "What? Like a vet?"

Eric chuckles. "Just ask him."

"Hey, Elli," Jack says, raising his voice. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"A cat!"

Jack frowns. "You mean, like a vet who takes care of cats?"

Elli glances at them over his shoulder, clear judgment in his eyes as Jack is slow to understand. Eric covers his mouth with the back of his hand, trying not to outright laugh at them. Goodness, his boys.

"No, Msser Jack, a cat."

"Okay…" Jack answers, a bit dubious but there is a smile on his face. "That's cool."

He shoots a questioning look at Eric, who loses it and starts laughing. "He's four, Jack, what do you want me to say?"

Jack shrugs. "It's just that… a cat, seriously?" A pause, before he nudges Eric, gently. "I mean, dogs are better."

He snorts, but before he can reply, Elli's penguin plunges forward, taking Elli with him. Everything slows down as Eric jumps towards him, knowing too well that he's half a second late to save him from a fall — but Jack is there, catching Elli at the last second, an astonishing reflex Eric doesn't know he should credit to hockey or something else.

Jack does this ridiculous thing once he grabs Elli, and rolls on his side before springing back up on his skates, cartwheeling Elli around, who starts laughing midair as if nothing has happened at all.

"You okay, buddy?" Jack asks Elli, propping him against his hip.

"Yeah!" Elli says. "That was sw'awesome!"

Jack laughs and lets Elli back onto the ice, holding both of his hands like Eric was before. "All right, let's go get your penguin."

"Yeah!"

Eric lifts the penguin off the ice, and angles the handles towards Elli, watching as Jack makes them skate the few meters separating them. "Ooh, that's fast!" Elli gasps, as Jack steers him towards the penguin.

"Here you go," Eric says, as Elli grabs the handles once more. "Now, don't put too much of your weight on the penguin, or you'll fall forward again."

Elli nods, and forgetting about it all already, takes off again, leaving Eric and Jack behind.

"Thank you for that," Eric tells him.

"Ha, no problem. He's bound to fall a few times, though."

"I know, I know." It never gets easier, seeing Elli hurt or crying, and he always has to remind himself not to be too overprotective. Elli needs to make his way in the world, and brave certain obstacles on his own, especially considering how sensitive he can be, sometimes.

Still, he valiantly skates on, falls a few times, and starts making friends with the other kids as they race each other around. There aren't a lot of people at the rink, only a few families and a group of teenagers in hockey gear, gathered around one of the unused goals.

At some point, Jack gets recognized, and spends a good fifteen minutes signing autographs and taking selfies. Elli, a bit frightened, skates back to Eric and questions him about it.

"It's because Jack's the captain of the Falconers," Eric explains. "Three Stanley Cups, remember?"

Elli had forgotten, of course — at an age when "a long time ago" means last week, it's not a surprise Elli doesn't equate hockey player Jack with the one he's got to know.

Eric spends the next few minutes entertaining Elli by doing a few ice skating moves, the easy one that can be done in hockey skates and that won't throw his back out. Elli is an appreciative public: he gasps, ohs, and laughs, and asks him to spin again, faster and faster.

He stops himself when he starts getting too dizzy and notices that he has attracted a crowd of his own. Jack has skated back to Elli and his penguin, and a few families have stopped to let their kids watch him as well.

"—good, eh?" he overhears Jack telling Elli.

"Oh yeah, my dad is the best," Elli confirms, solemn, as if he has seen it all already. "Again, again!" he pleads, when he sees Eric coming towards them.

"I won't be able to get out of bed tomorrow if I do it again," he laughs.

He's always tried to stay in good shape, which is more easily said than done with the kind of schedule he has. Even if he runs regularly, some muscles he hasn't used in a very long while have just been reawakened.

"That was impressive, Bittle," Jack comments, his tone as serious as Elli's. "You haven't lost any of it."

"Oh please," Eric says. "I'm out of practice and it shows."

Jack opens his mouth, about to say something, when one of the teenagers stops in front of them, stick in hand. "Sorry to interrupt," she says, "but we were starting a game, and we wondered if you'd like to join?"

Jack looks back at him. "What do you say?"

"That would be great, it's just that—" there's Elli to consider, he wants to say, just as Elli grabs onto his jeans.

"Daddy I'm tired now. My toes are pines."

"Your toes are pines?"

"Yeah, pine needles in my toes."

Eric chuckles. "You mean pins and needles. All right, sweetheart, do you want to take a break? You could go sit on the bench and watch Daddy and Jack play a bit of hockey if you want to."

He leaves Elli on the bench with one of his newfound friends, a little girl his age, and her mother, who agrees to watch over them, and skates back to the two teams forming on one corner of the ice.

The teens split him and Jack into opposite teams, and so they start against each other in the first face-off. He wants to laugh, really, giddy at the prospect of playing against Jack after all this time, but manages to put on his best "scary" face as he leans in, stick in his hands.

"Don't go soft on me, Zimmermann," he says.

Jack doesn't even crack a smile. His face-off expression is as imposing as it was years ago, although now Eric kind of loves it. "You wish."

The chirp makes Eric smile, and he nearly misses the moment the puck hits the ice because of it. They scramble for it but Eric wins, swinging the puck back to one of his younger teammates, who anxiously passes it back to him as he skates a few meters forward. It's clear that both their teams are too distracted by Jack to mind him at all. There are only two players between him and the goals, so it shouldn't be too hard: he springs forward, the sound of skates ripping through the ice somewhere in his back as Jack chases him, probably the only one who knows Eric poses a real threat.

Jack doesn't manage to catch up (okay, he is going a bit soft on him), and before Eric's opponents get the chance to come between him and the goal, he nets the puck without difficulty.

He hears a glorious, "Daddeeeeyyyyyyyy!" coming from the bench, and points the blade of his stick towards Elli, with a wink, before Jack nearly collides with him, as he breaks his sprint at the last second.

Eric shoves him away, playfully. "No checking allowed, mister, neither of us are wearing gear."

Jack shakes his head. "So, how am I supposed to get the puck away from you? You're damn fast, Bittle."

"Be creative." He lifts his chin, and skates away.

He hears an amused huff behind him as he retrieves the puck from the net and slides it towards the center of the ice. All eyes are still on him, and he can't help but be pleased with the fact that the teenagers who were gaping at Jack Zimmermann five minutes ago are now gaping at him. Okay, his thighs are already burning and it's not like he'll do something like that again, but it was totally worth it.

"C'mere," Jack says to his team, as they huddle around him. "Okay, we need to adjust your game if we want to—"

Eric smiles. He hasn't asked what Jack wants to do when he'll retire from the game, but he would be a great coach.

"All right, y'all," he says to his team, who gathers around him with newfound respect. "We need to define our strategy so we can work together."

"Oh my god," one of the younger boys says. "Are you in the NHL too, sir?"

He blinks. "Oh, bless you, no, I'm not. And you don't need to call me sir, lord, I'm only twenty-eight."

"How do we call you, then?"

He chuckles. "My teammates used to call me Bitty."

"All right, Bitty, cool name. I'm Brady, and this is Jonesy, Garcer, and Rusky," he adds, pointing with his stick at each of their teammates. Clearly, hockey nicknames never die.

"Sw'aw— never mind. Nice to meet y'all. Now, we have to plan our game a bit if we want to beat them."

"How do you want to do that, si— Bitty? They have Zimmermann with them."

He grins. "Good thing I played with Zimmermann, then. I know a few things about him that might help us…"

 

*

 

It takes a moment for Eric to secure Elli in his car seat, as he's half-asleep and doing his best impression of a cooked spaghetti noodle.

"Need a hand?" Jack asks, standing in front of the driver's door, just as Eric clips in the last strap.

"No, it's fine, I'm done."

He steps back from the car, and Jack takes a look at Elli. "All fingers and toes inside?" he asks and closes the door after Elli nods.

Eric throws him a smile, goes around the car and drops in the passenger seat with a grunt. He's going to feel this in the morning, and he definitely needs a shower.

"That was fun," he says, his voice low for Elli's sake. "We should do this again."

"For sure."

"I don't want to bore you, though, you play enough hockey like that to have to do it against amateurs."

"Are you asking the hockey robot if he's tired of playing hockey?"

Eric chuckles and throws his head back to lean it against the seat. He's not the only one in the car who would like to nap, right now. "C'mon, that joke was funny ten years ago. You're no robot, Jack Zimmermann."

"Ha, not sure everyone would agree with you."

He hums. "That's because they don't know you like I do."

Jack glances at him, expression unreadable.

"And besides, I need to even the score."

"I thought we weren't counting," Jack points out.

That's true — after that first play, they let the kids run the game. They were good for sixteen-year-olds, some of them very good. By the end of the game, Jack was talking with Jonesy about college hockey teams, a clear interest in her eyes. She was not only wicked fast, but could read the game in a way that advantaged Eric's team for a while before their opponents redoubled their efforts.

"Talk for yourself." He yawns. "Hmm, I might take a nap, too."

"I'm not sleeping, Daddy," Elli says from the backseat, his voice small and exhausted. "I wanna play hockey."

"We just went to the rink, Elli."

"I mean I wanna play hockey like you and Jack and Kent Parson."

Eric blinks. "Well, now that you have skates, I'll look for classes, if you want to."

He waits for an answer, but none comes: Elli, without a care, fell asleep in the middle of their conversation.

"You can sleep if you want," Jack whispers. "I'll wake you up when we get there."

He yawns again. "I just might."

 

*

 

"Bittle. Hey, Bittle— sorry, sorry."

There's a hand on his shoulder and he'd rather like it to go away and go back to sleep, thank you very much.

"Bitty, we're here."

He groans and opens his eyes. He's not in bed, but in Jack's car, in front of his block, and it takes him a moment to remember that they were just coming back from a skate at the rink.

"Oh, right, sorry," he mumbles, unclipping his seatbelt. "Is he—" he asks, before turning towards Elli, who's still fast asleep, bunched up in his winter coat, cheeks pink from the earlier exercise.

"Yep," Jack says.

He groans again, stepping on the pavement. "Now the real workout begins," he says, with a look at his block behind him. Elli's getting heavier and heavier, and if he manages the two flights of stairs without much trouble with Elli in his arms and his bag slung across his shoulders, he's not sure his legs will hold up under him after the two hours he spent on the rink.

"Do you want me to carry him upstairs?" Jack asks.

"Would you? I feel it might become a disaster if I attempt it. What?" he says, as Jack opens the back door. "It's been a while since I skated. I'm feeling muscles I forgot were there. Watch out, he's heavier than what he looks like."

Jack chuckles, and carefully lifts a sleeping Elli in his arms and then against his shoulder. "Oof."

"Told you. Let's put that NHL training to work."

They get to the door of the building and Eric fumbles around for his keys in his bag — this thing has too many pockets — before he retrieves them and opens the door, to Jack's evident relief.

Five minutes later, Elli is in bed and mumbling something about bees and libraries. They watch him for a minute or two before they share a smile and make their way out of the room.

 

*

 

DAVIS BELONGS WITH THE FLYERS YOU COWARDS @jonesyplayshockey

You won't believe who we played with today at Howard Arena. 😱

[Picture attached: Jack and Eric standing center ice, with the two teams around them in silly poses.]

 

  ^ Anna B. @annabb1995

  Oh my god you played hockey with Jack Zimmermann???

 

  ^ FALCS FTW @blueandsilver

  Holy fuck!! How is he in real life?

 

  ^ Reaper @reaper253

  Who's the other dude?

 

  ^ DAVIS BELONGS WITH THE FLYERS YOU COWARDS @jonesyplayshockey

  @annabb1995, correction: I SCORED on Jack Zimmermann

  @blueandsilver, he's super cool! helped me with my backhand, very nice guy :)

  @reaper235, Zimms' friend, goes by Bitty, played college hockey, literally the sweetest

  but will kick your ass on the ice, that's all I know

 

  ^ Mel @bakingmitts97

That's Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease!!!! I'm a fan of his baking vlog!!! Didn't know he still played hockey?!

 

  ^ Anna B. @annab1995

  @jonesyplayshockey do you think they might be more than friends? 😱

 

  ^ DAVIS BELONGS WITH THE FLYERS YOU COWARDS @jonesyplayshockey

  @annab1995, oooh, idk! they flirting around a bit but idk if they're

  just friends or more than that. if they're together they weren't showing it. also

  Bitty has a kid?? not sure if he's single or anything.

 

  ^ FALCS FTW @blueandsilver

  Zimmermann's rumored to be single since he came out (maybe apart brunette

  woman in 2019?). I mean, I'm here for the hockey, but oh my god, that man

  has three cups, he deserves some lovin'

           ♥︎ Kent Parson and 32 others have liked this tweet.

 

  ^ Mel @bakingmitts97

  Go to 3:46, Nigerian meat pie episode, Bittle is defo single. Not that I don't love his

  overworked sassy single dad commentary, but oh my god, how cute would that be?!

 

  ^ Anna B. @annab1995

  @bakingmitts97 too cute, too cute!! & @blueandsilver's right. Sounds like if

  someone deserves it, it's them!

 

 

EVERYTHING HOCKEY @everythinghockey

Jack Zimmermann was spotted today fetching a sleeping toddler from the babysitter.

Has the very private Falconers' captain been living a secret life all along to protect his

family? When did he become a father? Who is his partner, and this mysterious blonde

babysitter? The truth is exposed in our exclusive article.

[Picture attached: a close-up of a toddler sleeping and slung over Jack Zimmermann's

shoulder, as he chats with "mysterious blonde babysitter" in front of a building's door.]

  222 retweets

 

 

BUZZFEED SPORTS @buzzfeedsports

10 Reasons Why Jack Zimmermann Would Make The Best Dad Ever (Gifs included!)

 

 

Jack Zimmermann @jackzimmermann01

I don't have a child. The kid you see in that picture is my friend's, @omgcheckplease,

who is not a babysitter but an amazing baker and vlogger. Go follow him instead

of baiting fans with nonsense. And please refrain from taking pictures of a child without

permission.

 

*

 

Lardo perks up at the sight of Shitty making his way through the crowd. "Oh my god, hurry up, Shits, or I think I'll throw up."

She doesn't notice Ransom slightly shifting away from her, as Shitty drops in the booth with a grunt, dragging his bag over his lap. "Took me three fucking stores to find it."

Lardo's already going for the bag: she fiddles with the zipper for a few seconds, hands unsteady before she sighs and turns away (as much as she can, given that her belly is flush against the edge of the round table) as if profoundly hurt.

"Let me, let me—" Shitty breathes out, and retrieves the carton of peach juice from the bag.

Holster throws a look around them, picks up a discarded menu, and makes it stand in front of Lardo's empty glass, while Shitty fills it up.

"Gimme," Lardo says, taking the glass before Shitty's done pouring, and juice spills on the wooden table.

Eric gathers a few napkins and plasters them over the small puddle before he stuffs them in an empty glass.

"Aaaah," Lardo sighs, through her straw. "Fuck yeah. Thank you," she adds, kissing Shitty on the cheek.

He rolls his eyes a bit, ironically, but Eric can see that he's pleased.

"So, what did I miss?" Shitty asks. 

"Nothing much, we were debating about 2D versus 3D animation," Ransom says.

Shitty frowns. "Bro, what gives?"

"We went to see Cars 6 with Elli and we've been wondering why all animated movies are in 3D, now."

As promised, Ransom and Holster came by to take Elli to the movies in the afternoon, which let Eric get some work done on the book without too much interruption. He even got the time to finish editing his latest vlog, before they came back and left Elli with the babysitter for the night.

"They're just following the latest technological advancements in the field," Lardo says.

Holster shrugs. "Sucks, though. 2D was way better."

"It's just because you're used to it."

"Nah," Ransom chips in. "I agree, there's something unique about hand-drawn stuff."

"Sure," Eric says, "the classics are unbeatable, but Moana was such a pretty movie, just like Tangled. I'll get hell for admitting this, but even Frozen has its moments. They ain't all bad."

He's not sure he would have survived through Cars 35365476560, though.

"Oooh, Tangled," Lardo says. "The one with the hot dude, right?"

Eric quirks an eyebrow. "What, Flynn Rider? He's all right."

Ransom chokes on his drinks. "Bro, have you seen that movie?"

Eric gapes at him. "And you have ?"

"Yeah." Ransom shrugs. "Holster got us Disney+ a while ago. But seriously, bro, Flynn Rider, no?"

"I don't know,” Eric says. “Maybe, but he's still a cartoon. And he's so arrogant at the start, don’t you think?"

Ransom stares at him like he's crazy or something.

"Okay," Shitty says. "Hottest Disney dude. 3-2-1…"

"John Smith," Ransom says.

"Naveen," Holster says.

"Beast," Lardo says.

They all turn towards her. Shitty is gaping.

She shrugs. "What?"

"Okay, we'll address the John Smith situation in a moment," Holster chirps, clear concern in his eyes, "but seriously, Lardo, Beast? Like, in his human form?"

Lardo laughs. "Nah, bro, Beast when he's a beast." She throws a look around. "C'mon, I can't be the only one?"

Eric groans. Hell, he's going to regret this later. "Actually…"

Shitty, Ransom, and Holster turn to gape at him.

"I mean, Beast is better than in his human form, right? You get… used to him after a while." He doesn't even know why words are coming out of his mouth right now. "Oh, come on! We're talking about cartoons, here."

Shitty hums. "Nah, I get Bitty, he's used to dating scary motherfuckers, but Lards, really?"

Eric opens his mouth, about to reply, because that's not his type at all

"What's yours, Shits?" Lardo asks.

"The general from Mulan, of course." 

Lardo hums approvingly, and Ransom and Holster nod along. Mulan wasn't Eric's favorite as a child, because the villain was downright scary, but he knows what Shitty is talking about. "I mean, were shirts optional in medieval China? You, Bitty?"

He groans. "Not a chance. You'll laugh."

"Come on, bro. You're the specialist here, the only one with a kid."

"That excuse won't be working anymore in three months, Shitty Knight, so watch out." He glares at him, but Shitty can't be deterred that easily. He gives in with a sigh. "Fine. If I had to choose, I'd say the prince from The Little Mermaid."

From the corner of his eye, he can see Ransom elbowing Holster, while Lardo snickers. "Whose name is…"

He rolls his eyes. "Prince Eric. Oh, lord, go ahead and chirp me already, I've dug my grave." Silence falls over the table as the four of them share long glances at each other as if they're on the same joke that Eric somehow missed. "What? What's going on?"

Holster shrugs. "Nothing, bro. I get it, he's hot."

"Thank you."

Shitty clears his throat. "Talking about tall, dark, and handsome men… Bruh, that Buzzfed article about Jack was a hoot."

The table dissolves in giggles, but Eric can only sigh. "Oh my god," he says, "you should have seen him when that photo came out. He was furious."

He had a good reason, too, since Eric had already told him that he wishes to keep Elli away from Internet drama. He's appeared here and there, mostly on his Instagram, but Eric doesn't want to be one of those parents who monetize off their kids. The paparazzi pictures hadn't been Jack's fault, of course, though he apologized profusely for it.

"Paps, man, that shit is disgusting," Lardo says. "I still can't believe they just assumed you were the babysitter."

 Part of Jack's anger had been caused by that very fact. It's not like Eric isn't used to being overlooked, but goodness, he's no babysitter to his son.

"Asshats," Shitty agrees. "At least Jack told 'em. That tweet? Told ya. Scary motherfucker."

Holster chuckles. "Was that like, reason #8 from the Buzzfeed article? But he's not all soft either. Jack Zimmermann would protect you and your babies with his very own life?"

He was with Jack as they were trying to do some social media damage control, and he's not sure he's seen Jack more embarrassed than when he found out about that article.

"At least it's not another article saying I'm doing coke or something," he had mumbled at the time.

No, the article shed a positive light on Jack — if a very horny one.

"I'm fucking sorry," Shitty chips in. "I live for reason #1, Ultimate Dad bod. C'mon. When you're watching TV, Zimmermann's big enough for you and that baby, baby."

The table doubles with laughter again. Lord. That article was the most ridiculous thing Eric had ever set his eyes on, but it doesn't mean it was… inaccurate. Bless their hearts, he'll take that knowledge to the grave.

"Too bad he couldn't be here," Ransom says. "We have chirping material for ages."

Holster wipes at his eyes. "Just wait until he comes back. I'll print it out and ask him to sign me a copy."

"Brooo."

"He's in Edmonton, right now?"

"No," Eric says. "Montreal, actually. They're playing tonight so he's staying at his parents’, Edmonton is on Monday."

There’s a silence.

"What?"

"Nothing, nothing," Ransom says. "So, you and Jack, ehhh—"

Eric's eyes narrow. "Oh my lord, why do people keep implying that? We're friends. You know two queer guys can be friends without having to sleep together, right?"

"For sure, but two exes who're still hot for each other like a decade later?" Holster says. "That's not the same."

"I am not hot for Jack Zimmermann!" That was louder than he intended to — a few heads turn his way, and damn, that better not end up on Twitter as well. "And," he adds, lowering his voice, "Jack is definitely not hot for me. Unless I'm missing a vital clue that no one's telling me about."

He glares at them as they lapse in another silence. What if… What if he is missing a vital clue that they're not telling him?

He crosses his arms over his chest. "What?" he asks, his tone hard. "What?" he repeats, and he hates how pleading it sounds, but no one dares to look at him in the eye. "He's not. I know he's not, and even if he were, I wouldn't make that mistake again. He's my friend, and I won't lose him a second time."

"Nobody said a word about losing—"

"It's all right, bro," Ransom says, shuffling closer to Holster. "Sorry. You kinda were our Haus parents and I think we're not handling the divorce very well."

"It's been eight years. Grow up," Eric snaps.

Holster opens his mouth as if to answer him, before he turns his head away, staring at some point in the distance.

Fuck, that was rude as hell, but the guys keep being nosy. He's sick and tired of everyone saying Jack and him belong together because they don't. Lord, he's not making up stuff, here: they tried, and it didn't work. That's it. Tangible proof that they're not made to be together.

"Sorry. Sorry. But I don't wanna talk about it."

Because it hurts. It still fucking hurts to have them say they could have been something. Eric is aware of what would have been possible if he hadn't fucked up all those years ago. If he had been more patient with Jack. More mature. But it's not how things work. He can't exactly go back to Jack and admit that he's never quite got over him. Jack wouldn't want him anyway, not after all this time. It ain't that easy. It never was, and never will be.

Shitty clears his throat. "Anyway, you know who's hot for Jack? Chris fucking Chow, that is. You've read the article, right? The part where he creams his pants talking about Jack taking him on a date?"

Lardo barks out a laugh, and even Eric can't help but snort — he remembers that part of the Buzzfeed article.

Ransom takes his phone out of his pocket, and Shitty notices instantly. "Do you have it?" he asks.

"Bro, for sure." Ransom clears his throat, and when he starts reading, it's with the sauciest tone he can muster. "Reason number seven: he'd treat you like a princess. Or a prince. Or a non-binary nobleperson. This is a bit of an extrapolation because we don't know much about Zimmermann's dating life, but to quote Shark's goalie Christopher Chow when asked in a Puck Personality video which player in the league he would be most likely to go on a date with: "Oh my god, Jack Zimmermann, for sure! I played with him in college, can you believe that? He's the best. The absolute best! A real gent, too, like he'd open the door for me and ask the waiter for a candle unless we're staying at home because he has insisted on cooking my favorite meal or— Heh. I mean. I'm married. But Jack Zimmermann? Yeah. You have to love him!'"

By the end, Ransom is struggling to read through his wheezing, but it's not like they're listening anymore, too taken with trying to breathe through laughter.

"Goodness," Eric says, wiping at his eyes. "I love that boy."

"Jack told me," Shitty wheezes, nearly bent in half, "last time they— they played against each other— Chowder asked him if— if Jack remembered— him."

"Oh my god," Lardo snorts. "What did he say?"

"We went— We went to college together, Chowder. I gave you my dibs."

It spurs another round of laughter, and it takes a few good seconds before Eric can calm down. When he does, he feels utterly tired and leans his head against Lardo's shoulder, who hums around her straw.

His eyes set on the table, and he notices how his phone's screen has lighted up. "Speaking of the devil." He answers the call and presses his phone to his ear. "Chowder!"

Everyone cheers, swallowing Chowder's answer.

"Wait a second," Eric says, "I'm with everyone, let me put you on face call."

"Chris fucking Chow!" Shitty roars when Chowder appears on the screen. Eric positions his phone on the table against his glass, for everyone to see. "How's Farmer? How are the girls? How's Cali?"

Chowder grins at them. "Hey, Shitty! Aaah, it's fine. Very, very hot right now, though. The girls are doing great, thank you!"

"Congrats on yesterday's win!" Holster says, leaning in to see the screen.

"Thanks, Holster! The Kings are on fire this season, I swear."

"Not as much as you, bro, these were some mad saves you made."

"By the way," Shitty says, "we were just talking about you."

Chowder shakes his head. "Oh, no. That Buzzfeed article?"

"Brooooooo."

"Or what's known around here as Cait's favorite Puck Personality interview."

There's laughter coming from Chowder's side, and Farmer appears in the frame, to general excitement.

"Oooh, are we talking about my favorite interview?" she says before she kisses Chowder on the cheek. "Don't worry, babe, I'll put a candle on the dinner table tonight, just for you."

No camera angle could ever hide Chowder's furious blushing, although he's trying to steer it away from his face. "I can't believe I said that. I swear I wasn't high, I just phased out or something…"

"Yeah," Lardo chirps, "that's called an orgasm."

Holster and Lardo high-five over the table.

"Aw." Eric bats a hand at her. "Don't worry, Chowder, I thought it was sweet."

"It's crazy that the NHL even asked that question," Ransom points out.

Shitty shrugs. "Progress, bruh. They're trying since their players started coming out. They're doing it to keep a good face, but still."

They lapse into momentary silence, and Eric watches as Chowder shifts the angle of his phone, to fully include Farmer in the shot.

"Anyway," Chowder says, "uh, I'm glad you're all here because it'll be easier this way. I was calling because we have some news to share."

"Shoot!"

Chowder gazes at Farmer, a look so sweet it makes Eric's heart sigh a bit. She nods, and when he turns back towards the camera, says, "Cait's pregnant."

"Shut your mouth!"

"Chris motherfucking Chowder!"

"A third one, really? You're fucking strong," Lardo tells Farmer. "I don't think I'll be able to do this a second time," she adds, with a wave of her hand in the direction of her round belly.

Farmer laughs. "I always wanted a big family, though it's easier said than done. To be honest, we didn't really plan this one, at least not this early, but you know…"

She shrugs, and Holster leans in, grinning. "You know how babies happen, right, Chowder? There are ways to prevent these."

"Shut up, Holster," Chowder says, flushing again. "We're happy. Really, really happy."

They chat for a few minutes until the pub becomes too loud to understand anything Chowder and Farmer say. They do promise to come to visit everyone in Providence this summer — it's been a while since Eric's seen the whole family, more so than Chowder, who usually stops by when he plays against the Falcs or the Bruins.

When Chowder hands up, Ransom stands to go to the bathroom and tugs Holster along. Eric's not sure why they need to go together, but he has stopped questioning them a long time ago.

"Will we ever learn what is going on between these two?" he asks, eyes on their backs.

"I dunno, bruh," Shitty says. "But that queerplatonic thing they've got going on seems to be working for them. Or it's something else and they don't want to say. Whenever I try to ask, they fucking bolt, man."

Lardo groans. "It's because it's none of your damn business. Stop being so nosy."

Shitty's always been about respecting people and their identities, but it's clear he feels Holster and Ransom's hesitation to share as a personal offense, as if they're not convinced he would fully understand and accept them.

"It stopped being nosy a while ago. It's been ten years."

Lardo's about to replicate when Shitty's phone rings. He excuses himself as he stands up, answering the call, and leaves her and Eric alone.

"He's working a lot," Eric points out.

"He is. You know him, he wants everything to be in order for when the baby's here." She glances at him. "You're working a lot, too."

He quirks an eyebrow. "Shows that much?"

"Bro, you nearly bit Holster's head off, there."

He buries his face in his hands, groaning. "That was rude as hell, I know. I should apologize again."

"Nah, he gets it. We're just trying to watch out for you, you know that, right?"

He smiles at her. "I'm a grown adult, Lards, I don't need minders."

"Bits, if you didn't want us to care, you should have chosen another group of friends. And you say that like you haven't cared so much for all of us in the first place. You can't shake us off that easily."

He chuckles, and drops his head to her shoulder, closing his eyes for a second.

"When was the last time you got laid?" she asks, with the sound of a straw being plopped back into a drink.

He huffs. "Goodness. Too fucking long ago."

Something like last summer, when his mama came to Providence to take care of Elli for a week. He had gone clubbing for the first time in ages, and it ended with quick blowjobs at the other guy's place, Eric hurrying back home in the middle of the night. Two days later, he went on a date with another man, which didn't lead to anything but them getting handsy in the car — the guy didn't call him back, which hadn't been surprising. Even the sex hadn't been that good.

It's like he's stuck in a vicious circle of sorts: when he finally meets someone, it's just for a quick one-off that doesn't leave him wanting more. And it's not like he can meet the one when he doesn't even have time for one night stands. He always imagined that at this point in his late twenties, he would have a steady, loving relationship with satisfying sex, but… Yeah, life had other plans.

Lardo laughs and shakes him off her shoulder. "Explains why you're tense as fuck, bro."

Holster slides back into the booth, followed by Ransom. "What are you laughing about?"

"Just telling Bitty he should get laid."

"Oh, yeah, Bits. Ten o'clock."

Eric throws a look in that direction, and can't help but frown at the young man sitting with a few friends. He'd been looking at Eric, and their gazes barely met before the guy turned back to his friends. He looks a bit younger than him, or maybe it's because of the way he's dressed: tank top and a backward snapback as if it's not March outside. He has the looks of an LAX bro, which is concerning because Holster would never steer him in that direction unless the situation was dire. Is it? Maybe it is. It's a bit juvenile for Eric, but lord, it's not like he's in a position to be picky.

"I'm not sure—" he starts, only to be cut off by Lardo: "Oh my god, just get your ass off this seat and go talk to him, or I'll kick you all the way to that bar myself."

"We're ready for refills anyway," Ransom says.

Eric groans but stands up, making the three of them cheer. "Okay, okay."

A few heads turn their way, and Eric can feel the moment Snapback's eyes are on him. What was it again about him getting back into the dating pool? Tonight could be a good opportunity to… dip his toes, at the very least.

He orders refills at the bar, and without surprise, Snapback makes his way towards him.

Eric drums his fingers on the bar, as Snapback asks the bartender for another round of beer for his table. A minute passes, and then another. Lord, it's not like he has all night.

Finally, Snapback clears his throat. He's blushing but looking worryingly sick at the same time. It's kinda cute. And lord, those arms. "Hey."

"Hi," Eric replies, eyebrows raised.

Snapback clears his throat again, rubbing his hand up his other arm. "Uuuh, listen, I'm not gonna pretend I wasn't staring at you for a while there."

"Ha, I get that often, my friends are loud, even for this place."

"Nah, uh," Snapback says, as he shifts from one foot to another. "It's because you're hot, man."

He laughs. "Aw, you're very forward."

"Do you mind?"

"Not at all." Frankly, it saves him time, if anything. Babysitters ain't free. "I'm Eric."

Please don't say Chad, please don't say Chad—

"Alex. Can I buy you a drink?" he asks, the exact moment the bartender leaves in front of them the drinks Eric had ordered.

He turns his head towards the booth, where Holster, Ransom, Shitty, and Lardo are looking expectantly at him, not even trying to hide it when Alex glances back as well.

"Sorry," Eric chuckles. "They've always been like that."

"Always?"

"Yeah, we went to college together. Played hockey and all."

"No way!"

"I know I don't look the part, but…"

"No, I mean, that's cool," Alex says, "I played lacrosse in college. We had a thing going on with the hockey team."

Eric can't resist throwing Holster a glare. Seriously? "You don't say! Was the thing, like, unambiguous rivalry?"

Alex laughs, and his smile is crooked a little. "Nah, we were bros."

"Lord, really? That wouldn't have happened at my college." Apart from the thing Whiskey had going on with Chad L.

Alex leans against the counter. "So… About that drink?"

"Oh… It's not that I don't want to, but I really have to get these back to the table," he says, pointing his chin at the drinks. It's not like he hangs out with all of his friends that often. "Listen, let me give you my number so you can text me when you're leaving, all right?"

Alex agrees, and five minutes later, Eric sits back in the booth, distributing the drinks around.

"Bro," Holster says, quirking an eyebrow. "Why are you hanging with us? You could be getting your dick sucked right now."

"No one said I can't have both. Left him my number."

"Sweet," Lardo says and shoves him in the shoulder.

 

*

 

It's two hours later, back at home and having paid Melanie for the night that Eric realizes his mistake.

"Oh, shit," he mumbles to himself, as he gets his phone out of his pocket. He stumbles around his bedroom and sits down on the bed.

Alex: Are we still on for tonight? 😜

It's past one in the morning, Elli is peacefully asleep in his room and the babysitter is long gone. Inviting Alex over is also not a possibility.

Eric: Oh my god I'm so sorry, I just got back home and I can't really leave again

Alex: I can pass by if you still want to

He bites on his lower lip, before sending his answer.

Eric: Sorry… I have a kid and the babysitter just left. Night still young, you won't have any problem finding someone else. Have fun! 😉

He sets his phone to the side — he doubts Alex will answer him now, they seldom do after he mentions being a father — and heads to the bathroom. It's only when he's halfway through brushing his teeth that he hears his phone buzzing with a notification, and another, and another. He smiles: that's bound to be Jack since Eric congratulated him earlier tonight on his win against the Habs. He spits in the sink, rinses his mouth, and checks his phone when he makes it back to the bedroom.

It isn't Jack.

Alex: Nah, I was kinda set on you, man

Alex: I don't wanna settle for anything less

Eric rolls his eyes at that, but he's smiling too. Flatterer — if a bit of a cheesy one. Still, it doesn't solve their problem at all.

Alex: I guess phone sex's off the table too

Alex: Yanno I really thought about getting off with you

Alex: too fucking damn hot

He raises an eyebrow at that — it's the last message Alex sent him, barely a minute ago — before his phone buzzes in his hand as a picture appears on the screen.

It's a selfie, taken in the mirror of a bathroom in a house, judging by the red cups on the counter and the lack of stalls. Never mind the bathroom, it's Alex he's staring at, as he poses with one hand bunching up his tank top, revealing a set of rock-hard abs. Fuck, Eric kind of wants to lick 'em. Trace his Adonis belt, suggestively dipping under his waistband, with the tip of his tongue. The thought of it makes his cock twitch.

Jeeeeeesus. It's been a long while.

His eyes trail lower until they meet the outline of Alex's erection, visible through his jeans but half-hidden by the counter he's standing behind.

He bites on his fist before he lowers his hand to palm at his cock through his underwear. He's so hard already, lord.

His phone buzzes again.

Alex: this okay? don't wanna creep you out man

Eric realizes he hasn't answered in a while, so he picks up his phone, pulls his boxers down an inch, tugs his tee-shirt up, and leans down to take a picture.

He stares at it for a few seconds. Okay, so it's been a while since he lost the six-pack, but he still has a defined stomach, and his dick is leaving a wet stain against the fabric of his underwear. It's not a bad photo. It's not a bad photo at all. He never was into the dick pic thing, to begin with, at least, not with strangers, too grossed out by the enormous amount of them he gets on his Instagram, being an openly gay, somewhat known vlogger. This— well, it's not a lot more subtle, but it's considerably sexier anyway.

Without overthinking it, he sends the picture.

Alex: duck

Alex: fuuuuuuuckkk* lol

Alex: you make a man wanna drop on his knees

Eric chuckles — it's so over the top, but it's nice, too. He slips his hand in his boxers, gives himself two, three strokes, and tries to type back a reply with a single hand.

Eric: go on 😳😳😳

Alex: I'd have blown you right there in that bathroom if you'd only said the word

Alex: fuck I want to blow you rn

Eric: I'd let you

He sits up and reaches for the lube in the drawer of his nightstand. Quickly, he shoves his boxers down, and wraps a hand around his dick, and— aah .

Alex: yeah? my mouth on your gorgeous dick? you can fuck my throat if you want to

Alex: you touching yourself?

He chuckles at that because he's already so fucking close and it's been less than two minutes.

He's never admitted it out loud but dirty talking winds him up pretty good — the thing is he's never had a boyfriend that was really into it. And fuck, he knows that semi-anonymous sexting is as mild as shit goes, but it feels filthy nonetheless, and he kind of needs that. He closes his eyes for a second, focusing on the sensations, the arousal building up low in his stomach, and when he opens them again, a picture pops up on the screen: Alex's dick, thick and wet at the tip, his long fingers wrapped around it.

He bites on his lower lip, trying to stifle a whimper. He, like, really really wants it inside him. Fuck.

Eric: yes

Eric: fuck me

Alex: yeah? get on your knees, then

He groans, and flings himself on his knees, spreading his legs. It feels a bit shameless, alone like that in his room, but he's too far gone to care. He's too close to adding fingers — he wants to be able to type back, anyway.

Alex: fuck the sight of you stretched around my dick

He closes his eyes, a smile growing on his lips, as he imagines Alex's hands on his waist as he works his dick inside him, before his phone buzzes again.

Alex: bet you sound hot when I fuck you

Jack: Thanks. :-) 1rst period was an adjustment with Marty on my line. Slow start but we managed to find our rhythm by the 2nd.

Eric's hand stills on his cock while he stares at Jack's message, displayed at the top of the screen. What kind of fucking radar that boy— He bites down on his lip, wishing it to go away, while the bottom of his phone scrolls through Alex's new messages.

He glances at them and tries to register Alex's words, but his phone keeps buzzing. Of course, Jack would choose this moment to get chatty.

Jack: We'll see how it goes against the Bruins tomorrow.

Jack: Hopefully we can get a point if we get them to OT.

Oh my god . He's kind of in the middle of something. 

Jack: And I'm fine before you ask.

Jack: No broken ribs, just bruised-up a bit.

Eric frowns. He hasn't seen tonight's highlights — for obvious reasons — but he didn't know Jack got hurt.

The very vivid image of a bruise blooming over Jack's ribs pops up in his mind. Arousal sparks up in the pit of his stomach, and he gasps, his hand flying over his cock again. He tries to focus back on Alex's messages, on the promise of a good, anonymous fuck, but when he closes his eyes again, it's not Alex's palms he imagines over his skin, but large, calloused hands gripping at his waist.

Just like that, Jack's body is covering his, pounding him from behind.

They've never done it — eight years ago had been about mouths and hands — so Eric can only imagine how good it would feel as Jack would fuck with the intense devotion he grants the things he loves. He would feel safe and taken care of and just enough used to make it dirty and exciting.

And fuck, since it's a fantasy he's never allowed himself to have before tonight, why not…

"Fuck, the sight of you stretched around my dick," Jack groans in his ear.

He bursts out laughing and nearly face-plants in his pillow, catching himself at the last second. Okay, no.

He rolls on his back, still pumping at his cock, and replaces the words in Jack's mouth with something more believable, something like his concentrated captain face and — oh, God — comes with a gasp.

Two minutes later, his face is still buried in the crook of his elbow, as he gets his breathing under control, trying not to dwell on what just happened. He would laugh at it, because… Really? That's what does it for him? But then, he's promised himself long ago that Jack wouldn't be fantasy material. It hurt too much at first, and then he'd tried to forget about him. And now that they're friends again, now that he thought that all feelings other than fondness were well behind him… This happens?

He grabs his phone — Alex finished as well, seeing his messages — and goes to the bathroom to rinse himself quickly, before he sends back two quick texts.

Eric — to Alex: that was fun, thank you

Eric — to Jack: you better take care of yourself, mister 😤

He lies back down on his bed, his mind blank. Well, not entirely blank: there's a small voice, somewhere deep in his chest, that he can safely blame on hormones, telling him it would be nice to have someone in his bed right now. Someone to curl around and fall asleep with. Someone to confide in, to talk to, about Elli, about his cookbook, about how Shitty works too much and have Ransom and Holster finally figured things out? Someone to fuss about, to talk about the last game and the next one, to kiss the bruises off his ribs.

He stares at the ceiling.

He's so, so fucked.

 

Chapter Text

 

Eric is totally not having an existential crisis over jam when Elli pokes his head in the kitchen. It's Friday and they've been back from preschool for an hour now, and Elli has been quiet since then. He didn't mention anything wrong when Eric had asked him about his day, back on the bus. He knows he shouldn't pry and let Elli tell him about his troubles when he'll be ready, but it's also killing him a little bit.

"Daddy?" Elli asks, stepping into the kitchen.

Eric puts the (failed) pot of strawberry jam away from the stove and turns towards him. "What's going on, sweetie?"

Is this about Maya? She did agree to be Elli's girlfriend last week, after which they shut themselves in Elli's bedroom, manically giggling, giving Eric and Elisa a good preview of teenagehood.

Maybe they broke up, which would explain why Elli is looking up at him, tears in his eyes.

"Daddy, are we poor?"

Eric's throat tightens, fast. "Oh, baby, where did you get that from?"

He lowers himself on his knees, but Elli doesn't come crashing in his arms. Instead, he rubs at his eye, valiantly trying not to cry.

"It's 'cause I never went to Disney or in a hotel and Tommy at school says that means we're poor."

"Come here, sweetie," he says, with a weak smile, and this time Elli lets himself be wrapped in his arms.

Truth is, he's been afraid that Elli would come to that sort of realization for a long time, now, especially since he started preschool, mixing with kids from different backgrounds. Not that they are poor poor. The vlog is doing well, and there's a surge in his book sales from time to time, but he's alone paying rent on a two-bedroom apartment and taking care of a child on top of that. It's not like they've ever been short on food or anything, but there have been times he'd been dangerously late on rent.

Does it matter in the end? He takes Elli to the park, to the zoo, to free museums, and the movies when he can, and he's been planning to buy Elli the two-wheeled bike he's been asking for a while now. Elli has friends and family — a whole gaggle of hockey fanatics who take him out whenever they can and shower him with a frankly ridiculous amount of gifts. He has sleepovers with Maya and quiet nights in with Eric, playing Legos, updating Elli's private "baking" vlog, and laughing at Eric's inability to play Pokémon. So, no, there has been no Disney, no recent trips or new skates, but it doesn't mean…

This child is loved, goddammit. This child is taken care of. Too bad if the oven is falling apart when Eric most needs it, or that he's in dire need of a new set of shirts. He knows how to make compromises. No child should grow up worrying about his parent's finances, about the food in the fridge and the roof over their heads — he's failing at the most basic task of his job.

"We're not poor, sweetheart," he says, his voice muffled against Elli's shoulder. "Of course we're not poor. Look at me," he says, backing up a bit to press his hand to the side of Elli's face, his thumb wiping the single tear rolling down that round cheek. "Look at me, baby. That's not a very nice thing for Tommy to say, and it doesn't mean he's right, okay? Even if we were poor, that wouldn't be a bad thing. That wouldn't mean anything about us or who we are and what we do." He leans in a valiant smile on his face. "And I'll tell you a secret: even if we went to Disney right now, you wouldn't like it. There are plenty of rides that you can't do unless you're a bit taller, so what's the fun in that? We'll go in a few years, and we'll do all the rides and have so much fun, you'll see."

He better start saving money right now because Elli looks up, his reddened eyes gleaming. "All the rides?"

"All the rides, sweetie, I promise."

Elli sniffles. "But also I never was in a hotel."

"That's not because we're poor," Eric says, squeezing Elli's arms. "Remember last time we went to Boston to see your uncles? And at Christmas, when Moo Maw and Grandpa visited here? And you don't remember that because you were a tiny baby, but we went to see Uncle Chowder in California, once. That's not being poor, Elli, that's the exact opposite of being poor, because we have friends to stay with wherever we go."

Elli wipes his nose with the back of his sleeve. "We saw Claire in California?"

"Yes, of course, we saw her." Claire being Chowder and Farmer's oldest, born a year before Elli. "She was a tiny baby like you. And Naomi was still in your aunt's tummy, but she was there too."

"Was Aunt Farmer as big as Aunt Lardo?"

He chuckles. "Yeah, she was pretty big too. But… we're doing fine, okay? You and me? There is nothing to worry about, baby."

"Okay," Elli whispers, tears now dried out.

He'll have to give Anika a call later today and have a talk about Tommy — it's not the first time that boy has influenced Elli in less-than-positive ways.

"Are hotels fun?" Elli asks, through one last hiccup. "They look fun."

Eric stares at him for a second, before coming to a decision. "Okay, that's it," he says.

He stands up, picks Elli at the same time, and makes his way towards his bedroom.

"Daddy?"

He sets Elli on the bed, and digs for an old backpack in his closet, that he starts stuffing with whatever falls under his hand. He's not mad, just… resolute.

"Daddy?" Elli sounds slightly scared, now. "What are you doing?"

"I'm packing a bag," he says, "because we're staying at a hotel, tonight."

Elli bounces on the bed. "Really? Really?"

Eric grins at him. "Yes, really. Let's go make your bag, now."

Elli chooses to pack his clothes in his favorite Pikachu bag (he has a few of these, again, courtesy of his extended family), and Eric lets him bring along one teddy bear, and it's without surprise that Elli hands him Number One.

"But it's not even sleepy time yet, Daddy," Elli points out, as they're about to head out.

"I know, but that's because we're going to play a game."

"A game?"

"We're going to pretend, you and I, to be tourists. We're going to walk around like we're on a trip and it's the first time we're here. We could… go to a museum? And a restaurant? And then we'll go sleep at the hotel. Sounds good?"

"Yeah! Sw'awesome! What museum?"

"Which one would you like?" he asks, fully knowing the answer — it's going to be Natural History, today, like on most days Elli gets to choose an activity.

"Animals! Animals!" Elli chants, both of his hands in the air for Eric to pick him up, which he does.

"All right," he says and kisses Elli's cheek. "Animals it is. Let's go."

 

*

 

They spend a good two hours at the Natural History Museum, and at the adjacent Planetarium. If Elli is only mildly interested in the NASA exhibit, his excitement sky-rockets as they travel through the animal floor. They're stuffed, of course, and though Eric finds it creepy, it never seems to phase Elli.

His favorite one is the brown bear, which is huge and in a vaguely menacing way. Elli stands in front of it for a good five minutes, entranced, hugging Number One in his arms at the same time.

"Say it again!" Elli asks.

"It's Ursus arctos," Eric says, not even bothering to look up the information sign. He knows it by heart, now.

As always, it makes Elli laugh, hard. "Rarsus actos!Rarsus actos! This is your friend Number One," he says, lifting the teddy as high as it will go.

Backing up a bit, Eric pulls his phone out and catches a quick picture of Elli.

The sound of his camera goes off, and Elli turns his head, grinning. "Selfie, Daddy! Let's do a selfie!"

"Sure," he laughs. "With the bear?"

"Yeah!"

He picks Elli up again and angles the camera of his phone to see both their faces, and the bear behind them.

"Okay, give me your meanest grizzly face," he says and takes a few pictures as they bare their teeth at the camera, Elli's nose adorably crinkled.

They decide together which one is the best of the bunch and lets Elli slide back down on the floor.

"Who are we sending this one to?" Eric asks him.

"Uncle Shitty and Aunt Lardo," Elli decides, instantly. "And Uncle Holster and Uncle Ransom and Uncle Chowder."

"So, the usual suspects."

"Moo Maw and Grandpa!"

Eric laughs. "Anyone else?"

"Oooh, Jack?"

He licks his lips. "Yeah, sure, we can send it to Jack too."

While Elli is looking at some sort of African rat, Eric opens Snapchat and sends the selfie to everyone Elli listed. He writes a quick text to his parents as well, before he opens Jack's contact, and sends him two photos: the selfie, along with the picture of Elli holding out Number One in front of the bear.

Three hours later, they're checking in at the Marriott in downtown Providence. It's $150 for a single night, but seeing Elli this elated in the grand hall of the hotel makes up for the price. He's still full of energy even though they walked around after the museum, and then went to the restaurant, and had a discussion in which Elli tried to convince him of the existence of "capybaras", a giant hamster that he has apparently seen on an Attenborough documentary, but Eric's pretty sure he's confusing those with Pokémons. They took a million more selfies in the process, sending them to the same people over and over again on Elli's insistence. At some point, Shitty had sent back a quick video snap of him going, "That's un-BEAR-ably 'swawesome, my man," which made Elli laugh so hard that Eric had to replay it four times.

They get into the elevator after getting the keys to the room, and Elli audibly squeals when he sees the long corridors. "Where's our room?"

"I don't know, we have to find it. Number 815," he adds, as Elli is off running down the hallway. "Keep your eyes open!"

He doesn't know why hotel hallways are universally appealing to children, but he remembers liking them as a kid, too. Maybe it's the carpet. Or just, a really long interior alley to run around.

Elli stops in front of 804. "This room?"

"No, sweetheart."

He runs down to the next door, 806. "This room?"

"No, it's going to be on the other side of the hallway, a bit further down."

Elli shoots him a skeptical look, but switches sides as he runs with one hand trailing on the wall, and asks about each door until he arrives in front of room 815. It takes a moment for Eric to catch up, but when he does, he confirms the number on the door.

"Whoa," Elli gasps. "You were right!"

Black magic. "Told you so."

Elli beams at him. "You're so smart, Daddy."

Ha, he'll take it — it still amazes him how much Elli admires him as if he's the strongest, cleverest, bravest person on Earth. It's how kids are with their parents, of course, and it's only a matter of time before Elli understands that his father is far from perfect. Lord, he has still so much to see. Every single small discovery makes Elli's world bigger and brighter, and that amount of joy at witnessing the world reminds Eric of its beauty as well. He's always been cheerful, and positive, and optimistic — it's a part of him, something he shares with Elli as well — but lately, it has more felt like an act than anything else. With Elli, it's like he can see the world for the first time all over again, and he wouldn't trade that for the world, however exhausted he might be.

He takes the key card out of his pocket and hands it to Elli. "Wanna open the door for us? Just press the card right here," he says, as he taps on the black plastic under the door's handle.

Elli extends his hand to press the card against the plastic, and the second Eric pushes the door open, Elli squeezes himself inside.

"It's sooo big!"

It's actually a pretty normal-looking hotel room, but both the room and the bathroom are bigger than what they have at home.

"Daddy, look! They forgot their candy!" Elli says, pointing at the two mints the cleaning staff left on the pillows.

"That's for us, Elli."

"Really?"

"Yes!"

Elli's eyes widen. "Really really?"

"I wouldn't lie to you, sweetheart."

Elli squeals, and jumps on the bed (not before tugging his shoes off his feet), retrieving the mints. "For you," he says, as he hands him one.

"Aw, thank you." He takes the mint and goes to place their bags on the big drawer under the TV. "So, bath, then movie?"

The hotel has Disney+, and hopefully, Elli's choice will land on something else than Frozen, this time.

"Okay," Elli says. "I'm gonna explore."

After Eric starts the bath, he follows Elli around the room, who marvels at everything, from the door eye to the mini-fridge stuck under a drawer.

"Daddy, it's full of candy too! Is that for us?"

Ugh. Overpriced hotel snacks. "No, that's for the cleaning staff. They work so hard all day cleaning the rooms, and the hotel keeps these fridges full for them to snack during the day."

"Oh, okay."

He gets Elli in the bath and nearly takes one himself in the process since that boy keeps splashing around. Afterwards, he rolls Elli in one of those big fluffy bathroom gowns and he looks so cute that Eric has to take another picture. He adds a quick caption on top of it, 10/10 for tourist aesthetic at the Marriott, and sends it to the same bunch of people. Okay, they might have gone a bit overboard with the pictures, but it's a special occasion.

Elli is rolling around on the bed with Number One when Lardo replies with a heart-eye emoji, and his phone vibrates in his hand a second time, this time with a message from Jack. It's the first time he's answered today, but it's not surprising, considering he's had practice and meetings all day.

Jack: You two at a hotel? Everything all right?

Bitty: We're fine! A kid at preschool, bless him, told Elli that not going on trips means we're poor. Which is inaccurate and rude as hell.

Jack: Shit, really?

Bitty: Kids can be cruel, lord. It's not like we've never traveled, but Elli was too young to remember. And I don't really have the time right now, working on the book and everything, so we're playing tourists today. Visiting Providence!

He bites on his lower lip as he sends the message. Put like that, it sounds cheap. Maybe he should have planned a bit and gone on a trip over the weekend. Do something more elaborate than this.

His worries evaporate as soon as Jack answers him.

Jack: Sounds fun. :-) And it's a great idea. I've been living here for ten years and I haven't had the time to go to a museum yet, so.

Eric chuckles. Again, this is not surprising, but come on Jack, in ten years ?

Bitty: 😱😱😱

Bitty: We NEED to get you to a history museum ASAP, mister.

Jack: Maybe I'll just come along on the next tourist day. :-)

Bitty: I'll take you up on that!

Bitty: All right, ttyl, we're having movie night. Hotel has Disney+ so you can guess what we're watching. 🙄😩😆

Jack: Ha, good luck.

Eric smiles at his phone before he puts it away. "Are you sure you don't want to watch something else?" he asks Elli, fully knowing the answer he'll get.

"No. Frozen is the best."

Beaten, he chooses Frozen on the streaming app, and turns his brain off as the first scene, which he knows by heart, rolls on the screen.

They're a good forty-five minutes into the movie when there's a knock on the hotel's door.

"Who's that?"

"Uh, no idea." He frowns. "Maybe it's the cleaning staff."

He gets off the bed, followed by Elli. "I wanna look in the eye!"

Eric chuckles. "Okay. Let's see."

He lifts Elli high enough for him to look through the door eye, and it takes him a second before he says, "There's a bear, Daddy."

What? Is that code for something? Sometimes those kids invent the silliest stuff. "I doubt there's a bear on the other side of the door. Unless it knows how to knock."

"I'm telling you it's a bear! A big, big bear!"

Eric shakes his head, lets Elli down, and opens the door.

It takes him a moment, because sitting in front of said door, is a four feet-tall teddy bear holding a basket.

"I told ya!"

"All right, it's a bear," Eric agrees. It doesn't explain why it's there.

"For us? Like the candy on the pillows!"

He looks left and right, down the hallway, but there's no one to be seen. "I'm not sure, sweetheart."

He glances down again, and takes a closer look at the basket: for the first time, he notices a white envelope on top, addressed to MR ELLIOT BITTLE, in a handwriting he instantly recognizes.

Oh, you silly, silly, lovely man.

"Look at that, Elli," he says, picking up the envelope. "There's your name on it."

"For me ?"

The last time he saw Elli with such huge eyes, there was a new Attenborough documentary on Netflix.

"Looks like it. Let's bring it inside."

He takes the basket and somehow manages to drag the giant bear inside. The moment he closes the door, Elli jumps on the bear, turns on himself, and encircles his tiny body with the two arms of the teddy.

"So soft," he whispers, settling in.

Eric sits down on the floor as well and opens the envelope to find a postcard with a picture of Providence on it, and two sheets of printer paper, neatly folded.

He starts with the postcard and stares at the handwriting for a moment, not even registering the words before Elli wakes him up from his stupor. "What's it sayin'?"

He clears his throat. " Dear Mr Elliot Bittle ," he reads.

"Thass me!"

"That's you, sweetheart. Dear Mr Elliot Bittle, It has been brought to my attention that you are visiting Providence tonight. I am very happy to know that a fine young man like you has chosen our city as a trip destination. As a thank you, we send you this complimentary basket and a bigger gift to remember us by (I was told you like bears very much). I hope you enjoy your time in Providence, and we would be delighted should you visit us again — attached to this card are two tickets to a local event that would greatly benefit from your attendance. Thank you for choosing our city, signed, Mayor of Providence."

Elli stays silent after that, while Eric, shaking his head, unfolds the two tickets to see what exactly they're about.

He stares at the paper for a moment, and only lifts his head when Elli prompts him, "Daddy?"

Jack shouldn't have. He really shouldn't have, because this is too much, after the teddy and the jersey and the bigger teddy and oh my god. But this is one particular gift he can't say no to, at least for Elli's sake. "It's two tickets for a hockey game next weekend, sweetheart. It's the Falconers against the Aces."

Elli looks up, eyes shining in disbelief. "Kent Parson?"

"Looks like it!"

"Kent Parson!" Elli squeals, as he stands up before he falls back on his bum like he has no idea what to do with his body. "Daddy!"

He grins. "I know, I know."

Elli stands up again and wraps his arms around Eric's middle, who hugs back, not before ruffling Elli's hair.

"Kent Parson, Kent Parson!" Elli repeats, his voice muffled against Eric's shirt.

Elli might not be able to say anything else before the game, like a broken record.

"I know," he says and kisses the top of Elli's head.

Elli's excitement drops suddenly, as he twists his fingers with his other hand. "Do you think… Do you think they know we lied?"

His eyes are imploring, and Eric tries to stifle a laugh. Instead, he kisses Elli's head again and wraps him in his arms. That boy will never, ever get in trouble.

"I think they know we're playing a game, sweetie. Being a mayor sounds pretty boring so maybe they wanted to play along."

"Sure?"

"Of course." He doesn't want to dwell on it, so he adds, "Let's see what this basket's all about."

Because Jack can't stop at a giant teddy bear and two tickets to one of the busiest hockey games of the season, of course.

In the basket, he finds a bottle of champagne (goodness, Jack), another one that's sparkling juice, for Elli, along with all sorts of candy and a coloring book featuring The Aristocats.

Elli is overjoyed to learn that there's a Disney movie about cats, and so they watch that instead, Frozen long forgotten. Another thing Eric will have to thank Jack for, lord.

 Elli loves the movie, from the very first song where the narrator sings a couple of verses in French, prompting him to ask what language that is.

"That's French!"

"Why?" Elli asks.

"Because the movie is set in Paris, which is in France. They speak French over there."

"Like Jack? When he sang the song?"

"Well, there are different types of French, but yes, like Jack."

Elli then learns that Eric was in fact in Paris for a while, which encourages him to ask another set of questions — mostly revolving around the cats Eric "met" there, and Eric launches into detailed descriptions of the block's black cat, that his boss used to feed sardines.

It's pretty late once the movie ends, and Elli crashes quickly from the sugar rush. Once he's asleep, Eric rolls out of bed, phone in hand. He's only had two glasses of champagne, but that always goes to his head too fast.

Leaning against the window, mellow and content, he stares at the screen of his phone, displaying his latest texting conversation with Jack.

Slowly, he types out a message.

Bitty: goodness Jack

Bitty: or should I say, "Mayor of Providence"?

He snorts at himself and sits down in the armchair, propping his feet up against the window's frame.

Jack: Mayor of Providence?

Reaaally, Jack?

Bitty: don't play dumb, mister, I know what you did

Jack: Did you have a nice evening?

Bitty: of course we did but lord, that's a lot of gifts Jack

Jack: Gifts? What gifts?

Bitty: 🙄🙄🙄

Bitty: uuuugh I'm too tired and drunk to have this conversation rn 😩

Bitty: which is like totally your fault btw

Jack: Go to sleep, Bittle :-)

Bitty: fine

He's about to stand up when the phone buzzes again.

Jack: Will I see you at the game?

Bitty: so you know something about that, uh???

Jack: Fine, you got me

Bitty: thank you

Bitty: like, srsly, thank you, but it's a bit lot?

It takes a moment for Jack to answer, and Eric, giggling against the back of his hand, wonders if he's Googling what "srsly" means. That boy will be the death of him.

Jack: Sorry. I wanted tonight to be good for both of you.

Bitty: don't you dare apologize

Bitty: you made his night

Bitty: and mine

The ellipsis appears in the corner of his screen, but it takes a minute or two before a message appears.

Jack: I'll slow down. But all our friends have been around since he was born… I need to catch up. Four years' worth of birthdays and all.

Slightly dizzy, Eric closes his eyes — which doesn't, in fact, help with the dizziness at all. Jack, somehow, feels a responsibility towards Elli, even if he has known him for less than three months. And put like that, Eric can't quite refuse his gift-giving tendencies, since Jack clearly feels he's buying back all those missed times. It's the way he shows love to the people he cares about, and Eric is thankful for it, it's just that it seems sometimes that Jack's anxiety gets in the way of him realizing his presence in Eric and Elli's life is the biggest gift of them all. It's enough. He doesn't have to compensate with increasingly ambitious gifts, because there isn't anything to compensate for. He's enough.

It's a conversation for another time, though, one Eric wants to have face-to-face. For now, he types in a quick message.

Bitty: okay

Jack: Okay?

Bitty: yeah okay

Bitty: next time we're kidnapping you for tourist day, though, no choice

Jack: Ha, okay

Bitty: and of course we'll be at the game, how could we ever miss the Aces and HRH Kent Parson 🙄

Bitty: uuugh save me

Jack: Well, I'll be there too, if it's any consolation :-)

Bitty: looking forward to that

Bitty: not looking forward to climbing on the bus with a ten thousand foot tall teddy bear though

Jack: Need a lift?

Bitty: might take you up on that

Jack: Text me when you're ready to leave

Bitty: all right it's gonna be hellish tomorrow so good night 😙

Jack: Good night, Bittle

 

*

 

"Kent Parson, Daddy, Kent Parson!" Elli points at the player who just jumped on the ice, wearing number 90. "Keeeeent Paaaarsoooooon."

Eric turns his head from watching… no one in particular from the Falconer's team, doing their warmups. "Oh yeah, I see him!"

"He's fast like a blue ant on fire!" Elli says, and Eric has no clue what that's supposed to mean.

Instead, he hums and places his chin on top of Elli's head, and laughs as Elli tries to squirm away, a small hand batting at his jaw.

"Daddy."

They're early again because it's easier to enter the arena before the rest of the crowd arrives, but also because it allows them to get closer to the ice during the warmups since their seats are a bit higher up (no checking scares this time, thank you very much). Elli, in a sea of Falconer's blue, is wearing a full Aces black jersey with Parson's name on it. Bless him, it's not every day you get to meet your idol.

They shuffle around at some point, letting a father with two young kids help them in front of the glass. Eric smiles at him, and the man smiles back, and ugh— it reminds him of the dad he saw at the bakery this week. He had been bouncing the cutest baby girl in existence on his knee while sipping at his coffee, animatedly talking nonsense to each other and giggling together. Eric always knew he wanted kids, but he remembers too well the first time he found a dad to be hot — it was much earlier in his life than he thought it would be. Lord, what even is his life?

He'd stared at Hot Dad, and then he'd stared some more when Hot Dad was joined by Hot Partner, taking Baby Girl in his arms and kissing her round cheeks, as if Eric hadn't been tortured enough. It was so sweet it kept a smile on his face the whole day, as he daydreamed about what his life could be if he were to find the one — a smile another man (single, this time) noticed and inquired about. And that's how he ended up with a certain Marco's number in his phone. Eric is supposed to be dating people, after all, and Marco doesn't seem half-bad, with his neat suit and charming smile.

Elli bounces on his lap and reminds Eric of the world around them. Jack skates by, at some point, and Elli shouts at him a "Happy Halloween!" prompting Jack to throw Eric a quizzical look, considering it's March. Eric shrugs — he's not sure where Elli gets his ideas, sometimes.

Elli watches Parson, just as Eric follows Jack through his warm-up routine, which he recognizes from their Samwell days, with only a few changes since. A few seconds later, he skates towards the middle of the rink, until his shoulder brushes with Parson's. Right, they’re friends, now, as Jack mentioned earlier. They exchange a few words, and when Parson looks up, it's directly at Eric and Elli. After a moment, he nods and skates off towards the bench.

That seems to be the end of that, and his attention is drowned to Mashkov's loud laughter, as he chirps a Falc rookie who just lost an edge. One would think that, instead of Jack, Parson would stick around Mashkov  —  nothing seems to indicate that the two of them are dating, but then, they’re technically at work.

"Daddy, look!" Elli squeals, and— Parson is skating towards them.

Which, well, doesn't mean anything, except that Parson stops in front of them, sharpie in hand, and pokes the glass just in front of Elli, who's squirming so much Eric has trouble to contain him.

"Nice jersey, buddy!" Parson says to Elli, shouting over the music and the noise of the crowd around them.

Parson picks up a puck with his stick, throws it, and catches it in one hand (lord, that man will never change, will he?), before he puts it against the glass and signs it in a quick motion.

He pokes the glass again, looking at Elli. "Ready?"

Elli nods vigorously, and Parson throws the puck up and over the glass, for Eric to catch. He hands it to Elli, who inspects it for a second, dumbstruck.

"Elliot," Eric whispers in his ear, and that seems to wake him up from his stupor.

"Thank you, Mr Parson!" Elli shouts back.

He leans towards Parson, and when he puts his tiny hand on the glass, Parson places his — huge, in comparison — gloved-hand against Elli's. Okay, Eric has to admit, this is very cute.

Parson's eyes set on Eric for a second, and Eric manages to mouth a quick, "Thank you," before Parson winks at him, and skates off.

The next minutes are filled with Elli's wonder at the puck, tracing Parson's signature with his small finger when he isn't looking at the man himself warming up on the ice.

Eric decides it's enough emotions for one night, as they get back to their seats a bit higher up, but of course, it doesn't play out that way: once the game starts, it's clear that both teams are angling for a win, and by the end of the second period, a fight starts as an Ace forward rams into the Falcs' goalie, players piling up over each other.

Elli is impressed, more by the noise of the hectic crowd than the fighting itself.

"I don't like that," he says burrowing himself in Eric's shoulder until Eric tells him the fight is done and he can look again.

He's glad it's not Jack's line that's on the ice: he's nothing like an enforcer, of course, but he's been in a few brawls nonetheless. Eric would rather not have to explain to his son that in some cases, fights are allowed, or even cheered upon and that it's something Jack participates in. That will be a discussion for another day when Elli is a bit older.

Unfortunately, the game keeps growing more and more brutal, and Elli watches, eyes wide open, hugging the puck against his chest. They finally get to OT 3-3, which Eric isn't very happy about (it's getting late and even more intense on the ice), but he tries his best to entertain Elli and not dramatize too much the situation unfolding in front of their eyes.

Just like last time, it happens in half-a-second. The crowd's eyes are on Parson, as he's getting dangerously close to the Falcs goals. Two of the Falcs players are on him. Parson looks over to make a pass and Ivanov locks eyes with him for a second. A second too much, because he doesn't see Jack coming, and accidentally hip-checks him so hard that it sends Jack flying, doing half of a cartwheel before hitting the glass, hard, and then the ice.

The crowd gasps in a single sound.

Eric's mind is strangely blank before he remembers Elli on his knees. "He's okay, sweetie, look, he's about to stand up."

It's true: Jack is slow to recover but rolls on his knees, and the crowd lets out the breath it was holding. The moment he props himself on one knee, Eric can see there's something wrong: one of his arms does something funny as if it's not responding to the rest of his body, like a marionette with a broken thread. Just as quickly as the check happened, Jack rolls back down on his back and doesn't move.

Oh my god.

"Daddy!" Elli cries out, throwing his arms around Eric's name, and for a moment, Eric is at loss for words.

It sends the crowd in a fury because the play hasn't stopped, and it takes the benched players to drum their sticks against the boards for the ref to blow his whistle.

The effect is immediate: Marty is the first to skate up to Jack, grabs hold of Ivanov's jersey, and slams him into the glass. It's a mess of players going one after the other around Jack's limp body, and Eric wants to jump over the glass to pull him out of harm's way, to do something, anything

In a daze, he barely registers what is happening outside of Elli clenching the front of his shirt, the only thing that keeps him from panicking. There are shouts; low, powerful hey, HEY! coming from Mashkov, who is shielding Jack's head away from the worst. Parson's hands are on Ivanov, pulling him away, just as Gbeho, who jumped from the bench, is trying to control Marty, the refs in the middle of it.

The fight ceases as quickly as it has started, and the medics run over to Jack.

It feels like the crowd is collectively holding its breath as they transfer him on the stretcher, and it's only when the medic leans down to say something to Jack that Eric notices the barest movement in his body as he tries to move his hand, and nods back to the medic. Half-a-second later, the crowd lets out a sigh of relief.

"It's okay," Eric tells Elli and tries to sound convincing as a thunder of claps follows Jack out of the rink. "I saw him move, he's okay. He'll probably have a nasty bump on his head."

"Really really?" Elli sniffles against him.

"Yeah, I tell you, baby, he was talking back to that man."

It's about that moment that Elli breaks down into sobs, just as the ref starts the play again. They're getting a few looks from the people sitting around them. Come on, seriously?

"You wanna go home, sweetheart?" he asks, a thumb going over Elli's forehead, pushing the hair away. "We don't have to stay if you don't want to."

Frankly, he would rather leave himself, but he's not sure if it's better to encourage Elli to stay in order to downplay what just happened, or fully assume it. He doesn't want Elli to be scared of hockey, but… hockey can be scary. And he's purposefully not thinking about Jack, right now.

Elli nods through dramatic hiccups, so Eric lifts him in his arms and carries him up the stairs to the arena's exit.

He calls a taxi — he'd rather not have to wait for the bus tonight — and spends the wait trying to reassure Elli about what just happened.

"It's like when you fell on your butt when we went skating. It's just that sometimes, when you fall and your head touches the ice, you can get dizzy and you have to go see a doctor. Jack's at the doctor now, and they're taking care of him."

If only it were that simple. Only a head bump. No. He can't let that thought get the better of him.

Through tears, Elli smiles again. "Say it again, Daddy."

"What?" It takes him a moment to understand what Elli is talking about. "Butt?"

"Yeah!"

"Butt!"

"Buuuuuutt." 

"Butt, butt, butt, butt, butt!"

They laugh until tears prickle at Eric's eyes.

Elli looks down at his puck. "Will 'e get candy if he's good at the doctor?"

Eric chuckles. "You can ask him yourself next time we see him."

"Is he gonna be sick for a long time? Eddie from school fell down a tree and then he got a robot arm for two months and then they took off the robot arm and his real arm was okay again."

He probably means one of those plastic casts that let the skin breathe through.

"I don't know, baby. I'm sure he'll be fine."

It's anyone's guess at this point, and he hates not knowing. Jack's brain could be bleeding right now, his skull could be fractured, his shoulder ripped in half, and he still wouldn't know. He's just a friend, he doesn't have the privilege of knowing, not right now, anyway, not to be the first contact on the list. Instead, he has to wait and pretend that everything is perfectly fine, to resign himself to the idea that he isn't that person, that he will never get to be that person.

"Daddy?"

"Hm?"

"Jack will be okay if he has a robot arm. Robot arms are cool."

Eric smiles. "They are, sweetheart, they are."

 

*

 

They're halfway home when he gets the call from Lardo: Shitty is Jack's emergency contact, but he's in California for the trial, and Lardo has a gallery event downtown. Nothing she couldn't cancel should the need arise, but Eric is grateful for the excuse that will allow him to check on Jack as soon as possible.

Elli under Melanie's care, who accepted a last-minute babysitting call, Eric makes his way to the RIH and finds Jack's room.

The door is closed, voices quietly speaking on the other side. It's most likely that they haven't finished patching Jack up, his injuries too severe to treat back at the arena. Eric's not so much worried about the arm than he is about the head. Lord knows what a concussion can do to someone's brain, especially if it isn't that certain someone 's first head injury. The pain had been something, Eric remembers, along with the dizzy spells and nausea, and his injury was minor compared to what just happened.

"Well, you're not Shitty."

Eric's head flies up: Kent Parson is standing in front of him, snapback thrown over his wet hair, the corner of his Aces tee-shirt stuck in his jeans as if he dressed in a hurry. Ugh. That boy and his entrances.

He crosses his arms over his chest and only manages to say, "Parson," because anything else he wants to say right now wouldn't exactly be as polite.

"Eric, right?" Parson asks.

A nurse is coming through with some IV bags, so he steps closer to lean his back against the wall.

Eric's eyebrows fly up. "You remember my name?"

Bless his heart, it's been nine years. Is Parson that obsessed with Jack's friends?

"Nah, but Zimms won't shut up about you." Eric frowns. Really? "Cute kid, by the way," Parson adds.

Oh, right. He should at least be a little bit thankful. "Ah, yes, about that, thank you."

"You've been waiting a long time?" Parson nods towards the closed door.

"A few minutes, yes. I have no clue how much longer this might take."

A part of him wants Parson to use his celebrity card to get news on Jack's condition, but Parson, with another goal in mind, takes his phone out and composes a number.

It rings twice, and then: "Hey babe," Parson says. "You with Boski?"

Eric closes his eyes for a second. He's forgotten that Jack wasn't the only one injured in that game. Without two of their most prolific forwards and their goalie, the Falcs aren't set up for the best of playoffs. He can already imagine Jack's disappointment.

"Yeah, no, they're not letting us in the room yet."

And then, of all things, Parson switches to Russian. He speaks quickly, in a hushed tone that Eric would qualify as gentle, except that it's Kent Parson he's talking about.

He hears his name thrown in a few times and tries not to glare too much. Thankfully, the door opens a few seconds later, and a nurse lets them come through.

"Goodness, Jack!"

He crosses the room in three strides, and wraps Jack in a gentle hug, careful not to disturb his arm, resting in a sling against his chest.

"Bittle," Jack lets out against his hair, wrapping his good arm around Eric.

Jack sighs, a tiny thing of a sigh, as he lets his body melt against Eric's for a second. Or two.

"You scared us, mister," Eric says, as he steps away from Jack's embrace.

"Shit. Is Elli okay?"

"He is, don't worry about him. Are you , though?"

Now that he's up close, he can see that Jack's gaze looks haggard as if he can't focus on the things he's seeing.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Jack says, in the most unconvincing tone. "I won't—" He looks away,  blinks a few times. "I won't make it in time for the playoffs." He lifts his bandaged arm a few centimeters, a resigned look on his face.

"Oh, honey, I'm so sorry."

"Don't mind me interrupting," Parson says, clearing his throat as he steps forward, "this is like, cute as shit, but the guys are kind of waiting on an answer."

Jack sighs again, and this time, Eric doesn't even bother to hide his glare at Parson.

"It's dislocation and a labral tear," Jack says.

Parson grimaces. "Shit. Do you need surgery?"

Surgery?

"No. Not this time around. It's a good month of rehab and physio, though."

"What about your head?" Eric asks.

Jack hesitates for a moment. "It's not that bad."

"Jack."

"Just a small concussion. I'll be fine in a few days."

Small isn't the word the doctor uses when she comes back in the room to recap Jack's diagnosis before sending him home. Mild concussion, my ass. As if Eric is blind to the way Jack's jaw clenches when he thinks he's not looking.

"You know the drill," the doctor says, dotting a few last things on her pad. "No screens for at least forty-eight hours, and you'll need someone to check in on you every four hours tonight. I take it that Mr…" She checks her chart. "…Knight knows how it goes."

"Ah," Jack says, rubbing his good hand on the back of his neck. "Uh, yes, he does."

Parson clears his throat, just as Eric frowns at Jack.

"Very well," the doctor says, with a smile. "You're cleared."

Jack nods and thanks her, and stares at the floor for the minute it takes her to leave the room as if he'd like to disappear through it.

"So," Parson starts, eyes narrowed. "Where are you staying tonight?"

Jack sighs. As if they would have let him go away with this! "Could you ask Tater if I can take his guest room?"

"Sorry, bro, Boski's got dibs first. Alexei's with him."

Jack opens his mouth, about to say something, but Eric beats him to it. "You could stay with us if you want."

"Ah, uh, thanks. I don't want to impose, though, you've got enough on your plate like that. I'll just ask Smithy or Gbesy."

Eric crosses his arms over his chest, because seriously? Jack's trying to be polite, but it comes off as dismissive. Eric's not invalid either, he can watch out after his kid and be there for his friends, too. That boy, sometimes.

"It wouldn't be an imposition, Jack," he points out.

"Unlike staying with anyone on the team," Parson says. "They're about to leave for a roadie, I don't think they'll be delighted at watching over your sorry ass all night."

Eric gapes at him, but Jack laughs it off. "Ha, thanks Parse. I'll call Lucky, then."

"Lucky? The one who can't walk without crutches? You sure this is a good idea?"

"I'll be his legs and he'll be my arm," Jack says, with a feeble smile.

"Can't wait to see that," Parson sneers. "Is he supposed to sit on your shoulders so you can both go around the kitchen? I bet Anne-Marie will love having a second injured hockey player on her plate."

Jack groans. "What do you suggest, then?"

Eric opens his mouth — he doesn't know what Parson's getting at, but it's clear that he's making Jack feel worse than he currently is.

He doesn't miss the way Parson stares at Jack, and the way Jack stares back as if they're having a silent debate Eric isn't privy to.

It only lasts a few seconds before Jack rubs his good hand against his face. "Fuck off, Parse, seriously," he says, without much venom to it.

"Okay, that's enough," Eric says, stepping in. "You need to get some rest, or we'll be having this conversation all night. Just come with me, it's for one night, goodness, and Elli will be thrilled to see you in the morning, anyway."

"You know you'll have to wake me up every four hours, right?" Jack asks, still hesitating.

He rolls his eyes, fondly, hands on his hips. "As if I don't have any experience with monitoring babies overnight."

Parson snorts at that, and Jack's lips stretch into a small smile, the first one since Eric's got in the room. "All right, if you say so."

"Good," Parson says. He drops a hand on Eric's shoulder, and squeezes, with a pointed look at Jack. What the hell? "Glad that's settled." He checks his phone and takes his hand back (thank you very much) to tap a quick text. "I have to get back to Alex and Boski. Have fun, kids. Jack; don't be an ass."

Eric's not sure when he'll be able to stop gaping. Jack, instead, rolls his eyes, a slight grin on his face. "Whatever. Bye," he says, resigned, before lifting his head. "Ah, did we win, though?"

In front of the door, Parson hesitates, and that's enough of an answer. "Sorry. You're still ahead if that makes it better."

Eric still has no idea what they're talking about, but judging by the look on Jack's face, it does not.

 

*

 

They're in bed an hour later, having spent a good portion of that time debating who would take the couch.

Eric was never going to let Jack win this one: he's injured, lord, and Eric has developed skills for arguing with stubborn four-year-olds.

"Listen, Jack, you know me, and this is not a fight you're going to win," he had said before Jack caved in. "And you're getting tired. Just… take it."

"I don't want to kick you out of your own bed, you look like you could use the sleep, too." Eric had crossed his arms over his chest. You did not . He saw the moment Jack realized his mistake. "Not that I mean— Ah, fuck." He pressed his good hand over his eyes and sighed. "We could share. If you don't mind."

Eric puts his phone down on the night table, having set alarms throughout the night to wake Jack, and rolls on his back. It's peculiar, having someone in his bed — he hasn't shared this one before with anyone but a drunk Lardo, once — and it's even stranger that that person is Jack.

He swallows and reminds himself that he's slept beside his friends countless times. All platonically, of course. Considering he's had sex with Jack in the past, this shouldn't be weird… probably?

He's been lying there for a few minutes, conscious of the fact that Jack is awake too, before Jack coughs, trying to dissimulate a groan Eric heard perfectly well.

"Are you okay?" he asks, in a whisper.

"I'm fine."

He's a shit liar, really.

He turns on his side and stares at him. "Jack."

"I— It's my head. Hurts like hell. More than the times before when I got… Shit. I thought we might get it this time, but now, without Boski and Lucky… Câlisse. I'm getting old."

"Oh, Jack."

He shuffles closer to Jack until he can touch his head, petting away the wild hair at his temple. There's nothing he can say that will make Jack feel better. Nothing did, back when Eric got his concussion and couldn't make it to the end of the playoffs back at Samwell. And it's not like the stakes were this high.

The only thing he can do is listen, and be there for Jack. To try not to think about how he imagined this, just days ago, an easy, comfortable intimacy in bed with someone he knows like the inside of his pocket.

This is not it, though. It's just an interlude before he finds the real thing.

He wraps an arm around Jack and waits until his heaving chest calms down under his touch. There are a hundred things Jack isn't saying but Eric can imagine them: about the season, the playoffs, the Cup, the gnawing fear of not being enough, of never being enough as things are coming close to an end, Jack's body slowing down just when he needs to skate faster, harder, better. Eric knows it's a night like this that brings Jack to confront the inevitability that hockey has an end, and that there is a life to be lived after it. The first tick on a clock counting down to the moment he will lose hockey, the love of his life, just like Eric lost him all those years ago.

Jack's eyes are pale in the darkness of the room, and they shine at the corners, wet trails down his cheeks, his jaw, that Eric would like to swipe away with the pad of his thumb.

The voice in his head screams at him as he settles closer against Jack, wrapping himself around his body until Jack wiggles an arm under Eric's shoulder, bringing them even closer together.

It's what friends do, he reasons with the voice screaming at him. They fuss, they talk about the last game and the next, and they definitely don't kiss anything better.

"Sleep, Jack," he finally manages to say, because he can see the exhaustion and the medication kicking in.

Jack turns his head towards him. They're close. So close. "Try not to snore too much," he chuckles, faintly.

"I don't snore," he gasps.

He would know if he did. Lord, someone would have told him before.

Jack looks at the ceiling, a smile on his face. "Sure."

He narrows his eyes because that sounds like Coach when he agrees with Suzanne just to drop the matter. Just a bit. "I really don't."

He's about to reply when he notices that Jack's eyes are closed, his lips slightly parted, his breathing finally gentle and regular. Soon enough, he follows.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

It's nine in the morning by the time Jack joins them in the kitchen. It's the latest Eric's ever known Jack to sleep, but then again, he took another dose of painkillers in the middle of the night.

Eric's been up since six, woken by the sound of quick footsteps approaching the bedroom. He took a few minutes to explain the situation to Elli, to tell him that no, Jack does not have a robot arm but a sling instead (which is only slightly less cool on the scale of injuries) and that it is of the utmost importance not to disturb his sleep.

"Morning," Jack says, stepping into the kitchen.

His hair is a mess and there's a line from the pillow across his cheek, and it makes Eric want to hug him for a long time. He doesn't miss Jack's empty stare, eyes half-closed in the morning sunshine.

"Jaaaaack," Elli squeals, and runs over to squeeze his legs.

(Because "We can't be too loud this morning, sweetie," is a demand no child would ever understand.)

Jack smiles, although a bit painfully, and ruffles Elli's hair with his good hand. "Hey there, buddy." He looks up at Eric. "You're making breakfast?"

Eric smiles back. "Waffles. It's Sunday, so it's—"

"Nutella day!" Elli shouts like it's self-explanatory.

"That sounds awesome."

Jack sits down, and Eric goes to lift Elli on a stool as well before he turns to the coffee machine.

"How are you feeling?" Eric asks Jack.

"The shoulder's better." Jack shrugs. "The head not so much."

"I'm sorry."

"It'll take a few days. You know how it goes."

Sure, he does; they both know too well that this isn't Jack's first concussion, and he said it himself yesterday than it hurt more than before. Goodness, Eric doesn't wish retirement on Jack, but he'd rather not have him cause irretrievable damage to his body and mind either. Someone needs to take care of that boy.

"It was very scary?" Elli asks Jack, his voice small. "When he hit you?"

Jack looks up at Eric, a question written in his eyes, and Eric nods. He always tries to be as honest as possible with Elli.

"Yeah, it kinda was," Jack says. "The second time I fell, I was scared, because I know there was something wrong with my arm and my head."

"Was you hurting a lot?"

"I did when it happened, but now I'm okay, so that's good," he adds, with a feeble smile that makes Elli grin.

"Daddy said that it's scary but it's like when I fall on my bum when I skate and sometimes you have a bump but you're always okay in the end so that's not that scary and also Daddy said butt!"

"No," Jack gasps. "Did he really?"

He looks up at Eric again, laughter in his eyes like a secret between them, and just like that, everything is all right again.

 

*

 

Jack stays around.

For a day, and then another, and then a third.

As much as he put on a brave face the first morning, headaches are a bitch and Eric pretends not to notice when Jack stumbles, losing his balance here and there as he goes from one room to another. It doesn't take much to convince him to stay, since Jack isn't in a mood to argue in the first place. It gets a bit crowded, as Jack spends most of his time in the bedroom or on the sofa, not that Eric minds: his biggest worry is that either Elli will grow tired of being careful around Jack, or Jack will snap at Elli's outbursts of energy he gets throughout the day.

None of that happens, and the three of them cohabit with an easiness Eric wouldn't have suspected considering the context.

Jack grows moody because Jack is a silly man who refuses to be taken care of without being able to do anything in return. On day five, Eric catches him wincing while trying to do the dishes with one hand, and Jack retreats to the bedroom, deflated. It's late and Eric is tired, but he still gives Jack a good hour alone in there before he gets in bed as well. Because that's another thing they're doing without talking about it.

Still, Jack is too tired to fight, and that, above everything else, worries Eric. In a constant state of simply existing around the apartment, it's clear that Jack is truly, truly hurting.

And then, one morning, Jack takes Elli to school.

The harsh sunlight in the kitchen doesn't affect the slight smile on his face, and that night, he makes the table, does the dishes, and stumbles towards the bedroom exhausted but visibly happy with himself.

"The least I can do is help around," Jack says. "I'm not half-bad at babysitting. Coach Z, remember?" he adds, with a wink.

"Lord, that kid adores you."

It's true: Elli loves Jack, even when Jack is being his less-than-social self. The other day, as Elli had just come back from preschool, Eric had warned him about being careful drawing in the living room since Jack had fallen asleep on the couch, watching TV. Half-an-hour later, when Eric had gone to investigate, finding the silence suspicious, he found Elli snuggled under Jack's arm, the pair of them peacefully asleep. One thing that Elli loves more than loudly talking about everything in existence is cuddling, and Jack apparently seems happy to deliver.

A few days after Jack's head starts feeling better, he moves back out to his apartment and starts following the Falconers through their games and on roadies as well. Elli is a bit perturbed by this sudden change and Eric himself misses Jack's constant presence. His invitation for Jack to join them whenever he wants stands: Jack pops around for dinner, and even brings Elli to a game the following weekend. Eric can't go — there's still much to be done on the cookbook, and his deadline is approaching at speed, lord — but Elli tells him everything afterward, about how he got to meet the guys and go in a real locker room and speak with the woman who operates the Zamboni, a personal hero of his.

Time flies as it always does, and then it's the end of March when Jack shows up on a Sunday morning, beanie on and car keys in one hand, with a surprise for Elli they've both been planning for a while.

"Hey, Elli, guess where we're going today?" Jack asks, and Elli's head pops up from behind the couch, like one of those little savannah animals.

"Tourist day?"

"Kind of, yeah," Jack says. "We're going further than Providence, this time, though."

Eric grins. "Can you guess, sweetie?"

"I dunno, I dunno! Gimme a clue!"

"Okay," Jack says. "We're going to a place you like to draw a lot."

Elli gasps. "Lighthouse?"

"Yeah!"

"Daddy, 's that true?!"

"It is," Eric says, grinning.

It takes a while for them to get to the car, on the account that Elli's been running laps around the living room for the past five minutes while emitting the highest-pitched shriek known to man.

"Is it very far?" Elli asks once he's sat down and strapped in the kid’s seat.

"About an hour or so," Jack says, sitting down behind the wheel. His sling came off a few days ago, and even though he can't be back on the ice yet, he's allowed easy tasks like driving.

"Three Pokémon episodes," Eric translates because that's how Elli calculates any longer amount of time.

"Okay-dokay."

They've been on the road for five minutes and is Elli already halfway through the first snack Eric's planned for later when Jack asks, "Music?"

Eric laughs. "Are you sure?"

He's probably made him suffer enough with Beyoncé during their Samwell days, but Jack glances at him, a smile on his face like that's not a problem at all.

"I wanna croc rock!" Elli calls from the backseat.

"Croc rock?"

"Crocodile rock," Eric explains. Anything that has to do with animals is a big hit for Elli.

Jack nods. "Elton John. Great choice. I've got Bluetooth," he adds and sounds just a bit proud at that sudden upgrade in technology as if they're not sitting in a Tesla.

Great choice, indeed, but perhaps Jack regrets his words just a bit by the fourth time the song comes around, at Elli's demand.

 

*

 

They arrive at the lighthouse approximately after the thousandth "Are we there yet?", and Eric can see the exact moment Elli falls in love with the tall, imposing tower in front of them. He's pretty sure he had the same look in his eyes the first time he tasted pie, too.

There's no official tour or guide, so they are free to go around as they wish, Elli inspecting the outside of the lighthouse for long, long minutes while Eric stands in the cold. Jack, camera in hand, alternates by taking pictures of the landscape and of Elli as he places his little hands against the white stone of the tower, looking up at the light. They find a couple of tourists (who do not seem to recognize either Jack or Eric, thank goodness) to take a picture of the three of them standing on the cliff, the ocean, and the lighthouse behind them.

If Eric isn't as much in awe of the building as Elli, taking a day off feels great, and changing up their usual routine is even better. For the first time in a long while he feels entirely relaxed and something like frivolous, as Jack keeps cracking him up with horrible jokes.

By the time they get inside the lighthouse, Elli is asking a million of questions about every single object displayed or dent in the wall, and they try their best to explain it all with the few information boards around them.

Even more impressive is the round, iron staircase that curls right towards the top of the lighthouse.

Unsurprisingly, Elli tires out as they make it to the second landing. There’s still ten more to go.

"I can take him," Jack suggests.

Right. "With that shoulder of yours?"

"C'mon, it's not that bad."

"It's fine," Eric says as he picks Elli up. "I'll get my workout done for today."

Workout is a euphemism: it reminds him more of the brutal pace of Katya's morning trainings, with the added difficulty that if he topples, it's both him and Elli that are going down. Jack stays behind them, careful, and Eric steadies his right hand on the banister.

The ascension is slow, but Eric lets go of Elli for the last few steps and takes a moment to stretch his back. That boy is getting heavier and heavier every day.

He sighs at the sight of the door leading to the outside of the lighthouse. They've made it. He just hasn't anticipated a very small problem:

"Daddy," Elli whines, one hand tugging at Eric's jeans, the other holding the metal of the banister so tightly his knuckles are white. "Daddy I don't wanna go."

Eric gapes. "Why not?"

Elli is staring between the bars of the banister, an open view to the meters and meters they just escalated, the main room far away at the bottom.

"It's too high I'm gonna fall."

He's starting to cry, and Eric closes his eyes for a second. "Sweetheart, we came all this way, we have to see the view at least."

"No-oo!"

"Elliot!" he snaps, and of course it's not the right thing to do, because it makes Elli burst into tears.

Eric wants to sigh. Today was supposed to be uncomplicated. Maybe he could pretend to go outside and wait for Elli to follow, but the point is moot. He's not that kind of parent — he remembers too well the times when Suzanne would "leave" him behind in parking lots, and that's definitely not something he would do to his kid, how annoyed he is.

"Sweetheart, baby," he says, trying a gentler tone as he picks Elli up again. "Let's at least go through the door. I promise if you don't like it we'll go back inside."

Elli's arms tighten around his neck, as he hides his face in there, mumbling a desperate, "No!".

Eric glances at Jack, who offers a sorry smile and takes a step towards them. "Hey, buddy," he says, his voice low. "I know it's scary, but it's like the other scary thing we were talking about the other day, right? Sometimes things seem scarier than how they turn out to be, and we might miss on cool stuff if we don't try. And you're always going to be okay in the end, all right? Your Daddy's going to make sure of that, trust me."

Eric's eyes widen slightly but he redirects his attention towards Elli, bouncing him gently enough to soothe him a bit, and goes for the low hanging fruit. "Jack's right, there's nothing to be afraid of."

"Look, I'll go first, eh?" Jack says. "You'll see, it's perfectly safe."

But the moment Jack takes a step through the door, Elli starts wailing so hard it makes the few people outside turn their heads towards them.

"Don't gooo-oh-oooh."

Jack hurries back inside, confusion and panic written over his face as if he's missed something horrible happening to them in the last three seconds.

"Hey, hey," he says to Elli. "There's no need to cry, buddy."

"Daddy— Daddy says it's— okay to cry."

"Oh yeah," Jack amends instantly. "That's true. You sure you don't want to try it out?"

Through hiccups, Elli nods vigorously.

Eric kisses Elli's temple, and moves to a corner of the room, to let the other visitors access the door.

"Okay, okay, sweetheart. We don't have to go. Sorry ," he mouths, for Jack, because they came all this way and climbed all those stairs for… nothing.

"No, it's fine. Lighthouses are great from the outside, too."

Inexplicably, Jack plucks Elli's beanie from his head and replaces it with his own.

It falls over Elli's eyes, who squeals a quiet, "Hey!", his small hands lifting it until he can stare back at them again. "You put it!" he giggles, pointing at his own beanie.

"Me?" Jack says, with a gasp, but drops the small beanie on top of his head.

The way it forms a ridiculously small bell on top of his head makes Eric laugh along.

"Do I look good?" Jack asks, with a half-smile.

"You look silly," Elli laughs, just as Eric says, "Always."

Jack opens his mouth, seemingly at a loss for words, flush creeping on his cheeks, and it takes him a moment before he says, "Well, maybe I'll keep it, then."

Fifteen minutes later, they've safely made it to the ground, and they're chasing Elli around the lighthouse, wondering out loud where he is as if they can't hear manic giggling around the curve of the wall.

They decide in hushed whispers to split around the tower to catch Elli that way, but the kid is cleverer than them, because Eric ends up running head-first into Jack, and takes both of them to the ground, in a heap of laughter.

"Oh my god, your shoulder!" Eric realizes, far too late in his opinion as Jack stands back up and shakes the pain off.

"Eh, I'm fine. We still haven't caught Elli, though."

It takes them a few more minutes to finally catch Elli, and after a quick break to eat sandwiches on the beach swept by cold winds, they get back in the car, Jack behind the wheel again even though Eric can see his shoulder is getting stiff.

"Maybe you could try to nap a bit, sweetheart?" Eric asks Elli, who's still clinging on Jack's beanie in the back of the car.

They're well past his usual nap hour, and Eric can see that he's tired, but nap time isn't something Elli is ever willing to cooperate about.

"No. I wanna tell Jack a story."

"A story?" Jack asks, and Eric bites on his lip: Elli's stories are the funniest things he's ever heard. That child has way too much imagination.

"Yeah!"

"All right, let's hear it."

"It's a goldfish," Elli starts, "'cept that he's a lion too and one day he goes to the woods like Little Red Riding Hood and he ROARS!"

"Whoa, awesome. What happens next?"

Eric stifles a laugh.

"Thass' it." Elli shrugs. "The end."

There's a pause, and Eric can hear Jack's confusion. "So, he roars and that's the end of the story?"

"Yeah!"

"Okay," Jack says, visibly trying not to laugh. "That's a great story."

"I know! You tell one, now."

"Elliot," Eric warns.

"Please," Elli amends.

"Maybe Jack doesn't want to tell a story."

"Nah, it's fine," Jack says. "I can do that." He clears his throat and thinks for a second, eyes on the road. Then: "Once upon a time, far, far away, there was a little boy—"

"A boy!"

"Yeah, there was a little boy who lived in a lighthouse."

"A lighthouse! Like the one we just saw!"

"Exactly!" Jack says as if it's a pure coincidence or something.  "So, this little boy lived in the lighthouse with his many animal friends. He had a dog, a cat…"

Jack's gaze trails to the rear mirror, prompting Elli to complete.

"A duck!"

"A duck."

"A capybara!"

"A capybara, and…"

"A Bidoof!"

"All right," Jack chuckles. "The little boy had a dog, a cat, a duck, a capybara, and a Bidoof. They were all very good friends and they all helped the little boy tend the lighthouse. One day, there was a bad storm outside, so the little boy and all his animal friends were playing inside the lighthouse when they heard a noise."

"A noise?"

"Yes. It was a strange noise, very loud, and nothing they've ever heard before. Whooshhh. Whooshhhh."

Checking in the rearview mirror, Eric can see Elli's eyes widening. "What is it? Big wind?"

"They're not sure, exactly. It seems to be coming from above them, so they look up, but they can't see anything. But the noise keeps getting louder. Whooosh. Whoooosh. Instead of up, they look down, and they see a shadow, gliding over the ground."

"A shadow?"

"Yes, a shadow, appearing in time with the noise. Whooshh. Whooooosh."

Elli gasps and Eric straightens himself on the seat, smiling at how rapt he is himself listening to the story.

"It looks like it's coming from the top of the lighthouse, Dog says," and lord, Jack is doing the voices. It would make Elli laugh, except that he's finally dozing on the back seat. "What should we do? Duck asks. Maybe the bravest of us all should walk up the stairs, and go take a look. All the animal friends agree and decide that the little boy is the bravest of them all, except that the little boy isn't so sure of that. But he doesn't want to disappoint his animal friends, so he starts climbing the stairs. One step, two steps, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…"

Jack throws a look in the mirror again, and Eric cranks his head to the side to take a look at Elli, lax and asleep in his seat.

"Harshest critic. Just as it was getting interesting," Jack whispers, making Eric grin.

"That's an amazing story. Are you really making it up along as you go?"

"Yup. I thought it showed, I was really stalling for time, there."

"Best way to make him fall asleep, to be honest. Sorry about today, by the way," he adds. "It was a lovely idea, but kids are unpredictable, I guess."

"Eh, it's fine. He had fun in the end, that's the most important."

Eric smiles and lets his head against the headrest. "Well, in any case, thank you for today." It had, after all, been Jack's idea, and not something they could have done without a car. "It was a much-needed break."

As an answer, Jack turns his head to smile at him, and the moment stretches in time as Eric's heart does something complicated in his chest.

It couldn't have been that long, though, because Jack's gaze returns to the road in front of them soon enough. He rolls his bad shoulder — Eric definitely should have insisted on driving, ugh — and rests his hand on the console between them. It feels like an invitation, even though Eric knows it isn't Jack's intent. What if he were to take his hand, right now, and link their fingers together?

No — he has to stop thinking about this as if it is in the realm of possibilities. They tried it before, and it didn't work. There's no proof that it's something Jack would want in the first place. Jack's all about hockey right now, as he should be, and even though Eric knows Jack is bi, he can't help but torture himself with the idea that a retired Jack will nonetheless choose the wife and kids and house and Labrador like every other hockey player. They just have different trajectories, and Eric is grateful that Jack gets to be back in his life in the first place. What Eric needs is to find someone who will fit in his. And Elli's, of course.

His phone pings in his hand, and it's like the universe has heard his call:

(416) 285-2020: Hey Eric, it's Marco from the bakery. Can I take you out for dinner this week?

It takes him a moment, but he remembers the man who had flirted with him last week, during his shift at the bakery. Yet, he isn't sure what to answer: he did tell himself he wanted to start dating again, it's just that… Marco, really? The man seemed a bit uptight. Business boy in a tie and suit, clearly ready to take his coffee and leave as soon as possible until his eyes had landed on Eric. Why does he keep attracting Italian men, by the way? What's up with that?

He shifts on his seat. It's a bit uncomfortable, texting another man while he's sitting in Jack's car. That thought makes him swallow, hard.

Jack frowns. "Everything all right?"

"Yes, of course."

He offers a weak smile before his attention turns back to his phone. Marco might not exactly be Prince Charming, but agreeing to meet him would be a good way to get back into the dating world.

Eric: Sure!! 😊

When he looks up again, he notices that they're not far from home.

"Could you just drive for a bit more?" he asks Jack. "I don't want to wake him up yet, or he'll be cranky all evening," he adds, cocking his head towards Elli.

"No problem," Jack whispers back, and signals to turn at the next intersection.

 

*

 

Saturday night, Eric is privy to the most amusing conversation he has heard in a while.

"Why do you speak in English but you sing in French?" Elli had asked, sitting on the carpet in the living room, building some sort of monstrous Lego tower with Jack's help.

Eric had played along for a while before excusing himself to the kitchen, to work on dinner and yet another batch of strawberry jam, keeping an eye on them. From the kitchen, he can see Jack's head and shoulders over the sofa as he's kneeling on the floor, along with the mountain of Legos that is reaching an alarming height.

"That's because my mom speaks English," Jack says, "and my dad speaks French. So I learned both when I was growing up."

"Why?"

"Well, my mom is from the States, and my dad is from Québec."

"Why?"

"Why is my dad from Québec? He was born there, like me."

"Why?"

"Uh, I'm not sure how to answer that. Because my grandparents were living there? Do you want me to tell you more about Québec?"

"Yeah!"

"Well, it's a province of Canada, which is a country."

"Is that very far away?"

 Jack hesitates. "Not that much. A few hours by car."

"Canada speaks French?"

"Ha, not all of Canada, no, they mostly speak English. But people do speak French in Québec."

Eric can predict the next question.

"Why?"

(And he thought that Elli leaving the "no" phase would be a well-deserved break.)

"Because a long, long time ago, explorers came from France and from Great Britain. Those from France spoke French, and they settled in Québec, while those from Great Britain spoke English and they settled in the United States."

"A long long time ago when you was a kid?"

"No, way before that."

"Oooh," Elli gasps. " That's old."

Eric gapes at them, but Jack brushes it off with laughter. "It is."

"Is France very far away?" Elli asks.

"It is very far, yes."

"By car?"

"No, you'd have to take a plane to go there, or a boat. There's a lot of water between America and Europe."

"Like a pool?"

Jack chuckles. It's so fun to see how a kid's perceptions are skewed when they're small. Last weekend was an eternity ago, and there's only a pool between America and Europe.

"No," Jack says, "an ocean is a lot bigger than a pool. You remember when we went to the lighthouse, all that water in front of us?"

"Yeah!"

"That's the ocean! France would be on the other side of it."

"Why?"

"Well, it's on another continent."

"Why?"

It takes Jack a moment to answer. "You know when you're in the bath, and you have toys floating around? The Earth is like that. The continents are like toys, they float on the water, and that makes them move. But the continents are very, very big, so they move very slowly, over hundreds and hundreds of years. There was a time when America and Europe, where France is, were only one continent, but they started to move apart, and now there's an ocean between them."

"Why?"

"Okay, Elli," Eric says because this reminds him of the time when Elli was two and asking every single question in the book until Eric had to explain why this exact bug was crossing the road on the way to the park. It's not that he wants to censor Elli's curiosity, far from it, but his "whys" can get a bit… nonsensical. "I think Jack gave you a very good answer there."

"Ha, I don't mind," Jack says. "I need to put that history degree to use, at some point."

Eric chuckles. "If you say so."

He redirects his attention to the recipe he's scribbling on a sheet of paper, hearing Elli ask, "What's a history degree?" in the background when his phone pings.

Marco: Hey, are we still on about tonight? I'm at the restaurant but I don't see you.

He drops the phone with a gasp. "Shoot!"

He completely forgot about his date tonight. Shit. Shit! It's too late to call Melanie to babysit Elli, since it's exam week, and he already has a guest over. But getting stood up is frankly one of the worst things, and it's rude as hell—

"Everything all right?" Jack asks, from the living room.

"I, uh— I forgot I had a date, tonight," he says, sheepishly, because there is no way in hell Jack isn't judging him hard right now.

"Oh." Jack frowns. "Is it too late to join him?"

"I, well— lord, he's waiting at the restaurant. I'll have to cancel, there's no way Melanie can make it in time even if she could come over to watch over Elli. And you're here, so. I'll just cancel," he says, resigned, unlocking his phone.

"I could do it."

It takes Eric a moment to register's Jack words. "Do what?"

"Watch over Elli." Jack stands up, and crosses over to the kitchen, his gaze intense. "You should go if he's still there."

"No, goodness, thank you Jack, but that's not happening. You're my friend, not my babysitter. I'll reschedule, it'll be fine."

He doubts Marco would be interested in that after being stood up, but oh well.

Jack's frown only intensifies. "Seriously, Bittle, you've helped me out when I was injured, this is the least I could do for you."

Eric gapes. There is no need to repay him in any way or form — Jack's company is enough. It will always be enough.

He hesitates for a second too long, and Jack notices. He takes another step, closing the distance between them.

 "Go," he says. "We'll be fine. Food's nearly done, and we'll probably play Legos and watch Pokémon until he goes to sleep."

Eric clears his throat. "Are you sure? I mean, he's Italian, so he's probably used to people being late…", he tries for levity.

Jack quirks an eyebrow. "Italian? A real one, this time, I hope?"

"Ha-ha, very funny. Yes, a real one."

Jack bites on his lower lip, probably stifling another chirp. "Of course I'm sure. And I can finish the jam if you tell me how."

"Oh no, you're not touching my jam, mister," he teases. Not when he's so close to getting the recipe right.

Jack smiles. "Just go, Bittle. We'll be fine."

"All right, all right, if you're sure," he says, defeated. "I have to get ready— oh my god, I'm so late."

He quickly sends a quick apology to Marco for his delay, before he steps into the bathroom. He lets himself have five minutes to get ready, but he puts on his nicest, light pink shirt, and quickly arranges his hair. It'll have to do for now, since there's no time for anything else, but it doesn't stop Elli from gasping as Eric steps out of the bathroom. Behind him, Jack stands, an unreadable expression on his face.

"Daddy! You look so pretty!"

"Aw, thank you, sweetheart." He bends down, engulfing Elli in a hug, before he boops his nose. "Now, you be a good boy okay? You listen to Jack and you do what he says?"

"Yeah! We gonna build a lighthouse with Lego, Jack says!"

"That's great! Have fun, baby."

Eric stands back up and goes to Jack for a quick hug. "Thank you," he says again. "Really."

He's going to bake him, like, a hundred pies when he gets back.

"You're welcome. Go, now, or you'll be late."

"I'm already late," he says, stepping through the door.

Elli's starting to get tears in his eyes. Jack catches on that and picks him up as Elli waves to Eric. "Bye-bye, Daddy."

Shaking his head, Eric comes back inside for a quick kiss on top of Elli's head.

"Be good," he says. "I'll see you in the morning."

 

*

 

Half-an-hour into the actual date, Eric wonders why he bothered in the first place.

Unlike Matt, who never cared about the abstract notion of time, it's clear that Marco is another type of Italian. He made a whole show of being displeased against Eric's effusive apologies and kept being snide about it during the conversation. Then, it became all about Marco, his incredibly boring desk job, and the thousand problems he faces with his asshole colleagues, who don't seem that asshole-ish from Eric's point of view considering who they're working with.

It's not all bad. Marco has a nice smile and they talk for a whole ten minutes about Italy. Eric mentions the time he went there with Matt for a week and Marco redirects that conversation about his childhood in Milan and isn't American fashion so boring when you know how they do things in Europe?

They're halfway through dinner (thank God) when Eric's phone, which he has left on the table, pings.

"Do you mind?" he asks because he would never be that impolite but it might be about Elli.

"Go ahead," Marco says, picking up his wine glass.

With a quick look, he reads the text appearing on his screen.

Jack: Dinner's done and eaten. We're watching a documentary about capybaras, now. :-)

Eric smiles. Are they doing documentaries on Pokémons, now? Is that a thing?

"Everything okay?" Marco asks, curious.

"Yes, sorry. It's just that I've left my kid with a friend and—"

"You have a child?"

"I— uh, yes?" Didn't he mention that back at the bakery? Lord, he didn't, did he? "You, uh, you seem surprised?"

"No, it's just that…" Marco frowns. "Well, you're young. And, uh, aren't you gay?"

It's Eric's turn to stare. Wonderful. He's on a date with that type of guy. He'd like to say that, no, he's bi, and that Elli's his biological kid just to see where this would go because he assumes it wouldn't be in a nice direction. He doesn't want to make a scene at the restaurant, though.

"I am," he simply replies.

Marco shifts on his chair, uncomfortable, but doesn't push it. Well, he won't be called back in a few days. Not that Eric is desperate enough to go on a second date with him anyway.

"Okay. It's just, surprising, that's all," Marco says. He takes a moment, and then, inevitably: "Makes me think about that time when Tina from HR said that—"

Eric tunes out, not even bothering to pretend to show he cares about what Tina from HR said two weeks ago, anger still simmering low in his guts.

What's up with men balking every time he mentions Elli? Not everybody wants to have kids or date someone who has them, of course, but must it always come with a frustrating mix of surprise and condescension?

It's fucked up. As if he isn't masculine enough to be a father to someone, to fully assume that role without a second person by his side. Or is it because it implies that he must have had sex with a woman at some point? Lord, Eric is as gay as it gets, but at least he isn't so goddamn insecure about it. As if you're less queer if you've explored your orientation. A load of biphobic bullshit, bro, Shitty would say.

It's always the same thing: the men around him only seem interested as long as they think he's some sort of blank slate, waiting for them to arrive and be seduced and then start a family on their own terms. It's frustrating as hell. He knows what he looks like, how he dresses, what image he gives with his mannerisms, his baking, but it's not a reason to consider him less than he is. Oh, you know lots about hockey? That's cute. Did you play? Aw, but you're tiny for hockey. You mean as a kid, right? Surely you don't play anymore? You bake? That's great, I never opened a cookbook and wouldn't if my life were on the line! Bet you would look great in my kitchen, wink-wink.

He just really wants someone who gets him fully. Who sees him for who he is, and all of what he is. He wants to be his partner's equal, whether he's kicking ass at hockey or dancing on Bey's music while baking in the kitchen. Someone who will be a father to Elli, in time, who will love him unconditionally and without a second thought about biology. Is that too damn much to ask?

His phone pings with a notification, and he's brought back to the present moment, his eyes on Marco's moving lips without registering a word of what he's saying. Not that Marco would notice or mind.

Slowly, Eric unlocks his phone, and stares at Jack's latest message: it's a selfie (lord, Jack Zimmermann taking selfies) of Jack lying down on the couch, Elli spread out on his chest, eyes closed, a fist clenched in the front of Jack's tee-shirt as he's very clearly drooling on him. The upper corner of the picture cuts just above Jack's jaw, showing his victorious smirk.

Jack: Little one's out. 1-0 for me. :-)

It hits Eric with so much force and speed that the room around him disappears.

Why is he searching?

He stands up. Clears his throat.

"Something wrong?" Marco asks.

Why, on Earth, is he searching?

"No, yes— my kid— my friend—" He shakes his head, throws a twenty on the table. "Sorry. Gotta go."

It's raining outside and he hasn't brought an umbrella. It's a twenty-minute walk from the restaurant to his apartment, but he can run.

He runs.

He makes it in ten minutes, and jumps up the stairs, two by two until he reaches the door of his apartment.

It's locked. He hasn't got his key — it's in a pocket, maybe, or maybe he forgot at the restaurant, or maybe at home—

He knocks.

Again. And again.

Jack opens the door after the third time, worry written all over his face, worry that increases when he sees Eric standing there, like a panting madman who's soaked through after having run a mile in the rain.

He can only stare at Jack. If Jack— If Jack wants it as well…

"Bittle," Jack asks, hand still on the door, in shock. "Something wrong?"

Why, why on Earth is he searching so far, when the answer's waiting at home, putting his child to sleep?

"It's you."

Jack's eyes widen. "Yeah, uh, yeah, it's me. I told you I would stay? Did something happen?"

Oh, you beautiful dork. "No, I mean, it's always been you, Jack."

He sees it, the moment it clicks in Jack's mind, because his face does a funny thing Eric can't quite explain in words, and it only lasts a second because he throws his arms around Jack's shoulders and presses their lips together.

And Jack kisses back, fiercely.

Oh. This boy.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The fierceness with which Jack kisses him back makes Eric gasp because it can only mean one thing.

"I— Jack," he breathes out, pressing their foreheads together.

Jack's eyes are so wide that Eric could get lost in them if it weren't for Jack's gentle hands, on both sides of his face, anchoring him into the present moment.

Jack's mouth drops open as if shocked at his own actions but even then, it takes him a moment. "Bittle."

Eric licks his lower lip, gaze unwavering. "Jack— lord— for how long?"

Jack blinks. "I— since you showed up at that game."

Tears prickle at the back of his eyes. They have denied each other for so long. "We're idiots."

"You?" Jack whispers.

"It never really stopped."

Jack claims his mouth again, wrapping his arms around him, and Eric can't help but melt against him. It feels at once too good to be true and just about eight years late. Jack wants this too. Jack wants him.

Jack's lips are warm and insistent and the kiss is just a bit desperate, frantic like their first-ever, all those years ago, which had been all about nervous touches and teeth clinking together. They've gotten better at it — Jack had been his first, after all — and the thought makes him smile as he nips at Jack's full, lower lip.

Still, it's like he's twenty again, with two hands too many to know what to do with them, where to place them on Jack's body. There are just too many possibilities and so many years to catch up to.

Jack's ass is probably a good place to start, though.

Eric slides his hands down to tuck them in the back pockets of Jack's jeans, just as Jack's hands come to rest on either side of his neck, his collarbones, a silent question as his thumb drags down the collar of his soaked shirt.

Eric deepens the kiss, hoping Jack will get the hint, because goodness, if he doesn't get in Jack's pants right this minute—

Clang!

He wasn't aware they had backed away into the kitchen until Jack collides with one of the stools, which nearly takes him on the floor as well but Eric yanks on his waist at the last second, pulling him back into his embrace.

"Ah— câlisse," Jack lets out, pushing the stool out of the way with a blind hand behind his back.

Eric chuckles, and it clashes with the kiss Jack is trying to steal before he settles on the corner of Eric's mouth.

Running a hand through Jack's hair, Eric closes his eyes and lets himself feel: Jack's stubble is prickly against his skin as Jack travels his lips down Eric's neck. Then, a hint of teeth at that spot under his jaw Jack discovered all those years ago (he remembered, ridiculous man) and oh— if that doesn't go right to his cock.

"Jack," he lets out, his hands blindly going for Jack's waist, who hums in answer.

He grabs onto the hem of Jack's t-shirt and lifts it until Jack has to take a step back to pull it over his head and throw it on the floor in a single movement.

Oh god, so much skin.

Chest.

Abs.

Jack barely lets him stare, pressing their bodies together once more, walking Eric backward towards the living room, every step accompanied with urgent kisses.

"Yeah?" Jack breathes out, his hands gently tugging his shirt out of his pants, and Eric knows exactly what he's asking.

He grins and shakes his coat off his shoulders. God, he wants this more than anything else. "Yeah."

He's sure for a second that Jack will throw him on the couch and have him here and now, but instead, Jack presses their foreheads together, most half-open, at a loss for words again. "Bitty."

There is something so adoring in Jack's gaze that it makes his heart skip a beat — had it been there all along? Or is Jack letting himself show now that he can?

"Oh, Jack, I know." He can't believe it either.

He wraps his arms around Jack's neck and climbs on his toes to kiss him again, pushing his tongue in Jack's mouth, and it's like the previous moment hasn't happened, considering the force with which Jack wraps his arm around him, nearly lifting him off the floor.

It takes a minute for Eric's shirt to come off, giggling in each other's mouths as their uncoordinated hands keep bumping together until enough buttons are undone and Eric can pull it over his head, and then it's skin against skin. His chest is cold against Jack's, a bit wet from his soaked shirt, and the contrast makes Eric shiver.

"Ugh, I'm freezing."

He's not sure Jack registers his words — a frown on his face, he's trying to pull down Eric's pants with great difficulty, considering how much they're clinging to his skin.

"I'll warm you up," Jack says, and it's so bad that Eric makes him come up again and kisses him for it.

The back of Jack's knees hit the sofa, and they topple over, still laughing, but Eric doesn't miss the way Jack winces when his shoulder hits the cushioned surface.

"Watch out— your shoulder—" he mumbles against Jack's mouth, spreading on top of him while avoiding his bad side.

"Fuck my shoulder," Jack says because of course, he would. Still, Eric makes the mental note to watch out for it.

He wiggles a bit, kicking his pants off his legs and then onto the floor. Jack might be the human incarnation of a space heater but Eric's still trembling, both from need and from the cold. Jack must have noticed, because he rubs Eric's arms before he slips his hands down his back and under the band of his boxers, kneading his ass, bringing them flush together.

"Oh lord—"

He can't help but grind down against Jack's abs, his thigh falling in place against where Jack is hard and wanting.

Jack wants him. Jack wants him, Eric Bittle, of all people. Jack is hard for him. God.

He slips a hand down and finds Jack's erection through his jeans, swallowing the ungodly sound Jack makes as he presses his palm against it.

"Bits, fuck—" he gasps, working Eric's boxers down until his erection comes free with a slap against his belly. "Bitty—"

"Let me, let me," Eric says and stands back up to pull his underwear off.

Lord, he feels exposed for a second there, naked and aroused in the middle of his living room — it's not like he's fully maintained the body he had back in his Samwell days — but from the way Jack's gaze drags up and down his body… Well, the boy looks like he's just won the lottery.

It feels even truer the other way around, from the persistent flush on Jack's cheeks, his messy hair and his lips, swollen pink from kissing. Oh, fuck.

He lifts one leg and tucks his knee between Jack and the back of the couch, and hooks two fingers in front of Jack's jeans, pulling at the band. "Off," he says, with a smirk.

They have to shuffle around a bit, but the moment Jack's clothes are off, it gets blurry in the most heavenly way: naked body against naked body, hands everywhere at once. Jack's heavy cock is leaking against his belly, making Eric's mouth water. He'd try something more elaborate if his mind wasn't dizzy with the need to stay as close as possible to Jack as if there's a possibility that all of this is only a dream that would end abruptly if he let go of him. There is nothing wrong with this — on the contrary, considering the way arousal pulses painfully low in his stomach the moment his cock aligns with Jack, it'll be over sooner than he'd like.

He licks the palm of his hand and drops it between them, fingers closing on Jack's dick. Jesus. He almost forgot. It's not like size ever mattered in Eric choosing a partner, but a boy can be appreciative, and Jack is all in proportion.

 He strokes once, twice, "Tell me—"

Jack's eyes squeeze shut. "—so fucking good, Bits."

He'll take it — he places a kiss on Jack's trembling lips, before shifting his attention to his jaw, his neck. He might be leaving a mark there, but he's too far gone to care.

He hears the distinct noise of Jack spitting, and a second later, Jack's wet hand closes around his cock, fingers so lightly curled around him that his jaw goes slack in the crook of Jack's neck.

It's like Jack is everywhere at once, and it's nearly overwhelming as if the world has centered around them, around this exact moment, leaving everything else a distant blur.

Nothing else matters, apart from the distant voice at the back of his head telling him that Jack wants this too, Jack is in love with him, after eight years still. This time won't have to be the last, not when it feels like standing on a cliff, at the very edge of a future with Jack. Exhilarating and just a bit scary too.

It's messy and uncoordinated but Eric wouldn't have it any other way as he clings onto Jack, the couch squeaking against the floor. He tries to remember to stay quiet but he's sure a moan slips here and there, and lord, he's close, he's so close—

"Bits," Jack pants, his fist flying over Eric's dick. "Oh fuck."

He comes with Jack's mouth on his, stifling his cry, his cock pulsing between them as Jack's fist flies over it.

It's so intense it blinds him for a moment or two, and when he comes back down from the high, Jack is grinding his cock against him, smearing Eric's come all over his belly, the couch, scooting on the floor, now.

"Jack, Jack."

"Bittle."

Jack comes with Eric's hands on his sides, panting in his ear, and it's so intense it seems like the world is tipping one way — seems , until Jack's back hits the floor, Eric on top of him, the fall cutting his breath.

"Câ-lisse!" Jack shouts, a hand flying at his shoulder, and Eric rolls off him in the same movement.

"Oh my god, your shoulder!"

"No," Jack groans, sitting up. He passes a hand in his back, and a piece of plastic falls to the floor with a soft clink Eric instantly recognizes. "Lego."

"That's even worse!" Jack twists to show him his back, the red imprint of the Lego persisting, beside which Eric presses his fingers. "Aw, honey, that's bound to bruise."

"S'okay," Jack says, and leans in to kiss him, softly, still panting a bit. "I think I broke your couch."

Eric throws a look at it: one of its feet has broken in half and the upper part still attached to the couch has cut through and ripped the leather as they crashed.

"Well," Eric says, chasing Jack's lips, "I say it was worth it."

It's something he'll worry about later. For now, Jack's hands are gentle on his sides, his waist, as they kiss without hurry. Until…

"Daddy?"

"Oh my god."

His first instinct is to shove Jack to the ground — back against the Legos, ouch — just as he reaches for the throw on the now-dead couch. He jumps up on his feet, wrapping himself in it, and there's Elli, a small shadow standing near the end of the hallway, staring at him, eyes narrow. From this angle, the couch and side table should hide Jack fairly well, thank god.

"Elli! Why aren't you sleeping?" he asks. His voice is two octaves higher than usual.

"There was a big noise. Like thunder."

He clears his throat. "Oh, no, it's nothing like that, sweetheart. Jack and I were… playing, and we broke the couch. But everything's all right, I promise."

"Mmmmkay," Elli answers, sounding a bit irritated. "You having a sleepover?"

"Yes!"

From the corner of his eyes, he can see Jack staring right back at him, eyebrows raised. Oh, God, Eric can't lose it now.

"Okay, well, can y’all be more quiet, please?" Elli says. "Some people are trying to sleep here," he adds, and it sounds so directly out of Eric's mouth that it makes Jack wheeze.

Eric nudges him with the tip of his foot.

"I promise we'll be quiet now. Go back to bed, sweetheart."

Elli looks dubious, but says, "G'night, Daddy."

"Good night, Elliot."

It's only when the small footsteps fade down the corridor, and that he hears the distinct sound of a door closing that Eric sighs with relief.

He extends his hand to pull Jack back up on his feet. "Goodness. We're never doing that out here again."

Jack winces before he links their fingers together. "Sorry." The way his hand slots with Eric's is easy as if they had done this a thousand times already. "You think he saw me?"

"I don't think so." He lifts himself on the tip of his toes, to kiss Jack again. "Stay the night?

"Yeah, okay."

"Then to bed with you, mister. I'll just check on Elli if you don't mind."

"Okay," Jack repeats, although the kiss continues for a minute or two, neither of them inclined to part. "Okay, go ."

Eric chuckles, and lets go.

He makes it quick, just checking that Elli is indeed asleep, and then goes to the bathroom to clean himself a bit. Once he steps into the bedroom, he can't even hide the grin that creeps on his face at the sight of Jack in his bed. This is real.

Jack smiles back and lifts the duvet as Eric gets in, tucking himself against Jack's warm body. Hmm. Comfy.

"He sleeping?" Jack asks, in a whisper.

"Dead to the world."

They make out, lazily, Eric's brain still quietly buzzing from the aftermath of his orgasm. He doesn't want to think about anything but the fact that Jack is here, naked in his bed, but Jack seems to have other plans.

"We should talk," Jack says, softly, as their lips part.

Eric rolls on his back and sighs. "Should we?"

It's the mature thing to do, of course, but he'd rather hope they would continue with the mindless sex and making out. Talking is complicated and messy, and the specifics of their lives, their schedules, their goals, even more so. He just wants to enjoy the dream as long as he can. It feels fragile enough like that.

"Bitty," Jack says, propping himself on his elbows, and Eric can hear that fragility in his voice, in the careful way he looks at him. "I… really want this to work out. Unless… Was this just for tonight?"

Eric's throat goes dry at the thought: they're finally together again, and he'd rather have it for longer than a single night, unlike last time. Then again, for that to happen, they do need to talk about it.

"Jack, no," he says, quickly. "Unless that's what you want?"

Please say no. Please say no.

"I— Jesus, Bitty, I love you."

It's so raw, a non sequitur that makes Eric close his eyes for a second. He never thought he'd get this. He was content with Jack being his friend, imposing limits on what he thought was possible when, in fact, Jack had been in love with him all this time.

"Hey, hey," Jack whispers, a panicked edge on his voice, and it's only when a thumb sweeps over Eric's cheek that he's realized he's been crying.

His eyes fly open just as Jack brings him back against his chest, arms circling his body, rocking him a bit.

"Oh, Lord, I'm sorry— I didn't mean to—"

Can he please stop crying on Jack every time he interacts with him? It's terribly unsexy. A wonder Jack hasn't run away yet.

"It's okay, it's okay, I— uh—"

"Oh my god," Eric gasps, as Jack's tone turns awkward, "you silly man, of course, I love you too! I'm crying because I love you so much, goodness."

Jack's frown smooths out a bit. "Oh, uh… Good. I'm glad." He pauses. "Not that you're crying, obviously…"

Looking outright pained, Jack crunches his eyes shut, and mouthes three distinct syllables that most likely form a swear.

Oh, God. Oh, God. Eric snorts, unable to hide away his laughter. He's in love with the sweetest, handsomest, silliest boy on this planet. And however much of an awkward dork Jack manages to be, it's just that much more charming.

"Bits?" Jack asks, sounding more concerned than ever, considering Eric just went straight up from crying to wheezing.

"No, no, it's— C'mere," he says, and sits up a bit, just enough to find Jack's lips again. "I love you."

It's the honest-to-God truth. It's always been there, and it will always be there, whatever happens between them. It's a part of him, now, even though he had to put it away for a very long time, like something precious hidden in a small box he gets to rediscover years later. It's not I am happy that you are happy, anymore, it's I am happy I can make you happy. And Eric plans on doing just that.

He needs to clarify something, though. "Why didn't you say anything before?"

Their foreheads pressed together, Jack sighs. "I don't know. I guess I felt lucky enough to have you back as a friend. And you have a life, a kid, I'm just…"

"The best hockey player in the NHL, with thousands of admiring fans that would do anything to date you not to mind a random baker with a kid."

“Random? You’re my best friend.” Jack's mouth falls half-open, a frown on his face. "Were you really thinking that?"

Eric bites on his lower lip and cocks his head to the side.

"We're idiots."

He laughs and presses a kiss to the corner of Jack's mouth. "We are. Maybe we haven't changed that much."

"All this time and we could have—"

"I don't care," Eric says. "You're here now. Goodness, I'm ridiculously happy about that."

Jack kisses him, leaning back until they're both lying back on the bed.

"So, we're doing this," Jack says, a bit breathless, once they part. "Shit. I don't… I don't want to fuck this up."

In the darkness of the room, his voice sounds small, unsure. It's also not something that 2015-Jack would have ever admitted, and Eric loves him only more for it.

"Oh, honey." Jack's head resting on his bicep, Eric curls his hand to gently run his fingers through Jack's hair. "Don't mind what I just said, we're not in college anymore. Last time is not repeating itself, not if we're smart about it."

Jack settles against him, curling an arm over his chest. "Tell me what you want, then?" Eric quirks an eyebrow, and Jack snorts. "What? I've learned some things."

What does Eric want? He wants Jack, forever. It's as simple as that, though, as they both know, more so in theory than in practice. But so many things have changed since last time. They've both been in relationships, they experienced the world single and in couple, and as a parent in Eric's case. And now they get to have this, together, for good if they play it right. And Eric knows it'll work — Jack is trying so hard, he has been, ever since he showed up at the arena. And Eric can recognize that they've both grown. Enough to make this feel right. Easy, even.

It's not a discussion to bring up on the first night, though. Pressure was what undid them in the first place, and Eric isn't making that mistake again.

"I'd like…" Lord. As much as he's convinced, what if Jack doesn't want the same? Maybe Jack should have gone first. But then, Eric is the one with the kid. "I guess I'm thinking long term, here," he admits. "We're not twenty anymore." (Jack snorts — okay, Eric is twenty-eight, but still.) "Hush, you. I know this can work. I want… I want you. I want you to be involved… in my life, and, lord, in Elli's life too, of course. If you want it too."

He bites on his lower lip as he realizes the one opinion they aren't considering right now is Elli's. It's always been him and Eric, and even though Jack has slowly been incorporated more and more in their lives, it's not the same as actually dating the man. What if Elli isn't happy? What if he feels betrayed by his own father? Elli loves Jack, he does, but what if he thinks that Eric is choosing someone else over him? Lord knows that's not true, but Elli's four.

Jack's arm tightens around him as if hearing his thoughts. "Of course I do. To be there for you and him. He's an amazing kid."

"He loves you, I know he does, but—"

"It's a big change. I know. I get it."

Eric licks his lips. "Maybe… Maybe we should take things slowly." Jack lifts his head, frowning, and Eric laughs. "I don't mean that," he says, indicating their naked, tangled bodies with a wave of his hand. "I mean… Oh, I don't know. I don't want him to think that I love him less, that I'm paying less attention or anything like that, right?"

He doesn't even know how to break the news to him, but that's a problem for tomorrow-Eric.

"Of course not. Though I doubt he will, he's a clever kid."

"He's an emotional kid," Eric says before he remembers himself: he doesn't want to freak Jack out. "I'm not doubting this, I do want you to be around. And lord knows Elli adores you, but…"

Jack nods. "You have your life with him. We'll go at your rhythm, okay? We'll take the time he needs. It's a big adjustment, I don't mind."

He wiggles a bit, turning to face Jack. "You sure?"

"Of course. All things worthwhile take time."

Eric stares at him. Is he understanding this right? Is Jack saying what Eric thinks he's saying? "What do you want, Jack?"

With a slight smile, Jack rolls on his side. His eyes are so pale in the darkness of the room.

"I want you," he says, in a fierce whisper, "I want to be involved. We can take it slow, but— I want to be there for you and Elli. Help you out when you need it. I'll have to leave for the playoffs, but when I'm home I can take him to school. Cook. Stuff like that. And… I want to date you. Go places with you and Elli. Take you out at night when he's sleeping. If… If that's something you want, too?"

Eric giggles. Lord, Jack's not going to learn much dating Eric other than the value of sweet, sweet sleep. But a boy can dream. "Are you saying you're going to woo me?"

"Mmmh, yeah?"

"Well, I hope you're ready to put on your best game, I ain't that easy."

Jack quirks an eyebrow at him. "I'm literally in your bed right now. You kind of threw yourself at me back there."

He looks ridiculously pleased with that.

Eric bats a hand at him, playfully. "Careful, Mr Zimmermann, or you won't stay in that bed of mine for long. I have a couch."

"I broke your couch."

"Oh, lord, forgot about that."

That's a thing he didn't need.

"I'll get you a new one," Jack says.

Eric rolls his eyes. "You don't have to. Both of us were involved in the… couch breaking."

"Ha, technically, I was the one doing most of the dangerous couch action. Hence why I'm offering."

He snorts. "Dangerous couch action?"

"One might even say not safe for work."

"Oh, no," Eric wheezes, "you're the worst."

Jack finds his lips, and damned be whatever they were talking about.

"I want that too, by the way," he whispers to Jack when he gets his breathing back under control. "What about everyone else, though?"

Because that's a thing to consider, whether they want it or not.

Jack sighs. "I don't want to hide," he says, convinced. "I'm out, so there's no reason to, but… People will be curious. It'll get intense."

Paparazzi know no bounds, not even when there's a child involved, Eric remembers it too well. Perhaps the novelty will have died down a bit, though, since Jack isn't the first out NHLer in a queer relationship, not after Parson and Mashkov. But then, Jack's always had that extra spotlight on him. Whatever they do, they will be under scrutiny, Elli included, but Eric's got good faith they'll get through it together.

"I want to show you off," Jack says, tightening his arm around Eric. "I really do. Eventually. But I'd also like to enjoy the quiet while we have it?"

"Agreed. Casual, then? Let's do our own thing and let them catch up?"

Like all mildly-famous heterosexual couples slowly coming together under the public eye. It's a good idea: they won't have the pressure to release some kind of statement as their relationship is just beginning to happen, and a casual reveal might contribute to people understanding that they're in a relationship like any other, gay or not. Unless their little secret gets discovered in 1.2 seconds, which wouldn't be surprising in today's world.

Eric's fine being more private for now — there are friends and family to talk to first, and they are supposed to take things slow for Elli's sake. Though he knows that, unlike a certain someone, he'll eventually want to pepper his Instagram with Jack as he did with Elli. He did bag himself the best-looking player in the NHL, he should be allowed to brag about it a bit, thank you very much.

"I like the sound of that," Jack says.

Eric grins. "Good."

The second round is nothing like the first: gentle, slow, exploratory touches here and there. Eric takes his time, rediscovering the body he once knew well, taking into account the small changes that happened over time. There are a few scars here and there, quite a bit more body hair, and a few other details Jack seems to be displeased about until Eric kisses them one by one to show him how he still is the most gorgeous man on this Earth. The phrase "fine wine" might even have been pronounced.

Then it's Eric's turn, a gasping mess against his pillow, learning all over again how it is to let go of himself in another man's arms, to be taken care of again after all this time. It's so good when he comes, tingles running down his feet, and he feels like he could sleep for the next hundred years.

He tells Jack so, after they're done, as Jack gently takes the time to clean him once more.

"Good. You deserve it."

"You forget the little devil that's going to wake me up at six."

Jack's lips find their way against his forehead. "I'll take care of that."

He lifts his head. "Seriously?"

"Yeah." Jack smiles. "I'll make him breakfast and all, you get some sleep."

"Lord, be careful what you wish for, or I'll like it too much and keep you for good."

Jack's chuckle is the last thing he hears before falling asleep, and it sounds just like he wouldn't mind too much.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

It’s 6:00 on the clock and a pair of small feet are running down the hallway. It's the same soundtrack as every morning, and Eric grumbles against his pillow before the inevitable small bomb crashes in his bed.

But this morning isn't like all mornings, because when he turns on his back and stretches, the back of his wrist slaps a vast expanse of skin. The slow turn of the doorknob isn't followed by the creaky opening of the door but rather sticks with a click against the lock.

Eric frowns.

"Daddy?"

A press of lips against his brow, followed by the words, "Sleep. I'll get him."

Memory floods back in and he can't fight the smile growing on his face.

"Thank you, honey," he mumbles, before smashing his face back against the pillow, where it belongs.

This. Is. The. Best. Day. Of. His. Life.

Okay, maybe second best after Elli's birth, the day he officially adopted him, and all that, but still.

He hears Jack shuffling back in his jeans (thank the lord he had the presence of mind to gather their clothes yesterday) before Jack steps out of the room.

"Hey, buddy. Did you sleep well?"

"Jack! Yeah! Thank you! Did you have a nice sleepover with Daddy?"

"Ha, yes, we did. He's going to sleep for a bit more, though."

"Okay-dokay. D'you know how to make cereals?"

"I'm sure we'll manage if you show me where it is."

Eric steps out of the bathroom half an hour later. He hasn't really slept, but just lying in bed for a few more minutes felt great.

"Daddyyyy!" Elli squeals at the sight of him, abandoning his cereal to come and squeeze Eric's legs.

He picks him up and blows a raspberry on his round cheek, making Elli laugh.

"I'm sorry we woke you up last night, sweetheart," he says. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yeah!" Elli nods vigorously. "And the couch is really really broken and Jack says that if you say it's okay then we can do a fort with it and play since there is no school today on the account that it's Sunday!"

Eric laughs and throws a look at the couch: ugh, it really looks unsalvageable.

"We'll see, sweetie. Breakfast first, then you have ballet, remember?"

"Oh, okay."

He lets Elli back down on the stool and accepts the cup of coffee Jack seems to have produced from thin air. He's wearing his clothes from yesterday but still looks gorgeous in the morning light, with his messy hair, five o'clock shadow, and a glimmer in his eyes Eric is sure he has in his own.

They share a private smile, for a moment — too bad he didn't actually take a moment to kiss Jack a proper hello this morning — before Eric's attention is brought back to Elli's summary of the very serious conversation Jack and he were having about different types of Pokémons.

Humming at all the proper moments to encourage Elli's tale about ghost (?) Pokémons, Eric turns towards the fridge. He's got dinner figured out, but he didn't take Jack into account when he had planned for lunch and doesn't have enough leftovers for the three of them. He should probably make something from scratch. Waffles? That's an idea — he's meant to try that raspberry coulis he's working on for the book.

"That's fascinating, sweetie," he tells Elli, before he shoots Jack a look, a hand on the fridge's door. "Are you staying for lunch?"

"If that's not a bother," Jack says, and Eric rolls his eyes, fondly.

Seriously, that boy. It's not like Eric is going to send him back to his… protein shakes, and… chicken tenders.

"Park!" Elli squeals. "Can we go to the park today I wanna show Jack Msser Duck like in the story with the lighthouse except that Msser Duck isn't yellow he's brown. Can we?"

"I'm free all afternoon, I can go see Mr Duck with you," Jack says, nodding along. "I have to leave around four for the game tonight, though."

"Oooh." Elli bounces up and down on the stool. "Can I go?"

"Not tonight," Eric says. "You have school tomorrow."

Elli spreads his arms on the island and props his chin between them. "But Daddy! I wanna go! There's a hockey man called Msser Tater and he's big and silly."

Lord, someone's chatty this morning.

Jack huffs a laugh, but Eric crosses his arms over his chest. "You're not going tonight, Elli. We can watch the first period on TV and catch up tomorrow if you want."

It doesn't seem to distract Elli too much, who keeps going, not minding him at all. "And there's Msser Lucky who is very tall and has a robot leg because a doctor fixed it and he let me have half a candy if he could have the other half and if I would not tell but Jack said it's probably okay anyway."

Jack's low chuckle dies out quickly as Eric throws him a look. Candy? At eight in the evening? Seriously?

Jack makes a face that Eric translates as Sorry, and he better be. Lord, it's hard enough to get Elli to sleep on a normal day, let alone after a hockey game. But to give him candy on top of that? No wonders the boy adores Jack's teammates.

"I thought that was our secret," Jack says to Elli, faking betrayal.

"Elli is not very good at secrets," Eric says and winks at Elli.

"Daddy!" Elli gasps. "It's 'cos I love you so I can't keep secrets!"

That child is never, ever going to get in trouble.

Eric crosses over to the other side of the island and drops a kiss on the top of Elli's head. "Go get ready for ballet, mister. Maya's mom will be here in a few."

Elli nods, pushes his empty bowl of cereal further on the island, carefully gets off the stool, and rockets towards his room.

Eyes on Elli's back as he runs down the corridor, Jack chuckles, and mindlessly slides an arm around Eric's waist, bringing him closer.

"Morning," Eric says, to which Jack replies with a kiss. It's a bit awkward since he can't stop smiling. This is ridiculous.

He hums into the kiss and throws an arm around Jack's shoulder, coming up between his thighs, and for a moment, Jack nuzzles against his cheek.

"Hmm, sorry about the candy," he says, eventually.

"It's fine," Eric chuckles. "Just not past seven-thirty, for future reference."

The moment Jack's lips find his again comes a crashing sound from Elli's bedroom.

"Daddy, help!"

Oh, God. "That boy has the worst timing," he laughs.

Jack smiles against his cheek. "I don't mind."

"I'd better go."

"Yeah," Jack says, his hold on Eric strong.

"Jack."

He lets go of him, but only after one last kiss. Compromise.

Fifteen minutes later, Elli's leaving for ballet with Maya and her mom, Elisa. It's her turn to take them to class and then bring them back since Eric did it last week. He doesn't miss the way she stares at a very rumpled-looking Jack for a moment, eyes wide, before shooting a meaningful look at Eric, who can only chuckle and bid her goodbye for now. That's the face of someone who wants deets.

There's a moment of silence after the door closes, before Jack asks, "How much time does that give us?"

Eric walks over back to him and slides his hands on Jack's hips, under his teeshirt. "An hour and fifteen, if we're lucky."

"Well, we're about to be," Jack says, and leans in, but Eric jerks his chin back at the last second, chuckling.

"I am not acknowledging that with a kiss, mister."

Jack pouts, exaggeratedly. "Why not?"

"Because it's horrible," he chirps, as Jack slips his hands on his waist and brings them closer together. "And it's get lucky."

"Eh, whatever."

This time, Eric doesn't move away when Jack reaches for him and hums against Jack's lips.

It's been so long, it's like Eric forgot how it is to make out with a man he has feelings for, but Jack reminds him of it every second he kisses Eric with intense passion and focus, as if Eric has become the center of his world, as if he can't get enough of him. It's also a bit less sloppy than it was eight years ago, but it's not like Eric is going to mention that — he didn't have any complaints back at Samwell and he certainly does not now. Instead, he lets Jack's kisses grow slow and dirty, and lord— if that doesn't go straight to his dick.

Jack's hands radiate warmth through Eric's tee-shirt as they blindly make their way towards the bedroom, shedding their clothes in the process.

He sits on Jack's lap, knees on either side, as they slowly grind against each other. It's good. It's very good, and Jack seems inclined to take his time as he runs exploratory hands over Eric's ass and thighs, making him shiver. Eric could come like that, but there's still so much they haven't done yet, and there's just not enough time .

Lord, as much as Eric would like to lie down and learn Jack's body all over again, they kind of need to speed things up, here.

"I wanna—" he whispers against Jack's mouth.

Eric's hand curls around Jack's dick. What exactly does he want?

"Hmmm?"

With a smirk, Eric reaches for a pillow that he throws to the ground, gets off Jack's lap, and pushes his thighs apart, settling on his knees. Once more, he wraps a hand around Jack's rock-hard cock.

"Fuck," Jack lets out. When he looks up, Jack is staring down at him, transfixed, his mouth half-open. "T'es beau."

He bites on his lower lip, hard. Lord. Naked and on his knees? He'll take it. "Yeah?"

"Ouain. Aah—"

Eric leans down and presses his nose against the base of Jack's dick, in the wiry, black hair. So, uh, okay— he really hopes he's not blushing right now because he's twenty-eight and it's not like he's got a complex about it but Jack smells fucking good . It makes him want to drop a hand between his legs, but— later. This is about Jack.

His tongue peeks out, tasking Jack there, before he licks up his shaft in a broad stroke and, looking up, presses a kiss on the head.

"Tabarnak," Jack swears softly, lips parted.

Eric's heart bounces in his chest — this is why he's missed having sex with someone he cares about. He just wants to make Jack feel good. Very good. For a very long time. Until he can't take it anymore.

Eric smirks again and teases him just a bit, sucking lightly on the tip of Jack's cock, remembering how he liked it all those years ago. There will be time for endless exploration soon, but today's not the day. Instead, he closes his mouth around the head, and— oh, God. The stretch is… something, but his slight panic doesn't last: Jack's cock is heavy and already leaking on his tongue, and it's not like he can resist curling a hand around his own erection, now. He's dreamed about this.

He glances up again as he starts bobbing his head, taking more and more of that lovely, fat dick. Jack, reclining on a hand, reaches for Eric's cheek, and goes down around the nape of his neck before coming back up again, fingers tangling in his hair. He doesn't push, just rides the movement of Eric's head.

Picking up the pace, Eric wraps a hand around the base of Jack's cock, jacking him off properly in time with his mouth, his tongue. His jaw is aching now, but judging by the way Jack pants and moans, fingers deliciously tight in Eric's hair, it's no time to take a break.

"Fuck, Bits."

Lord, to know that he can reduce a 6'1" man to this with only his mouth makes him feel like a fucking god.

"Bits. I'm gonna come."

It's meant as a warning, one Eric disregards. He hums, a positive answer to Jack's silent question, and uses his free hand to gently tug on Jack's balls. Actually… He slips his fingers further back, gently rubbing at his perineum, wondering if Jack—

"Oh, fuck!" Jack shouts, his dick throbbing in Eric's mouth, as it pulses once, two, three times.

It surprises him, even though he intended to swallow, but he manages not to choke on it. He keeps on sucking lightly until Jack pushes him away, and he's barely back on his feet when Jack wraps his arm around him, bringing him down on the bed for an open-mouthed kiss.

"Oh— God—" Eric mumbles — a good number of his previous relationships weren't so much into tasting themselves, but that's evidently not a qualm for Jack.

Jack rolls on top of him, and their bodies slot together easily as Eric wraps his legs around him. How good would it feel to have Jack fuck him, something they never tried before? He'd love to reverse the roles as well if Jack's amenable. The thought makes his hips jerk as he ruts against Jack's abs. It's a bit frantic but he's too goddamn gone to care. One day, he promises himself. When they'll have more time.

"Was it—" Eric starts, but Jack shuts him up with a kiss.

"Don't even start," Jack says, transferring his lips to Eric's jaw, to that spot underneath his ear that could make him go mad.

"Jack—"

"Let me—"

But Jack doesn't finish that thought, running his lips down Eric's neck, his collarbone, his belly, his hip.

Peeking down, he meets the blue of Jack's eyes as he settles between his legs. Oh, God. With a slight smirk, Jack closes his mouth to the inside of Eric's thigh, gently nibbling at the skin there, his stubble prickly.

Crunching his eyes shut, a moan slips past his lips. Goodness, he really hopes the Falcs do make it to the playoffs.

Any coherent thought is shut down after that he feels Jack's breath over his cock, anticipation he can't take at the moment. But then, Jack's mouth is on him, warm and wet, and nothing else matters.

He knows he's being loud, too loud for a Sunday morning and the cardboard walls of his apartment, but— lord— it ain't called the Lord's day for no reason, amen to that.

Fuck— Jack from eight years ago was already very good at oral, but it's nothing compared to him now. Add to that eight years' worth of repressed fantasies and about five minutes of anticipation… Jack's brutal, intense, fast-paced rhythm, coupled with his evident enthusiasm, makes Eric want to call him Captain just a bit. It's like Jack wants to be everywhere, do everything at once, with a clear end-goal in mind. Jack Zimmermann fucks like he skates, and Eric wouldn't want it any other way.

He fists his hand in Jack's hair and can't do anything but hang on for the ride. He's trying not to move too much — and fails to, but it doesn't seem to faze Jack, who accommodates him by taking him deeper and deeper, until Eric's dick catches on the back of his throat, again and again and again.

He really shouldn't look at this point, because things will be over embarrassingly quickly, but he can't resist the sight of Jack's lips stretching around his cock, strands of brown hair slicked with sweat between Eric's fingers, the defined muscles of his back and shoulders glistening as his hands bite down on Eric's hips.

Oh God— Oh God—

"I'm coming." He's about to. Oh, God. "I'm coming," he repeats, but Jack seems disinclined to let go of him, and pushes his head down until his nose hits Eric's groin — "Jack!"

He comes, spilling down Jack's throat, so far down he probably can't even taste it.

It takes him a minute to come back down from it, and presses the heels of his hands against his eyes, groaning a bit. Good lord. He hasn't come this hard in ages.

Jack chuckles, and Eric opens one eye, too see Jack peering at him from above, hands on either side of Eric's shoulders.

Gently, Eric brushes back the few strands of Jack's hair that have stuck to his forehead. "Honey, please don't take this the wrong way, but I think eight years apart did us some good after all."

Jack beams at him. "Agreed," he says, before leaning down, push-up style — show off — to kiss him.

Seriously?

"Oh my god," Eric laughs, wrapping his arms around Jack's neck. "Never mind, I just remembered you're still a jock."

"Problem?" Jack says, smiling against his lips.

"Nope."

Their lips barely touch when Eric's phone pings, somewhere on the ground.

"Ugh, give me a sec."

He rolls away from Jack and retrieves his phone.

Elisa: Class is done, we'll be there in fifteen.

Elisa: Figured you might want a head's up.

Elisa: 👀

"It's Elisa," he informs Jack. "We have fifteen minutes."

"Shower?"

"Shower."

 

*

 

He feels on a high for the rest of the day. He ends up making waffles, pleasing Elli to no end because the original plan had been all about green veggies, but Eric can use that for dinner when it'll be just the two of them.

He ends up whistling along to the latest Beyoncé album as he prepares the batter while Jack is browsing couches on his laptop and Elli draws his dream dessert (a mountain composed of four different pies, two cakes, and three flavors of ice cream).

"Daddy," Elli says at some point, "you have a big smile!"

Eric frowns. Has he not been smiling as much lately? Sure, he's been tired, but… Enough for Elli to notice? Lord, he hopes not.

"I'm happy sweetheart," he says, and boops Elli's nose. "Because I get to spend time with you and Jack."

His heart squeezes in his chest — he'll have to tell Elli at some point, and the more he pushes it back, the harder it will be to have that discussion. Part of him is dead set on telling Elli as soon as they'll have a moment alone, but the other part of him knows he's bound to flake at the last possible minute. Ugh, why is he like that?

Pushing the thought back, he steps behind Jack and notices the website he's on.

"I know I'm letting you buy the couch, but please choose a reasonable brand." And not some kind of designer name that will be ruined by markers, pie, and accidental puke.

They end up choosing a nice, dark brown-grey model from IKEA, because, to quote one Mr Jack Zimmermann, "How hard can it be to assemble?"

That's what Eric is mumbling, two hours later when Jack is back from the store and there's bubble wrap on every single surface of the apartment, Elli jamming at it with a screwdriver while Jack reads the instructions for the hundredth time.

"It's really simple. You just have to hold this part on that side, and someone holds that other end — we can prop it against the wall I guess — and then I screw this together…"

Note to self: never trust a man who's never been to IKEA even once in his life. It takes them another good hour before they're done, finishing up while Elli is napping.

 "You did it!" Elli says when he emerges from his room as if he had high doubts that they wouldn't manage it. "Good job, Daddy. Good job, Jack."

It's not perfect, but at least they have a fully functioning couch, one that gets thoroughly tested within five seconds as Elli jumps on it and starts rolling on the cushions, Jack sitting down at the other end.

"Okay, you be careful young man," Eric warns Elli. "One broken couch per day is enough. Wait," he says, noticing the iPad vibrating on the coffee table. "That's gotta be your uncle and aunt."

They usually call on Sunday when they can't see each other during the week, which happens more and more often with Shitty working his latest case in California.

"Oh, Shitty?" Jack asks and his face falls just as he utters the word. "Shit— I mean— uh—"

"No, it's fine, we're calling them Uncle Shitty and Aunt Lardo," Eric says, answering the call.

Shitty's beaming face appears on the screen. "Bits! Elli!"

"Uncle Shitty!" Elli squeals, taking the tablet right from Eric's hands and settling down with it on the couch.

"My man," Shitty says, "that's a mad tee-shirt you've got!"

"Thank you, Uncle Shitty, it's a bird on a croc's head!"

Smiling, Eric sits down and props himself against Jack, who wraps a hand around his waist. Elli's full attention is on Shitty, not minding them at all.

"Sw'awesome. Tell me, Elli," Shitty says, raising a mug to his lips. "Where are you sitting right now? I don't recall that couch at your dad's place?"

"It's a new couch! We got it today and we 'sembled it together because yesterday night Daddy and Jack were playing when I was sleeping and they broke the old couch."

Shitty spits out what looks to be half of the contents of his mug over his desk, and Elli makes a triumphant sound: someone is finally understanding the dramatics of his situation and precious lost minutes of sleep.

"Oh my god, Elli," Eric mutters because that is embarrassing.

Why are kids so prone to oversharing?

He reaches for the tablet, but Elli pulls it closer to his body. "No, Daddy, lemme!"

Eric groans but leaves Elli to it, as Jack — who's been chuckling for the past half-minute — brings him back against him and subtly presses his lips to the side of his head.

"This okay? Shitty and Lardo?" Jack whispers, and Eric nods — of course he's fine with them knowing. Just… not like that.

"LARDS," he hears Shitty shout. "LARDS, COME OVER HERE." He turns to face back the camera, and Elli. "Your dad and Jack broke the couch?"

"Yeah!" Elli nods. "They woke me up!"

Oh my god, can they drop the subject already?

"Oh, that's no fun, bud," Shitty empathizes for half-a-second, and whatever else he says is lost in translation because Eric picks the tablet up from Elli's hands.

"That's enough," he says.

"Daddy, you're like a tomato," Elli says, laughing, and yeah, Eric can definitely see that he's right from the way his face is displayed on the screen. Ugh.

Shitty wiggles his eyebrows at him, and behind him, Lardo enters the room, her belly bigger than ever.

"What's up?" she asks Shitty.

"Apparently, Bitty and Jack were playing together yesterday night and they broke the couch."

Lardo's eyes widen momentarily, before they narrow again, as she stares back at Eric. "Bro, seriously? Is Jack here?"

"Uh…" He tilts the tablet until it shows Jack sitting beside him. "Yeah."

"Hey," Jack says, tone careful, but it's clear that he's fighting a bigger smile.

In contrast, Shitty and Lardo are grinning so much it looks like they've won the goddamn lottery.

"Bro," Shitty says, eyes on Jack, as if he can't quite believe it. " Bro ."

Jack chuckles, a bit nervously, and goes to rub the back of his neck. "Uh, yeah."

"Bitty," Lardo says, a lot more business. "Call the second you have a moment. Like, seriously. We need the deets."

He laughs. "I promise."

Jack gives him a slightly scared look. Well, maybe not all the deets.

"But seriously, so you're like, doing this?" Shitty asks. "You're—" He stops, and Eric's eyes settle on the small square at the bottom of the screen, which shows Jack waving his hand in front of his throat in the kill-it motion. Elli's still beside them, rolling around, getting acquainted with the couch. "I mean… Have you two been… breaking couches for a while now?"

"Nah, that was the first one!" Elli intervenes.

Oh, bless his heart, but Eric's about to combust and leave this life for good.

Shitty quirks an eyebrow. "And are you intending to continue… breaking couches?"

"Daddy, no! I like this one!"

Everyone laughs, and Elli looks up at Eric, beaming as if he's made the best joke in the world. Eric, smiling back at him, ruffles his hair.

"Hopefully, no more couches will be broken," Jack says. "We'll make sure of that," he adds, a bit more seriously.

Eric can see Shitty's eyes glistening even through the screen, and Lardo's smile is unparalleled.

"I'll call y'all later," Eric promises. "But now I think Elli wants to talk with you two."

"For sure, for sure, bro. Jack, gimme a call, too, when you two will be over the… breaking couches phase."

"Will do."

Elli stares at them as if they're slowly going mad.

"All right," Eric chuckles, "handing you over to Elli now."

 

*

 

It's been one hell of a day, Eric reflects, as he's fetching the vitamins from the kitchen. No same color, no same animal, no carnivorous/herbivorous duo, he remembers, inspecting the small animals in the palm of his hand.

After the call with Shitty and Lardo, they went to the park together. It's still fairly cold for this time of year outside — unless a man is Jack Zimmermann — so Eric huddled close to him until Jack took his hand in his own and linked their fingers together.

It had surprised Eric a bit, but he reminded himself that they weren't hiding. In some sort of small miracle, no one seemed to recognize Jack, no phone cameras were pointed at them. The internet wouldn't find out about them the second it happened, but Eric is sure it won't last if they continue down that road. One day or another, people will notice.

It's fine, he remembers. It'll be fine.

Elli, running in front, had thrown them a look over his shoulder and didn't say anything but that Daddy was "slow" and that "they were going to miss Msser Duck", despite the fact that Mr Duck lives at the pond 365 days per year.

"Jack, you speak French," Elli had said, staring at Mr Duck.

"I do."

"What's he in French?" Elli asked, pointing at the duck.

"Canard."

"Can-ard."

"Yeah! Good job."

Elli took the compliment as a signal to ask Jack to translate every single object in existence, and Jack humored him, a smile on his lips. Even Eric learned a thing or two, there, until they let Elli do his thing on the playground and watched him from one of the benches, bundled up in their winter coats.

It felt comfortable. Easy. Day one of something new, maybe, but reassuring, in a way.

It's going to work. If they want it, it's going to work

Jack left around four for his game tonight — not before kissing Eric goodbye at the door — and Elli and he spent a quiet night in: they read a book together, played farm, and watched a rerun of Zoboomafoo.

"A zebra and an antelope, that's okay?" he asks, handing Elli the vitamins as he sits upon the bed.

"Yes, thank you Daddy."

Eric hands him the glass of water, which Elli seizes with both hands and gulps it down.

"Did you have fun today, sweetheart?"

"Yeah, Msser Duck was very fun. Do you think he was very cold outside alone?"

It's a question that keeps coming back, and it might be a ploy for Eric to agree to adopt a duck, which is not happening.

"I'm sure he was fine, Elli. He's a duck, he's made to stay outside all year long."

"Okay. Daddy?"

"Yes?"

Elli squirms a bit, like when he's unsure how to word a question. "Are you and Jack boyfriends?"

Eric's heart bounces in his chest. Were they that obvious? Would Elli feel betrayed that he hasn't told him as soon as he could? No — come on, he's the adult here, he gets to decide when to inform his son about his private life.

"What makes you think that?" he asks, as he climbs on Elli's bed, sitting sideways, his legs folded under him.

"It's 'cos you were holding hands at the park and Tommy at school said boyfriends and girlfriends only hold hands except I guess boyfriends and boyfriends and girlfriends and girlfriends too, but then I hold Maya's hand sometimes and we're just friends because we divorced."

Eric chuckles. "You're a clever boy. It is fine to hold your friend's hand if they want to." He steels himself. It's now or never. "But yes, Jack and I are boyfriends, now." They did not technically discuss specific terms, but it's simpler for Elli to understand that way. "Are you okay with that, baby? I know you like him a lot."

"Daddy!" Elli says, bouncing a bit on the bed, nodding emphatically. "It's like we planned. He's your friend and my friend and then you baked him somethin' and now he's your boyfriend!"

Eric laughs — lord, that's a weight off his shoulders. "That's right," he says. More or less, since Elli makes it sound as if they had come up with a strategic ploy to snag a multi-millionaire NHL star with the help of a muffin. Oh God, now that he thinks about it…

"Do you love 'im?" Elli asks, his voice small.

Eric slides down on the bed, to lie face to face with him. "I do. I love him very much. And I love you more than anything in the world, Elli, and me having a boyfriend is not going to change that, all right?"

"Okay. I love you too, Daddy," Elli nods, gravely. Then: "Are you gonna marry him?"

"Oh my god, Elli. People marry each other only after they've been together for a while."

The thought makes him slightly dizzy. It's been a day. Calm down.

"But you said you love him!"

"Yes," he says, "but we gotta be boyfriends first before that, so we know that we're good together, right? Or else it might be like you and Maya, getting a divorce real soon."

Elli nods again, a slight frown on his face, as if he hasn't considered that aspect of being in a relationship versus being married before.

"Okay, I understand," he says, through a yawn.

"Clever boy. Now let's go to sleep, okay?"

"Can you stay until I sleep?"

He doesn't do this every night, but it's fair enough for now.

"Of course, baby." He stretches to switch the nightstand lamp off and rolls on the bed to get an arm around Elli.

"Daddy…?" Elli asks, after a minute or two.

"Hmmm, yes?"

"You and Jack kissed?"

Lord. His child is four and asking for deets. "We did."

"On the mouth?!"

He chuckles. "Yes."

Elli hums. "That's okay because you love him and he loves you." Well, thank goodness he has Elli's approval, Eric thinks, with fond irony. "But it's gross."

And the jury has reached a verdict.

 

*

 

"Bro, so, who knows?" Lardo asks as she plows through a third piece of blueberry pie.

They're sitting at the island, under the dimmed kitchen lights. Elli's gone to bed now, and for the past half-hour, Lardo has been grilling him for deets.

It's not like much has happened — Jack had another game on Sunday, they spent Monday together (Eric did some work), and Jack's left on Tuesday for one last roadie before the playoffs. He came back only this morning and has been at practice and meetings since, even though he still can't skate.

It hadn't been easy to let go of Jack this soon, but then, Eric found himself too busy with his everyday routine to think much about it. They called each other every day, though — Jack hasn't missed a single good night call to tell Elli a bit more of his story — and they're planning to go out together this weekend.

 "Uh, well, you two, and Elli, of course, and… Elisa?"

Lardo winces a bit and gives him a look. "What about your folks?"

He sighs. It's not like his parents are going to react negatively to the news — God knows his mama has been planning their wedding since Eric told her he renewed his friendship with Jack — but that kind of conversation has never been easy for Eric. He spent so much time in the closet that at this point it just feels weird confiding in his parents about his relationships, and to add onto that, he knows his mama is going to gloat about how she knew all along that he and Jack were destined to be together when the reality is a lot more nuanced than that. He's happy. And he'll be happy to tell them, once he'll feel confident enough to have that discussion. He's not avoiding them, unlike Lardo seems to think. But there's nothing wrong with… delaying things a bit.

"You don't exactly want them to find out from the Internet," Lardo points out.

And that's the voice of reason right there.

"I'll call them this weekend," he says. "I will," he adds, seeing Lardo's dubious expression.

Pie eaten, they move towards the new couch, glass of wine in hand, peach juice for Lardo. He sits down and wraps an arm around her shoulders as she leans against him. She's huge, now, and Eric doesn't even understand how she manages to do anything, but Lardo would rather die than stop her busy train of life, he knows.

"I do like this couch better," she says. "The brown on that other one was horrid."

"Ugh, I know. Good riddance."

"So…" Lardo starts. "Was it good, then?"

"Oh my god," he laughs, "very good." He can give her that, at least. "It's… new, and that's fun, but it also feels like we've been doing this forever, you know?"

"Yeah," she snorts. "That's kind of what we were trying to tell you two."

"I know, I know." He sighs. "Thinking about it, we should have talked sooner. But I figured Jack had moved on."

"Bits, Jack's been gone on you since day one."

"Right," he laughs. "Even when he was shouting at me to get my act together on the ice?"

"Bro, chyeah. That was a hundred-percent confused Jack. He got the feeling you were something special and he didn't know how to deal with that. You know how he is with that kind of stuff."

"Huh." He hadn't seen it that way, but it makes sense, he guesses.

They lapse into silence as he reaches for his glass, and takes a sip.

"I'm just… so fucking happy, Lardo."

She twists to look at him, a grin on her face. "Good. You deserve it."

He hums and leans his head against the couch, a smile growing on his face. "Goodness. He's amazing with Elli, and Elli loves him. It's easy. It's… It's how I imagined my family to be. Not that we're anywhere near that yet, but…"

"Look at you," she says, and punches his shoulder, lightly. "Living the dream."

He grins back at her. "I know." He sighs, happily. "And bonus points for getting laid again on the regular…"

Lardo laughs and picks up her glass. "To getting you laid again, on the regular."

They clink their glasses together, and she settles back against him.

"Lucky you," she continues. "I'm alternating between being horny as fuck and wanting to murder Shitty for breathing too close to me. And guess which one I am the moment he's out of town."

"Aw, Lards."

"I really hope I'll still be in the mood when he comes back because shit, it's been two weeks, now."

Shitty's been away, in California, concluding his last case before taking paternity leave, since the baby is supposed to be there next month. That's not what surprises Eric, though.

"Seriously? Even at… this stage?"

"Chyeah. We make it work. Anything's possible with the right strap-on, you know?"

He nearly spits out half of his drink at that, making Lardo laugh.

"You wish I were kidding," she says, "but I'm not."

He shakes his head and laughs. "Get it, girl."

He's half tempted to say that it's too much info about Shitty Knight's ass and what use he makes of it, while the other half kinda wants the deets on that. Good for Shitty, to be honest, Eric never understood het men's hang-ups about their prostate.

"I'm not," Lardo says, "that's the problem. I'll be throwing myself at him the moment he steps through that door, I swear."

He snorts.

"Oh, please," she laughs. "As if I'm not talking to the man whose sex life broke a couch."

"Oh my lord, what is it with y'all and that damned couch? Let it rest in peace."

"More like, in pieces."

He groans, but she drops the subject, reaching for her glass instead. "So, you told Elli, then?"

"Yeah. I mean, he guessed it himself, and then he asked point-blank and I told him. Thank God it went well. Jack was so relieved when I told him."

(He looked like he'd been stuck in a block of ice, frozen in time, when Eric recounted that conversation with Elli until Eric told him everything went well and Elli approved. "Okay, okay. I'm glad," Jack had said, rubbing his hands over his face, tension melting from his shoulders.)

"Told ya," Lardo says. "Jack Zimmermann? Dad material. Buzzfeed-approved, at that."

He laughs, remembering that article. Well, well, how things change.

"He even asked me if we'd kissed," he says, tone saucy.

Lardo gasps, faking shock. "What did you say?"

"Well, I told him that we did. And he said it was gross."

"Wasn't he married?" she chuckles.

"Nah, they divorced."

"That kid's gonna go far in life."

"Can only hope so," he says. But enough about him. "How's the baby?"

"Too big," Lardo sighs. "Seriously, I don't know how much longer I can do this."

"Knock on wood," he jokes.

"Nah, I mean it. Baby's kicking all the time. My feet are impossibly swollen. I'm horny and miserable. End me. End this. I need to pee all the freaking time. See? I need to go, right now," she announces, pushing herself off the couch.

It takes them a good five seconds to realize, even after having heard the squishy sound Lardo makes as she gets up from the couch. It's a small version of Niagara falls as she stands up, and even then, it takes a moment for Eric's mind to whirl back on.

"Oh, shit," Lardo breathes out.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

"Oh my god."

"Bitty."

"Oh my god!"

He can see the panic slowly settling in her eyes and realizes he isn't helping. He jumps on his feet and places his hands on either side of Lardo's face.

"Don't panic," he says.

"Bitty," Lardo repeats, an edge in her voice, now.

"Stop panicking, now."

"I'm due in a month," she says. "I'm due in a month! It's way too early— Shits' in California— fuck no."

"Lardo."

"Fuck, no! How am I— How am I—"

"Lardo!"

"I can't— I just can't—"

"I suck Jack's dick like a cheap slut!"

His words have the desired effect of a slap on the face, and he sees the precise moment when Lardo's eyes focus back on him again. "I— what the fuck?" she asks, frowning.

Eric squeezes her face with his hands, deliberately. "Do. Not. Panic." He breathes in, out. They're doing this. "I am driving you to the hospital, right now. Do you have a plan?"

"Everything's at home. Baby carrier and all."

She stops, for a second, and places a hand over her belly.

"Contraction?" Eric asks, and she nods, expression tight. "Your doctor?"

"At the RIH," Lardo grits out.

"You have her number, right?"

"In my phone."

"Good." They can work it all out in the car, but right now, they need to go. "Let's— oh shit, Elli," he realizes.

They can't exactly leave him on his own, nor take him with them. It's past eleven, there is no way his babysitter is up at this time of night.

Maybe he could wake up Mrs Chadha, their neighbor, since it's an emergency, or there's always—

"Jack."

"What about him? Apart from his dick?" Lardo chirps.

He smiles — as long as she's chirping, it's good. They really need to stave off another panic attack, here. He picks his phone out of his pocket and composes Jack's number.

Jack picks up on the third ring.

"Bittle? Everything okay?" he asks, voice scratchy.

"Oh, honey, sorry for waking you up. I'm with Lardo right now and her water just broke—"

"I— what? Is she okay?"

"She is, but I need to drive her to the hospital. Could you come over and watch over Elli for the night?"

He hears sheets ruffling on Jack's side. "Be there in ten."

"Thank you," Eric whispers. "Love you."

Lardo glances at him, her expression soft at first before she seizes his arm and twists. "Aaaa—"

"Love you, too," Jack says, at the other end of the line.

 "—aaaah!"

"Ow, Lardo!"

"Ten minutes," Jack stresses.

Eric hangs up, throws his phone on the coffee table, and maneuvers Lardo back down on the couch, freeing his arm in the process.

"No, I'm gonna ruin your couch—" she says, panting.

"Fuck my couch, okay?" He reaches for his phone again — lord, he's all over the place — and composes Shitty's number. "You remember how they taught you to breathe through contractions?" he asks her.

Lardo nods. Sweat is gathering on her forehead, as she starts the breathing cycle through clenched teeth, from another contraction. Lord. They seem already so close in time. Is that normal, at this point?

His phone keeps on ringing and Shitty isn't picking up.

"Why isn't he picking up?" Lardo groans.

"I don't know, Lards, I don't know. He's probably in court, he ain't gonna have his phone on him. What about your parents?"

"On a cruise," she grits out. "Because of fucking course."

Oh, lord, that's right. He knows better than to ask her about Shitty's parents, and Lardo takes his silence for what it is.

"Say something," she says, tears welling in her eyes.

"Say what?" he asks.

"Something, I don't know, fuck, anything— Bitty!"

She squeezes his hand, hard, her breathing getting unsteady again. He yelps — Lardo is strong.

"Okay. Okay," he says. "Look at me. Look at me: I've done this before."

Of all things he could say, that seems to be the right one. She exhales, slowly. "You have."

"I have. I really, really have. We're gonna do this together, okay?"

She nods, and the tears that had been filling her eyes recede just a bit. And then, a knock: Jack .

The moment Eric opens the door, Jack beelines for Lardo and kneels in front of her, both hands on her shoulders. "You okay, Lards?" he asks.

"I don't— I don't know."

"You're going to do this," Jack says, captain face on. Eric kind of wants to kiss him, right now. "You're going to do this because you're the strongest person I know, and I work with people whose definition of fun is losing teeth."

"Ohhh, you're in the NHL? You've never said," Lardo chirps, through a wet snort.

"Ah," Jack smiles. "That's the Lardo I know."

Even with her huge belly, Jack manages to wrap her in a tight hug.

Eric drops a hand on Jack's shoulder and squeezes. "We should go, now."

"Right," Jack says, and looks back at him. "Do you want me to go so that you can stay with Elli?"

"No offense, Jack," Lardo says, "but I'd rather have Bitty. Experience and all."

"Been there, done that," Eric chuckles, and Jack nods, grave.

"For sure. Go, then. I'll take care of Elli."

They steer Lardo towards the hall, and Eric is about to close the door behind him when Jack calls his name.

"Bitty, your phone," he says, handing it to him.

"Goodness, thank you. I'll call you, okay?"

Jack leans down, to leave a peck on his lips. "Go. We'll be fine. We'll see you soon."

They take Lardo's car, Eric behind the wheel as Lardo tries to reach Shitty, tapping at the center screen of the car with more and more desperate vigor.

"I am going to fucking murder him," she grits out when he doesn't answer the third time. "He's fucking lucky to be making a child's life less miserable because if it were anything else I would fucking murder him, do you hear me—"

Her words strangle as she gets another contraction and Eric reaches for her hand. She squeezes back, hard, her breathing getting unsteady again.

"Breathe," he reminds her.

"Oh," she sneers, her fingers biting down on his hand. Ouch. Seriously? He's trying to drive here. "Say that again and you are next on my list."

He bites on his lower lip. For all of Lardo's bravado, Eric knows she's scared to death. "It's okay, Lards," he says, "you're gonna be just fine. We're getting to the hospital soon and we've called your doctor, everything's gonna be in place for you and the baby, you'll see. They'll put you on so many drugs you ain't gonna feel a thing if you don't want to, and Shitty's gonna pull his head outta his ass and take the first flight home." He makes a stop at the red light, his knuckles white on the wheel. The hospital is less than a few miles away, but all those goddamn red lights— "He can be here in like, five hours, top. Baby ain't gonna here in five, Lards."

She shoots him a glare, and— oops, he's been rambling, and that's probably not helping her case. Lardo doesn't chirp him, though, only lets her head against the headrest and sniffs.

"I don't know if I can do this," she says, voice small. "Without Shitty and— I'm four weeks early, Bits. What if something goes wrong?"

The red light makes the two wet tracks glisten on her cheeks, and Eric's throat tightens. He can't lose it, or else they'll be in trouble.

He swipes a tear off her cheek with the pad of his thumb and leans over to press his forehead against hers. He has no clue what he's supposed to say to her, but somehow, the words manage to flow out.

"Elli was eight weeks early, Lards. Eight weeks. And look at him now. He's fine. He's fine and healthy and happy, and your baby is going to be just that."

How can he not remember how terrifying it was, to see Elli being taken away, to see him hooked on oxygen and so many different tubes Eric had no idea what any of them were for? How can he talk about it as if he hasn't gone through hell and back, sick with fear and desperation and raw, raw love? It’s always a bet one might lose, but you have to take the chance. (Hockey. Samwell. France. Elli. Jack.) The most important things have always been the most terrifying; anything that valuable is worth the fear. 

"Lord, he's a bit wonky on his legs sometimes but he's fine," he says, and okay, he's crying, now.

It's the thing with premature babies — even though Elli's been mostly fine since birth, there are so many things that might show only later: vision or hearing problems, gastro-intestinal troubles, not even mentioning ADHD, anxiety, depression. It's a list Eric has gone over and over again, but he won't be able to ever stop worrying as a parent. It's part of the job.

"But you're there no matter what, right? No matter how small, the good and the bad, you make do. You love them, through the rough times, and the happy times. And being there when Elli was born, Lards… That's the best thing that ever happened to me." He squeezes her hand and smiles. "I'm gonna be there with you. You're not alone. And you're going to meet your baby real soon."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah! You're gonna be holding your baby in a few hours!"

She laughs, wetly. "It's Jaime. Jaime Scout."

He swaps the corner of his sleeve under his nose. Oh, god. He's about to be an uncle. "Baby Jaime Scout. I love it."

"Shitty and his obsession with Harper Lee, I swear."

"Please, that's an improvement coming from a man named B—"

The car behind honks at them, just as Eric notices the light turning green. He gets his hands back on the wheel, but that asshole cuts him from the left.

Eric pushes down on the gas pedal and honks back. "I have a woman giving birth in this car, you asshole!" he shouts. "Didn't your mama teach you any manners?"

He hasn't bothered with the window, but if anything, it makes Lardo laugh.

 

*

 

There's constant ringing in his ears as he lets his forehead rest against the cool, white wall. Eric recognizes the voices on the other side of the door, waiting to be allowed in, but he needs a moment first. A really, really long moment to be alone. The last time he felt this happy and this exhausted at the same time was when Elli was born.

He breathes in, and out, and listens.

"Hmmm, Jaaack?" Elli asks, sounding hesitant.

"Yeah?"

"I'm really sad."

"What's going on, buddy?"

"I'm sad, because, well, you know, Uncle Shitty and Aunt Lardo? Now they're gonna be Daddy Shitty and Mama Lardo and that's sad because I like them being my uncle and aunt."

"Oh, no, Elli, Shitty, and Lardo are going to be a dad and a mom, but they still are your uncle and aunt."

"No. Really?"

"Yeah! They're dad and mom to your cousin, but they're still your uncle and aunt because you're their nephew. That's not going to change."

"Forever?"

"Forever. I promise."

"Huh, okay."

A pause. Eric smiles.

"Jaaaack?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you have a sister or a brother?"

"No, I don't."

"Hmmmm. Would you say, as someone who ain't have a brother or a sister, do you like it more than maybe having a brother or a sister?"

"Ha, that's a good question. I'm not sure. Siblings can be great, but you still can have loads of fun if you don't have any."

"Hmmmmmm. Okaaay."

Another pause.

"Jaaaaack?"

"Yeah?"

"How did Aunt Lardo get a baby in her belly?"

"I— uh. Ha. It's— uh."

Okay, time to intervene.

Eric pushes the door with his good hand and steps into the hallway, momentarily blinded by the strong lights there. Jack springs up, a hand already on Eric's elbow, and Elli pushes himself off the plastic chair where he’s been sitting. He's holding onto a big, fluffy white bunny wearing a dress, a similar — but brown — one in Jack's hand.

"Bits?" Jack asks, clear concern written on his face.

Yeah, well, not surprising, considering he probably looks like hell. He should do something before they get worried, and somehow, manages to crack a smile. "Baby's here. Little Jaime."

Jack's hands fly up in the air, before landing back on his head, teddy in tow. "Yes!"

"Nearly 6.8 pounds, even though she's 37 weeks. That's good. Really good," he adds, with a happy sigh as he sees on Jack's face that Jaime's weight is entirely lost on him.

"That's wonderful!"

Eric looks up at him, his legs feeling wonky. "Jack."

And Jack, amazing Jack, bless him, understands, and opens his arms wide. "C'mere."

Eric falls against him like a plank, before Jack wraps him in a tight hug, pressing his lips to Eric's head. Eric hasn't meant to start crying, but now that he's started, he can't seem to stop. Jack chuckles softly, even though he's kind of ruining his shirt, right now, and holds on.

"Daddy?" Elli says, his small fist tightening in Eric's jeans. "Why are you sad?"

Blindly, he reaches for the top of Elli's head and ruffles his hair. "I'm not sad, baby," he mumbles, against Jack's chest. "I'm really, really tired. And happy. But tired."

"You did great," Jack whispers to him. "You're amazing."

He takes another moment to breathe in, and out, in the comfort and safety of Jack's arms. Then: "Jack? I think Lardo broke my hand."

 

*

 

"Lards," Jack breathes out, the moment he sees her, propped up in bed, the baby against her chest.

He hurries around the bed, Elli after him, while Eric sits down on the chair in the corner of the room so the nurse can take a look at his hand. "It's just bruised, but I'll bandage it real quick," she says, with a wink. "It's not the first time this has happened during delivery," she adds.

Bless her. "Thank you so much."

He lets her do the work while his gaze settles on Jack and Elli, standing by the bed. Lardo looks exhausted — lord, he was the one crying and he didn't even push out a baby out of his body — but radiant, after nine hours of labor. It could have been a lot more, which Eric is grateful for, except that Shitty missed it all — they finally got him on the phone as they were arriving at the hospital, which made Lardo's heart-rate lower exponentially as Shitty stayed with her at the other end of the line until he had to get on the plane. He took the first flight available, arriving in Boston, and Ransom and Holster are driving him from there.

"Hey, little one," Jack whispers as he leans in to get a good look at Jaime without disturbing the little devil. Her cry was loud enough to wake everyone up for miles around, and that was when she had only a single breath in her lungs.

"Jaime," Lardo says, "meet Uncle Jack. Jack — this is Jaime."

Now it's Jack's turn to get teary, like he can't quite believe what's happening. Like he can't quite believe he's getting to be an uncle when he grew up without many friends, when his anxiety is getting the better of him and convincing him the people around him don't care that much about him. It's not something Jack ever told him, but Eric knows.

That little girl is about to be spoiled for the rest of her life.

"Hello, Jaime," Jack corrects. "You did this," he says, amazed, and plants a sweet kiss on Lardo's cheek, making her chuckle.

"Lemme see!" Elli squeals. "Lemme see!"

"Not too loud, sweetie," Eric says, from his seat, "or you'll wake her up."

"C'mere," Jack says and lifts Elli until he can sit on the bed, and Lardo angles Jaime so that he can take a good look at her.

"Done!" the nurse tells Eric, as she cuts the last of the bandage around his wrist.

He thanks her again, but she's already hurrying to the next point on her busy schedule. He stands up and joins Jack by the bed.

"Can I touch?" Elli asks, uncertain.

"Yeah, of course," Lardo says, with a smile. "You can touch her on her back."

"Gently, Elliot," Eric advises. "Be very gentle."

"Helloooo," Elli whispers to Jaime, his fingers hovering over her back as if he's worried he’ll break her. "You're very pink. Also, Jack buyed a gift for you and he said I could give it so here's a bunny 'cause bunnies are important and yours is brown like S'nor Bun and mine is white 'cause I already have S'nor Bun and Jack said I could choose a teddy too 'cause I waited for hours and hours and I wanted one like yours."

Eric's about to lose it again — lord, he really needs some sleep — when Jaime wiggles a bit, and sneezes. It's a loud noise that makes the three of them chuckle, but Elli raises his hands towards Eric, panicked.

"It's okay, baby," he says, collecting him in his arms. "She just sneezed."

It was also, perhaps, the cutest thing he's ever witnessed. After Elli, of course.

Beside him, Jack reaches for his camera, taking it out of the case resting against his hip. "Can I?" he asks Lardo.

"Please do," Lardo chuckles. "I'm pretty sure my parents will kill me if you don't. You better make me look in my best light, Zimmermann."

"Hush, you, as if you aren't always," Eric says, and she grins at him.

Jack takes a few shots of Lardo and Jaime and then makes Eric and Elli pose with them until Eric seizes the camera and configures its settings to include Jack as well.

Handing the camera back to Jack, Eric's about to ask Elli if he's happy to have a little cousin so close, now, since Chowder's kids are so far away, but a racket of noise coming from the hallway stops him:

"—CHILD, LET ME SEE MY CHILD."

"Oh, lord."

He and Jack jump away from the bed as Shitty swings the door open, Ransom and Holster in tow, in a small tornado of coats, scarves, and hats.

Eric lets Elli down, who rushes for his two uncles, hugging their legs. Eric watches him from the corner of his eyes but his attention is wholly on Shitty, who nearly collapses on the bed, reaching for Lardo as he weaves his arms around her shoulders. For a few moments, they whisper to each other back and forth, a conversation Eric doesn't catch, but witnessing the look on Lardo's face, she seems very far from wanting to murder Shitty after all.

"Let me see her," he says, and ever so gently picks up Jaime, cradling her back and head, and raises her for them to be face-to-face.

She doesn't appreciate the disturbance much, and after getting a good look at Shitty's face, lets out a wail that's loud enough to wake the dead.

"Holy—" Ransom breathes out.

Shitty's grin is the brightest thing in the world. "That's my girl. Wait until you hear about the motherfucking patriarchy."

Holster gasps, throwing both hands over Elli's ears, who tries to shove him off, laughing. Eric's not even sure how Shitty does it, working with kids and all, but he hasn't been fired yet, so there's that. And, well, kids love him.

Shitty doesn't spare them a glance, though: his eyes are on Jaime, glistening with a special light Eric knows too well.

"Is that the look?" Jack whispers to his ear, stepping closer to him.

Eric grins. "It is."

He would recognize it anywhere: Shitty's falling in love with his little girl.

With a slight sigh, he leans his head against Jack, and Jack passes an arm around his waist.

" Bro ," Ransom says, gaping at them.

Holster turns his attention to them, and it's comical how the face he makes mimics Ransom's. "What the— oh my god."

Jack chuckles and presses his lips to the top of Eric's head. Knowing him, he's probably glaring a bit at Ransom and Holster. Goodness. Children.

"Daddy and Jack are boyfriends!" Elli says, because, of course, it needs saying. Eric feels his cheeks heat.

"Since when?" Ransom asks.

"Uh, about a week," Jack replies.

Holster still can't seem to believe it. "What happened to We're just friends, I'm not hot for Jack, and Jack's definitely not hot for me?"

"Hot?" Elli asks, just as Jack says, with a frown, "When did you say that?"

"Ugh, hush up, Adam Birkholtz."

Shitty chuckles knowingly as he hands Jaime back to Lardo.

"You knew ?" Holster groans. "Since when?"

"About the day it happened," Lardo says. "Oh, don't get all bothered on me, Holster, I just pushed a human being out of my vagina."

Elli whips his head towards her. "Vagina?"

Holster's about to respond when the nurse enters the room, silencing them at once. Eric always forgets, but as a group of people, they're kind of loud.

"If she's awake now," the nurse says, "we should try feeding. It's the last requirement before you're cleared. She's a big girl, for 37 weeks."

From the doctor's earlier explanations, Jaime has all the signs of a slightly premature baby at 38 weeks, not 37 or 36. No time in the NICU, which was confirmed earlier, to Lardo's evident relief. Eric doesn't wish that on anybody.

 Lardo sits up a bit more as she tugs her gown down, settling Jaime against her breast as the nurse helps her figure out that first meal. Shitty's eyes still haven't left the two of them.

"Daddy, what's vagina?" Elli says, breaking the silence in the room.

Eric chuckles a bit and picks him up, the white plushie dangling from Elli's hand. "I'll tell you at home, sweetheart."

It's not like he can avoid these questions forever, but he'd rather have that discussion one-on-one.

Conversation starts as Lardo nurses Jaime: Ransom asks Jack about the season and Holster inquires about his injury. He groans in sympathy when Jack tells them he won't be able to make the playoffs, and the discussion diverges to the Sharks' season and Chowder's last few amazing performances in the goals. Eric stands there, staring at the wall, mentally asleep, Jack's constant and comforting weight against him helping him stay on his feet.

"Daddy?" Elli asks as he tugs on the collar of his (probably smelly, at this point) shirt. "She is so small. I wasn't small like that."

Lardo and Shitty look up, smiles on their faces, remembering as well.

"You were, sweetheart," Eric says, his smile shaky. "You were even smaller than her."

So, so small. Lord, it still hurts a bit. Jack's hold on him gets a bit tighter, as his conversation with Ransom and Holster comes to a halt.

"What's she doing?" Elli asks, eyes on Jaime, as she has just figured out how to suckle.

"She's eating. You shouldn't stare like that, sweetie, it's not very polite."

There's nothing wrong with it, and Eric wouldn't want Elli to think that, but consent lessons are an everyday work in progress.

"I don't mind, Bits," she says, with a slight smile, before she turns her attention back on Jaime.

"So can I look now?" Elli asks.

"Yes, since your aunt said it's okay."

Elli spends the next minutes enthralled by the breastfeeding process, until he lifts his head, and asks, "Daddy, how did I eat when I was a baby? You don't have those."

"Ah, no, the one thing I lack as a parent, I guess," he says, and everyone in the room laughs along. "I gave you milk in a bottle instead," he explains, and Elli nods.

They lapse into another silence, as Jaime slowly finishes her meal and falls asleep on the same spot, her face pressed against Lardo's collarbone in a way that makes Eric want to pick her up and kiss her ridiculously cute, round cheeks. He knows he's overworked but dang, he can't wait to babysit her and Elli together. He misses it, from time to time, the feeling of having a tiny, chubby baby in his arms.

As if on a common accord, they all have gathered around the bed, watching the way Jaime snuggles against her mother. Going by the way Shitty's shoulders are shaking, Eric's pretty sure he's crying.

"So," Holster says, after a while. "We've made it, I guess."

"Made it?" Jack asks.

"Yeah." Holster nods, gravely. "Being adults and all."

Holster and Ransom exchange one of those meaningful looks that Eric has long given up on decoding, so he turns his attention to Elli, who fusses a bit in his arms. He shifts to keep his bandaged hand out of the way, and that's the only reason he doesn't see it first, no matter how many times Lardo and he are going to argue about it in the future. Honestly. For a half-a-second delay. Technically, he had a child in his arms. Technically, Lardo will say she did too.

She looks up, chuckling at Holster's words, and her eyes narrow. "Bro. Seriously?"

Eric glances at them and nearly drops Elli in the process. They're holding hands.

"Uh, yeah," Ransom says, sheepish.

"Shut your mouth, Ransom!" Eric gasps.

"Daddy!"

Shitty smirks at them, knowingly. "So Bitty and Jack aren't the only two who… unstuck their heads from their butts, this week."

"Uncle Shitty! Butts!"

"Technically, we have seniority," Ransom says.

"Butt seniority," Holster adds with a grin, and he and Ransom bump fists.

Eric gapes at them. 

"Okay," Lardo groans. "I don’t need that mental image now, thank you."

And there’s also a child present, sweet Jesus. 

"Wow," Jack says. "Since when?"

Holster shrugs. "There's no date, really."

Goodness, sure, they've kind of always been a unit, but there must have been a moment, right? Unless they're fully acknowledging that queerplatonic thing Shitty was talking about that other time — frankly, Eric is way too tired to dig for deets right now.

"We figured that since neither of us has settled down with anyone else…" Ransom shrugs. "We could make it work for good, yanno?"

Eric's eyes widen. Okay, he's going to sit down these two behind a pie someday and make them tell him everything.

Holster nudges Ransom with his shoulder, gently. "We meant to say something earlier, but…"

"In your own time, bruh," Shitty says, chin high, clearly satisfied, "in your own time."

Elli, clearly unfazed by that turn of events as he still watches Jaime, tugs on Eric's collar again. "Daddy?"

"Yeah?"

"I wanna little sister."

"Oh, lord," he groans. "Here we go."

At that, everyone laughs heartily — well, maybe apart from one person, whose chuckle sounds just a bit strangled.

 

*

 

Ransom and Holster leave soon after — they've got an important meeting in the afternoon to get back to. Saying their goodbyes, they spend a few minutes discussing something with Jack in the corner of the hallway, before exchanging bro-y hugs. Eric watches from a distance while keeping an eye on Elli, asleep on one of the plastic chairs, using the white stuffed bun (Señor Blanco) as a pillow.

Shitty emerges from the room, spares a glance at Ransom, Holster, and Jack, and quirks an eyebrow.

"I hope they're not giving him the break his heart talk," Eric says, but it does look like it. Ugh, those boys.

Shitty chuckles. "They've been beaten by Lards by a long mile, there."

"Aw, no." He shakes his head. "Come on, we're not in college anymore."

"Nah," Shitty says, eyes on Jack's back. "He's gonna do good by you. Kid's come a long way since then."

"You already talk like the old dad you are," Eric laughs.

Shitty's grin melts into something softer. "Bits, I…" Before he knows it, Eric's being engulfed into one of the biggest, warmest hugs he's ever received. "I'm so fucking glad you quit figure skating for hockey."

"Shitty Knight, you're gonna make me cry."

"Seriously, bro," Shitty says, easing his hold on him. "I don't know what we would have done without you, last night. We can't thank you enough. You were there, when I—"

"Don't you start, mister. You were doing your job."

"That's what all crappy fathers say," Shitty whispers, and for the first time, Eric recognizes the worry and fear in his voice. "I wasn't there when my daughter was born , goddamnit."

"Listen to me, Shitty Knight," he says, getting a hold of Shitty's shoulders. "The fact that you are worried about this is the very reason that's going to make you a great dad. You care, and she'll love you for it."

Shitty's reply is another, more desperate hug, the kind that makes Eric's toes rise from the ground, and lets him down as Jack joins them a moment later.

"Look at you, Dad," Jack says, punching Shitty's shoulder.

"Oh my god," Shitty breathes out. "I'm a dad."

"Yeah," Elli says, as he wakes up and blinks, clearly not understanding why that fact needs stating again, and in such a loud way.

"I'm a dad!" Shitty repeats, sounding even more shocked. He jumps, once, twice, hands in the air, making them laugh, until he seizes Eric's face and plants a kiss on his lips, just to do the same to Jack a second later. "I'M A DAD!"

"Okay, Shits," Jack says, amused.

He tries to get his hands on Shitty to calm him down, but that only spurs a bit of roughhousing that Eric remembers too well from their Samwell days.

"Lord, behave yourselves, boys," he warns them.

Shitty tries to get Jack into a headlock and they nearly crash into with a nurse pushing a cart, which calms them down a notch.

"Tell me," Shitty says, panting, with one last shove at Jack's shoulder. "We talked about it with Lardo, and thought we had a bit more time to ask before Jaime came along, but… You two, godfathers?"

"Goodness gracious, Shitty," Eric gasps, "of course!"

Jack blinks at him like he can't quite believe it. Eric squeezes the back of his arm, gently. "I— seriously?"

"Seriously," Shitty assures him. "Come on, you're my brother."

There's another round of hugs, even higher in emotions than the first, at least on Jack's part. Bless him, his shock is still palpable until they get to the car, where Jack gets into his usual captain mode and straps Elli in, and invites Eric to take a nap while he drives them home.

Elli, in turn, has another idea. "Daddy?"

"Hmmmm?"

It’s not like he’ll get a break until this afternoon though; Jack had promised to take Elli to the park so Eric can nap in peace. 

"Godparents is like uncle and aunt, right?"

"It is, a bit."

"So you are Uncle Daddy to baby Jaime now but that also means that you are still my Daddy?"

"Yes. I'm an uncle for Jaime like Shitty is your uncle, but still Jaime's dad."

"This is very complitated."

"Hmmm."

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"Is Uncle Shitty in love with you?"

"Oh, sweetheart, not that again."

"And Jack?" Elli asks.

Eric frowns. That's new.

"It's 'cos he kissed you on the mouth! And Jack, too!"

He smiles, closing his eyes. "He's not in love with us, baby, it's just your uncle being silly and happy."

"Oh, okay."

"Hey," Jack says. "Maybe we should play a game?"

"Yeah! What game?"

"It's called King of Silence. First one to speak loses."

"Okaaay — oh no, I lost!"

"We can start over. Go."

"O— oh."

Thank GodJack.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Eliza, Lardo, Shitty, Holster, and Ransom. Five people know about Eric and Jack now, and strangely enough, the prospect of telling others is becoming a bit daunting. Sure, Eric will call his parents to tell them the second he can get a moment alone, which doesn't happen often, but the public eye is another deal. Against all regrets, he's now secretly glad he and Jack didn't have to go through Jack's coming out and them becoming public at the same time — Eric isn't sure their relationship would have survived, not with how young they were at the time. And now that he actually controls his social media a lot better than he did back at Samwell, he can't help but want to keep Jack for himself a bit longer, with just their close circle of friends being aware of the most recent development before they have to deal with the rest of the world.

The world, of course, won't have it that way.

"And so," Jack says, his voice resonating in the room through the speaker of Eric's phone, "the little boy begins climbing the stairs. One, two, three, four… five… Whooooosh, whoooooosh. The same sound as earlier, but now it's getting closer as the little boy is about to reach the top of the lighthouse."

"Whass' it?"

"The little boy doesn't know, yet, because he can't see very well. He's not sure if he should go to the top and find out, though. Do you think he should?"

"Yeah!"

"Okay," Jack says. "So he does. One step at a time, even though he's a bit frightened, but he knows that his animal friends are there for him. They're standing at the bottom of the stairs, cheering him on. And finally, after ninety-nine, one hundred… one-hundred-and-one steps, the little boy gets on top of the lighthouse."

Elli, now lying down on his bed, bunches his blanket under his chin. "Whass' it?"

"At first, he can only see a shadow. It's a big shadow, all wrapped around the top of the lighthouse, around the glass walls that separate him from outside. It was day just now, and now it's so dark it looks like it could be midnight. There's only one thing the little boy has left to do: gently, very gently, he opens the door and…"

"And?"

"There's a dragon!"

"A dragon?!" Elli gasps.

"Yeah, a dragon!"

"What's the dragon do?"

"We'll find out tomorrow," Jack says, and Eric can hear the smile in his voice. "I'm pretty sure it's time to sleep, now, eh?"

Eric picks up the phone from Elli's bed. "You're right." Besides, Jack's bound to be called to the locker room any time soon. "Say goodnight, Elli," Eric says, holding out the phone for him.

"Nighty night, Jack! Have fun at being captain. I miss you."

"I miss you too, bud. We're going to see each other tomorrow, okay?"

"Okay-dokay. Promise?"

"Promise," Jack says. "Goodnight Elli, sleep well."

Eric takes a moment to press a kiss on top of Elli's head and turns off the light as he exits the room, gently closing the door behind him.

"I still don't know where you get these ideas," he whispers to Jack, pressing the phone to his ear.

Jack chuckles. "I don't really know either. But it's not like we're making fast progress, so it's easy to think about what's happening next."

"He loves it. He keeps asking about it just before you call," Eric says. It's true: Jack has taken upon himself to call Elli every single night he's away for a game, always in time to tell the next bit of his nighttime story. "Be careful what you wish for, if y'all start winning you'll have to do this forever."

"Ha, well, lucky me."

Eric presses a hand to his warm cheek. No, lucky me, he wants to say.

"I miss you too, by the way," he says, humming a bit. His tone of voice is teasing, but Jack's silence at the other end of the line tells another story. "Jack."

"Ah— Bits."

"What's going on, honey?"

"Smithy's daughter broke her arm."

Aw. "Oh, poor darling."

"Yeah— he's worried. And he can't be there, and I can't be there—"

He probably doesn't mean by Smithy's daughter’s bedside.

"Jack."

"—and I know I'm not getting any younger but I think I still got two, three years. And it's tough being away, it's tough on those who are back home, and what if something happens and I can't be—"

"Jack," Eric repeats.

He taps on his phone to switch to video call, and Jack must have answered on his side because his face appears on the screen. Jack's standing alone in a hallway, back against the wall, and the angle of his phone shows the underside of his chin. He's not even looking at the screen, and Eric's heart squeezes in his chest. Now it's him that wants to be there just so that he can hug Jack and tell him everything's going to be all right. He can't, though, and they'll have to do this over the phone.

"I've been thinking," Jack continues, still not looking down. Overthinking, more like it. "And, I don't know… It's not… It's not fair for you. Maybe you deserve someone who can be there, for you, and who can take care of Elli and—"

"Jack Zimmermann, you stop talking right now and look at me. Jack," he repeats, and Jack finally looks down. For the first time since they switched to video, his lips stretch into a slight smile. "I know you're worried about your teammate and his kid, but they're going to be fine. And Elli and I are fine, and if something happened, you would be the first to know, okay? And about… you know, uh, task division," he says, just to avoid the word parenting, because lord, they're really talking about that right now, aren't they? "I've been taking care of Elli on my own for the past few years and I've survived. I know how it is, with the NHL, okay? I don't expect us to be 50/50. Just the fact that you're here to help when you're around is wonderful. I don't want fair. I just want to be with you."

"I want to make it easier for you," Jack breathes out.

"Honey, you make it perfect."

It takes a moment for Jack to answer. Deep breath, honey. "Are you sure?" he asks, frowning a bit.

"Yes. You can have both, Jack," he adds, in a whisper. "It's not too much. You deserve to have your cake and eat it."

"Pie."

Eric laughs — half-relieved that Jack has calmed down enough to make a joke. "Have your pie and eat it. And," he adds, more seriously, "you know you can tell me about those things, right, honey? When you have doubts, anxiety… I'm here for you. You don't have to do this alone when you feel like it's too much."

"I— yeah, okay." Jack closes his eyes, for a second. "Shit, you're right. I love you. And I want this too. I want this so much, it's… freaking me out a bit."

"Please remind me what you'd say when we were losing our minds over a game back at Samwell."

Jack shakes his head, his smile growing. "One period at a time," he chuckles.

"One period at a time, honey. I know you feel better when you have everything under control, but sometimes you have to let me carry the puck for a bit, and that's all right. Doesn't mean we aren't working together."

It doesn't come from a place of mistrust, Eric knows, but from a place of love, and anxiety always infiltrates where the barrier is most fragile. Afraid of losing the people he cares about, Jack is hell-bent on making sure their needs are met first, the one thing he can control even if it causes him more stress in the end.

"You're right." Jack nods, gravely. "I work better when you're on my line," he adds, looking up as if remembering something.

"We make a pretty good team," Eric chuckles. "Maybe we should get back on the ice one of these days."

"Still sore about losing last time?" Jack huffs.

Eric gasps. "I thought we weren't counting! I'm definitely going to kick your ass next time, Zimmermann, you watch out."

Jack snorts. "I'll take you up on that."

"Game first, though," Eric says, as his eyes set on the clock on his oven. It's nearly time for Jack to go, now. "I love you too, honey. So much. Tell me if the boys like the bread, all right?"

He's double-checking his recipes for the book and made three loaves too many for him and Elli to eat. And since Jack's probably not the only one on the team to enjoy pre-game PB&Js, Eric sent him along with the bread.

A door opens, somewhere, and Eric glances around to see if it might be Elli, but it's not — must be on Jack's side.

"I'm sure they will."

"Go kick ass, honey," he says. "Maybe not at hockey, but at captaining and all."

"Ha ha, thanks—"

"Yo, Zimms?"

"—love you."

"OoooOHHHH MY GOD ZIMMS—"

The line cuts abruptly, Eric still mid-laugh. That had a hint of a québécois accent, stronger than Jack's — Lucky, he guesses.

Well, well, cat's out of the bag.

It's not like they haven't been talking about telling the team before anything leaks on the Internet. Today's a good day as ever, and it'll cut some more overthinking short. Frankly, Eric's kind of surprised they lasted this long — both with the Falcs and the rest of the world. Lord, he only hopes the boys will be gentle on Jack, but knowing hockey teams… Probably not.

Shoot, Eric should probably call his parents before word spreads. But oh— the National Anthem is starting soon, and it's not like he wants to miss that, right?

He settles on the couch, a glass of wine in one hand, wearing one of Jack's faded Falls tees. It's a bit teenagerish, but it just smells too good not to. He takes a quick selfie and sends it to Jack, along with one last good luck wish for tonight, and gets a smiley face in return, as he picks up his tablet, with the intention of doing a bit of working during commercial breaks.

Even if they ended it on a lighter note — Jack's panic usually stops as fast as it starts — the conversation they just had sits tightly in Eric's chest, and lord, it's too bad Jack isn't playing tonight because it would have helped him focus on something else, and Eric would have been reassured to see him out on the ice and on the bench.

Surprisingly enough, he doesn't have to wait too long before seeing Jack again: he appears on the screen during the first intermission, the locker room as background as a sports reporter stands on the side.

There's a playful smile on Jack's face as he seems game to answer the journalist's questions, and for a brief moment, Eric wonders what exactly happened in the locker room after their call ended.

For a very brief moment, because when Jack answers the question ("Jack, do you think the team still has a chance of making the playoffs this year?") with the usual plain, could-mean-anything hockey speak, he naturally goes to scratch his chin and his sleeve falls down his arm a bit, revealing the macaroni bracelet he hasn't thought about taking off before the game.

Eric face-palms. Good lord. It's been two weeks and they won't last a day longer, will they?

Thankfully, the journalist doesn't ask about it, and Jack continues to answer questions, moving his hands around as if his only — subconscious — goal is to make the bracelet appear more evident to anyone watching.

The montage cuts back to the game as second period starts, and Eric keeps an eye on Twitter for the rest of the game — apart from a few people wondering about it, mostly on the line of, "Whose Falcs’ kid made this cute gift for the team's captain?", no big hockey account seems to have noticed it happening.

The Falcs win against the Flyers in the end, 4-1, and that's another nice surprise since they're missing a few of their best players. All things considered, if they play like this until and during the playoffs, maybe they have a chance. He doubts they'll get the Cup this year, but the team is solid as a whole, and Jack must be pleased with that.

The third surprise comes at eleven at night, when Eric's phone starts ringing, Jack's name on the screen.

"Congrats on the win, honey!" Eric says, answering the call.

There's a bit of white noise on Jack's side, locker room sounds coupled with the incomprehensible, harsh noise of a phone being tussled around.

"Everything all right?"

"No, no, no no, let me," a distant voice says, before it becomes clearer, as the man starts speaking against the phone with a heavy Russian accent. "Is Mr B?"

"Mr B? Is Jack okay?" Lord, did something happen since their last conversation? Is Jack panicking again?

"Jack?" The man says, with an air of surprise. "No stress, Jack is fine."

There's another series of rough sounds, this time, with voices in the background.

"Seriously, Tater, give me that—"

"Nah, Zimmboni, I'm have important conversation with Mr B, here."

Eric chuckles. Zimmboni, seriously?

"Ciboire, fine, whatever."

"You B?" The man — Tater — asks, back at the phone again. "You tiny man on photo with Zimmboni and cute kid?"

Ah, he must be talking about Jack's new phone wallpaper.

Eric places a hand on his hip, standing up. "I don't know about tiny. Do I look like I could kick your ass at suicides?"

"B!" Tater exclaims as if he's just recognized a long-lost friend. "You bread man, too?"

He's beginning to suspect that Tater's playing his accent stronger than it actually is.

"That would be me, yes," he says, with a grin.

"Good, good, good. Very good bread. Very good win, too. Feel free to send bread every time, now."

"He doesn't mean that, Bits—"

"I'm talking to B. You can talk to him all the other time."

Eric laughs. "Well, I'll see what I can do." Surely, making a few loaves three or four times a week shouldn't be too hard. He has to maintain his starter either way.

"Thank you, B, thank you! Best bread, I'm tell you! Giving you back to Zimmboni, now. He getting grumpy. Too long not talking to you."

"Jesus Christ, Tater — Bits, hey. Sorry about that."

"No worries," he chuckles. "Where are you?" He can hear wind in the background.

"Just getting on the bus," Jack says, as the wind stops suddenly. "But seriously, you don't have to make us bread every time, Tater's just being, well… Tater."

"I hear that, Zimmboni!"

There's a bit of shuffling around as Jack must be sitting down on the bus.

"Congrats on the win, honey," Eric says, "that second period was a beauty to watch."

"Thanks. It was a good win," Jack says, and Eric can hear his grin through his words. "If we can keep it up, that'll be good."

"Crossing my fingers. Maybe I should start making some more bread right now," he adds, laughing, just to make Jack groan. "I'm sorry the guys found out, though."

They didn't plan to do it like this, but it's another thing off their list.

"I'm not," Jack sighs. "It's done, and it went well, so that's good." He pauses. "Listen, Bits, I've got like twenty nosy guys pretending they're not listening, so I'll tell you more about it when I get home, okay? Uh— can I… get back to your place tonight?"

"Yes, of course," Eric says. The faster he gets Jack in a tight hug, the faster he'll be reassured, after tonight. "Are they still listening?"

"Yes."

He bites on his lower lip. "Wanna make them regret it?"

Jack laughs, before making a disgusted sound. "No? What color was his poop, you say?" Eric snorts — because that's a type of conversation they might be having at some point in the future, too. "And just like that, twenty pairs of earbuds materialize out of thin air. Look at that."

"Aw, honey. Have a safe flight, okay?"

"Okay. Go to sleep, don't wait up for me."

"All right," he says, and it's clear they're both aware Eric's lying. "Love you."

"Love you too," Jack says, and if Eric isn't mistaken, there's a tiny hint of pride in his voice.

Maybe not exactly twenty pairs of earbuds, then.

Unlike what he'd planned, Eric doesn't resist sleep once he settles in bed; it's only two hours later that he wakes up, when Jack slips an arm around his midsection, spooning him from behind.

"Uhmmjack," he mumbles, and rolls onto his other side, to face Jack, who hushes him.

"Go to sleep, Bits."

"Wasntsleeping."

"Right," Jack snorts. "Go to sleep, you've had a long day."

"Are you okay?" Eric whispers, willing his eyes to open fully.

Beside him, Jack tenses. "I— yeah, I'm fine."

Eric swings an arm around him, and hugs him, smushing his face against Jack's chest. Ugh, why is his boy so huge? But it's also kind of a comfy place for a face to be. Jack chuckles, and hugs back.

After a moment, Eric runs a hand down Jack's arm, until his fingertips touch the macaroni bracelet Jack is still wearing. Silly boy. Still wearing Elli's present a day after it was presented to him. Forcefully, he lifts Jack's arm, to show him his wrist. "We need to talk about this, mister," he chuckles.

Jack's eyes widen. "Oh, shit! I forgot I was wearing it."

"How could you forget, when it did that interview with you?"

"Oh, shit," Jack repeats, though they're both laughing now. "So I guess the news didn't break out while I was on the plane?"

"No. We're still in the clear. Ask me again tomorrow."

Jack hums. They stare at each other for a moment, and Jack dives for a kiss just as Eric yawns, prompting another round of mid-night giggles.

"I'm glad you're here," Eric whispers.

"I'm glad to be here, too."

"Hmmm. This is the dream, Jack," he says. He rolls on his other side, to face Jack, and hooks a finger in the collar of Jack's tee-shirt. "I've somehow produced offspring out of thin air," he chuckles, "and I found you again. I had no clue what I'd be doing when I graduated from Samwell, and now not only can I live off the vlog, but I'm publishing books. The me from eight years ago could have never imagined."

Jack smiles. "The you from eight years ago didn't know what a deadline was."

"This implies the situation has changed," Eric laughs. "I'm fine, Jack," he adds, more seriously, "I've been managing for four years, you don't have to worry about that. Sometimes… Sometimes I might get grumpy, okay—"

"You, grumpy?"

"Ugh, hush," he chuckles, rolling his eyes. "Sometimes I might get grumpy, because sure, it's a lot, but that's never your fault or Elli's fault. I've made some life decisions and I'm sticking with them, and you and him— you two are the bonus, okay? Y'all make me happier. I don't care about the money, the big house, publishing fame, or internet fame. It's just work, which allows me to be with you and him at the end of the day, and that's what matters."

"You deserve it, though — the fame. Those books should be bestsellers. You should get the Pulitzer prize for them."

Eric snorts. "I don't think they give the Pulitzer prize for cookbooks, honey."

"Oh," Jack huffs, grinning, "as if I haven't read all those little stories you write to introduce your recipes. You could definitely be considered in the fiction category. Who knew you had a poet in you?"

How dare he! "Those aren't edited yet!" Eric gasps, batting a hand at Jack. "Everyone does it, now!" 

Has Jack been snooping around? Sure, Eric's papers are all over the place, but that isn't an invitation to read them.

Seizing his hand, Jack brings them chest to chest, still grinning at Eric. "Did you even have real peach cobbler if it wasn't made with Georgia peaches? I doubt it."

"Don't you dare, mister!" Eric yelps as he frees his hand. He was just about to change that part! 

"This cobbler reminds me of summers spent in Madison, cooking with my mama, driving my truck around the fields to pluck the finest peaches off their trees—"

"Now you're just making stuff up!"

"My mama always said that a good peach cobbler is like a declaration of love—"

Oh, Lord. He actually wrote that part. Does it read as cringy as it sounds? "Stop it!" he squeals, as he covers Jack's mouth with a hand and Jack fights back to free himself and rolls on top of Eric.

"You never made me a peach cobbler," he points out, pouting a bit.

"Jack, you are a peach cobbler," Eric laughs.

Jack quirks an eyebrow at him. "I thought you were the Georgia peach. Though I’m not sure what this metaphor means, now."

"Probably that you’re made of more ass than I."

"But I like your peach," Jack wheezes. "And now I need to taste your peach cobbler. No weird metaphor intended."

"Ugh," Eric says, and kisses him, gently, "come to Madison this summer and I'll make you one."

"You're serious about that Georgia peach business," Jack chuckles against his lips, and one look from Eric is enough to convince him that yes , he's serious about the Georgia peach business. "Have you called your parents yet?"

Right. Do they really need to talk about it, now? He settles back down against Jack's chest, who hugs him tight. "Not yet."

"Okay." Jack, sweet Jack, wonderful Jack, doesn't stop to question it. And then, after a moment: "You know, what you said earlier, it works the other way around, too. We're a team."

Eric hums. "A pretty darn good team."

"A pretty darn good team," Jack agrees.

 

*

 

The one person they told from the start, though, might be the one person that's adapting the best, Eric thinks as his eyes settle on Elli and Jack, sitting on the couch.

They spent the evening playing farm together, a Bittle household classic though it was a first for Jack, Elli assigning roles as usual.

"I'm a cat, Daddy you're a dog," (Jack snorted,) "Jack you can be the cow. And Moo Maw is a pony and Grandpa is the milkman who milks the cow!"

And Eric hasn't stopped laughing since, remembering Jack's traumatized expression.

Jack and Elli, long done with dinner now, are watching a documentary about fancy birds that Eric didn't know even existed to begin with, and the only reason Elli is allowed to be up well past his bedtime is because of the thunderstorm rattling the walls of the building.

Just like with heights, Elli isn't a big fan of thunderstorms — and Eric found out early on that it's just easier to let him pass out in front of the TV instead of wrangling a crying child to bed.

He isn't sure, though, that Jack's presence is helping with the whole falling asleep thing, as Eric watches them banter back and forth about the birds. He'd join them if he weren't editing his latest vlog since he spent his whole day working on the book. Besides, they don't look like they need the intrusion at all. Two peas in a pod, these two.

"Jack, thund'storms make you very scared?" Elli asks, eyes on the screen, as silence had settled between them.

Jack hums, thoughtful. "Not very much. I quite like them, in fact."

"I think it's scary. Daddy says not to be scared 'cause we're safe 'cause science, but when I close my eyes for bedtime it's still scary."

Yes, Eric spends long minutes explaining to Elli how thunderstorms work every time there is one. Even getting him to count the second between the light and the thunder didn't work out. Maybe Elli's still too young to understand the science behind it, but still, he should be reassured when his own father swears that they're going to be okay, shouldn't he?

"Yeah, sometimes when it's really loud it can be scary," Jack says. "Do you… Do you know about God?"

Eric's head flies up and frowns. What? What kind of theological moment is Jack trying to have, here?

Elli looks at Jack, eyes wide, and deadpans, "Beyoncé?"

For a split second, Jack stares at Elli, like his brain is unable to register what has just been said, before Elli falls on his back, hollering with laughter and batting his legs. "Silly Jack! I'm joking!"

Jack, still shocked, glances back at Eric, who covers his mouth with a hand. Okay, so…

"Moo Maw," Elli explains, "says God is an old man who sits in the sky but when Moo Maw hangs up the phone Daddy says God should be a girl and God should be Beyoncé 'cause Beyoncé's a girl."

"Ha," Jack chuckles. "It's true, God should be a girl. Maybe she is. But I'll tell you a secret, okay?"

Elli inhales loudly, eyes huge. "Tell me."

"God," Jack whispers, "God sits in the sky, right? So you know what's happening when you hear the thunder?"

"No?" Elli asks, whispering as well. He stands up on the couch to lean towards Jack, to better hear the secret. "What?"

Jack grins at him. "It's God farting."

Elli gasps, falling back on his butt, and Eric stares at them. What the hell is Jack teaching Elli?

"No!" Elli says. "Really?"

"Yeah! Wait a second," Jack says, and silence falls between them as they're looking at each other, excitedly waiting until the room light ups again from the lightning outside. "Wait, wait…"

And there it is: the sound of thunder rumbling in the sky, louder than it was just before.

"Oh, that was a big one," Jack says. "You hear that? Frrrrrrrrhhhhpppt!"

"Yeah! Frrrrrrfthppprrrrrr!"

"Frprprprprprprffffffff!"

Elli redoubles with laughter, bouncing on the cushions a bit, and Eric's still staring at them when he gets called over: "Daddy! We're making farts!"

"Yeah, I can see that, sweetie," Eric says, as he steps out of the kitchen, shutting down his laptop. Clearly, no more work will be done tonight. "And who told you," he asks Jack, "that the good Lord is blessing us with his farts when it storms?"

"Ah, you know, just a family thing," Jack says, grinning at him.

Shaking his head, Eric leans his arms on the back of the couch.

"Daddy!" Elli squeals. "Fart with us! I'm gonna show you how, okay?"

"Okay," Eric says, and drops a kiss on Elli's round cheek, before doing the same on Jack's.

More of this, forever, please.

"Daddy," Elli reprimands, "no kissing, we gotta wait for the light! And then we fart."

They wait: Eric slips an arm around Jack's shoulders, and Elli mumbles soon, soon for a good minute before lightning strikes again.

"Okay, get ready!" Jack says.

Elli bounces once, up and down, and squeals, "Now!"

It's a concert of farts noises that accompanies the sound of thunder, followed by a lot of laughter. Lord. Who knew the less classy approach was the best one at solving thunder-related anxieties?

They do more of the same until Elli tires out and seeing that more fake farting won't help him go to sleep, Eric transfers him to the bedroom and puts him to bed.

"Daddy," Elli whispers just as Eric is about to close the door, "storms are less scary when they're Beyoncé's farts."

Eric chuckles. Lord. The things his son might say at preschool tomorrow. He hopes his parenting technique doesn't make him grow into a very confused adult. "I'm glad, sweetie. Goodnight, now."

"Nighty night."

 

*

 

All that’s  left is the small matter of informing Suzanne and Coach of the most recent development. Even though it weighs heavy on Eric's mind, just like in the Falc's case, it happens naturally.

The morning after that first storm of the spring, Eric's phone rings just as he's stepping out of the shower. He barely has the time to wrap a towel around his waist before fumbling for the phone he left on the sink. He sighs a bit when he sees the name on the screen, but answers nonetheless. Now is an as good time as any.

"Dicky!"

"Mama! How are you?" he asks. Lets her go first, at least.

"Goodness," Suzanne huffs. "I can't believe I finally caught you."

Somehow, it makes him think about Pokémons.

"Sorry," he says, wincing a bit. "I've been busy."

"Busy, busy, you're always busy, Dicky, surely you can find five minutes in that schedule of yours to call your parents from time to time?"

"Ma, it's not that I don't want to. It's just… time flies by, you know? I think about calling and then I blink and five days have passed."

"Don’t I know," she sighs. "When you were three I was so busy taking care of you, I woke up your Daddy one morning, scared to death that he'd be late for coaching before he told me summer holidays had started if you can believe. But Dicky, two weeks?"

"Oh my god, Mama, I have to tell you, Larissa had her baby this weekend"

That works well enough as a distraction. "Goodness gracious, why didn't you say something? Here I am, rambling on. But wait, ain't she early? Baby was due next month, wasn’t it?"

"Three weeks early, but everything went fine."

He knows she'll want the details, so he starts recounting the whole night, from the moment Lardo’s water broke to Shitty arriving. By the time he's done, he's lying on his stomach, on top of the bed, drawing circles on the duvet. It's still cold outside, but it's a beautiful day, and the sun splays warmly over his back.

"You give Larissa and… Mr Crappy my congratulations," Suzanne says, "and we'll have to celebrate, next time you're around. Godfather! That's wonderful news, Dicky. And you say Jack too?"

He winces. "About that, Mama…"

Now or never.

"Yes?"

"Jack and I… We're, uh, we're dating."

"Oh— Oh my— Oh, sweetheart, for how long?"

She sounds a bit shocked, but not… bad shock?

"Not very long," he says. "About two weeks."

He's half-ready to be admonished for not having called the morning after it happened — hell, the moment it was happening — but Suzanne only gasps. He closes his eyes for a second, and sees her perfectly in his mind, her hand clutching the base of her neck.

"Goodness," Suzanne breathes out, "I — RICHARD, COME OVER HERE — I'm putting you on speakerphone, Dicky, your Daddy's here. Oh— Richard, wonderful news! You won't believe it!"

Says the woman who tried to convince him Jack was secretly swooning over him two months ago. Then again, going by Jack's version of things, her suspicions were founded.

"Hey, Junior," Coach says, a lot calmer. "What's going on?"

"I— uh— lord— well, Jack and I are dating."

"Jack… Zimmermann?"

"Yes." And not any of the ten other Jacks he knows and crushes on.

"Dicky," Suzanne says, retaking control of the conversation, "when you say dating…?"

He tells her, not in as many details though, about him and Jack slowly figuring things out along the way. They're taking it slow, Eric says, just to reassure them, which is sort of false considering Jack's kinda been hanging out here a lot when he's not on the road. But it's not like Elli's had trouble adjusting, as he proves over and over again by asking about Jack when he's away with the team.

"We haven't planned a public announcement yet," Eric warns her, both because he knows his mama likes to talk, and because should the news break, a spotlight will be aimed on his family as well. "So please be careful. But it's getting there. We thought we could say something after Elli's done with the school year, but you know how it is, it might leak sooner than that."

"Eric Richard Bittle! I may have been born at night, but not last night. I won't tell a single soul."

Yes, except Aunt Judy, because Aunt Judy is family, and Aunt Judy thinks the same about three generations of Phelps, and tomorrow morning Cousin Philip will be ringing him asking if he can have an autograph from Jack. Eric knows them, good Lord, he tried to hide a pregnant woman from them, once.

Not that any of that enters his mama's mind, of course, as she goes on talking about summer plans and how Eric absolutely needs to bring back Elli to Georgia for Fourth of July and introduce Jack to the rest of the family and—

"Mama, Mama," he stops her, as she was getting breathless. "I promise we'll tell you about our plans in advance. We really don't know yet."

"Fine," Suzanne sighs. "I'll email you our calendar, please check it out when you'll have a moment." Before he can answer that, the doorbell rings, and not on his side. "Oh! I'm leaving you with your Daddy, Dicky, Aunt Judy's at the door."

His father is a man of… a lot fewer words than his mama. "So… you and Jack?"

"Yeah," Eric says, smiling.

"He's good to you?"

"Of course he is."

"He's good to Elliot?"

"That, too."

"Good. I like that boy."

And that's that.

He's about to get up and get dressed when his phone rings in his hand again: Chowder. And, yeah, okay, that's fair — he doesn't know about Jack and Eric either, though Lardo and Shitty have informed everyone about Jaime, of course. Chowder sent along the whole kid's section from the Shark's store, which is surprisingly a lot more than one would guess. But then, Chowder has to dress his girls, somehow.

"Hey Bitty," Chowder says when Eric answers. "I don't want to disturb you if you're busy or anything, but I'm about to email you our latest sonogram!"

"Aw, thank you! I can't wait to check it out. How are the girls?"

"The girls are great, thanks! They've been asking about Elli, maybe we should do something this summer?"

"About that…" Eric starts. "It would be great, but… I have some news?"

"Everything okay?"

"Yes, yes! It's… me and Jack. We're kind of together, now?"

A gasp, followed by the distinctive sound of someone jumping up and down. Bless Christopher Chow, sweet summer child. "NO WAY!"

He chuckles. "Yeah, we are."

Speaking of the devil — Eric hears the main door to his apartment opening. He left it unlocked earlier because Jack said he'd pass by after his mid-morning jog.

"Wow, oh, wow. I can't wait to tell Cat! Oh my god, Bitty, I'm so happy for you two!"

Chowder goes on and on, but Eric's attention shifts to the footsteps coming down the hall. "Bits?"

He covers his phone's speaker. "In here!" he says, before returning to Chowder. "Thank you, Chowder, we're very happy. And yeah, Elli does love him."

The door to his bedroom pushes open, and Eric shoots a quick look at Jack, who smirks at him — okay, he is half-naked on his bed, after all — but Eric himself has to do a quick double-take. Jack said he'd pass by after his run, and not mid-run… right?

Because surely Eric didn't expect him to show up in his black Underarmour shirt, clinging to his chest from the sweat, and his running tights. Careful with his shoulder, Jack's training has been focusing on his abs and lower body lately, and it shows.

Oh, lord. The room is getting hot.

Jack's face though— his cheeks are pink from exertion and the cold, and beads of sweat are percolating on his forehead, his temples, making his bangs stick to his forehead a bit, his hair ridiculous from the beanie he just took off his head. Not to say anything about the smirk on his face, the moment he saw Eric's jaw drop.

Goodness, Jack's left the shoes at the door, but Eric would have him even in those yellow monstrosities right now, and that's something.

There's a slight problem, though: "Chowder," Eric mouths, for Jack, cocking his head towards the phone.

Jack nods, and Eric tries to return to the conversation — tries, because Jack sits down on the bed, beside him, and drops a kiss to his cheek.

And then his jaw.

And then his naked shoulder.

That boy! Eric swats at him, laughing. "Don't be rude!" he whispers and clears his throat as he tries to focus back on what Chowder is telling him. "So, er— how's Farmer?" he asks, because he can't exactly end the call without asking about her first.

"She's good!" Chowder says, and Eric puts him on speakerphone, as Jack settles beside him, lying on his front, a smile on his face at Chowder's words. "She had a bit of a breakdown last night because the girls finished your blackberry jam, but I can't blame her, it's really the best jam there is."

Eric mentally notes to make some more, as soon as blackberries will be in season again. Jack can probably smuggle it on his next roadie on the West coast if Chowder doesn't play here soon.

"She's so strong you know?" Chowder continues. "Though the first two pregnancies were easy enough so this shouldn't be too different. And we're just about to enter the second trimester so… Things are good."

He can imagine Chowder's blush. Lardo told Eric all sorts of things about the start of her second trimester, so it must be the same for Farmer. Eric has no clue where they find their time, though, between Chowder's season, Farmer's job, and the two toddlers they are raising.

Eric laughs. "Good for you!"

Jack huffs a distracted reaction, clearly more interested in his own sex life than Chowder's. For a moment there, Eric feels Jack's hand tracing small circles on his bare back, which makes listening to Chowder quite difficult — until Jack slips his hand under Eric's towel, to palm his ass.

"Jack!" Eric gasps. Can a boy keep his hands for himself for one more minute?

"Bitty?" Chowder's voice seems distant now. "Is Jack there?"

"No, he isn't," Eric replies, just as Jack says, "Hi Chowder."

Eric shoves him off, one hand to the side of his head, giggling his name, which doesn't deter Jack from pushing his big stupid face back in Eric's space once more, and Eric can't resist kissing him on the cheek. Silly man.

"Oh my god," Chowder says. "Hi, Jack! I didn't know you were there! And I was rambling there for a moment… It's a school day, you probably want some time alone. I'll stop bothering you."

"You're not bothering us, Chowder!" Eric insists.

"No," Jack says, leaning towards the phone, a smile on his face, "but thank you."

That earns Jack another shove. Rude!

"I'll call you back, Bitty, Jack… I'm really happy for you two!"

"Thank you," Eric says. "Do give our love to Farmer and the girls. We'll check that sonogram out!"

"And good luck for the playoffs," Jack adds.

"Thank you, you too! Bye, now!"

The line goes dead, quite hurriedly, but he doesn't blame Chowder. Lord, they were nearly having foreplay with him at the other end of the line. But then, Eric does remember the time a very drunk Chowder and Farmer went all the way in the wrong bedroom at the Haus. He still doesn't believe neither of them was tipped off by the lack of teal and Sharks memorabilia. Chowder wasn't able to meet his gaze for days after that happened, even after he'd washed the sheets, until Eric baked him a truce pie.

Still, not an excuse.

Eric flops on his back, slipping both arms around Jack's neck. "You bad, bad man."

Jack kisses him, slowly, until Eric's flush against the mattress, Jack's comforting weight on top of him. "What?"

"Right in front of his salad!"

Jack frowns. "He was eating?"

"Oh, never mind," Eric groans, half-laughing. "You know—"

Jack doesn't let him finish, though, and this time, the kiss grows dirty fast, until Jack decides Eric's neck is a place worthy of attention, followed by his collarbone. Like that, Eric has a perfect view of his ass, as Jack grinds just a bit against him, his erection pressed against Eric's thigh.

"Lord," Eric pants. "You're too hot to stay mad at."

Jack snorts. "Sorry." At this rate, he'll leave something on his neck that Eric will have to explain later.

"Oh, you ain't sorry, mister."

Jack comes up on his hands again, disheveled, all dilated pupils and swollen lips. Eric can't resist shoving a hand in Jack’s hair, messing it up a bit. How does he do it? How can a man be so adorably awkward and so fucking hot at the same time?

"I mean…" Jack says. "You were naked. On the bed."

Gently, he smooths Jack's brow with his thumb, passing over the old, faint scar that splits his eyebrow in two. For someone with anxiety, Jack sure has a one-track mind, sometimes. Eric kinda loves it. "And you couldn't have waited a minute?"

"I have a meeting this afternoon."

"That's hours away!"

"Not a second to lose, then," Jack deadpans, although… Wait, is he serious?

Eric's still laughing when Jack flips them on the side, disentangling Eric's towel in the process. "Okay," Eric mumbles against Jack's lips, holding his jaw.

His phone pings, once, and Eric perks up. "Oh, maybe it's Farmer's sonogram!" he says. Jack groans and Eric laughs. "But it's the miracle of life, honey! Isn't it wonderful?"

Clearly, Jack seems more interested in the preamble to the miracle rather than the miracle itself.

"I'll check it when it'll be more than a black and white blob, Bits. I could never tell on Lardo's sonogram before she reached three months."

Jack runs a hand up the back of Eric's leg and brings it over his own, slotting them together. For a millisecond, Jack's thigh brushes against Eric's cock, and it's just the perfect amount of not enough to make sparks run down Eric's spine.

Muffling a whimper, he closes his eyes and abandons Jack's lips to press his face against his neck, as he lowers himself back down on Jack's clothed thigh to grind against it, his cock hardening with each stroke. The hand on his ass surprises him, as Jack's fingers bite down on him, possessive, encouraging.

"Yeah, c'mon."

"Jack," Eric breathes out, feeling his face heat as he rides Jack's thigh, and it's so good it feels like he could come only from this. He doesn't want to make this last five minutes, though, especially not when Jack seems to have such ambitious plans for them. Eric's kinda curious about that too.

Stilling his hips for a moment, he slips his hand in the front of Jack's running pants and closes his fingers around Jack's cock.

"Ah— Bits—"

Smirking, Eric pumps at it a few times, while Jack works his pants a few centimeters down. Like that, his cock juts out, pale but red at the tip, a clear contrast with his black clothes. Huh. A thousand different scenarios run through Eric's mind.

As if hearing his thoughts, Jack extends his free arm and manages to reach for the lube on the nightstand. He opens it with his teeth before discarding it between them. It's a shock of cold when Jack closes his hand on Eric's cock, and his eyes crunch shut again.

"Lord," he breathes out.

"Yeah?" Jack asks, clearly pleased with himself.

"You could— you could lose a few layers, too."

He raises the hem of Jack's shirt, and the fabric literally peels off Jack's chest, before Jack gets it over his head and throws it on the floor.

His attention shifts back to Eric, but as he leans back down on the bed, his elbow lands on the bottle of lube — left open — and it squirts out a big blob that lands right on Eric's chest.

He barks out a laugh, Jack swears ("Câlisse!") and in a single movement, both of them reach for it as it threatens to spill on the duvet.

"Sorry, sorry," Jack mumbles, as Eric gets there first and gathers most of the lube on his hand, and lord— there's a lot.

"C'mere," he says, smirking at Jack.

They sit up and Eric reaches between Jack's legs to coat his cock with the lube, slow strokes that get interrupted as Jack finishes pushing his pants down and off his body.

"Ugh, there's too much—" Eric says, biting his lip as he looks down at his hand, still slick with lube.

"Sorry," Jack repeats.

Eric shuts him up with a kiss before he can apologize again and swings a leg over Jack's, to kneel over him. "I'm starting to think that us having sex must include some kind of small disaster happening," he says, smiling against Jack's lips, as Jack answers his kisses. "But let's not burn this apartment to the ground, though, I quite like it."

Jack's nose brushes against his cheek. "You could—"

"What?" Eric asks, when Jack stops himself, heart fluttering. He could what?

"Nothing," he says and kisses Eric again. "Nothing important."

Yes. Eric's convinced, now. He lets it go, though, because there's a matter more pressing at hand. At a still very lubed up hand. Huh. This is giving him ideas.

Biting on his lower lip, he reaches behind and slips his wet hand between his cheeks, to slick himself there, before pushing in, just a bit. Under him, Jack is spread out on the bed, leaning on his elbows, all muscles and hair and want.

His dazed expression doesn't last, though. "Fingers?" he asks, slightly breathless, coming up higher on his elbows, and Eric nods.

Anything. At this point, anything. "You could— maybe, fuck me?"

Jack's eyes widen. Lord, Eric is pretty sure he just saw his dick twitch. "You sure? You want that?"

They haven't done it yet, and Eric's kind of been dreaming about it for a while. "Yes."

Jack's mouth is on him, instantly, as he flips them over. It takes another few seconds, but then Eric feels it, the gentle rub of Jack's fingered against his hole.

"You—"

"Oh my god, Jack, please."

Jack's blue eyes are on him as he presses in, and lord— that feels good. They've done this already a few times, but not in preparation for something else. It's good, though, so good, and Jack fingers him as if every single reaction from Eric is direct arousal for him.

The kiss grows sloppy, uncoordinated, as Jack adds a second finger.

"How do you want this?" Jack mumbles against his lips.

"Like that," Eric whispers back, letting his legs fall open, and Jack's Adam apple bobs up and down.

It might be cheesy to admit, but he'd rather have their first time be face to face.

Jack clears his throat, still staring. "Condom?"

"I'm fine," Eric says, "unless you want to." Which would be slightly problematic considering he doesn't have any nearby, right now, unless Jack brought some himself. And it's not like he minds the mess, considering what just happened with the lube and the towel that's still stuck under him.

"Do you need, uh, more prep?"

"No," he chuckles and sits up to press his lips to the corner of Jack's mouth. "Just go slow. It's been a while."

Jack hums and pushes him back down against the bed, positioning himself between Eric's legs. There's a bit of fumbling around, but then he feels it, the blunt head of Jack's cock against his hole, breaching him. Oh, God. It's really been a long time. He throws his head back and bites on his lower lip, reminding himself to breathe, to relax around the intrusion.

Jack stills. "Bitty?"

"Just— gimme a second, baby."

Which Jack translates as, pepper my face in kisses pretty please? and that's exactly what he does.

"Okay— okay— stop!" Eric chuckles, under the attack. "I mean— keep going."

"I love you," Jack says, as he starts pushing again, and oh— silly boy.

"I love you, too." So, so much.

The discomfort fades away pretty quickly, and the moment Jack's buried to the hilt, it's his turn to take a slight pause, dropping his head on Eric's shoulder.

"Ooh, tabarnak," he grits out.

"Take your time," Eric whispers, his hands on Jack's flanks, petting him there for a few seconds. He'd rather not have this be over when they've just begun, not when it's starting to feel good, Jack between his legs like that, but it's flattering to see that he has that kind of effect on him, too. "We have—" he checks the time on the nightstand. "Three hours fifteen before your meeting."

"Bits?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't think I'll last more than two."

Eric gasps. "I wasn't aware I was dealing with an amateur!"

"Rookie mistake," Jack chirps, grinning at him. "Don't take your business elsewhere, though, we can pass the time."

Eric quirks an eyebrow. "And how exactly do you intend to do that?"

Just as he says the words, his phone pings on the nightstand.

"Oh!" Jack says, cheerfully, "must be Farmer's sonogram!"

He reaches for the phone, but Eric grabs his arm. Time and place, duh. Though he knows Jack's just trying to rile him up. "Don't you dare, mister!"

"But it's the miracle of life!"

Eric gives him a look. Seriously? "Jack Laurent Zimmermann, do not make me have to use your full name while you are in me!"

"Okay, okay," Jack chuckles, coming back down against him. "Though I'm not against making you use my name in bed."

"Well, then, try harder."

Jack thrusts forward, once. "Like that?"

Goodness, yes. He hums, but it breaks two octaves higher than intended as Jack presses forward again. Jack laughs, and for a moment, it's teeth against teeth.

It's slow, at first, Jack figuring out angles and trying to gauge Eric's reactions. Lord, Eric revels in it, in Jack's presence around him, on top of him, in side him, everywhere, so everywhere it feels like they will never manage to be completely apart ever again. The press of Jack's hips becomes more and more insistent, as if asking silent permission, and Eric wraps both of his legs around his waist, urging him on.

"Harder."

Jack groans in answer, picking up speed as he catches the right, perfect, perfect angle. Jack's pounding him hard, now, working his cock as deeply as it will go, dragging over his prostate, and it's good — it's so fucking good it brings tears to Eric's eyes.

"Bits," Jack pants.

Jack presses their foreheads together, his eyes blue and infinite and desperate, full of eight year's worth of love that had nowhere to go.

Goodness, they'll have to say goodbye to the hypothesized two hours, because that ain't happening anytime soon. Eric slides his hands over Jack's ass, bringing them flush together, riding Jack's thrusts, taking it all. There are no words but Jack is showing him about love, how much and how hard, and how never again. Eric can only hope that it's clear, in the way his body fits with Jack's body, that his answer is a lot, yes, and forever.

"Are you— are you?" Jack manages to ask.

Eric slips his hand down between his legs, curling his fingers around his dick, and the sound that escapes his lips is needy and just a bit embarrassing, but Jack understands, because Jack keeps giving him exactly what he wants where he needs it most, and nothing else matters anyway.

Too taken with his own orgasm, Eric barely registers Jack grabbing at his shoulders, thrusting swiftly until Jack buries himself as far as he'll go, a moan on his lips. It's a wonderful sight, even if Eric's mind is buzzing, the detail of Jack's eyelashes as his eyes flutter shut, the way he bites down on his lower lip, the exact shade of his reddened cheeks.

Jack melts against him, lax from release, and for a moment, it's heaving chest against heaving chest. It will grow uncomfortable soon, but Jack's weight on him feels like it's the only thing anchoring him to the world, right now.

"Oh, Jack," he eventually lets out, and Jack lifts his head to press a bruising kiss to his lips. He shifts and slips out of Eric, which makes him wince a bit.

"That wasn't even an hour."

Eric huffs, once, twice — oh my God — and then he can't stop anymore — oh my God — laughing so hard his whole body is shaking.

"Okay," Jack's distant voice says, careful, "I know I'm funny, but I'm not that funny."

Goodness, it's done now. Such relief. It's done and it went well, and he won't have to think about it anymore.

He's aware that Jack's saying his name, with growing concern each time, and when Eric can finally gather a breath, he sits back up and wraps his arms around Jack, with a sudden need for closer contact.

It's only when Jack hugs back, tightly, that Eric registers he's still shaking, and not from laughter anymore.

"Are you okay?" Jack asks, in a whisper.

"Oh, lord— sorry—" Eric pants, "I guess I didn't know I was so nervous about it—"

"You were nervous about this?"

"No, no— I— uh— I told my parents about us."

Still holding Eric's shoulders, Jack puts some distance between them, to get a better look at him. "You told them! Today?"

"Yeah, just before you arrived." He wipes his nose with the heel of his hand — lord, he really laughed himself to tears for a second there. "It went well. It went really well. I don't know why I thought it might not go well but it went well," he repeats, dazed a bit, as Jack brings him back against his chest.

Squeezed tight against Jack, his cheek mushed against Jack's arm, Eric never wants to move ever again.

"That's great, Bits. I'm glad it went well."

"Yeah, it went really well. Lord. Uh, my mama— she wants us to come to visit this summer."

"That'll be great," Jack says, dropping a kiss to the top of his head. "We'll have to schedule ourselves, though, I'm pretty sure my parents want to see us as well."

Let's process that… later. "Okay, yeah, okay."

"So… you laughing, it wasn't because—" Jack stops, expectantly, sounding exactly like he did back at Samwell when he wanted one of the coaches to give feedback on his performance of the day.

Eric looks up. "Oh, Lord, no! That was perfect, honey. It was pretty damn perfect."

"Good. I think so too."

Eric glances at the clock and grins at Jack. "We still have two hours left, though. Wanna check that sonogram?"

 

*

 

They relocate to the kitchen, and lunch is a quick affair even though it entails cooking around a mostly naked Jack, having put his clothes away to dry a bit before he heads to the PT. Eric makes two sandwiches with leftovers, and after checking the sonogram ("I don't see it." — "It's right there!") they get talking about his book.

About jam, specifically.

"So," Eric says, once they've sat down at the island, sandwiches in hand, "I've narrowed it down to strawberry rhubarb in the end because someone wasn't pleased about the six versions I suggested, but now I still got three different strawberry rhubarb recipes. The thing is, I know which one to use depending on the context, but that's not something I can put in the book."

"Can't you?"

Eric shoots him a look. Silly boy. "Of course I can't. I can give general guidelines, but it's something that comes with experience. Like how many savory versus sweet pies you have to make for a gathering — I did a vlog on that, once, mostly to explain that you have to trust your instincts. Depends on the people there, the food, the time of the year, and all that, you know?"

Jack nods. "Huh."

"Anyway. I have a sweeter jam, one that's less, and one that tastes a bit more like rhubarb than strawberry, so more acidic. And I can't choose for the life of me."

"What did your editor say?"

He sighs. "She said to choose which one I think will be most popular. I mean, it's always a matter of pleasing your audience, but I feel like they would go for the sweeter version rather than the one that tastes a bit more… gourmet? There's nothing wrong with that, but unlike the two first books, this one is meant to be a bit more elevated."

"Sounds like you've already made up your mind," Jack says, and well, yeah, he's mostly right about that.

He lets his head down against Jack's shoulder. "But what if people hate it?"

Jack slips a hand around his waist. "Well, maybe you could test it. See what version people like best."

Eric quirks an eyebrow. "I could, but how am I supposed to find that many people on such short notice?"

"Good thing," Jack says, and Eric can hear the smile in his voice, "that I know twenty-five perpetually hungry men about to have our traditional post-season barbecue, then."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

@bakingmitts97

Spotted at 3:20 in Bittle's latest vlog: are those yellow shoes by the door?? We know what yellow shoes mean, right?!

 

^ @ fuckyeahjackzimmermann

Oh my god!!! And that macaroni bracelet in the interview?????

 

*

 

It starts with Elli seated in the Tesla, his legs swinging against the seat.

"Daddy, I wanna retire from art."

Jack and Eric both laugh. "Retire from art?"

"Yeah! I wanna play hockey. Like you and Jack and Kent Parson and Msser Tater and Msser Lucky at the rink. You said I could if I wanted to."

Eric hums. "Of course you can, but are you sure you want to stop going to art class?"

It's an after-school activity that Eric pays for by the class, so it's not like it's a problem for Elli to stop going if he doesn't want to anymore.

"Yeah," Elli says, "'cos I do art with you at home and with Miss Anika at school so that's a lot of art. And I'm good already," he adds, with an air of disinterest that only someone at the very top of their field would show.

"I'll see about hockey classes, then, sweetheart."

A few days later, they're at the rink for Elli's first hockey class, Jack unbuckling him from the back seat as Eric gathers the bags from his side of the car.

When he lifts his head back up again, Jack's holding Elli by one arm, closing the car's door with the other. His bicep is flexed under Elli's weight, just like last time, when he saved Elli from his fall on the ice. Lord. Jack's becoming hotter by the second, isn't he?

But Eric's been staring, and Jack notices. "What?"

"Uh, nothing," he says, hoping he's not blushing too much.

They sit Elli down in the locker room, and gearing him up is pretty straightforward from there ("Jack, can you put my skates on, please?" — "No, I don't think they'll fit me." — "Silly Jack, the skates on me!"). They pose for a quick selfie, at Elli's demand. It's ridiculous how cute he is, with his tiny skates and his tiny sticks, Eric could just eat him up.

It's a rink, so Jack gets recognized pretty quickly and stays behind to sign autographs as Eric directs Elli towards the ice. Like last time, setting foot on the ice isn't easy, but Eric is there to hold him through and hands him over to the adult coach and the teenager assistants skating around.

"I'm gonna be back at the end of your class, okay, sweetie?"

"Yeah, okay."

"Have fun, baby. Listen to your coach!"

He watches him for a minute or two, as Elli makes an evident effort to skate with one leg before he falls on his bum, gets on his front, and slides the rest of the way towards the group, not unlike a caterpillar. Sitting back up, Elli then waves at him, a beaming smile on his face, and Eric waves back.

When the head coach starts talking and Elli's attention shifts towards her, Eric makes his way back to the locker room.

"Sorry, I was just about to join you," Jack says, as the last hockey mom steps away, smiling at her phone.

"It's all right. Coffee?"

Jack looks at him as if he has grown a second head. "Aren't we staying?"

Eric quirks an eyebrow. "What for?"

"To see how he's doing?" Jack says, struggling to find an answer. "To give… advice?"

"Sounds like that's the coach's job."

"But you're better than the coach."

Of course. "Jack, his next step is going to learn to skate using both legs. I'm pretty sure the coach can handle that." He sighs, gently. This is one of those things they'll forever disagree on, isn't it? Jack hasn't probably skated a lot in his younger years without his father's eyes on him, but Eric is not becoming a crazy hockey dad. "Look, he needs to build up his confidence away from me, okay? He has to learn to listen to his coach and make friends, and Lord knows he doesn't have enough of an attention span to do that if I'm around. He'll be fine. They don't let us stay at ballet, unlike swimming, and there's a world of difference between the two."

"Okay," Jack says, still a bit stunned.

Eric smiles at him. "They have a ten-minute game at the end of the hour, so we can come back for that, but he doesn't need us for practice."

"Okay." This time, a bit more assertive. "Coffee?"

"Yes, please."

They end up going to a place not far from the rink, since they don't have that much time, and sit down in a booth in the far corner of the café. On a still-cold morning like this, the drink warms him up just right, and Eric ends up showing Jack old pictures of Elli he has on his phone.

"Oh, I like this one a lot," Eric breathes out, tapping on his phone to start the video he has taken something like three years ago: it features a very small Elli holding onto a stool's leg, standing up and looking right back at the person behind the camera.

He points a small, chubby hand at it, and at Eric, behind the phone. "Da!"

"C'mon, Elli, show everyone what you've learned."

Elli looks unsure, his body turned towards Eric, but not quite letting go of the stool. "Da," he repeats, this time quietly.

"You can do it! Just like before. Daddy's gonna catch you, I promise."

It takes him another moment, but Elli lets go of the stool. He takes one small step, then another. The exact moment he loses his balance, he flings himself forward, "running" the rest of the way towards Eric, who catches him, swinging the phone to the ground, a shot of the ceiling on the screen.

Eric gasps, and there's the sound of him peppering Elli with kisses, who laughs, high-pitched and delighted. "Clever boy, look at you!"

When the video stops, Jack weaves their fingers together, under the table. They're in the far back of the shop, but anyone could see.

They share a private smile.

"That was…" Jack starts, words dying on his tongue.

"I know." Eric beams at him. "He was thirteen months old. A bit late, but for the first time, I knew I wasn't fucking things up."

Jack frowns. "Are you afraid of that?"

"Ugh." He shrugs. "I guess it comes with the job? There's always doubt. And then when he hits his milestones it's like everything is going too fast because I work so much. I want to be there for him but it's not like I can cut hours, because— yeah."

Jack squeezes his hand. "Of course you're there for him. He couldn't have asked for a better parent. And working… That's part of it. You're providing for him."

"But he doesn't understand that, does he? He'll grow up asking himself why daddy doesn't come and play with him and why I find my computer more interesting than— ugh, never mind."

He half-laughs and head-buts Jack's shoulder. He doesn't even know what he's talking about. It's so silly.

"Oh, yeah," Jack says, his tone playful as he wraps an arm around Eric's waist. "I'm sure he's desperately thinking about that as he's drawing, playing with Legos, watching Pokémon, attending ballet class—"

"Stop it!" he laughs.

"—Swimming class, hockey class, having sleepovers with Maya—"

"You know it's different!"

"Yeah, I know," Jack relents, holding him just a bit tighter.

"I want to get him a bike for the summer," Eric whispers. He'd promised Elli, even, though it's likely it's been forgotten since then. "A two-wheeled bike. And he wants it yellow, like Pikachu, and those models aren't cheap. But like, how many hours of being with him do I have to sacrifice to get him that bike?"

"Maybe… Maybe we could get him one together?" Jack suggests, voice low. "It could be a gift from the two of us, for the end of the school year."

Oh. That could be a solution. Eric's already worried about replacing the oven, but this way, he could make sure Elli gets his gift right on time.

"I— yeah." He looks up at Jack and offers him a smile. "That's a good idea."

It's not like he can't stop Jack from buying them things, but at least this way, it's a decision they're making together.

Jack smiles back, and shifts to take his hand again. "But seriously, you're doing great. You raised him on your own, Bits, and he's a healthy, clever, funny kid."

"I'm glad you're here."

Jack's lips are slightly parted — they're close, so close it would be easy to close the distance and kiss, but it's still a bit too public for his taste. And for Jack's, he knows.

"And you're doing great too, you know? You're so good with him," Eric adds, biting on his lower lip.

It's not a subject they bring up often — it's still so early — and Jack manages to make a noncommittal (and very fatherly, dare he say) hpmf sound.

Okay, so they each have their subjects they won't broach.

"So, riding a bike, eh?" Jack says, and Eric rolls his eyes, fondly.

"The next milestone. And a pretty fun one at that. I'm glad we're done with some of them. Potty training, lord. No more poo goodbyes, anymore."

Jack frowns. "Poo… goodbyes?"

"You know Elli," Eric laughs, shaking his head, "how emotional he can be. And, uh, while explaining to him how toilets work, he had some trouble coming to terms with the fact that the flush would take away… something he made? Apparently, the solution to that was to wave the poo goodbye when we'd flush."

"That's— wow."

They're still laughing as they make their way back to the rink, to sit down on the bench with the other parents to watch the kids' game. Goodness. The last time he and Jack were shoulder-to-shoulder on the bench, they were about to lose the Frozen Four. The final game they played together. It feels like a lifetime ago, but also in the best of ways, as Jack's shoulder presses right back against his.

At least, no one is asking for autographs anymore, and none of the parents seem to be batting an eye at the fact that Jack Zimmermann is sitting beside them, cheering on a kid that's supposedly not his.

"Aw," Jack breathes out, eyes on the kids, a soft smile on his face. "Timbits."

What? That's a Tim Hortons thing, right? Eric frowns. "Are you calling them… doughnuts?"

"No, doughnut holes. They're Timbit-aged," Jack says, which doesn't explain anything.

Eric doesn't have the time to ask — his attention is redirected as the game begins. A ‘game’. Lord, it's cute as hell.

The kids are clearly having fun, even though half of them still skate by pushing one foot, and scramble for the puck when it's in front of them. A few goals are made, mostly by accident than anything else, and the kids' attention is often fleeting. One of them has been sitting beside the goal post for the past five minutes, unwilling to play, much to the desperation of the goalie trying to shove him out of the way.

Elli, in turn, is lying down, making 'snow' angels with a friend beside him.

It makes Eric laugh, but Jack shakes his head. "He hates it," he says.

"No, he loves it."

"He's not even playing."

"He's making friends."

"Maybe he'd like figure skating more," Jack says, and it makes no sense because Elli said he wanted to play hockey.

Eric sticks his hand in the pocket of Jack's jacket, links their fingers together, and squeezes Jack's hand.

"Look," he says, tilting his chin towards the ice, where Elli is getting up with his friend and skating back towards the game. "He loves it."

Elli isn't the fastest, considering it's his first practice, but he trails behind the little group of kids battling for the puck, pushing himself with one foot. At some point, his attention wanes and he starts grating at the blue line with the blade of his stick. A minute later, one of the teen coaches stops beside him, and sends him to the goals, as they've been rotating goalies during the game.

Elli arrives in the goals pretty much at the same time that the little group of kids with the puck does, and for a few seconds it gets ridiculously cute because there are like ten of them on the line but they still can't manage to put the puck in. Finally, one of them succeeds in pushing the puck forward, but Elli is there and somehow (more accidentally than on purpose, Eric guesses) kicks the puck away, sending the other kids after it.

 Eric whoops. "Go, Elliot!"

"Good job!" Jack shouts as well, grinning.

Elli whips his head around, drops his stick in the same motion, and raises his arms towards them. "Daddy!"

Eric laughs, pointing at the goals. "Stay in the goal, Elli, stay in the goal!"

With a look over his shoulder, Elli realizes that the kids are coming back with the puck, and so he skates towards the goals, still pushing on with one leg, picking up his stick in the process.

There's a lot of laughter and squealing when the hour ends as the parents are reunited with the kids. Eric waits until Elli steps off the ice before picking him up. "You did well, sweetheart!"

It's also illegal to be that cute and this small in full hockey gear.

"Great job, Timbit," Jack chuckles, offering his fist that Elli bumps with his tiny glove. "That was an awesome save you did there!"

"Yeah! Like in the NHL?" Elli asks Jack — clearly angling the question at the specialist on the subject.

"Oh, yeah, definitely."

"Uncle Chowder will be proud to hear about that," Eric laughs.

Hopefully, they can make a call that will be a bit less embarrassing than last time.

They get the gear back into the bag, Elli's hair a bit sweaty and completely messed up, his nose and cheeks red from the cold.

But as it happens, cuteness doesn't last forever — and Elli doesn't want to leave the rink and get in the car. He's tired and hungry, Eric knows, but Elli doesn't realize that's the reason for his mood swing and refuses even the call of well-deserved Saturday waffles and Nutella.

He cries and yells for five minutes in the cold parking before he falls on his butt, vanquished, and only then Eric manages to get him in the car seat.

"We can go back before next week if we have time," Eric says, from the front seat, his voice stern, "you and I, but it serves you nothing to make a scene like that."

"And Jack?" Elli sniffles.

He shares a look with Jack. "Yeah," Jack says. "It depends on when you'll be going, but I'll try to make it."

"O— o— okay."

"Maybe you should try to sleep a little," Eric says, "before we get home."

The moment he says the words, he notices Jack taking a turn that won't bring them to the highway, but rather bring them home through the longer, smaller roads.

God, he loves this man.

"'M not tired." There are two streaks of tears down Elli's round cheeks.

"Okay." Whatever Eric says, Elli's bound to fall asleep sooner or later. "Did you like it, at least? Playing hockey?"

"Yeah, it was super duper cool."

See that? Eric grins at Jack, who smiles back.

"How do they put the blue lines in the ice?" Elli asks.

"They put them in, Elli."

"But the blue line is in the ice! I tried to take it off."

"That's because they paint it on the ice and then they add another layer of ice on top of it."

"Okay. Daddy?"

"Yeah?"

"My favorite part is when I was in the goals."

Eric smiles. "You did great, sweetheart."

It's two minutes later, when silence has settled in the car, that Eric turns towards Jack. "My kid is a goalie," he whispers to him, and Jack laughs, quietly.

Honestly? It explains so damn much.

 

*

 

"Oh my god, you're the boyfriend!"

Eric's attacked from behind, a hand squeezing down on his shoulder. He barely has the time to turn before he's engulfed in a warm bro-hug, considering the man offering it has a crutch stuck under his arm before he's greeted in the same way by a small woman with gorgeous auburn hair and a freckled face.

The couple he was talking to — Smith and Lara — share a chuckle.

"He's always like that," Smith says, while the woman — Lucky's girlfriend, Eric guesses, squeals a, "It's so nice to meet you!"

"The pleasure is mine!" he replies, as she lets go of him.

Lucky grins at him, a toothy smile. "I can't believe we're finally meeting the bf. About time!"

His girlfriend elbows him, gently. "I'm sure the bf has a name."

"Uh… Bittle, right?"

It's a testament to Jack that Lucky doesn't know Eric's first name. "Eric Bittle," he says, reaching for Lucky's hand.

"Lucky," Lucky replies, shaking his hand with vigor. There's something a bit Chowdery about him. "Not sure if Jack mentioned me before."

Eric laughs. "A couple of times, yes."

"Ah, all the good stuff, I believe."

Smith snorts, passing an arm around Lara's shoulders, while Lucky's girlfriend rolls his eyes at him, fondly.

"I'm Anne-Marie," she says, before pointing at Lucky. "And this is Philippe-Antoine, though I'm pretty sure it's a long-forgotten fact."

Smith mock-gasps. "You're Philippe-Antoine?!"

"Oi, fuck you," Lucky replies. He tries to get Smith's leg with his crutch but misses.

"Bro, good thing your living doesn't involve stick-handling or anything."

"Mark," Lara warns Smith. They exchange a few glances, before a child's cry resonates down the corridor. "And that's the end of nap time," she laughs. "See you later, guys. Eric, it was nice to meet you."

"You too!"

Lara worked as a movie makeup artist and she has the most interesting stories, while Smith is definitely the quiet kind.

They watch for a moment as they hurry down the hallway before Anne-Marie turns to Eric. "Don't tell me Jack abandoned you to the vultures already."

Eric chuckles, as his eyes set on Jack's back, monitoring the barbecue on his large balcony, in conversation with Gbesy. "No, nothing like that, he's in charge of the barbecue and I'm keeping an eye on my kid."

Said kid is currently climbing on Tater's shoulder as if he's a human-sized boulder, in the middle of the living room, where the furniture has been pushed against the walls in favor of two small plastic goals and half-a-dozen kids playing floor hockey. From what Eric understands, Tater has taken upon himself to be the goalie for both teams, to the delight of the children who run and scream as he chases them, while Boski, the Falcs' actual goalie, sitting down in one corner, still injured, commentates the game with a voice that makes the small toddler he's holding belly-laugh.

"Aaaaand Tater is going down, that's bound to be goalie interference, I tell you, ref's gonna call it, that's gonna be a two at least, though there might be a bit of embellishment on Tater's part, oooh— and it's a scrum! Both teams against their own goalie, have you ever seen that before? Unbelievable!"

"Which one is yours?" Anne-Marie asks.

"The one on Tater's shoulders." Incidentally, also the kid who is chewing through the plastic blade of his stick. "Elliot, don't put that in your mouth!"

"He's like, the cutest kid ever," Lucky says, with a grin.

Eric chuckles. "Even cuter when he gets a good night of sleep because no hockey players have been giving him candy after eight in the evening."

Anne-Marie turns to Lucky, horrified. "You did what?" she gasps.

"He said he could!"

"Children lie, chéri."

Eric laughs, and bats a hand at them. "Don't worry about it, you learn those things the hard way. Tell me, would you like something to drink?"

They relocate around the kitchen island after Eric serves them two fresh beers from the fridge, even though Lucky wanted to fetch them himself ("Hockey players," Anne-Marie sighs, and Eric has to agree).

"Jam?" Lucky says, noticing the cut bread and the three (still terrifyingly half-full) jars of jam on the island.

"I know, I know," Eric chuckles nervously. "It's a bit weird at this time of the day but I'm testing something for my upcoming book."

"Nah, dude, jam's always good." He gathers some of the less-sweet one on a spoon, before putting it on a bit of bread. Eric watches, carefully, as Lucky bites down on it. Going by how his eyes widen, it's a good reaction. "Dude, seriously? I would eat this directly on the barbecue."

"Oh, you're too kind," he laughs.

He misses Anne-Marie's interjection, because his eyes set on Jack, being shoved away from his barbecue by a playful hand. Gbesy seems to be taking control of the whole operation, and Jack, still laughing, steps back inside. Instantly, his eyes find Eric's, and he smiles.

Eric watches as Jack makes his way through the living room, and steps into the kitchen. He slips an arm around Eric's shoulders, who catches him by the waist.

"Looks like you were thrown out, there," he says.

"Out of my own damn balcony," Jack grumbles, but it's good-spirited. "I don't mind, I'd rather be here with you."

"Aw, honey."

Jack leans down and leaves a peck on his lips. It takes a moment before either of them remember they have an audience — and Eric missed a good chunk of the conversation, there, oops — but said audience is rather busy having a silent exchange of excited looks.

"So, ehrm." Lucky's voice sounds about an octave higher than it was two minutes ago, against his evident attempt at being casual. "Jam!"

"It's really good jam," Anne-Marie elaborates.

Jack squeezes his shoulder. "Told you people would like it."

"Which one is your favorite?" Eric asks. He really, really hopes they will go with the one with more rhubarb.

"I like the one where you can taste the rhubarb more," Anne-Marie says.

Lucky nods along. "Me too. Though they're all good. I don't know why, but this one tastes a bit burnt?"

Oh my god. Eric shoots Jack a look. Seriously? "You told me you couldn't taste that."

"I can taste it a little," he says. "I didn't think anyone would notice."

Eric shakes his head, groaning. "I got a bit distracted while it was on the stove."

A bit distracted meant Jack coming up behind him, earlier today, nuzzling at his neck, before outright slipping a hand in the front of Eric's jeans. He had tried to bat him away with his wooden spoon, but lord, it had been so good and dirty at the same time that he let the boy jerk him off until he came all over the inside of his apron… before he blew Jack right there and then, on the kitchen floor.

It's Lucky and Jack's turn to exchange a few glances, under Anne-Marie's salacious expression, and that's enough.

"So," Eric says, redirecting the conversation. "How did you two meet?"

The question prompts Anne-Marie to laugh, and Lucky to groan. "I love this story," she says. "We met at a gay karaoke in Montréal."

"No way!" he laughs, surprised.

"Le Normandie, right?" Jack asks.

Eric gapes at him. "You know gay karaokes?"

Jack shrugs. "Yeah. I've been a couple of times when we played in Montréal. That place's an institution in the gay neighborhood."

"Exactly," Lucky says. "Our union is officially blessed by Marion, so."

"She's still there?" Jack asks, shocked.

"Of course. With those clapping hands, remember?"

Jack chuckles, and Eric stares at them. What. The. Heck?

"Anyway," Anne-Marie says, cutting in. "I was there with a bunch of friends from our uni's LGBTQ+ association, we were having our start of the year party, and P-A…"

"I went with one of my best friends. He just got dumped by his boyfriend, so gay karaoke it was."

"So — this is the best part — I get on stage with a friend to sing a duet, but she chickens out at the last moment and leaves me alone out there. I said that I couldn't sing both parts and this dumbass jumps on the stage—"

"I didn't jump," Lucky protests.

"You very nearly did, chéri."

"No, I stood up, walked, at like, a reasonable pace towards the stage, and said I would sing with you."

"Aw," Eric says, "that's adorable. What was the song?"

Lucky laughs. "It was Céline Dion."

Right then, Eric decides that he adores both of them.

"You never told me it was Céline," Jack points out.

"Because I knew how you would react if I told you, dude," Lucky says.

Eric shakes his head and pats Jack's stomach. "Jack doesn't consume music from this millennia."

"Hey, not true."

Lucky rolls his eyes. "Do I know. It's a bit of a dangerous thing, begin anti-Céline in Québec—"

"I am not anti-Céline—" (It's rather lovely how Jack's accent is breaking through.)

"But there's always one or two people who think their bad taste—"

"I recognize the fact that she has an amazing career—" (Clearly, it’s not the first time they’re having this argument.)

"—makes them superior or something."

"—but that doesn't mean I have to like her just because she's popular," Jack finishes off.

Anne-Marie rolls her eyes at them. "All right, all right. Anyway. We went on three dates that first week, none of which I knew were actual dates."

"Really?" Eric asks.

"Yeah," Anne-Marie chuckles. "I thought he was gay."

Lucky laughs. "I kissed her, and she pushed me off, saying that she wouldn't be my straight experiment. I still can't believe you thought that."

"We met at a gay bar!"

"I could have been bi!" Lucky says. "I was kissing you!"

"You were wearing a V-neck, chéri."

"They were fashionable!"

"It was a very deep V-neck," Anne-Marie whispers to Eric, with a knowing look. She turns towards Eric and Jack before Lucky can even open his mouth. "You two met in college, right?"

"Yes," Eric says, "we both were on the hockey team."

"Same line, even," Jack adds.

Lucky rolls his eyes, a smile on his face. "As if we haven't heard before about Bittle, my winger, soft hands and wicked fast. "

Lord, Jack.

"Well, I haven't," Anne-Marie laughs. "So please tell me everything."

And they do.

 

*

 

Jack steps up behind him, wrapping his arms around his waist as Eric is finishing up with the (second round) of dishes.

"Oh, no," he gasps a bit, "keep your hands to yourself, mister."

Lord knows what happened to the jam.

"Leave this," Jack whispers, nuzzling his ear. "I'll do it tomorrow."

Eric chuckles. "I was listening to your story."

Jack took care of putting Elli to sleep after Eric went to give his usual goodnight kiss. (When Jack had said he'd planned something for Elli to sleep at his apartment, Eric really shouldn't have been surprised to see the unused office space converted into a fully equipped kid's room, with a Pikachu blanket and a bookshelf filled with old comics in French.)

In his story, Jack has gotten to the part where the little boy asks the dragon, who is wrapped around the lighthouse, if he could please move away so that he wouldn't damage the whole thing. The dragon can't move, though, because he's scared of heights. Eric has no idea where Jack gets these ideas, but the story is enchanting.

"Yeah?"

"You should write it down."

Jack makes a doubtful sound and Eric turns to face him.

"It's a good story, Jack, you should definitely write it down somewhere. Even if it's just for Elli. Lardo could make some pictures to go with it."

Jack raises an eyebrow as if considering that option. "I'll think about it. C'mere," he says, gently tugging on Eric's wrists. "I'll finish tomorrow."

"I'm nearly done."

Nonetheless, he lets himself be pulled into Jack's arms.

"You deserve a break. You haven't stopped since this morning."

He laughs. "It's just what's left in the sink!"

Jack leans down and presses his lips to Eric's. "Et j'vais le faire demain." [And I'll do it tomorrow.]

Eric shivers. Hmm. That’s nice.

And then he's being pulled towards the living room until Jack lets go of him and goes to put a vinyl on the small turntable he's got in the corner. From where he stands, Eric watches the soft glow of Providence at night in front of them, displayed on the other side of the bay windows.

He breathes, for a few seconds, and his shoulders drop: today went well. He's met most of the team, and their girlfriends and wives, and everyone was lovely. Elli made friends with the other kids, and Tater left with three jars of jam and not a single one more because Smith, Lucky, and Tania also wanted some. In the end, the less-sugary jam was the big winner, and that's another problem solved.

A very productive day, in the end. Goodness, he's exhausted.

He barely notices that the music has started, slow and sweet, before Jack comes back and slides his hands around his waist. Eric chuckles, and they dance for a short while, forehead pressed together, to a French song he doesn't know.

"Today went well," Eric says, after a minute or two.

"Were you worried?"

He shrugs. "I don't know. I wanted them to like me."

"Everyone likes you," Jack says, as if he's stating a fact.

 "That's not true. And we could have gotten the cold shoulder considering…"

Jack hums as if the thought never crossed his mind. He ain't fooling Eric, though. "I think they're well past that point. They're all just relieved I'm no longer that one perpetually single guy on the team."

"Oh?"

Eric's recent lack of social life has always been self-explanatory because of Elli, and he's already told Jack about Connor and Matt, the two longest relationships he's had, but they never discussed Jack's past much.

"I mean," Eric whispers. "You don't have to tell me."

"I don't mind. There isn't much to tell, though. I didn't date much at first because… yeah. And then I wanted to concentrate on hockey. Then there were a few people, I guess the longest one was, uh, Émilie."

Eric instantly imagines a tall, willowy, and gorgeous blonde woman in heels. He rests his cheek against Jack's chest.

"We dated for a while, a year and a half, something like that. It was mostly on and off since I was away all the time and she was doing a doctorate in European archeology."

Yes, of course, the tall, willowy, gorgeous blonde woman in heels would be interested in history and on her way to a PhD as well.

"Why did you break up?"

"She had a pregnancy scare. We hadn't talked about the future, frankly, we weren't seeing each other that much, but yeah, I kind of liked the idea of starting a family after hockey, you know? In any case, that got us talking, and, well, she told me she didn't want kids. At all. And she was about to leave to work in Europe for two years, and I guess it made us understand that it wouldn't work out between us in the long term."

"I'm sorry."

He never knew kids were something Jack envisioned in his future. Sure, Eric knew he liked them, but not that Jack would imagine himself, at some point, with a big house and a family that lives in it. Probably because it hurt too much to think about, but now… Does the house in Jack's mind match the one Eric imagines as well?

Would someone other than Eric… fit better in Jack's house?

"Are you?" Jack asks, sounding amused.

"No break up is ever fun," Eric says, a bit shortly.

The thought of Jack, sad and alone, makes his heart ache a bit.

"True," Jack sighs. A silence settles between them. Then: "Wait, are you jealous?"

"I'm not." His voice is muffled against Jack's chest.

Jack's arms tighten around him. "Oh my god, you are jealous."

"It's not that." He sighs. "It's nothing."

"Bits."

He purses his lips. "It's just— I know you're out, but wouldn't it just be easier for you to… date a woman? Today went well because it was your team, but what about the league? The whole world knowing isn't the same."

The initial excitement he felt about showing off Jack and Elli in his Insta, or on his vlog, has vanished. He must be tired but lord— there's so much judgment these days on the Internet. How will he be able to protect his child? His relationship? His sanity?

"Bits, look at me," Jack says. Eric doesn't want to, because he knows he's being unfair, but then Jack's hands are on either side of his face, gently lifting his chin. Jack's eyes are wide and blue. "I don't want easy," he says, repeating Eric's own words. "Please believe me when I say I couldn't be happier that it's you. I thought we already established that earlier," he adds, with a chuckle.

("Yeah, well, I thought he was cute," Jack said.

"You thought I was cute?" Eric gasped. "Lord, do you comment on every cute guy's protein intake you come upon?"

"Nah. I do help them with their checking issue, though."

"Ugh. It's a good thing that you're cute, because—"

"Yeah," Jack sighed. "I was an asshole."

"Aw. You got better, sweetie."

"We actually became friends. And then, we…"

"We got together. And it didn't work out the first time, but… here we are. And there's a kid, now. Somehow."

In the corner of Eric’s eye, Elli, screaming and laughing, crashed against a wall.

"Can't forget about the kid," Jack laughed. )

Before he knows it, Eric's eyes are welling up. He feels it too. The one. The one he waited for, the one he didn't think he could have, the one he has, against every expectation.

He plucks Jack's hand from the side of his head and kisses his palm. "I believe you. Of course, I do. It's just hard to believe, sometimes, that I get to be this lucky."

Jack chuckles, low. "I know the feeling." A pause, as Jack brings him back against him. "I want to come out. I mean, tell everyone about us, together. I thought we would have been found out by now, but…"

Eric looks up. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, of course. I told you I want to show you off."

"Maybe after the school year?"

It's bound to get hectic, for Jack, just like for him. He'd rather have the book done, and Elli out of school before having a magnifying glass applied to their lives. And Jack should concentrate on his team and the series — he's already out, but Eric bets a few places will want interviews to cement the idea of queer hockey players succeeding in the league.

"After the school year, then," Jack whispers. "I love you."

"I love you too." Eric's smile grows. "And this way, you don't have to wait after hockey for the kid."

He can nearly feel Jack's heart skipping a beat in the way that his whole body jolts. In the way Jack's breath is just a bit shaky for a few seconds.

Jack’s embrace tightens, a gentle, smothering hug. They don't speak for a long time, swaying in place in rhythm with the scratchy record playing somewhere far far away, and Eric knows all the words Jack isn't saying.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The Falcs lose the first round.

Eric watches the game with Elli and texts Anne-Marie throughout. It doesn't come as a surprise, since their best players are out of the game, but the rest of the team fights hard until the end and it still makes Eric's heart drop low in his chest when they lose. Elli cries a lot — Eric let him stay up to watch the end of the game that could make the Falcs advance another round — and putting him to sleep means Eric can’t call Jack until later in the night. The series of voicemails he leaves him doesn't feel like enough. Suzanne and Coach leave him a voicemail that he saves for later.

He gets in bed because there isn't anything else he can do while Jack is on the plane. Eric will go to his place first thing in the morning after he leaves Elli at school. Maybe he could bring something, pie or— ugh, that wouldn't help, would it?

He presses his hands over his eyes. He's useless. It's hateful.

Eric doesn't register the moment he falls asleep, but then there's a noise in the middle of the night that makes him sit up. He's not sure he heard correctly, but his phone displays new notifications:

Jack: Can I pass by tonight?

Jack: Sorry you're probably asleep

Jack: Sorry

Steps coming up the corridor. "Jack?"

"Ah, sorry," Jack says, in a whisper, pushing the half-open door wider. The bag he's holding in one hand slides to the floor. "Didn't want to wake you up. You should go back to sleep."

"Honey, it's fine." It's not like Eric is going to let him suffer alone. "I'm glad you're here."

Jack doesn't answer — simply, methodically strips out of his post-game suit to his underwear, facing the closet. He crosses the room and sits on the bed, elbow on his knees, still showing his back to Eric. As if he suddenly can't bear to be in the same room.

"Honey?"

No answer. Eric's heart squeezes in his chest. Is Jack angry? Would he prefer to be left alone, or is it an unspoken cry for attention, for reassurance?

Well, there's just one way to find out.

He crosses the distance between them, and, sitting on his side, gently reaches for the shadow that is Jack's silhouette in the dark room. The tips of his fingers press against Jack's flank. The palm of his hand. Soft, soft skin against the palm of his hand.

The square of Jack's shoulder melts into something rounder, and Eric takes it for what it is. Gently, he kisses the center of his shoulder blade and rests his cheek against it.

"I'm proud of you," Eric whispers, after a minute. He closes his eyes, tightly. "I love you."

Silence.

Jack's shoulders drop even lower as he lowers his face in his hands. "My knee."

"Is it hurting?"

"No, not now… I think I've got two years left. Three, maybe."

Jack's tone seems distant, matter-of-fact.

"I'm sorry, honey," Eric says and hugs him just a bit tighter.

He can't make this right, can he? Nothing he can do or say can make this right.

"I won't be able to keep it up much longer than that without narcotics. They want me to. They've asked me to. And I can't start taking narcotics, Bittle, I can't —"

Jack's voice breaks. Oh my god. Oh my god. Jack's been offered pills on a silver plate, pills that could very much take the pain away, allow him to play better, allow him to play longer… It's like a sick experiment on the mind. You take the drugs, and you get to keep hockey. Except Jack knows that he can't start thinking that way, not again, because a world without pain makes you fly but then you fly too close to the sun and get burned.

And Jack has been burned before.

Jack took drugs to keep hockey in his life until life ran out.

"Jack," Eric says, resolute. "You're listening to yourself, and you're doing things right. Your health— your mental health is not theirs to take."

Because hockey and life had been intertwined for Jack for so long until everything went down. And then Samwell happened, and Eric saw it, the moment Jack understood that there was so much more outside of the ice, on the common, earthy ground everybody else walks. There's more to life than hockey and there has to be because Eric has thoughts of the future that include Elliot, a house, and lord, a dog, maybe, why not? And for the first time, he feels a bit selfish, selfish for Jack, because he knows Jack is thinking about the same, wants the same, as he told Eric, and hockey cannot dare take that away from him.

"I know, I know," Jack says, turning on himself to face Eric for the first time, wrapping his arms around him with such force Eric's back hits the pillows against the bed frame. "I thought I'd get longer— I thought maybe I'd get longer—"

"Oh, honey. Hey, hey," he whispers, gently, as Jack's chest heaves. "Breathe, Jack, breathe."

Tears and shaking shoulders. "I'm— I'm sorry—"

"Breathe, honey. Nothing bad's happening right now. You're safe."

"— sorry."

"It's okay, Jack. Do you have your meds with you?"

"Yeah— bag—"

Eric fetches the medication for him, which Jack swallows dry, before lying back down on the bed, heels of his hands pressed over his eyes. Eric curls around him and holds him throughout — how long it lasts, he doesn't know — until Jack's breathing becomes regular once more.

"Ah, sorry," Jack repeats, his voice hoarse.

"It's okay. You're fine. We're fine."

"I hate that you saw that."

Jack sounds far away, already half-asleep, and Eric's not sure he would have gotten that admission otherwise. Something else Jack will feel bad about in the morning.

"You don't have to go through this alone. You're not alone anymore, Jack."

His sole answer is a hum followed by peaceful silence, Jack finally asleep.

 

*

 

The morale is low in the morning.

They wake up before Elli, Eric having barely slept at all, and quietly share a shower as there isn't time for anything else.

"Are you okay?" Eric asks as Jack steps under the spray of the water. He's trying not to sound worried, but it's hard.

"Yeah, sorry for the breakdown," Jack says.

He's brushing it off, but Eric doesn't insist. "It's all right. Do you want to walk Elli to school with me, or are you busy?"

"Ah. We're having… meetings, this morning. But I can come back later."

"Please do. And tell the guys they did a good job, okay?" Ugh, as if it would help. He sighs. "Never gets easier, does it?"

"Actually, it does," Jack says, with a slight smile, the first since yesterday. "Yeah. It's going to get better. I'm happy to be here," he adds, serious, as if he's trying to convince himself, to condition his brain to accept it as fact — but Eric knows he still means it.

He smiles. "I'm happy you're here, too."

Jack leaves soon after and Eric — strangely enough — has to wake Elli himself, though it's true that Elli stayed up later than usual on the day before. In a mood akin to Jack's, he barely finishes his cereal before Eric leaves him at school.

The day passes fast, and Eric's kneeling by the tub when he hears Jack coming back, hours later.

"Bits?" Jack's voice echoes down the hallway.

"Bathroom," Eric calls back, and the sound makes Elli wince. "I'm sorry, sweetheart."

It was a challenge getting him in the lukewarm bath in the first place: for a 102 degrees temperature, that child has a lot of fight in him.

He passes the loofa over Elli's back, who's sitting shoulders hunched, as if he had to carry the weight of the world for the day, Jack leans his good shoulder against the bathroom's door frame.

"Hey, buddy," he says, sympathetic, the moment he sees Elli. "What's going on?"

"'Ello," Elli rasps, eyes half-closed.

"Someone's got the flu," Eric explains.

He doesn't know how it happened, but Elli crying himself to sleep yesterday night might have been a sign of something else happening.

"Oh, no," Jack says. "I'm sorry to hear that, bud. What can I do?" he asks Eric.

"Story, pleaaase?"

Eric chuckles and presses a hand to Elli's forehead. It's still very warm. "Yeah, maybe five more minutes?"

Jack launches into his story, starting always a bit before the plot point at which they stopped last time. Now, the little boy is trying to convince the dragon to come down the lighthouse, without much success, as one can imagine with a dragon that is scared of heights.

It's funny as hell and even Elli is smiling through his evident pain. After five minutes, Eric grabs the thermometer again, and seeing that Elli's temperature has gone down, he takes him out of the bath and wraps him in a towel.

"To bed, with you."

It's another challenge to get Elli in his pajamas, but Jack is there to help with flimsy arms.

Eric can barely say goodnight to Elli before the kid is asleep, cheeks still slightly red even after having taken a Tylenol.

"Sorry," Eric mumbles, stepping out of the room.

Jack opens his arms, and Eric settles against him, for a long moment. "Why are you apologizing?"

"I don't know. I figured you might not be in the mood to deal with a sick kid after yesterday."

"Hey," Jack says, and drops a kiss to the top of Eric's head. "That's not true. It's a thousand times better than mulling over it, again and again, alone at home. Not that I'm happy he's sick, but… I'll take the distraction."

"I could do without the distraction. I've been trying to finish filming a vlog all day, without success."

"Do you want to do it now? I'll get out of your way."

"I really should," he sighs. "But please stay tonight?" Jack's been on the road a lot, lately.

He looks up, and Jack smiles at him. "Yeah, okay."

Jack settles on the new couch, Kindle in hand, while Eric makes his way around the kitchen island and opens the fridge. His whole camera set-up is already made, at least, so he just has to finish the recipe he started earlier today.

It takes him a few minutes to get the camera and the lights running again, and then it's the same old drill: "Hey y'all. You might notice a change in the lighting because it's now pitch-black outside. It's been a few hours since this came out of the oven, and I had one hell of a day, so I just kept it longer in the fridge. You can't really overdo that step, so if you want to prepare it beforehand it can stay up to two or three days in the fridge if you're waiting for guests or have a kid on your hands." He chuckles. "Unlike kids, recipes can wait."

He goes over the last few steps, explaining them to the camera, and it's only when he's concluding that he notices that Jack has been watching him, head resting on his arms over the back of the couch, having put his reading away.

He can't help but flash him a smile, shaking his head a bit.

"Anyway," he says, focusing on the camera again (he'll just edit it out later), "that's it for today. This dessert will be featured in my upcoming book, so y'all are getting a bit of a preview here. If you like it, please watch out for my third book, coming out sometime this fall!"

He turns the camera off and grins at Jack. "How did I do?"

"Excellent, as always. I've been catching up, by the way, on roadies."

Eric's heart flutters. There are dishes to do, but that can wait until morning. "Watch out, or one day I'll make you guest-star in one," he laughs.

"I wouldn't mind." Jack's tone sounds more like I would like that very much.

Eric walks around the couch and settles against Jack, who wraps an arm around his shoulders. "You could do something on Elli's vlog, too."

Elli had insisted on starting a vlog more than a year ago, saying he wanted to do like Daddy. Since then, Eric made him a private youtube channel where he uploads videos of Elli cooking with his uncles, aunt, and family, after which Eric sends the links to all the people involved. It's the cutest thing on Earth.

"I definitely can. When he'll be able to stand up on his own again, though."

Eric hums. "I'm probably making too much of a big deal out of it," he admits. "It's the second time he's got the flu but his temperature got really high today."

"It just means he's fighting it."

"I know, I know," he says. "I called my mama, and she said the same thing. And then I called the doctor, and, well… It's not high enough to bring him to the ER, but…"

"You can't help the worrying."

"Yeah." He snorts. "Oh, lord, I know I sound like the worst mother-hen."

What if Elli's temperature gets dangerously high in the night when Eric's sleeping? What if he's misread the signs and it's something way worse than the flu? What if it causes damage that can't be repaired, and then it's all his fault, and—

Jack kisses his temple. "You're doing great, Bits. I'm pretty sure I heard the same thing over and over again from all the dads on the team."

He tries to smile. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. I think it's a pretty universal feeling. He's your kid, it's normal to worry about him."

His voice is small. "I don't think I'll ever be able to stop."

"Ha!" Jack laughs. "Today's the flu, in ten years, it'll be the people he'll try to sneak into his room at night."

Eric presses his hands to his face. "Oh, no."

"You'll have to give him the talk and everything," Jack wheezes and Eric elbows him. "Buy him condoms. Listen to high school drama. Scold him when he gets back too late from partying. All of that."

Oh, lord. He always thought he'd be some kind of cool dad — he lived in a frat house in college — but listening to Jack making up these scenarios… damn it.

"You say that as if that child isn't an angel," Eric points out. "What's the worst he could do?"

"Drop out of school?"

Eric shrugs. "I wouldn't mind. Lord knows he would probably make more money as a plumber than me with my useless college degree."

Jack hums. "Yeah, I guess. Start fights?"

"Lord, Jack," he laughs. "Have you met him?"

"Get a girl pregnant?"

Oh, fuck. "Oh, no. No, no, no, no. Oh my god, I can't be a grandpa before I'm forty."

Jack laughs. "Don't worry, he'd probably marry her as soon as he can."

"Okay, I'm taking it back, you have met Elli." Incorrigible romantic. "Oh my, I really need to calm that boy down."

Oh my god. He can't be a granddad in something like twelve years.

Oh my god. He could become a granddad in twenty years. He wouldn't even be fifty.

Oh my god.

"To be fair," Jack says, "you'd be a really hot forty-year-old grandpa."

"I'm flattered but we are not envisioning that scenario, mister. It ain't happening."

He leans on Jack until his back is resting against the couch, Eric on top. A hand in Jack's hair, he kisses him, slow and deep. It's been a while since he's got a relaxed — if a bit sad — Jack under him.

They make out for a few minutes before Eric rests his head in the soft dip of Jack's shoulder.

He tries not to sigh, but lord, on the matter of Elli impregnating someone one day…

"When did you know first, about being bi?" Eric whispers.

Jack hums, looking at the ceiling. His hands are warm, rubbing small circles on Eric's lower back. "I'm not sure. Probably when I got with Parse. Even then it took a while. It didn't feel life-altering or like it would define me or anything. It was just something that we did. I guess that at some point I realized it wasn't just about him, that I was, you know, attracted to men in general." He pauses. "You?"

He bites on his lower lip. "I always knew. For as long as I can remember. Is it crazy to say that?"

"Why would it be?"

Eric sighs. "It's Elli— I don't… I don't want to say anything stupid."

It takes Jack a moment, and Eric can nearly hear the wheels turning in his head. "You know him best," Jack says. "It's not stupid."

"I don't know if it's just because he's around me so much… How much I'm bleeding through or something like that, but… argh, it doesn't necessarily mean anything, that he likes princesses and ballet, and that most of his friends are girls, I mean he's a sensitive kid, that's fine… He had a truck phase, and plays Pokémon and Legos, so… Oh, I'm rambling."

He hides his face in Jack's neck, who chuckles. "It might not mean anything, but if it does, it's not like it's anything bad either."

Eric hums. "I just… I just don't want him to ever be sad about it. Or think that he can't tell me stuff. Any of it."

It’s probably too soon to hypothesize, but it’s not like Eric can stop himself from worrying about every single possibility. He wouldn’t want Elli to be miserable and feel like he can’t talk to Eric, whatever the matter may be. 

"He won't be," Jack assures him. "He's got you."

Jack kisses him and Eric hums. "And are you okay?"

"I’ll be fine." Jack sighs and looks up. "What we discussed yesterday… I’m not going to do it, okay? I’m not touching that stuff again. I would never, but now there’s you, and Elli, and… Trust me on that."

Eric smiles. "I do." 

What happens after that is a gentle, slow blur of kissing and bodies rubbing against each other. It's been a few days, Jack being away most of the time, drilling the guys at practice, or watching tape. It's not like Eric wasn't busy himself, writing down that final jam recipe and having meeting after meeting with Eleanor.

But this… this is nice.

"Bedroom?" he whispers against Jack's lips, because they're not doing it out in the open ever again, thank you very much.

Jack hums and follows him to the bedroom. Eric sits down on the bed, legs folded, and Jack comes up on his hands and knees and kisses him once more, slow and dirty, leaning above him.

Eric smirks, hands on the warm skin where Jack's tee-shirt is riding up. He's so tired his brain is unable to produce any thought but yes, this.

Jack hooks a finger in the band of Eric's jeans, and Eric lifts his hips, a small clue if ever Jack wants to do something about that zipper and the way it pushes uncomfortably against Eric's erection.

The sound the zipper makes as Jack pulls it down is obscene.

And then, a tiny knock on the door.

"Daddy?"

Jack lets go of his lips, hovering over him, as Eric closes his eyes. Lord.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"My nose is big and hurts and I think there's a monster in my closet."

Anything but this.

"There's no monster, Elli, you made me check earlier. Go back to sleep, your nose will feel better tomorrow."

On the other side of the door, Elli lets out a whine. "But I heard a noise. And it's the c'mlon monster that gets inside the walls when you don't look."

Really? Really? "I'll be there in a minute, sweetheart."

He sighs against Jack's jaw, as the small footsteps go back down the hallway. "Sorry."

"It's fine," Jack chuckles.

"Two minutes. Five, top. Sorry!"

They were really getting started, here. Ugh. This is the first time this has happened, but certainly not the last, Eric knows. And if Elli always has the worst timing — interrupting when Eric's taking a bath or having an important conversation with Eleanor — it's something Eric's used to, unlike Jack. Jack, who was expecting a nice—

"It's fine." Jack kisses his cheek. "Go. I'll wait."

Eric clears his throat and stands up, readjusting himself as he pulls his fly back up. "Lord."

He takes a breath, winks at Jack, and makes his way to Elli's bedroom.

There are no monsters in the closet, the walls, and under the bed — not even the chameleon one that gets in the walls when you don't look — on the account that they do not exist , but Elli won't be convinced.

"Daddy, can you stay until I fall asleep?"

That's how Eric gets on Elli's bed because it might just work: if Elli falls asleep reassured, he's more likely to to make it through the night. That way, Eric can go back to Jack and finish what they started.

"Can you sing a song, please?"

"Okay."

He whisper-sings something soft and slow, watching Elli's profile, the outline of it against the darker background of the wall. His round cheeks and button nose, the way his long lashes flutter against his cheeks as he closes his eyes.

When he's done singing, he waits for Elli to tell him to sing again, or for the silence to confirm he's fast asleep.

Eric closes his eyes.

Just for a second, he tells himself. Just for a second.

 

*

 

Sometime in the night, a dream: he's in Elli's room, for a reason he doesn't understand, and there's a silhouette in the doorway.

It's tall and imposing, not menacing, just big and cuddly. He's not sure how he knows; he just does.

It makes him smile, but he doesn't want to wake up, so he turns on his side, and rubs his face on the pillow. The silhouette is leaning above him, now, and where Eric's body was cold before, there's now a warm blanket covering him.

He mumbles something because he'd like to thank it, even if it's the chameleon monster that gets in the walls when you don't look.

"Sleep," the voice says, with a gentle press of lips to his temple.

So Eric does.

 

*

 

Eric was right about one thing: it's not the last time that Elli interrupts them, in the nightmare frenzy that accompanies his fever.

In the morning, Eric laughs and chirps Jack about leaving him to sleep in Elli's room, which Jack answers with a soft smile and a blush, for a reason Eric can't explain.

Once Elli's resting once more, Eric leads Jack back to his bedroom, where they exchange quick, quiet blowjobs before Jack goes to his morning jog and Eric sits down behind the kitchen island to edit last night's vlog, and to work on a few last details for the book.

Three nights later, Eric gets woken up by Elli crying at their door, after a nightmare involving an aggressive gorilla that had gotten out of his "apple cage" in Elli's bedroom. After having checked for any (nonexistent) signs of the gorilla in Elli's bedroom, he comes back to his, only to discover that Elli has dug his way under Jack's arm, both of them peacefully asleep.

The same sight finds him in the morning, as he wakes before the other two. Elli's sprawled on his back, one fist bunching up in the front of Jack's tee-shirt, the rest of his body turned towards Eric. It's unbearably heartwarming, and Eric stares at them for long minutes.

And then, because of-fucking-course, he gets sick as well.

It happens just after Elli gets better, and it's a pretty miserable end to an already miserable week for the three of them. He gets the whole of it: the fever, the sleepiness, the stiff muscles, and congestion as a fun bonus.

It's a good thing Jack is there, and it's what saves Eric's sanity in the end: Jack's able to take Elli to the park to see Mr Duck, take him to hockey, swimming, and ballet, and entertains him at home. They play Pokémon, build Lego lighthouses, and draw together (Jack colors Doctor Barbie with intense precision while Elli does, less precisely but with as much heart, horseback-riding Barbie). Every time Elli speaks, Jack listens intently, as if nothing matters more than what Elli is saying right this moment, even if it's pure gibberish. It's like he's preparing for a genie to pop out of thin air holding an Elli quiz that he can't get less than 110% on.

Every day is the same: when Eric wakes, it's to the sight of coffee and homemade orange juice ("Vitamin C," Jack insists, captain face on).

"Lord, I'm so useless," he mutters in bed, a kleenex stuck under his nose and a breakfast plate on his knees.

 "You've taken care of me and Elli," Jack says, "now let me take care of you."

"And me!" Elli adds. He drew Eric a "get better" card that got him choked up for a few moments, there. He's pretty exhausted, okay?

"Let us take care of you," Jack amends. "Anything you need."

And every time Eric falls asleep again, it's to the constant background noise of Lady and the Tramp being played in the living room.

Entertained within every minute of his life by Jack, Elli still doesn't fully understand why his dad isn't around as much. They are just finishing making dinner — québécois crêpes with maple syrup, which Jack filmed for Elli's vlog — when Elli insists that they should do something together.

"Only if it 'oesn't require me to 'o much," Eric says. He blows his nose and goes to throw it in the trash, but his eyes are watery and he misses it. With a groan, he bends down, picks up the tissue, and throws it properly.

He's twenty-eight, for goodness' sake, not a hundred. Why does everything hurt so much?

Maybe we could watch a movie," Jack suggests.

"Yeah!" Elli bounces on his stool, just as Jack presents him with the result of their earlier work, a nice-looking crêpe on a plate. "Lady and the Tramp!"

"Or maybe another movie, this time," Eric says because Jack is giving him the panicked look of a man who has watched the same Disney movie for three days on end.

"Yes," Jack agrees. "Maybe we should let Daddy decide since he's the one who's sick."

"Okay," Elli says, turning towards Eric, half a crêpe stuck in his mouth. "Choose Lady and the Tramp!"

Eric laughs — coughs, more likely. "Nope. I think we saw enough of that movie in the last few days."

"But they eat spattethi and kiss! And then they have baby dogs!"

But when Jack and Eric kiss, it's considered "gross".

"We can watch it again," Eric says, "but in a few days. There are so many other movies we could watch, and not just Disney, you know?"

"Nooo," Elli gasps. "Disney's the best!"

"What's your favorite Disney movie?" Jack asks Eric.

He frowns, trying to think of one. "I don't have one. I don't really get cartoons, to be honest."

Elli bounces on his stool. "That's not true!"

Jack quirks an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Daddy likes Cinderella best!"

Jack shoots him an amused look, and Eric groans. "That's not true. She's just—" he reaches for another kleenex, "she's just so pretty. Her dress, I mean. Iconic."

Elli laughs at him. "Daddy, 's okay to like the story, too."

"It's a boring story." He grins at Elli. "You like it because half of the time it's about the mice and that mean cat. The romance isn't that good."

He's being defensive, but it's ridiculous. Come on, Cinderella is no one's favorite movie. Maybe it was when he was like, four or five, but he's grown a brain since.

Once the crêpes are finished, Jack insists that it's the movie they should watch tonight. It doesn't take much convincing: Eric's way too tired to argue, and a movie means he can relax for two hours and not have to parent Elli too much while something else has his attention.

So, fine, they put on Cinderella, and Elli rolls on the floor until he finds a weirdly contorted but apparently comfortable position, and Eric, wrapped in a blanket, snuggles against Jack.

Jack seems curious enough, he said he never watched it before, but Eric knows he'll get bored midway through. It's just that kind of movie. At least he's comfortable there, against Jack's warm body. Ugh, he's been so cold these past few days.

The movie starts and Eric watches as Cinderella wakes up, singing about dreams and wishes. It's ridiculous how pretty she is — though he's glad animation has evolved past the need to represent women with impossibly tiny waists, but the way she moves on the screen is as if they traced her over a dancer's body. There's something so lovely about these old-fashioned movies, with these old-fashioned singing voices…

The Fairy Godmother arrives to change Cinderella into her dress, and when that happens, Elli gasps a bit and shoots Eric a look over his shoulder, a grin on his face, trying to gauge his reaction. Eric doesn't know why he's being childish about this, but he tries to keep on a neutral face. It isn't that hard, with a kleenex stuck under his nose at all times.

"It is a pretty dress," Jack whispers and he kisses his cheek.

"Ugh, don't," Eric mumbles, "you'll get sick."

"Ha, I never get sick."

Eric stares at him. Sure, honey.

He's distracted by the scene at the ball, next, Cinderella dancing with the prince. "Elli, sweetheart," he starts. "If you ever dance with a girl or a boy, and you like them, be sure to remember what their face is like. It will save you a lot of trouble."

"Sound advice," Jack chuckles.

"Okay," Elli says, sounding far away, his eyes on the television.

Eric hums, letting his head fall against Jack's shoulder. "Half-a-movie worth of trouble," he whispers to Jack. "I can't believe this is the plot. Can you imagine wanting to be with a guy who only recognizes you by your shoes?"

"They're glass slippers. I guess that detail would stick in my mind, yeah."

"Ugh, of course," Eric snorts.

"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?" Jack asks, chuckling.

"Well anyone would recognize you by those yellow atrocities."

"I think they're neat."

"They're yellow," Eric says.

"They're statement shoes."

"Is the statement run away? "

Grinning, Jack squeezes his arm, bringing him closer. Eric can feel his lips against the back of his head for a moment.

"Do you remember that time you lost a shoe at Spring C?" Jack asks, in a whisper.

Of course, he does. Jack had to carry him back to the Haus.

Eric hums. He closes his eyes. Just for a second. Just for one, small second…

"Bits," Jack whispers, a few seconds (or minutes?) later.

Eric wakes, startled. On the screen, Cinderella is dancing with the prince in the gardens, her blue dress, nearly silver in the dark of the night, twirling around her. He's glad he's not missing this part.

"It's just so pretty," he says, his voice all raspy from his nap. Truly, they don't draw animated movies like these, anymore. "Lord, if only it weren't for such a weird story."

"Daddy?"

Eric sighs. His brain feels fuzzy, and he'd rather go back to sleep. "That story was written a long time ago, Elli, and it was to tell little girls that it's not good to dwell on dreams like that. Girls like Cinderella don't usually get to marry the prince because the prince has to marry a princess."

"But he loves her!"

After seeing her once and not remembering what she looks like. Prince Charming didn't experience love, he experienced a boner.

"He does," Eric says, "and it works out well for Cinderella but it's not something that happens to everyone. The story is there to show that nobody should rely on a fairy godmother or a prince to bring them to the castle to live happily ever after because that's not real life. You should aspire to work hard and get there yourself."

"But Cinderella works hard," Elli says, staring at him with wide eyes.

Lord, he's traumatizing his child, isn't he? Is he high on cough syrup or something?

"I think what Daddy is trying to say," Jack says, diplomatically, "is that people, especially girls, do not need a prince to save them."

Not exactly, but oh well, Jack is saving faces here.

"Why?" Elli asks

"Because girls are strong enough not to have to rely on boys," Jack says.

"But they're in love. They kiss." Incorrigible romantic, that child. "Why?"

Jack blinks. "Well, because for a long time, girls in stories were shown like they always needed a prince to help them. But that's not true. So we made new stories, like, uh, Frozen, for example, to show that girls can go on adventures like boys."

"Why?"

"Okay, Elli," Eric intervenes, smiling. "Maybe we should continue this conversation tomorrow? It's getting close to good night time, sweetheart."

"But my eyes ain't sleepy!" Elli says, crossing his arms over his chest.

Bless his heart, that boy's gonna be the death of him.

"Maybe we could read together, for a bit?" Jack suggests. "Get ready for bed?"

Elli lights up. "Le 'tit prince ?" he asks, and oh my god — he's even got the accent.

They've been reading a bilingual version — Jack reading a sentence in French and then in English — since Elli is adamant to learn French after they watched The Aristocats together. It's a good idea since kids at this stage learn so fast. Elli's soon about to become better than Eric.

"Sure," Jack says. "But let's brush your teeth first, bud."

"No!"

Elli gets up and scrambles down the hallway, followed by the sound of his bedroom door being slammed shut. It doesn't take much imagination to know he's standing on the other side, putting all of his weight against the door, as if that's going to work against a 200-pound hockey player.

Jack chuckles against Eric's temple. His skin there feels on fire. Not in a good way. "I'll take care of him," Jack says.

"You sure, honey?"

"Yeah. Go to bed." Jack presses a kiss to Eric's cheek and stands up, picking a few discarded tissues Eric has left on the coffee table in front of them. "You don't have to! It's gross."

They're full of snot. Not very sexy.

Jack throws him a look, quirking an eyebrow. "I helped you clean Elli's vomit four days ago."

"Ugh, none of this is very glam, I'm sorry."

One would think dating Jack Zimmermann would entail more red carpets and cocktails than cleaning bodily fluids. Well, unsexy bodily fluids. But then, Eric wouldn't have it any other way. That's how life happens.

"I don't mind." Jack smirks at him. "Now, go to bed, or I'll have to drag you there myself."

Eric stands up, a bit wobbly on his legs. "So authoritative, uh?" He bats a hand at him. "Already such a dad."

Jack rolls his eyes and chuckles. "Go."

He's lying in bed a minute later, his eyelids already heavy. God, he can't wait for this to pass. There's so much work to do on the book, still, and Elli's been patient enough with him, but Eric needs to start fulfilling his role a bit more. None of that, though — the sheets are fresh against his burning skin, and somewhere, far, far away, a voice, reading a story.

Eric remembers this part. It's about the fox, explaining what taming means. 

"To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world..."

He closes his eyes and listens until everything fades away. 

 

*

 

Eric’s at the shopping mall, and although there are people in the distance, it's eerily quiet. As if someone has put a damper on the sound of life. It's not like he has the time to question it, one hand on the stroller, as he stops in at the ATM to retrieve cash.

He presses a few buttons and frowns: he doesn't remember how much he needs to get. He fumbles around his bag, retrieves the envelope, pins down the right number, and waits for the machine to produce the bills.

It won't.

Oh gosh, is there something wrong with his card? That can't be. He paid it off a few days ago. Surely he's got some money left.

He swallows. Tries again. He says something to Elli, something about checking the kids' store for new clothes, he's growing up so fast. Waiting for the ATM, he rocks the stroller a bit, back and forth — it's surprisingly light.

His heart hikes up his throat.

"Elli?"

He leans over the hood of the stroller, but Elli isn't there. The two straps usually holding him in are undone.

"Elliot?"

He can't have gone far. Eric looks left and right. A two-year-old couldn't have gone far on foot. That is if he isn't helped by an adult. Oh my god.

"Elliot! This isn't funny anymore!"

His throat tightens. He walks around, quickly. There are so many stores, so many colors that can entice a toddler, but Elli is nowhere to be found.

When he lifts his head, he bumps into Holster and Ransom, and sighs. Of course.

"You two have Elli, right?"

Ransom frowns. "Elli? No, we haven't seen him."

"Oh my god." Oh no, no, no.

"What did you do, Bits?" Holster asks. "Where's Elli?"

"I don't know! I— I wasn't looking, for like, a second, and he was— he— oh my god— Elliot!"

He can barely breathe — his nose is all stuffed — and keeps on calling Elli, again and again, lord, he can't be far, until Jack's arms close around his body—

"Jesus, Bits!"

"Jack! It's— it's Elli—" He's fully crying now, trying to get out of Jack's strong hold on him. "It's Elli— he's missing, oh my god— he was there and then—"

"What are you talking about, Bits? Breathe."

His eyes can't seem to focus, but the bright shopping center has faded to something dark as if night has fallen between then and now. How much time has passed?

"Shit, you're burning up."

"Jack—" he sobs. Jack's arms tighten around him, and Eric shoves a hand at his chest, nearly making him topple on the bed. The bed. "Elli's— Elli's gone."

"He's not, I swear he's not—"

"No," he says, the moment Jack restrains him again. "What's wrong with you?"

A beat. No, no, no, he doesn't mean it that way — Elli's gone and he's alienating Jack, of all things, but he needs Jack to do something, why isn't he doing something?

Before he can say anything, Jack's arms are around him, and this time, Eric lets himself melt against him.

"Elli's fine," Jack says. "I promise he's fine. We're home. You had a nightmare."

"Jack?"

"We're home. This is your bedroom. You went to sleep after we watched Cinderella. Elli's been in his room ever since. I put him to bed. We read together. Gave him his vitamins. No same color, no carnivores with herbivores. He's safe, Bits, he's okay."

Jack's words make sense — he's hearing them, but it felt so real. It still feels real, or at least, the panic does. Worse, it feels like something that could happen. His worst nightmare. Clearly.

He clings to Jack's chest, to his arms, and tries to steady his breathing. Instead, a weird sound escapes his throat, and silent tears fall down his cheeks.

Jack kisses the top of his head. "Do you want me to go check on him?" he whispers. "Do you want to go together?"

He nods. "Yes."

It takes him another moment to fully let go of Jack. The wood under his feet is cold, very cold, and his body can't stop trembling. Lord. Every single muscle of his body aches, but he needs to make sure Elli is home and safe.

When Eric pushes the door to Elli's room, he lets out a breath at the sight of the small bundle in the bed.

"See?" Jack whispers.

Just to make sure, Eric gets closer, and there, in the darkness of the room, he can distinguish Elli's face, his round cheeks, his eyelashes, peacefully asleep.

It was just a bad dream. It was just a bad dream.

He turns on his heels and wraps his arms around Jack, muffling a sob against his chest. "He's okay."

"He is," Jack reassures him. "He really is."

Proof in hand, they make their way back to bed. Eric feels fully awake now, sitting on the mattress, Jack's gentle presence beside him.

Elli's not missing. He's a good dad. Elli's not missing. He's a good dad.

"You okay?" Jack asks.

He nods, but the tears come again and spill over his cheeks. "I don't— I don't know anything about Pokémon."

Everything becomes blurry again, Jack a pale blob against the darker background.

"I'm… not quite sure I follow," Jack says.

"I don't know anything about Pokémon, I don't know anything about animals. Oh, Lord, I'm a bad father. I'm—"

"Jesus, Bitty, that's not true."

"No, no— he'll grow up— if he grows up, if he doesn't go missing because I've been inattentive or somethin', he'll grow up and resent me because we won't have anything in common, anything to talk about, it's bound to be like Coach and I, we're—"

"Woah, there. Do you truly believe that? You're an amazing father, Bits. You're nothing like Coach."

"I'm like Coach— he'll just— he'll grow up and he'll never tell me anything anymore. Oh my god, Jack."

Elli's soon going to be that kid who'll slam the door to his room and never let Eric on anything. He'll retreat and won't tell Eric if he's miserable at school or in love with a girl, or a boy. He won't tell Eric if he's bullied, and who exactly on the football team locked him in a locker overnight because he'll be afraid and distant because they won't be what they once were, what they are now .

Eric doesn't want him to. He wants Elli to be able to say stuff, not hesitate to call his dad about the serious relationship he's gotten into with his best friend from college. Not even for a second. But that's not going to happen, because that's just not how sons are with their fathers, right?

It'll be like an exorcism of a part of Eric's soul, spanning over ten, twelve, fourteen years.

"You're not your father, Bits," Jack says. "Your father… he was good, and he made some mistakes, but you're not going to make those mistakes with Elli. You know you're not."

"But I'm gonna make other mistakes," Eric says. "What if they're worse?"

"They won't be. They can't be. You love him, he loves you."

"Coach loves me. It wasn't always enough."

Jack hesitates. "Yeah, but… there's love, and then there's proof of love, right? You prove to Elli that you love him every day. He's never going to doubt it, or forget. And Bitty, are you seriously suggesting that either of you is going to run out of things to say?"

He chuckles. "Okay, put like that."

"Sure, you're not all about Pokémons or animals, but… there's so much of you in him. I guess you don't see it because you're used to it, but it's, uh, really there. It'll always be there."

He can't remember a time when his relationship with Coach was as close as what he has with Elli. Maybe that means something.

Jack gently places his hands on either side of Eric's head. Lord. They're so close. "Seriously, Bits— I guess we always compare ourselves to what we've known. To our fathers. But the fact that you're willing to make that work, that you're willing to be better… It's what makes the difference. You're a great father. Never doubt that. I won't let you."

"Okay," Eric sniffs. It's… information to process another day.

Jack chuckles, and kisses him, a gentle peck. (Ugh. Are his lips really that dry?) "Now let's get you something for that fever."

Eric's still staring at the wall when Jack gets back in the bedroom, offering him a glass of water and a white pill.

"No," he groans. "I can fight it."

Jack frowns. "Bittle, you were fighting it earlier, but now you're just burning up. Take this, or I put you in the bath."

Not the bath! "Okay, captain."

Jack chuckles. "You're so out of it."

"I'm not!"

"You are."

He hums. The water makes him feel better and he downs along with the pill. Once he's done with that glass, Jack hands him another one, as if he's producing them out of his giant ass or somethin'.

Jack laughs. Oops. He might be thinking out loud.

Jack laughs again.

Eric groans, done with the water, and settles against Jack's chest. It's a nice chest.

Maybe Jack can stop laughing, now.

"I love you," Jack says instead.

Eric hums and rubs the side of his face against Jack's shoulder. "I love you too. He really is okay. You were reading to him," he remembers now. He smiles. God bless ibuprofen. "He's so dang cute. Ugh. They grow up so fast."

It still hurts a bit, thinking about it.

"Yeah. No solution for that, though."

"Hmmmm." Eric chuckles. "That's when you get yourself another baby."

Jack swallows. He can actually hear him swallow. "Ha ha. How much do you want to bet you won't even remember this conversation tomorrow?"

"Nothin'." He closes his eyes. "I'll remember."

"Ask again when your head is screwed back on your shoulders. Preferably in a year or two."

"Hmmmm. I don't think I'll ever be able to sleep again."

If he goes back to sleep, he might get the same nightmare again. Maybe he could try to not sleep, ever again. He bets he'd be very productive.

"Do you want me to read something?" Jack asks. "Works on Elli pretty well."

Eric snorts. "If you want."

Jack moves away a bit — no, come back — before he settles back against Eric, The Little Prince in hand.

"Try to get some sleep, Bits. Oh, we stopped at my favorite part." Jack's voice is deep and slow as he starts reading. "But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…"

 

*

 

When Eric wakes up, first thing in the morning, his hair is glued to his forehead but his fever has stopped. Everything seems clear and bright around him, and even though his nose is still blocked, his throat doesn't feel like sandpaper anymore.

The moment Elli leaves his room, Eric gets on his knees and hugs him for a long time. A very long time.

"I love you too, Daddy," Elli says, slightly aggravated, patting a hand on Eric's shoulder. "But I ain't eaten my cereals yet."

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Mel @bakingmitts97

15:56 new cookbook brownies recipe: who is hE LOOKING AT????

 

*

 

It's Eric's birthday.

He's reminded of it by the quiet giggling and shushing coming from the kitchen. Five minutes ago, when he tried to step out of his bedroom, Jack gasped and Elli slammed his whole body against the door.

"Go back to sleep, Daddy! Now!"

"Okay, okay," Eric chuckled.

He's been rolling around in bed since, pretending to sleep, unsure when he'll be able to come out of his room. Instead, he listens to the not-so-subtle conversation going on in the kitchen.

"Jaaaack. You got a haircut," Elli says, noticing the post-playoff change (a month after the playoffs, but still).

"No, I got them all cut. Keep pouring, bud, you want a little bit more than that."

Elli chuckles. "You're silly!"

"Nah, I'm dad." A beat. "Oh f— câline, I— never mind. That was st— silly of me."

"You're not Dad," Elli laughs. "You're Jack!"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. It's just a joke people say, sometimes."

"That they're Dad?"

Eric tunes out at this point, a smile on his face. There's been a lot of talk about fatherhood lately, since that embarrassing conversation he's had with Jack when he was sick, after that nightmare. Goodness, everything in his brain had been muddled up and emotions high, he convinced himself he's a bad father.

Which he is not.

He knows he's not, he's not usually that insecure, but… It’s always going to be something he’ll be afraid of, that he'll turn out to be too close to his father's parenting. Or that he'll be the other extreme and Elli will become codependent on him. Jack was right, though: at least, he's got enough self-awareness to reassess himself from time to time.

They still have to address the little detail of Jack slowly taking on the role. Eric did tell him he wanted them to take their time, but everything's been going so well, and…

He sighs. This isn't just new relationship hormones talking. He thought it might have been, and sure, there's maybe a bit of that too, but every day that passes convinces Eric about the future. Jack has been nothing short of devoted and caring around Elli and him, but he's also got this careful, attentive side to him that nuances the intensity. He listens and defers to Eric when it comes to Elli, but soon that won't even be needed.

They're a team. They're working on the same line again.

Eric smiles at his ceiling, covering his eyes with his hands. Lord— Jack's the one, right?

His heart skips a beat in his chest. It doesn't come as this huge revelation, but it's also not something he allowed himself to think about before.

He just knows it, though. This is it. Is it crazy to say, this early into the relationship? Perhaps. But Jack has been his teammate, his best friend, and his lover over the years and Eric got to see him and their relationship under every angle, be it good or bad. The past is in the past — mistakes will be made, but they've learned from them, and keep learning. What they have is solid, and it'll work out. Eric's convinced.

It's still early, though, and Jack is careful to respect boundaries. It's all right, of course, it's not like Jack is cold to the idea of taking a role in what is becoming their small unit, but he doesn't want to impose either. The transition will happen naturally, then, Eric thinks, and that might be for the best. When everyone is ready.

His thoughts are halted as Elli rockets onto the bed, Jack walking in after him, carefully balancing breakfast on a tray.

They sing him happy birthday, and Eric gets a warm hug from Elli when they're done, along with a cheerful, "Happy birthday, Daddy!"

"Happy birthday, Bits."

"Aw, you two," he chuckles. "Breakfast in bed! Lucky me!"

Two cards are aligned on the breakfast tray: the first one, brightly colored, is from Elli, and the second one, from Jack, contains two passes for an outdoor spa and massages just outside of Providence. So that's why Jack asked him to take the day off, while Elli is at school.

And of course, because it's Jack, it's also a nordic spa, which is, apparently, a thing. Most of the installations are outside, modern pools of hot and cold water with a view on the Atlantic streams running behind them in the forest, birds chirping in the trees. It's an exclusive venue at that: there are tiny baby spa buildings with steam rooms and saunas spread out, so that they have their own corner of the forest for the day, without risking running into other people.

Eric wasn't sure how much relaxation a place based on cold weather could provide, but it turns out to be a lot. They go around the different baths and pools after an hour-long massage (good lord, he needed that), and Jack does this crazy thing where he jumps in the freezing water as if it isn't May and fifty-five degrees outside before he gets in the warmer pools. Eric is not pleased when Jack ends up huddling for warmth by wrapping his arms around him the moment he gets out of those icy waters.

It's a lovely outing apart from that, and they spend the day lazing around: Eric falls asleep for a good two hours as they cuddle up in a yurt, Jack with a book in hand.

He really shouldn't have been surprised that upscale spa day wasn't the only thing he was getting for his birthday, because the moment he enters his apartment again, there's a new oven in his kitchen and a good dozen of his friends singing him happy birthday.

He gets emotional in front of everyone, which is hateful, and spends the evening catching up with everyone — Holster and Ransom, Dex and Nursey, Hops, Ford, Anne-Marie and Lucky, Rosaline, Eliza — while Elli plays with Maya. It's not like Eric has time to be social outside of his work at the bakery, and he kisses Jack thank you for organizing it all. 

Shitty and Lardo couldn't come, but Jack and Eric saw them last week, as they visited them and Jaime. That little girl is two months old and already the cutest thing on Earth, Eric swears. Seeing Jack carefully picking her up against his chest (after extensively washing his hands — but Eric gets it, he was like that with Elli, too) gave him all sorts of ideas.

It's like one day isn't enough for Jack to celebrate Eric — and so, during that week, Jack peppers his life with little touches here and there, buying him flowers, baking him a cake with Elli, and such.

On Friday, Jack calls him as Eric's on the bus, coming back from his meeting with Eleanor. "There's a thing on the page that says the video's complete, now."

He’s talking about Elli's vlog — the one he filmed with Jack when Eric was sick — that Eric edited this morning and left behind at Jack's place, has finished uploading.

"Great! You can post it, now," Eric says. That's one thing off the list, and Suzanne's been asking about that vlog for a while, now. "Just make sure it's on private and click on post."

"Are you sure you want me to be doing this?"

"Of course, honey, it's easy, you'll see. And I'll be there in five, okay?"

He does make it in five, and he pushes the door to Jack's apartment with a sigh.

"It's done," he announces, leaving his jacket on the back of the sofa. In its pocket, his phone buzzes once — probably Eleanor, but one thing Eric wants is to never think about this book ever again. Especially not today. "It's finally done. I'm just waiting for proofs, now." One last check of the book's final version, and then he'll be done with it. He could really use a nap right now.

"We should celebrate," Jack says, from the kitchen.

Eric turns to face him and— stares. Jack, standing in front of the island, measuring cup in hand, is wearing an apron. Eric can't see him fully, but it looks like he's only wearing an apron.

"Should?" Eric asks voice strangled. "Looks like you started without me."

Jack looks down at the waffle cooker on the island and looks back up again with a smirk. A gorgeous naked man making brunch plucked right from Eric's fantasies. "Yeah, well, just the food."

Still gaping, he steps towards him. On this side of the island, Jack is definitely not wearing anything under that apron of his.

"Is this a part of your wooing-me plan?" Eric laughs.

"Gotta make due. I figured, since I'm-ah not-ah Italian," Jack adds, with the worst Italian accent Eric's ever heard.

He kisses the back of Jack's shoulder and presses his nose against his skin. Mh. He smells all soapy from the shower, still.

"I prefer your real accent," Eric points out.

"That's not what your dating history says."

He gasps. "I've only seriously dated one Italian guy!"

Slowly, Jack raises a hand and uncurls one, two, three fingers, counting. Outrageous. Marco shouldn't count, and Leonardo da Providence certainly doesn't. 

Eric rolls his eyes. "Chirp, chirp, chirp. I should call you a chick."

"And what would that be in Itali—" Eric drops a hand to Jack's ass, and squeezes. "—aah."

"I thought this was about seducing me," Eric points out.

Jack grins at him. "Don't tell me you don't like it." Infuriating boy. Good God, what did he and his last boyfriends talk about? "And I'm making food," Jack says, pointing his chin at the two plates decorated with eggs and bacon, and the waffle presser he's operating.

"I see that," Eric says, and slowly takes off his sweater. 

"Should be done in five," Jack says.

He hums. "Good."

He lets his sweater pool on the floor against the hard kitchen tile, and drops on his knees, behind Jack.

Oh, God. Jack's ass is a thing of beauty. It's also ridiculous. And for the first time, Eric intends to be up close and personal with it. His dick twitches at the thought. That's also ridiculous.

Jack sucks a breath in. His glutes contract, slightly, upon realization.

Gently, Eric places his hands over Jack's ass. He wants to touch it, palm it, kiss it, bite it, lick it, play with it. "Is this okay?"

"Yeah," Jack breathes out. "Though I was supposed to seduce you."

"Oh, no," he says, cutting him off right there. Jack's so unselfish in bed, Eric wants to make him go crazy just a bit. They can shift the attention wholly on him, for once. "Believe me when I say this would make me very happy."

"Okay, yeah— okay."

Eric hums again and redirects his attention to the matter at hand — quite literally. Lord. He just wants to make Jack feel good. He doesn't even know where to begin.

He runs his hands up and down Jack's ass until he hooks his thumbs in the crease where ass meets thighs, and pulls a bit. Jack's skin is soft. Fuzzy, not as hairy as some other places on his body. When he lets go, Jack's ass jiggles, and lord— Eric might lose his mind over this.

Leaning in, he presses his nose to one cheek, and gently pries the other one apart, revealing Jack's hole.

Jack inhales, sharply, but Eric doesn't move — instead, he kisses the skin under his lips, with a hint of tongue. He can't be everywhere at once, and that's a damn shame, because every single inch of Jack's body deserves his full attention, always.

Closing his eyes, he trails his lips down to Jack's thigh. Goodness, he gets to make love to his best friend this way. He gets to play with Jack Zimmermann's ass. While Jack Zimmermann makes him waffles. It's gonna show on his face the next time they're in public, right? He'll be sitting at a game and the Jumbotron will just zoom in on him and everyone will know that Eric Bittle from Madison, Georgia, eats out the best hockey player in the world. Not that he minds — the best hockey player in the world deserves it. His ass deserves it. It works so hard, poor thing.

He chuckles at the thought.

"Bits?" Jack breathes out.

Oh, no, this isn't over yet. Laughing, Eric nips him just a bit, that delightful curve that rounds the bottom of his ass, before licking his way back up, inching closer and closer to his actual goal.

Jack shifts a bit, spreading his legs wider — asking for it. Fuck.

Eric cuts short to the chase. A hand on each cheek, he pulls them apart, and licks a broad stripe up, laving his tongue over Jack's hole without stopping there.

"Ah— fuck."

Jack closes a hand around the edge of the countertop, knuckles white, looking like he might tear it out. He moves, then, and goes to touch himself, but Eric bats his hand away. "No. You're making us waffles."

"Jeez— Bittle. Are you serious?"

"Uh-hu." He's not getting back to what he's doing until Jack gets back to his cooking. "I think it's burning, by the way," he adds, going by the smell.

"Tabarnak," Jack grumbles, flipping the waffle maker open with his index finger. It does look a little burned. "I'm— doing it," he says, as he reaches for a cup of batter and spills it all over the ridged surface of the machine.

Humming, Eric leans back in and presses his lips directly to Jack's hole. No need to delay things any further. With the tip of his tongue, he traces over the puckered skin, over and over and over again. There's saliva everywhere — on his nose, on his chin — as he switches between light flickers and right-on kissing until Jack's relaxed enough he can push the tip of his tongue in without too much effort.

Jack tries to sneak in his hand under his apron again, and Eric's there to stop him once more.

"Câlisse, Bits," Jack moans. His feet have been inching apart a bit more with every passing second, and he's now nearly on his elbows, pressing his ass back against Eric's face, trying to ride his tongue.

Eric might die suffocated, his face planted between those cheeks, because he's either going to forget how to breathe or the sheer size of said ass is going to smother him. He's not even going to suffer. He'll get to die a happy man, doing what he loves most — Jack.  

Once Jack is properly riled up, barely minding the waffles anymore, Eric pushes a finger in. He watches it for a moment or two, mouth half-open, breathing hard, as he thrusts back and forth. His erection presses uncomfortably against his jeans, but fair is fair, and if Jack can't touch himself, he won't either.

He adds another finger, and Jack whimpers, spreading his legs a bit more. Oh, he's found the spot, hasn't he?

"Gorgeous," Eric breathes out.

He stands up, to get a better angle for his wrist, and Jack groans, his head falling back slightly. "Fuck me?"

Oh, God. He wants to — he really wants to, but it's not like they can do this here, not like that. Damned be that height difference, sometimes. He's ridiculously close himself, even though it has all been about Jack until now, but Eric knows neither of them has the patience to take this to bed right now.

He bites on his lower lip. "Lord, Jack— Bedroom's way far off."

"Ah— Never mind, I don't think I can move. I, uh… Thighs?"

The moment he says the word, Eric's gaze lands on Jack's thighs and his dick twitches — he was so focused on Jack's ass that he forgot about those, and lord, how could he?

He swallows. "I— yeah."

"Okay, okay." Jack brings his legs back together and lifts his arms from the counter. "I'm not gonna—"

"Me neither," Eric says, eyes still on Jack's thighs, pressed together and positively huge. He's gonna fuck them. Jesus, it feels somehow dirtier than anything else, right now.

"Okay."

He drops his pants and underwear to the floor, and steps up behind Jack, bringing his hands back to his ass. "Do we have, uh, oil or something?" he asks because even with saliva it might be a bit dry for him.

Jack fumbles for something on the counter and hands him a bottle over his shoulder.

Eric chuckles. "That's the balsamic, honey." Not the best lube option out there.

"Argh, câlisse."

He reaches for another bottle and pushes it in Eric's hand.

"And that's the extra virgin," Eric points out.

"Won't be extra virgin for long," Jack deadpans.

"No, I mean, it's fancy." And pricey. They shouldn't be using it for sex.

"Jesus, Bittle, just do it."

"Fine, fine!"

What's one bottle of extra virgin oil to Jack's salary, anyway? Even if it hurts Eric's heart, a bit?

Eric fumbles around a bit and manages to coat himself before spreading a bit of oil on the inside of Jack's thighs, making him shiver. Gently, he guides his cock between them and gasps as it buries easily in a single slick slide, Jack contracting around him, deliciously tight.

He lets his head fall against Jack's shoulder blade. He really needs a moment. "Jack."

"Bits. That's— good."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," Jack breathes out. "Jeez— fuck me."

He does. He builds up a good rhythm and the kitchen falls silent, but for the sound of skin slapping against skin, and the occasional buzzing, somewhere in the background. The waffle machine beeps a few times, and Jack, groaning, flips it open again and pushes it away.

Panting, Eric slows down and unties the knot in Jack's back, the apron's sides falling away from him. Pressing his forehead to Jack's back, he winds an arm around him, and closes his fist around his cock, hard, heavy, and leaking in his hand.

"Bits— So good—"

"Yeah."

"I'm gonna—"

"C'mon—"

Jack can't help but buck into Eric's touch, back and forth, as if unable to choose between Eric's fist or his cock. He's jerking him off hard, now, just like he's learned Jack likes it best, and there it is — Jack's cock pulses as he comes, a moan on his lips.

"Oh, fuck, Jack—" Eric pants, come dripping down his fingers.

He closes his eyes and focuses on the wet slide of his cock between Jack's thighs. It's so dang good it's like he's going to pass out — pressure is building low in his guts, and he can't help but smile. This is going to be so good. He's going to come all over Jack, and it's going to be a mess, and one day, one day soon he'll get to bury himself in Jack and fuck him properly, and maybe he'll put his mouth on Jack again, maybe even after, and—

He's mumbling, he's mumbling and he doesn't even know what he's saying. Then, suddenly, Jack's hand on his hip, on the side of his ass, urging him.

"Jack!" God — he's gonna come.

"Viens."

Jack's voice is controlled and low, a simple order contrasting with Eric's panic, and it's all he needs to let go. He climaxes, hard, smearing come all over the inside of Jack's thighs as he frantically fucks him through his orgasm.

His cheeks are still burning when he steps away from Jack, swaying on his feet. With a chuckle, Jack turns to face him and wraps him up in his arms.

"That was, uh—" Jack starts, and Eric looks up at him. His face and ears are still so read, though his eyes are half-closed, eyelids heavy.

"Good?"

"Very good."

Jack angles his face for a kiss, but Eric jerks his chin back. "Nope. Not after that, mister."

"C'mon, it's just a kiss. It's not like—"

"Yes, yes, I know, you basically live in a locker room at this point," Eric says, rolling his eyes. "I dare hope to think you’re not making out with your teammates after they rim you."

"No, we usually call it quits after everyone comes."

He tries to get Eric’s lips again, but he moves away. "I'm still not letting you do this. Let me—" Jack kisses him, on the jaw. That boy. "Let me rinse up real quick."

As he goes to the sink, he hears Jack behind his back fumbling with the apron. He's drying himself off, Eric sees, when he faces him again, and Jack lets his apron fall to the ground on the already existing pile of clothes. Gently, as Eric comes back to him, Jack seizes the hem of his tee-shirt and lifts, until Eric is fully naked against him.

This time, Eric lets Jack kiss him, for a full, long minute.

"Congrats on the book," Jack says, against his lips, and Eric smiles.

"If we celebrate like that every time, maybe I'll write some more."

Jack snorts. "Your phone," he reminds him, as it buzzes again, still in his jacket's pocket.

Eric groans, and goes to get it. "Bless her heart, but if it's Eleanor again—"

He stops in his tracks. It's not Eleanor, it's Lardo. It's the sixth time she's calling him.

"Lards?" he asks as he answers the call. The video turns on at the same time, and Lardo has the time to get a full view of his face and naked shoulders. She answers with a smirk, and that's what it takes to tell Eric nothing bad has happened. "Oh, darn it," he says, and turns the function off, leaving her on speakerphone.

"That's why you weren't answering," Lardo says. "We had an inkling."

"Hush, you. What's going on?"

"Jack's with you, I bet?"

Jack stares back at Eric. "Yeah, I'm here."

"Good on you, keeping the flame alive, while the kiddo is at school," she chuckles, sounding both exhausted and a bit envious at the same time. "Anyway, I guess you've got the news by now."

"Uh, no. What's up?" Jack asks.

"It's uh, it's the video. Elli's vlog, that you usually post on private? I don't know what happened this time but it was posted… publicly?"

Jack turns his head and stares at him, his blue eyes wide. "Shit. Shit."

"Oh, Lord," Eric breathes out. "And I guess it got… noticed?"

"Pretty much right away."

"Shit," Jack repeats. "It's my fault. I told you you shouldn't let me do this. Of course, I fucked up. And— shit." Whatever color there was still on Jack's face disappears. "I say some stuff. I say some stuff about us."

 

*

 

It goes like this:

The image takes a moment to steady, as Jack takes a step back, looking directly at the camera.

"Okay, this seems to be working. Good." He takes another step back, revealing the kitchen behind them, Elli sitting on a stool. Jack is tall, and it's not easy to have them both in the frame at the same time, so he leans in a bit. "Do you want me to do an intro?"

"No! I do the intro, please."

Jack smiles at him. "Okay. I think we're ready then."

"Hey y'all!" Elli says, very seriously, at the camera, and Jack's smile becomes a grin. "Today we have a guest: Msser Jack. Jack's tall and very good at good night stories and Pokémon and he put my hat on his head one time and that was funny because it was too tiny. And also, he plays hockey. We gonna cook together!"

A beat. "Yeah," Jack confirms. "Do you know what we're going to make?"

Elli shakes his head.

Jack steps against the island, showing the flour, the eggs, and the milk. "We're going to make crêpes."

"Whass that?"

"It's like pancakes, but bigger and thinner. We eat those in Québec, from where I'm from, with maple syrup."

"Why?"

"Why maple syrup? Because there's a lot of it in Québec."

"Why?"

"Hah. Investigative interviewing, I like it. Maple syrup is in the trees and you collect it in the spring."

"Why?"

"Hm, syrup is like water that's in the trees. When it's winter, that water freezes because it's very cold, and then when spring comes back, the water unfreezes, and then it's easy to collect. People in Québec take that syrup from the trees, then they put it in a big cauldron that they heat to make it thicker, and that gives us maple syrup."

"Okay," Elli says. "We gonna do syrup?"

"No, just the crêpes. The pancakes. I'll show you, it's easy."

"Okay!"

Jack smiles. "Let's start. So, we've got flour, eggs, and milk, and the recipe is super easy, it's 2-2-2. Two cups of flour, two eggs, two cups of milk. Can you remember that?"

"Twotwotwo!" Elli shouts, bouncing on his stool.

"Good job, bud! So, I'll get the flour first, and then you can put it in a bowl." Silence falls in the room for a minute or two, as Elli concentrates to tip the jar of measured flour into the bowl. "Then the eggs. We have to crack two."

"I can do that! Daddy showed me how!"

"Okay, show me, then."

Elli smashes the egg against the countertop, and it splatters over the stone of the island. Jack barks out a laugh, but Elli looks embarrassed. He raises his hand, full of egg, and starts to tear up.

"It's okay," Jack says quickly, "we're just gonna get another egg. Good thing we have plenty of those."

The vlog accelerates, showing Jack going twice as fast as he washes Elli's hand with a wet towel, which he uses on the counter as well, and retrieves another egg from the fridge.

"You do the egg," Elli says, "I'm gonna be asking interview questions."

Jack's smile grows. "Deal."

"Okay-dokay. What's your favorite color?"

Jack looks up, for a moment. "Hm, I haven't really thought about that for a long time. I think it changes, but right now, I like blue? Maybe a deeper shade, dark blue? You?"

Elli quirks an eyebrow at him. "That's a funny color. Green's my favorite!"

"Green's great, too."

Jack cracks the egg on the edge of the bowl.

"My Daddy can do it with one hand!" Elli says.

"My Daddy has won Four Stanley cups," Jack counters.

Elli gasps. "Thass not true!"

"It is, I'm telling you," Jack says. "He also— nah, I shouldn't be telling you this."

"What?"

Jack hums. "Well… If you promise not to say… He's got a monster in his backyard."

"Also not true! Monsters ain't real!"

"Oh, I'm telling you," Jack says. "There's a lake near the house, and sometimes when we go fishing, it'll gobble up our bait."

Elli's eyes widen. "Your Daddy caught him?"

"Once, nearly. He'll tell you all about it if you want. It wasn't at that house, though, it was at the house where I grew up. He threw his line in the water, waited, waited… And then something pulled on the line."

"A fish?" Elli asks.

"No, something way bigger than that. He pulled back — and you know, he played hockey, he's a strong guy — but he just— couldn't— get it— under control, and then, the monster pulled so hard his whole fishing gear went flying, and he fell in the lake!"

"The monster eat him?" Elli gasps.

"No, he's fine, I promise."

With a doubtful sniff, Elli wraps his arms around his chest. "Maybe your Daddy has a monster but he ain't have four Stanley cups for sure. And I don't like monsters very much."

"This one's not so bad. I'll tell you a trick," Jack says. "We usually leave him a bit of ham or sausage by the lake when we're there, so it's usually no trouble when we do that." He looks up, pensive. "Funny how it followed us from the old house, huh."

"Well," Elli huffs, still unconvinced, "I'm sure your Daddy's real nice but my Daddy is still better."

Jack barks out a laugh. "Ha! To be honest, I'll take one-hand egg-breaking over four Stanley cups anytime."

Elli eyes him, probably still suspicious from the story he just heard. "What did you want to be when you were little?"

"I wanted to be a hockey player," Jack says.

"You are a hockey player now!" Elli gasps as if this is all some kind of convoluted coincidence.

Jack grins. "Crazy, uh?"

"Okay, now," Elli frowns, thinking hard, "what's your favorite hockey line?"

Jack frowns, as he cracks the second egg on the edge of the bowl. "That's a good question," he says, sounding surprised. "You mean, my favorite line in all of hockey or on my team?"

"All of hockey!"

"Well, I'd have to say that the Canadiens in the—"

"No, no." Elli shakes his head. "Your favorite line in the ice."

"Oh!" Jack chuckles. "Okay. Uh, I like the blue line best, I think. It can get really frustrating when you cross it back to your territory, or when you're just a bit offside, but when you get on the other side of it, in the offensive zone, you know things are getting serious. You're doing a play that might result in a goal. What's your favorite line?"

"I like the red line! 'Cos it's big and red."

"I like that one too. Okay, I'm going to pour in the milk, and you mix, all right?"

Elli nods and takes the whisk. He positions himself, standing up on the stool, ready to mix the ingredients, as Jack slowly starts pouring the milk.

Once that's done, Jack takes charge of the whisk for a few seconds, to smash the remaining lumps. Like that, he's too tall to fit in the camera's frame. "Now we have to heat our pan, and we're going to make our crêpes in it."

"The big pan."

"Yes, crêpes are bigger than pancakes, so we're using the big pan. I'm going to pour the mix in, and then we can cook them together."

"Okay-dokay. Whass' your favorite Disney movie?"

Jack sits back down on the stool, his face and shoulders coming back into the frame. "I like The Lion King a lot. You? Let me guess," he chuckles, "Frozen?"

Elli grins. "No, 's not my favorite anymore!"

"Oh, no?"

"No, I like Lady and Tramp best."

"Really?" Jack asks. "But we've only watched it twenty-four times in the last three days!"

"Yeah, really! It's the best 'cos they eat spattheti and then they kiss because they're eating the same spattheti!"

"It is a good scene," Jack chuckles.

Elli hums, his legs batting in the air. "D'you think maybe we could do spattheti and then Daddy and you can kiss like Lady and Tramp?"

Jack quirks an eyebrow. "Ha, we could try. When Daddy's gonna be less sick, though. I don't think he's in a kissing mood right now."

"Nah, he's always sleeping," Elli says. "I'm gonna tell you a story now. It's the story of Daddy who is sick so he sleeps for a hundred years like Sleeping Beauty and then he has a dream about a capybara jumping in puddles like at the park 'cos puddles are fun and then you kiss 'im and he wakes up!"

"That's awesome. Though Daddy hasn't been asleep for a hundred years, not yet. No dragon, though?" Jack asks.

"Okay, we can add a dragon 'cos you like dragons. The dragon is jumping in the puddles at the park too but then he cries because his feet are wet. D'you think we can get a capybara for here?"

"Ha, I'm pretty sure capybaras aren't meant to be kept as pets, Elli. Okay, this is hot enough, do you want to pour in the mix?"

"Yeah! Up, please!" Elli asks, extending his hands towards Jack, who picks him and sets him against his hip.

A silence, as the two concentrated faces watch the mix being poured in the pan. Then, Elli reaches to touch the pan, but Jack stops his hand by closing his fist around it. "Hey, what's the number one kitchen rule?"

"Don't touch the oven or the stove because it's hot."

"Yeah, and what were you going to do?"

"Not gonna touch it, just to see if it's enough hot like Daddy does."

Jack is looking at him, doubtful. "That's my job, okay? It is very hot, so we're not going to touch it right now."

"Okay." Elli is placed back on his stool, and Jack sits down as well, monitoring the food. "Jack! How old are you?"

"I'll be thirty-three in August, so quite soon."

Elli frowns. "How much is that?"

"It's about, euh, eight times your age. I'm eight times Elli-old."

"That's a tiny bit old."

Jack chuckles. "Why a tiny bit?"

"Daddy says it's rude to say people are very old."

"Yeah, you shouldn't say that to people, but it's okay, when you're four, everyone seems old."

"D'you have a dog or a cat?"

"Yeah, I've got a few Dalmatians, but I hide them in the basement."

Elli gasps. It takes him a moment, and then another, staring at Jack's poker-face, before he breaks into a shit-eating grin. "This' not true!"

"I'm telling you it is."

"You have no basement, msser!"

Jack starts laughing. "All right, you got me there. I don't have pets, no. Here, I think this side is ready, do you know how to flip crêpes? Let's try it together."

The rest of the video is a montage of the best crêpe flips, Jack standing behind Elli, his hands over Elli's to help him control the pan. The montage slows for a short while when Elli and Jack sing a rendition of Hakuna Matata. Then, the image cuts to an eagle view of the crêpes piled up on a plate.

"Just in time," Jack says, somewhere behind the camera. "I think Daddy's getting up."

"Ugh, finally."

"Ha. Do you want to do the outro?"

"Yeah," Elli says. Then: "We're done!"

"We are. So, these are the crêpes we made together. Just pour maple syrup on them and enjoy."

"Bye-bye!"

 

*

 

"Yeah," Lardo breathes out. "You did."

Eric swallows. "And how's… What's the general reaction?"

"Right now? It's basically as if GBBO and the Stanley cup had a baby in the comments. The baking fanatics are trying to figure out who Jack is and the hockey fanatics trying to figure out who Bitty is. Everyone agrees Elli is cute as hell, though, and they're right."

"I— you didn't want Elli to be on the Internet," Jack breathes out, still staring at Eric. "Tabarnak, I fucked up."

"We'll call you back, Lardo, okay?"

"Yeah, sure. Go have that talk. But I'm telling you, the reaction is pretty much unanimously positive." There's a voice in the background, and Lardo chuckles. "Shitty kindly asks of you to stop worrying and have celebratory coming-out sex."

Eric chuckles and ends the call, before turning to Jack. "That would be a lot of celebratory sex in a single day."

Jack, in turn, doesn't seem inclined to joke, leaning against the back of the couch, arms crossed over his chest, chin up, eyes closed.

"Honey," Eric says. "Honey, look at me." He takes Jack's hands, uncurling them from his chest, and kisses his knuckles. When Jack's arms drop, he engulfs him in a hug. "Breathe, okay? Just breathe."

Jack hums against his shoulder.

"It was a mistake," Eric says. "That's not your fault. You're right, I should have shown you how to post it. But it's not the end of the world, we can take it down."

"It's been nearly an hour. That's forever in Internet history."

"Oh, now you know about the Internet?" he teases, but it's clearly the wrong timing, because Jack groans. "Goodness. I didn't mean it that way. But really, it's not the end of the world. We wanted to come out, right? Well, that's done. And it doesn't look forced or anything."

You probably can't have more authentic than Jack in his tee-shirt and jeans in Eric's kitchen, goofing with Elli. But maybe Jack doesn't want to show this part of his life on Youtube. He's always been so private.

"We can delete it if you want," Eric amends. "But we have to think that some might have downloaded it already, gif-ed it, lord knows. I'm sorry, honey, I know you don't do this kind of stuff usually."

"No, it's fine, it's— you know, Elli. You always said you didn't want to involve him in your channel."

Eric hums. "Yeah, but it's only because I don't want to make money off him, right? Like those awful Instagram moms who base their businesses around their kids. It's not like I'm keeping him away at all costs, goodness, he's on my Insta a lot."

"This is different."

"It is." He kisses Jack's cheek. "But it's not bad. I'll ask Elli about it, later, if he's okay with it. It's the cutest thing I've ever edited, by the way. I love it. I love you, and him, and seeing you two interact. I know people will, too. Maybe… Maybe that's a good thing? If you're okay with it as well, of course."

"Yeah, I guess," Jack sighs. "Shit. I'm sorry."

Eric chuckles and kisses him again. "It's okay."

"Well, people know, now."

Eric grins, and for the first time in a few minutes, Jack smiles back at him, a tiny, tiny thing, but a smile nonetheless.

"They sure do. I'm glad the video shows me under my best light, apparently, I'm too sick for kissing and I'm sleeping forever, neglecting my child."

Jack shakes his head and kisses him, a peck on the lips. "You could never. You're extraordinary."

Eric hums into the kiss.

"Shit, and to say we've never been on a date," Jack adds, sounding amused.

Eric bats a hand at him. "Ugh, it's not like we've had the time. Is this about wooing me again?"

"Eeeh—"

"Jack! Washing the dishes and taking care of Elli when I'm sick are the sexiest things you could ever do. You're wooing me just find. And the brunch is always a nice bonus." He shoots a look at the abandoned counter. "Even after it turns cold."

"Shit!"

 

*

 

 

Mel @bakingmitts97

JACK AND ELLI MAKE CRÊPES @ 13:04, DID I HEAR

CORRECTLY OR JACK ZIMMERMANN SAID HE WOULD

KISS ERIC BITTLE LADY-AND-TRAMP STYLE?!?

http://you

[411 retweets, 2k likes]

 

  ^ FALCS FTW @blueandsilver

  OH MY FUCKING GOD THEY ARE SOOO TOGETHER

  THESE TWO I CAN'T EVEN

 

  ^^ Mel @bakingmitts97

  Right??? The only thing I find weird is that Eric never

  posts videos with his kid in it? Do you think it was a

  mistake?

 

           ^^ bakeit @bakeitmakeit

           I followed him since the start and he definitely never

           showed his kid before like that. Maybe he's still sick

           and he posted the vlog on accident?

           Also… who's Jack Zimmermann?

 

                    ^^^ FALCS FTW @blueandsilver

                    BRO you don't know who Jack Zimmermann is????

 

  ^ DAVIS FOREVER A BRUINS FUCK YEAH @jonesyplayshockey

  Awesome news!!! These two were just too cute together.

  The hockey/baking world isn't ready!

 

 

 

Providence Falconers @PVDFalconers

Definitely the best interview out there of our very own #1 Jack Zimmermann.

@omgcheckplease, if Elli ever wants to lend his interviewer skills, he's

welcome to join our team in the locker room!

http://you

[5.6k retweets, 21k likes]

 

 

 

PA Lachance @luckynumber7

Hockey robot who? Jack, man, all these years, and I never

knew your favorite color is dark blue. If all hockey interviews

were like that, I think I would like them a lot more. 10/10, Elli,

keep it up, bud!

 

 

 

Alexei Mashkov @a91mashkov

crepes, good

interview, good

now I have recipe, even better )))

 

 

Alexei Mashkov @a91mashkov

not tried yet but if B has trick to make crepes

better? tell me @jackzimmermann01

 

^ Jack Zimmermann @jackzimmermann01

Hey

 

  ^^ Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease

  They're perfect just the way they are! But if you want

  to make them more fluffy, add a few tablespoons of

  beer into the mix before putting them in the pan. 😊

 

           ^^^ Alexei Mashkov @alexeimashkov

           Thank you B, you best

           Little B also best

           Zimmboni okay too ))))

           @kentparson90 we do crepes next weekend

 

           ^^^ Kent Parson @kentparson90

           😘

 

 

Kent Parson @kentparson90

How come NO ONE has ever asked what my favorite

line on the ice is? What kind of lame questions do I keep

getting instead?

 

 

 

ACES VS SHARKS, 3-3, POST-GAME INTERVIEW

"My next question is for Kent Parson. I have to ask: what's your favorite line on the ice?"

"Ha, the goal line, of course."

"Thank you, Kent. You've also heard the news that Jack Zimmermann is dating Eric Bittle, a well-loved vlogger and baking personality. Did you know about it before they announced their relationship?"

"I'm pretty sure this isn't hockey-related, so… no comment, heh."

 

 

 

INSTAGRAM

ERIC BITTLE

[Photo of Jack grinning over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.]

We're apparently recreating a scene tonight. I got outvoted, 2-1, and they're feeling very smart about it.

 

*

 

Elli's ecstatic when Eric puts him to bed, that night after he agreed that the video should stay on Youtube, even though he doesn't really understand the consequences of it.

From what Eric and Jack saw, scouring social media, the outcome has been fairly positive. It's a relief, but Eric's not naive, and he's mentally preparing himself for the other shoe to drop.

"Daddy?" Elli asks, sitting up in bed, after vitamin time.

"Yeah?"

"Can I really do inte'views with Jack's team?"

"Well, they invited you, so I don't see why not." It would be cute as heck, though they still need to be careful. Elli's associated with Jack, now, and the hockey world still has a long way to go regarding queer players. "But right now Jack's team is not playing, so maybe in the fall. We'll talk about it, okay?"

"Okay. I love hockey!"

Eric smiles. "I know you do."

"My best hockey friend Mei says she has two mommies," Elli says. His tone has changed, more careful, now, as he starts gently playing with Señor Blanco's ears.

Eric did know that, yes, Jack signed autographs for the both of them. "That's great, sweetie."

"Mei's mama was at the hospital when she was born, like me and you, but Mei's mom wasn't at the hospital and she's still her mom. Do you have to be at the hospital to be a mama or a mom or a daddy?"

"No, you don't have to," Eric says. "You remember when we talked about me adopting you?"

"Yeah! You love me very much so now we're family."

"Exactly! A parent can adopt a child even if they weren't there when they were born. So that can happen even when the child is older."

Elli nods, slowly, eyes still on Señor Blanco. Eric thinks that might be it, but…

"Can I maybe one day have two daddies?" Elli asks.

Eric blinks. Sits down on the bed. Hands on his lap. "Of course, Elli. One day, if you want to. And if your… future daddy agrees as well."

Elli nods again, humming a bit. He's playing it mysterious, asking general questions as if Eric doesn't know the specifics of what they're talking about in veiled terms. As if Elli isn't blood of his bl— soul of his soul, light of his life.

I can hear the mechanics of your mind, child, Eric wants to laugh, I can see them turning and I know your conclusions before you arrive at them. He knows Elli better than Elli knows himself, and even though that's bound to change, Eric wants it to stay that way, forever. 

It's clear that Elli wants Jack, that Elli wants Jack to care for him in that very same way Eric cares for Elli, which Jack already does.

And Eric knows that Elli isn't asking who , anymore, like when they had that conversation in the bathroom what seems like ages ago now, when Jack visited them for the first time, but when .

And even though all good things take time, as he was told not so long ago, Eric now irrevocably knows the answer to that unspoken question is soon.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Life changes over the course of a weekend.

Eric's Youtube channel gets a good new 50k followers, and he nearly forgets how to breathe when he sees a few of the names from both the hockey and baking world now following him. Jack gets a few more on his Twitter as well, not that he uses it much.

There's a lot of attention on them on social media, but Eric expects it to die out in the next few days, as most celebrity-related news does.

It's a small price to pay to be able to live his relationship fully, though —  not only does he not have to worry about the content he posts online, but he can actually brag about his little family on social media. It feels like coming up for air after having spent a long minute underwater, protected from the world, but suffocating at the same time.

He gets to update his Instagram on Sunday evening, as he's been covering a last-minute sick leave at the bakery. Eric doesn't usually work weekends, because of Elli, but Jack took him for the day, to run some errands and spend the afternoon at the park.

He stops right in his tracks as he crosses the threshold of Jack's apartment, still holding up his keys with one hand.

"Daddy!"

Eric doesn't move, still gaping.

Jack catches on his expression and smiles. "We're having tea," he explains.

"I can see that," Eric says, eyes wide. "How come?"

Jack flips his long, blonde braid over his shoulder. "Because princesses have tea?"

Okay, so, when Eric walked in, he didn't expect to find Jack and Elli seated around Elli's small green table, holding empty pink plastic cups. What he definitely didn't expect is witnessing Jack dressed up as Elsa, blond wig sitting awkwardly on his head, strands of brown hair persisting around his temples, an XXL fake-satin dress stretched over his chest and shoulders.

Elli, in turn, is wearing a full Olaf suit, the hood of it falling over his eyes as he looks up towards Eric, half-blind but grinning at him.

"We made a deal," Jack continues, "that I'd buy the costumes if we re-used them for Halloween. I hope that's okay?"

"Yes, of course," Eric says, still smiling hard. He thought nothing could be more priceless than this before Jack mentioned trick-or-treating around the neighborhood dressed as a princess. "You two are too cute for this world, let me take a picture real quick."

He does, and when he gets to them, Jack tilts his head up to receive a quick kiss. Elli doesn't even react — because some things can apparently be solved through the use of a single cooked spaghetti.

"Daddy, sit with us!" Elli says instead. "You can be Anna!"

"All right, sweetie," Eric says, and leaves his bag to the side before he kneels on the ground, in front of the table.

He posts the picture later, both on Instagram and Twitter, after Jack begrudgingly accepts sharing it. Quite understandably, the Internet's ovaries explode.

Still, the consequences to their coming out seem pretty mild, until Eric fetches Elli from school, a few days later.

Elli runs towards him, backpack bouncing on his back, and hugs his shins until Eric picks him up and kisses his cheek.

"How was your day, baby?" he asks him as he makes his way towards the door. He was a bit late today — he had a meeting and Jack's in Boston for an event — so Elli had to stay a few minutes with Anika after the other kids had gone.

He thanks Anika, over his shoulder, and opens the door, to the flash of cameras in front of him.

It takes him a moment to understand what's happening. A very inelegant moment during which he gapes at the men and women in front of him — a good dozen of paparazzi standing there like him and Elli are some kind of zoo animals.

"Daddy!" Elli squeals, surprised, burying his face in Eric's neck.

Eric hurries inside, shutting the door behind them, hugging Elli tightly. He vaguely registers the sound of a shower down the hallway, and swallows, his mind blank.

"Daddy?" Elli's eyes fill with tears. "Whass' going on?"

"Nothing," he answers, quickly, heart beating fast in his chest. "Nothing's wrong, sweetheart, there are just a lot of people outside. We'll wait for a bit until they go away, okay?"

He's a fool if he thinks they'll go away this easily. They're likely to wait until he comes back out again, and then they'll follow him to the bus stop, where he'll have to wait under the eyes of the cameras. He's got a child with him, for goodness' sake. And he can't even do anything about it. People are vile.

"I wanna go home," Elli says. 

"I know, sweetie, I know." Think of something. Think of something. "It's just that… I'll call someone to come and get us, okay?"

Elli's eyes widen expectantly. "Jack?"

Eric winces. As much as he would like Jack to be here with them right now, he's in Boston for a You Can Play event, and not coming back before later tonight. There's no need to make him worry by calling him, not when he can't be here to help them. Eric can manage this, he only needs someone with a car.

"I'll give Uncle Shitty a call, okay?"

He hasn't seen him since Jaime's birth, understandably, but if Lardo is home too, maybe one of them could come and get him.

Shitty answers on the second ring. "Hey, Bits, what's up?"

"Shitty, hi. Uh… I'm fetching Elli from school right now and there are… people at the door."

"People?"

Uh. He shuffles a bit. "You know, paps," he whispers, unsure why he doesn't want Elli to know the word. Maybe because he's four and deserves none of this.

"Fuck," Shitty breathes out. "Say no more. I'm on my way. Stay inside when I get there, okay? I'll come and get you two."

"Okay. Thank you," he sighs, with relief, as Shitty hangs up.

"Uncle Shitty?" Elli asks.

"Yeah, he's coming to get us and drive us home."

Elli squeals a bit, delighted, but his expression falls suddenly. "I don't have a drawing for him."

"That's okay, you can draw something for him later."

"Daddy, what's a pap?" Elli asks, hugging Eric's neck. "Is it like a papa?"

He says the word with an accent that is definitely not English — popa — and Eric frowns at him, smiling at the same time. "Where did you hear that?"

"It's in Schtroumpfs!" The French version of Smurfs, the latest comic Elli and Jack are reading together. Eric's slightly afraid Elli's about to become better than him in French, at the rate they're going. It's a good thing, though, learning another language at an age when it barely requires an effort. "There's Papa Schtroumpf and he's their daddy 'cos papa is daddy in French and maman is mom in French. Jack teached me that."

"Taught," Eric corrects, instinctively. "But no, a paparazzi is not a papa. It's a person that wants to take your picture because you're famous."

Elli blinks. "I'm famous?"

Eric laughs and kisses his cheek. "Not you, sweetie, but Jack is. And now since everyone knows me and Jack are boyfriends, they're curious about who we are. It won't last, I promise. The important thing is to not acknowledge they're there."

"We're playing ninjas!" Elli says, as if all of this makes sudden sense to him.

"Ninjas?"

"Yeah! When you were sleepy, me and Jack went to the bakery and we bought lots and lots of bread and pastries and then there was a pap taking pictures but Jack said we had to play ninjas so if we don't look, the bad people goes away and they went away so Jack gave me a chocolatine because I was the best ninja, he said."

He remembers this now — Jack did say that someone took pictures while he was grocery shopping when Eric was sick and that he had to turn down another (nicer) lady who had asked for his autograph since he was with Elli. Unlike the other person taking pictures, she had backed down with a smile and a wave and an exciting story to tell her friends.

Also explains why Elli was hyperactive as hell all morning after that croissant.

"So you know how this goes, then," Eric says, with a smile.

"Yeah," Elli says, with a serious nod. "I'll show you when we go outside. It's hard being a ninja but you can do it."

"Okay, sweetheart, thank you."

Shitty arrives in a storm of honking sounds and parks directly in front of the preschool's entrance. Between here and the car are quite a few meters of playground and then a high fence, which Eric is thankful for. Shitty told him to wait inside, so he does, watching what action unfurls outside while Elli, sitting on a chair in the entrance, is absorbed by a game on Eric's phone.

Shitty gets out of the car and slams the door. The last time Eric saw him this angry is when the LAX bros were messing with a frog at a Haus kegster.

"All right, ladies and gents!" he shouts, and a few paps turn their heads. "You've had a great time, now please shove those cameras back into your asses and scram."

A few of them look uncomfortable, but most are still staring dead ahead at Eric, hidden behind the blurred windows of the entryway. Lord, he hates this. He can feel the hair rise on his skin.

Shitty seems to be mumbling something, something that sounds a lot like motherfuckers.

"Do you fucking know what I am? I'm an AMC." Attorney for a minor child. That gets the paps' attention, finally. "And you lot are currently waiting in front of a preschool with cameras. Anyone fancy themselves a juvenile pornography case? No? Get the fuck out of here or meet me in court."

Most of the paparazzi finally clear away, and after another minute, Eric picks Elli back up in his arms. "Ready to be a ninja?"

"Yeah!"

He opens the door and makes long strides to join Shitty, who opens the back door. There's no kid seat but Elli should be fine for a short drive, and Eric sits down in the back with him.

Like seagulls, the paparazzi storm the car, but with its tinted windows, they won't be able to get a picture — lord, they still probably got a bunch of long-distance shots as they walked to the car. It still impresses Elli, who bundles up in his raincoat, eyes on the cameras, as Eric manages to get the seatbelt around him.

This is hateful.

Good lord, he really hopes it doesn't last, but he knows the paparazzi will likely be standing there in the morning, and back at three.

Elli's probably safe at school, isn't he? Paparazzi can't take pictures of kids alone. That would make a case for Shitty to take care of.

At least they weren't shouting profanities, or worse — accusing Jack and him of things they shouldn't be ever guilty about, hate Elli shouldn't get to hear at such a young age. Or ever, really. Wow. No wonder Britney ended up like that. Eric wouldn't last the week. Or he'd go feral, if anyone tried to do, or say anything to Elli.

It's only when they've properly driven away that Shitty's eyes set on him through the mirror.

"Earth to Bitty," he says, with a slight smile, and for the first time in forever, Eric's shoulders drop.

"Thank you, Shitty. So much." He tries to sound casual, but his voice comes off as intensely grateful.

"No problemo, my friend. How are you? How's my man Elli?"

"Good!" Elli grins, batting his legs in the air. "Today we did Playdough and I did a capybara and a croc that are taking a bath in a puddle in the jungle and that was super cool! I don't have any drawings for you and Aunt Lardo, I'm sorry."

"That's okay, bud. Next time you can come to our place, meet Jaime and we'll draw together, all right? I'm glad you had fun at school."

"Talking about invites," Eric says, his brain slowly whirling back on, "did Jack tell you about dinner next week?"

They've been planning this for a while now: Jack usually has dinner with Kent and Tater after the end of their respective teams' playoffs, and since the Aces lost last week in the Conference finals, Kent's been in Providence for a few days before they get back together to Vegas.

"On Saturday, right? He did. Kent Parson, huh?" Shitty asks, careful as if he is monitoring Jack's behavior behind their backs or something.

"It's fine," Eric says, and it is.

They've talked about it for a long time: Jack was the one who wasn't sure, and clearly, he had trouble reading if Eric's faking it just to make him happy or if he's truly fine with Kent attending. It's the latter, of course. It's not like Eric thinks there's still something going on between Kent and Jack — they were seventeen, and it went the way it went. Whatever grudge Eric still holds is for Jack's sake. He hasn't forgotten Epikegster, and he'd be surprised if Kent has changed that much. He trusts Jack though, and he's ready to put his feelings aside for the span of an evening, to let Jack enjoy dinner with his close circle of friends.

Shitty quirks an eyebrow at him.

"Ugh, not again ," Eric sighs because he's tired of having this conversation. "I'm telling you it's fine. I'm not lying to make anyone feel better. Bless his heart, Parson and I aren't best friends, but it would be rude to invite Tater and not him. And this one is eager to meet his idol," he says, nodding at Elli, who grins back at him.

"Kent Parson! He's Jack's friend. He's also the best hockey player, he plays center with the Aces and his jersey is black, he's number 90 and that's super duper cool."

"All right, all right," Shitty concedes. "We'll try to make it. You know how it is, though."

First time leaving the baby? Yeah. Not the best feeling in the world.

"You could bring her," Eric says. "I'm sure we could arrange some kind of cot for her."

"Nah, brah," Shitty says. "We've got to cut the cord at some point, right?"

"Ugh, I'm sorry. That ain't gonna be easy."

Shitty's answer is a small, peaceful smile. His thoughts seem already far away, and Eric can imagine where they went.

 

*

 

Jack is rightfully pissed about it when Eric tells him about it, that same evening. Elli's been long gone to sleep when Jack gets home, so it's only when they're entangled on the couch, the game on mute in the background, that Eric breaches the subject.

He texted Anika a bit earlier today, asking her if she wanted them to change schools, considering the attention they brought to it and the other children. Furious, Anika replied that they were going nowhere and that she'd employ security if that was needed.

Jack is equally eloquent about it.

"Esti," he breathes out as he stands up, as if unsure what to do with himself. "It's already bad enough when they follow me, now they're trying to sneak pictures of a child?"

Eric sits back up. "Honey," he says, "we knew this could happen."

Jack throws him a look.

"Okay, maybe not that they would show up at Elli's school, but I should have known it wasn't outside the realm of possibilities."

"This isn't your fault," Jack says. "If it's someone's fault, it's mine."

"It's no one's fault but the paparazzi's," Eric points out, calmly.

Jack passes a hand through his hair. "How are you not freaked out by this?"

"I was, earlier. We have a child under our care, though, we can't be both freaking out at the same time."

"Okay," Jack says. "Okay."

Eric shifts on the couch and reaches for Jack with a hand. Jack seems to get the clue, because he sits back down, and lets Eric wrap an arm around his shoulders.

"Shitty scared them off pretty good," Eric whispers. "Maybe they won't be back tomorrow."

"I fucking hope not. I'll drive you."

"Oh, honey." He hesitates. "Don't you think we're instigating the fire if you show up as well? And you've got PT in the afternoon!"

"I don't care," Jack says, adamant. "I really don't care. I'm not letting you go alone. I'll reschedule PT."

Eric bites on his lower lip, snuggling closer against Jack. He hoped for an answer of that kind, even though in reality he knows it won't help the situation. He needs Jack to be with him, though. They work better when they're together, whatever the problem may be.

"Please," Eric breathes out, to which Jack answers with an intense kiss.

"Of course," he says. In the darkness of the room, his eyes are nearly transparent. Like the blue sea at night. "When does it stop, though?"

"I don't know, honey. In a few days, I hope. The good thing is that if we keep posting pictures ourselves, nobody will buy bad ones from paparazzi."

Jack quirks an eyebrow at him. "Is this your way of saying I need to find more Disney costumes?"

"Listen, if that's your thing," Eric chuckles. "It'll pass," he adds, serious this time. "You know how it is, they'll move on when the next big thing happens."

Jack sighs. "Here's to hoping for a new scandal soon."

Yes, Eric thinks. That wouldn't be too bad.

 

*

 

"Daddy!" Elli squeals for no reason at all, while Eric is padding him with the large towel.

He's just bathed him after an afternoon spent outside learning without much success how to ride a two-wheeled bike, which they gifted Elli as a soon-to-be preschool graduate. The three of them had a lovely time — without paparazzi, this time, as the interest died out after a few days — only cut short by Eric having to come back to Jack's apartment to check on the slow cooker for tonight's dinner.

They're having guests, and the apprehension is palpable.

Elli is squirming as Eric tries to dry him off, but the transition from the towel to the freshly picked-out clothes isn't smooth, and then there's a naked child sprinting around the condo.

"Naked kid on the run!" he shouts, just so that Jack doesn't collide with Elli while handling something hot in the kitchen.

Exhausted, he makes his way towards the kitchen, where Jack is watching the food, seated on a stool. Just in front of them, in the living room, Elli is running circles around the coffee table, laughing like a particularly manic witch performing a satanic ritual.

Jack glances at Eric, eyebrows high on his forehead.

"I don't even know," Eric sighs.

"Do you want me to catch him?"

"Nah, he's bound to crash in a minute or two. He's excited about Kent."

Jack rolls his eyes. "Why must everything in life continually contribute to Parse's giant head?"

"Aw, are you jealous?"

That would explain why Jack's looking slightly grumpy.

"Well," Eric says, linking his arms around Jack's shoulders, "you're my favorite, so." He kisses him, a gentle peck on the lips. "And you're Elli's too, but it's not like you meet your idol every day."

Lord, he loves Jack, but if Eric were about to meet Beyoncé, nothing else would be at the forefront of his mind.

Jack opens his mouth, about to answer, when the distinctive sound of feet slipping on the floor and a crash against a wall comes their way, followed by an enormous sob.

"Why do four-year-olds have no brain?" Eric says, closing his eyes and pressing his forehead to Jack's shoulder.

"I can go," Jack offers, chuckling.

"No, it's fine. Please check the meat if it beeps before I'm done, though, okay?"

Jack kept wanting to help while Eric was busy in the kitchen. It's not like he doesn't want Jack to help but… deferring a task can be harder to manage, in the end. Eric asked him to watch the slow cooker, in the end, not unlike when he asks Elli to hold a whisk for him he uses once or twice when baking.

Jack nods and Eric follows the sound of the crying down the hallway. There's not even a bruise, and the sobbing stops after a few seconds, followed by manic laughter and much bouncing, this time thankfully clothed.

"Daddy," Elli asks, once Eric has buttoned up his tiny shirt. "Can I wear the boo-tie today please?"

He fetches the red bowtie from the drawer, trying to keep his cool. He cannot laugh at his son's best attempt to impress someone, even if that someone is a thirty-something-year-old man in a long-term relationship.

"I can have some hair goo please?" Elli asks.

He means pomade, which Eric obediently fetches from the bathroom, and tries to tame the tall floof that is Elli's hair by smoothing the sides a bit and styling the front.

"How do you like it?" he asks, raising Elli in front of the mirror in the hallway.

"I'm cute!"

"That you are." He presses a kiss to Elli's cheek. "Be good, tonight, okay?"

"Yeah. Can I go finish my drawing now?"

Eric nods, brings him back to the kitchen, and lets him down on the stool in front of the unfinished drawing (and soon-to-be gift) depicting Elli along with Kent and Tater. Jack's looking at his phone, so Eric moves towards the counter and takes a peek in the crockpot. Everything is looking nice and smooth — he should start the vegetables soon.

"Woah," Jack says when he looks up from his phone. "You're looking good, bud."

Elli smiles. "Thank you. You're cute too!"

Eric laughs, and glances over his shoulder to witness the funny look on Jack's face. "Thank you," he says. "I don't have a bowtie, though."

"That's okay. Can you help me write the name of the drawing maybe if you're not busy, please?"

"For sure." Eric hears the stool screeching on the ground as Jack brings it closer to Elli. "What do you want me to write?"

"Me and Msser Kent Parson and Msser Tater. And then I'm gonna sign it."

"Okay. There," Jack says passing the sheet back to Elli.

"Thank you, Jack. I love you."

Eric whips his head around so fast a muscle in his neck stings, just in time to see Jack blink a few times. "I love you too, coco."

A soft smile replaces the shock on Jack's face, and Eric can't help but grin at the two of them.

There is no time to process any of it, because as Elli is signing his drawing, he speaks again, tone business-like. "Now, Jack, can you tell me what's vagina?"

Oh my god.

Eric snorts and covers his mouth with his hand. Either Elli has no concern about jumping from one topic to the other, or he uses some kind of very twisted manipulation techniques. Knowing his child, the first option is the most likely.

"Ah," Jack lets out. "Well…"

He shoots a look at Eric — while Jack probably wouldn't mind explaining it himself, it's probably better if Eric does.

He steps up to the island and puts down the empty wine glasses he was fetching from the cupboards. "I can answer that," Eric says.

Elli pushes his drawing away, signature done, and brings his hands together, interlacing his fingers on the stone of the island. Dressed like that, it does seem like they're having a business conversation. Lord, he can't delay this conversation. In turn, Jack goes to the drawers to fetch whatever they need for the table, a respectful retreat.

Right. Now or never.

"So, you know how Lardo had baby Jaime?" Eric tries. Exemplifying it would probably be easier for Elli to understand.

"Yeah!"

"Well, Jaime was in Lardo's belly and she came out through Lardo's vagina. It's like a hole that some people have between their legs."

Elli blinks. "Like a bum?"

"A little bit like a bum, but some people have a bum and a vagina, instead of a penis like you and me."

"Why ain't I have a vagina?" Elli asks, frowning.

"Because you were born with a penis." He bites on his lower lip. He really hopes he gets this right. It's as if Shitty is watching over his shoulder right now. "Most boys are born with a penis and most girls are born with a vagina. But sometimes, someone is born with a penis but they know they're a girl, and someone can also be born with a vagina and know they're a boy."

"Okaaay… But I'm a boy," Elli says.

"Yeah." Eric smiles. "Unless you ever feel like that's not really who you are. You can tell me then, even if you're just unsure."

"Okay." Elli pauses. Then: "Daddy I think I'm a boy."

Eric shakes his head. "Okay, sweetie, that's great. Do you have any questions?"

"Yeah! How did aunt Lardo get a baby in her belly?"

He clears his throat. There we go. "Well, because Uncle Shitty… put one there."

Elli's frown only deepens. "But how? He put the baby in her mouth and she ate it?"

In his back, Jack wheezes, evidently against his best self-restraint efforts. Goodness. It's fine for Elli to be curious, but he should probably steer away from Shitty and Lardo's sex life, especially when it involves… not baby-making.

"Goodness, not really like that, no, it's…"

"What?" Elli pushes.

"Okay," Eric says and sits down on a stool. "You remember that documentary about lions? That bit when they were reproducing?"

"Yeah…"

"That's called sex," he says, gently, "and that's how you make babies." There. No detours. "When two adults love each other very much—"

"Like Aunt Lardo and Uncle Shitty even though they ain't married!"

"Yes, like them. So, when they feel very much in love, they can have sex and try to make a baby, by inserting the penis inside the vagina."

Elli's eyes widen. Lord, is he traumatizing his child? "But Daddy, you only have to do it once , right? It's grooooooss!"

He bites on his lower lip, trying not to outright laugh at him and appear reassuring at the same time. It doesn't help that Jack is still giggling.

"Sex isn't gross, sweetie. It's for adults, though, but it's very natural and it's not something you should be ever ashamed of once you grow up. But you also won't have to do it at all if you don't want to," he says, serious. "Sometimes, though, when you try to make a baby you have to try more than once."

Elli hums, eyes narrow as if convinced that Eric is embellishing things. "Jack," he says instead, turning towards him. "D'you have a penis?"

"Oh my god, Elli!" Eric gasps, as Jack barks out a laugh — ugh, don't encourage him!

"What?"

"You can't ask people that!"

"Why?"

"It's private stuff."

"Like when Auntie Judy tells Moo Maw the jam is private?" Elli asks.

Eric deflates. "Well… yes, a bit. But it's a lot more impolite to ask about someone's private parts, okay? No one should be asking you, and you shouldn't be asking others either."

"But I wanna know!"

Jack steps back into the kitchen, squeezing a hand on Eric's shoulder. "Daddy's right," he tells Elli. "You shouldn't be asking that type of question. But yes, I have a penis."

Elli slaps his hands to the sides of his head, elbows on the stone of the island. There could be a bubble popping over his head showing the gears turning.

"But… Daddyyy!" he moans. "If you have a penis, and if Jack has a penis… How y'all gonna make babies?"

Eric blanks.

He wants to laugh because Elli thinks to have found a little hitch that Jack and Eric have never thought of earlier. He doesn't laugh, though because… Elli's kind of right, as in it's way too early for either of them to have even mentioned the subject, yet.

Jack doesn't seem too deterred, though. "That's a fair question," he points out, smirking. "How are we gonna make babies?"

Eric squints at him.

"Well," he says, choosing carefully his words, "we're not thinking about having… more babies, right now, Elli. And if we ever wanted to, there are, uh, different possibilities. We could adopt, for example."

"Like me!" Elli squeals.

"Yeah, like you!"

Elli nods. "Okay, I see. Are they gonna be here soon? It's been soooo loooong."

So, the sex talk wasn't that traumatizing if they're already onto the next topic.

A few minutes later, while Elli has retreated to the couch, Eric lets his forehead down against Jack's shoulder. "How did I do?"

"Honestly? Pretty good. Shitty would be proud."

The moment he says it, the bell rings. Jack smiles as he glances at the door. "Speaking of the devil…"

It's not the devil: just Parson.

They all greet each other, and Tater nearly sweeps Eric off his feet in a warm hug, with a roaring, "B! We not talk enough last time at barbecue," he adds. "Your jam very good. Crêpes with beer very good, too."

"Thank you! Though the crêpes were all Jack and Elli, of course."

"Aaah, yes!" Tater roars and leans down a bit to have a good look at Elli, whose fists are clenched in Eric's jeans. "Video is great, Little B. We make crêpes and have nice Sunday morning last week."

"Thank you, Msser Tater," Elli mumbles, with a sudden shyness that intensifies when Kent meets his eye. Who is also holding an adult-size hockey stick and a Pokémon gift bag.

Someone has been exchanging information.

Kent bends down in a squat, in front of Elli. "Hey, buddy." He offers a fist, that Elli timidly tries to bump, missing it by an inch. "Did you enjoy the Conference finals?"

Whatever happened between Eric and him, Kent is clearly able to put it aside for Elli's sake.

Elli nods. "Yeah, it was fun but not when it was OT and you lost."

"Ah, sorry bud, we'll try to get 'em next time, all right?"

If Kent's waiting for an answer, he doesn't get it: Elli only squirms, twisting his fingers, his face blushing harder by the second.

It's not like Kent doesn't have any experience with young, shy fans, so he powers right through. "We're glad to have a fan like you, though. I brought a few things as a thank you." He picks the hockey stick leaning against the wall and presents it to Elli. "I played with that stick in the Conference finals, so I signed it for you, to go with the puck," he says, showing the silver signature on the dark blade. "And there's this for you too."

He hands him the Pikachu bag, and Elli sits down to open it, with a quiet, "Thank you, Msser Kent Parson."

"You can call me Kent, buddy," he chuckles. "I'm not that old, I promise."

Without answering, Elli opens the contents of the bag, to reveal an Aces jersey — it's also signed on the back, but adult-sized. If Elli is going to swim in it for a few years, it's a gift that will last.

"Thank you, Kent Parson," Elli mumbles once more, before looking up at Eric. "Daddy! Look!" he says, showing the jersey.

"That's a great gift, sweetheart," Eric agrees. "I'll go put it in your room, okay?"

It takes him a moment to find a place for the stick in the small room, but he sets it in the arms of the giant teddy (yes, it had to travel with them from Eric's apartment to Jack's, for a single night). Once he has done so, he hears the bell ringing again. When he comes back into the living room, Shitty and Lardo are standing there, exchanging hugs and fist-bumps with everyone.

"So, how are you coping?" he says, pulling Lardo in a hug.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," she says, smiling valiantly. "She's with my parents, it's not like we've left her in the hands of a sixteen-year-old babysitter. This one, though," she says, voice low, cocking her head towards Shitty, "he's totally putting on a brave face, right now."

She's right, from the way Shitty wraps him in a tight hug, a bit less exuberant and a tad more desperate than usual. "Bro," he lets out, no other words needed.

"Don't worry," he laughs. "We won't keep you for too long. I do want to hear everything about her, though."

Shitty pulls up his phone from his pocket. "Bruh, I've got pictures."

They sit down in the living room, wine glasses in hand, while Elli cuddles with Lardo in one of the armchairs.

Shitty proceeds to show around a few pictures of Jaime (there seem to be approximately a million of these on his camera roll), narrating with exuberance every single event that happened in the last few days. Tater fawns over the little girl on the screen, and even Kent cracks a smile.

"She smiled," Shitty says at some point. "I'm convinced she smiled, but I lost my darn phone and couldn't fetch it in time for a picture. Remember, Lards?"

"I do. You nearly missed it because you were panicked about your phone."

"Aw, precious girl!" Eric coos, while Jack passes an arm around his shoulders.

"She is," Shitty says. "And it's not like I need pictures of every single thing that happens to her, you know? Gotta live in the present, carpe diem and all that shit, but it was her first smile."

He looks a bit teary at that, and Eric gets it — he would have documented every single second of Elli's baby and toddler days if he could have.

Lardo launches into a recounting of her first family art project inspired by Jaime, and Eric watches from the corner of his eye as Elli relocates and starts climbing the obstacle course that is Tater, who plays along and tries to catch him, swinging him from one side to the other when he does. Elli's purposefully ignoring Kent, it seems, who doesn't look bothered by it, as he strikes a conversation with Jack and Shitty about the Sharks' chances to win the Cup, just as Elli comes to sit on Jack's lap. ("Can we play Lego?" — "Not now, coco. Tomorrow, okay?") Eric is crossing his fingers for Chowder, who had been with the Oilers when the Sharks won a few years ago, but he knows the Flyers are going to put up a good fight.

He walks over to the kitchen to check on the food, while Shitty and Jack's conversation becomes more and more animated. Elli is climbing Jack now, who manages to steady him on his shoulders while continuing his conversation with Shitty. Goodness, he should really be careful with that shoulder of his.

Eric turns the slow cooker off. "Okay, y'all, I think we can move to the dining room," he announces.

Jack joins him in the kitchen while the rest of them slowly start moving. Kent's conversing with Lardo when Elli steps up to him, bowtie and all. It's the first time tonight he's acknowledged his presence after greeting him.

"Msser Kent Parson, can I walk with you to the dining room please?"

Kent and Lardo's faces break into delighted grins and everyone in the room chuckles.

What the— Did his child just ask Kent Parson out?

"It would be my pleasure," Kent says, stands up, and takes the hand Elli offers to him.

The only thing Elli is able to produce as an answer is a beaming smile and a weird gurgling noise.

Elli wraps his finger around Kent's index as they make their way down the hallway, and Kent turns his head over his shoulder to wiggle his eyebrows and smirk at Tater, as if saying, "See? That's romance."

Tater laughs and follows them to the dining room, Lardo and Shitty in tow.

Eric turns towards Jack and tucks his head against his shoulder. "Oh my god."

Jack snickers. "He's got game, for a four-year-old. And guts."

"Oh my god . You two. I can't even." Kent Parson. Seriously? Seriously? "I really don't see it."

"Sorry," Jack laughs. "You okay?"

"Ugh, it's fine." He can't think about it for too long, though. "That kid is too cute for his own good. Huh. Let's bring this to the dining room."

They get everything on the table and finally settle down. Eric's chair is the closest to the kitchen, with Jack on one side and Elli on the other. As Jack serves wine, and Elli makes a motion towards it with his tiny fists.

"I want wine, too!"

"That's for adults only, Elli," he says, quirking an eyebrow. Elli's never asked for wine before, but it's evident he's trying his best to impress a certain someone. Oh, lord. "You can have grape juice, though," he adds, picking the carton from the middle of the table.

"Jack," Elli asks, "can I have wine?"

Oh. So we're resorting to strategies, now.

"Ha," Jack says, ruffling with his free hand through Elli's hair. "You have to listen to Daddy, coco. Wine's not that great, I'm telling you."

Elli bounces on his chair with a moan of discontent that sounds pretty close to crying. "I want wine, I want wine!"

Thankfully, everyone but Jack seems to be too taken by their conversations to notice this is happening. Moments like these are so embarrassing, but what can he do?

"Elliot," Eric says, calmly, as he gives him a stern look. "You can't have wine. So, juice or water?"

Elli's body shakes through a first sob, and Eric wants to sigh. It's always like that — Elli is excited, bounces everywhere, and then he's bound to crash at the worst moment.

Jack's hand drops on his knee, squeezing a bit. "Do you want me to…?"

Eric shakes his head.

Instead, he turns towards Elli and says, "All right, well, tell me when you'll have made your mind up."

He picks his glass and makes eye contact with Shitty, seated diagonally to him, who questions him with a frown. Eric rolls his eyes as an answer and takes a sip, while another sob runs through Elli's body.

He's about to stand up and take Elli to his room to let him decompress when Kent turns away from Tater and Shitty. "Ooh, juice," Kent says, and Eric realizes Jack hasn't served him anything to drink.

"I'm sorry, Kent," Eric says, "do you want wine? Red or white?"

Kent smiles at him, over Elli. "Thanks, but I don't drink," he says, picking up the carton of grape juice. "But this sounds good. You want some too, bud?"

Elli nods, still staring at the wall in front of him, a path of tears down each cheek.

"There you go," Kent says as he serves him, and then himself.

Eric doesn't miss the wink Kent sends his way, and he has to dial down the urge to roll his eyes at him. He's surprisingly mature, considering the Kent from eight years ago, Eric has to give him that. Perhaps some people can change, after all.

"D'you know that wine is made of grapes?" Kent asks Elli, who shakes his head. "Yeah, so it's like, basically the same thing. And wine really doesn't taste that good, I'd rather have juice any day."

Well, that's a lie if Eric ever heard one — no NHL dietician would condone regular juice drinking. But it gets Elli to pick up his glass and take a sip, and the crisis is averted as quickly as it had manifested.

"So, Little B," Tater says, "what's your favorite team?"

"The Aces are the best!" Elli squeals, while Kent nods, a smug smile on his face. "I like the Falcs too," he adds when he notices Tater deflate dramatically. "And the Sharks 'cos Uncle Chowder and the Pens and the Panthers and the Co'yotes."

"Elli likes animals," Eric explains.

"Really?" Kent asks. "We got a new cat a month ago, let me show you some pictures?"

"Yeah!"

Kent picks his phone out of his pocket and shows Elli the screen. Eric listens along politely, even if he saw most of these pictures already — Kent's Instagram is full of his cats (yes, Eric did his research).

"So, this one is Kit," Kent explains, showing a mostly-white cat with colorful spots on her back and head.

"Kit Purrson," Tater says, a teasing smile on his face, and Eric tries to not roll his eyes. "Old lady, now."

Elli nods vigorously. "Purr like a cat purr! She's super duper cute. Like a baby capybara."

"Yeah!" Kent agrees, although Eric doubts he knows what a capybara even is, but he did show up with a Pokémon bag, so maybe… "And yeah, she's old now, she just sleeps all day and tries to avoid this one."

Kent swipes to the next picture, showing a smaller black cat.

"Oh! What's his name?" Eric asks. Something horrible, surely.

Kent smirks, and it's Tater's turn to roll his eyes. "Alexmeow Raspawtin."

Eric gapes. Bless his heart, that's… a lot. "Okay, so I get the Alexei bit, but… Rasputin?" he frowns, trying to find a link between that and Tater's last name. 

Kent's grin widens exponentially as he says, "Russia's greatest love machine."

Eric chokes on his wine, and Jack pats him on the back, mindlessly, while continuing his discussion with Lardo and Shitty. Seriously? Seriously?! This is very much TMI, though he's happy for them or whatever.

"Wow, that's… original," he says, once he's recovered. That's simultaneously the best and worst thing he's ever heard. Goodness. 

"Daddy?" Elli asks, not understanding.

"I'm tried to veto, but Kent not allow," Tater says, though he does sound just a tiny bit pleased, and very amused. "Vet be very judging."

"Hey, we're paying her," Kent says, with a shrug. "And we call him Ras for short."

There's a lull in the conversation after Kent finishes showing Elli the pictures as they're digging the food (or shoveling it in their mouth, in Tater's case — Eric takes it as a compliment, in sheer contrast with his size, that boy always looks like he's about to starve). 

It's right about then that Elli seizes the opportunity to utter the accusatory words, "Aunt Lardo, YOU have a vagina."

A beat, before everyone around the table erupts in laughter. 

"Oh my god, Elliot!" Eric gasps. "You can't say that, sweetheart!"

Elli frowns. "Why?"

"Because it's impolite to talk about something like that in public. We just talked about it!"

"But it's true," Elli says as if such facts deserve to be stated in front of everyone. "Aunt Lardo has a vagina and Uncle Shitty has a penis so they have the sex like lions on TV to make babies!"

The laughter redoubles — he's pretty sure Shitty is crying — and Elli, encouraged, snickers along.

"Oh my god," Eric repeats, burying his face in his hands. His face is burning up and Jack, wheezing, wraps an arm around him and brings him against his shoulder.

That's for him trying to be honest with his child. It sounds like he taught Elli about sex by implying what Lardo and Shitty do in bed — which he kind of did, but that was only to explain the… miracle of life?

"I'm sorry," he mumbles, laughing from despair more than anything else.

"Bitty and Elli had a discussion about how babies are made, earlier today," Jack explains, a hand squeezing down on Eric's shoulder. "I think the initial question was about how Jaime came to be."

"It's cool, Bits," Lardo says, leaning back on her chair. "You can totally use us as an example, for educational purposes."

"Hell yeah," Shitty agrees. "Also, lions? I'm taking that as a compliment," he adds, wiggling his eyebrows.

"Ugh," Eric mumbles. "Let's just change the subject, all right?"

It's Elli's turn to pat him on the arm. "It's okay, Daddy. This is very natural and nothin' to be 'shamed about."

Is Elli planning on becoming a stand-up comic or something and hasn't told him yet? Everyone doubles over again, but for Shitty, who is clearly having a Proud Uncle moment. "That's right, bud," he says, raising his glass.

It's around nine when they're done with dessert, and Eric picks up Elli from his chair to go bring him to bed. He's not met with much resistance considering Elli has been dozing off already for the last half-hour. He changes him in his pajamas and brings him back to the dining room.

"Elli's going to sleep," Eric announces, "so say good night!"

All heads turn towards them as everyone says good night, and Jack pauses his conversation to stand up and ruffle Elli's hair. "Storytime?" he asks, and before Eric can answer, Kent pushes his chair away from the table.

"Actually, I can do that?"

Both Eric and Jack stare at him, and Elli is the first one to break the silence, throwing his arms towards Kent. "Yes, please!"

"If that's okay?" Kent asks Eric, as he stands up.

"I— uh, yeah, sure— uh—" Eric agrees, out of sheer politeness, and because Elli looks willing enough. He lets him slip from his arms to Kent's. "We've been reading Dr Seuss."

"Awesome," Kent says, with a smile at Elli. "Let's go, then. Goodnight, everyone," he adds towards the room.

"Nighty night!" Elli says again, and they're off down the corridor.

The conversation continues as before, but when Eric and Jack sit down, they're silent. What… What just happened? Though his charms can win over everyone, he never imagined Kent to be particularly interested in kids. Wasn't he doing all of this only to not disappoint Elli as a fan? Eric can't wrap his head around it.

He throws a glance at Jack. "Did I just hallucinate that?" he asks, in a whisper.

Jack's answer is a knowing smile. "Nah. I think he's trying to win you over."

"Win me over?" He gapes. "What for?"

"I think," Jack says, slowly, "he's happy for us."

Eric quirks an eyebrow at him but leaves it. After all, Jack knows Kent best. It's not that Eric thinks Kent has bad intentions, it's just that the boy can be a bit… wrong in demonstrating them, sometimes. But goodness, tonight's Kent is the very definition of character development, mature and all. Maybe he isn't faking it. Maybe he's just trying hard to make Jack happy. Maybe Eric should cut him some slack.

"Okay," he whispers, with a nod, and links their hands together on his thigh, before plunging right back in the conversation.

They chat for another fifteen minutes and then start to get everything back to the kitchen so they can relocate to the living room. Jack and the rest of the guests keep insisting that Eric should sit down and rest for a bit while they clean up, but he's not having it.

"That's ridiculous," he hushes them. "I'm not even tired, and besides, y'all are guests."

He's not going to make his guests clean up. He has manners.

"Yes, but you cooked. That's why I should do it," Jack says, piling up a dangerous amount of plates in one hand, empty bottle of wine stuck under his arm.

"You watched the crockpot," Eric answers, but Jack only cocks his head at him, as if he's the one being ridiculous.

Shitty, Lardo and Tater don't even bother to listen to him as they help along.

Eric steps up to Lardo and takes the salad bowl from her hands as she's about to go down the hallway. "You're definitely not doing any work tonight, girl."

"Oh, yeah?" she laughs. "You want to be that misogynist asshole who thinks women are too weak? Please, mansplain to me how to carry that bowl."

"No, but you're feeding a tiny human all by yourself and tonight is your free night, so no work for you."

"You know what? You're right. No one here but me had to get their breasts pumped tonight. I'll just go sit down and pretend you're my servants," she says and angles towards the living room.

At the same time, Tater passes in front of Eric and picks the bowl from his hands, with a wink.

"Hey, what about me?" Shitty asks, right behind them.

"You can help me load the dishwasher!" Jack calls from the kitchen.

Eric chuckles. "Sorry!"

"I thought I was important in the process of bringing life!" Shitty yells, taking off down the corridor towards the kitchen.

"Yeah, right, you did the fun part!" Lardo shouts from the couch. "Rwar!"

"I think Little B is sleep," Tater says, and it brings the sound level down by quite a few decibels.

"Don't worry," Eric says. "That boy won't hear a thing if he's sleeping."

He should check that, in fact, so he makes his way down the corridor again, just as Kent is stepping out of the room.

"Asleep?" Eric asks him.

"Oh, yeah, dead to the world."

Right. Well. Now or never. "Listen, Kent, uh— thank you for doing this. Really. He was excited since the day we told him you'd come for dinner and he'll talk about it for weeks."

"Ah, it's no problem, really," Kent says, rubbing a hand at the back of his neck. "A person's a person, no matter how small, right?"

Eric jerks his chin back, just a bit. When did Kent Parson start putting kids to bed and quoting Dr Seuss? He opens his mouth, not quite sure what to say when Tater steps right behind Kent and wraps an arm around his shoulders. For the first time, Eric notices the size difference between these two. Kent glances over his shoulder but leans back against Tater's touch.

"Little B is sleep?" Tater asks Kent.

"Yep. He's just so fucking cute." Okay, Kent, you don't have to— "I want one, too."

Eric gapes. Is Kent Parson pouting? Is Kent Parson pouting at his 6'4" Russian boyfriend about wanting kids?

"Aaaah," Tater says, with the kind of diplomatic tone Eric employs with Elli when asked if they can adopt a capybara. "You know how is. Hockey now, babies later."

Eric's eyes widen. Have they discussed this already? They've been together for five years, so Eric can't imagine that the subject hasn't been raised at some point, but he also can't imagine Kent ever wanting children.

Kent looks up at Tater and says something in Russian, his voice low and soft, and Tater replies with the same intonation. They're not minding Eric anymore, and he's unsure if it would be more polite to excuse himself, but it doesn't seem like they're minding him at all, so he just slips out towards the kitchen.

Later in the evening, Kent pulls a guitar out of nowhere and he and Lardo play a few tunes, which she apparently learned from an art friend from Samwell, while Shitty watches with hearts in his eyes. Conversation flows as easily as wine, and Eric watches Lardo play, from his corner of the room, while Jack and Kent catch up about hockey and other things.

Tater joins him, at some point, looking introspective as the melodies become slower and gentler.

"What you think, B, about the Cup?" Tater asks him.

"Oh, you know, we're rooting for the Sharks, here, since Elli's godfather is their goalie."

"Chris Chow, right? Goalie who said he date Jack."

Eric snorts. "That's him. He's never gonna live down that interview."

Tater hums, eyes on Kent, who is now trying to shove the guitar in Jack's arms.

"Jesus, Kent," Jack sighs, trying to push the guitar back towards him, which leads to a bit of roughhousing that reminds Eric of Haus evenings. Lord, that was so long ago.

"Chris Chow not date Jack," Tater continues, his voice low. "You date Jack, and Jack happy now."

"Yeah?"

Jack's been plenty happy, lately, just like Eric has, but he didn't know the change was that obvious to his teammates.

"Yeah." Tater nods, solemn. "When Jack first with Falcs, he is sad. Not… very sad, just, quiet sad? Sometimes quiet angry, too. We not know why. Then Jack not quiet sad anymore, just quiet, and slowly, he quiet happy. Now Jack is loud happy."

Eric quirks an eyebrow at him. "Jack, loud?"

Tater smiles. "You know what I'm mean. Loud like celly. Every day now is a celly."

There's a soft melody in the air, a melody that Eric recognizes. His gaze shifts back to Jack, who is holding the guitar, now, his fingers plucking on the cords. Jack looks up and smiles at him.

Eric gasps. "How long were you waiting to tell me about that?" he asks, crossing his arms over his chest.

"We were busy," Jack justifies, and Shitty says something lewd that Eric doesn't even catch, but it makes everyone else laugh.

Jack shakes his head, smiling harder, and when he starts to sing, it's to the tune he sang Elli, all those weeks ago, Tous les garçons et les filles. It's even lovelier like this, with the soft guitar melody, and Eric moves to sit down on the couch's arm, just beside Jack.

Eric listens to the lyrics and remembers that night, that now seems so long ago, when he and Jack were still so careful around each other. It was before the kiss, before Eric stepped right up to Jack to show him how he truly felt, as he didn't have anything left to lose. How things change. He remembers that night, and how lonely it felt, to go to sleep to the English version of the very same song Jack is now playing. Find me a boy.

He'll get it, why Jack chose that song, but only later tonight, as they're lying in bed basking in common silence as if they've been married for fifteen years. Jack's phone will buzz in his hands and, eyebrows high on his forehead, he'll tilt it towards Eric.

Parse: omg man can't believe you're a dad

Parse: always had the bad jokes and now you got yourself a kid

Parse: where did time fucking go

Parse: anyway congrats old man

Eric will get it, right then and there, that the song means as much for Jack as it means for him. Jack, who had been alone barely a few months ago, now has a family. He found them, as much as Eric found him.

Yeah, looking at Jack, a smile on his face as he sings, as they're surrounded by friends, by family, Eric understands what Tater meant: every day is, indeed, a celebration.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

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—

"Bitty?"

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—"

"Bits?"

"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."

"Daddy?"

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:

"Bob!" (Alicia.)

"Elliot!" (Eric.)

"Papa!" (Jack.)

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.

"Yeah!"

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?"

"Woah, really?"

"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.

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—

Oh.

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."

"Oh, no!"

"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?"

"Daddy?"

"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're 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 the backseat, 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?"

 

Chapter Text

epilogue

 

 

September 2023

 

They've been waiting at the stop for ten minutes when Elli climbs out of the yellow bus and collides against Eric, squeezing his legs, before doing the same to Jack.

"How was school?" Eric asks, picking him up.

Elli looks happy, right? He's smiling. It couldn't have been that bad.

"Daddy, it was great! I'm sitting on the cat in the carpet 'cause I like cats and we sang ABCs and I did very well and then we had recess so I played outside with Max and we sang Lion King."

He lets Elli down as they get to the stairs of their building.

"Max?" Jack asks as he links his hand with Eric's.

"Oh yeah Max's my best friend."

Jack's eyebrows fly up. "That didn't take long," he whispers to Eric's ear, who huffs.

Okay, so, he might have been a bit stressed out at the prospect of letting Elli take the bus alone this morning, for his first-ever day of school. He's growing up so fast, lord. At least Jack had been there, after practice, through Eric's manic baking and crying. There might be five pies waiting for Elli at home.

He pulls the door open and Elli lets his bag slide from his shoulders, along with his raincoat and boots, and rockets towards the sofa. "Max is my best friend forever and I love him very much and his face is funny all the time."

That child! "Elliot, you can't say that!"

"Nah he says it's okay 'cause it's true. He pulled his tongue at me and I told him that's mean and he says he ain't meaning it to be mean 'cause sometimes his face does funny things without asking his brain permission, so now we're best friends."

Eric frowns. He's not exactly sure what Elli means, but he'll learn sooner than later about that best friend of his. "Well, I'm glad that you've made a friend, sweetheart. On your first day of school at that!"

 


 

October 2023

 

He's sitting in his LA-based hotel room, Jack on the other end of the line.

"I'm no good at this, Bitty."

"That's not true, honey. You were doing your best and from the sound of it you managed quite well."

"He cried all evening. I got frustrated. I'm not sure he'll even want to talk to me tomorrow."

"You know that boy," Eric sighs. "He's emotional and he didn't get his nap earlier today. How much do you want to bet he'll jump in your arms in the morning, after a good night of sleep?"

"I don't know. I really don't know. It feels like I fucked up."

Eric bites on his lower lip. "Oh, Jack, you don't even know how many times I thought that about myself. It's a learning curve, okay? I'm not perfect, not even after four years of it."

"You're his dad, though."

There we go. What he was afraid of. "Did he say something hurtful?"

"No," Jack says. "Just that he wanted you to be back."

"Okay." He can breathe now. "I know it sounds scary but tantrums happen all the time. I'm sorry I couldn't be here to help you out, honey, but that kid loves you. He's going to forget all about it."

"Okay." Jack doesn't sound convinced, more like too tired to argue.

"Goodness, you sound exhausted. Get some sleep for me, okay? I promise it's all gonna be good. It's part of the job. And you're doing amazing."

"Yeah?"

Eric smiles. "Yes. Then if you're really unsure, you can do what I always do."

"What?" Jack asks, curious.

"Call your ma, and ask for advice or reassurance."

"I might do that, actually," Jack chuckles. "We'll call you tomorrow morning, before school, okay?"

"Of course. Goodnight, honey. Je t'aime. And I miss you."

"Night, Bits. Love you too."

 

*

 

Jack is there, waiting for him at the airport, Elli in his arms, and Eric runs towards them. "I got it! I got the job!"

 

*

 

Eric Bittle

[Picture of a fancy birthday cake on top of which sits a plastic lighthouse and a toy dragon. Elli is behind it, his face aglow from the candles.]

Happy birthday, sweetheart! Five is a big number! 🎉🎉🎉

 


 

November 2023

 

"Daddy," Elli says from the backseat of the Tesla, as they're coming home from hockey practice.

Home being Jack's apartment now, as they finished moving last month. It was becoming a bit hectic to manage their schedules, between school, work, and hockey. That way, Elli can be there to see Jack in the mornings after a roadie, since he started getting teary every time Jack had to leave. They have a compromise, now, and Elli always chooses Jack's ties before he leaves for a game. Eric has to admit, the kid's got good taste, something he inherited from him, hopefully. And Jack never misses a goodnight call, even if it's only five minutes before a game, to tell Elli a new part of his story.

It's been working out pretty well.

"Yes, sweetie?" Eric asks, hands on the wheel.

On the passenger seat, Jack's typing on his phone, most likely some strategy stuff to go over with the guys. They had a rocky season start, with a few of them still injured, but they've been winning more and more, lately.

"I have a problem."

"Do you want to tell us about it?"

"Yeah, okay," Elli says. "Lying's no good, right?"

"Right." Lying is also not something that would occur to Elli, ever.

"And like I have to tell you everything 'cause you're my daddy and lying is bad. But what if… someone told me a secret and I promised not to say? That's lying? But keeping a promise is also important."

Jack looks up from his phone.

Eric hums. "Well, I wouldn't say that keeping a secret is the same as lying. If you made someone a promise, and it’s not something bad for you or others, then I think you should keep it."

"Okay, thank you, Daddy."

Jack turns his head towards the window, and lets out a breath — it's only much, much later that Eric will realize what it meant, and that it hadn't been about the group chat.

 


 

December 2023

 

Heating seats be blessed; Eric doesn't think he's been this cold ever before, not even during that whole nordic spa business.

Jack parks the car in the driveway, the beautiful Zimmermann holiday cabin in front of them. It's the 24th and Jack doesn't have a game before the 29th, so they decided to make the drive and fly Coach and Suzanne in, for a first Christmas with the whole family.

It's -4 outside and Eric would make a run for it, but they need to get Elli and their bags first.

Burying his head between his shoulders, Eric picks Elli up from the backseat.

Elli doesn't seem too happy to leave the warmth of the car as he drops a loud, "Esti qui fait frette." ["It's fuckin' cold."]

“Elliot!” Eric gasps, and the moment his gaze meets Jack's they both lose it.

"Well, he didn't learn that from me," Eric says, and Jack looks just a bit sheepish as they make their way inside.

Good lord. Apart from… whatever that was, Christmas is lovely. 

Elli receives a mountain of presents from everyone involved, and Eric is starting to believe that there might be some unspoken competition going on between the two sets of grandparents (notably, Alicia gets the three of them a set of matching sweaters, and Suzanne a set of matching pajamas). They get along like a house on fire, though, and lord knows, Eric wouldn't be surprised if his parents decided to stay longer, just to spend more time with the Zimmermanns. They're already planning a snowshoeing expedition.

Like all holidays, this one turns out to be a lot of cooking and playing with Elli, with the added bonus of exploring the outsides and the ice rink Bob built years ago at the back of the cabin.

On the evening of the 26th, Suzanne suggests they should bake together. It's not very late but it's already dark outside, and God knows why but Suzanne ain't helping him at all, chatting with Alicia at the island behind a glass of wine.

It's a quiet night in, the crackling of the fireplace mixing with the soft Christmas music playing back in the living room. He has no idea where Jack and Elli went, but he suspects they're all in the garage with Coach and Bob, tinkering around Bob's latest woodworking project.

He's putting the pie in the oven when the backdoor opens, and Elli peeks in, fully dressed in his winter attire and skates laced to his feet. So, not the garage, then, but that's not surprising either.

"Daddy!" Elli squeals. "You gotta see this!"

Elli holds up his hands and shows Eric his own pair of skates. 

"Okay," Eric says, "what's going on, sweetie?"

Alicia and Suzanne share a look, but no one seems to want to elaborate.

"Nothin'," Elli says, as unconvincingly as possible as Eric comes to sit down in the entryway to tie his skates on. "We wanna play a game! Quick!"

"Okay, okay, I'm coming."

He's got his coat half-slipped on when Elli takes his free hand, tugging him towards the entrance.

He gets dizzy for a second or two the moment he steps outside: there's a trail of candles going down the path to the outside rink, and it feels like he's flipped upside down, walking on the starry sky itself.

Goodness. His heart picks up in his chest, faster.

"C'mon, Daddy," Elli says, tugging him again.

They walk down the path to the rink, small candles perched all around the boards. Jack's standing there, alone, on the middle of the ice, bathed under the soft glow of the lights around them. Silly romantic boy.

Still led by Elli, Eric skates right up to Jack until Elli drops his hand. Eric grins at Jack, who smiles back, a bit tightly.

"Okay. Bye now," Elli says, with a side-glance at Jack.

"Merci, coco," Jack chuckles, a hand on the top of Elli's toque, "you did great."

Elli skates back to the rink's entrance, and Eric watches over his shoulder until Coach picks Elli up, and carries him to the rest of the grandparental unit, watching in the back.

Eric looks back at Jack and smiles. They're alone now. "Hi."

"Hey," Jack says.

He looks very soft for a second there, and Eric reaches to brush a brown strand of hair back under his toque.

"Bits. I— uh."

His cheeks are hurting now, but Eric can't stop smiling. "Yes?"

Jack clears his throat. "Bits," he starts over, resolute, captain face on, as he takes Eric’s hands in his own. "I wanted to talk to you. When I graduated from Samwell I wasn't exactly in the best place. Losing you back then was one of the hardest things, because I knew I wouldn't find someone as incredible as you again. It's just not something that happens twice in a lifetime. But then I saw you, that night at the rink with Elli… I thought I was hallucinating, because somehow— somehow you were placed on my path again. I felt like the luckiest man alive just to be able to see you again, to know that you're happy, to meet Elli, too. And then you went on and you let me in, in your life, in your family, even when you didn't have to. Bitty… You're the kindest person I have ever met. You gave me a second chance and this time I promise I'm not letting you go. If you want that too."

Eric swallows, as Jack slowly gets on one knee, and reaches for something in his pocket. Is it too soon to say yes? It's probably too soon to say yes.

"Eric Bittle, will you marry me?"

"Yes!" Oh my god. Oh my god. "Oh my god, Jack," he laughs, tears welling in his eyes as Jack stands back up. "Of course I'll marry you! I love you!"

"I love you too."

"Do you have one for you, too?" Eric asks, chin pointing at the ring.

(That's why Lardo kept avoiding him every time he would mention the jewelry store.)

"Yeah, yeah, just—"

It takes them a second to be able to slip the rings on, through shaking hands and trembling laughter. The moment it's done, Eric slips both arms around Jack's neck. Jack hugs back, hard, until Eric eases his hold and kisses him.

They're doing this. They're getting married . He gets to have his happily ever after, except it really feels like the beginning of a new adventure instead.

The moment Eric lets go of Jack, he hears a whooping noise in his back, and he whips his head around because what on Earth is Shitty Knight doing here

Before he can understand what's happening, Lardo is jumping on the ice as well, along with Rans and Holster, Dex and Nursey, and Chowder.

"Oh my god," Eric breathes out, "when did y'all—" How? He turns towards Jack. "Was everyone in on this?"

"C'mon, Bits," Lardo laughs, "we wouldn't miss this for the world!"

"We kept the secret!" Elli says. "For soooo long!"

"Oh my god," he repeats, and Jack wraps an arm around him, chuckling as well. "You did great, sweetie!" He turns towards Chowder. "And where is my niece?"

They had Audrey a few months back, but the trip for the weekend would haven been too tiring for Chowder’s kids, who stayed behind with Farmer. Eric’s going to see all of them at the All-Star next month anyway, and he just can’t wait. 

It's just a bit overwhelming, but he couldn't be happier as the little group disperses on the ice, the youngest going to sit with Bob and Alicia, Suzanne and Coach, who settle on the bench as an impromptu game starts between the rest of them.

Later on, there will be hot chocolate and a warm fire to congregate around, friends and family alike. Eric will sit beside Jack on the couch, eyes on Elli doting on Jaime, with the feeling that every single piece of his life has finally settled into place.

 


 

January 2024

 

Eric sits back down in his seat, placing his coffee between his feet for a second as he smooths out Elli's jersey, hands passing over the few dozens of signatures Elli has collected during the day, before folding it carefully into his bag.

He takes a sip of his coffee and watches as the players kneel on the ice, waiting for the breakaway challenge to start. San José is lovely and it's nice to have a respite from the cold in the middle of the winter and see Farmer and Chowder again, even if it is only for the weekend. Elli will be talking about the All-Star game for a long time, and Eric doubts he will ever stop rambling about having taken the plane or having interviewed a bunch of players about their favorite line on the red carpet when he gets back to school.

Eric smiles to himself, and watches Jack's turn on the breakaway, picking up the puck and batting it from midair directly into the net, to general applause. He gets back to the other guys, kneels back down and Elli comes to sit back on his thigh, without ever stopping his casual chat with O'Reilly. If he was shy at first from the lights and the crowd, he seems to have forgotten everything about that, now that he gets to charm the other players.

A few minutes later, as all players are done with the challenge, they get a bunch of kids on the ice. A smile on his face, Eric watches as Jack — his fiancé — skates slowly towards the goal, carrying the puck, Elli behind him. He's so much better at this now, he can skate with both legs, and his hand-eye coordination isn't top-notch but he's making tremendous progress.

Carter Hart gets way out of the goals trying to "stop" Jack, who leaves the puck behind for Elli, who takes it and scores. The horn goes off and the crowd cheers, Eric with them.

Not even minding Jack, Elli skates back to the rest of the guys and fist-bumps them one by one, to general hilarity.

Yeah, yeah, he wants to say. I get it, he's stinkin' cute.

He watches as Jack takes an official picture with Elli, the two of them grinning hard. Jack has never liked events like these, Eric knows, but now that Elli has clearly upstaged him, Jack's only left with pure excitement at showing him the ropes of his work. And not only Jack seems to be proud of Elli, as he gets him back on his knee again, but he seems proud of himself. Proud of three decades of hard work that he gets to show to his son, proud of a legacy that now exceeds his person.

Elli most likely won’t become an NHL star, but he and Jack will have today to remember by.

 


 

July 2024

 

Sweat is cooling off his skin as Eric turns on his front, content. Jack is beside him, stretched out on the wide bed, the back of his head on his crossed arm. His eyes are closed, but he's not sleeping.

They've been doing more of the same for the past three days, and have a few more before they have to fly back to Madison to fetch Elli, and bring him back to Providence. There had been multiple ideas for honeymoon destinations on their list, but Eric's glad they went with the easier option. They had debated about wanting to go see European museums or hike somewhere in New Zealand for a few days, but in the end, the appeal of a short flight and a quiet beach won. And Eric's quite glad they get a few days of rest between the wedding and going back to their routine with Elli. Not that he doesn't miss him — he does, so much. But this is nice, too, just the two of them.

Eyes on Jack, he can't stop a smile from growing on his face. He's a married man, now. To Jack Zimmermann. Who knew this would happen? Who could have predicted, the day he showed up to that game with Elli, that he would meet his future husband? Who could have predicted, that morning at Samwell, that Mr Eat More Protein would one day slip a band on his finger and kiss him at the altar? It was worth the heartbreak in the end. It was worth becoming this Eric Bittle if he gets to marry this Jack Zimmermann.

The ceremony went smoothly. Jack's initial uneasiness faded away as soon as they walked down the aisle, Elli in front, throwing fistfuls of petals at the floor. He'd been the cutest in his little suit, and from what Alicia told them, he watched the whole ceremony raptly, without getting bored. Not that Eric would have expected otherwise, knowing him. That child might become an officiant one day. Or maybe a hippie. Who knows.

Jack lost it first, as they were saying their vows, which surprised Eric just a bit, though his own tears followed a few seconds later. The kiss ended up being just a bit snotty, but perfect — it meant that Jack was his, now, forever.

Eric had been warned but the reception still turned out to be hectic, and he barely got the time to sit down until Jack dragged him to their table to eat in peace for a few minutes. Suzanne complimented Shitty's haircut, Eleanor went on to have an elaborate discussion with Rosaline (Eric crosses his fingers for an eventual book deal there), and Aunt Connie had the same expression upon meeting Bob that Elli later had as he danced with Kent. No scandals. The cake was perfect. The photos were too. It had been lovely, and once it ended, Eric had been ready to sleep for the next hundred years.

Gently, he pushes a strand of Jack's hair away from his forehead. "Jack," he whispers.

Jack hums, eyes still closed.

"I was thinking." He had been thinking about it for a while, in fact. "Elli's, uh— Elli's getting older. And I was thinking that… if we want him to have, you know, a sibling—" (Jack's eyes spring open.) "—I wouldn't want for him to be too old?"

Jack gets on his elbows, face blank. "You want another kid?"

"Do you?" Eric asks.

"I think…" Jack blinks. "I think I'd like that? If you want it, too?"

Eric beams. "I do."

He sure as hell wouldn't have considered having another child being single, but now that he has Jack around to help, he's been slowly getting baby fever again.

"There are logistics to consider, though," Jack says, with a frown.

"We'd have to talk about it, of course. With work and everything."

That might prove more problematic — Jack's away a lot during his season, and Elli's grandparents are the ones that will mostly take care of him in September when Eric will be down in LA filming the new series. Adding another child to the mix could be difficult.

"I mean." Jack cocks his head to the side. "You know I've got only one year left."

Yes, Eric knows. It's something they've discussed for long hours during the spring, as Jack decided not to renew his contract with the Falcs. His knee had gotten worse this year, and watching his team from afar without being able to help is not a feeling Jack enjoys. Even though Jack says he's ready for the change — he's been talking about going back to school, or maybe coaching college-level — Eric knows it still saddens him. Of course it does.

"I guess it wouldn't happen right away? Depending on how… we decide to go about it?" Jack adds. "But I could do it. Stay home and take care of them, while you work."

Eric's eyebrows fly up. "Are you serious?"

"Yeah, of course. You took care of Elli while I was working. It's my turn, now."

"It's not the same," Eric says, through a grin.

Jack leans in and kisses him. "I still want to do it."

"Okay."

"Let's have a baby," Jack says.

Eric wraps his arms around him, and they topple back onto the bed, laughing. "Oh yes, let's try very hard."

 


 

October 2024

 

"Daddy, je veux la chambre downstairs, elle est bigger pi Pucks can sleep avec moi." ["I want the room downstairs, it's bigger and Pucks can sleep with me."]

Eric sighs. This is not the first time he hears that sentiment. "You'll get the room downstairs when you’re  older, Elliot. And Pucks isn't supposed to be sleeping in your bed in the first place."

Elli whips his head towards Jack, who smiles. "Dad a raison, coco. La chambre en bas c'est pour les grands. Et Pucks y'a son lit dans le salon." ["Dad's right, coco. The room downstairs is for big boys. And Pucks has his bed in the living room."]

"Maiiiis," Elli sighs, and the dalmatian comes to put his head on top of Elli’s, for a double set of puppy eyes. "He's so cute et y'est sad quand y'est tout seul at night." ["Buuuut he's so cute and he's sad when he's alone at night."]

Elli turns towards Jack, looking at him expectantly, who shakes his head. "You have to listen to Daddy, Elli."

"You don’t have to say like Daddy! You have the ‘fficial papers now!"

Eric rolls his eyes, laughing. Elli has been trying to convince Jack to become his own man since they got the adoption papers, following the wedding, officializing Jack’s parental role.

"But I agree with him," Jack says, amused but unwavering. "Pucks doit apprendre à être tout seul, c'est correct aussi." ["Pucks needs to learn to be alone, that's okay, too."]

"C'est unfair," Elli sniffs, crossing his arms. ["It's unfair."]

It's been his favorite sentence for a while, now.

"English or French," Eric sighs. "You gotta choose, mon grand. One sentence, one language."

He didn't mind it initially — after all, Elli's fully bilingual by now, but they've got reports from school about Elli speaking gibberish no one but Jack can fully understand.

Elli huffs again and doesn't even grant Eric a response.

"Do you want to watch Daddy on TV?" Jack asks. They're on episode four, now, though Jack has seen them all already. 

"Fine," Elli replies. "Because I love you," he says, towards Eric.

Thank God Eric still has a roof to sleep under tonight, he thinks with a chuckle. 




 

April 2025

 

"It's here," Jack says, throat tight, showing the beige package to them. 

So, that's why the bell went off in the middle of dinner. 

Elli gasps, in the middle of his bite. "It's here!"

"Honey!" He smiles, leaving his plate alone. "Well, come on, show us!"

"Yeah, I, uh—"

Elli slips off his chair, and Eric shakes his head. "Elli, you're not done yet."

"Who cares about dinner?"

Eric laughs, when his gaze meets Jack's. Frankly, he doesn't want to wait either. "Right. Who cares about dinner?"

They leave everything downstairs and settle in bed, Elli between them, Pucks at their feet. With a slightly trembling hand, Jack opens the package, and reveals the glossy cover of the square book, showing a lighthouse at the front.

"There it is," Eric says, fingers on the letters at the bottom of the book, beside Lardo's name. 

"Yeah!" Elli nods along. "J-A-C-K-Z-I-M-M-E-R-M-A-N-N." He looks up at Jack. "C'est toi!" [It's you!]

"It is me. Let's look inside, eh?"

He turns the book open, to reveal a first page Eric hasn't seen before, small black letters on white paper. 

For Elli and Bitty

A good story can be about the big things, and the small things, too

A good story can always be picked up where you left it

And most importantly,

A good story is told every night, complete and never-ending

"Oh, honey," Eric breathes out. 

He leans in, to kiss his cheek, and Jack hums. He's so incredibly proud of that boy, and he tells Jack so.

"Let's see the rest before you start praising me," Jack says, as if the whole book is not going to be a raging success.

Elli wiggles a bit, settling against them as Jack passes over an arm around Eric's shoulder, his other hand turning the pages as he reads.

Eric's seen Lardo's drawings before, and god knows they spent a long time analyzing Jack's writing, but it's the first time he sees the two together — Jack kept it as a surprise until the very end. And the result is just so pretty. Elli listens raptly as Jack reads, the story he's been told over and over again, about a boy, his animal friends, and a lighthouse. A frankly incongruous trio, but it works. It's going to be in stores just before the fall. 

When Jack closes the book, he clears his throat, eyes on Elli and Eric. "So?"

"It's amazing. I love it," Eric says, with a grin.

Elli sighs, content. "When I grow up, I wanna write a book, too! And I wanna be bakin' on TV!"

"Maybe you'll write a kid's cookbook, then," Eric chuckles.

Jack frowns. "That's… an idea, though."

 


 

May 2025

 

He gets the call when Jack is in practice and proceeds to call Jack approximately thirty times before he picks up.

"Everything okay, Bits?" Jack asks, breathless.

"Yes. Yes." Lord, he needs to sit down. "I got a call, honey."

A beat. "Is it… For real, this time?"

"Yes, yes. She's— she's four months old. Chinese-American. Oh, lord, I gotta send you the pictures. Cutest thing in the world. I know it's early, I know you're not done yet, but they want us to meet her, Jack."

"Holy shit."

"Yeah."

"Holy shit, Bits."

"Yeah!"

"Shit— fuck— I'm getting in the car, okay? I'll be there right away."

 

*

 

She arrives in their lives earlier than planned and younger than they expected. Because the universe keeps on blessing Eric Bittle with unanticipated babies, apparently. He doesn't mind it at all — it's the happiest bit of luck since Elli and the moment Eric sees her, he knows she's the one.

A hand on the small of Jack’s back, Eric watches, vision blurred, as Jack picks her up, carefully, and as she stares back at him, eyes round and surprised, before she wiggles her tiny hand in the air between them.

"Sophie," Jack whispers, through a sniff.

"Hi, sweetie." 

Oh my god. Oh my god. This is actually it. They’re taking her home. Their daughter.

Jack looks at Eric, then back at her. At Eric, and at her again.

Jack knows she's the one, too. He's got that special look on his face.

 

*

 

"Careful, Elli, be very careful," Eric says.

Jack, in front of them, is filming the whole scene.

"Yeah, yeah, I promise, lemme see, now!" Elli squeals, as Eric finishes placing the bundle on Elli's lap.

He gently pushes down the blanket, for Elli to better see her face.

"Oh!" Elli gasps. "She's so tiny."

"I know, right?" Jack says.

He moves around to zoom in on them and shares a grin with Eric.

Elli, inexplicably, leans in until he softly presses his face against her, and she wiggles a bit.

"Gently, Elliot," Eric reminds him.

Elli straightens back, beaming, Sophie still staring at him with her huge dark eyes. "I love her!" he says, breathless. "She's like Jaime, Daddy! But she's only level one right now."

Eric laughs. "Yeah, she is."

 

*

 

It's one of the sweetest pictures Eric has ever taken, snapped in the middle of nap time, on the Sunday before the Falcs' first round. They were lying in bed together and Eric woke first, to the soft afternoon light streaming in. Rolling on his side, he took his phone, and angled it at Jack, sleeping on his back, Sophie sprawled out on his chest. Her head is turned away, the right amount of privacy Eric wants for the announcement, but her tiny hand is the centerpiece of the picture.

He shows it to Jack, later on, adding a black-and-white filter on top of it, and they agree it's the right one. There will be time later for a more official shoot that will include Eric and Elli, but he really likes this one for now.

"There," Eric says, tapping at his phone. "Posted."

Welcome, sweetie. Our little family just got bigger, it reads.

Everyone important already knows, and now, the whole world will too.

 

*

 

The moment Jack enters the locker room, twenty men erupt in high-pitched squeals and coos.

"Yeah, yeah," Jack says, shaking his head, but he's never looked prouder as he does now, Sophie in his arms.

"Holy crap, man," Gbesy says, as he claps a hand down on Jack's shoulder. "You disappear for a weekend and you come back with another kiddo. Congrats," he adds, with a wink directed at Eric.

He's about to reply when Tater swoops in, with the gracefulness of a baby rhino in a room full of blown glass. "I'm godfather, I'm get to hold her first!"

"Just—" Jack says, angling Sophie towards him, "be careful."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, no worries, Uncle Tater knows."

He picks her up with surprising confidence as if he has handled babies all his life. (Actually, now Eric remembers Tater had asked Jack about baby classes, at some point in the fall, when they told their friends and family they were going through the adoption process. "I think we'll be fine," Jack had told him, "Bitty already knows how to handle a baby." — "No, no, no, I'm not know how to handle a baby." Eric though he’d been joking but… did Tater follow through with that?)

Jack rolls his eyes and Eric takes his hand, squeezing a bit. He gets it. He was hesitant to let others hold Elli when he got him, too, but Tater expertly sets Sophie against one of his arms and curls up around her.

"Yes," he coos. "Little girl. Little B-Z. Oh! Little Bees. Bzzt bzzt." If she'd been her stoic self at first, the sound makes her giggle, and Tater roars. "You like that, Little Bees! Bzzt bzzt. Bzzzzzz."

Lucky, in turn, has directed his attention on Elli — bless him, Eric's worried Elli might think no one cares about him since Sophie has been receiving a lot of attention lately, even though he took his role as a big brother in stride.

"Pi," Lucky says, offering Elli a fist-bump. "C'est une grosse responsabilité ça, grand frère." ["It's a big responsability, being an older brother."]

"Ouais c'est vrai," Elli shrugs as if he's mastered the skill already. "Mais tsé… Tout est sous contrôle." ["Yeah, that's true. But, y'know… Everything's under control."]

Lucky laughs. "Ha, good job, bud."

 

*

 

Working from his phone, Eric's eyes set on Jack, on TV. He's standing in the corridor behind the locker room, leaning on his stick, a reporter at his side.

Jack closes his eyes and opens them again, forcefully. "Uhh… sorry, could you repeat that again?" he says — he's been far away as the reporter was asking her question.

She laughs in turn. "I was just congratulating you on the recent news. Is she sleeping through her nights, yet?"

"Ah— no, not yet." The bags under his eyes tell the same story.

"How are you holding up? You skated pretty well, tonight."

Pretty well is a euphemism. Jack got a seven-points game. He skated like nothing on Earth could stop him.

"Yeah, well, euh," he says, with a dopey smile. "I guess it's the adrenaline."

"Thank you, Jack, that's all for tonight," she chuckles. "And best of luck for the rest of the series."

 


 

June 2025

 

"Sophie, no!" Elli squeals, as he runs around, Sophie after him, Pucks bouncing between them.

She's only five months old and already crawling around at an alarming speed.

"Daddy, she's following me!"

"She just wants to play with you, Elliot," Eric tells him.

One hand on his whisk, one hand on the bowl, and phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder, this is really not a situation he wants to see degenerate.

"Please remain on the line," the generic voice on the phone tells him.

He could place it down on the counter, but when he did, an hour ago, he didn't hear as the technician got on the line, and had to start everything over again. Good lord. Can he be done with today, already?

"DAD!"

"Elliot! Don't shout, Papa is taking a nap!"

"BUT SHE'S FOLLOWING ME."

"Please remain on the line."

"Yeah, sweetie, she's following you because she looks up to you. She wants to do like you. Be kind."

Elli is usually very proud of that — he’s been teaching her to roll over for the past few days — but not today, it seems.

"MAKE HER STOP," Elli bellows.

Bless his heart, that boy loves his sister but he didn't get enough sleep last night. "Elliot, stop. Now."

"Please remain on the line."

"NO-OH."

Footsteps down the stairs. Great. Too fucking great.

Jack peeks over the banister, hair messed up. "What's going on?" he asks, haggard.

Elli's still yelling, and Pucks has started to yap along.

"Elliot," Eric snaps. "Time out!"

"Please remain on the line."

"Nooo-oooh." Elli stomps his foot, once more, and through sobs, runs upstairs before slamming the door to his room shut.

Sophie, still, crawls at the bottom of the stairs, and sniffs, just in time for Jack to pick her up.

"Elli?" he calls upstairs, his voice gentle, and gets only a horror movie-worthy scream in return.

Elli's going to tire himself out in two minutes, and when he'll wake up from his nap, everything will be forgotten, as always.

"Eh, c'pas grave, Bees, ça va," Jack tells an increasingly upset Sophie, cradling her in one arm. ["Eh, it's not serious, Bees, it's okay."]

Eric stares at his bowl. He's just added the boiling water to the cocoa, and mixes in the rest of the batter, his phone still reminding him to stay on the line. He meant to film this for the vlog but got interrupted midway through, and now he has to follow through with the recipe, or else it'll go to waste even though he has to start all over again tomorrow, for the vlog. He just… didn't need any of this.

Jack senses his tension, as he approaches his side of the island. "Still on the phone for the wifi?"

Eric nods.

"I can help," Jack offers.

"It's fine."

Jack motions towards his phone. "Bits, let me help."

"It's fine," Eric insists. "You don't even know what to ask."

Jack has barely been home these days, playing against the Kings on the other side of the country.

"C'mon, don't be ridiculous, I can help—"

He reaches for Eric's phone and the moment he dislodges it from Eric's neck, it slips down his shoulder and directly into the batter, sinking in just as a voice goes, "Hello, how can I help—", followed by a deep silence and Sophie’s soft coos.

Jack takes a step back, and Eric glares.

 

*

 

Eric's still editing the last of his footage when Jack gets back home that night after his win. He slips into the living room, quietly, and offers Eric a white carton box.

"Sorry about your phone," he says, sheepish.

Eric closes his laptop and pushes it on the coffee table. "When did you get the time to buy that?" he asks, opening the box.

"I have my methods," Jack says, with a slight smile, as he sits down on the couch and Pucks moves away to his bed. "Someone's coming for the wifi tomorrow. And I'm sorry about your brownies, too."

Eric turns towards him, a sigh on his lips. "Thank you, honey. And you don't need to apologize. I'm not mad at you, I was just tired."

It's not Jack's fault it's been a pretty sucky day all around. They planned and planned and didn't expect Eric to end up with two kids during the playoffs while trying to manage a part-time job at the same time. And he sure as hell isn't responsible for Elli's earlier outburst, or their wifi outage.

"Sorry," Jack says, "I know it's been a lot."

"It’s fine. Just a rough day." Let’s not rehash it. Eric leans in and kisses him, and for the first time, Jack relaxes against him. "Congrats on the win," Eric whispers. "I’m proud of you."

Jack hums, and Eric smirks against his lips.

"Do you want to do something… sexy?"

Jack quirks an eyebrow at him. "What do you have in mind?"

"How about seven hours of uninterrupted sleep?"

"God, thought you'd never ask."

 

*

 

It feels like the longest playoffs since playoffs were a thing, but with every won game, the Falcs are getting closer to their goal. Eric is ready to sacrifice his social life, his sleep, and just a tiny bit of his sanity to support Jack through it, taking care of everyone at home. Lord, he's so proud of him, and he watches every game with his heart pounding in his chest.

If Eric thought his life had been going faster and faster, it's nothing compared to the last two years since he met Jack, since they started their family together. It's been one thing after the other and now, between the playoffs and the kids, the dog, the house, the garden, and one very successful Netflix season, Eric's barely been able to be with Jack. It's not like he's unsatisfied — he knew this was coming, and well, Eric chose his man to share his life with. To have kids with. To be exhausted with. To solve that problem about the backyard stairs and finally decide on a color for the guest room. Jack's his husband, his rock, the love of his life, but two years ago he was his crush, his boyfriend, and goddamnit, that magic ain't gone, okay?

He's been kind of missing him, with the playoffs. Missing him a lot. Last time they tried to have some alone time, Elli rocketed against their door, done with his nap. ("Are you hurt, Daddy?" — "I’m fine, sweetheart. We’ve been… stretching. Before the game tonight.")

He's half-asleep by the time Jack slips in under the duvet, after yet another win, and Eric curls up around him, smiling against his neck. He angles his chin and they make out for long minutes, before Eric drops a hand at the front of Jack's briefs. It will have to be one-way, tonight.

Jack groans and trails his lips down Eric's jaw, his neck, lower and lower, until Eric pulls at his hair, bringing him back up.

"Nope. Not happening."

"What?" Jack looks up, confused.

"I'm, uh, indisposed." Because of course, the night they'd be both awake, and Jack would feel up for it too.

"Indisposed how?"

Eric gives him a look. "Elli wanted to eat beans for dinner."

"Okay." Jack chuckles. "Is it that bad?" 

He lowers himself again, but Eric pulls him back. "Come back up here, you. We're not doing this."

"But." Jack comes up on all fours, over Eric. "I thought that was in the deal."

"The deal?"

"Yeah, that whole marriage thing. I, Jack Laurent Zimmermann, promise to love you, Eric Richard Bittle, for better or for worse—"

Eric rolls his eyes at him.

"—farty and non-farty—"

"Ugh," Eric laughs, trying to shove him off. "You're horrible."

"—until death do us part," Jack finishes, leaning in to kiss the tip of his nose.

"You don't want death to be you, asphyxiated by me, though."

"Ghostly beans do not scare me." Jack pouts. He actually pouts. "Bits."

"Oh my god, fine." It’s not like it’ll ever take much to convince him. "Just hands, though," he says, a safe compromise.

The face Jack makes is the same one he has as he scores a goal. Eric saw it earlier on TV, tonight.

They're done by the time Sophie starts crying — she had the decency to let them have this, this time, and Jack rockets out of bed the moment he hears her.

"I can go," Eric says, rolling over.

"It's fine. I'll take care of it."

"Honey, you're supposed to rest."

Jack smiles at him. "I want to, though."

Eric lets him have it, and his head hits the back of the pillow once more. Jack slips outside their room, and Eric closes his eyes, hearing as Jack starts chatting with Sophie, an apparently very serious one-way conversation.

He smiles. That moose of a man still insists on waking up at night to take care of Sophie, even though he's the one with the full-time job. They weren't thinking about adopting a baby this young, and Eric knows it was kind of a fluke in the end because children that age usually don’t stay long in the system. He couldn't be happier with their decision, in the end, and their chance: that way, Jack gets to go through these early stages that he couldn't experience with Elli. And Jack clearly wants to enjoy every second of it, as the soft singing coming from the other room indicates.

 

*

 

Eric's face is smashed against his pillow, as Elli is sitting across his lower back, Sophie crawling up between his shoulders.

"Daddy, do the horse!"

Eric groans. This isn't what he expected when he tried to subdue his children into taking a nap by letting them in his and Jack's bedroom.

"Daddy!" Elli asks once more, bouncing a bit and ouch— Eric's going to feel that tomorrow.

Sophie seems to agree because she giggles and taps both her hands on Eric's shoulders as she rocks herself, like trying to convince a dying horse to move again.

Nope. Not happening.

That's about when Jack enters the room, freshly showered from practice, an eyebrow quirked at them. "I thought you were trying to take a nap," he says.

Eric turns his head to the side. "We are," he says, just as Elli answers, "We're playing horse with Daddy."

Jack laughs, picks Elli off Eric's back and Sophie rolls away as well, on the mattress between them, before she comes back to nest herself against Eric. He kisses the top of her head, and she rolls over to smile at him, a trick she has perfected. He winks at her, and her smile grows.

"I'm not sure that was the plan, coco," Jack says. "Taking a nap's a great idea, though."

"Est-ce qu'on peut regarder la game ce soir if we nap maintenant?" ["Can we watch the game tonight if we nap right now?"]

Jack's gaze meets Eric. "Sure, sweetie," Eric agrees. As if Elli isn't going to fall asleep between the second and third anyway. "Only if you two get some sleep now, though."

Two minutes later, the kids are dead asleep, Jack and Eric exchanging victorious grins.

 

*

 

He's on the ice bare minutes after the buzzer goes off, the crowd going absolutely wild as the Falcs form a human mountain at the center, Jack somewhere in the middle of that.

Screaming his head off, Elli makes a run towards him and Jack swings him around, before collecting him in his arms, the two of them laughing. Eric's only a few meters behind, and when he gets to them, Jack plants a kiss on his lips, before he squeezes Sophie's cheek.

"Oh my god, Jack!"

"Tabar— I know!"

Family and friends somewhere behind, it starts to settle in Eric's mind. The Falcs won the Stanley cup. Jack won his fourth Stanley cup. His Jack. Lord. 

He’s worked so hard to get here, at the very end of his career, and the crowd is on its feet, already chanting, "One more year! One more year!"

He stays by Jack's side the whole evening, and well into the night, as Alicia and Bob take care of the kids as the party rages on. 

On the ice, he takes pictures with Jack, Elli, and Sophie, who, as always, seems wholly unperturbed by everything that's going on around her. She focuses on the sewn C on Jack's jersey for a while, before she hooks a finger in the ring of her pacifier and flings it with surprising force directly into the Cup, to general laughter.

There's only a small five minutes that Eric misses, that he watches on the very next day, on Youtube:

Jack's holding Elli in one arm, as the reporter gets closer.

"Jack! Congratulations! Can I have a moment, please?" she asks.

"Yeah, sure, just a sec," Jack says, still beaming, sweat pearly on his nose. He looks around. "Where's Daddy, eh?" he asks Elli.

"À’ salle de bain. Soph did a poo." ["At the bathroom."]

Jack chuckles, looking down for a moment. "All right", he tells Elli, "we'll do it together, then."

"Fantastic," the reporter says. "Congratulations again. It's quite the feat, getting a fourth Stanley cup in ten years of playing, especially these days."

"Yeah, euh, for sure. I'm really proud of the team. The guys did an amazing job, and obviously, our efforts paid off."

"How are you feeling, right now?"

"Pretty great, yeah," Jack says, as he passes a hand through his hair. "It's been an honor playing with this team. And it's great to finish things this way."

"Are you still planning on retiring? I think the fans made it clear earlier that they'd like to have you for another year."

"Ah, you know, it's a decision I made a while ago and I'm sticking by it. I’m happy to leave on a high, even if I know I’m probably going to miss it in a few months. It's time to move on."

The reporter smiles at him, kindly. "Any plans for the future?"

"Ha, there are a few things, yeah. We’ve been thinking, my husband and I, about a project to work on together, but… yeah, I can’t say much yet. Apart from that, not much. My husband's been taking care of the kids, and I couldn't be more grateful. He's been amazing, really, his support means everything to me. And now that he's got some pretty important stuff coming up in his career, it's my turn to stay at home for a while. I'm really looking forward to that."

"So, stay-at-home dad for now?"

"Yeah! Catch up on some sleep, too."

"Will you, though?" she laughs.

"Nah, probably not."

"And this is Elliot, of course," she says, redirecting her attention towards him. Jack hikes him up higher on his hip. "Tell me, Elliot, do you want to become a hockey player, too? In the NHL?"

Elli nods. "Yeah! I'm a goalie and I'm gonna play for the Aces, or the Falcs, or the Sharks, or the Penguins, or the Coyotes."

"He likes animals," Jack explains, with a chuckle.

"And what number will you take?"

"Oh," Elli says, "I'm gonna be number 90."

The reporter quirks an eyebrow. "Not number 1?"

"Yeah," Jack chirps, eyes on Elli, "why not number 1?"

Elli jerks his chin back and stares at Jack as if he's particularly slow. "I’ll be number 90 ‘cause I can be number 90. I can’t take number 1 'cause they'll retire number 1."

Jack barks out a laugh. Another second passes, as he exchanges a glance with Elli, a silent conversation that doesn’t change Elli’s resolute stare.

"Well," Jack says, turning towards the camera. His eyes are a bit red, once more, as he clears his throat. "You heard the kid."

"We sure did," the reporter says, with a smile. "So, Elliot, I imagine you're very proud of Jack, right now?"

"Yeah," Elli says, as he leans closer to the microphone, eyes on the camera. "He's not Jack, though. He's Papa."

 

 

 

THE END