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Bitty doesn’t know what he was expecting. Not much, if he’s honest with himself. He stands in Jack’s old room, folding an infinite amount of Sharks clothing, and wipes away his tears, daydreaming of what could have been.

Jack runs in Bitty’s name breathlessly on the tip of his tongue. Bitty stares in disbelief. He asks what’s wrong but Jack steps in close and cuts him off with a kiss. It’s soft and hesitant, a whisper of lips. Bitty’s eyes slip shut. They breathe for a moment and then Jack surges back in, more urgency and passion passing through them. Bitty can feel the starch of Jack’s gown crinkling beneath his shaking fingers. An angry buzz rattles through his brain but Bitty doesn't want to let go. He clenches his fists tighter, pulls Jack in even closer, and yet the buzzing continues on, persistent and unwelcome.

Bitty opens his eyes to an empty bedroom. His phone buzzes across the desk and something cracks in his chest. A sob bubbles out as he collapses onto the computer chair. He tries to hold it in, hands covering unkissed lips, but it’s like a geyser breaking through. There’s nothing to do but let the dam fall.

He manages to seal his emotions back in before the shuttle arrives. His phone alerts him to the fact it’s only five minutes away and right on cue, a honking startles him. Bitty leaves the Haus behind and trudges onto the vehicle, ignoring the concerned looks at his tear caked cheeks and red-rimmed eyes. He doesn't care. His daydreams have been shattered. No one came running - Bitty doesn’t know why he always thinks they will - that’s just something he’ll have to get used to 

In the beginning, the group chat continues as normal. Ransom and Holster spam everyone with their road trip. Bitty cries from laughing at their story of getting chased by a raccoon. Eventually, as the summer wears on, it slows down as everyone enjoys their lives to the fullest.

He gets a couple of individual texts from Jack. Mostly ‘how are you?’ and ‘hope you’re keeping your protein intake up’ all of which makes Bitty roll his eyes. Jack isn’t the greatest at texting - his replies always come across as stilted and uninterested. Bitty should be used to it by now but it’s harder when he remembers he won’t be going back to a house with Jack living just across the hall.

Suzanne pesters him about inviting Jack down for the fourth of July but Bitty hmms and haws until it’s too late to be a courteous invitation. He knows Jack is busy - they had been talking about Jack’s summer schedule over coffee a week before graduation - and that’s what he tells her. She frowns but nods in understanding.

Bitty works at the summer camp an hour outside of Madison just like he does every year. It’s nice to see some of the older counselors and returning campers. They catch up over the campfire, trading endless stories about their year apart. It all makes him a bit homesick but then, after the campers have retreated to their cabins, the smuggled alcohol makes its appearance and the nausea in his stomach has a different cause.

The summer goes by too quickly. Bitty feels like one night he’s giving orientation to a bunch of ten-year-olds and the next he’s packing up the back of Coach’s old blue Chevy - now Bitty’s - for the trip back to Samwell.

The school year starts off quieter than the last. Ransom and Holster take their captaincy with the utmost seriousness; they’re still as boisterous as ever but with a more mature air about them. Bitty supposes that also has to do with them graduating that year. If they’re not at practice or working on a new strategy, they’re in the library, heads bent over books as they work on their theses.

Overall, everything seems scaled back. Jack and Shitty had such loud presences that everything else in comparison is so quiet it made Bitty’s skin itch. There are parties but there is no tub juice and no epikegsters. Even hockey is more subdued. While their team is just as determined to be the best they can be, it festers quietly under everyone’s skin instead of exploding out of every pore.

Bitty sometimes finds himself cycling through old photos on his phone - reading back through pages of the group chat - reminiscing to when everything maybe wasn’t perfect but felt like it. There’s a feeling in his chest slowly clawing its way into his throat but he continuously pushes it down and continues on.

Winter Screw and finals sneak up on Bitty, just like they do every year. Ransom and Holster declare it tradition to find Bitty a date and Bitty does his best to avoid them, just like always. In a hazy blur during a cram session, Bitty agrees to go to Winter Screw with some guy from the theatre department. Greg turns out to be nice and interesting and everything Bitty doesn’t want.

It aches in his chest how much he misses Jack. He looks at his phone and the last message he received from Jack was almost four months ago. It was Jack wishing him good luck on his school year. Bitty had replied in kind, citing that he was excited to see Jack play some professional hockey. No reply had come.

The team still piles onto the couch every Falconer’s game they can. Nobody mentions the fact that no one’s heard from Jack recently. Nobody comments on the fact that it’s now become a tale of “I knew that guy - we went to school together” instead of “look at that beautiful motherfucker of a best friend”.

By some miracle, Bitty manages to pass all of his finals. It had been touch and go with the mandatory science credit but he pulls it off thanks to the help of Ransom. He enjoys the time off at home for Christmas. It’s quiet since Moomaw was recently released from the hospital, recovering from a heart attack, but Bitty doesn’t mind. He enjoys listening to her stories and just spending time with her as ESPN plays on in the background, the occasional glimpse of Jack gaining his attention.

After New Years, it’s the final stretch for Lardo, Ransom, and Holster. They hunker down and Bitty continues to churn out baked goods for the household. Chowder pulls Bitty aside one day to question the bag under his eyes, the music playing through most of the night, the zombie-like way Bitty moves around the Haus. Bitty brushes it off, apologizes for being so loud, and pushes any worries further into the back of his mind.

Dibs gets passed on, the world still turns, and Bitty ugly-cries at graduation. Lardo hugs him with a promise of keeping in touch but Bitty remembers those words from last year. He can’t remember the last time he heard Shitty’s voice. Bitty smiles, however, and agrees they’ll never lose touch but he thinks they can both hear the falseness in that.

Another summer, another school year beginning, and Bitty feels lost. Chowder still lives across the hall but now Dex and Nursey share the attic while Tango takes up space in Lardo’s room. Bitty doesn’t mean to be bitter but he passive-aggressively bakes everybody’s least favourite pies the first week of classes. They all eat them and nobody says a word and Bitty isn’t entirely sure what response he was looking for but he knows he didn’t get it.

It’s at the beginning of October that Bitty wakes up and has no desire to move. He lays in bed and stares at the water stains on the ceiling. The start time of his class comes and goes but there’s no motivation to hurry. There’s not really much of anything going through his mind. He can’t seem to concentrate on one idea. Nothing seems tangible. He dreams of a perfect world and where he would fit in. He doesn’t know if he would.

A half-formed idea crosses his mind and lights a fire in his chest. A desire to be somewhere else - anywhere else. He grabs the essentials, what he’ll miss the most, and shoves them into his duffel. It isn’t until he’s half an hour away from Samwell, truck rumbling beneath him, that he wonders what in the world he’s actually doing. He’s driving but there’s no destination in mind. There’s just a burning need to get away.

He should call someone but no one immediately comes to mind.

The sign for Providence appears and Bitty hastily takes the exit, pulling into the first parking lot he can find. He keeps the truck running as he dials Jack’s number.

“Bittle?” Jack asks upon picking up and Bitty almost starts crying then and there, his chest too tight to do anything else.

“Jack,” he manages and listens to the soft curse Jack mutters.

“Are you okay? What’s going on?”

Bitty doesn’t know and that scares him the most. He hates the way the Haus feels empty even though it’s always full. He hates going to classes for some degree he doesn’t know what to do with. Bitty feels like he’s wasting time and space and everything in-between to the point he just wants to disappear.

“Bittle? Bitty. Are you there?”

Bitty takes in a deep breath even though it hurts.

“Yes,” he says. “I’m in Providence. I don’t-Could I just-I’m-”

“I’m at the practice arena.”

Jack gives him the address; tells him to come to the shipping & receiving door. Bitty taps the address into his phone and sits in the parking lot for another ten minutes, breathing deeply, before putting the truck into drive. It only takes twenty minutes to get to the arena and it’s barely enough time for Bitty to put himself back together.

I’m here, Bitty texts and waits where Jack had indicated.

The door creaks open and there’s Jack, looking passively aloof and Bitty crumbles. He’s led to a chair and sobs while Jack looks on awkwardly.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” Bitty whispers through the tears. “I don’t mean to-”

“It’s fine, Bittle,” Jack replies and it’s different than how Bitty remembers. He used to remember it being fond but now it’s just an emotionless, false reassurance.

Bitty can feel his face burning up in embarrassment. Why did he think this was appropriate? He hasn’t talked to Jack in over a year and a half. They don’t know each other anymore - they don’t owe each other anything.

“Sorry, Lord, I’m very sorry,” Bitty repeats as he starts to stand up. This was a mistake. “I’m just going to-”

He jerks a thumb over his shoulder towards the exit and starts backing up. He feels a bit like a skittish animal and he needs to get out of there. The concrete walls are blank and narrow and he can feel something clawing at his chest again.

“Bittle, you don’t-”

“Sorry,” Bitty says one last time and runs. He makes it back to his truck and turns it on, peeling out of the parking lot and back onto the road, following street signs for the freeway.

Jack doesn’t text or call and Bitty is fairly sure if his heart wasn't already in pieces it would have snapped cleanly in half.

~

Bitty keeps driving. He heads west and avoids major cities. There’s more construction than he thought possible. With no destination in mind, it’s almost midnight by the time he stops for the night just across the border in Ohio. He finds a campsite where there’s a handpainted sign stating, “Ohana means family. Nobody left behind or forgotten” and Bitty pays the twenty bucks for a spot. He curls up in the back of the truck, thankful for the extended cab, and cries himself to sleep.

He’s woken up early by his phone - he’s surprised it’s lasted this long with fifteen percent charge left - and Bitty wants to hit ignore but it’s Chowder calling and Bitty just can’t not take it.

“Hey,” Bitty says, trying to go for as casual as possible.

“Bitty? Are you okay? Where are you?”

“I’m fine. I just.” Bitty pauses. What is he going to tell everyone? That he had some sort of breakdown and just started driving away from everything? He can’t put that on Chowder or any of the others.

Chowder stays silent for once in his life as Bitty just doesn’t continue. He doesn’t know what to say.

“Are you coming back?” Chowder eventually asks and Bitty’s chest goes tight again.

“Yes, of course, Chowder,” Bitty replies but he’s not sure if that’s a lie or not. “I just need some time. I won’t be long.”

“What do you want me to tell the others?”

Bitty just wants to scream I don’t know until he’s blue in the face because he doesn’t. It’s eating at him from the inside out.

“Tell them I’m taking a small vacation. It’s only the beginning of the school year, It’ll be fine.”

“What about hockey?”

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know Bitty chants to himself.

“It'll be fine,” Bitty repeats and then continues, “I have to go. Talk to you soon.”

He hangs up without hearing Chowder’s response and turns his phone off.

Bitty needs a plan because he feels that will give him some sort of structure - some sort of normal. He quickly finds a diner where he can charge his phone and get some decent breakfast.

Google maps is pulled up as he looks at his options and figures out how far he can get on the money in his bank account. If he does it right he figures he could make it all the way to the west coast, stay there for a week, and then head back to Samwell. Because he needs to go back. Of course he’s going back.

He swallows the grits in his mouth and stares down at the runny eggs on his plate. He can’t drive all the way out west. He should head back right now. He’s only twenty-one years old - he can’t be running away from life yet.

“More coffee, dear?” The waitress asks, startling Bitty out of his thoughts.

“Yes, please, thank you,” Bitty says and just as quickly as he got himself into this mess he decides: he doesn’t care.

Bitty pays for his meal once his phone is over eighty percent charged and he knows exactly where he’s going.

~

The sun shines down as Eric lazes by the clear blue pool. He’s at the cheapest, cleanest, motel he could find in Las Vegas and has spent the last week lounging by the pool in blissful ignorance. Eric ignores every phone call. He thinks he would maybe answer one from Jack if Jack were to call but it’s been radio silence and Eric tries not to think past what he’d like to have for lunch.

The motel is just off Fremont Street so most nights Eric ends up making his way down the ten blocks to watch the sky light up with colors and music and drunken happiness.

His mother calls his eighth day in Vegas and every blissful thought he’s had comes to a grinding halt.

“Hi Dicky,” his mother cheerfully greets as soon as he picks up. Eric’s startled by it until he remembers she has no idea where he is - that’s he basically abandoned his life. “How are things? I feel like I haven’t heard from you in forever!”

Eric swallows down his guilt and pastes on a fake smile even though she can’t see it. He makes up school assignments and hockey practices and life in the Haus. Suzanne fills him in the local gossip and how his father’s current team is shaping up.

“Oh, dear, I’m late for bible study at Jeanies so I’ll need to let you go, Dicky.”

Eric lets out a slow breath after they exchange goodbyes and hang up.

He spends the rest of his afternoon floating in the pool, staring at the cloudless sky, before he decides he wants to go to the strip. He hadn’t gone yet knowing it would be expensive and he doesn’t have a lot of money left. He needs to find a job if he’s going to be sticking around Vegas but it’s easier to just do nothing all day.

He ends up at some casino club, drunkenly leaning against a wall near one of the bars. The place is packed with a DJ shrouded in lasers and fog, music pounding and running up Eric’s spine. Eric winds his way back through the crowd and ends up dancing with a couple of guys. They’re tall and in the dimmed lights not too bad looking. They circle around, hands skimming over his body, crowding in close. There’s heat in their eyes and no strings attached and Eric wants more.

A guy with a backward hat and shutter shades slides his way into the group and gains all of Eric’s attention. The man gives a smirk and Eric is hooked, line and sinker. They easily start grinding on each other, legs pushed between thighs and arms loosely strewn across shoulders.

“Buy me a drink?” Eric yells into the man’s ear and gets a nod in agreement.

They maneuver their way through the crowd. The guy pushes his way through the throng of people taking up space in front of the bar and waves down a bartender. It’s quicker service than Eric has ever gotten but he goes along with it, ordering a vodka highball to make things simple.

They down their drinks and head back to the dance floor, enjoying the way their bodies fit so well together. The pumping bass flows through Eric’s body and brain, making him forget everything that’s happened the past few weeks, the past year. It feels great to just turn his brain off and dance his heart out with a hot guy.

“You got a name?” The guy asks during another drink break.

“Eric,” he replies. “You?”

“Kent.”

Eric nods and grins.

They dance for another hour before making out in some cab as it makes it way through Las Vegas traffic to some address Kent had given. Maybe Eric should be worried about going to some stranger's house but he figures if he’s going to get murdered then hopefully he’ll at least get laid first.

He doesn’t get murdered but he definitely does get laid.

Kent’s house - a condo, actually - is huge and rich looking, if a bit empty.

“Not home that often,” Kent supplies as Eric takes a quick look around. Then, he’s distracting Eric with lips and tongues and hands and some of the best sex Eric has ever had.

Afterwards, Kent falls asleep and Eric quietly finds his clothes strewn about before sneaking out the front door.

*

Lardo calls Eric. Eric doesn’t answer. Shitty calls. Eric doesn’t answer.

An unknown number calls one day when Eric’s drunk by the poolside. It’s Samwell. He’s losing his scholarship so he’ll need to pay his tuition fees if he’s going to stay enrolled. He stutters out some agreement and hangs up. He doesn’t try to drown himself in the pool.

Eric’s getting good at ignoring everything. Lardo and Chowder keep calling him daily but he can’t bring himself to answer their calls. He stares at their contact photos filling up the screen and he wants to scream. He wants to destroy everything that ties him back to that place, back to the life that always seemed to let him down.

It’s two weeks to the day he arrived in Las Vegas when he finally can’t take it anymore. Lardo’s been calling every five minutes. He wants them all to stop trying. He wants them to forget about him and move on; make this easier on everyone.

Her ringtone starts up again and Eric lets out a guttural scream, throwing his phone into the pool. It slowly sinks and Eric quietly watches as it softly hits the bottom. It’s disappointing and not enough. He wants to break something. He wants the world to look like the growing pit in his chest.

Low muttering filters into his ears and he looks up to see the other motel patrons staring at him. Across the way, the manager briskly makes his way towards Eric and he clenches his fists. He’s fucked up again and ruined another good thing going in his life.

He gets fifteen minutes to pack up his stuff before they escort him off the property. He trudges down the block towards his truck and sits in the boiling heat for far too long, letting the tears stream down his face.

There’s enough money in his bank account for maybe one night in a hotel or a new phone. He has no job. He has no plan. He definitely doesn’t have enough money to get back to Samwell, even if he did want to go back. What would even be waiting there for him at this point? He can’t even answer a phone call never mind show up on the Haus doorstep like nothing happened.

Determined to fix this himself, Eric spends the last of his money on a crappy pay as you go flip phone. He calls his mother to let her know his new number and makes up some story about how his other broke. She buys it easily enough before segueing into the hockey family weekend. Eric’s stomach churns as he lies that it’s not happening this year. The nauseous feeling stays a long while after they hang up.

He spends the next few days alternating between canvassing the area for jobs and staring at the ceiling of his truck, wishing for someone to call him for an interview.

A chain bakery finally offers him a job. It’s early hours and hard work but it’s not like he has much else going on. When Phillipa, the woman running the franchise, finds out he’s been sleeping in his truck she offers up her couch and shower, plus the use of their kitchen to make meals. It’s more than he could have ever hoped for at this point.

His time at the bakery goes quickly. He enjoys the repetitive motions as he bakes the same cookies and cupcakes and bread day after day. It keeps his mind focused on the task at hand instead of the guilt and worry gnawing at the back of his mind.

December rolls around and he’s fallen into a basic routine. Wake up at 4 am and head down to the bakery to start mixing the ingredients for the day. As the first batches are in the oven, he turns on the office computer to check his email. It’s typically either his mother or spam; however, this morning there’s an email waiting for him from Samwell. It states he’s no longer enrolled in Samwell due to failure to pay.

Eric’s vision blurs as tears well up in his eyes and everything slams into him at once. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t know how he got to this point. He’s completely destroyed his entire life with no good reason. Nothing makes sense. He’s not happy. He feels alone and empty most of the time, an ache always digging away at his chest. It’s like he’s been looking in from the outside but it’s all a blur.

Eric’s sobs become more erratic as he realizes he doesn’t know how much longer he can continue on this way. He hunches in on himself, arms wrapped around him, trying to make himself as small as possible. He doesn’t know what to do. This isn’t right but he doesn’t know how to fix any of it.

The sound of the back door opening startles Eric. He unfurls himself and wipes away his tears with a shaky hand. He takes a minute to even his breathing and closes down the computer before stumbling back into the kitchen. For the rest of the day, he keeps his head down, mindlessly mixing and kneading. He needs a distraction. He needs to feel something other than nothing.

That night, Eric ends up at the same club as before. The place is just as crowded and just as loud. It’s a longshot but he hopes Kent is around. He occupies his time on the dance floor, flitting from one person to the next, always keeping one eye out for blonde hair tucked underneath a snapback.

Just as he’s about to leave and grab a drink he catches hazel eyes across the floor and he grins. Kent smirks and Eric pushes through the crowd just to get to him. Kent pulls him in as soon as they’re an arm's length away, his breath hot against Eric’s ear.

“Want a drink or want to get out of here?”

Eric opts for the latter and they quickly find themselves back at Kent’s condo. They don’t take their time and clothes end up lining the path to the bedroom. Eric shoves Kent onto the bed, eagerly straddling his hips and pushing their hard dicks together. Kent hisses and pushes up into the contact.

Kent swears and flips them over, pulling Eric by the thighs closer to him. His dick presses bluntly against Eric’s asshole and Eric groans. Kent does a quick job of prepping, only just getting two fingers in before he’s slipping a condom on and slowly filling Eric up. It burns and Eric loves it. It’s like Kent knows exactly what Eric needs - how desperately Eric needs to not think about anything beyond Kent pounding into him.

They push and pull at each other. Eric digs his fingers into the flesh of Kent’s ass, urging him faster and deeper. They’re loud and the headboard bangs against the wall but Kent doesn’t seem to care. Eric comes with the taste of Kent’s mouth on his. Kent follows after a few more thrusts, forehead resting against Eric’s shoulder blade, panting into his neck.

Kent pulls out and discards the condom in a trashcan by the bedside table. He flops down bonelessly onto the mattress while Eric slips into the ensuite to clean himself up.

Just as he finishes wiping down his stomach with a washcloth he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. The person staring back startles him, the cloth hitting the tiled floor with a wet slop. He looks tired with purplish bags under his eyes and a thinner face. He’s lost muscle definition in his arms and overall he’s skinnier. He doesn’t look like the happy bubbly person he had once been.

Eric takes a step back, hits the wall and slides down it, curling in on himself. He tries to hold back his tears; tries to be quiet so as not to disturb Kent. Nobody else deserves to deal with a mess like him.

“Hey, Eric, I was thinking that-” Kent freezes as he pushes open the bathroom door and sees Eric. There’s a moment where everything stands still and then Kent is kneeling by his side, hands hovering over Eric’s body. “What’s wrong? Did I hurt you? Are you okay?”

Eric shakes his head.

“I’m sorry,” Eric whispers, as Kent finally pulls Eric in close to him.

Eric cries and hates himself. Hates himself for getting to this point; hates himself for letting Kent see this when all he probably wanted was a hookup.

Kent shushes and rocks Eric gently. It makes Eric cry even harder as it reminds him of his mother, of all the times she would hold him after football practice or after a particularly bad run-in with a bully.

“I should go. I’m sorry.” Eric tries to pull away but Kent doesn’t let go.

“You can’t keep everything inside,” Kent says. “It’ll kill you.”

A sob pulls itself out of Eric’s throat at Kent’s words and his body shakes even harder. He didn’t realize how close he was to that line and it scares him. Kent tightens his grip and gently kisses the top of Eric’s head.

Eventually, once Eric’s tears slow down, Kent pulls back slightly.

“Okay, what we’re going to do is - We’re gonna put on some clothes and I’ll make some coffee and we’ll just sit. If you want to talk about anything I’m here. I know we don’t know each other that well but,” Kent uses his index finger and thumb to lift Eric’s chin to meet his eyes. “I am a great listener. Okay? Sound like a plan?”

Eric stares up into Kent’s face, searching for anything that would give Eric doubt and push him to leave. There’s nothing though. Just an open face, full of concern and kindness. Kent’s thumb slowly caresses Eric’s jaw and he nods slowly in agreement.

Together, they hoist themselves onto their feet, Eric swaying a bit into Kent. Silently, Kent helps him get dressed into a borrowed pair of sweats and a shirt with the Las Vegas Aces logo on the front. It all smells like Kent and it helps Eric relax a little bit more.

“So, where are you from, Eric?” Kent asks from the kitchen as he prepares the coffee.

Eric looks around the living room from his seat on the couch, taking in the typical standard furniture - television, coffee table, bookcase, potted plant.

“Georgia,” Eric replies absentmindedly as he tries to figure out if the plant is real or fake.

“Hence the accent.” Kent places a tupperware of some cheese and vegetables on the coffee table. “Sorry, I don’t have much in the way of edible food right now - I just got back into town today.”

Eric nods and grabs a carrot stick from the container.

“Where were you?”

“Vancouver, actually,” Kent replies as he sits down next to Eric, peering at the food like he’s hungry but not for what’s available.

“Was it for work?”

Kent nods.

“What do you do?”

Kent glances over at Eric as he decides on a couple snap peas. He settles back into the couch and stays quiet long enough that Eric thinks maybe he’s getting too personal for whatever they’re doing.

“I play hockey.”

Eric’s eyes widen at the admission.

“Like,” he starts, a hand waving in the air. “Professionally?”

Kent finishes chewing what’s in his mouth and holds out a hand while stating, “Kent Parson of the Las Vegas Aces. Pleased to meet you.”

Eric gives the loosest handshake ever in his life as he gapes at Kent freaking Parson - who he has slept with twice now.

“Oh Lord. Really?”

Kent nods.

“How did I not recognize you?” Eric asks no one in particular. “The biggest hockey star in the world right now and I don’t even recognize you.”

There’s a small blush appearing on Kent’s cheeks.

“So, you’re a fan?”

Eric nods. “I mean. Who watches hockey and isn’t?”

Kent snorts and says, “A lot of people trust me,” as he gets up to head back into the kitchen.

Eric takes another look around the living room like something will jump out and make this seem more real. Like there will be an obvious neon sign screaming at him that this is Kent Parson’s apartment.

“Do you take cream or sugar in your coffee?” Kent calls out.

“I like my coffee like I like my men - tall, blonde, and sweet,” Eric says without thinking and Kent’s head pops into the doorway with a smirk on his face.

“Oh, really?”

Eric blushes and stammers out, “It’s an expression!”

Kent laughs and disappears only to come back out a minute later with two mugs in his hands. Eric watches him delicately place them on the coffee table before collapsing back onto the couch.

“So, Eric, what’s going on?" 

Eric sighs and fiddles with the hem of his shirt. He knows he needs to talk to someone about what’s going on and Kent has made everything feel so easy like the world hasn’t fallen down.

“I don’t really know,” Eric finally says with a shrug and ignores Kent’s raised eyebrow. “I was in college and my closest friends were older so they all graduated before me. I thought we would stay in touch but-” He cuts off, biting his lip.

“But you didn’t?” Kent supplies gently.

Eric nods.

“I thought it would be fine - I had other friends. We all played on the same hockey team so it wasn’t like I was ever alone but I just felt.” Eric sighs. “I felt very alone.”

Kent reaches out and squeezes Eric’s thigh but doesn’t say anything.

“One day I woke up and just couldn’t do anything,” Eric continues. “I didn’t want to go to class - I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. So. I just left.”

Kent watches Eric’s face with a calculating look. A blush rises in Eric’s face.

“That’s not it though.”

Eric frowns. “What?”

Kent shrugs and says, “I mean. Okay. Friends lose touch all the time. I’m sure you’ve lost touch with tons of people in your life. So why these friends?”

Eric feels himself bristle.

“Because they were there for me through a lot of stuff. They were the first people I came out to and-”

Kent cuts him off, “I’m not saying they’re horrible people, Eric. I’m sure they’re all great but really think about it. Why them? Why now?”

Eric frowns and feels a little contrary. He doesn’t want to think about it. He knows why them. Shitty and Lardo were his best friends, of course he would feel saddened at the loss of contact with them. And Jack. He would always miss Jack. Eric had thought he’d been in love before coming to Samwell; that had been nothing but a silly crush compared to what he felt for Jack. And it stung to find out Eric didn’t mean that much to Jack otherwise why hadn’t he kept in touch? Why didn’t he try and stop Eric from leaving the arena that day - why hadn’t he called?

“Who are you thinking about?” Kent asks quietly, slicing through Eric’s thoughts.

“A guy I used to know. I.” Eric swallows. “I love him and I thought maybe-” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter now, does it?”

Kent shifts close to Eric, slinging an arm around his shoulders.

“Of course it matters. How you feel matters. You matter.”

The tears well up in his eyes because he doesn’t matter. Eric can’t believe that anymore. Not just because of Jack or Shitty or Lardo. But because of how he’s acted, how the world has treated him, how he’s nothing more than that kid sleeping on someone’s couch working for minimum wage.

Eric shakes his head and pushes Kent away.

“I’m not. I don’t. I can’t.” His mouth is tacky and he can’t say what’s swirling in his mind. “I’ve ruined my life. I can’t go back. I can’t tell my parents. I’ve thrown everything away so why does it matter anymore?”

“Hey,” Kent says, voice cracking.

Eric looks up and Kent has tears in his eyes.

“You matter and people care about you, alright?” Kent whispers and pulls Eric into a bone-crushing hug. Eric is too shocked to do more than hug back as he realizes maybe Kent needs it as much as Eric.

“You too,” Eric whispers.

They cry together until the corners of Eric’s eyes feel cracked and raw from rubbing at them too much and Kent starts to drift to sleep, neither of them having touched their coffee.

“Let’s go to bed,” Kent says and Eric nods.

Just as they’re settling into the mattress, Eric wrapped up in Kent’s arms, Eric says into the darkness, “Bittle.”

“What?” Kent asks a bit groggily.

“I know your full name but you don’t know mine. I’m Eric Bittle.”

“Nice to meet you, Eric Bittle,” Kent says with a small snuffle of a laugh. “Now go to sleep.”

*

Eric startles awake like his body knows subconsciously something’s wrong. He’s not on the couch at Phillipa’s. It takes a couple of seconds of hazy eyes adjusting to the darkness to remember the night before. His breakdown in the bathroom and on the couch comes rushing back. He can feel his cheeks turning red with embarrassment.

Sighing, Eric decides he needs to leave before Kent feels any more obligation to listen to the pathetic story of his life. Just as he starts to slide his way towards the edge of the bed, Kent’s hand closes around his right wrist.

“Where you goin’?” Kent mumbles.

“Don’t worry about it,” Eric whispers. “Thanks for letting me stay.”

He’s got one foot on the hardwood floor when Kent’s body firmly wraps itself around his torso.

“Not leavin’,” Kent says and Eric feels the pinpricks of tears again.

“You don’t need to deal with this - It’ll be fine.”

Kent pushes his face into Eric’s side and blows a raspberry. Eric can’t help a giggle from escaping at the sensation.

“Stay,” Kent says. “Have breakfast with me.”

Eric sighs and searches the room for a clock. Red neon numbers read 3:53 am. He has to get to work. That’s not something he can ruin just yet.

“I have to go to work.”

Kent makes a low whining noise but finally unwraps himself from Eric.

Eric locates his boxers and jeans before he realizes Kent is out of bed and also getting dressed.

“What are you doing?”

Kent stops pulling on his sock and stares at Eric.

“Driving you to work?”

Eric stares back at the number one hockey player in the league right now, one sock half on, no shirt and bed head, offering to drive some low life like him to his crappy job.

“Okay,” Eric says.

*

“Thanks for the ride,” Eric says as Kent pulls up in front of the bakery just as Eric had instructed him to.

“No problem. Can I see you again?”

Kent must be getting sick of Eric’s bug eyes but he can’t help it when at every turn Kent surprises him.

“You,” Eric croaks out and clears his throat. “You want to see me again?”

“Of course,” Kent says. “I like you, Eric.”

Oh. Eric looks away from Kent’s hopeful face. It’s beautiful and he deserves so much more than Eric.

“Please?” Kent continues. “Dinner? Tonight? I’ll pick you up.”

Eric fiddles with the cuffs of his hoodie and finally nods.

“Okay, sure.”

“Great!” Kent exclaims, a huge grin spreading across his face and Eric can’t help but stare. It takes years off Kent’s face. “Where can I pick you up from?”

“Oh, here’s fine.”

Kent’s smile diminishes a bit.

“You’re working all day?”

Eric lets out a soft laugh.

“Oh, gosh no. I’m staying on the owner's couch above the bakery.”

“You… stay on the couch?” Kent repeats back and Eric nods, feeling a bit self-conscious. He knows it’s not ideal but it’s better than his truck. “Alright, well, I will be here for seven if that works,” Kent continues on as if nothing was wrong.

Eric nods and finally gets out of the car.

“Bye, Kent,” Eric says.

Kent waits until Eric’s opened the front door and they wave before Kent peels off.

*

The restaurant they’re in is very dark. It’s a very nice, upscale restaurant and candles are lit upon every table in sight but it’s not enough. Eric can hardly see Kent across the booth from him.

A waiter has come and gone with their drink orders. Kent orders wine while Eric sticks with water. He wonders if it would be obvious if he only ate the complimentary bread instead of ordering a meal that costs more than he makes in a day.

“Order whatever you want,” Kent says as if he could read Eric’s mind. “I’m paying.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t-” Eric starts but Kent waves his hand dismissively and Eric is worried for a second their very tiny candle will go out.

“Eric, please,” Kent says with what Eric thinks he can make out to be a smile. “I want to treat you on our first real date.”

A date. Right. Eric supposes he knew this was a date all along but even now, sitting in an obviously very romantic place, it was hard for him to accept it.

Eric nods and continues to review the menu. He tries not to choke too much when he sees the price of the caesar salad.

By the time the waiter returns with their drinks, Eric’s settled on the least expensive meal he can tolerate - chicken parmesan. Kent orders some complicated meal involving lobster tail and filet mignon.

The waiter leaves and silence descends over their table. Eric can hear the chattering of other people around them, the clattering of dishes against each other, but he and Kent just sit and stare at one another.

Finally, Kent says, “I can’t fucking see you at all,” and Eric laughs harder than he has in a long time. Kent’s laughter joins his and it eases the tension tenfold.

“This place is so fancy,” Eric says once his laughter settles down a bit. “You’d think they could afford better lighting."

Kent snorts before taking a sip of his wine.

“So, what’s your favourite color?” Kent asks and Eric rolls his eyes at the childish question.

“Blue,” he responds. “And yours?”

“Would ya look at that,” Kent says with a grin. “Mine too.”

They continue on asking questions in the same style as they wait for their meals.

“Cats or dogs?” Eric questions and Kent’s face lights up.

“Cats. Absolutely. I really want one but since I’m away often it wouldn’t be fair.”

Eric nods in understanding.

“We never had any pets growing up,” Eric admits. “Coach - my father - is allergic to dogs and can’t stand cats so.” He shrugs. It never really mattered to him - he wasn’t one of those kids dying to have a pet.

“Wait,” Kent says, eyebrow furrowing in the candlelight. “You call your dad Coach?”

“Oh,” Eric laughs out. “He’s the football coach back home. Madison’s a small town so he’s a big deal. I grew up with everyone calling him Coach so I just did too.”

Kent nods and opens his mouth as if to say something but the waiter is there with their food and it gets easily forgotten about.

Halfway through their meal, as Eric tries to stuff one more bite of chicken parmesan in his mouth because who knew it could taste so good, Kent clears his throat.

“You should live with me.”

Eric disgustingly spits out the chicken onto his plate so he doesn’t choke. He ignores Kent’s scrunched up face.

“What?” Eric dumbly asks.

Kent tears his eyes away from Eric’s plate to meet his eyes. “Move in with me. I have a spare bedroom, it won’t cost you anything, and you’ll have the place all to yourself half the time. Better than some couch.”

Eric silently agrees with everything Kent says but alarms are still ringing in his brain.

“But. I. I can’t. I mean.” Eric swallows thickly and stares down at his lap. “If this is a sex thing I-”

“No!” Kent interrupts and Eric glances up to see the horror on Kent’s face. “That’s not what I’m saying. I don’t expect anything from you.”

Kent runs a hand through his hair and sighs before continuing, “You need a place to stay and I have one. I really like you, Eric." 

Eric decides not to think too much about it. He hasn’t so far when it’s come to Kent and it hasn’t turned out bad yet.

“Okay,” Eric agrees. “But, I want to pay rent.”

The effect of Kent rolling his eyes is lost as a grin splits his face in two.

“I don’t need the money, Eric.”

“Yeah, but-” Eric shrugs. “I think maybe I need to be more responsible and feel like I’m contributing in some way - not just freeloading.”

Kent nods.

“So, you’ll come home with me tonight?”

Eric blushes at everything that could mean but nods in agreement.

*

“What’s funny?” Kent asks, later on, the two of them already halfway through their second bottle of wine.

They’re stretched out on Kent’s couch facing each other, feet meeting in the middle and tangled up with each other.

There had been a quiet, comforting silence when Eric had burst out laughing.

“Two months ago,” Eric starts. “If someone told me I’d eventually be living in Las Vegas with Kent Parson, who I’ve slept with, I would’ve had them committed.”

Kent snorts and kicks gently at Eric’s feet.

“Well, get used to it. You’re stuck with me now.”

Eric grins as his head lolls to the side to lean against the back of the couch.

“More like you’re stuck with me,” Eric teases and he only means it as a joke but Kent’s face darkens slightly.

“You know you’re not a burden right?"

Eric’s face heats up.

“Of course, Kent.”

Kent narrows his eyes and Eric tries to make his face look as believable as possible. Kent sighs and slumps a bit.

“Look, Eric, I had this friend,” Kent begins, clenching his eyes shut for a second. “Who am I kidding - I loved him. Still do. Anyways, he didn’t open up to anyone - always said he was fine - but he wasn’t and it almost cost him his life.”

Eric’s chest aches with the overwhelming feeling of sadness. He thinks of Jack and everything he went through. Eric had never pried, never really googled Jack out of fairness of wanting to know Jack for himself and not for what some tabloid said, but he’d overheard some things now and then.

“I’m sorry,” Eric whispers. “Is he okay now?”

Kent snorts and Eric ignores the way he furiously wipes away some tears escaping from his eyes.

“Yeah, as far as I know. He cut me out of his life after that. I don’t know if he blames me - if I should have done something more - I don’t know.”

Eric leans forward and squeezes Kent’s ankle.

“It’s not your fault, okay?”

Kent nods and takes a swig of his wine.

“I know that. Or, well,” Kent laughs softly. “That’s what my therapist tells me.”

It’s another minute before Kent continues, “Anyways. My point is. Don’t hold it in. Don’t lie to me. Please.”

Eric sees the heartbreak clear across Kent’s face and he quickly agrees.

“I do feel like a burden,” Eric says, sinking back into the couch, eyes trained on a spot on the wall above Kent’s head. “I always have. To my family. To my team. To my friends.”

Eric ignores the tears welling up in his eyes.

“I’ve never felt good enough but I always managed to scrape by. My father wanted a football player instead of a figure skater so I compromised with hockey. I never had many friends so I learned how to bake, hoping they’d keep me around. I fell in love with a straight boy and I’m fairly certain he knew. How embarrassing is that? No wonder they all left me behind.”

“Hey,” Kent softly says and nudges Eric’s foot. Eric sniffs and meets Kent’s eyes. “I won’t leave you behind, okay?”

Eric gives a watery smile and nods.

“Me either, alright?”

Kent pours out the rest of the wine bottle into their glasses before holding his up. Eric mimics the action.

“To not being left behind,” Kent says and Eric grins.

“To not being left behind,” he echoes and they clink their glasses together.

*

Life with Kent is a lot different than he thought it would be.

When Kent’s home he enjoys a quiet night more than anything. He’ll watch Netflix or go on the internet. He buys ridiculous things from Chinese knock-off websites and has a folder of saved cat memes on his computer. There’s a calendar on the fridge with Kent’s game schedule so when he’s home Eric makes a double helping of dinner.

When he’s away, the apartment is quieter in a different way. Empty but not lonely. Eric’s small amount of stuff his mingled seamlessly with Kent’s. It feels more like a home than a place to crash.

He watches Kent’s away games and sends him texts of encouragement. He ignores the pang in his heart at how similar it was to being friends with Jack.

Eric and Kent learn to live around one another. Some nights they have sex. Some nights they just sleep in the same bed, cuddling. Some nights they retreat to their own bedrooms.

It’s comfortable in a way Eric has never felt before.

*

“What is your fucking problem?” Kent yells and Eric wants to throw the glass of water sitting innocently on the kitchen island beside him.

“You!” Eric screams back, tightening his fists at his side, trying to count backward from ten to calm himself down.

“What the fuck did I do?”

Kent stands at one end of the hallway, sandwiched between the two bedroom doors and blocking Eric from storming off into the spare. Eric just needs five minutes to cool down and remember what in the world they’re fighting about.

Kent had come home in a pissy mood - slamming the front door and kicking his shoes off his feet in haphazard directions. He knows Eric hates shoes all over the place because Eric has to get up early in the morning before the natural light has filled up the condo, and he usually ends up tripping on something. 

The Aces had lost to Pittsburgh that night 6-0. The Aces got booed in their own stadium; Kent had taken a couple of penalties, one of which lead to a goal. Eric gets that it’s frustrating but Kent shouldn’t be bringing it home to dump on Eric.

Eric doesn’t answer Kent because he’s still not sure. It’s been a buildup of everything. Every little misstep bringing them closer to the edge until tonight where they’ve both fallen off the cliff.

Kent throws his hands up in defeat.

“I can’t fix whatever you’re pissed off about if you won’t tell me!”

Eric wishes Kent would stop yelling long enough for Eric to think.

“I don’t know!” Eric finally responds. “I don’t know what’s fucking wrong but you’re making it worse!”

“I can’t fucking fix you!” Kent retorts, face contorted in horror as soon as the words have left his mouth.

Tears well up in Eric’s eyes. He clenches his jaw and juts it out, forcing himself to keep it all in. He’s not going to cry over this. Kent doesn’t mean it, Eric knows that deep down, but it still fucking stings.

“I don’t need you to fucking fix me,” Eric spits out.

He grabs the glass and throws it at the floor. It shatters upon impact and Kent flinches with the noise.

Eric shoves past Kent and slams the bedroom door behind him. The door across the hall echoes the noise.

*

He sullenly wanders out twenty minutes later. Kent is sweeping up the glass in the kitchen, keeping his eyes focused at the ground.

Eric’s anger had waned about ten minutes ago but he had spent the next ten convincing himself to go out. He’s not mad anymore - at anything that happened. He doesn’t care about what Kent said or whatever the hell they were fighting about before. Eric just wants a hug, honestly.

“Hey,” Eric whispers.

Kent’s up in a flash, dustpan forgotten on the floor, wrapping arms around Eric tightly.

“I’m so sorry, Eric. I didn’t mean it. I can’t believe I said that. You don’t need to be fixed. I’m an asshole. I’m so sorry.”

And Kent is an asshole. Eric knows this. The media always painted Kent Parson as a big partier and an even bigger asshole. Eric is privy to it in small doses. Snarky comments here and there but never fully directed at Eric. And Eric is fine with that. He can be kind of an asshole too when he wants to be. He hides it behind passive aggressive comments and petty actions but it’s still there.

“It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it.”

Kent pulls back to stare Eric in the eyes.

“I am truly sorry, Eric.”

Eric nods and gives a quick peck on Kent’s lips.

“I know. Thank you.”

Kent returns to cleaning up the glass while Eric makes them some hot chocolate. It’s almost two in the morning but the lingering adrenaline has him wide awake.

Kent presses a kiss to Eric’s shoulder as he passes to toss the shards into the garbage.

“I think-,” Eric starts and stops, keeping his focus on stirring the cocoa mix into the milk. “I think you’re right.”

“About what?”

“That maybe I need some fixing.”

“No, Eric,” Kent says, pain obvious in his voice. “Please - I didn’t mean that. You’re perfect.”

Eric huffs. “I’m not and that’s fine. I just think I need some help. Maybe talk to someone.”

Kent presses himself against Eric’s back, hooking his chin over Eric’s shoulder.

“I can give you the number to my psychologist’s office. If you’re sure.”

He pauses because - Is he? Growing up in Georgia, Eric learned quickly that you didn’t do that sort of thing. You didn’t talk about your feelings, especially not to some stranger. You suffered in silence. Eric doesn’t think he can do that anymore.

“Yeah. That would be great.”

*

“You should let your friends know you’re alright,” Kent says the next night over dinner.

Eric pauses chewing his chicken then swallows so he can speak.

“What?”

Kent keeps his eyes trained on the cooking show they’re watching as he says, “I wish my friend had just let me know everything was okay - that he was going to be okay - instead of keeping me in the dark.”

Eric stares down at his dinner which grows more unappetizing as the second's tick by. He knows Kent’s right. He should let Lardo or Chowder know that he’s not dead in some gutter. But the more prominent voice in his brain keeps telling him that they don’t care. They’ve long forgotten him; They don’t care what’s happened to him. They’re probably better off.

He sighs and cuts off that train of thought. He never likes where it ends up.

“Okay,” Eric says.

Later that night, after Kent has retreated to his own room for the night, Eric turns on the computer in the spare bedroom. There’s an email from Lardo only a few days old and he clicks on it. Without reading what she had originally typed he hits reply and stares at the blinking cursor.

Hey. I’m okay. I’m in Las Vegas. My old phone broke so here’s my new number: (555) 234-6879.

He hits send and waits. He can feel his heart pounding with nerves. What if she doesn’t respond? What if she truly does not care about him anymore? But then, on the other hand, if she does call, what does he say? He doesn’t have an explanation for just leaving, for cutting off contact with everyone. Eric rubs his shorts with sweaty palms, trying to ignore the constriction building in his chest. He suddenly wishes he could retract the email - could just go on the way he has. It’d be better for everyone if he-

The shrill, generic ring tone cuts through the air, startling Eric into knocking the phone off the computer desk. Swearing under his breath, he grabs it from the floor and stares at the number - Rhode Island area code. It’s Lardo. It has to be. He almost lets it ring to voicemail.

“Hello?” Eric tentatively asks after hitting accept.

“Bits? Oh my-” Lardo cuts off with a small sob. “Oh thank God, you’re okay.”

Eric clears his throat, can feel the tears forming in his eyes, and he tries to stave them off.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers and listens to the sniffling on the other side.

“It’s okay, Bitty,” Lardo says. “I don’t care why I’m just so glad you’re okay.”

Eric breaks down at that. It doesn’t feel real like at any moment she’s going to laugh at him and hang up.

“I’m sorry,” he manages to say. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Nothing,” Lardo replies. “Nothing at all. If you ever want to talk - I’m a good listener. You can even email me if that’s easier.”

“Thanks.”

“Where are you staying?”

Eric lets out a wet laugh.

“Kent Parson’s spare bedroom.”

There’s silence and then a small shriek.

“Holy shit, Bits!” Lardo exclaims and she sounds normal. She sounds like all the times they hung out in her bedroom or went out for coffee. It’s like nothing’s changed - he’s still Bitty to her regardless of where he’s ended up and there’s no resentment.

“I know,” he says, easing into the conversation a bit. “Of everyone in Las Vegas.”

“Wait, have you slept with him?” Lardo asks and Eric blushes but says nothing. “Get it Bits! Wow!”

“It’s not like that.” Eric can’t help the smile take over his face. “We’ve been on a couple dates.”

Lardo lets out another shriek before coughing. Eric laughs to himself as he pictures her taking a couple calming breaths before composing herself and putting back on the facade of chill. It hits him how much he missed her.

“Okay, so you run off to Las Vegas and start dating the greatest hockey player - minus Jack - out there? What a life you lead, Bitty.”

Eric lets out a quick huff of laughter before saying, “So, speaking of Jack. Have you heard from him?”

The easiness that had overcome him starts ebbing away as he waits for Lardo to respond.

“I mean,” Lardo slowly starts. “Yeah. We called him after nobody had seen you - thought maybe you’d gone out there. He was worried like the rest of us.”

Guilt sits heavy in his gut.

“Right. Of course.”

Lardo sighs.

“Look, Bitty-”

Eric doesn’t want to get into it. Not now. He doesn’t really want to think about Jack anymore - about how hopelessly in love Eric still is despite his growing feelings for Kent.

“Actually,” Eric cuts in. “I was wondering. Uhm, could you let everyone know I’m okay? Especially Chowder? I don’t think I’m ready to talk to them yet.”

“Of course,” Lardo says softly.

“Thanks.”

They talk for a little bit longer about nothing in particular and Eric’s grateful for the low expectations Lardo has for him.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Lardo says.

“I won’t,” Eric replies, hoping that’s the truth, and hangs up.

*

Kent invites him to a home game. Eric hasn’t been to one yet - hasn’t been able to really focus too heavily on hockey as it just reminds him what he left behind - but something in the way Kent looks at him, tired and a bit heavy, Eric readily agrees.

He arrives early to grab his tickets from the box office and pauses as he sees the information on the ticket.

Las Vegas Aces vs. Providence Falconers.

Of fucking course they’re playing Providence. Not like Kent would know how big of a deal this would be for Eric. He hadn’t said where he’d gone to school - hadn’t named Jack specifically in any conversation they’d had - and it was coming back to bite him in the ass. Eric half-heartedly wonders if this is karma.

The seat Kent got him is amazing. It’s located right behind the home team’s bench. Anybody else would be clamoring to have that spot whereas Eric would love to be hiding up in the nosebleeds.

A few players are circling the ice as they warm-up. A couple of the Aces are shooting on an empty net while some Falconers are stretching, talking to each other and pointing out things in the stands. And there’s Jack Zimmermann, doing laps like nobody else is there. Eric slinks down in his seat, hoping Jack won’t notice him in the sea of people. He doubts Jack would even bother looking into the stands.

Eventually the players head off as time ticks closer to the start of the game and Eric isn’t sure he can do this. The icy air around him is soothing, the sounds of skates on ice is relaxing, but he’s still wound up tight.

Before he can make the decision to get up and leave, the arena plunges into darkness and the Aces’ light show starts up. Projected on the ice is a montage of typical Las Vegas things like showgirls dancing interspersed with the Aces roster. A gigantic Kent Parson winks at the crowd and Eric swears the cheering gets louder.

The Aces rush onto the ice and circle around in the fog and lasers. The Falconers quickly join them from the side to a few boos. By the time the national anthem starts, Eric figures it’s too late to leave now. Might as well enjoy the rest of the show.

Kent clambers onto the bench and waves at Eric excitedly. Eric gives a small wave back and tries to keep his eyes away from the Falconers bench.

The first period goes by fairly uneventful. No one scores, there are no penalties, and it’s honestly a bit boring of a game. The second period starts with a fight and it’s like a fire has been lit under the Falconer’s asses. They’re shoving their way past the Aces and taking shots from everywhere on the ice.

It’s 1-0 in favour of the Falconers as they head into the third and Eric forgets that he’s supposed to be keeping a low profile as he starts screaming at the Aces to pass or shoot or “just fucking hit him already!” It’s one of these times, as he’s yelling at the obviously blind referee, that Jack is checked right in front of the Ace’s bench. Jack steadies himself on the boards and looks up straight into Eric’s eyes. The moment can’t last more than a second before Jack is skating hard towards his goal to help defend the net. Eric sits down heavily in his seat and curses to himself.

The Aces manage to score but it’s not enough to win in regulation so they head into overtime. Eric doesn’t stay in his seat to see who wins. He wants to avoid the crowds and heads down to the locker rooms with the pass Kent had given him.

There’s a small television in the hallway just outside the dressing room and from there Eric watches the Falconers score. He can’t actually tell who got the goal as a swarm of players in blue celebrates with a gigantic group hug. The Aces lift their sticks at center ice, saluting the crowd that came to cheer for them, before heading off.

After twenty minutes, the coaches leave the dressing room, stalking past Eric without a second glance. Less than thirty seconds later he has a text from Kent.

Doing press. Give me twenty.

Eric waits it out in the hall, watching the after game coverage being broadcasted on the television. They show highlights of the game - Jack had apparently scored the winning goal - before cutting to a baseball game still in progress. Eric watches the mind-numbingly long inning - out of all sports, baseball was probably his least favourite - before Kent pops his head out.

“C’mon then.”

Eric follows him into the dressing room. That’s one thing he hasn’t missed - the mix of sweaty men and equally sweaty gear hanging to dry. Most of the guys are in states of undressed, including Kent whose only got a towel wrapped around his waist, hair slowly dripping water onto his bare back. Eric follows a droplet making its way down Kent’s shoulder blade, gaining speed as it reaches the middle of his back, and then quickly disappears below the towel. He hastily realigns his eyesight to head height.

“I didn’t know you were playing the Falconers,” Eric hisses as they reach Kent’s stall.

Kent drops his towel, pulling on some briefs, before shrugging. Eric’s lived long enough as a gay male athlete not to react too much to the display.

“What does it matter?” Kent asks, now reaching for the dress shirt hung in his stall.

Eric glances around the room. Half the guys have left and the few stragglers are minding their own business - either in the middle of their own conversations or engrossed in their phones.

“Look, the gu-the person I’m in love with?” Eric pauses for dramatic effect and Kent just raises an eyebrow in amusement. “Is Jack Zimmerman,” Eric finishes in a harsh whisper.

Kent stares at him and Eric can’t help shift his feet around, let his fingers tangle themselves up in the sleeves of his Aces hoodie.

“My favourite color is blue because it reminds me of my friend’s eyes.”

Eric stares with an open mouth.

“Holy shit.”

Kent laughs.

“Fuck. Of all the people in the world - you and I fall in love with the same one.”

Eric can’t really believe it. He probably should have seen this coming - he probably should have known the connection between Kent and Jack. If he’d paid attention to any online article about Jack he would have seen Kent’s name pop up. But Eric hadn’t wanted to pay attention, not to what those articles would say.

“Parson,” calls a man from across the room and Kent nods.

“I’ll be right back,” Kent tells Eric and follows the man through a doorway, dress shirt billowing out behind him.

Eric putters around his stall when suddenly there are boos and hisses coming from the leftover Aces. Eric looks over as Jack sticks his head into the dressing room.

“How’d he get in here? Tell him to fuck off,” someone says as Jack catches Eric’s eye. Jack raises an eyebrow and makes the slightest jerk of his head, beckoning Eric outside. Eric sighs but follows him.

“Bittle? What are you doing here?” Jack says as soon as they’re off in a secluded corner.

Eric stares at the floor and shrugs.

“Do you know how freaked out everyone was when you just up and disappeared?” Jack continues and Eric feels like he’s back in his first year at Samwell. Jack has the same distantly cold look on his face just as he did back then whenever Eric made a mistake on the ice.

Eric doesn’t know what to say. Everything Jack is saying is true. He knows people were worried - Lardo has told him that - but he doesn’t see the worth in himself to be worried about.

Jack sighs and runs a hand over his face. He looks tired and a bit rushed. His tie is on crooked like he pulled his suit on as quickly as he could.

“I just.” Eric can’t even finish his words as his voice cracks. He hates crying but it’s all he seems to be able to do lately. “I couldn’t do it.”

Jack softens a bit. “Couldn’t do what?”

“Everything!” Eric bursts. “You and Shitty left and stopped talking to everyone but at least I had Lardo or Ransom and Holster. But then they were gone and Chowder was in your room and Tango was constantly asking questions and-and I didn’t even know what I was doing in school - a major in American studies? Where is that ever going to get me in life? And hockey - I just - it wasn’t - “ Eric finds it hard to breathe, gasping between tears and words.

Jack leads him to a nearby chair and kneels in front of Eric, instructing him to take in deep breaths. His hands - one on Eric’s shoulder and the other on his knee - are warm and comforting.

“You’re going to be alright, Bittle.”

Eric shakes his head with a half-choked out laugh. “I’m not. I can’t. I lost my scholarship. They kicked me out of Samwell. I work at a bakery. I’m a failure.”

Jack stares and it makes everything clear. Nothing’s changed in the past few months - he still doesn’t mean a damned thing to Jack.

“Sorry. You don’t want to hear about all that. I’m sorry for making people worry and for bothering you in Providence. I know you don’t care-”

“Bittle.” Jack frowns. “That’s not true at all. I was worried about you. After you ran off from Providence I didn’t know what to do.”

“A phone call would’ve been nice,” Eric mutters and then clasps a hand over his mouth. “Oh, Jack, I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“Yes, you do. And. You’re right.” Jack runs a hand through his hair. “I should have called but I didn’t and I’m sorry for that. Would it have changed anything?”

Eric doesn’t know.

“Probably not,” he finally concedes. “I didn’t answer any calls until I was a couple states over anyways.”

Jack nods and finally moves to sit next to him.

“You work at a bakery? I thought maybe you were working for the Aces - doing PR or something with social media.”

Eric shakes his head and sniffs.

“It’s nice. It’s a chain so I don’t really get to do my own thing but it’s a decent job. The woman who owns the location let me sleep on her couch for a couple weeks.”

“So, why are you here?”

Kent takes that moment to make his grand entrance. Eric wonders how long he was waiting to hear for a perfect opening.

“He’s staying with me,” Kent says while sauntering up and Eric rolls his eyes while wiping the drying tears off his face with his sleeve.

“You know Kent?” Jack asks.

“We’re familiar,” Eric says drily.

“C’mon, Eric, let’s go home.”

“Eric?”

Jack is looking between Kent and him very confused. Eric decides to let him out of his misery.

“Yes, Jack, my name is Eric, remember?” Jack slowly nods. “And Kent is renting out his extra bedroom to me.”

“I invited him to the game tonight and now we’re going to go grab pizza and watch reality TV.”

Jack seems even more dumbfounded.

“Oh.”

“Lardo told you I contacted her, right?”

Jack nods.

“Yeah, she.” He clears his throat. “She let me know you were okay. I’m just. Surprised.”

“Me too, Jack,” Eric says and stands up, Jack following suit.

“Can I-” Jack cuts himself off with a cough and doesn’t continue.

“Hug?” Eric asks instead and Jack nods, immediately holding his arms open. He wraps his arms around Jack and takes in the smell, the warmth and the hardness of his chest beneath Eric’s cheek. Eric had missed Jack’s hugs, despite the rarity of them.

The hug is over too soon but Eric plasters on a smile. Jack gives a small one back.

“Take care of yourself, Bitty.” Jack pauses and adds, “You too, Kent.”

Kent nods, face impassively neutral.

“And you, Jack,” Eric says.

He’s almost around the corner with Kent when Jack calls out to him.

“Can I get your new number? I don’t want to lose touch again.”

Eric is a bit surprised at how hopeful Jack looks that he nods in agreement. They exchange numbers before giving one last wave and separating.

*

Him and Kent do end up grabbing pizza but spend most of the night talking about Jack.

“He called you Bitty,” Kent says as Project Runway reruns play in the background.

“That's what they call me back at Samwell.”

Kent nods.

“Do you prefer that over Eric?”

Eric shrugs. Growing up he's always been called something other than Eric. His mother calls him Dicky. His father calls him Junior. The kids at school always called him names if they weren't sneering Dicky at him. He got to Samwell and immediately got assigned Bitty. He honestly didn't mind at the time. It made him feel like part of the team like they weren't going to beat him up at any misgiving.

“Eric's fine,” Eric finally says and Kent nods again, taking a large bite out of his pizza.

They watch, in silence, as Tim Gunn asks the room, “Where's Andre?”

“I don’t know if you know this or even feel comfortable saying but,” Bitty picks at the pineapple on his slice. “Is Jack straight?”

Kent inhales sharply and chokes on his spit a bit.

“Jesus. What a question,” Kent rasps out and Eric blushes.

“Sorry it's stupid. I just. I was always so sure but then I got this feeling that maybe I shouldn't assume.”

Kent laughs bitterly.

“He'd probably kill me if he knew I told you this but he's not straight. Bisexual I think? We didn't really discuss it much as teenagers.”

Eric's eyes blur as he stares down at his plate, biting his lip. He needs to stop crying at every little thing.

“Eric?” Kent asks and Eric shakes his head, unable to speak.

He feels like he's choking on his own thoughts. Why isn’t he good enough for Jack? He knows it’s unfair of him to put that on Jack - that just because Jack is into guys doesn’t mean he has to be into Eric but it still stings. The knowledge that Jack could have returned Eric’s feelings but just didn’t.

Kent wraps an arm around Eric's shoulder and pulls him in close. Eric lets a sob out by accident and it just starts pouring out as he gasps for air. Kent holds him and Eric feels embarrassed by the time the tears slow enough that he can speak.

“I'm sorry, Kent. I'm sorry I'm so broken. You don't need to deal with this.”

“Hey,” Kent says, turning Eric to face him, a hand gently grasping Eric's chin to tilt his face up even though Eric does his best to not make eye contact. “You're not broken ok? And there's no ‘dealing with’. I'm your friend alright? I care about you.”

Eric sniffs and nods.

“Thanks.”

He blushes as Kent stares at his face, chin still being held by surprisingly soft hands, a thumb slightly running back and forth.

“You truly are amazing, Eric.”

There's a pause and then Kent moves in slowly, leaving enough time for Eric to move away but he doesn't. Kent's lips press softly against Eric’s wet ones and it’s so much different from all their other kisses. They were always in the heat of the moment, something to do with your mouth during sex, but this was chaste and meaningful.

Kent pulls away and Eric opens his eyes, not even realizing he had shut them in the first place.

“I'm not sorry for kissing you,” Kent says. “I'm sorry if it’s made you uncomfortable but I've been wanting to do that properly for a while.”

Eric takes in Kent’s face, so open and waiting for rejection. Kent usually has some sort of facade up. Whether it’s him overly happy or extremely serious it’s always never the real Kent Parson. Eric realizes this is real. Kent is letting himself be seen by Eric in a way he hardly trusts anyone. Eric feels a burst of something in his chest. It hurts almost as much as when he thinks about Jack but it’s lighter to carry.

“I'm not sorry you kissed me either.” Eric smiles as Kent’s eyebrows raise. “And I'd like to do it again.”

Kent's grin cracks open his face and makes him more beautiful than Eric thought imaginable.

They spend the rest of the night lazily making out on the couch. It’s intimate without the rush and tension of anything overtly sexual. Their pizza grows cold and they leave it on the coffee table as they head to Kent’s bedroom. They climb into bed and cuddle before drifting off into a comfortable sleep.

*

Jack starts texting Eric fairly regularly. It starts off awkward - a couple ‘hey’s and ‘how are you’s that never go anywhere. It evolves into Eric congratulating Jack before his games and Jack sending him pictures he’s taken on his travels.

One morning he gets a photo of a Starbuck’s cup with Jack’s name written messily on it.

Jack: (6:42am) finally trying one of these
Bitty: (8:23am) starbucks coffee??
Jack: (8:25am) pumpkin spice latte. do you still like those?

Eric laughs to himself as he rolls over onto his stomach in bed. Kent’s on a roadie so he has the bed all to himself that morning.

Bitty: (8:26am) of course. how else do you think I survive fall?
Jack: (8:27am) even in LV?
Bitty: (8:27am) it still gets cold here!
Jack: (8:28am) haha

Eric rolls his eyes. This is probably the longest conversation they’ve had over text in over a year and it makes Eric feel giddy.

Then, another photo comes in. This time it’s a selfie of Jack at the gym. Eric stares at the photo. It’s obviously of Jack just finishing up - his hair wet from sweat curling into his forehead, face red and glistening from the exertion. Eric feels his body stirring, thoughts swirling through his mind at how he’d love to have that in his bed.

Jack: (8:29am) Just finishing up my morning workout.
Jack: (8:29am) then on my way to the rink
Jack: (8:30am) are you working today?

Eric licks his lips and thinks about what Jack’s doing. Imagines him getting ready for the shower, pulling his shirt up over his head to reveal his beautiful skin and muscle. Eric’s growing hard and he knows it’s wrong - that Jack probably didn’t have any intention behind that photo - but he can’t help it.

Bitty: (8:32am) no, it’s my day off.
Jack: (8:33am) any plans?

Beyond jerking off to that photo, Eric thinks to himself before typing out his reply.

Bitty: (8:34am) some errands. Thinking about trying out a new pie recipe.
Jack: (8:36am) I do miss your pie.
Bitty: (8:37am) i’ll send you some, if you’d like
Jack: (8:41am) haha would it even make it here in one piece?
Bitty: (8:42am) so… is that a no?? ;)

Eric blushes. He cannot believe he’s flirting with Jack Zimmermann while he’s kind of sort of in a relationship with Kent Parson. But it’s harmless if Jack’s not into him, right?

Jack: (8:43am) definitely not a no ;)

Eric stares at the text and the winky face. Oh no. Is Jack flirting back? No. He can’t be. That’s not how this is supposed to go.

Bitty: (8:46am) haha well then give me your address
Jack: (8:47am) or you could come visit and bake one here?

When did Jack get this smooth and flirty? Has he always been like this? Eric bites his bottom lip as he thinks of how to respond. He definitely should not be making plans to travel across the country to see some guy he’s into while dating another. He should probably talk to Kent first before he commits to anything.

Jack: (8:51am) sorry if that was presumptuous of me
Jack: (8:51am) I would really like to see you again

Eric kind of wants to scream. Why does Jack want to see him now? Why not when Eric went to him as a last ditch attempt at not throwing his life away? Eric sighs.

Bitty: (8:52am) it’s okay. I’d like to see you too but I want to talk to Kent first
Jack: (8:53am) Kent?
Jack: (8:53am) oh. You’re dating Kent?
Bitty: (8:54am) sort of. I’m not really sure.

There’s a long silence from Jack and Eric thinks he may have messed everything up between them. Again. He stuffs his face into his pillow and lets out a short yell. This morning had been going so well but he hasn’t even made it out of bed and everything has already been ruined.

Jack: (9:06am) okay. let me know if you decide to come out. :)

Eric swears under his breath as he reads the text. This boy.

*

It’s a week later, after Kent’s come and gone on a short road trip, that Eric finally brings it up.

They’re watching Ferris Bueller on television, eating chicken lasagna for dinner. Eric waits for a commercial to come on before he takes a deep breath.

“Jack’s been texting me,” he says.

Kent raises an eyebrow, fork sticking out of his mouth.

“And,” Eric continues. “He wants me to visit him out in Providence.”

Kent’s eyebrows go even higher than Eric thought possible. He slips the fork out of his mouth and frowns.

“What did you say?”

“Well, that I’d have to talk to you first.”

Eric pushes some of the bechamel sauce around his plate, drawing a flower with the fork tine.

“And what did Jack say?”

Eric rolls his eyes.

“He went ‘oh. So you’re dating kent?’ and then I said,” Eric continues because he knows what Kent’s next question is going to be. “Sort of. I’m not really sure.”

Kent’s frown deepens and if it were any other situation Eric would be giggling at how exaggerated his face looks.

“Do you want to date me?”

Eric smiles and nods, “Of course.”

“But, you still want to go visit Jack,” Kent hedges.

And he’s not wrong. Eric does want to go see Jack. He’s still in love with the man, that doesn’t just go away overnight. He doesn’t even know if he has a chance. Two weeks ago he would have told you there was no chance in hell that Jack would ever reciprocate his feelings. And now, after those texts, Eric doesn’t know where he stands.

Then there’s Kent. Eric’s been slowly falling in love with him over the past month and a half. First, it was just hot-blooded attraction but as he gets to know the man, as they spend more time together, Eric could see him being very happy to spend the rest of his life with Kent.

“I do,” Eric finally says. “I want to see Jack but. I don’t want to ruin this with you. I really do like you, Kent.”

Kent slumps back into the couch, plate of food forgotten on his lap.

“I really like you, too, Eric,” Kent says, running a hand through his already messy hair. “But. If I was the one Jack was asking to go I don’t know if I could stay, either.”

Kent closes his eyes and his shoulders slump, continuing, “I want you to be mine but I’m also jealous of you. Why not me?”

Eric takes Kent’s plate and places both of their dinners on the coffee table before scooting in close to Kent.

“I’m sorry,” Eric whispers. “I’m not sure why. You’re amazing and funny and really hot. ”

Kent rolls his eyes but Eric smiles as he manages to get a small smirk to appear. He nudges Kent with his shoulder and puts a hand on his thigh, squeezing it.

“You’re a catch and Jack would be lucky to have you. Maybe he just doesn’t know he could?” Eric pauses and comes to a decision. “I won’t go, Kent. Let’s be together.”

“What?” Kent asks, opening his eyes to stare incredulously at Eric. “No, you should go. Be happy with Jack.”

“But I’m happy with you,” Eric says and leans in to give Kent a quick, soft kiss.

“You sure?” Kent whispers and Eric nods, forehead knocking into Kent’s.

They finish up their dinner and just as the movie’s ending, Eric pulls up his phone to text Jack.

Bitty: (10:54pm) thank you for the offer, Jack, but I’m with Kent.

Kent grins, blush high on his cheeks, as Eric takes his hand and leads him to their bedroom.

*

Eric sleeps through his alarm so he's in a rush most of the next morning. He gets to work five minutes early but the feeling of being behind, being off-kilter, lingers. It isn't until his lunch break that he feels comfortable looking at his phone.

Jack: (11:05pm) I respect that.
Jack: (1:33am) The offers still on the table if both you and Kent wanted to visit.

Eric stares at his phone. He flips it shut then reopens it to be greeted by the same words.

“What in the-” he whispers harshly at the screen. It’s only a simple sentence inviting both him and Kent out to Jack’s but it seems so much more than that. In conjunction with Jack’s previous offer, Eric can’t help but read further into it.

His mind wanders throughout the rest of his shift. He mixes batter for muffins and drifts back to the text. Eric wishes he had his iphone still so he could screenshot and send it off to Kent. But he has to wait until that night - until after Kent’s game - to say anything.

It isn’t until Kent is walking through the front door that Eric realizes how quickly the rest of the day went in a blur. He’d napped when he got home so he’d actually be able to stay awake for the game. Then dinner and doing some laundry while watching the Aces beat the Blackhawks 3-0. And now here Kent is, exhausted but happy from that night’s win.

“Good game,” Eric says as he gets up from the couch. He watches Kent drop his duffel to the ground and unbutton his suit jacket with long, nimble fingers. Eric loves Kent’s hands - what they can do on the ice and off - how elegant they always seem.

“Thanks,” Kent mutters. The game hadn’t been anything too spectacular. Not a lot of whistles causing long shifts and tired boys.

Eric comes to a stop right in front of Kent and reaches up to brush the cowlick out of Kent’s forehead. Kent’s eyes bore into his and Eric can’t help the soft smile spreading across his face. He wraps his arms around Kent’s waist, enjoying the way Kent automatically pulls him in tightly, face pressed to the top of his head. Eric feels Kent take a large breath in, slowly pushing it out.

“Glad to be home,” Kent says and Eric agrees.

“Did you eat at the arena?” Eric pulls away to look up and watch Kent nod. “Still hungry?

Kent shrugs and says, “I’d rather just go to sleep.”

Eric understands and fully pulls out of Kent’s embrace.

“Well, go get ready for bed, sweetheart. I’ll be right in with some water.”

Kent trudges down the hall. As Eric watches him go, his chest feels full and warm. It aches with the knowledge that he never wants this feeling to fade.

Eric turns off the lights as he moves about the condo grabbing water and turning off the TV. Kent’s lying in bed by the time he makes his way in there.

“Come cuddle,” Kent says softly and Eric grins.

“I have something to show you first,” Eric replies, placing the water on the bedside table and grabbing his phone. He flips it open, navigates to Jack’s text and shoves the screen in Kent’s face.

Eric settles into the bed, sitting up against the headboard. Kent’s eyes dart from the screen up to Eric’s face then back.

“Really?” Kent asks and Eric shrugs. He’s not certain, he hasn’t responded yet to Jack, but it seems likely that Jack may be interested in something with both of them - not just Eric.

Eric honestly isn’t sure what to think about it all. He knows they need confirmation from Jack first that this is actually what he wants - that they aren’t misreading the situation. But if this is a possibility then, if Eric’s being honest with himself, he’s not sure where he stands. Kent has divulged a little bit more information about his past with Jack to Eric and Eric’s afraid that he could be left on the sidelines. How does one compete with a first love?

“Is that something you’d want?” Kent prompts and once again Eric shrugs.

“I’m not sure,” Eric says and pauses. He’s afraid to voice his fears but they promised each other to be honest. “I’m worried that if you and Jack get involved you’d both forget about me and I don’t know if I could take that.”

Kent makes a noise that sounds painful as he quickly wraps himself around Eric’s thighs.

“That wouldn’t happen,” Kent says and Eric wishes he could believe him so easily. “It couldn’t happen.”

Eric sighs and scoots down the bed so he’s laying beside Kent.

“You can’t promise anything,” Eric says. “Nobody can promise a future like that.”

Kent rolls over Eric, knees bracketing his thighs.

“Eric,” Kent says, a determined look in his eyes. “I love you and that’s not going to change whether Jack is in the picture or not.”

Eric stares, mouth drifting open in surprise. Kent loves him? His chest aches again and he can feel tears prickling in his eyes.

“You love me?” Eric whispers and Kent nods.

“Of course. How could I not?”

The tears come freely after that and Kent just holds him. His body weight presses Eric down into the mattress and while he thinks it should feel restricting it doesn’t. He feels safe and warm and, for the first time in a long while, loved.

“I love you, too,” Eric says between sobs. Kent presses his face into Eric’s neck, pressing kisses there and along his shoulder.

Eric’s tears ease as he turns his head to meet Kent in a proper kiss. They lazily kiss with wide mouths and slow tongues, enjoying the taste and feel of each other. Kent eases Eric’s pajama shorts down his thighs and reaches for his half-hard dick. Kent pumps it a couple of times as Eric gasps into his mouth.

“Please, Kent,” Eric says, not entirely sure what he’s asking for.

They quickly dispose of the rest of their clothes. Kent rolls Eric over onto his stomach, draping his body over Eric, pressing kisses down his shoulder blades and across his back.

“I want to fuck you,” Kent says and Eric nods into the pillow, arms tucked neatly under him.

Kent grabs the lube from the bedside table and takes no time in squirting some out onto his fingers, pressing a single digit against Eric’s hole. There’s no rush, no urgency to their movements, and yet there’s a crackle of something in the air that could break so easily if they stop.

Kent gets up to three fingers in, Eric flushed and moving his hips against the mattress.

“Please,” Eric pleads and after a long moment he feels Kent pressing against and into him.

Eric lets out a long moan, loving the feeling of Kent filling him up, of Kent’s fingers digging into his hips, trying to keep everything under control.

“Fuck, Eric,” Kent breathes out as his hips press against Eric’s ass.

Kent’s hands move away from Eric’s hips, smoothing their way up his sides, over his back. Kent coaxes Eric’s arm out from under him to above his head. Eric shivers at the movement as Kent leans over, curling his long fingers around Eric’s wrists and pushing them into the bed, letting his entire weight bear down on Eric.

Slowly, Kent moves his hips back and then forward. Eric feels stretched, can feel Kent’s heart beating against his back, or maybe that’s his own heart trying to beat its way out. The drag of Kent’s cock inside of him, back and forth, at such a maddeningly slow pace, drives Eric insane. It’s not enough and too much all at the same time. He pushes back and Kent snaps his hips forward, causing both of them let out a loud, low groan.

“I’m not gonna last,” Kent says.

“Please, just -” Eric whines as Kent pulls out a bit. “Fuck me, please.”

Kent raises up to get a better angle, hands steadying himself on the small of Eric’s back. Eric curls his own hands into the sheets, breath hitching with every hard thrust.

“Fu-Ken-” Eric chokes out, bed starting to creak, sweat beading on his forehead. “-ny, please, Kent. Fuck.”

“Say it again,” Kent says, sounding winded and so far gone.

“Fuck, please,” Eric repeats, unsure exactly what Kent wants but he knows he’ll do anything to try and get it right.

“No, my name, fuck-Eric.”

“Kent,” Eric says and then moans, “Kenny.”

Kent comes quickly after that, muttering swears the entire time. He pulls out, flips Eric back over and quickly attaches his mouth to Eric’s dick. Eric lets out a few loud swears of his own before coming as well, Kent swallowing as much as he can.

Eric can only hear the blood thumping in his brain as he does his best to catch his breath. He watches out of his periphery as Kent heads to the bathroom, removing the condom and tying it up.

“Well,” Kent says as he flops back onto the bed a minute or two later. Eric laughs in agreement, rolling over to cuddle with Kent.

“I love you,” Eric says, a giddy smile on his face.

“I love you, too,” Kent says, pressing a light kiss to Eric’s nose.

*

Bitty: (2:12am) We may have to take you up on that ;)
Jack: (5:35am) Can’t wait

*

Eric stays busy as Christmas looms closer. Eric works longer shifts at the bakery to help out with the overwhelming amount of holiday orders coming through. Kent goes on a few more road trips and Eric enjoys the empty condo to blast Christmas music and try new recipes.

Suzanne had called at the end of November to figure out flight plans. Eric had scrambled to assure her he could book his own flights and not to worry about it. She’d clicked her tongue and made comments about her baby growing up too quickly before finally relenting.

Then, the conversation turned towards school and his friends and Eric just wanted to blurt everything out. But instead, he lied through his teeth and wondered how he’s going to deal with the questions when they’re actually face to face. Over the phone, it’s easier to dupe his mother but in person, she’ll know right away something’s off.

The day of his flight comes quicker than he would have liked. Kent can’t drive him to the airport due to practice but it’s easier this way. Kent clings to Eric most of the morning, wrapping himself around Eric as he cooks or as he packs.

“You go away all the time and I’m never like this,” Eric chirps, laughing as he tries to move around the bedroom with Kent attached to his back.

Kent presses a kiss to Eric’s neck but doesn’t let go, following Eric around to the best of his ability.

“But this is the first time I’ve ever had to watch you leave,” Kent says and Eric shakes his head fondly.

They kiss in the front entrance for longer than Eric has.

“My ride is going to leave,” Eric says softly, lips brushing against Kent’s as he speaks. Kent frowns and sighs.

“I’ll miss you,” Kent says and Eric gives one last bone-crushing hug before stepping away.

“I’ll miss you, too. Text me.” Eric heads out, carry-on bag slung over his shoulder.

Eric is fairly certain that as soon as his mother catches one glimpse at him she's going to know he's been lying to her for the past couple months. However, as soon as she spots him in the arrivals terminal she's hugging him and talking a mile a minute.

The next few days, Eric walks on eggshells. He watches everything he says, careful not to mention Kent or Vegas. He doesn’t say anything too substantial and he thinks that maybe he can make it through the holidays. It isn't until halfway through his trip that it all goes to hell.

“Have you heard from Jack lately, honey?” Suzanne asks as she makes breakfast, cooking scrambled eggs at the stove.

Eric frowns at the sudden question but replies, “A bit. He’s been pretty busy. Why?”

Suzanne makes a noise and Eric looks up from the paper he was skimming.

“Well, you know, he called me a couple months ago in quite a panic looking for you. I assured him you were at Samwell and he should try your cell. I hope he’s doing alright. Professional sports is a whole ‘nother world.”

Eric averts his eyes from hers as she glances over her shoulder at him.

“Oh,” Eric says, trying to swallow down his building anxiety. “Jack’s fine. He was born for the NHL.”

Suzanne hums to herself and Eric focuses back on the paper, flicking it out and up to try and hide his face.

“Do you know why he called here, though? He seemed really worried about you.”

Eric can feel his eyes welling up with tears. He takes a deep breath.

“No idea,” Eric mutters.

“If there’s something going on you can always talk to me. You know that, right honey?”

Eric can feel his cheeks burning. She still has her back turned to him. This is how they've always started important conversations. Neither of them like confrontation but Suzanne has always pushed when she needed to.

“Yes,” Eric says with a crack in his voice. Suzanne has the eggs pulled off the hot burner and is by his side in a second, cradling his head into her chest as tears begin to flow freely.

“Did you and Jack break up?”

Eric pulls out of her grasp, sniffling, and stares.

“What?”

Suzanne frowns at Eric.

“You used to always talk about him but you've been distant recently so I thought…” She trails off and her fingers fidget with Eric's shirt where they're still holding on.

“But-I-?” This is not the conversation he thought he’d be having any time soon. “You don’t care that I may have been dating a boy?

Suzanne gives Eric a soft, sad smile.

“Of course not. I know I'm supposed to wait until you're ready - everything I've read says so - but I just can't stand idly by while you have a broken heart.”

Eric laughs weakly. If only that was it.

“No mama. Jack and I were never dating.”

Suzanne tch’s at him.

“Then what's wrong, Dicky?”

Eric's face flushes again as he remembers what the real issue is.

“I-” he starts and cuts himself off. His mouth feels sticky with saliva as he swallows loudly.

“It’s okay. Whatever you need to tell me you can.”

Eric averts his eyes.

“I dropped out of Samwell.”

He hears his mother take in a sharp breath. Eric can't look her in the face. He might as well go for broke.

“I'm living with my boyfriend, Kent, in Las Vegas.”

“Las Vegas!” Suzanne says loudly and Eric can't keep the tears at bay any longer as her hands fall away from him.

“I'm so sorry mama. I don't know what's wrong with me. I didn't mean to. I just. I can't do it. I thought I'd be okay but I-”

Suzanne cuts him off with a rough hug.

“There's nothing wrong with you, baby. I wish you had told me what was going on earlier but I'm not mad.”

Eric scrunches his face up and cries even harder into her shoulder. She keeps gently shushing him as he tries to repeat apologies. Eventually, no more tears come. His eyes and head hurts and he feels like he could sleep for a hundred years.

“What am I going to tell Coach?” He whispers into the silence and Suzanne sighs.

“He's not going to be ecstatic but don't you worry about that. I'll handle him just fine. He loves you very much - he just has trouble seeing beyond his view.”

Eric nods sullenly.

“I am sorry, mama. For school and for not telling you.”

Suzanne leans back, pushing the hair off Eric’s face and patting him gently on the cheek.

“That's okay, Dicky. I know it’s hard sometimes.”

Eric excuses himself to take a nap. He wakes up to a dark room and yelling downstairs. Tears well up but he swallows them down and reaches for his phone.

Eric: (9:42pm) miss you <3
Kent: (9:43pm) you too <3

*

Eric flies back to Las Vegas after New Years, glad to be back after such a strained and tense holiday. Coach only grunted in Eric’s direction whenever they happened to be in a room together for longer than a few seconds. His mother just continued to placate him, saying that his father would come around he just needed time.

Eric briefly wonders what bothers Coach more - that Eric couldn’t finish school or that his son is gay. Either way, he’s glad to be back in the condo, listening to Beyonce and baking ginger molasses cookies instead of being reminded daily that he’s just a long list of disappointments to his father.

Kent presses himself against Eric’s back, crowding him against the counter.

“I missed you,” Kent whispers into Eric’s ear, lightly pulling at the ear lobe.

Eric giggles and whacks Kent’s arm.

“Stop that - I need to finish mixing these cookies.”

Kent’s fingers drag down Eric’s sides, resting on his hips just between the top of his shorts and bottom of his shirt. Eric’s skin tingles with the movement of Kent’s fingertips brushing back and forth.

“Are you saying you didn’t miss me?”

Eric sighs and pushes his entire back onto Kent, who holds him up easily.

“Don’t you go putting words in my mouth,” Eric says, “You know I did.”

Kent nips at Eric’s shoulder and says, “Prove it.”

The cookie dough gets left behind on the counter but Eric doesn’t really mind.

Jack: (2:32pm) I was wondering if you would like to skype tonight
Jack: (2:32pm) and watch the Aces game together?

Eric bites his lip and idly taps his fingers on the stainless silver countertop at work. The Aces play the Oilers that night while the Falconers have the day off, having just finished a back to back in Toronto and Montreal. He supposes there could be worse things to be doing that evening.

Bitty: (2:34pm) Sure! :)
Bitty: (2:35pm) Are you sure you’ll be able to stay up that late?
Jack: (2:35pm) ha
Jack: (2:36pm) I know for a fact that you’ll be taking a nap when you get home
Bitty: (2:37pm) touche ;)

Eric sighs and shoves his phone back in his pocket. Jack and him have continued texting daily. Mostly it’s about what either of them is doing. Sometimes Eric sends grainy photos of some of the more unique orders coming through the bakery. Jack will send photos of the rink or the scenery on his runs. Eric enjoys the easiness of it all - it’s almost back to how it was Jack’s last year in the Haus. There’s no pressure for more than just friendship and Eric thinks, despite what his feelings overall may be for Jack, that’s exactly what he needs right now.

*

“You cannot be serious,” Eric laughs out, leaning over until he’s almost half hanging off the couch.

His laptop sits on the coffee table with Jack’s cheerful face peering out at him from the screen.

“I am completely serious.”.

Eric heaves himself back up into a sitting position, wiping a tear from his eye and trying to get himself under control.

“Poor boy,” Eric says, shaking his head, unable to keep a couple of giggles from escaping.

“I don’t think I ever saw Tater so bewildered before.”

Muted commercials play on the television as Eric sips on some wine and talks to Jack during the second intermission. Aces are down by two and Eric doesn’t want to think about how sullen Kent will be during their post-game skype session.

“Have you heard from Shitty, lately?” Eric asks after a few moments of comfortable silence.

Jack nods, lips tugging down on the sides to form a small frown.

“He was asking about you the other day.”

“Oh?” Eric says, wary of where the conversation could be heading.

“He’s just been worried after-” Jack cuts himself off and shrugs. “Wants to make sure you’re doing alright.”

“Oh,” Eric repeats, directing his gaze from Jack’s penetrating stare to his socked feet. “Well. What did you say?”

“Just that you seem to be doing good.”

Eric nods and takes a gulp of wine. He can feel his skin heating up and he’s not sure if it’s from the alcohol or from the embarrassment he’s suddenly feeling. The knowledge that people know about his meltdown - that people know Eric Bittle couldn’t keep his shit together - makes his skin crawl.

“He doesn’t care, Bittle,” Jack says after Eric is quiet for too long.

“I know,” Eric says softly and looks back at the laptop, at Jack’s drooping eyes full of concern. “It’s just. I don’t. I can’t.”

Jack’s face softens.

“I get it. The pressure to be perfect - the need to live up to expectations.” Jack pauses, swallowing, and Eric can’t tear his eyes away from the screen. “I also understand that it’s impossible to live up to that standard.”

Jack has never talked to him about what happened at the draft or what resulted from his overdose. This is the most Eric has ever heard Jack speak directly, or indirectly, about the topic and he realizes that Jack knows exactly what Eric is going through. Jack has been there, has gone through it all, and has come out the other side to live a happier life. It gives hope to Eric that while he may not be out of the woods he can make it.

“Thanks, Jack,” Eric says with a small smile.

Jack returns the smile with his own and Eric’s heart automatically starts beating faster. His cheeks heat up and his palms get sweaty but Eric does his best to ignore the swooping feeling in his stomach.

Glancing up, Eric sees the third period has started and gasps.

“Oh! The game!”

He unmutes and can hear the echo through the computer letting him know Jack has done the same.

Eric glances away from the television to catch a glimpse of Jack’s intense face. He loves the furrowed brow Jack gets when he concentrates. With a sigh, Eric turns back to the game, all too aware that he loves everything about Jack.

*

“I think,” Eric starts, fingers trembling as he twists them in his apron. “I think I want to go get my stuff from Samwell.”

Kent freezes, fork full of pie halfway to his mouth, and turns his eyes towards Bitty, who has crowded himself into the corner by the stove. Slowly, Kent puts the fork back down on the plate.

“Really?”

Eric nods. He’s been thinking about this for the past week and finally decided it was time. It’s been almost four months since he left and while he still hasn’t fully come to terms with what his life has become he knows this is just another step towards acceptance. Plus, he doesn’t know how long he can realistically keep his stuff stored in the Haus’ basement. And he misses his baking supplies.

“Also,” Eric starts and stops. He glances briefly away from Kent’s wide-eyed face. “I want to go visit Jack.”

Kent’s face dramatically changes into a frown before he manages to school it into something more neutral.

“Oh?” Kent says a bit strangled.

“It would be nice.”

Eric has also been thinking hard about this ever since Jack and him had watched the Aces game together a week ago. He still loves Jack as much as he ever did and he doesn’t think that’s something he should pass up. His love for Kent is just as strong and Eric thinks they’d all be good for each other. He knows how much Kent cares for Jack and if Jack is open to both of them then Eric wants to try.

“Right.” Kent clears his throat and pushes his plate away from him. “I understand.”

Eric tilts his head in confusion at Kent's suddenly tense posture.

“What's wrong?” Eric starts to feel panic growing in his chest. “Is this not what you want?”

Kent laughs. It sounds hollow and echoes in Eric's ears.

“I'm fine,” Kent says, standing up from the kitchen island. “Of course. Whatever you want is fine with me.”

Eric frowns at Kent's retreating back. He doesn't know what's wrong. They talked about this. They talked about dating Jack, both of them at the same time, and Kent had been on board then.

“Wait, don’t-” Eric starts, following Kent down the hall towards the bedroom. He makes it just in time before Kent shuts the door in his face. “Tell me what’s going on here.”

Kent huffs and falls bonelessly onto the bed, bringing his hands up to cover his face.

“It’s fine,” Kent repeats.

“It’s not,” Eric says, sitting gingerly beside Kent, careful to keep space between them. His stomach churns, nauseous at the thought he could be ruining this thing with Kent so easily.

“You want to go see Jack and I’m-” Kent coughs. “That’s fine.”

Eric stares at Kent, taking in strong arms, lean lines, and thick thighs.

“You don’t want to come with me?” Eric says softly, starting to clue into what the issue is.

Kent groans and drops his arms haphazardly onto the bed above his head.

“Of course I want to come, Eric, but if you-”

“I do,” Eric cuts him off. “That was what I meant. I meant I wanted to go visit Jack with you.”

Eric reaches out and squeezes Kent’s bicep gently. He watches as Kent stares back at him, wide-eyed and worry spread across his face.

“Are you sure? What if-” Kent turns his face away from Eric’s, closing his eyes like he doesn’t want to witness what he’s about to say. “What if Jack doesn’t want me there?”

Eric makes a soft noise in disagreement.

“Of course he does. He invited you too.”

Kent sighs and while the tension in his body is slowly retreating Eric can still read the anxiety and worry in Kent’s clenched jaw.

“Maybe he only did because he knew that’d make you happy.”

Eric sighs, moving around on the bed to curl up beside Kent, resting his head on Kent’s chest.

“It would make me very happy for you to be there. And if Jack doesn’t want both of us then what we discussed is off the table, alright? But we don’t know what Jack wants. We won’t know until we actually speak to him.”

Kent melts into the bed, into Eric, and nods.

“We’re playing the Falconers next month - we could go down then.”

Eric pushes himself up so he can look down at Kent, show off the grin plastered on his face. Kent’s own lips slowly curve into their own beautiful smile.

“Perfect,” Eric says and leans down to give a quick kiss.

Kent goes to wrap his arms around Eric, to pull him in closer, but Eric laughs and pulls away.

“Nuh uh,” Eric says with a smirk and a wag of his finger. “I have a pie sitting in the kitchen to finish baking. No funny business right now.”

Kent frowns but his skin crinkles around his eyes as he does his best to keep the happiness off his face.

“Fine,” huffs out Kent, sitting up to follow Eric out of the bedroom and back to the kitchen. “But only if I get to lick the spoon.”

Eric grins. “Of course.”

*

Bitty: (6:23pm) I’m heading down to Samwell to get my stuff next month
Bitty: (6:23pm) When you’re playing the Aces
Bitty: (6:24pm) So... how about that pie ;)
Jack: (8:44pm) haha
Jack: (8:45pm) Sounds great. We can all get dinner to go with that pie.

*

There’s a long drive ahead of him and Eric is dreading it. Kent is sleepily draped over him in a lazy hug. Kent yawns in his ear and Eric smiles. It’s four in the morning and he really needs to start the drive back to Samwell but he doesn’t want to leave the warm circle of his boyfriend.

“Wish I could come with,” Kent mumbles, swaying slightly as his socked feet slip a bit on the foyer’s hardwood floor. Eric does his best to keep them sturdy, arms clasped around the small of Kent’s back.

“Me too, hun,” Eric says, sighing deeply. He really needs to get on the road. “Love you.”

“Love you, too,” Kent replies, squeezing Eric tighter.

Eric carefully extracts himself from Kent’s grasp after another minute before sending the man back to bed. Kent slowly shuffles down the hall, waving half-heartedly over his shoulder. Eric grabs his duffel from the floor and quietly leaves, heading down to the underground parking lot where his truck is stored.

Kent has a game that night and then has to fly with the team down to Providence in two days otherwise he’d be making the drive with Eric. Eric shivers in the cool parkade, unlocking the truck and climbing in. He already misses the warmth of Kent’s body heat, misses the warmth of Kent’s lips against his skin, just misses Kent.

It’s going to be a long drive back to a place Eric isn’t entirely sure he wants to see again. But he thinks about the light at the end of the tunnel - of what could be his life at the end of this trip - and he turns the key in the ignition, listening to the truck’s engine turn over a couple of times before grumbling to life.

*

Eric sits in his truck on the shoulder of the highway, two hours away from Samwell, clutching tightly onto the steering wheel.

He can’t do this.

He can’t face the people he left behind without another word. He can’t face Chowder, who he only started accepting phone calls from a couple of weeks ago. He can’t stand on the Haus’ front porch or in the kitchen or even within the vicinity. Eric feels like he’s going to shake apart, burst into tiny pieces that can’t ever be put back again.

He cries on the side of the road, afraid of what he’s about to face. Afraid of the knowing looks. Afraid of the gossip behind his back. Remember that kid? Couldn’t even finish college. What a fuckup.

Eric’s knuckles are turning white but he’s certain he couldn’t let go of the steering wheel even if the vehicle was on fire. They’d need the jaws of life to pry him from it.

His cell phone buzzes next to him. It’s dancing its way along the bench seat towards his thigh and he wants to scream. Eric just wants to throw it out the window, watch it get run over by a passing vehicle. He has the briefest thought that he’d like to see himself get run over by a passing vehicle but he pushes that back down where it came from. He doesn’t want to die, not really.

The buzzing stops for about ten seconds before it starts up again. Eric harshly blows out a stream of air.

He can do this. He just needs to start by letting go of the wheel.

With aching knuckles, his right hand comes free and he reaches out for the phone.

“Hello,” he says without checking the caller ID..

“Eric,” Kent says breathlessly. “Thank God. Where are you? Are you alright?”

Panic builds in Eric’s chest at the questioning. Kent sounds concerned. He wonders what’s wrong, what happened.

“I’m just past Springfield. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just-” Kent gives a soft half-laugh. “I just hadn’t heard from you since this morning and wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Eric relaxes. Nothing’s happened to anyone, everything’s fine, he’s just a little high strung.

“Springfield, huh? See any yellow people?”

Eric rolls his eyes but lets a laugh escape anyways.

“Ha ha. You’re very funny.”

“Glad to hear it. By the way, I’m totally recording this phone call so I can use that as future blackmail. The great Eric Bittle once said I was funny.”

A smile tugs at Eric’s lips and he’s so glad to be talking to Kent.

“Thanks for checking up on me,” Eric says, finally removing his left hand from the steering wheel and slowly doing some finger stretches to ease the burning in them.

“Of course,” Kent says. “Anytime, babe.”

A warmth spreads from the top of Eric’s head down to his toes. He’s never been a big lover of sappy pet names, despite being from the South where they’re stereotypically used as punctuation. But it’s different. It’s also different when Kent calls him ‘babe’ like the word was meant for Eric and Eric alone.

“I gotta get going,” Eric says wistfully, not too eager to get back on the road.

“Yeah, I know.”

They say their long and sappy goodbyes before Eric shoulder checks and pulls back onto the road. With restored confidence borrowed from Kent, Eric feels a bit better about heading back to Samwell.

*

The Haus looms above him.

Eric feels like he’s going to pass out.

“Bitty!” cries Chowder from the porch before flinging himself off the steps and down the broken up walkway towards Bitty. “You made it!”

Eric is wrapped up in Chowder’s long arms before he can blink. Unable to stop himself, he laughs loudly. He’s missed Chowder more than he realized.

“Hey Chowder!” Eric squeezes Chowder’s torso right back, digging his face into Chowder’s Sharks hoodie. His anxiety and tension just melts away like he had never left.

Chowder pulls away, grinning. Eric is so grateful for the way Chowder greets everything so optimistically like whatever Eric has done or gone through it’s okay.

“Come in - Dex made a late lunch for us!”

Eric follows Chowder into the Haus, taking a deep breath just past the threshold. It smells almost exactly the same as it did when Eric had left but it’s missing just that hint of cinnamon or cooked pastry in the air.

“Hey, Bits,” says Nursey from the kitchen table, giving a slow wave before turning back to the laptop situated in front of him.

“He’s working on a paper due Monday,” Chowder explains and Eric nods. He definitely doesn’t miss the pressure of getting schoolwork done on time.

Dex turns from the stove, nodding at Eric.

“Lunch is almost ready - just finishing up the gravy,” he says and turns back to the pot he’s stirring.

It feels weird being back in the Haus as a guest. Eric would have been the one cooking the meals and baking desserts, fussing over everything being perfect. But Dex looks comfortable in the kitchen, a permanent frown on his face, moving systematically from one job to the next. Eric had always enjoyed their time cooking together.

“All your stuff is in the basement,” Chowder says. “Whiskey moved into your room - I hope that’s okay.”

Eric forces a smile onto his face and nods. But his mind is screaming that it’s not okay, that it’s his room, he wants it back, he wants it all back. He swallows down nausea and stares at the curtains his mother bought hanging above the kitchen window.

He makes an excuse to use the washroom, his feet on autopilot to the downstairs washroom and he wants to kick something. Eric gave this all up, he shouldn’t feel entitled to anything, but all he wants to do is head upstairs to his room. He wants to lay on his bed or record a new video at his desk or store his stuff in his closet. But he lost all of that - he willingly gave it up and for what?

Eric shakes his head and stares at himself in the mirror. He looks better now than he did months ago in Kent’s bathroom, sobbing and scared of his own mind. His face is fuller and the bags under his eyes have disappeared. Eric is in a better place now and he wonders where he’d be right now if he had stayed at Samwell. If he would have only delayed the inevitable or if he would be graduating this year.

He sighs, washes his hands, and heads back out the kitchen, smile plastered on his face.

“Place is looking good,” he says, taking a seat at the table where a hot chicken sandwich is waiting for him.

Chowder looks nervously at Eric while Nursey and Dex nod in agreement with Eric’s statement.

“Dex has been slowly fixing and upgrading stuff around here,” Nursey says, pouring even more gravy over his sandwich.

Dex shrugs, taking a scoop of peas before handing the bowl off to Eric.

“Needs to be done before one of these idiots electrocute themselves or falls through the floor.”

Eric nods, ladling peas onto the top of his sandwich - an addition Jack had added to the meal and had quickly became the standard in the Haus.

Chowder keeps glancing worriedly at him but Eric keeps sending back small smiles, hoping to put Chowder at ease.

After they’re finished their meal, Chowder leads Eric down to the basement. Past the broken hockey net and mountain of dull skates sits about ten boxes with Eric’s name on them.

“Here you go - wasn’t much left in your room but we cleaned out all the kitchen stuff for you. Feel free to take another look, though, in case we missed anything.”

Eric nods and stares. His life at college neatly packed up into dusty boxes. He doesn’t even realize he’s started to cry until Chowder is pulling him into a hug.

“It’s okay, Bitty,” Chowder softly says. “Not everybody finishes college. My aunt dropped out of college, too, and she’s doing great now! Runs her own business from home making soap!”

Eric sniffs and nods. He knows lots of people have dropped out of college - he’s heard the anecdotes about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs - but Eric isn’t good at anything else beyond baking. What was he supposed to do beyond working at a bakery? He wasn’t smart like Bill Gates, didn’t have the ingenuity like Steve Jobs - he was just good for nothing Eric Bittle.

Pulling away from Chowder, Eric plasters on a fake smile and lets out a breathy laugh.

“Look at me, cryin’ over some boxes,” Eric says, wiping away tears off his cheek. This isn’t the time nor place for a breakdown. “I’ll just grab ‘em and be on my way, out of your hair.”

Chowder frowns.

“You’re not bothering us, Bitty,” Chowder says and Eric can feel a fresh wave of tears battling to leak out. “I’m glad you’re here. I wish you could stay but I don’t know about the rules if you’re not on the team anymore. Plus, then you’d have to bunk with Whiskey. Or maybe Whiskey could bunk with Tango and then you could have your old room back. Wouldn’t that-”

“Chowder, honey,” Eric breaks in, patting him on the arm. “Thank you.”

A grin breaks through on Chowder’s face and Eric’s relieved, just for the moment, as he firmly believes that kid should never look sad.

“I’ll help you with the boxes,” Chowder says in return, then easily picks up two stacked on one another.

They make quick work of them. Within ten minutes, his truck is loaded with a tarp fastened over the top of the bed to keep out any unexpected weather.

Eric slams the tailgate shut and brushes away the dirt from his hands as he turns back to the small group watching him from the sidewalk. Chowder still looks worried but Dex and Nursey are arguing to the side so Eric isn’t sure how much is directed at him.

“I’ll keep in touch,” Eric says. Chowder rushes forward to wrap Eric in another bone-crushing hug.

“Promise?” Chowder whispers and Eric nods.

Chowder steps away to allow for Dex and Nursey to come forward, both giving Eric big hugs as well.

“Thanks for everything, guys,” Eric says, waving. All three wave back and Chowder doesn’t stop waving until Eric is down the street.

He’s sad about leaving, about watching his friends and the Haus disappearing in the rearview mirror. But he also feels content. If he has to leave he prefers saying goodbye instead of disappearing. Maybe college isn’t the right place for him right now and Eric thinks he’s slowly coming to terms with that.

*

The drive to Providence is uneventful. Traffic stays steady and he makes it to the hotel in good time.

Tossing his duffel bag onto the queen bed closest to the window, Eric swings himself down onto the opposite bed and sighs. It’s already been a long day and he’s still got a hockey game plus catching up with Jack to do.

He checks his text messages to find a few from Kent.

Kent: (3:54pm) Miss you!! Hope you got everything from the haus ok!
Kent: (3:56pm) about to head for a nap - drive safe!
Kent: (5:45pm) waking up from naps is the hardest (((((
Kent: (5:46pm) Did you get in okay? I’m in room 1202 if you have time to pop up!
Kent: (5:46pm) I’m just getting dressed so I’ve got like twenty minutes

Eric quickly shoves his key card into his back pocket and makes his way up to the twelfth floor. It’s just coming up on six so he should be able to still catch Kent.

The door swings open as soon as Eric finishes knocking, revealing Kent half dressed in only boxer briefs and an undone dress shirt.

“Eric!” Kent exclaims and pulls Eric in by his arm. Kent doesn’t move so Eric finds himself plastered against Kent’s front. The door swings shut behind him and Kent’s arms wrap around his waist. “I missed you!”

Eric laughs and returns the hug, sneaking his arms under the dress shirt to feel even more of Kent’s bare skin.

“I missed you too, sweetheart.”

Kent places a kiss to the top of Eric’s head then trails more down the side of his face until their lips meet. The slide of their lips against each other is warm, soft, and lazy like they have all the time in the world to make out. Except Kent only has probably about ten minutes now to get dressed and head down to meet the team.

“C’mon,” Eric says softly, pulling away from Kent. “Let’s get you dressed so you can look the part of a famous hockey player.”

Kent snorts but obliges, moving further into the room to grab his slacks from the back of the desk chair, easily slipping them on. Kent’s tongue sticks out between his teeth as he cranes his neck down to start buttoning up the dress shirt. His dick is framed by the opening in his pants, unzipped and flopped open into a v-shape, the tails of his shirt covering it up like a slowly closing curtain. Eric’s mouth runs a bit dry at the sight of Kent getting dressed - something he had never paid attention to. The suit is perfectly tailored and it’s the exact opposite of a striptease but it’s having the same effect on Eric. He wants to rip all the clothes off Kent’s body and run his tongue all over that beautiful skin.

“-me in?” Kent asks and Eric blinks.

“What?”

Kent laughs and takes a step forward, his ass the only thing keeping his pants from slipping down.

“I said, tuck me in?”

Kent raises his arms and shakes his hips in Eric’s direction, smirking. Eric swallows and nods, eliminating the space between them quickly. He reaches around, deftly shoves the back of Kent’s shirt into his pants, taking the time to smooth the fabric over Kent’s ass.

“Frisky,” Kent comments with a laugh. Eric can feel his face heat up but stays silent as his hands slip around Kent’s side, making sure everything gets tucked into place neatly.

“I’d rather be taking this off you.”

Kent presses his hips forward just as Eric’s hands cup the bulge in his underwear. A hiss slowly escapes from Kent’s mouth and Eric presses their lips together, keeping the sound in.

“I wish we could but. The team.”

Eric sighs and takes a big step back, needing the space to ground him. Kent zips himself up and does a double check in front to make sure it all falls smoothly. Eric lets out a small groan at the image of Kent with his hands down his pants. Kent grins as he shuffles around Eric to where his jacket and tie is hanging in the tiny closet. The tie goes on effortlessly, quickly knotted into a windsor. He slips on the jacket, one button classily done up, and Eric almost swoons. He’s dating a freaking model, that’s how amazing Kent looks.

“You’re gorgeous,” Eric says softly and gets a soft smile in return.

“I’ve gotta get going.”

Eric check his phone and sighs.

“I’ll probably grab a quick nap before heading over.”

Kent nods and opens the hotel door, grabbing his satchel from the floor.

“Love you,” Eric says once they get into an empty elevator.

Kent pulls Eric in by the shoulder, giving him a side hug and a kiss to the top of his head.

*

Eric settles into his seat just before the puck drops. He’s in a corner section where he’ll get to watch the Falconers attack twice. Jack had offered to get him a spot in the press box or even a suite but Eric had quickly turned him down. He liked being in the midst of the crowd, able to be one with the energy in the arena.

The game starts off quicker than the last. By midpoint in the first period, each team has had about four penalties each. They’re not even major - one of them is a bench penalty for too many men - but it gets the crowd screaming all the same.

Nearing the end of third, the Aces are up by two and Eric isn’t quite sure how he wants it to end. He never remembers Jack being a great loser - always sure he could have done something more, played better, taken more shots. Eric hopes he’s relaxed more with 82 games in a season to build on instead of the 34 they played in the NCAA.

On the other hand, Kent is always quiet after a loss. He smiles and says, “We’ll get ‘em next time, boys” but then all the light fades from his eyes and he retreats in on himself. Eric hates it every time he sees that fire extinguished. Kent assures him he’s fine, he just needs time to process, but it aches Eric down to the core.

The breakout of a fight between Mashkov and Swo breaks Eric out of his thoughts. He’s on his feet in an instant along with the people beside him, yelling nonsense at the hockey players. Swo’s skates slip out from under him and the referees are on the two in an instant, separating the players, sending them both down their respective tunnels.

Eric glances at the clock and is startled to see only three minutes left in the game. Time moves quickly and the Falconers aren’t able to produce anything substantial allowing the Aces to win. The crowd groans in disappointment as the mass of people start making their way up the stairs and through the concourse back to their respective lives.

Taking his time, knowing Jack and Kent will both have post-game interviews and showers to attend to, Eric makes his way down to the player's area. He flashes the visitor pass he’d picked up at will call earlier and meanders around. It’s mostly concrete walls and staff roaming around. He knows the interesting places are found behind closed doors. Heard stories about the ping pong table in the Falconer’s lounge.

Even the visiting team’s area will be rambunctious tonight after a good win. Eric wonders who will get the tattered and stained sombrero that gets passed around the Aces after each game. His random thought gets answered as he comes upon Kent and Swo, who’s sporting a black eye, a gigantic grin, and the aforementioned sombrero.

“You gotta take it off before you head out,” Kent is saying, having not yet noticed Eric down the hall from them.

Swo just shrugs and replies, “I kinda like it. Think it’ll be a good conversation starter.”

As Kent rolls his eyes, he sees Eric and his entire face lights up.

“Eric!” Kent runs over and gives Eric a quick hug before turning back to Swo. “Please, Eric, tell Swoops here that he cannot go to the bar wearing that disgusting thing!”

Eric laughs and shrugs. “I’d talk to him.”

Kent dramatically tears himself away from Eric, shaking his head in mock disgust.

“And to think that I once said I loved you!”

Eric freezes, eyes wide, and prays nobody else is around to hear Kent out himself.

“Oh my God!” Swo exclaims, half jumping on Kent’s back, sombrero falling to the ground. “Is this him?! The guy you’ve been talking nonstop about!”

Kent laughs and shoves Swo away from him.

“Fuck off, man. Go out and pick up!”

Swo snatches the sombrero from the floor, shoving it onto his head and tipping his chin up in a display of fake snootiness.

“That I shall, my good sir!” Swo turns on his heel and starts off, hand waving in the air back at them. “I expect deets later!”

Kent sighs but grins good naturedly at Eric.

“Well, that was Swoops.”

Eric shakes his head, still a bit stunned from their easiness around each other as well as the fact that Kent just about yelled out to the entire world he was gay.

“What in the world were you thinking?” Eric hisses, deciding to focus mainly on the almost-outing.

Kent frowns. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The whole thing about loving me? Out in the open? Where anyone could have heard?”

Eric may be having an anxiety attack. He’s having a hard time taking in breaths and a buzzing noise is growing louder in his head as his vision swims.

“Hey- Eric- it’s alright,” Kent says softly, guiding Eric towards a nearby chair. “Just breathe in with me - one, two, three - hold it - and out - one, two, three.”

Eric follows his guided breath and slowly feels himself returning back to a normal state.

“Sorry,” Eric whispers.

“Hey now,” Kent says, pulling Eric into a gentle hug. “I’m sorry for what I said - I’m just. I’m out to my team, you know that, and I wasn’t thinking.”

Eric nods and takes a big, shaky breath in.

“If it helps anything,” Jack’s voice cuts in, startling both Eric and Kent. “Everybody who works here has signed an NDA.”

It eases the somersaults in his stomach to small tumbles.

“Hey,” Eric says and Jack returns his smile.

“Hey.”

Kent clears his throat and nods his greeting at Jack.

“You good to head to dinner?” Kent asks Eric.

Eric’s stomach takes that cue to rumble loudly and both Jack and Kent laugh.

*

They decide on picking up something on the way to Jack’s place.

Kent immediately says he wants Indian food and refuses to listen to anything else stating, “Winner picks dinner.”

Which is how they find themselves crowded around Jack’s coffee table, various Indian dishes spread across it, while the television plays sports highlights.

“You’d think you boys got enough sports talk during the day.”

“Nah,” Kent mutters in between bites of his butter chicken.

Jack nods in agreement, eyes staring intently at the screen as Curling highlights play. A fork full of chicken korma precariously sits halfway up to Jack’s mouth.

Ten minutes later, Kent is moaning that he’s stuffed and couldn’t eat another bite.

“That’s too bad,” Eric says mournfully. “Guess I’ll have to eat all this gulab jamun by myself.”

“No!” Kent gasps, hands reaching out to grasp onto thin air. “You wouldn’t!”

Eric laughs and Jack just shakes his head, a full grin in place.

“It’s the best part,” Kent groans, dipping over onto his side until the coffee table obstructs Eric’s view of him.

“Then you shouldn’t have eaten the entire container of butter chicken,” Jack says.

Kent makes some more unpleasant noises before reappearing into view.

“Give me ten minutes and I’ll be good to eat all the gulab jamun you can find.”

Eric dishes out an equal amount of the little round balls onto all their plates, making sure to spoon extra syrup on them. Him and Jack quickly dive into the overly sweet dessert while Kent continues to lie on the carpet.

Smacking his lips, Eric dips a finger into the syrup once the balls are gone and pops it into his mouth, sucking lightly. He hears a light gasp come from his right and when he turns to look he’s met with a wide-eyed, flushed Jack Zimmermann.

“Oh,” Eric says softly.

The top of Kent’s head appears over the coffee table to stare.

“Uhm, you have-” Jack coughs and makes a quick, abortive moment with his hand. His face turns redder and Eric can’t recall the last time he saw it that dark. “Syrup. On your face.”

Eric blushes and rubs at his right cheek. “Here?”

“No, uhm-” Jack’s eyes swivel towards Kent who's still just watching the whole proceeding from behind the table.

Eric wipes at his other cheek but doesn’t feel anything sticky come away.

“Can you just-” Eric starts to ask just as Jack reaches out and rubs at the corner of Eric’s lips with his thumb.

They freeze in place.

Jack suddenly pulls back like he’s been burned.

“I’m sorry, that was-”

“You should kiss him,” Kent sharply says, cutting through Jack’s apology.

Eric whips his head around to meet Kent’s eyes. Kent raises his eyebrows.

“What?” Jack says a bit monotone like his brain can no longer process what’s happening. “Aren’t you two-?”

“We want to date you,” Eric blurts out.

Jack stares, a bit slack-jawed. “I-but-Really?”

Kent nods, now sitting up fully.

“If you want to.”

“You can date both of us,” Eric clarifies, hoping it’s clear that him and Kent are a package deal.

Jack’s fingers twitch on his thighs and Eric yearns to hold them. With a quick glance over at Kent, who seems to be trying to communicate silently with Jack, Eric shuffles on his knees closer to Jack. Eric reaches out, pausing right before his fingertips graze Jack’s arm.

“Is it - can I-?” Eric softly asks, looking for permission but unsure how much he wants to ask for. Jack turns his beautiful blue eyes onto Eric and Eric feels like his whole world is turning upside down.

Jack nods and Eric grazes Jack’s forearm, fingers caressing the skin, blazing a warm trail towards Jack’s wrist. Eric can’t take a full breath as he circles Jack’s wrist bone, slipping his hand underneath. The warm, soft skin of Jack’s palm is sweaty but Eric wouldn’t have it any other way as their fingers interlock, a perfect fit for one another.

“Fuck,” Kent murmurs, reminding Eric he’s still there and the world hasn’t just become Eric and Jack.

Jack’s free hand raises up, brushing against Eric’s cheek briefly, shaky and hesitant like everything could be torn from him in a quick moment. Eric chases the hand, nuzzling the palm and loving the largeness of it compared to his face. He feels safe and comforted by the knowledge that Jack could easily wrap him up, hide him away from the harsh reality of life.

“May I?” Jack asks quietly and Eric nods. From the corner of his eye, he sees Kent nodding as well.

Leaning in, slowly, carefully, Jack’s breath hits Eric’s face. It smells of the sugary syrup he’d just finished eating, a hint of the korma underneath. Then, Jack’s lips are against Eric’s and his mind goes blank.

It’s everything and nothing like he’d expected. He’d expected fireworks behind closed eyelids; sparks igniting as they touched. He’d expected the slide of slick lips and the bite of hard teeth.

Eric wants to stay in this moment forever, cataloging every moment of this kiss he’s been waiting too long for.

Jack pulls away. Eric keeps his eyes shut, hand squeezing Jack’s tightly, afraid that he’ll open them to an empty bedroom.

A body presses against Eric’s back. A hard-line that brings him back to Earth, grounds him in the moment.

“Kent,” Eric breathes out and tilts his head, allowing Kent to press tiny kisses to the displayed skin.

“You’re so beautiful,” Kent says and then adds, louder, “You’re both beautiful.”

Eric finally gains the courage to open his eyes and is met with blown pupils edged by a sliver of ice blue. Jack grins toothily and blinding. Eric returns it eagerly. He can’t quite believe that both of these men are here for him.

“Believe it,” Kent says in Eric’s ear, startling Eric into realizing he’d voiced that thought out loud.

“Of course, Bits,” Jack says, rubbing the back of Eric’s hand with his thumb.

“And you want-” Eric clears his throat as the words crack in his throat. “You want Kent too?”

Eric asks because he knows Kent never will. Kent doesn’t believe he’s worth the hassle, in the same way Eric does about himself, but Kent hides it behind fake bravado and shit-eating grins.

Jack turns his gaze from Eric to just above his shoulder where Kent is resting his head.

“Of course, Kenny.”

The way Jack says Kenny runs a shiver through Kent that echoes through Eric. So much uninhibited emotion thrown into one word makes Eric’s heart ache with a fullness that he thinks only love can provide.

Kent ruins the beautiful and romantic moment they’re all having by shoving Eric out of the way to get his hands on Jack, pressing rough kisses to soft lips. Eric can’t stop the laughter pouring out of his body, half strewn across the couch cushions with all of Kent’s weight resting on his lap.

“I missed you so much,” Kent says between peppered kisses, unwilling to let go for too long.

Jack is laughing into Kenny’s mouth and Eric can’t imagine Kent’s kissing more than teeth at this point.

“I know- I’m sorry,” Jack says once Kent stops attacking him with kisses and he can finally breathe without breaking into punctuated ha’s.

“Me too, Jack, me too.”

"We've got a lot to talk about."

Kent presses his forehead to Jack’s, eyes slipping close and just breathing.

"I know. We will - I promise. Let's just enjoy this for now?"

Jack moves back in towards Kent, easily capturing his lips. Eric watches in awe as their lips slide perfectly against each other, spit-slick and beautiful. Eric wishes he didn't have to interrupt them but his leg are going numb and he wants to clean up their food before anything escalates.

“Alright, boys,” Eric says, pushing Kent off of him. “Let’s clean up these leftovers.”

“But, Eric,” Kent whines, rolling off Eric easily and onto the ground, head pillowed by Jack's thigh. “I want gulab jamun.”

Jack laughs as Eric rolls his eyes.

“Nobody’s stopping you, honey.”

Eric grabs his and Jack’s plates, balancing them on one arm while he loads up his free hand with the half-empty box of rice. He heads into the kitchen and isn’t too surprised when Jack follows him, the rest of the food boxes stacked neatly in his hands.

“Is this okay?” Jack asks, timidly, as he settles everything down on the counter.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Eric says with a smile and a pat to Jack’s arm. “This is perfect.”