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Braced Myself

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Bittle: I just hope Aunt Connie is ready to mediate any fights that break out today.
Because I am not putting myself between those two, that's for sure.

Jack: Aunt Connie is your mom's sister, and she's not the one with the jam problem.
But she is the one who had posters of my dad.
Aunt Judy is the one with the jam problem, and she's your mom's sister-in-law, married to your Uncle Drew.
Aunt Marie is her other sister-in-law, married to your Uncle Jimmy, who stays out of the whole jam debacle.

Bittle: Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Jack: I have no idea how people from big families keep all this straight.

Bittle: Well, most of us have space in our brains for family trees because it's not filled with hockey plays.

Jack was curled up on the couch in front of the fire in his parents' den. He'd gotten into Montreal the day before; the Falconers were lucky enough to not have a game on December 23 this year. He had to get back the evening of the 26th—there was a practice that day, but it was optional, and given that he'd promised to spend some of his break training with his dad the coaches were fine with him missing.

Bitty, unsurprisingly, had a much longer winter break. He'd been in Georgia since the 20th, and wasn't going back up north until just before New Year's. Classes didn't start up again until January 5, but he'd told his parents that the Haus was having a New Year's party—of course, really he'd be spending his last few days in Providence with Jack.

As excited as Jack was to get nearly six days straight together, it was too bad they couldn't see each other on Christmas. They'd actually gotten to spend a couple nights of Hanukkah together, and Jack wished he could be with Bitty for both holidays. He'd grown up celebrating both; since his mother's sister followed her to Montreal after their parents died when Jack was young, they could celebrate Christmas with her side without even leaving town.

Both he and Bitty had family to see, of course, but Jack could easily have spent a day in Montreal to make his grandparents happy with a family dinner and then spend the next day or two in Georgia. Unfortunately, though, it was one thing to justify your college buddy coming to visit for Independence Day—Bitty's parents were sure to get suspicious if they tried the same with Christmas.

Next year, though. Bitty was planning on talking to his parents about Jack (about them together, about himself) somewhere between Christmas Day and his flight out on the 30th, so next year, one way or another they wouldn't have to hide. Jack also wished he could be in Georgia for that, but there wasn't much to be done about it. If the worst happened, he'd get Bitty's flight changed, pay for his cab all the way to Atlanta if he had to. But they were pretty sure it wouldn't come to that. Bitty was nervous about coming out to his parents, but he wasn't terrified. He had a few aunts and uncles he thought might turn on him, but he was pretty sure his parents, even his father, would be… well, maybe or maybe not okay with it, but at least not angry or hateful about it.

At the moment, Bitty and his mother were on their way to his grandmother's house for their traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Apparently that side of his family got together the night of the 24th, and he saw his dad's side on the 25th. It was around 4pm; they were going early to help with the food, and his dad would be going a couple hours later when the rest of the family was scheduled to arrive. Jack and his parents were heading to his aunt's house that evening, then he'd see his father's side the next day; even without an official holiday to claim, they were getting together because Jack was in town. His family was quite small compared to Bitty's—just the one aunt and uncle on his mother's side, with one cousin in high school, though his father had two siblings who each had kids.

Jack: There is no possible way you have room for your family tree and all those Beyonce lyrics in the space where I keep hockey plays.

When Bitty didn't reply after a few minutes, Jack figured they had arrived at Moomaw's house and he was probably being fawned over too much to send a text. It was supposed to take a lot longer for them to get there, at least another twenty minutes, but maybe traffic was light.

"Jack, come help me out in here!" His mother's voice floated in from the kitchen. Jack shrugged and put his phone away as he got up to find her.

"What do you need?" he asked as he surveyed the ingredients arrayed on the counter. Something full of cinnamon was already in the oven and smelled heavenly—almost as good as Bitty's baking.

"We're supposed to bring a cherry pie and a French silk pie to grand-mere's house tomorrow," she said as she tied on an apron. "C'mon, wash your hands and help me."

Jack frowned in confusion, but went to wash his hands. "I'll probably just slow you down, but okay."

Alicia raised an eyebrow at her son. "You can't tell me you've been dating Eric for like six months and his skills haven't rubbed off on you at all."

Jack shook his head, smiling. "Pie crusts are still a mystery to me, sorry."

"Well, you can use a mixer, can't you?" His mother set a bunch of ingredients in front of him, along with a cookbook opened to the recipe. "You basically need to melt the chocolate, then mix everything together for a really long time, adding the eggs slowly. Not exactly hard."

Jack did as he was instructed, melting the chocolate, beating the butter and sugar together with his mother's purple stand mixer until they were fluffy, adding in the melted chocolate and vanilla, then turning the mixer on and letting it just run, adding an egg every five minutes or so. He had to admit, it looked and smelled delicious by the time he was done. He really wasn't sure he should have a whole slice of something that was almost pure butter and sugar (sure, there were eggs, but those can only go so far), but he snuck a spoonful of the filling before handing it over to his mother and her prepared pie crust.

The whole thing took nearly a half an hour. He pulled out his phone—he usually would have noticed it vibrating in his pocket, but maybe the noise of the mixer had distracted him.

But there were no texts waiting for him. He checked—it had been nearly forty-five minutes since Bitty's last text. Sure, he'd probably been ambushed by well-meaning relatives as soon as he'd arrived, but it was surprising that he hadn't been sending Jack all sorts of messages about what his family members were saying or doing and his opinions thereof.

Jack: Hey, how's your grandmother's house?
Your relatives must really have you tied up if you're this quiet.
You'd be proud - my mom just had me make the filling for a French Silk pie.
I'm sure you could do better, but I think it came out well. I'll send you a photo of the finished product.

Jack spaced out his texts over a period of about ten minutes. By the end there was a knot of worry forming at the bottom of his stomach. Which was ridiculous, of course—Bitty could spend time with his family and not text Jack for an hour. He should.

He just… wouldn't.

Jack pulled up the SMH group chat.

Jack: Has anyone heard from Bitty?

Shitty: Like, today?

Jack: Uh… in the past hour?

Lardo: Isn't that your job?

Ransom: Not like any of us are in Georgia, bro.

Holster: If you can't get ahold of him, I doubt any of us can. Something wrong?

Jack: No, we were just in the middle of a conversation and he stopped responding
Probably his phone ran out of batteries.

Shitty: I can't decide if it's cute or sad that you're worried when you don't hear from him for an hour

Jack: We were in the middle of a conversation, and you know Bitty doesn't just stop replying to texts for no reason.

Ransom: I'm guessing you're right, his phone probably ran out of batteries.

Somehow, none of this was comforting. Wouldn't Bitty have gotten a warning if his battery was low? He would have mentioned it to Jack; he always did if it was going to cut off their conversation.

He pulled up Bitty's number and called without really thinking about it. He figured Bitty would answer, chirp him for being a worrywart, and let Jack know what had happened to his phone.

Instead, the call went straight to voice mail.

He waited a couple of minutes and tried again.

Straight to voice mail again.

This time, he went ahead and left a message, in case Bitty got a chance to check it before Jack got ahold of him some other way.

"Hey, Bits. I just, um. Couldn't get ahold of you by text? And you haven't responded in a while, so I just thought I'd call. But I guess your phone is off. Hope you're having fun at your grandma's. Love you."

Jack hung up and stared at his phone for a minute. Then he remembered something and scrolled back through their conversation. He stopped about two hours earlier.

Bittle: Sorry I didn't reply 'til now, my phone was charging upstairs.
Forgot to plug it in last night.

Jack hadn't freaked out earlier in the day when Bitty didn't reply to his texts—but they hadn't been in the middle of a conversation, he just hadn't replied at all. And obviously, Bitty's phone really should not have run out of batteries if it had just finished charging an hour before Bitty stopped replying.

Jack's heartrate picked up and an unpleasant prickling sensation spread over his skin… even though he still felt stupid for worrying.

Just then, his mom poked her head in the room.

"Hey, sweetie, the cherry pie will be out in another ten minutes, and I'd like to leave in twenty." She paused. Jack was still looking at his phone. "Jack? Is everything all right?"

"Uh. Yeah. Yeah." Jack took a few deep breaths, and when he was done his mother was still standing there, probably staring at him. He wouldn't know, because he was still looking down at his phone. "Um. This is stupid. I'm being stupid."

He jumped when his mother's hand touched his arm. She'd been on the other side of the room just a second ago, hadn't she?

"I'm sure it's not stupid, Jack. What's wrong?" She spoke slowly, but not condescendingly. She looked worried.

"I just can't get ahold of Bitty. It's dumb. It's—" He couldn't figure out what else it was.

"When did you hear from him last?"

"Before, um. Before we were doing the pies. We were in the middle of a conversation, he was in the car, on his way to his grandmother's house, and he just stopped responding. And I mean, he must have gotten there, but it seemed like it was way too soon. And since then he still hasn't replied to any of my texts, and his phone is going to voice mail. Anyone else I wouldn't think twice, but…"

"Maybe his phone ran out of batteries," she suggested, sounding eminently reasonable.

"He just charged it a couple hours ago. He wouldn't just stop responding and turn off his phone without telling me." Jack sighed as he ran a hand over his face. "I know, like I said, I know this is stupid. It's ridiculous to freak out because I haven't heard from him in less than an hour and a half. I didn't freak out earlier today when I texted him and he didn't reply until like four hours later. This just… feels wrong?" He looked at his mother, hoping she could provide a reasonable explanation like adults are supposed to do when their children are worried for no good reason. "It's just not the way he does things, you know?"

His mother just stood there, looking at him, and if he weren't freaking out so badly inside maybe he'd be able to decipher the complicated things happening on her face, but as it was he couldn't tell if she thought he was crazy or just felt bad for him or… who knew what.

"You know," she said, still talking slowly like she was weighing her words, "I still have Suzanne Bittle's phone number. Would you feel better if you called her?"

Jack snorted. "I'll feel stupid when she wonders what's so important that I have to call her to get ahold of her son. On Christmas Eve, while he's with family." Of course, the alternative was to work himself into more and more of a panic until he knew Bitty was all right.

"Well, the offer stands," his mother said. She'd barely turned to go when he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.

"Wait," he mumbled. "I'd rather feel stupid than have a panic attack."

Alicia's smile was patient as she held out her hand. "Give me your phone."

He handed it to her, and she left in search of her own. Just a couple of minutes later, she was back.

He took his phone back with a grateful smile, and saw that she'd entered a phone number with the same area code as Bitty's. He hit send and braced himself for chirping.

It rang a few times, then went to voice mail. At that point, Jack didn't really care about being polite or looking stupid, he just dialed back immediately. It went to voice mail again.

He didn't trust himself not to sound completely panicked on voice mail, so he didn't leave a message. Instead, he texted her.

Jack: Hi, Mrs. Bittle. This is Jack Zimmermann.
Sorry, my mom gave me your number. I hope you don't mind.
I've just been trying to get ahold of Eric and haven't been able to, and it's kind of important.
And his phone is off.
Could you please have him contact me when you get this? Thanks.
Merry Christmas.

In the few minutes it took him to compose all of those texts to sound as not-stupid as they could and send them, he didn't get anything back. No calls, no texts.

He wandered into the kitchen, where his mother was pulling the pie out of the oven.

"Did you get ahold of her, sweetie?"

"No." Jack's heart was hammering, but his breathing was okay. His voice was shaky, though, as he continued. "It went through to voice mail. Not immediately, it rang first, so her phone is on at least. I tried twice, then sent her texts."

He held the phone out to show his mother the texts he'd sent, although he wasn't really sure why. She didn't need to know exactly what he'd written. Why would she care? He was being stupid and she probably just wished he'd calm down.

"Those sound very reasonable," she said. Then she smiled. "You know, she doesn't have to know you're worried about him. You said it's important, maybe you just have something school-related you need to ask him about."

He smiled a little. "I'm sure Bittle will chirp me enough for him and his mother both, don't worry."

"Anyhow, we're leaving in ten minutes, if I can get your father moving. Hopefully either Suzanne or Eric will call you on the way."

He nodded and shoved his phone in his pocket. Ten minutes later they were all bundled into his father's Range Rover, starting the half hour journey to his aunt's house just outside of town. Jack kept his phone out in this hand, resisting the urge to call again or try texting the group chat.

They were just crossing the bridge out of the city when Jack's phone buzzed.

It was Suzanne's phone number on the screen, not Bitty's face. Some of the tension Jack had been holding in his shoulders released—Bitty's phone must have died after all.

He picked up the call. "Bitty?"

"Um, Jack?" It wasn't Bitty's voice. "It's, ah, it's Richard Bittle, uh, Eric's father?" Mr. Bittle's voice sounded rough, and Jack's face went cold as the blood rushed out of it and pooled, swirling, somewhere in his stomach.

"Um, hi," was all he managed to say.

"I saw your texts and that you were callin' my wife's phone, trying to get ahold of Eric…" Mr. Bittle let his voice trail off, and it was all Jack could do to find his own to prompt him.

"Is… Eric there?"

"No, no, he's not, son." Jack couldn't breathe. "Eric, um. Him and his mother were in a car accident this evenin'." His voice was still rough, but had a vague quality, like he wasn't really processing his own words. It was that more than anything that chilled Jack to the core.

"No." It was a simple denial, not forceful or anguished, and Jack wasn't even sure why he said it. Nothing he said could change whatever he was about to hear.

"He's not… he's not doing well. They're getting him into surgery."

Surgery wasn't dead. Jack slumped against the car door, dizzy, as the blood rushed back into his head. He had a hazy thought that he must have been holding his breath for a while, given the stars in front of his eyes.

"Surgery. What happened?"

"I know, uh, all his friends are gonna be worried about him. You let 'em all know I'll get word to you once he's awake, will you?"

"Sir, I'm sorry," Jack barely recognized his own voice as he rushed to keep Mr. Bittle from hanging up on him. "Please, you have to tell me what happened to him. Please."

"Well, uh, he broke his leg pretty bad, but then he's also got some kind of internal injury that's bleedin', somethin' to do with his intestines. I really don't know much more'n that yet."

"Oh, god," Jack murmured. He tried to keep breathing, reminding himself that it was this man's son going into surgery for internal bleeding. "Is your wife okay?" He doesn't even realize he's asked the question until it's out.

"Um. Yeah, yeah. She broke her arm, and she's pretty bruised up, but. Nothin' too bad. Guy hit 'em on the side Junior was on. Well, I should, uh—"

"What hospital?" Jack frantically looks around for a pen, before his mother presses one into his hand. He's in a car with his parents still.

"Excuse me?"

"What's the name of the hospital he's at?"

"Uh, I don't think it's time to start calling or sending flowers or anything just yet—"

"I know. I—I know that. I'm sorry." Jack is pretty sure he should say something more, but he can't think what it is, only that he needs to get to Bitty. "But what hospital is it?"

"We're at Athens Regional." Mr. Bittle is sounding less dazed and more suspicious now. Jack thinks wildly that at least maybe he's providing a useful distraction. His hands are shaking so badly he can barely write the name on his palm. "Why?"

"So I guess that's in Athens, not Madison?"

"Yeah," Mr. Bittle says slowly. "Why, again?"

"I'll be there as soon as I can. It might be a few hours." Jack can do this. He can find a way to get to Georgia. That's a thing he can do. He grabs onto that thought and his head clears just a little.

"Son, I'm sorry, but where exactly are you?"

"I'm in Montreal," Jack says quickly. "Please, could you let me know if you get any more news? I might be on a plane, but if you text I can read them as soon as we land."

"I'm sorry, what? You're in Montreal?"

"Yes, but I'll be there as soon as I can. I'll text this number when I know more details, I know you're busy, you don't really care where I am or when I'll be there, but I don't know, it might be useful. Sorry, I'm babbling now. Please let me know if you find out anything else on his condition."

"All right…"

"Good-bye, Mr. Bittle. I'll see you soon. Hopefully by then he'll be doing much better." Jack hung up the phone, then stared at it for a moment.

"Jack, honey," his mother's soft voice came from the front seat. "What happened?"

Jack's head jerked up. They'd stopped at some point, in a gas station parking lot. His parents were both turned around in the front seat, looking at him, faces tight with worry.

Jack opened his mouth, but couldn't get anything out for a second. He took a deep breath.

"Bitty was in a car accident," he said, switching back to the French he'd been speaking most of the day. He started looking up flights to Atlanta while he spoke. "He broke his leg and he has internal bleeding. They're getting him into surgery now. That was his dad. His mom is okay, she has a broken arm or something, but the guy hit them on the side Bitty was on."

He wasn't really listening to his parents' murmured replies.

"Damn it," he said after a minute. "The last flight to Atlanta with a single empty seat leaves basically now." He looked up at his parents, wondered vaguely in the back of his head what they'd said to him. "How do I charter a flight?"

Given who his parents were, it wasn't like Jack had never been on a chartered flight even before joining an NHL team that leased its own plane, but he'd never had to arrange one himself. He had absolutely no idea how he would even go about it.

"On Christmas Eve?" Bob asked, raising an eyebrow. "I've got someone I can call. You're sure you can't wait until morning? We can get you on the first commercial flight out."

The process of planning how to get to Georgia had pushed down some of his panic, but the thought of waiting twelve hours made it start to claw its way up Jack's throat again.

"No, I can't wait until morning!" He probably shouldn't shout. "He is in the hospital now, anything could happen by morning! What the hell is the point of having a seven-figure salary if it can't get me to my boyfriend's bedside when he wakes up from surgery?"

"Bob, really," his mother admonished quietly. His father shook his head and looked down at his phone.

"You're right, of course, I just thought I'd ask. Not sure I can guarantee a flight right now, you know, and it'll probably cost twice what it usually would."

"Well, as long as it doesn't cost more than my signing bonus, I'll be fine." Jack had sort of been going for humor there, but he knew it didn't sound that way at all. It didn't really feel that way, either.

While his father turned back around to make a phone call, his mother reached back and took his hand.

"Jack, I'm sure he'll be all right," she said quietly, voice confident and soothing. "He'll be glad to have you there when he wakes up. It's good you listened to your instincts."

"Of course he'll be all right," Jack muttered, unable to look at his mother. "He can't… he can't die, he's twenty, he can't—we're not even married yet, he can't die."

He knew it was complete nonsense, as his mother squeezed his hand, but it was comforting nonsense anyhow. A broken leg, Bitty would be out of hockey for a while, possibly the rest of the season. But he'd be able to play the next year. And then he would graduate, and move to Providence, and Jack would marry him, because that was how it was supposed to go.

"Shit." Jack dropped his head against the back of his mother's seat. "His parents still don't know. His father must think I'm a lunatic. What am I going to say when I get there, sure, I'd drop ten grand on a plane flight to see any of my college friends in the hospital?"

"Jack, honey." Alicia's fingers combed through his hair, just like they did when he was little, and he relaxed a little. "You can deal with that when you get there. What they will see is someone who cares so deeply for their son that he'd move heaven and earth to be by his side."

"Or someone who thinks he has the right to intrude on their family's pain, telling them things they already didn't want to know about their son," Jack said bitterly. "God, what if they won't even let me see him?"

"I know I don't know Suzanne Bittle that well," his mother replied, "but I honestly can't imagine her being that vindictive. I don't know her husband at all, and maybe he won't be happy to see you, but you make Eric happy and I think that's really all Suzanne will care about. And believe me, if she's anything like most women I know, given the choice between her husband's happiness and her child's, there won't be a contest."

"Jack," his father said, turning around, "do you want to fly into Atlanta, or would you rather fly into Athens if I can get you there?"

"If there's an airport there, then yes, as close as you can get me."

Bob nodded and went back to his conversation with… whoever it was. A travel agent, maybe? Jack realized that after tonight, he still would have no clue how to book himself a charter flight.

Jack's hands were still shaking, he realized as he looked down as his phone. The panic was starting to give way to a sense of numbness, of unreality. He dug his fingernails into his thigh to feel something besides chilled.

"Okay," his father finally said. "Let's head back so you can pack, then we can get you to Trudeau."

"No," Jack said, sitting up. "I can buy clothes there. Just get me there as quick as possible."

"You need your passport, sweetie," his mom pointed out. "And your medication."

Jack sighed, but of course she was right.

When they got back to his parents' house, he ran to his room and threw a change of clothes, his passport, his phone charger, and his toiletries bag into his backpack. He was back downstairs and ready to leave less than five minutes after they'd arrived.

Half an hour later, he was settled into a private jet, thanking the crew profusely for flying him on a holiday on short notice. He'd already arranged with his dad to get their contact information so he could send them some kind of thank-you gift later.

He pulled out his phone and tapped out a message to Suzanne Bittle's number.

Jack: I'm on a plane about to leave Montreal. I should be in Athens in about 3.5 hours. Please let me know if there's any news.

He didn't have to put his phone in airplane mode, but he knew there wouldn't be a signal most of the time once they were in the air. Hopefully if the Bittles updated him, he'd get it in a timely manner. The plane did have wifi, though, so he switched to the group chat.

Jack: Hey guys
Bitty was in a car accident
I don't know all the details but he broke his leg and is in surgery for internal injuries

Ransom: What the fuck?

Chowder: Bitty!!!

Lardo: Shit bro

Jack: I'm on my way to Georgia, I'll let you all know when I know more.

Dex: Fuck.

The chat went on for a couple more minutes, everyone chiming in with their expressions of dismay and support. Eventually, Shitty sent Jack a private message.

Shitty: How you holding up, bro?

Jack: Not great. I'm on a private plane to Athens, GA right now.

Shitty: I'd expect nothing less.

Jack: Also Bitty's parents still don't know we're dating, or that he's gay, and I think his dad thinks I'm insane now because I'm flying down there.

Shitty: Well shit.

Jack: Yeah.

Shitty: That's gonna be an uncomfortable conversation

Jack: So comforting.

Shitty: Hey, it's best to think about it now
Figure out how to approach this shit
Have a backup plan if things go south

Jack: *sigh* You're right.

Shitty managed to keep Jack distracted for the next couple of hours, thankfully. When Jack's mind would wander back to Bitty's condition, he'd stop and do some meditation or breathing exercises. For the first time in a long time, he found himself missing Xanax. He wouldn't have taken it if it were offered to him, but he did kind of wish he were slightly less fucked up so he could.

Finally, his phone got cell service again just long enough to let some texts through.

Suzanne Bittle: Jack, it's Suzanne.
Dicky's still in surgery. Don't know how much longer.
They were worried about sepsis because his intestines were damaged but it sounds like he's out of the woods there for now.
They say he's stabilized so hopefully it won't be too much longer. They're working on his leg now.
I'm glad you're coming. He'll be happy to see you.

Jack swallowed and reread the texts. They'd only been sent a little while ago.

That last one could mean anything. Did she know? Did she suspect? She'd have to be awfully naive to think he was really just coming to see a friend, wouldn't she? Then again, she'd been in the car accident, too—even without a head injury, she may be in enough emotional shock to not be processing everything.

Jack really had no way of knowing what type of situation he'd be walking into.

He switched back to the group chat to update them on Bitty's condition. As he read their relieved and happy responses, a rush of warmth loosened the tension in his gut. It took him a minute to realize that it was his own relief—he hadn't even let himself feel it when he'd first read the updates.

Was he focusing too much on talking to Bitty's parents to keep himself from reacting to what was actually happening to Bitty? He didn't want to not feel things about Bitty. But one of those was a situation he still had some control over, no matter how little. He at least had input. It didn't matter how frightened or horrified he was on Bitty's behalf, it wouldn't make his surgery go any better or more quickly.

Letting himself worry about the things he could control instead of the things he couldn't didn't mean he didn't care. He had limited emotional energy, and he was pretty sure that tonight was going to sap every last bit of it. It was just a strategy to make it last so that he had enough to deal with Bitty's condition when it was time to actually do so.

Huh. Maybe all those years of therapy weren't a total waste.

Finally, the crew let him know they were coming in for their final descent into Athens.

When his phone could keep a steady signal again, he replied to Suzanne's texts.

Jack: Thank you so much for the update.
I'll be landing soon, I'll get a cab straight to the hospital.
I'm glad to hear the surgery is going well.

Customs was much easier than usual, being on a private jet, so Jack was in a taxi approaching the hospital just a half an hour later. He texted Suzanne again to let her know he'd be there shortly.

Soon he was following directions from the hospital's information desk to the trauma unit waiting area, his heart rate starting to climb again as he went.

He saw Mr. Bittle first, pacing in the hallway. His face was pale and drawn, and he looked ten years older than when Jack had met him that summer. He looked up and nodded to Jack, then looked off to one side, motioning for Suzanne to come out from the waiting area.

Jack met them just outside of the waiting room. Looking in, he could see a couple members of Bitty's extended family whom he'd met in July—Moomaw, Aunt Connie, and Connie's husband, John. He wondered if Bitty's parents had told any of them he was coming.

Suzanne's left arm was in a sling, and the left side of her face was covered in bruising. What wasn't bruised was blotchy and swollen from tears that had already come and gone. She came right over to Jack and pulled him down into a tight hug with her good arm.

"Hi," he said quietly, searching for something else to say.

"Jack." There were tears in her voice as she pulled back from the hug. "This is not how I wanted to see you again, young man."

His mouth managed to twitch into a small smile. "No, it really isn't."

He shook Coach's hand as they nodded their greetings. Where Suzanne was wearing a strained and watery smile, Coach Bittle wasn't bothering to keep the somber expression from his face.

"We're still waiting for word on how the surgery went," Coach Bittle said gruffly. "They said it was going well last we heard, but..."

Jack's stomach twisted, but he gave a brief nod of acknowledgment. He knew things could change quickly.

"I'm sure it'll be fine," Suzanne said with another tight smile. She was working to convince herself as much as either of them. "And I'm sure Dicky will be pleased to see you when he wakes up, but... I'm sorry to put it so bluntly, Jack, but why are you here?"

Jack had known the question was coming, but he still fidgeted for a few seconds.

"Eric is my best friend. Of course I'd want to be here for him."

Coach sighed. "Son, you just came running eleven hundred miles in four and a half hours flat, at the drop of a hat on Christmas Eve."

"We have had a very difficult night, Jack," Suzanne said, her voice gentle but firm. "Still are, come to that. My baby is still in there, cut open, lord only knows what's happening to him. We would appreciate your being honest with us. Why are you here?"

Jack swallowed, then nodded. These didn't look like people who were about to chase him out of the hospital. It was easier than he'd expected to meet their eyes, tired but not unwelcoming, as he told them, "I'm here because I love your son. Very much. He's the most important person in my life. I couldn't possibly bear to be anywhere else, knowing he's here and in danger."

Suzanne's head jerked in a quick nod as her face crumpled. She slapped her good hand over her mouth, but not before a choked sob escaped.

Coach put an arm around her shoulders, careful of the left side. When he looked up at Jack, there were tears in his eyes as well.

"I'm not gonna pretend like this was my first choice for his life, but I almost lost that boy tonight, and that has a way of putting things in perspective. We're glad you're here for him, son. Our boy deserves someone like that."

Jack couldn't reply for the lump in his throat.

"I'm sorry," Suzanne said, shaking her head and wiping at her eyes. "What you must think of me! I just—I know these things are complicated, but I wish he would have told us."

"He was going to," Jack says, the words spilling out now that he's found something he can say that might make things even a little bit better. "After Christmas. Before he came back up to New England. I... I really hate that I'm taking that away from him."

"No, no, it's good that you're here and that we know the situation now," Suzanne insisted. "I know he's got a lot of good friends up there but it's different knowing he's got someone like that in his life. Who would do this for him."

Jack glanced over to where Connie, John, and Moomaw were watching them curiously. He shuffled his feet a little and leaned in toward the Bittles.

"He, um… I know he wasn't planning on, ah, telling the rest of the family just yet. I mean… I don't think his grandmother or Connie were the ones he was most worried about, but especially since I can't be out, publicly, yet, we were going to take that slowly. I'm not sure I'm comfortable telling them right now without talking to him first?"

Suzanne's brow furrowed as she tilted her head to one side. "They know who you are, Jack. We didn't say anything about you coming, but I'm sorry, they're not going to buy that you flew down here for a friend any more'n we did."

"My mom has family in Florida," Jack blurted out. "Cousins. I could say I was visiting them, so I came up since I was his only friend within driving distance?"

"Where in Florida?" Coach asked.

Jack winced. "Tampa, really, but I could say somewhere closer."

Suzanne sighed. "As much as I'm not a huge fan of lying to my mother and sister, go ahead and say you were in Jacksonville. That's near close enough to get here this fast."

Then she suddenly pulled him into another hug with her good arm.

"Thank you," she murmured into his ear.

Jack shuffled after them into the waiting room and waved awkwardly to the rest of Bitty's family. Suzanne may have become a blushing teenager at the sight of his dad, but she'd always treated Jack like just another of Bitty's college buddies. Connie, on the other hand, was the one who had actually worshipped his father as a teenager, and when Jack had met her in July she'd acted just as starstruck as if she were meeting Bob himself.

So he was only a little bit surprised when Connie stood up immediately with a big smile. She'd clearly been crying at some point in the evening, but Jack was providing a much-needed distraction.

"Jack Zimmermann! I didn't think we'd be seeing you around these parts again. Dicky didn't mention you were comin' in town for the holidays!"

"Oh, no, I was actually visiting family in Florida." Jack managed the lie smoothly, he hoped. "I just drove up because I heard about the accident and I thought Eric could use a friend here."

"Well, that is so thoughtful of you!" Connie patted him on the arm before sitting back down with her husband and motioning Jack toward a seat. "I'm sure he will need a friend, he'll be so surprised."

"Where in Florida did you say your family was, Jack?" Moomaw's smile was kind, but there was a glint in her eye. Jack shifted in his seat. That summer, he'd told Bitty that if anyone in the family suspected what they really were to each other, it was her, and at the moment he wasn't sure he was wrong.

"Ah, Jacksonville, ma'am."

"And how on earth did you hear about the accident so quick?"

Oh. I know him and his habits better than anyone on earth, so when I didn't hear from him in an hour I had a bad feeling about it and then panicked probably wouldn't go over well as an answer.

"I was on the phone with Eric when the accident happened," Jack said, praying that Suzanne hadn't said anything to contradict that.

Moomaw and Connie both gasped, so it seemed Suzanne hadn't gone into detail about what Bitty was doing at the moment of the crash.

Just then, though, a doctor came into the room.

"Eric Bittle's family?" she asked. She wore a slight smile, and Jack sighed in relief immediately as he stood up with the rest of them.

The doctor explained that the surgeon was just finishing up. As far as they could tell, all the damage that had led to bleeding and bacteria leaking into his gut was repaired, and his femur set with pins. She told them that there was still a risk of post-operative infection, both at the incision and where the internal damage had been, but that if he didn't have any problems in the next forty-eight hours he should be in the clear.

The release of tension from everyone's bodies was palpable. Suzanne and Coach asked more questions about post-operative care and his prognosis, and Jack took his phone out to take notes when he realized he'd never remember all the information being relayed. He noticed Moomaw watching him as he did it, but he couldn't really be bothered to care. He needed to take care of Bitty, and if that meant that someone figured out their relationship… well, so be it.

"A nurse will come and let you know when you can go in and see him," the doctor finished up. "Immediate family and significant others only while he's in the ICU, but everyone else will probably be able to see him tomorrow."

They thanked the doctor, and before she was even out of the room Suzanne was crying on Coach's shoulder.

"Thank god," Jack murmured, mostly to himself, although he happened to catch Coach's eye as he said it. Coach gave him a nearly-imperceptible nod.

Everyone collapsed back into the chairs, and the women busied themselves with calling the rest of the family to let them know Bitty had made it through the surgery. That spurred Jack to text the group chat, where there was immediate celebration.

It was only a few minutes before the promised nurse appeared. Jack immediately stood and went to her, along with Coach. Suzanne hung back to give her mother and sister hugs first, promising to let them know as soon as Bitty could have more visitors.

The nurse looked at Jack quizzically. "Are you Mr. Bittle's brother?"

Jack froze. Somehow, his train of thought had never quite made it this far. When the doctor had said immediate family and significant others, he had just been relieved that it included him. It hadn't occurred to him that he would have to explain how that was—or that Bitty's other family might wonder why he got to go in and they didn't.

He stepped a little closer to the nurse, so he could lower his voice enough that the family members on the other side of the room wouldn't hear.

"I'm his partner," he told her.

She nodded with a soft "oh," but also glanced at Coach, clearly looking for confirmation. It was only after Coach nodded that she said, "Well, all right then."

As the three of them started to follow the nurse down the hall, Jack felt a hand on his arm. He turned to find Bitty's grandmother standing there, Connie and John talking further down the hallway.

"You take care of him, you hear?"

"Yes, ma'am," he murmured. "I intend to."

She nodded and patted him on the arm before heading down the hall in the other direction.

He didn't really have time to worry much about what she knew, or thought she knew, about them. Whatever it was, she didn't seem upset about it, so it was probably fine.

As Jack walked down the hallway with Bitty's parents, the nurse prepared them.

"He'll probably come out of anesthesia soon, but he's on a heavy dose of morphine right now. When he first wakes up, he probably won't be coherent. He may or may not be able to recognize any of you, and the things he says might not make any sense. Think of it more like talking in his sleep than really being awake. In a couple of hours he should be more lucid for a little while."

But nothing could have prepared Jack for the moment he entered the hospital room.

Luckily, Bitty's bruising on his face and upper body wasn't much worse than Suzanne's, but it was still startling. It was so much worse than anything Jack had seen after a hockey game. His blankets covered his abdomen, where Jack knew the major damage was, but his leg was sticking out of them, in traction.

He looked so frail, so delicate, and it hit Jack all at once how close he'd come to losing Bitty that night. If the car had hit them just a second or two later, it would have rammed right into him instead of just his legs, and he'd be in far, far worse shape… if he'd survived. A few bare seconds had been the only thing standing between Jack and losing the most important thing in his life, and he wouldn't have even known it had happened until later.

Jack was suddenly dizzy, the blood rushing out of his head at the thought. He sat down hard on a chair off to one side of Bitty's bed and tried to get his breathing under control. Bitty was alive, he was right there and breathing—but he almost hadn't been. He almost hadn't been. If they'd gotten him to the hospital a little later and he'd bled too much or spilled too much bacteria into his gut… If the car had been going a little faster and torn his leg right off… If he'd bounced differently and cracked his head on some part of the car…

Jack covered his mouth as a choked sob came out. He was startled at how wet his hand was—so many tears had already fallen, and he couldn't stop them.

"Honey, here." Suzanne passed him a box of kleenex that was on the bedside table.

"I'm sorry," he said as he took them. "I'm sorry, I—I shouldn't—" He couldn't finish as another sob wracked his body.

"You should." Suzanne's voice was firm.

Jack nodded, not about to argue with one of the few people who could have lost even more than him that night.

He wiped the tears from his face, but they just kept coming. He was hunched over in his chair, shuddering, trying to keep his breakdown as private as he could with two other (conscious) people standing right there. If he couldn't keep his cheeks dry for more than a few seconds, he at least tried to keep his nose clean to retain some semblance of dignity.

Every time he would start to calm down, the reality of the situation would wash over him again, pulling a new sob from him. It had to be ten minutes, at least, that he sat there, falling apart when Bitty's own parents were managing to keep it together.

Finally, his eyes were dry, the only remnants of his loss of control a slight hitch in his breathing.

When he looked up, Suzanne was watching him from the other side of Bitty's bed. She was stroking her son's hair while Coach looked out the window. There were tears in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," he couldn't help saying again. "That was—"

"A totally normal response when someone you love almost dies," Suzanne finished for him. Jack had done nothing to earn the affection in her gaze, and fidgeted nervously under it.

He turned his attention to Bitty instead, watching his chest rise and fall in a promise that he would wake up from this. Eventually his eyes wandered up to Bitty's bruised face, taking stock of the injuries there. Jack was familiar enough with facial bruising that he had a vague idea of where the impacts had come from. He occupied himself with cataloguing every bruise so he could appreciate as they disappeared.

He suddenly realized that he had one hand over Bitty's on the bed, absently stroking it with his thumb. The skin was as soft as ever, even with the flesh bruised and slightly swollen. He was careful to keep his touch light; Bitty may have been on morphine, but that didn't mean he needed his bruises pressed on.

After a while, Jack realized he should probably let everyone else know that he'd gotten to see Bitty, beat up but alive, with his own eyes. He didn't particularly want to take his hand away, but he did it just long enough to send texts to the group chat and to his parents.

Just as he was finishing, there was a rustle of movement from the bed. Suzanne gasped, and Coach came over from where he'd been perched on the windowsill. Jack leaned forward in his chair to watch as Bitty's head twitched from side to side. Bitty mumbled to himself, but Jack couldn't make out any of the words.

"Hey, there, sweetheart, you comin' back to us?" Suzanne cooed as she continued to stroke his hair. "Hey, li'l dicky-bird, you gotta wake up so we can see you're still all in one piece, you hear?"

She kept murmuring to him, and his mumbles seemed like attempts to respond, although Jack still couldn't identify any actual words in them.

After a minute, his eyes fluttered open, but they were unfocused, and Jack doubted he'd actually seen any of them before they fell closed again.

Jack picked up Bitty's hand carefully and started running his fingers slowly down each of Bitty's fingers, one by one. Bitty's hand twitched as he did it, occasionally closing around Jack's.

His eyes flew open again.

"Where am I?" he immediately asked, his words slightly slurred.

"You're in the hospital, baby," Suzanne told him. "We were in a car accident."

"Oh! Mama, you're hurt!" Bitty's eyes widened as he looked at his mother, but they were still not quite tracking properly, like he was a kitten who had just opened its eyes and was learning to see for the first time.

"Only a little," Suzanne assured him.

Bitty looked from her to Coach, and then to Jack. He was blinking a bit too much and for too long, and for a second it looked like he might be falling asleep again. But then his eyes opened again and he let out a surprised gasp. He was looking at Jack (or at least, in Jack's general direction).

"Wow," Bitty said, "you're cute."

Jack slapped a hand over his mouth to hide his laughter, and he heard small snorts as Suzanne and Coach did the same.

"Um." Jack moved his hand so he could talk and hoped he wouldn't burst out laughing at his bedridden boyfriend. "Thanks, Bits."

"You look like my boyfriend."

Jack gave up. He leaned forward until his forehead was resting on Bitty's bed, trying to keep his laughter as quiet as possible. He heard a quiet "oh, my lord," from Suzanne as she stifled her own giggles, and even Coach stepped away from the bed for a minute to get himself under control.

"Really?" Jack choked out, his head still down.

"Yeah. He's famous. His butt is famous, too. All by itself! Looks better in person, though."

Jack's head snapped up. "Okay, Bittle, maybe you should stop talking about your boyfriend's, um, body. Your parents are right here."

Suzanne's face was in her good hand, her shoulders shaking with laughter.

Bitty hummed a little as his eyes fell closed. Just when Jack thought he'd fallen back asleep, though, they opened again.

"Jack?" Bitty smiled a little, seeming to actually recognize him this time. "Love you."

"J'taime aussi, mon lapin," Jack replied softly. He itched to reach out and touch Bitty's hair, but it already felt too intimate for having his parents in the room. Bitty scrunched up his nose.

"What? I don't even know what language that was."

Jack chuckled as Suzanne clucked her tongue. "And here I thought you got a B- in French this semester, young man."

"I did?" Bitty turned to his mother, then frowned. "What'd you do to your arm?"

Suzanne's face fell. "Oh, sweetie. We were in a car accident. I'm okay."

"Is that why my leg feels so weird?" Bitty looked down at the offending appendage. "It's all…" He gestured vaguely to his leg, then sighed.

Bitty's eyes fell closed again, and this time they seemed destined to stay that way for a while.