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Set Your Old Heart Free

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“Are you ready to head to the hotel?”

Twenty minutes ago he watched Bittle walk away and pretended he didn’t see him wiping at his eyes. Something’s been twisting in Jack’s gut ever since.

“I’m ready.” He turns to face his father and finds Bob looking at him with concern etched into the corners of his eyes. Jack’s gotten used to that look. It’s been a constant fixture on his father’s face since he got out of rehab.

“Jack.”

“Let’s go. Don’t we have reservations?”

“If there’s something you need to do-.”

“I don’t need to do anything. I need go. Let’s just go. Please.”

There’s one more long look before he’s nodding his head and slipping his arm around Jack’s shoulders.

*

He drives them all down to Providence even though his mother was waiting at the driverside door ready to take the keys.

Focusing on the road and navigating the unfamiliar streets of Providence helps to take his mind off everything he left behind.

*

.

His parents stick around for a few more days. It’s nice to have them there, taking up space and making noise in the kitchen before Jack wakes up in the morning.

They keep him busy. They take him out to lunch and they hit up museums and the zoo. Jack takes his camera and they walk slowly along the river for hours. Bob asks an older woman to take a picture of the three of them and Jack watches carefully as she fumbles with the buttons on his Nikon. He can practically see it slipping out of her hands and shattering on the sidewalk below. It must show on his face because Alicia wraps her arm tighter around his middle and says smile, sweetheart.

Bitty had called him that once. Casual and accidental in the kitchen of the Haus. Here you go, sweetheart, as he put a piece of pie in front of him then tensed and waited for a chirp that never came.

He hears the click and the woman says what a great looking family they are as she hands the camera back. Alicia says she wants it framed.

*

 

When his parents do leave it’s with two long hugs. Alicia puts both hands on the side of his face and stands on her toes to kiss his forehead. Bob puts a hand on each shoulder and says “We’re proud of you.”

Jack rolls his shoulders, but it doesn’t dislodge his father’s grip. “I haven't even done anything yet.”

Bob chokes up. “You've done so much, Jack. You have no idea.”

*

“Are you going out at all,” Alicia asks.

He throws a banana in the blender even though he’s going to wait to turn it on until after their Skype call is over. “Not really. There’s nowhere to go.”

There’s a gym in the building and there’s a grocery store around the corner. That’s all he needs. He had been getting coffee after his morning run at this place a few blocks away. He smiled at the cute girl behind the counter until one morning when she got bold and wrote her number on his cup and that had scared him off.

“Nowhere to go? I know Georgia left you a long list of things to do. If you’re not interested in any of those I’m sure she could give you more or I could look up something that might might be more your speed.”

“You really don’t need to do that.”

“I want you to have fun. You’re on your own for the first time. No billet family, no Haus. I want to make sure you’re making friends.”

“I have friends. Shitty, Lardo, Bittle.”

“And you’re going to be friends with them forever, I’m sure, but you’re not going to be seeing them as often and I just-”

Jack spins back around to face the screen. “You're afraid I'm going to screw up again,” he snaps. “Just admit it.”

“That's not it.”

“You know I might. This might go terribly. I'm not who I was. I'm not as young, not as fast, and people already think I'm not as good. I could be this huge disappointment. I could do nothing to help the team and they could all hate me. My teammates, the fans, Georgia. She could turn.”

She looks down at her hands. “Jack, that's not going to happen.”

“You don't know that. Going out and meeting people won't change that.”

“I just want you to be happy, honey. That's all I've ever wanted.”

“I am happy.”

“Are you sure?”

He looks around at his mostly empty apartment. He needs pillows on the couch and art on the walls. He thinks about Ransom and Holster up at Niagara Falls and Lardo and Shitty in Boston. The Frogs scattered around. Bittle in Georgia.

He takes a deep breath and admits it. “I'm trying to be.”

*

He calls Bittle while watching an episode of Chopped. He picks up on the third ring.

“Jack! Hi!”

He settles into the couch and turns the tv to mute.

“Hey, sorry I haven't called.”

“It's only been two weeks, Jack. You have to give yourself time to settle.”

“Yeah.”

“So? Are you settled? How's your apartment? Tell me all about it? I've only seen the kitchen.”

“It's big. I have four bedrooms and a walk in closet.”

“Only the best for Mr. Professional Hockey Player.”

“I wasn’t bragging. It’s very quiet.”

“That must be nice, though, for a change.”

Jack hums into the phone and misses the steady rhythm of the Haus. It was never completely quiet, even in the middle of the night. Old pipes and settling baseboards and ghosts.

“It feels like it’s too big for me.”

“Maybe you’ll grow into it.”

“That’s what the real estate agent said.”

She had opened the door to one of the smaller bedrooms and said “this could make a great home office or a nursery one day.”

Jack and his mother had exchanged a look and Jack answered “maybe just the office.”

The agent put on a tight lipped smile, closed the door, and kept on walking.

“Maybe she’s right. Have you at least decorated?”

“No. Not really. My mom bought some furniture but that’s it.”

“You need to hang some pictures on the wall. It’ll make it feel like home. I know you probably have hundreds of them on your camera. Get some of them developed.”

“How’s Madison?” he asks, and Bittle scoffs at the sudden change of subject.

“It’s quiet.”

Jack waits for more.

“I missed my parents, so it was good to see them.”

Jack waits again. Sometimes it feels like that’s all he ever does.

“Camp starts up in a few days so that’ll be fun.”

“Yeah?”

There’s a long stretch of silence and finally Bittle huffs into the phone. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“I’m just asking you how it’s going.”

“It’s going fine. It’s hot and humid and I just...I think I miss you guys more than I thought I would.

I feel so stupid because it’s only been a week but I think because I’ve spent so much time with you guys and I’ve seen you everyday and then suddenly you’re all gone. I can’t even imagine what this must be like for you. Oh lord. That sounded bad. I didn’t mean for that to sound so bad. I just meant you’ve known everyone longer. I’m sure I’m going to be a total mess when I graduate which is only in two years, oh my god, what am I going to do?”

“You have two years to figure it out.”

“Two years is nothing. These last two went by so fast.”

“I know how you feel, Bittle.”

“But you must be so excited! You’ve worked so hard and you deserve all of this. I know you’re going to do great and I’m so happy for you. Are you excited? Sorry. That was a lot.”

“It's okay. I'm excited. I'm nervous. I got so comfortable with you guys and you were all so great and you put up with me.”

Bittle clucks his tongue.

“This is the real world now.”

“Samwell was real,” Bittle says quickly, like he’s defending it. “But I get what you mean. It’s a bubble. It makes you forget how things really are.”

Jack promptly forgets about all his woes and thinks only of Bittle alone and shoved back in the closet in the place he calls home.

“I didn’t mean to be such a downer when I called you.”

Bittle laughs. “It’s alright. It’s always good to hear from you. So, what are your plans for this summer? Are you gonna hang around Providence or what?”

“For most of it. I am going home to visit my parents for a few weeks.”

“That sounds like it’ll be fun.”

“Yeah,” Jack says. “You should come up.”

The line goes quiet.

“Bittle?”

“Yeah, no, I’m here. Come up to Canada?”

“I was going to ask the rest of the team too,” he lies. He hadn’t thought of any of this before but now that he’s said it, he doesn’t want to take it back. “It’s towards the end of the summer so you could go straight to the Haus when you leave.”

“I mean, I guess I could change my flight. It might cost a little extra but I’ve been saving-”

“I'll take care of it.”

“I can't let you do that.”

“It's not a problem. I have this money now and I don't know what to do with it.”

“You're clearly not decorating your apartment with it,” Bitty chirps.

Jack glances around his bedroom. “How’d you know that?”

“You just told me,” Bitty says, his tone teasing.

“I’m working on it.”

“I should set you up with a pinterest account. Or you could just hire someone to do it since all that money of yours is clearly burning a hole in your pocket.”

“I kind of like it like this. It’s minimalistic.”

He can hear Bitty rolling his eyes.

“Whatever makes you happy, Jack.”

“So you’ll come up and visit,” he asks and tries to pretend like Bitty’s words didn’t bleed straight into his thoughts.

“You’re sure your parents will be okay with this?”

“Of course.”

*

The group chat explodes as soon as Jack floats the idea. Nursey is the only one that can’t make it.

He’s MIA on some great American roadtrip, Dex texts. Like Jack fucking Kerouac. Turned his phone off and everything. I think he’s using a paper map. We might never see him again.

Is he gonna be sad that he missed it? Chowder asks.

He should have thought about that before he left his phone behind.

Are you sure your parents are going to have enough room for all of us? Bitty asks and Jack’s still typing when Shitty answers for him.

They have more money than god. They’ve been millionaires for longer than either of us have been alive. Individually. They could buy and sell all our souls. And I would let them.

Just asking. Can’t wait to see you Jack!

*

He’s antsy the morning of their arrival.

His mother settles his bouncing leg as he pushes his breakfast around his plate with her hand on his knee.

“They’re your friends, Jack. Why are you nervous?”

He’s honestly not sure.

Bob puts more bread into the toaster. “He’s probably just afraid we’re going to embarrass him.”

“That’s not it,” Jack says but then he takes a second look at his father standing in front of stove wearing a Kiss the Cook apron and slippers that he remembers buying for him when he was just a kid. “Well, actually, that might be it.”

Bob laughs.

*

They’re all out on the porch when the taxi from the airport comes up the driveway. It’s like a clown car when they all pile out of it. Shitty makes a beeline towards Jack and Jack braces himself for the impact.

It doesn't come.

Shitty bypasses him and wraps both arms around Bob and Alicia.

“Oh, I see how it is.”

“Sorry, buddy, but they raised me.”

“You didn't meet them until you were 19.”

“It's a very formative year, Jacky.”

Lardo wraps her arms around his middle and he fist bumps Ransom, Holster, and Chowder before they go on to greet his parents. Lardo has to pry Shitty off of them. Dex and Bitty are still by the taxi, Dex hauling bags out the back while Bitty takes his wallet out of his back pocket to tip the driver. Jack tries to step in and take care of it but Bitty immediately pushes him away.

“You’ve already done so much, I can handle this. If you want to help, go help Dex with the bags.”

He holds some cash out to the driver then looks up at Jack with a small smile.

“It’s good to see you, Jack.”

Bitty is tanner than Jack has ever seen him with freckles across his nose and cheeks. His hair has grown out and it’s sun streaked, making it shine in the light. He wants to reach out and touch him just to make sure he’s real. Instead he takes a deep breath and calms himself down.

“It’s good to see you, too.”

Dex has almost all of the bags out of the back by the time Jack goes to help.

“William Poindexter?”

Dex’s eyes go wide and his jaw drops as Bob comes up behind Jack.

“You play defense, right? You’re doing a hell of a job at it.”

Dex doesn’t look away from Bob. “I…..hi.”

Bitty elbows him and frantically whispers, “be polite, Dex.”

Dex turns bright red and he sticks his hand out towards Bob. “Sorry. Um. Hi.”

Bob laughs and takes his hand. “Come on, let Jack take care of the bags. Come meet my wife.”

“Oh my god,” Dex says softly, but he lets himself be led away.

“Even Chowder wasn’t that star-struck.”

“You know, he was kind of iffy about coming but I think he’s pretty happy with his decision right now.”

“I’m glad he could come.”

Bitty taps his elbow against Jack’s arm.

“It really is good to see you. You look great.”

He’s been working out more often, more out of boredom than obligation and he’s noticed the way the sleeves of his shirts pull against his arms and the stretch of the fabric against his thighs.

“You look great too.”

“Well, summer is my season.”

“It shows.”

Bittle rolls his eyes but the blush rising on his face is so obvious he has to duck his head.

“C’mon and say hi to my parents. My mom and Mr. Jack’s Dad.”

“Shut up.”

“He still tells that story sometimes.”

“It was a mistake coming here.”

*

Ransom and Holster jump into the pool at the same time and the splash it creates reaches Alicia on the patio chair. She sighs and stands.

“I’m so happy you brought the boys with you,” she says dryly, but she ruffles Jack’s hair as she goes by.

Jack waits a moment and follows her. He closes the door behind him and she looks up with a smile from where she’s pouring more chips into a bowl.

“I’m glad Eric could come. Your father mentioned the two of you had some issues? Is that all worked out now? He seems pretty comfortable around you.”

“I think I could be in love with him.”

There’s dead air in the kitchen, but beyond the sliding doors the world rages on.

Bitty changes the song that's playing out of his phone to something Jack recognizes from the radio. Shitty howls, followed by a splash. Dex is sleeping on a lounge chair while Chowder carefully draws something on his arms with sunscreen, fitting into Nursey’s role as lead instigator quite nicely. Lardo is betting Bob that he can't can't do a flip off the diving board. Ransom is spluttering as Holster tries to climb onto his shoulders while also trying to talk Lardo and Bitty into playing them in a game of chicken.

“Let me get on your shoulders, bro, you're bigger.”

“Nah, this’ll be fine. Hold still.”

“Stop trying to drown me.”

“Bro, I would never.”

Bitty is laughing, loud and clear and warm and he's blissfully unaware that twenty yards from him Jack just admitted his love for him to his mother.

“I don't know why I said that.”

Alicia smiles but Jack doesn't think it reaches her eyes. He feels sick.

“Oh, baby, sure you do.”

“How would you feel about that? If that was...if I was?”

“What are you planning on doing about it?”

“Probably nothing.”

It's just one more thing he’ll drag around with him. He’ll pile it up neatly next to his failures and disappointments and all the ways he could be better.

“Jack.” She sounds sad. He’ll never forget waking up in the hospital with her hands taking through his hair. The sound of her voice as she said “my baby boy,” all watery and soft. If his heart hadn't already been broken by a million other things, that alone would have done it. This sounds exactly like that. He was supposed to be getting back on the right track and he’s suddenly back where he started.

He should have stayed outside and kept this to himself. He's good at secrets. They're the best thing he does, second only to hockey.

“What would I do? I can't have him.”

“You could. You could have everything you want. You could just be happy.”

“It's not that easy.”

“I know.” She covers his hand with his own. “Thank you for telling me.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“I know.”

Alicia goes back outside and Jack takes a deep breath, leans against the counter, and gives himself exactly three minutes to get himself together.

Now is not the time for this.

As soon as he steps out the door Lardo attacks him from the side.

“Be my partner against those two. You’re my best shot at a win. Shitty’s got water up every hole in his head.”

Over her shoulder his mother chatting with Bitty while he’s stretched out on a lounge chair.

Jack sweeps his eyes towards Ransom and Holster in the pool.

“Why is Rans on the bottom?”

“I don't know,” Ransom cries and Lardo pushes him towards the pool.

He pulls his shirt over his head and when he twists to toss it clear of the splash zone he catches Bitty watching him over the top of his sunglasses. His lips are slightly parted and when his eyes work their way up to Jack’s face they widen slightly- like he’s realized he’s been caught- but he doesn’t look away.

Neither does Jack.

Jack turns a little more and Bitty’s lips part just enough for his tongue to poke out and wet them as his eyes shift down to his chest and back up again.

“Jack.” Lardo splashes him. “Get in here.”

When he looks back to Bitty he’s talking to his mom. They’re deep in conversation like nothing ever happened.

Jack lowers himself into the pool.

*

They end the day circled around the firepit in the backyard. Bittle’s sitting in the adirondack chair next to Jack with his legs tucked beneath him. The bridge of his nose is pink from the sun and the shadow of the flames dance across his skin. Bittle laughs, suddenly, head thrown back and loud and Jack stares at the line of his throat before looking across the fire to Shitty, who’s dropped his marshmallow in the fire.

“It was almost perfect,” he says sadly and Lardo points her foot towards the fire.

“Reach in there and grab it. It’s not even in the flame.”

“Don’t reach in there and grab it,” Alicia warns. She holds the bag out towards him. “Grab another.”

“But it was almost perfect.”

“It was almost perfect, dear,” Bob says and Alicia waves a hand at him before throwing the bag at Shitty and Bittle laughs again.

“Do you want one?” Bittle’s fingertips press into the soft skin of Jack’s forearm and Jack has just enough sense to shake his head no before Bittle stands and grabs a marshmallow stick from Holster. Three minutes later he’s watching Bittle lick sugar off his fingers out of the corner of his eye.

Alicia twirls the stem of her wine glass between her fingers until Bob reaches over for her hand. The group starts to thin out when Bob puts the last piece of wood on the fire It’s late, and they’re spending tomorrow on the lake. Bob’s a little tipsy from wine when he follows Ransom and Holster into the house and Shitty leaves ten minutes later after shoving five marshmallows into his mouth for the road.

Bittle is slumped over in the chair using the hood of his sweatshirt as a pillow when Lardo stands and calls it a night.

She nods at Bittle with her arms stretched over her head. “Want me to take him?”

“He’s asleep.”

“M’not asleep,” Bittle says, just barely raising his head off the arm of the chair. He blinks up at Jack, slow and sleepy, and Jack shoves his hands under his thighs to stop himself from smoothing out the lines his sweatshirt’s made against his cheek. “I’m just napping.”

“You can nap inside in a bed,” Lardo says as she grabs his arm and hauls him up. He stumbles over his feet and Lardo steadies him before Jack can dart an arm out. “C’mon Bits, you gotta rest up for tomorrow. There are jet skis.”

“I’ve never been on a jet ski.”

Bittle hugs Alicia goodnight and gives Jack a wave before following Lardo into the house. Alicia waits until the door closes behind them before she clears her throat. The invitation is there. If he wants to talk about it he can.

“Please don’t tell anyone.”

Alicia puts her empty glass on one of the low wooden side tables and moves to the chair next to his.

“Honey, I would never.”

“Not even dad?”

She’s quiet.

“You already told him.”

“He already knew.”

Jack drops his head into his hands. “How?”

“We’re your parents. You talked about him an awful lot when he first joined the team.”

“I was terrible to him. How could you ever think that I liked him?”

“He got under your skin, that was obvious, but after a while the way you started talking about him...it was obvious there was more there. For what it’s worth, I don’t think anyone else knows. I don’t think Eric has a clue.”

“Good.”

“Jack.”

“I won’t feel this way forever,” he says confidently. “I’ll get over it. It’ll go away. Won’t it?”

“Honey.”

“I need some space. After this weekend I probably won’t see him for months. That’ll give me some time.”

Alicia presses her lips together in a thin line. There’s pain and worry all over her face and Jack almost wants to laugh because it can’t even be close to what he feels.

He knows the story of his parents by heart. Everyone does. Everyone got to watch it happen.

How they met and fell in love and how his father won Stanley Cups and his mother won awards and everything was so perfect. It’s a life he can’t live up to. He was never going to. It never mattered who he fell in love with.

Jack stands and rubs his palms against his jeans. “I’ll be fine,” he tells her, but he knows she’ll never believe it.

They go to the lake early the following morning. Shitty’s holding an open can of beer as he helps Bob back the trailer up to the edge of the lake. Bittle’s standing at the end of the dock in shorts and a thin hooded sweatshirt. There’s mist coming off the water and the rising sun is painting a red streak across his blond hair.

He can’t look away. He’s not going to be fine.

*

The guys hug him goodbye in the morning. They have a plane to catch and Lardo has to peel Shitty off of him so everyone else can get a turn.

Bittle goes last. He stands on his toes and Jack bends his knees and Bittle wraps his arms around his neck and Jack wraps his around his waist. Jack closes his eyes and takes a deep breath and then Bittle starts to fall away.

It’s like he’s saying goodbye to him after graduation all over again.

“Well,” Bittle breathes, slowly his hands from where they’ve slid down Jack’s arms. “Thank you for inviting me up.”

“Anytime. You can come up anytime.”

Bittle laughs. “Oh yeah? Come crash at your parents place whenever I want?”

“I’m sure they’d love it.”

“Something to think about,” Bitty says and then Holster is calling him to the cab, hanging halfway out of the van's passenger side window. Lardo’s threatening to take the seat for herself if he doesn’t buckle up. “I gotta go or they’ll leave me.” There are worse things, Jack thinks but he takes a step back so his mother and father can swoop in. Bittle hugs them both, though not as long as he hugged Jack, and then waves as he turns to the cab. He closes the door behind him and the cab pulls off.

They’re halfway down the driveway when Holster’s torso leans out the window so he can wave goodbye. Someone drags him back in. Bob laughs and Alicia puts her hand on her sons back and Jack watches Bittle go for a second time.

*

Alexei “Tater” Mashkov is two years older than Jack, but he has boundless energy that seems to exhaust even the 18 year old rookies. He immediately takes Jack under his wing. Literally.

Sebastien St. Martin and Randall Robinson have the A’s and the seniority, but Tater is the first one to seek him out after the first hand shake and tour of the arena.

Tater makes sure there’s a place next to him at breakfast and sits next to him on the bench. “Zimmboni,” Tater says to him one afternoon after practice.

“It's Zimmermann.”

“No,” Tater says through a wide smile. “Is Zimmboni.”

*

Jack’s first point in his NHL career is an assist in their season opener. Tater slams him back into the boards and yells in his ear and his helmet gets pushed down from everyone batting at it. When he skates to the bench the crowd is still cheering. He feels good.

In the locker room after the game, Marty hands him the puck. It’s carefully wrapped around the edges in white tape with the date written on it. “Start of your collection,” he says as he drags Jack into a hug.

Back at his apartment, he sends a photo of the puck to the group chat, which already has fifty unread messages he’ll need to get through, and to his parents.

He ignores the fifteen that pop up from the team and answers the two from his parents.

We’re so proud of you.

You played so well.

Maybe I’ll get a goal next time, he sends back.

It’ll happen when it happens. No matter when we’re still proud of you.

The group chat isn’t quite as poetic.It’s more exclamation points and swears and Shitty proclaiming that he’s ready to have Jack’s babies.

Holster: You better build a shrine to that puck.

Jack: I was just going to throw it in a drawer.

Lardo: Dude, I’ve already sketched out a shadow box for you. What colors are in your apartment so I know it won’t clash.

Holster: Boring and basic. Those are the colors.

Jack: You haven’t even seen it yet.

Holster: Don’t need to. I know it’s boring.

The chat dissolves from there and Jack’s about to get up to make himself something to eat before bed when he gets a text from Bittle off the group chat.

Congratulations!!!! You looked so happy out there.

I am.

:)

Jack looks down at the emoji as more texts from the guys come in. He feels like he’s back on the ice with the sound of thousands of people roaring in his ears.

*

He gets his first goal the following week and his first game winner four days after that. Lardo’s shadowbox comes in the mail that same week.

Had to dumpster dive for the metal, her notes says, tried to make it as boring as possible to fit your decor. Fill it up and I’ll make you another. Love you.

Jack hangs the box on the wall leading into the kitchen and drops the pucks in. They line up neatly on the bottom with space for one more. He keeps the note as a bookmark.

*

He takes his hot streak on the road with him, racking up three points against the Flyers, one against the Devils, and two against the Rangers. They’re not leaving New York until the morning so Jack follows along with the majority of the team to a bar.

Jack sits at a crowded table and has one beer and one shot. He listens to Snowy talk about what it was like to play on the west coast for the first years of his career and looks at pictures and videos of Thirdy’s daughter until Marty says he’s calling it a night.Half the table gets up to leave and Jack follows. Tater disappeared into the fray almost as soon as they stepped foot in the bar but halfway to the door he knocks into Jack.

“You’re going back to hotel with the old guys and the marrieds?” Tater throws one long arm around his shoulders and crushes him against his chest. He’s obviously had a few drinks in and feeling good.

Jack remembers that feeling, but doesn’t remember what comes next. That’s the problem.

“I’m an old guy.”

“No, you just act like one. Stay with me and celebrate. Drink, dance, celebrate.”

“I don’t really drink.”

“Then dance and celebrate. C’mon.” He jostles him and points him in the direction of the bar which is lined with pretty women. “Should relax.”

“I don’t really-.”

“You coming back with us, Zimmermann?” Thirdy asks, “I think Marty has a cab waiting.”

Jack knows an out when he sees it and he’s not about to let it pass him by. He ducks backwards out of Tater’s hold.

“I’m kind of tired.”

“Big night, kid, you should be.”

Tater opens his mouth to object to his leaving, but Thirdy is quicker. He gets a hand on Tater’s elbow and says something, too quiet in the loud bar for Jack to hear, before he’s letting go and nodding towards the exit behind him.

“Let’s go. Don’t want to keep the old man waiting.”

Jack falls into step beside him. “Aren’t you only a few months younger than him?”

Thirdy is quiet for a few steps before he mumbles “shut up” and Jack laughs.

*

Tater opens the door two hours later alone and far more sober than Jack was expecting him to be. He puts his wallet on the nightstand between the beds and wipes his palms on his jeans. Jack takes one headphone out of his ear and waits.

“I….um….apologize.”

Jack pauses Netflix and takes the other earbud out.

“I know what happened to you before. You know, before you play here and school. I know about that but maybe I forget. I can get carried away sometimes after a win. Want to have fun. Want everyone else to have fun. Maybe not all fun is same. Thirdy reminded me. I think I made you uncomfortable-.”

“No, Tater, it’s not that,” Jack interrupts, “you didn’t make me uncomfortable.”

“Think I did, though..”

“You didn’t. Really. I went to college. You should have seen the parties that my teammates threw at our house. One of them went for days.”

Tater’s eyes light up. Jack will have to tell him all about it at some point.

“Sometimes I joined in but sometimes-.”

“Sometimes you go back to room like old married guy.”

Jack laughs softly. “Yeah. Sometimes.”

“Maybe sometimes come out with me. Maybe somewhere more quiet?”

“Yeah,” Jack says, “that would be nice.”

Tater smiles and points to his laptop. “What you watching?”

“30 Rock. One of my old teammates was constantly on me to watch it so I figured I should start. It’s about-.”

“Liz Lemon. Tina Fey. I know, I know. When I first come over I watch a lot of American television to help learn English. The Office is good but 30 Rock was favorite. Haven’t seen it in a long time.”

“Oh. Do you want to….”

Jack doesn't need to finish the sentence. Tater climbs onto the bed and Jack narrowly misses an elbow to the side of the face as he tries to get comfortable.

“Did this really help you learn?” Jack asks right before hitting play.

“Yeah. Lot of help. Still need some help sometimes but doing better than I was.”

“I think you’re doing great.”

Tater shrugs. “Guy says I’m hard to understand when I talk too fast.”

“You could say the same about Guy.”

Tater laughs then mumbles a few words that almost exactly match Guy’s gruff voice and Jack laughs too. It clearly delights him. “You know I’m here for ten years and no one learn any Russian. Dirty words, dirty jokes, chirps, yes, I teach. Get nothing back.” He shrugs and settles in and it feels familiar. Like it’s Shitty lying next to him instead.

*

“I'm sorry about all those times I made fun of you when you were trying to learn French.”

There’s a pause and then the sound of a spoon tapping against a bowl before Bittle speaks.

“Apology accepted, but what brought this on?”

“I guess I'm learning Russian.”

“That's…..interesting.”

“It's for Tater.”

“You're learning Russian for your teammate? That's adorable.”

“We were talking last night and he said that no one really learned any Russian, but he’s tried so hard with English.” Jack flips through the pages in the Russian phrase book. “The least I can do is pick up a few words.”

“Adorable,” Bittle says. Jack huffs into the phone and runs a hand through his hair, grateful that Bitty can’t see the red in his cheeks. “You know I spent years with Katya but she would only yell at me in Russian and I learned to block that out. How is it going?”

“I don’t know why, but I thought it would be easier than it is”

“Nothing is ever as easy as you think it's going to be.”

God, does Jack know.

“Anyways, I'm trying to make this dumb pound cake right now, but it's just not turning out right. I've made it four times already and each one is worse than the last. Holster and Nursey are fighting over the rejects, but I can't understand why.”

“Because it probably tastes perfect and you're being too hard on yourself.”

“You’re not here to try it so you’re just going to have to take my word for it. It’s awful.”

“Ya lyublyu tebya,” he says. It’s one of the first phrases he learned. I love you. It won’t come in handy out on the ice but at least he can’t say that he never said it.

“What does that mean?”

“How much does the coffee cost?”

Bitty bursts out laughing. “Does not.”

“Yes it does. I swear it.” A lie to protect yourself can’t be held against you.

“That’s going to be really useful during a game,” Bittle says dryly. “Say it again.”

Jack repeats it. He means it.

*

After a week Jack can successfully say three things in Russian with a semi-decent accent.

Nice pass.

Good goal.

Where is the bathroom.

He says the first two, slow and careful, after practice. Tater’s eyes go wide and for the first time since they were introduced he's quiet. Then the dam breaks and he's throwing both arms around him.

“Didn't tell me you speak Russian!” There's a long string of words coming out of his mouth that sound familiar but he can't understand.

“No, no, no, I don't-I don't really know what much. That's basically all I know but-”

“You learn for me?”

“Well-”

“Zimmboni!”

Jack's almost knocked off his feet by the force for the hug and Poots laughs as he walks by. “Get a room you two.”

“Oh, like you wouldn't,” Snowy says. He taps his stick against the back of Taters legs to get him to move out of the way then pats Jack on the face. “He's beautiful.”

“Yeah,” Poots yells from down the hall. “It would be an honor.”

Tater wraps one arm around Jack and swats at Snowy with the other.

“And what am I? Chopped kidney?”

“It's chopped liver, Tates,” Snowy yells over his shoulder. “I know you fucking know that.”

Jack follows after them with a smile on his face.

*

He feels restless in Arizona. They lose to the Coyotes in a game they should have won handily and Jack feels too big for his skin.

They’re playing Vegas in a little over a month and reporters are already asking him about it. They don't take “I’m just trying to focus on the next game” as an answer.

He’s quiet as he follows the rest of the team out of the hotel and down the street, but his head is flooded with thoughts about what he has to do to be better, to play better.He’s not paying attention and walks right into the back of Guy, who has stopped at the door so some of the younger kids can flash their ID’s at the bouncer out front. Guy brushes off his apology and Snowy bumps his shoulder against Jack’s. “Are you looking to pick up tonight?” he asks as the bouncer waves them through.

It’s the same question he always asks when Jack decides to go out. It’s mostly a joke at this point, one that they’re both in on. Jack will laugh and shake his head and Snowy will roll his eyes and playfully punch his arm and they’ll both move on. But tonight, he is restless. There’s a guy standing at the bar giving the bartender an appreciative once over. “Maybe,” Jack says and Snowy does his best to school his shocked expression and pats him on the back.

It’s easy to wait his turn at the bar. It’s even easier to catch the eye of the guy leaning against the bar. He’s tall and broad and not his type at all but when he steps close to him Jack lets his arm rest on the bar. The guy looks at him and smiles, small but interested, and brings his arm up next to Jack’s at the bar. Jack’s skin feels like it’s on fire where they touch.

It’s too hot out for this.They say Arizona is a dry heat, but everything feels humid and sticky when the guy presses Jack against the brick in the alley. Aaron. His name is Aaron. He leans into Jack and says it into his ear. It was the only way for him to be heard, and when he pulls back Jack can’t look away from his mouth.

Jack never gave him his name. He’s not going to. No names, no numbers, nothing more than this - making out with a stranger whose thigh is jammed between his own and is pressing up and up. Jack pants against Aaron’s neck as his hips roll and he can feel the curve of a smile on his lips where they press against Jack’s collar bone.

“Fuck,” Jack whispers as his phone buzzes in his back pocket. It could be anyone. It could be no one. But it buzzes and buzzes and buzzes and alarm bells ring in his head as he slowly untangles his limbs from Aaron’s. His hands were up his shirt and he settles them against the waistband of his jeans and pushes.

“I’m not going to tell anyone.”

Jack pushes him back a little further. “What?”

“About. You know.” He waves his hands back and forth between them. “About this. You. I mean, I’m not out at work or anything and my boss is a total douche and I don’t know if I wanna tempt fate, you know?”

“You know who I am?”

“This is a sports bar,” he says slowly, like he thinks Jack’s stupid. He’s probably right.

Jack shakes his head then drops his hands to his knees. “Fuck.”

“If you want to head back to my place we can. We can take separate cars.”

“No.” Jack shakes his head and pulls his phone out of his back pocket. It starts ringing as he’s holding it. It’s Bittle. All the missed calls are Bittle and Jack feels like he throw up the vodka he drank inside. “No, we’re not doing this. Sorry.”

“No problem, man. Don’t worry about it. If you ever find yourself in Phoenix again….”

Jack waves him off and calls Bittle back. He has the phone pressed to his ear as Aaron throws the side door open and steps back inside.

“Jack, hi!” Bittle’s voice in his ear is loud and sweet. The slur of it is sobering. “Hold on a sec, okay?” There’s music blaring in the background, but soon it starts to fade.

“Bittle. Is everything alright? Are you okay?”

“What? Yeah, of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be? Why, what’s wrong?”

You called me. A lot.”

“Oh. Oh gosh. I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t interrupt anything.”

Jack sits down on the bench outside the bar and rubs his palm against his knee. Not even five minutes ago that hand was trying to get Aaron’s pants unbuttoned. He closes his eyes and shakes his head.

“No, nothing. What’s up?”

“Well.” There’s a swell of laughter and clapping above the music. “Sorry. Boys are kind of wild tonight. You know it was our season opener?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.”

“Oh honey, don’t even worry about it. You had a game, that’s so exciting and I’m so sorry you didn’t win but you played great. Three point night, that’s just….”

“Bittle.”

“Right. Well, we won.”

Jack lights up. He doesn’t even care that Bittle can’t see it. “That’s great. That’s why you’re having a kegster?”

“Yeah, well, that’s part of it. The other reason is that I kind of checked someone.”

Jack stands then sits back down again and laughs into the phone. “Bittle, that’s amazing.”

“It really wasn’t a big deal.”

“It was.”

“I barely tapped the guy. It was a nudge. It was…”

“It was amazing.”

“You didn’t even see it.”

“I don’t need to,” he says loud enough for people walking on the street to stare at him. He doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t care. “You checked someone.”

“I bumped someone.”

“Same thing. This is a big deal, Bits.”

“Is it?”

Jack can hear the shy smile in his voice. “Yes. I’m so proud of you.”

“Oh. That’s-”

“Yo Bits.” Jack can tell it’s Ransom and can hear someone banging on a door. He’d bet Holster.

“Hold on, Jack.”

It’s muffled, but he can hear Bittle explain that he’s on the phone and after a scuffle where it sounds like the phone ends up on the floor Holster starts yelling at him.

“Jack! What the fuck man. What the fuck was with that high stick call on Mashkov at the end there. What the fuck? No fucking way that was a high stick. High stick my ass.”

“Jack!” Ransom yells and Jack misses them so much that he presses the phone harder to his ear. If he shuts his eyes it’s like he’s right there with him. “Jack, you know I love you and always want to hear from you but you’re being a real cockblock right now.”

All the air leaves Jack’s body. All the warm happy thoughts are gone. “He called me,” he says weakly.

“Ransom, give me the phone back right now.”

“Bits, that dude was a sure thing.”

“I don’t care.”

“He was totally into you and I look up and you’re going up the stairs. Alone. What the hell? It’s your night.”

“And I’ll spend it how I want to. Give me the phone.”

“I’m just saying- ow! Bitty. Jeez, you check one dude and now you think you can manhandle me out of your room….alright, fine.”

“Better luck next time, Jack. Fuck that high stick.”

“Sorry,” Bittle says, “I’m so sorry. They’re just…”

“You can go if you want.”

“No, no. They’re just trying to set me up with some guy I don’t even know. I guess it’s never too early to find me a date for Winter Screw.”

“Oh.”

“But I’d rather be talking to you. Did the team go out for dinner? What time is it there? How’s the weather? It’s supposed to dip into the fifties tomorrow morning. I'm sorry. That's a ton of questions.”

“I miss you,” he blurts out and Bittle takes a sharp breath. All of you guys is what he should say. He misses the Haus and Samwell and sharing a bathroom with Shitty but he lets the truth hang there and waits.

“I miss you, too. A lot.”

I miss you all the time

“You're having fun, right? You love what you're doing.”

“I love hockey,” Jack says like it's the most obvious thing in the world.

“I know you do. Lord. I'm never going to love anything as much as you love hockey.”

“It's my life. It always has been.”

“I'm sorry hun, but you don't sound very happy about that right now.”

“It's not everything. It shouldn't be. I've missed out on a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

Like you. Us. “I think I’m still figuring that out.”

*

The next morning Marty sits next to him on the bus to the airport. The surprise Jack feels must be written all over his face because Marty freezes halfway out of the seat.

“Is it okay if I sit here?”

“Yeah.” Jack grabs his bag off the seat and Marty sits. “You usually sit with Thirdy.” He cranes his neck to look at Thirdy, two rows back. He’s untangling his headphones. “I thought it was some kind of tradition or something.”

“Old guys gotta stick together?”

“Something like that.”

Marty laughs as the bus pulls away from the curb and doesn’t talk again until it’s on the ramp getting on the highway.

“I heard you went out with the boys last night. You usually don’t go out after a game.”

“I needed to get my mind off of it.”

“Yeah,” Marty sighs. “Fuck that ref.”

Jack laughs and starts to dig through his bag for his book. It’s at least forty minutes to the airport.

“Did you have fun?”

Jack freezes and panics. No one saw. No one knows. At least he doesn’t think.

“I heard you didn’t come back with the group. Wanted to make sure everything was okay.”

Jack’s fingers close around his book and he sits up in his seat. No one is paying attention to them. They’re caught up in their own conversations or reading or listening to music. “Came back early. I got a call from one of my old teammates and talked to him for awhile.”

“Everything alright? It must have been late there.”

“It was but...you know...college,” he says with a shrug. “It was their season opener and he checked someone.”

Marty looks like he’s still waiting for the rest of the story.

“I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal but it really is for him. He’s had a hard time with some of the physical aspects - he’s so fast and has great sight out there, but you should’ve seen him when he first started. You’d look at him for too long and he’d go down and he worked so hard to get better and he fought through the setbacks and he never gave up.” He takes a deep breath at the end of his ramble and looks sideways at Marty. He’s looking back at him and smiling. “What?”

“You seem happy, is all.”

“I am. I happy for him. He deserves this.”

“Tell him congratulations for me. He sounds like a good kid.”

“He is. He’s just…” Jack trails off before he says something stupid, like the truth. Marty is still watching him with a smile.

“You should invite him to one of our games. He could sit in a box, come back and meet the team, tell us stories about you.”

“I’d bet he’d love that.”

*

It takes him five more home games before Jack works up the nerve to ask Bittle to come to a game, and even then he sends the invite through the group chat.

Ransom: Good seats though right?

Shitty: Of course good seats. He's Jack fucking Zimmermann. Leading scorer.

Lardo: He's gonna stick us in the nosebleeds I can feel it.

Jack: Haha. No nosebleeds. Who's going?

Holster: All of us.

Jack: How many are all of us? I need a number.

Bittle: 9. Whiskey says he has plans…..

Bittle: That seems like a lot. Is that too many?

Jack: The box holds a lot of people so no.

Ransom: THE BOX.

Holster: Way to bury the fucking lead Zimmermann.

The game is a disaster.

Jack takes a stupid penalty 6 minutes in which leads to a power play goal and they never recover. They lose 4-1 and Marty slaps him on the back on their way down the tunnel and tells him they'll do better next time. Bittle's not going to be here next time.

Reporters crowd around him immediately and he answers their questions in succinct and rehearsed sound bites.

We had good chances, they just didn't go in.

I thought our defense was strong especially in the second but we still have some things to work on.

We have to make sure we learn from this but we can't let it get us down. We have to do better next time.

“Heard you had some friends in the crowd tonight.” Snowy says as he leans against his stall.

“Yeah,” he says flatly as he readjusts the cap on his head. “Too bad I couldn't have given them a better show.”

Everyone is waiting for him in the hall and there's a beat of awkward silence before Shitty throws his body into him.

“You looked beautiful, my man. Like, physically. You were the most handsome man out there. That's gotta count for something.”

“Thanks, Shits.”

“Ah, Zimmboni’s friends!” Tater steps out of the locker room with damp hair and his bag thrown over his shoulder. “Hungry? We’ll go eat.”

“All of us?”

“All of us.” Thirdy and Guy come out of the locker room and Tater raises his voice. “Well, maybe not old guys but…”

“Fuck you, Mashkov.”

“You going out?” Thirdy asks Jack and Tater answers for him.

“Yes, with all his friends too. Have to find a restaurant that'll fit all of us.”

“Just have Zimmermann drop his name or smile at the hostess.”

“Zimmboni smile? Only smiles when he's on the ice. Sometimes. Or texting. Always texting and smiling and smiling and texting. Who you texting?”

Jack abruptly changes the subject. “We should go if we're going to find a place.”

“I need a place with the biggest piece of chocolate cake you've ever seen. I'm gonna eat it all then take a piece home with me and eat that too.”

Guy shoulders Thirdy out of the doorway. “What makes you think you deserve that?”

“I don't. It's my shame cake, let me have it.”

He'll get that way eventually. He'll be able to joke around after a loss. For now he’s sullen as he follows his teammates, old and new, down the hall. He and Bittle are a few steps behind Marty when Bittle puts his hand on his arm.

“Jack, we don't have to go out if you don't want to. We don't even have to stay if you don't want us to...if you'd rather be alone we'd understand.”

“No. We made plans. We're going”, he replies roughly. He says it like a command and the worried grimace on Bittle's face drops all the way down to a worried frown.

“Sorry, Bits. I just think it's better if I have something else to focus on. Plus I want you to stay. I want you guys to stay,” he adds quickly and Bittle nods, looking a little better. “How many pies did you bring?”

“There are five in the car.”

Jack laughs and throws his arm around his shoulders.

*

Tater uses his name and personality to get them a table at the restaurant. They’re a large group and heads turn as they walk to their table. He knows at least a few people have recognized them by the way they drop their heads and whisper to each other. Jack removes his hand from Bittle's back and drops it to his side. Bittle and Lardo slide into the booth first and Tater follows after. His knees knock the table causing the silverware to rattle.

“Maybe you should sit in one of the chairs,” Jack suggests but Thirdy is already shoving Tater’s shoulder and pushing him further into the booth and Guy is behind him.

“Too late,” Thirdy says, “keep it moving.”

“Tight squeeze.” Tater bumps his shoulder against Bittle and then drapes his arm over the back of the booth. Bittle is pressed against his side out of necessity and all Jack wants to do is switch seats with Tater. Cup his palm over the bend of Bittle's shoulder and tuck him closer against him. Bittle smiles at Tater, a little nervous and Tater smiles back, wide and warm and completely comfortable in all the ways Jack could never be.

“Tight squeeze, but we make it work.”

“You’re going to have to make it work a little further to your left because you’re squishing me against the wall,” Lardo says and pushes hard enough to shift everyone in the booth to the left a few inches. The guys looks impressed as she creates enough space to comfortably extend her elbows on the table.

Tater starts a conversation with Ransom, but keeps his arm along the top of the booth and Jack forces himself to look down at his menu.

“How’s your season going?” Marty asks Bittle. “Jack told me about your home opener, said you gave a pretty big hit.”

“Oh god no.” Bittle’s cheeks color to a soft pink. “It was a bump. I barely even grazed him.”

“I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Jack was so excited about it.”

“Jack didn’t see it.”

“I didn’t need to. I know it was amazing.”

Their little corner of the table goes quiet as Bittle’s cheeks and the bridge of his nose flush darker and Jack looks back down at the menu even though he already knows what he wants.

Lardo clears her throat and Bittle says a soft “thank you, Jack,” before Tater announces that he’s ordering wine for the whole table.

The conversation swings wildly. Everyone's a little loose with the wine and they go from talking about Providence to Harvard to art classes to Winter Screw.

“What’s Winster Screw?” Snowy asks as he pours a little more wine into his glass.

“It’s just a dance,” Lardo tells him.

Holster slams a hand on the table. “Oh Bits, shit, that’s reminds me. Rans and I found you the perfect date.”

“No. No. Absolutely not. I am not doing this again. Not after last year and not after freshman year.” He shudders.

“What happened freshman year?”

“My date threw up on my shoes.”

“She threw up on your shoes?”

“He.” Bitty’s eyes go wide when he realizes what he’s said.

A hush falls over the table before Poots speaks.“So.” He draws the word out like he’s obviously waiting for the rest of the story. “What was wrong with the guy from last year?”

Bitty stares at his wine glass and Ransom keeps one eye on him as he answers. “There was nothing wrong with Rugby Guy.”

“Rugby. That’s a good sport,” Tater says. “Tough.”

“It’s okay,” Shitty says. “Mad respect that those bros don’t even wear a helmet but it’s just okay. At least he wasn’t a lax bro.”

“Lacrosse,” Jack says when Tater looks towards him. Jack doesn’t take his eyes off Bitty, who has the rim of his wine glass resting against his bottom lip. He looks a little shellshocked.

“That’s the one with the sticks with the little nets in them?”

“Yeah. Bunch of douchebags on campus.”

Holster ignores them and yells across the table. “We’re mixing it up this year. He’s a film student. Lardo has already approved.”

“He is really nice, Bits.”

“I’m sure he is,” Bitty says softly as he takes a sip of wine.

A few seats down Thirdy clears his throat and starts to talk about the dessert menu. “Fuck that,” Shitty says. “Anything you get here is going to be shit compared to Bitty’s pies. They’re legendary.”

Shitty tells the story about the pies appearing out of nowhere during Bittle’s Taddy Tour and Ransom almost cries when talking about the strawberry rhubarb pie he made with the crumb topping that cured his hangover almost immediately.

Bitty flips through the menu and answers questions with a nod or a shake of his head. Jack tries to get his attention with his toes against his shin beneath the table but he gets Tater instead.

“Ah, Zimmboni, why you kick?”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“Big feet,” Tater laughs, “clown feet. Keep them to yourself.”

He leans into Bitty and tries to get him to smile. Bitty gives him the weakest one Jack has ever seen and keeps looking down at the menu. Bittle’s quiet for the rest of dinner, only talking to Lardo and assuring the waitress that his meal was delicious.

“My treat,” Marty says when the bill comes.

Tater plucks it out of his hand. “Was my idea. I pay.”

“They're my friends,” Jack says.

“You know we can pay for ourselves,” Lardo adds and everyone shoots her down.

*

Jack doesn’t explicitly invite the whole group back to his place to eat pie in his living room, but that’s what happens. He sits on the floor with his back against the couch as he takes his last bite of pie. Shitty’s knees press against his back and Lardo keeps kicking his shoulder as she tucks her feet beneath her. Ransom is talking to Tater, who, for the first time, isn't able to get a word out over Ransom’s compliments. Holster is trying and failing to make Guy laugh at one of his kegster stories, Marty and Thirdy are talking to the Frogs and Bittle is….

Bittle is in the kitchen and Jack doesn’t know why he’s surprised. He’s known Bittle for over two years and while there are dozens of words he associates with him the ones that stand out the most are berries, sugar, flour, warm, and kitchen. Bittle is elbow deep in water and scrubbing at a stubborn spot of blueberry filling.

“You don’t have to do that, Bittle.”

“This is an entire hockey team and a half worth of dishes, Jack. What kind of guest would I be if I just left them for you do deal with?”

“I have a dishwasher, though. You don’t have to do it by hand.”

He sticks his hands back under the water and pulls out a fork. “It’s relaxing.”

“Then you can at least let me dry.”

“You really don’t have to, Jack.”

Jack puts his hand on his back. “Bits. Just let me.”

Bitty heaves a sigh, but passes dishtowel and the fork to him.

There’s laughter coming from the living room followed by a loud ow and even more laughter. The kitchen is silent except for the sound of running water as Bittle rinses and and clink of the plates and silverware as Jack sets them in the drying rack.

“Sorry if I made things awkward at dinner.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Talking about my screw date like that.”

“It’s okay, Bittle.”

“I came out to a bunch of professional hockey players tonight. Your teammates.”

“So?”

Bittle huffs and turns the hot water on full blast. “So. If that makes things awkward for you, I'm sorry.”

“It’s not awkward.”

“Not yet, maybe. I know how guys are. I know the environment.”

“It's not like that, not with these guys. I've never heard anything.” He's been listening for it. Expecting and preparing for it but he hasn't heard a word. Not from his team. “Even if I had...if someone ever had a problem with that or with you, you know I’d stand up for you.”

Bittle clucks his tongue and shakes his head and Jack puts the plates down on the counter so he can put a hand on his shoulder and turn him.

“God, I just…” He stops and presses his fingertips against his eyelids. They’re red from the hot water and Jack wants to wrap his fingers around Bittle’s wrists and pull them away, but he’s not sure how he’d handle the tears he’d see behind them. “I can’t believe I did that. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m getting way too comfortable. I’m just blurting things out.”

“You should be comfortable.”

Bittle drops his hands. His eyes are red rimmed and watery but he looks more sad than angry. “I know that, Jack,” he says sharply, “I know. But I can’t just say it whenever I want to. What if that happens when I go home?”

“Bittle.”

“You don’t get it. You don’t understand.”

A whisper has never seemed so loud.

“What happened tonight was the best case scenario of my worst nightmare. If I say something like that at home or in front of the wrong person I’ll-.” He stops to take a deep, shuddering breath and Jack takes one step and gathers him up.

If the worst happens, Jack thinks, I’d give you everything I have. I’d give it all back. Home, safety, family. Love. But it doesn’t mean much when Jack can’t actually say it.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” Bittle says into his chest before he twists away and covers his face with his hands. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Bits, you don’t have to be.”

He sniffles and Jack rubs his hand up and down his back.

“Bittle, listen.”

“Eric, I have to tell you - oh.” Marty’s standing in the entryway holding an empty plate. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Jack lifts his hand off his back and Bittle wipes at his eyes and slaps on a smile. “Oh no, you’re not interrupting a thing I’m just overwhelmed y’all like my pie so much.”

Marty looks at Jack over the top of Bittle’s head and Jack shakes his head once. Marty gets on with it.

“What’s not to like? I was just coming in here to ask if I could have seconds.”

“Seconds and thirds,” Bittle says brightly “I can send you home with some too or I can mail it to you?”

“For how much?”

Bittle shakes his head as he dishes out another slice onto the plate Marty is holding. “Don’t be silly, I couldn't charge you.”

“You really could. Double or triple what the rest of the bakeries charge and I’d still pay it.”

“You’re too sweet,” Bittle says as he steps away from Jack and slices another piece for Marty.

Marty smiles and digs in, saying “you should start charging for these, I mean it,” before he goes back into the living room.

“You’re teammates are too much,” Bittle says, forced and bright. “You should really get back out there before Shitty and the rest of them tell them every embarrassing story they’ve got on you.”

“Bittle.”

“I mean, I’m sure they’ve told the story about the geese by now but I’m sure there’s still time to stop them before they get to the quesadilla story.”

“Bits.” Jack touches his elbow and Bittle’s hands go still in the water. “Do you want to talk about it? Your date.”

“You don't want to hear about it. It's stupid.”

“It’s not stupid if it’s bothering you.”

Bittle heaves a giant sigh and pulls his hands out of the water. He grips them tight on the edge of the sink, knuckles going pale. “Freshman year was horrible and last year…”

“What did happen last year,” Jack interrupts, “I saw the guy and he was good looking and Ransom and Holster said he was nice.”

“He was. He was really nice and tall and athletic and cute and funny.”

“Okay,” Jack says, aiming for funny, “I think I get it.”

“He tried to kiss me at Annie’s. We went out for coffee the next day and he tried to kiss me and I couldn’t do it. I was too nervous. What if this guy tries to kiss me too?”

“If you're too nervous, don't kiss him. You should be comfortable. You don't ever have to kiss him. Or anyone else.”

“I definitely want to kiss someone,” Bittle mumbles and Jack take a slow, deep breath in through his nose.

“Then you should,” he says and Bittle looks up at him as Jack stumbles over the next few words. “If you have someone that you want to kiss then you should. Kiss them.”

Bittle blinks at him then laughs, sharp and loud. “Yeah. Okay, Jack. You say it like it’s so easy.”

He knows that it’s not.

“Come on,” Bittle says. “It’s rude to leave your guests unattended for too long.”Bittle passes in front of him and takes a deep breath before he plasters on a smile and rejoins the group.

Jack knows it’s not easy to get what you want. He’s living proof.

*

Poots is pulling little Jean around as Snowy skates by and taps him gently on the butt. Poots overcorrects and Jean takes a tumble that ends with him sliding on his belly. He's still smiling.

“Poots, you tripped my kid.”

“That wasn't me!”

“Not what I saw,” Tater says as he skates by. He has a kid tucked under both his arms.

“You can’t blame this on me.”

“Too late. Your fault.”

Poots gets Jean back on his feet as Marty slows to a stop next to Jack. He taps their skates together.“Having fun, kid?”

Jack nods. He’s still a little out of breath from chasing Guy’s ten year old twins around the ice.

“Maybe in a few years you’ll have a few of your own to chase around.”

He watches Thirdy’s little girl, Ella, in purple figure skates trying to teach him how to spin and thinks Bittle would fit here so well.

“I don’t know,” he says, shoulders up by his ears as he heaves a sigh. “I think I’d like to be married first.”

“Then get married.”

Jack laughs.

“Come on. You’re young, good looking, talented, funny when you’re not in front of a camera.”

“You sound like you want to marry me.”

“Hey,” he says as he points at the ring on his left hand. “Point is you must have plenty of people lining up for you.”

He’s always attracted the wrong type of attention. When he was a kid they were trying to get close to him because of his parents. When he was a teenager it was for what he was supposed to be - I partied with Jack Zimmermann before he was The Jack Zimmermann, and afterwards it was about what he never became. Yes, that Jack Zimmermann, you know the one. It’s made it hard for him to trust.

“Not really.”

“You don't have your eye on anyone? No one you’re thinking about?”

Jack shakes his head, slow and steady and keeps his eyes trained on the ice, like it’s a game and they’re headed into OT.

“Alright,” Marty says, voice soft as he bumps their shoulders together, “you still have plenty of time. You'll find someone.”

It's not until later when he’s eating dinner alone in his apartment that he realizes what Marty said. Or what he didn't say.

Plenty of people lining up for you.

Don't have your eye on anyone.

You'll find someone.

No girl, no women.

It probably doesn't mean anything.

*

They have a game on New Year’s Eve followed by a two day break, so Georgia invites them over after the game.He’s a little tired and a lot sore from a big hit, but he accepts the glass of champagne that’s given to him as soon as he walks through the door and snatches a few hors d’oeuvres off a tray when it passes. George waves to him from the kitchen before getting back into a conversation with a tall redhead. Thirdy and Carrie on are on the couch with Ella tucked between them. She’s bouncing excitedly and picking another chocolate covered strawberry up from the tray.

“Having fun?” Jack asks her as he sis down on the sectional across from them.

“I can stay up until midnight,” she answers around a mouthful of chocolate. “Mom said I could.”

Carrie wipes at Ella’s mouth with a napkin who tries her best to squirm away. “I said you could stay up if you could stay up.”

“The chocolate has to be helping.”

Thirdy hums. “I bet she’ll be asleep at 11:35.”

“Will not.”

“I’m guessing 11:08,” Carrie says. “Jack, you want in on this?”

“I think she’ll make it.”

Ella beams at him.

“He’s just trying to get on your good side, sweetheart.”

“I don’t care. I like him.”

“You’ve got a new fan, Jack,” Thirdy says and Jack leans towards Ella.

“We’ll have to get you one of my jerseys.”

Ella looks to Carrie for confirmation and Thirdy points a finger at Jack. “Watch it.”

Jack laughs, tension receding, as Tater pushes his way through the crowd and throws his body almost completely over the back of the couch so he can wrap his arms around him.

“Zimmboni! Come quick! Come tell them about fire extinguisher and party!”

Jack tries to unwind Taters arms from around his neck but he’s got a good hold. “No one wants to hear about that.”

“Everyone wants to,” he exclaims, tipsy and too loud in Jack’s ear. “I talk you up. All want to meet famous college guy Jack Zimmermann.”

Jack doesn’t want to get up. He likes being here on the couch where an eight year old is the center of attention. Tater shakes his shoulders and sticks his bottom lip out like it has any sort of affect on Jack whatsoever.It doesn't, but Jack stands and Tater yells and Thirdy pats him on the back on his way to the kitchen.

*

Jack is on his third glass of champagne when he wanders away from the party and into one of Georgia’s spare guestrooms. He takes another sip from the glass to make sure it’s low enough that it won’t spill and digs his phone out of his pocket.

Bittle answers with a question in his voice. “Jack?”

“Yeah. Yes. Hi.”

“Hi,” Bittle says back and there’s a long stretch of silence until Jack says “so….” and Bittle laughs. “You called me.”

“Right, sorry.” He tucks his phone against his ear and shoulder and picks up a framed photo of a beach that’s on the dresser. It’s nice. It’s not the angle that he would have taken it at but it’s nice. “I’m just.” He sets the picture down and takes another sip. “I have champagne.”

“Me too. Well. Sparkling wine. Same difference. Are you drunk?”

“It's just champagne.”

Bittle hums. “Where are you?”

“Georgia's house. She invited the whole team over after the game.”

“I saw that game. Congratulations on the win. You know my mama’s been watching them all. Coach has all the sports channels and she's just glued to the tv.”

“That's nice of her.”

“I think she has a major crush on Marty and Thirdy.”

Jack laughs.

“But she was talking about ordering your jersey.”

“I could send her one. I'll get them to sign it for her. I'll get the whole team to sign it.”

“She would die, Jack.”

“So don't do it?”

“No, gosh, Jack, do it. She'd be thrilled. Probably wear it all over town and tell everyone she sees about how she's friends with these handsome NHL stars.”

“You think we're handsome?”

“I know you're handsome.”

It throws him. He feels terribly off kilter and doesn't know why. It's not has if he ever had the upper hand.

“What are you doing right now? If you're at some party and I interrupted you-”

“No, no. It's just me and mama watching Ryan Seacrest. Coach went to bed hours ago. Quiet night.”

Jack leans his elbows back on the bed and looks out the window. The moon is visible in the top right corner. It's the same one that's looking down on Bittle in Madison.

“How was Winter Screw?”

“I….was there a segue for that?”

“No. Just wanted to ask. I've been wondering.”

“It was fine. You know, same as it always is.”

“How was your date?”

“He was fine.”

“Did he try and kiss you?”

“Jack Zimmermann.”

“Did he?”

Bittle takes a breath and Jack’s hand tightens around the glass. “Yes.”

He finishes the drink in one go.

“And….?”

“It wasn't what I expected. It wasn't as good as I thought it would be..”

“He just did it wrong.”

“Maybe it wasn't him.”

“Well it wasn't you.”

Bitty scoffs.

“How could it be you?” It's the champagne talking, he's sure. “You're so…”

“I'm what?”

“You're just. You're. You deserved to have a good first kiss.”

“I screwed that right up.”

“No. No one has to know. Between you and me that kiss never happened. Your next kiss will be your first kiss. It'll be better.”

“If you say so.”

“I know so.”

“Are you a little drunk?”

“It's just three glasses of champagne.”

“So yes.”

Jack doesn’t feel drunk at all when he says “I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

“I wish you were here.” He pats the space next to him. “Right here.”

“You are very drunk.”

“No. Maybe. Just a little. It doesn't matter. I still miss you.”

Bittle’s voice is soft when he says “okay, Jack.”

“No, listen, this is important, this is-” He stops suddenly, horrified at what was about to spill out of his mouth.

“Honey,” Bittle prompts and Jack makes a wounded noise. He’s heard Bittle say that countless times to dozens of different people, but hearing it now in the solitude of a spare bedroom while he’s feeling the way that he is just makes him feel helpless.

“Sorry.”

“No. It’s not you, you’re fine. I like it.” He heaves a huge sigh. “That’s the problem.”

“Jack-”

The door opens and Jack blinks his eyes against the light flooding in from the hall.

“Sorry, man,” Thirdy says as he stands in the doorway with Ella in his arms. “George said to pick any spareroom upstairs. I can find another.”

“No, it’s fine.” He slides over on the bed and Thirdy gently places her down.

“She didn’t make it?”

“Nope. Put up a good fight though.”

“I lost the bet.”

“Yeah, and I lost to Carrie. Been a rough night.” He smoothes the curls away from Ella’s face then looks at Jack. “You planning on taking a nap too or are you joining the party?”

“Guess I should get back to it.”

Thirdy waves at him and leaves the door open a crack on his way out.

Jack brings the phone back up to his ear and whispers “Bittle, you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m still here.”

“Sorry, Thirdy brought his daughter in, she fell asleep downstairs. She was trying really hard to stay up until midnight but-”

“Partied too hard.”

Jack laughs then slaps a hand over his mouth. Ella stirs, but only enough to clutch at the pillow under her head.

“Something like that. I should go.”

“I understand. I’ll talk to you later, okay? Switch to water and eat something. Get lots of sleep.”

“You sound like me last year.”

“Someone had to take over. Ransom and Holster are great captains, really, but that last kegster,” he whistles, “they needed a little help.”

“Practicing for when you’ll be captain?”

“Oh please, I don’t even want to think about that.”

“You wouldn’t want it?”

“Nobody would vote for me.”

“Everyone would vote for you. Who else would it be, Bits?”

“I don’t know. I just...I don’t want to think about it. Too much is changing too fast.”

“Yeah. I understand that.”

Something crashes downstairs and then Tater yells something above the crowd.

“I really gotta get going, Bits, sorry.”

“And I really gotta let you go. Have fun and I mean it, drink lots of water.”

“I will,” Jack says before they hang up.

He sighs heavily and scrubs his hands through his hair before he gets up to rejoin the party.

Tater throws an arm around him when he comes back down and he spends the next hour and a half glued to his side as he slips in and out of Russian with every glass of champagne he drinks.

Jack ducks out right before midnight and plasters himself to the wall as everyone counts down.

Ten

Nine

Eight

In Madison Bittle’s is probably still awake.

Seven

Six

Five

He could call him back and tell him the truth. A New Year's resolution coming to fruition not even thirty seconds in.

Four

Three

Two

His phone stays in his pocket.

“One!”

The couples around him kiss and he can’t escape Tater and Poots as they kiss each of his cheeks. Everyone laughs as he swipes at the wet spots they leave. Poots pats him on the back and Tater gives him a hug and says “Happy New Year, Zimmboni! Start fresh, yeah?” He is surrounded by people that care about him and he still wants more.

The following morning he only has a slight headache. He got a ride home from Marty and Carrie and managed to take some advil and drink two glasses of water before he passed out. He’ll survive. He’s been through worse. A quick shower and a breakfast loaded down with carbs will get him back to one hundred percent. He’ll skip his run today and call his parents instead.

He’s waiting for his whole wheat bread to pop out of the toaster when he finds his phone tucked behind the coffee maker.There are a few texts from his parents. A wish you were here from his mother and a blurry photo of fireworks from his father. The group chat is a mess that he can’t be bothered with right now and one single text from Bittle. Call me, please. If you ever need me. If he did that he’d never get off the phone.

*

You Can Play Night falls on a Thursday in early February. They hand out banners at the door and rainbow tape in the locker room.Tater delights in wrapping as much around his stick as he possibly can and shows it off to everyone.

“Pretty. We should use every night. Black and white, so boring. This much better.” He sits down next to Jack and digs an elbow into his side. “What you think?”

Jack nods. “Looks good, Tater,” and goes back to taping the blade of his stick with the new tape.

The ice is illuminated with different colors when they step onto it for warmups. People have signs pressed to the glass with pride flags on them. Jack feels a warm rush.

Jack has a quiet game so he’s free from taking questions post game. He strips off his gear and rubs a towel over his sweat damp hair and face and listens in to Tater’s interview three stalls away. They’re crowding him with their mics pressed in close, but he’s as comfortable as he always is, smiling and happy with his two goals and one assist. But that’s not what they want to talk about and one reporter jumps right in and starts questioning him about the abundance of pride tape on his stick and laws in Russia.

“Person is person, teammate is teammate. No big deal.”

“So you’re saying if you had a gay teammate you wouldn’t have a problem with it?”

“Problem? No, no problem. If anyone has problem with it they can come see me.”

“It’s important to show support,” Marty tells them. “This is a small step we take once a year, but we have to do more than this.”

“You don’t think this is enough?”

“No,” he says bluntly. “I think it’s something we have to work on everyday. You have to challenge the culture that goes along with sports. You have to challenge what you hear on the ice and in locker rooms. Not necessarily this locker room, but you know I’ve been around awhile.”

“How do you challenge that culture?”

“I think you need to be loud about it. Vocal. Let everyone know that everyone is respected and welcome and anything less than that won’t be tolerated. If they want to come out and share it with a teammate or the world or any number of people in between that’s up to them. At the end of the day, who you go home to isn’t any of our business. It’s important to remember that.”

Jack looks forward and stares at the opposite wall.

“Are you worried you might be upsetting some people by showing support so openly?”

“No. I think we have the best fans in the league. I think they’re good people that would agree with me. Anyone who doesn’t like me after this probably didn’t like me before so I’m not too worried.”

When Jack looks over, Marty is looking back at him through the throngs of reporters who are pocketing their recorders and phones and packing up. Jack stands up and heads to the showers.

Jack goes home and reheats the chicken that Bittle helped him make via skype. He could have done it on his own, he’s not helpless, but hearing Bittle laugh at him when he pretended he didn’t know how to chop an onion was so satisfying he couldn’t help it. He eats and showers again and changes into sweats and a t-shirt and paces the floor before he jams his feet into his shoes and grabs his keys and his coat off the hook by the door.

Marty lives just outside the city on a quiet little cul-de-sac. Jack’s only been here twice before at the beginning of the season, but he doesn’t need a GPS to find it. He parks behind Mary’s SUV and Gabby’s minivan and cuts the engine.

The porch light is on and there’s a small plastic children’s slide peaking out from the snow on the front yard. He had one just like that when he was little. The car doesn’t stay warm for long and he sticks his hands in his pockets to keep them warm and thinks about how this was a horrible mistake. One night, one soundbite, shouldn’t be enough to make this happen. He should go home and go to bed and feel better about his choices in the morning.

The front door opens and Marty steps out. He waves and when Jack doesn’t move he starts to come down the path towards the car. He taps on the window and Jack turns the key and rolls it down.

“Jack, I thought that was you. You been out here for long?”

“No. Just pulled in.”

“Really? Because Gabby asked me ten minutes ago if that was Jack Zimmermann parked in the driveway. You know you could have come in.”

“You could have come out.”

“That's true,” Marty says with an easy laugh. “I got out here eventually though so how about you come in?”

“I don't want to bother you.”

Marty squints at him then shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “Zimmermann, get out of the car. Now.”

He only has ten years on Jack, but he still sounds exactly like his father. It’s enough to make him unbuckle and hop out.

Gabby is waiting by the door when they walk in. Her hair is pulled up into a bun and she’s wearing pajamas and she immediately asks him if he’s had anything to eat.

“I can heat up some leftovers for you, we have plenty.”

“I’m fine. I ate.”

“Coffee?”

“I don’t want to be any trouble.”

She waves a hand at him. “You’re no trouble at all.”

“Gabby, I think we’ll be just fine,” Marty tells her, voice fond and warm, so different from the way he leaned into the ref hours earlier.

A moment of silent understanding passes between them and she leans in to kiss his cheek. Jack looks down at his shoes.

“I’ll leave you boys to it then.”

“I’ll be up soon.”

“You have a good night, Jack. Careful driving home, it’s supposed to ice up. You’re welcome to stay of course.”

He opens his mouth to assure her that he’ll be fine, but thanks her instead. It’s enough to placate her and she smiles at Marty before she turns up the stairs.

“Sorry, she’s a nurturer.”

Jack thinks of Bitty and his pies and sweaters during Hazeapalooza. “It’s okay. I know what’s that’s like.”

Marty raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t ask for clarification as he walks into the kitchen. There are a couple bottles drying in the sink and teething rings on the counter.

“I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

“We have a baby, Jack, we’re always up.”

Jack nods but doesn’t say anything.

Marty takes a careful step closer.

“Jack, is there something you want to talk about?”

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s nothing,” Marty parrots. “Nothing is why you drove all the way out to my house at 11:30 at night after a game?” He opens the fridge and tosses a bottle of water at him. “Do you want to try again?”

“I think you already know.”

“I don’t know anything you don’t want me to know. Or that you’re not ready for me to know.”

“How’d you figure it out?”

“I thought maybe there was something going on between you and Bitty. Or maybe you wanted there to be.”

“You call him Bitty?”

“That’s how he signs the notes that go with the pies that he sends us.”

Jack drops his head in his hands and laughs.

“Was I right?”

“There’s nothing going on between me and Bittle.”

“But you want there to be?”

He doesn’t see the point in lying. “Yes.”

“Okay,” Marty says, “are you going to tell him?”

Jack looks up. “No.”

Marty nods, but his expression is pinched. “Why not?”

“I can’t come out.”

“To everyone or to him?”

Jack’s not sure what to say, but it doesn’t matter because Marty continues on. “It’s your decision and it always will be, but hockey isn’t going to last forever.”

“I know that, I’ve thought about it. There’ll be time after I retire to figure all this out. It’ll be easier then. I won’t be in the public eye and there will be less pressure.”

Marty holds up a hand. “Okay, so you’ve thought about it. But have you thought about Bitty? Do you think he’s going to be single forever? Are you expecting him to wait for you when he doesn’t even know what he’s waiting for?”

“I don’t know.”

“He could tell you tomorrow that he’s met someone and that could be it. How would you handle that?”

“I want him to be happy.”

“You don’t think he could be happy with you?”

“Not like this, not when he’d have to be a secret. That’s not fair.”

“Neither is pining away for him and never getting a chance. That’s not fair to you.”

Jack crosses his arms over his chest and taps his foot against the floor. Marty’s face remains impassive as they stare each other down until finally Jack breaks with an eyeroll and a groan. “God, you really are a dad, aren’t you?”

“You’re my test run, kiddo,” he says with a kind smile. “What are you doing next week? You have any plans?”

“I was going to hang around.”

“C’mon, you can't do that. Come with us. We're island hopping and I think you'll like it. Warm water, no snow.”

“I don't really mind the snow.”

“Good company. We're not as boring as we seem.”

“You just want me to go so I can babysit some night.”

“I wouldn't turn you down if you offered, but that's not why I'm inviting you.”

“Thanks, it's nice of you, but I think I'm going to stay. Maybe head up to Boston and see Shitty. Shitty is the one-”

“I remember Shitty. It's hard to forget someone like Shitty.”

“Right.” Jack sighs and taps his fingers against the countertop, nervous habits he’s picked up over the years. “We’ll have fun. Shitty is always a good time.” Maybe he’ll help him take his mind off of everything, if that’s possible.

“As long as you have something to do, I’m happy. But if you ever need to talk about anything you’ll call me, right? Anytime. I promise I’ll pick up.”

Jack nods.

“And please, Jack, just think about what I said. You deserve to be happy.”

*

Jack doesn't call first. He just shows up at Shitty’s apartment door with a dufflebag full of clothes thrown over his shoulder.Shitty’s happy to see him. So happy that he throws his arms around him with enough force to knock him back against the far wall.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asks with his face still pressed to his shoulder but his legs slowly unwrapping themselves from his waist. “It’s your fucking bye week. You should be in Cabo or the Bahamas or some place that rich ass people vacation in. You should be in the fucking sun.”

“You know I never really liked the beach. Is it okay if I crash here?”

“Yeah, man, you’re welcome anytime.” He takes the bag off Jack’s shoulder and holds his door open for him. “I don’t know why you’d want to stay here, but you absolutely can. You should check into one of those big, fancy, hotels in the city. The ones with the king sized beds and the jacuzzi tubs and room service that’ll bring you lobster at three in the morning no questions asked.”

“I wanted to stay with you.”

“With a king sized bed we could share. You wouldn’t even know I was there.”

“You’d wind up spooning me.”

“Or you would wind up spooning me. Don’t act like all those times weren’t mutual. And beautiful. But you could check me into my own room. We could get adjoining rooms. We could get a damn suite. It’s time you used your money to treat yourself, Jack.”

“I kind of wanted to lay low.”

Shitty blinks. “Yeah man, I get it.” He drops the bag and spreads his arms out. “Welcome to my new home. Isn’t it great?”

Objectively, it’s not. It’s small and cramped and messy. It’s like he condensed the entire Haus into a one bedroom apartment. He could have more. His father and his shitty grandparents were so thrilled that he got into Harvard and actually decided to go they would have paid for one of those nice condos along the river, but Shitty’s never been one for handouts, especially from them, and he seems determined to make this hole in the wall an actual home.

There’s a Harvard mug on the counter and a Samwell banner pinned to the bedroom door. Jack’s flannel is tossed over the arm of the couch. He’d been wondering where that was.

“I’ve only got the one bed, but you can take it.”

“The couch is fine.”

“Uh, it’s really not. It’s basically on par with the one at the Haus. It looks a little better without all the stains but structurally speaking….you’re gonna fuck up your back.” He scoots Jack’s bag through the door with his foot. They’ll figure it out later.

Shitty claps his hands together and says, “you want to go get lunch?”

Shitty takes him to a small pizza place a five minute walk away. They stand at a counter facing the sidewalk and eat elbow to elbow with other customers. Jack keeps his red Samwell hat on even though no one gives him a second look.

He takes him to a second hand bookstore on campus and then to the library and they loop back around for coffee.

“You don’t have to entertain me,” Jack tells him as Shitty shakes another packet of sugar into his cup. “If you have work you need to be doing or other friends you want to meet with you can.”

Shitty snorts a laugh and grabs a coffee stirrer. “What friends? They’re all douchebags.”

“They can’t all be bad.”

“No, you know, maybe not all of them but most of them. Enough of them. Some of them can be kind of cool if you stick to the right topics of conversation, but you make one wrong turn and I kind of want to walk into the Charles with weighted shoes.” He tosses the stirrer in the trash and pops a lid on his cup. “I can put up with them for some group project or shit, but I really don’t ever want to talk to any of these people a second longer than I need to. You showing up out of the blue has been the best thing that’s happened to me since I got here.”

“I would have come sooner.”

“Nah, man, don’t worry about it. I’m an adult, technically, I should be able to get my own shit in order. I guess hating the people you see everyday is a part of that.” He eyes Jack. “Sometimes. You like the people you work with, right?”

“I love them.”

“Fuck you man,” Shitty says but he’s smiling and gently digging his elbow into Jack’s side. “I’m happy for you. You deserve that.”

“So do you.”

“I’ve got you and Lardo and the rest of guys. I’m alright. I’ll be alright.”

Jack pats his back and Shitty smiles.

*

They both sleep in on Saturday. Jack gets up at eleven and Shitty stumbles out of the bedroom a short while later when he smells the coffee that Jack has made.Shitty collapses on the couch and Jack runs out to a bakery a few blocks away that he read about online. He buys a dozen donuts and is working on his second when he gets back to the apartment.

“That can not be on your meal plan,” Shitty says with a raised brow as he reaches for a strawberry jelly filled one from the box.

“Bye week,” Jack answers.

There’s powdered sugar sticking to Shitty’s mustache when he grins up at him.

*

It rains on Sunday and turns to snow in the afternoon. Shitty presses his face against the window next to the kitchen table and complains about being hungry, but having no food until Jack can’t take it anymore and raids the fridge. He has plenty of food, it’s just not assembled. Shitty stands behind him with his chin hooked over his shoulder as Jack sears pork chops in a pan.

“Where’d you learn how to do this?”

“Here and there.”

His dad cooked as much as he could when he was able to and re-runs of Good Eats at 3 o’clock in the morning when he couldn’t sleep and prospect camps where he was surrounded with eighteen year old kids who had never lived on their own before.

“Bittle’s been helping me,” he says instead and Shitty hums.

“God, I fucking miss that kid.”

Jack clears his throat and shrugs Shitty off his back so he can put the pork chops in the oven so they can finish cooking. “Me too.”

“Did you ever fucking think that jittery kid would be all grown up and checking people and scoring? Word on the street is that the team is throwing their votes at him for captain.”

“I didn’t even think he’d make it through the first practice,” Jack mumbles as he sets the timer.

“Yeah, bro, I think we all fucking know that. You’re 90 percent of the reason it’s a miracle that he survived.”

This isn’t a joke.

Either get with the program or quit.

It was a lucky shot.

The guilt is going to stick with him forever.

“You want a salad with this?” Jack asks, eager to change the subject, and Shitty snorts and takes another long pull of beer when Jack opens the fridge.

“You think I have salad shit? What a fucking story arc that would make for Bits though, right?”

Shitty has half a bag of wilted lettuce and a tomato that’s starting to go too soft.

“You shouldn’t keep tomatoes in the fridge.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Bobby Flay. I think Bits would be the best captain. Well,” he winks at Jack. “Second best. What do you think? Don’t you think he deserves it?”

Jack sighs and pulls his head out of the fridge. He taps his fingers against the top of the door. “I think Bittle deserves to get everything he wants.”

Shitty frowns. “But do you think he’d be a good captain? And please don’t make me eat that slimy lettuce.”

Jack tosses the lettuce into the garbage with a sigh. “I think he’d be a great captain.”

Shitty punches him on the arm. “Fucking right he would.”

*

Shitty has class early on Monday. Jack pretends to sleep through the way the pipes clank in the shower and how Shitty can’t prepare coffee for himself without banging the mug against the countertop and stubbing his toe on the kitchen table.

“I know you’re awake.”

Jack rolls over on the couch and ignores the way his back aches. Shitty’s standing there with a smile on his face, thermos in his hand, and a messenger bag over his shoulder.

“A coma patient couldn’t sleep through all that. How’s your back?”

“It’s fine.”

Shitty hums and takes a sip of his coffee. “You know if you go use my bed while I’m not here to see it, it’s like you haven’t really used it at all so you don’t have to admit that you’re wrong.”

“I’m not wrong. The couch is fine.”

“I just hope the Falconers have a masseuse on retainer.”

They do.

“I gotta go. Get up, kiss me goodbye, and tell me to have a nice day.”

“I’m not kissing you, but have a nice day.”

Shitty bends down and smacks a noisey kiss to the side of Jack’s head. “Thanks, dear, see you when I get home.”

Jack waits five minutes before he gets off the couch and sleeps for another hour in Shitty’s bed.

*

He takes the train into Boston and runs around the Common, only pausing to take a picture of the Make Way For Ducklings statue to send to Lardo later. His cool down is a walk along the Freedom Trail and he apologizes to the guy working at the Paul Revere house when he hands him a slightly sweaty five dollar bill and waves off the change.

He’s making a lap through Quincy Market trying to figure out what he’s going to eat when his phone buzzes in the pocket of his sweatshirt.

Bittle: Going on a murder run. Who wants to come?

Jack’s typing out ‘shouldn’t you be in class?’ when Ransom’s text comes in.

Ransom: Ask your boyfriend.

Jack stops short and gets a stroller to the back of the knees from the woman walking behind him. They both apologize as Jack's phone explodes with texts.

Bittle: He is not my boyfriend.

Shitty: Bittle has a boyfriend? Why don't I know about this?

Bittle: Don't you have class?

Shitty: Don't you?

Holster: Winter screw date shits! Rans and I are pro match makers.

 

Bittle: HE IS NOT MY BOYFRIEND

Shitty: but you guys are going out

Bittle: It was coffee

Bittle: A few times

Ransom: Can I be your best man?

Holster: Bro

Ransom: Co-best men

Bittle: No best men. It was COFFEE

Lardo: But you like him, don't you?

Bittle: I don't know. Maybe I'm just tired of being alone this time of year.

Jack leaves without buying anything. Shitty comes home and drops his bag just inside the door and announces “have I got a story for you” before he tells Jack all about his douchey classmate that slipped on a patch of ice. He has tears in his eyes by the end of it.

“And I know I should feel bad,” he says as he wipes at his eyes, “but he just went right down. For no reason. It’s like the hand of God pushed him or something, oh Christ.” He heaves a sigh and flops down on the couch next to him. “Man, fuck, I wish that would happen everyday. So. Anyways. How was your day?”

I found out Bittle might have a boyfriend and I’m not handling it well.

“Fine. Went for a run. Walked around. No one recognized me.”

“Nice, nice. Wanna go get sushi?”

*

Jack chews on his straw and watches Shitty try to eat Pad Thai with a pair of chopsticks.

“So what’d you do today? You didn't tell me.”

Jack shrugs. “Walked around. Some kid recognized me in Quincy Market and I signed his hat.”

“Sweet. Probably made that kid’s week.”

Jack hums, takes a deep sip of coke then says “so what about Bittle's boyfriend?”

Noodles slip off the chopsticks and Shitty drops them. “You saw that? You didn't say anything so I thought you missed it or whatever.”

“Didn't see it until later. So his boyfriend. Is this the Winter Screw date?”

“Far as I can tell. I tried to talk to Lardo about it but she and Bits have some bro code thing going on.”

“So what did Holster have to say about it?”

Shitty grins. “Apparently they're not officially official.”

“What's that mean?”

“They're not really dating. They're just hanging out.”

“What's the difference?”

Shitty stares at him for a long moment. “You went to college didn't you? I know you didn't like, hook up, but you should know this shit. Dating is going out to dinner and hanging out is, I don't know, handjobs behind Faber.”

“Shits,” Jack snaps.

A few heads turn at the tables next to them and Shitty rolls his eyes and scoops a bunch of noodles onto his chopsticks. He shoves them in his mouth then says “oh, unclench. It's natural. It's beautiful.”

“So this guy isn’t taking Bittle out to dinner?”

“Not that anyone can see. And Bit’s ain’t talking about it.”

“But you think they’re doing…..you know,” he whispers, “the other thing?”

“Bro, why are you whispering? You can say it. Handjob. Blowjob. Sex. Oh c’mon,” he says, a little louder so the neighboring tables can hear, “it’s like, ten o’clock at night, we’re all adults here. Don’t act like I’m scarring your sensitive ears.”

Jack kicks him beneath the table. “Knock it off or I’m leaving.”

“Sorry, sorry, I’ll be good. I don’t know what they’re doing. You’re awfully nosey about this.”

“I just want to make sure Bittle’s okay. I don’t want him getting hurt.”

“That’s why they’re just hanging out and not dating. No feelings. Or, limited feelings.”

“People really do that?”

Shitty sighs. “Yes, Jack, people really do that. Listen, he’s young, he’s independent, he’s in college. He’s having fun. Plus he has an entire team of hockey players that have his back. He’s going to be fine.”

“We don’t know anything about this guy. We don't even know his name.”

“Pretty sure it's Kevin.”

Jack scoffs. “That's almost as douchey of a name as Chad.”

“Damn, Jack, what's your damage?”

“I don't have any damage, I just want to know what’s going on. Bittle’s a good friend of mine. I want to make sure he’s okay.”

“You should ask him about it then.”

Jack really doesn’t want to do that.

“You think he’s a good guy?”

“Ransom and Holster picked him out.”

Jack raises his eyebrows and tips his head and Shitty laughs.

“Lardo says he’s cool. You can trust her. Probably doesn’t matter anyways, in a few weeks it’ll fizzle out and he’ll get over it.”

Jack nods.

“Or they’ll fall in love and get married. Win-win for Bits.”

He know his face pales at the thought. Bittle is going to get married one day, with our without Jack by his side.

“You okay, man? Did you find one of those hot peppers on accident? Those things are brutal.”

“I’m fine. Can we just talk about something else?”

“Sure, man. Let’s talk about you. Have you been hanging out with anyone?”

He thinks about the barista at the coffee shop he doesn’t go to anymore and the guy in Phoenix and shakes his head. “Nope.”

“No need to lie, Jack, give me the deets.”

“There are no deets.”

“You’re kidding. It’s been months.”

“So? I’ve been busy.”

“You’ve been alone this whole time?”

“I’m not alone, don’t say it like that. I have the team and you guys.”

“That’s it?”

“Why is that not enough?”

“It’s great that you’re getting along with your team and you should be spending time with them, but there has to be more.”

“You guys.”

“We’re miles away, Jack. I’m your best friend and this is the first time we’ve seen each other in months.”

“I talk to Bittle a lot. That’s something.”

“Bitty’s not there waiting for you at the end of the day though. You go home to an empty apartment?”

“It’s not that bad.”

“You don’t get lonely?”

“I’m too busy to get lonely.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Shitty. I...you’re really worried about me.”

“Of course I’m worried about you. I’m always going to worry about you. I want to make sure you’re happy and making friends and having relationships. You deserve all that.”

“You sound like my mom.”

“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. Your mother is a saint. So, talk to me. What's up? How are you really?”

“I'm really fine. I'm having fun with the team. We go out together a lot.”

“But you're not meeting anyone else?”

“You know I'm not great at that. I never know what to say or do.”

“You know you're charming when you want to be, Jack.”

“Well.” He takes a hard stab at his food with his chopstick. “I don’t always want to be.”

Shitty rolls his eyes, but softly kicks him under the table and Jack takes that for what it is. The subject is dropped.

*

That night, Jack crawls into bed next to Shitty. Shitty groans, but lifts the covers so Jack can slip under.

“Fucking told you so.”

“Yeah, Shits, you did.”

In the light coming through the drawn curtains he can see Shitty staring at him.

“You okay, man?”

“Just tired. Your couch is uncomfortable. I’m gonna buy you a new one.”

“Won’t say no to that.” His eyes go wide. “You should buy a new for the Haus. Bittle would love you forever.”

Shitty rolls over and Jack watches his back rise and fall slower and slower as his breathing evens out. It takes him a long time to fall asleep.

*

On Thursday evening, Shitty whistles loud at his phone. It's sudden and enough for Jack to have to grip the secondhand book he found today while out wandering a little harder so he doesn't drop it.

“Shit’s going down at the Haus. Impromptu kegster.”

Jack's phone is on the end table. The screen is black.

Jack frowns down at the black screen on his phone.

“Fuck,” Shitty says and holds his phone out for Jack to watch the video. It’s shaky and dark, but he can make out the Haus living room. The couch is tipped over and Nursey is standing on it with his arms raised. Dex is standing on the floor next to him looking less than impressed, but ready to catch him. The video pans around to the kitchen and Jack thinks he sees a flash of blond pulling something out of the oven before Shitty pulls the phone away.

Jack frowns at his phone.

“How do you know all this?”

“Twitter.”

“Can I see your phone?”

“You have your own account,” Shitty reminds him, but hands it over anyways. “Look for yourself.”

Jack shrugs and starts to scroll. Someone in PR set him up with an official account a few months ago and got him verified. He’s accumulated a decent amount of followers even though he only sent out a handful or so tweets and stopped using it altogether when Georgia passed him in the hall one day and casually told him that everyone could see his likes. He spent the next half hour unliking all of Bittle’s tweets and hoping that he wouldn’t notice.

There aren’t any more videos, but from what he can see the party has only been going on for an hour and it’s already crazy.

“This is weird for a Thursday.”

“Sometimes you just can’t wait to party.”

Jack makes a noncommittal noise and keeps looking until he finds a tweet from Bittle. He can barely read it.

“Is Bits okay?”

Shitty frowns and holds his hand out, fingers curling in a clear gimme motion. “He’s fine, just a bit tipsy. Very tipsy. He’s misspelling words left and right.” Shitty laughs and wanders back over to his desk and Jack picks up his book. “You want to go check it out? This can wait.”

“Not if it’s that crazy.”

“Cool.”

Jack goes back to reading and Shitty goes back to studying, taking breaks to tap at his phone and laugh under his breath and Jack’s starting to think about heading to bed when Shitty says, “Bro, I think Bits is looking to hookup tonight. He's saying that he's frustrated. Well, he's saying he's firstrted, but I'm assuming that's what he meant.”

Jack slams his book shut. “Let’s go.”

Shitty blinks up at him. “Really? Fuck yeah.”

They take Jack’s new car and Shitty marvels at the leather interior and heated seats. “You know the last car I was in that was this fancy was my father's. Hope I don’t end up having some kind of PTSD flashback and wind up hating you.”

“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Jack says as he merges onto the highway.

Shitty turns the setting on the seat all the way up and wiggles. “I’m gonna slow roast my ass. You know Lardo’s car still has crank windows?”

“I should buy her a new one.”

Shitty grins.

“She’d kill you.”

*

Jack has to park three blocks over, but even from that distance they can hear the music from the Haus. Shitty rubs his hands together. “Ransom and Holster and Lardo.” He puts one hand over his heart. “Continuing my legacy of fucking ragers in the middle of the week. I’m so damn proud of these kids, Jack.”

Jack keeps his head down against the cold and keeps walking.

People are spilling out onto the porch and the front door is propped open with a cooler full of beer. Shitty grabs one on the way in, shouldering past a guy who is hitting on a pair of girls who are clearly not into it.

“Knock it off,” he says as he pops the tab, “they’re not interested.”

The guy gives Shitty the finger and Shitty gives it right back and now they’re caught in this faceoff while Shitty chugs his beer and the girls slip away into the crowd. Jack squeezes through a couple of bodies on his way inside and jumps when a pair of hands land on his waist.

“Just me, brother,” Shitty says in his ear. “We gotta stick together. This shit is crazy.”

Jack stops short when a herd of freshman cut in front of them.

“Goddamn. Were we ever that tiny? They’re babies.”

“They shouldn’t be here.”

Shitty pats his back. “Okay, old man.”

Jack frowns. He’s right. He knows he’s right. They shouldn't have beers and red cups in their hands. He really shouldn’t be caught at a party where kids are underage drinking. This is a PR nightmare waiting to happen. He is a PR nightmare just waiting to happen.

He pulls his hat down further and keeps his hand in his pockets, ignoring the high five some kid tries to give him and slipping past another who asks him for a selfie. Now there’s going to be a rumor that he’s rude to fans.

He’s starting to think that he’ll never find Bittle when Bittle finds them. He spots them from across the room, yells their names, and jumps over three people who have decided to sit in the middle of the floor. He launches himself at them and gets an arm around both to swing in the middle until Shitty loops his arm around him to hold him steady.

“What are you guys doing here?” It’s a little slurred and heavily accented and Bittle’s mouth is pressed against the shoulder of Jack’s sweatshirt.

“Saw this was happening on twitter. Couldn’t stay away.”

Bitty looks at Jack. “Okay, but how did you find out about it? You haven’t used your twitter account in months. Do you even remember your password?”

He does not. “Shitty found it. He showed me.”

“So you drove all the way up from Providence? Were you even in Providence? This is your bye week. You should be on some island somewhere getting unfairly tan.”

“He’s been staying with me, Bits. Now where’s this new manager? I gotta to make sure she’s worthy.”

“Her name is Ford and she’s great and the last time I saw her she was arguing with Holster over which musical was the best and what do you mean he’s been staying with you? For how long?”

“If Holster is talking about musicals they could be at it for hours. I’ll go find Lards, she’ll help me break them up.”

“She’s playing beer pong.”

“Course she is,” Shitty says as he starts to work his way through the crowd.

Bitty makes a grab for him, but his hands slip off and he twists around to face Jack head on.

“What does he mean you’ve been staying with him?”

“I’ve been staying with him.”

“For how long?”

“Since Friday.”

“Friday?” Bitty splutters. “Last Friday? That’s almost a week. You’ve been with him for a week in Boston and this is the first time….” He huffs, throws his hands up, and spins on his heels. “Whatever. I need another drink.”

Jack blinks after him until someone bumps into him from behind and he’s pushed forward as he starts to follow Bittle.

“What….are you mad or something?”

“Or something,” Bittle tosses over his shoulder. He says excuse me three times to a couple that are making out in the doorway of the kitchen before Jack steps up, puts his hand on the guy's shoulder and gently pushes them both out of the way. They don’t stop kissing and Bittle darts around them. Jack follows.

“Why are you mad at me?”

“The fact that you even have to ask that...”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t read your mind, Bittle.”

Bittle turns on him then. “You didn’t think to tell me that you were only a half an hour away? For a whole week you were that close and you didn’t think that maybe we would like to see you. I get that this team isn’t your top priority anymore and maybe you don’t have to care about us but-”

“I still care.”

“Well, you don’t act like it sometimes.”

Bittle is clearly angry. His cheeks are flushed from more than just the alcohol and his eyes are blazing and the only thing Jack can think to say is “you know if you were this scary on the ice no one would ever think about coming near you.”

Bittle rolls his eyes and turns on his heels.

“I’m sorry, Bits, come on.”

But Bittle’s already slipping away into the crowd in the kitchen and Jack can’t see him through the horde of people gathered around a pie plate in the middle of the table. Shitty’s long gone and he’s left alone in a room full of people that he doesn’t recognize, but that recognize him.

It feels like the loneliest place to be.

He crosses over the caution tape at the top of the stairs without anyone questioning him.

Lardo’s door is locked and so is Chowder’s and with the echo of Shitty’s words about Bittle wanting to hook up tonight he doesn’t even both trying his door.

The last thing he needs is to see Bittle and some stranger tumbling into the room together.

The only other option is the roof.

He slides the window open and climbs out, careful to dodge the bits of ice that are still frozen where the roof meets the house, and leans against the siding.

It's cold and he pulls his sleeves down over his hands as the bass of the song playing in the living room rattles the house beneath him.

The lights in the LAX house across the street are all on and people are coming and going but their party doesn't hold a candle to the one at the Haus.

He zips his jacket up to his chin and hunkers down, watching the shadows in the windows of the LAX house for as long as he can before his eyes slip shut and he falls asleep.

When he wakes up again the LAX house is dark but the Haus is still roaring.

A thump comes from the stairwell and Jack twists around to look through the window.

Shitty is crawling up the stairs and Bittle is keeping a slow pace next to him and shaking his head.

“I’m pretty sure he left me.”

“He didn’t leave you, Shitty.”

“Then where the fuck is he? He fucking bailed on me.”

“He wouldn’t do that. Do you honestly think that Jack would do that to you?”

Shitty makes it to the top of the landing and sways on his knees.

“I don’t know,” he says sounding sadder than Jack has ever heard him and it’s enough to make him propel himself through the window.

He lands on his ass and Shitty scrambles forward and tackles him all the way to the ground.

“Told you so,” Bittle says as Shitty presses kiss after kiss to the side of Jack’s face.

“Jack, we gotta go, my man. There are like, six of you and I don't know where my left shoe is. Why the fuck were you outside you could've froze to death. Fucking Canadians.”

Jack pats his back and Shitty stumbles to his feet.

“You really have to find your shoe.”

“I told you I don’t know where it is. You’re going to have to carry me.”

Shitty loops around him and tries to climb on his back and Jack has to dump him, carefully, back on the floor.

“I’m not carrying you the whole way. Where was the last time you saw your shoe?” Shitty folds his heads together in his lap and tries to concentrate. He snaps his fingers and looks up at Jack with a smile.

“In the bathtub downstairs.”

“Then that’s probably where it is. Go look.”

Shitty kisses him once more on the forehead then turns down the hall, looking unsteady as he goes.

“Hold onto the railing,” Jack calls and Shitty gives him a thumbs up before he starts to descend.

Bittle is still standing in front of his door and turning the key over and over in his hand like he’s not sure which way it goes in.

Jack approaches with caution and Bittle ignores him and frowns down at the key instead.

“Do you need help?” “I’m fine, thank you.”

He flips the key over and misses the lock completely.

“Can you just-.” Jack says as he tries to take the key from him. Bittle closes his fist around it and holds it at his side. “I could get the door open and then you could get away from me faster if that’s what you really want.”

Bittle rests his head against his door and takes a deep breath. “If you really think that’s what I want-.”

“Well what am I supposed to think? You tell me.”

Downstairs Shitty yells in victory. “I found it. How the fuck did it get in the light fixture. Ow. Motherfucker is still hot.”

“You need to help Shitty,” he says as he finally get the door open and steps inside.

He shuts it softly in Jack’s face.

*

“Bittle is mad at me.”

Shitty rubs his forehead against the window. “For what?”

“He's mad I didn't tell him I was visiting you. He's mad I didn't come down to visit him.”

Shitty hums. The cold air and the walk back to the car has taken the drunken edge off of him.

“He thought I was on vacation somewhere like you thought I'd be.”

“Why didn't you let them know you were staying with me?”

“I don't know. I thought you might mention it.”

“Hold up. Wait a minute.” Shitty lifts his head off the window so he can look at him. Jack keeps his eyes on the road. “You told me you wanted to go somewhere quiet and private. I gave you quiet and private. Don't drag me into this.”

“Sorry. You talk to Lardo so much I thought maybe you'd let it slip and then she'd tell them. I don't know,” he says softly. “I don't know. I don't know why he's mad,” He says, finding his voice. Bittle's anger has been bothering him, but so has his reasoning. “I don't have to tell him everything. If I want to come visit you I don't need to tell anyone. It's not like he's my boyfriend.” He looks over at Shitty for a reaction but Shitty’s curled up in the seat and snoring softly.

It’s a chore getting him up the stairs to the apartment. Shitty is singing, loudly, and three different people stick their heads out of their doors to tell him to shut up. By the third time, Jack’s done apologizing and sticks his middle finger out instead. Shitty laughs so hard he falls over which makes a fourth person come out and Jack threatens to leave Shitty there if he doesn’t get up.

The final flight and a half up Shitty is blessedly quiet. It continues on as Jack props him up against the opposite wall so he can open the door and while he leads him to bed and gets his shoes off.Shitty gets his pants off and slips beneath the covers on his own.

“I'm putting the garbage can here in case you have to throw up.”

“I’m not gonna throw up. I'm not some lightweight freshman.”

“You passed out in the car.”

“I fell asleep…..damn. That's really not any better. Fuck, Jack, I’m getting old.”

“You should sleep on your side too.”

“You should sleep here.” Shitty throws back the covers on the opposite side. “That way you can mother hen me from up close.”

Jack doesn’t bother with a response as he pulls on a pair of sweats and gets into bed.

“I think tonight was fun,” Shitty says. “I like the new-” he takes a deep breath and Jack pushes himself up on his elbow to check that he’s okay as Shitty exhales with “manager.”

Jack flops back down.

“She’s cool. Lardo likes her. I think she’ll get along with the boys just fine.”

“That’s good.”

“Did you meet her?”

“No.”

“You’ll have to meet her next time.”

“If I’m invited back.”

Shitty laughs. “Yeah. Bits will calm down eventually. Probably. Don’t they hold grudges like crazy in the south though? Maybe you’re fucked.”

“Thanks, Shits.”

“Anytime,” he says sleepily.

Jack lies there with his hands folded over his stomach, staring at the ceiling. The weight of his secret is heavy on his chest.

“Shitty.”

“What? Jack, what? I want to fucking sleep.”

“I love Bitty.” Straight to the point.

“That's not funny.”

“I'm not trying to be.”

Shitty sighs and throws his arm out towards the lamp. Jack's eyes burn against the sudden light and when he opens them Shitty’s sitting up and staring at him.

“What the hell?”

“I thought it started at graduation, but when I think about it, it was really before that. Way before that. Making that pie with him for that class or waking up for checking practice. It's hard to tell. I can't pinpoint it. I know there was a time before I felt like this, but it all bleeds together when I think about him. It's like it's always been there.”

Shitty keeps staring at him.

“Say something.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I don't know. I don't know why I told you.”

“Am I the person you've told?”

“No. My parents know. So do Marty and Thirdy.”

“So I'm fifth?”

“I told my mom and my dad already knew. Marty figured it out and what Marty knows Thirdy knows. If they figured it out I guess some of the other guys could have too.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Nothing. I've been doing nothing. It's working.”

“It's really not, Jack. You’ve been carrying this around with you the whole time, and now you’ve told me about it. It’s not going away.”

“No, it’s not, but I’m handling it.”

“Bro-”

Jack cuts him off. “Shitty. Please.”

He can almost hear Shitty’s jaw click shut.

“I was terrible to him,” he admits and Shitty sighs.

“No offense Jack, but you were kind of terrible to everyone at first. It took me a month to get you to say more than three words to me at a time. You need to talk to him.”

“What would the point of that be? So he can let me down easy and things can be awkward between us forever or so he can just stop talking to me because he thinks I’ll never get over it?”

“You’ve given a lot of thought to what might happen if something goes wrong, but have you ever thought about what’ll happen if he says ‘hey, Jack, you know what, I have feelings for you too and I was trying to get over you because I had no fucking idea that you were even an option, but now that you’ve actually used your words and talked to me I think that you and I should give it a shot.’ I mean, how great would that be?”

“That wouldn’t happen.”

“How the fuck do you know?”

“Because I know. Things like that don’t happen.”

“Look.” Shitty sits up and faces him, tucking his legs beneath his body and only swaying a little. “Bitty is into you. He’s had a crush on you forever.”

“He told you that?”

“No.”

“Then you don’t know, Shits. You’re just saying that.”

“I’m not. You were too caught up in the postseason and signing and a million other things to see it, but it’s true. He adores you. He never misses your games and Lardo told me that he has all this Falconer merch and he talks about you all time.”

“Bittle's supportive. That's how he is.”

“Bro, I don't see him wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. You should tell him. At least think about telling him before you drive yourself crazy with it.” He puts his hands on Jack’s shoulders. “Can you promise me you’ll think about it? Really think about it.”

Jack nods and Shitty holds out his pinky.

“Now it’s official,” Shitty says when Jack links his finger with Shitty’s. “I have to lie down right now or else I’m going to throw up. The garbage can was a good idea.” He pats Jack’s head. “Sorry I made fun of you.”

He turns the light out and Jack lies there in the darkness for all of thirty seconds before he’s throwing the blankets back and stumbling out of bed to find his shoes.

“That’s my boy,” Shitty slurs as he shoves his foot into his sneaker. “I’m so fucking proud of you, brah. You want me to go with you, you know, for like, moral support or whatever?” He gets himself up on one elbow and immediately falls back down. “Fuck it. I can’t. If I get up right now I’m gonna die, but you go.”

He’s barely tied his laces before he’s reaching out to fist bump Shitty.

“I fucking love you, man.”

“I love you too, Shits.”

“See, see how fucking easy it is to say? Go get your boy.”

*

He gets a spot closer to the Haus this time. There are a few people sitting on the front lawn and a few more on the porch leaning against the railings, but no one stops him as he walks inside.

The place is trashed. Cups and water bottles and empty beer cans are everywhere and Jack misses a lot of things about Samwell, but the post-kegster cleanup is not one of them.

The screen door bangs shut behind him and a sweetly accented voice yells from the kitchen.

“The party's over. Oh-ver. If you're looking for alcohol you are way too late.”

Bittle has his back to him with a dishrag in one hand and his phone in the other. He’s frowning down at the floor as he pokes at a mysterious bright purple liquid with his shoe.

“You're welcome to suck some beer out of the cushions on the couch or tub juice out the planks of the deck; neither action is advisable, but I can't stop you. Whatever gets you out of my Haus faster.”

“Bitty.”

Bittle jumps and holds the dishrag close to his chest. “Jack. What are you-.”

The truth spills out of him. “I love you.”

Bittle’s eyes go wide as they dart around the room. People are within earshot but right now Jack doesn’t care and keeps going.

“And I’m so sorry and you don’t owe me anything but if I didn’t say it...I can’t keep things bottled up, Bits. Not anymore. If I didn’t say it I would just carry it around with me forever because it’s not going away. Pretending it’s not there isn’t working. Shitty’s right.”

“Shitty?”

“And my parents and Thirdy.”

Bittle’s hand presses over his heart. “Does everyone know? Am I the last?”

“I didn’t know how to say it to you. I still don’t. I’m fucking it up right now, aren’t I?”

“Jack. Sweetheart.”

“No, don't. Please.” Jack presses his fingertips into his eyes like that's going to stop the tears from falling. “I can't listen to you say that right now, not when it doesn't mean what I want it to mean.”

There are warm fingers wrapping around his wrists and tugging his hands away and Jack opens his eyes.

Bittle is standing there with his big, brown eyes and golden hair and he has always been the greatest thing Jack has ever seen.

“Are you serious?” “Almost always, Bits.”

“Jack.”

He nods and Bittle slides his hands from his wrist to link their fingers together. “I don’t know what to do.”

Bittle pulls his bottom lip between his teeth and squeezes Jack’s hand.

“You should kiss me.”

Jack’s heart thuds in his chest.

“Please don’t joke.”

“Why would I ever? Jack, it’s been so long. I never wanted to get my hopes up, I never thought I had a chance, I thought I’d get over it but it’s been over a year. I don’t even see you every day but I can’t stop thinking about you and I just-.”

He stops when Jack tilts his head up and kisses him.

It's soft and gentle and when Jack pulls away for the first time Bittle’s eyes are still closed and he has to dip back in for another taste.

A phone rings loudly in the other room and someone groans and answers it.

Jack and Bittle pull apart, breathing heavily into each other's space.

“There are people in the other room,” he whispers and Jack nods and runs his hands down his arms.

“I know.”

“People who don't know about you.”

“Yeah.”

“So we should probably go up to my room where we can be alone.”

There's light dancing in Bittle's eyes as he takes his hand and leads him out of the kitchen.

*

Jack watches his feet, distorted and blurry beneath the water, move back and forth as he sits on the edge of the pool. Losing in the second round doesn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. He’s young and healthy. There’s always next year. He really wants to win next year.

A mosquito buzzes by his ear and he swats at it as the screen door behind him slides open.

Footsteps comes to a stop behind him and he tilts his head back to look up. Bittle has two plates in his hands.

“Thought I’d come out and find you. The ice cream is melting, sweetheart, eat fast.”

Bittle hands him both of the plates so he can step out of his sandals and sit down beside him.

It’s blueberry cobbler and a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream that Jack doesn’t feel guilty about indulging in one bit. He’s learned to let that go.

“You feeling okay?” Bittle asks as he takes his own plate back and takes a bite.

Jack watches the spoon disappear between his pink lips and slide back out again. There’s a smear of blueberry left on the corner of his mouth and Jack ducks down and kisses it clean.

Bittle makes a surprised noise and Jack pulls away before he can kiss back.

He rests his forehead against Bittle’s and takes a deep breath. “I feel great.”