The thing was, it happened completely by accident. The kiss, on center ice, that was on purpose. The media storm that followed? That was expected. But when Eric Bittle woke up next to his boyfriend, three days after the kiss, he didn’t expect to be the trending topic on Twitter. Or YouTube, or even Tumblr.
It woke him up faster than when Ransom and Holster “volunteered” Bitty for the Ice Bucket challenge, and the noise he emitted woke Jack up rather quickly too.
“Bits, mon cher, what’s wrong?”
Bitty held his phone up so Jack could see the screen. The “What’s Trending” screen of the Twitter app was open, and #omgcheckplease was the #1 hashtag. Jack looked at Bitty confused.
“I don’t understand. What’s o-m-g check please?”
Bitty emitted a short, shaky breath. “It’s me. You remember that vlog channel that I have? Omgcheckplease is the name. Jack, this is me.”
Jack shifted, sitting up a bit further. “Did you post a new video? Is that what this is about?”
The blond shook his head. “No, sweetpea. This is because of the kiss. This is because of what happened at the Cup.”
Jack finally realized why Bitty was upset. The world now knew who Bitty was, and about his channel. They were going to have access to him, and this was going to make him vulnerable on a whole new level. Jack opened his mouth to try and comfort Bitty, when his own phone started to ring.
The couple both looked to see George’s caller ID on the screen, and Jack picked up the phone to take the call. He put it on speaker, because he had guessed what this was about.
“Jack, hello?” George’s voice was strained.
“Hi George. You’re on speaker, Bitty…Eric’s here.”
“Oh. Good. I need to speak to you both. You two might not be aware, but Eric has been identified, by the mass media.”
“Yeah, his YouTube channel is trending on Twitter.”
“It’s trending everywhere. Twitter, Facebook, and it’s even on the headliners of a few journalism sites. I’ve already had a call from Buzzfeed, asking for a comment. They want to write an article, about the two of you. And you two now have a…what the hell is a ship name? Zimbits?”
Bitty smirked briefly. “It’s like combining the couple’s names to make it easier to refer to that couple. Like Brangelina, Kimye, that sort of thing.”
“Oh. Well, I suppose that makes sense. But now I need to let you guys know what’s happening right now. Since the Cup, the public reaction has been heavily mixed. Other teams have made public statements of support for you two, including the Aces. Even ESPN ran a segment with a supportive message about you Jack. But online reaction has gotten much worse, since people found out about Eric’s channel. You’ve become a target. I suggest you turn off commenting abilities on your channel for a while. Some of the comments have already gotten nasty, on both. And unfortunately, now people know where to find you, Eric. You’ve publicly told the world you attend Samwell, and that you are the Men’s Hockey captain. There are already images of protesters trying to get on campus. I suggest you talk to campus security, and your teammates.”
Bitty recoiled from the phone in horror. This was his worst nightmare. This was happening. Jack switched speakerphone off and said “George, we need to go. I’ll call you later.” With that, he hung up the phone and reached out for Bitty. “Bits?”
“Oh god. This…this is really happening? Oh god, what have I done? This…Jack, I don’t…”
“Bits, look at me.” Jack said, slightly with more force than intending, and with more courage than he thought he had. “This was not your fault, okay. Do you hear me, sweetheart? This was not your fault. And we will deal with it together.”
Bitty looked physically ill, and Jack imagined that he didn’t look much better. Both men knew that this was going to happen, but both had finally realized how bad this was going to be.
Three days ago…
In the hours after the kiss, both of them had had emotional breakdowns. Shitty and Lardo had both come over just to make sure they were okay. Shitty had pulled out the electrical cord of the tv, and stolen both of their phones, rambling that they didn’t need to see the immediate public reaction. Lardo had made them both tea, and forced them into the bedroom, saying that they should sleep.
But the day after, the two of them were woken up by Tater, a messenger bringing the news. They were going to have to face the press. Jack had to attend the conference, as the MVP player, and a assistant-captain. Bitty had made to get ready, when Tater confirmed their worst fears.
“Probably best you stay here B. Press is outside.”
Jack immediately went to one of the windows, shock and fear evident. Sure enough, a small rabble of flashing cameras and reporters were gathered outside of the building where Jack’s apartment was. “No. I can’t…Tater, I don’t think I can do this.”
“Yes, you can.” Another voice piped up. Bad Bob was standing there, right behind Tater, Alicia right next to him. “You can. What you two did was incredibly brave, and the world knows that.”
“Pa…” Jack stammered, turning away from the window to meet his father’s eyes. Bob held up his hand, and walked over to his son, placing his hands on top of his son’s shoulders.
“Jack. You kissed your boyfriend on center ice after you won the most important game in hockey, the most important game in your hockey career. You did what any other guy on that ice did. Embraced your loved one. It just so happens that there are those out there that would think that because your loved one is member of your own sex, that it was wrong. But, you picked a good team, and supportive, public statements from your teammates have already been released. Your team is on your side, and so are a few others. The Aces, the Penguins, and a few others have also publicly supported you.”
The mention of the Aces dragged Jack out of a disorientated phase. “The Aces?”
“Parson. He did a full out twitter rant that basically said it was about time that someone in this sport had a big enough pair to do what you did, and then exposed his own team’s PR manager who asked him to rescind his support, and refused. Three more of his teammates then supported you online, mirroring Parson’s comments, and then the team’s official account posted an image of their logo, overlaid with the pride flag. Other teams have done the same, even the official NHL’s page logo. They’re supporting this.”
“Really?” Bitty asked breathlessly.
Alicia walked over to the blond boy. “Yes, they are.”
“So, that’s why you have to do this, Jack. You need to, because you are the first male NHL player to come out while actively playing. The world needs to see that, because it opens a door, for others, including your boy there.” Bob cocks his head in Bitty’s direction. “Also, because you’re the man that won that game. You are the MVP of the Falcs. They need you up there. So, you and I are going to go down there and you’re going to face the press, because this is bigger than you. And I’m going to be there to support you, along with the rest of your team, because you damn well deserve it. Okay?”
Jack still looked unsure, and downright terrified, but he allowed his father to guide him through getting ready for the press conference. Tater was texting, George, Bitty presumed, and he stood in the middle of Jack’s living room, with Alicia’s arm still around him.
“Hey, Bitty?” Shitty peaked in through the open front door. “Oh, Alicia, and Tater! Hi.”
“Hello Shitty.” Alicia smiled warmly at the mustached man. Shitty walked in the room, clutching Bitty’s cell phone.
“Bittle, it’s your mother. She wants to talk to you. She’s already called twice.”
Bitty took a deep breath, and reached out to take the phone when Jack and Bob walked back in the room.
“Hey Shitty, what are you doing…” Jack trailed off when he saw Bitty’s phone. “Suzanne?”
Bitty nodded, afraid to speak, in case his voice cracked. His eyes were red and puffy, like he was about to start crying.
“Do you want me to talk to her?” Jack asked.
“No. You need to go to the conference. I’ll be fine.” Bitty tried putting on an act of bravery, but he was more scared now than he had been back in that middle school locker room back in 7th grade.
“Bits, I don’t want you to be alone while you do this…” Jack trailed off, uncertain.
“He won’t be.” Both Shitty and Alicia said at the same time. Bitty looked at Alicia in surprise.
“You’re staying? Here?” He asked, in a tone that broke her heart just a little.
“Jack needs support from the most important people in his life right now, and that includes you. But you need support too, and I think I would be of more help here than backstage in a press conference. So, I’m not going anywhere.”
Bitty practically leapt into her arms, and Jack tackled them from behind. “Thank you maman!” Jack exclaimed.
Alicia smiled, and said “I would do anything for my boys.” Over her shoulder, Bitty and Jack made eye contact as they processed that statement. And then Shitty joined in on the hug.
“So would I!” He whispered, cupping the back of Bitty’s head and Jack’s neck. “I’m going to stay for a while too okay? And Lardo will come by too, if you need her. Hell, Ransom, Holter, Dex, Nursey, Chowder, the frogs, and Ford too, if they can all fit in the car.”
That’s when Bitty broke down. Shitty broke away, and Alicia extracted herself, leaving Jack and Bitty embraced. A few tears slipped down Jack’s face, as he whispered assurances in Bitty’s ear. Bitty wiped his eyes, and sniffled. “God, I’m a mess.”
Tater hummed in what sounded like agreement. “You’re not the only one. This is adorable. But now Zimmboni needs to get a move on. George is mess too. No sleep.”
Bitty and Jack both felt immensely guilty at that. Bitty resolved to make her all of the baked goods she had shown a preference for, and put them in a gift basket, and let go of Jack. “Go. I’ll still be here when you get back.”
Jack nodded, and hugged him again. “I love you, Bits.”
“Love you too, sweetpea. Now get over there before George’s hair goes white.”
With that, Tater lead Jack and Bob out of the penthouse door, and left Bitty, Shitty, and Alicia in the living room.
Bitty picked up his cell phone, which had been dropped on the couch in Shitty’s haste to join in on the hug. He tapped the home button, and saw all of the notifications on the lock screen, (3) Missed Calls, (12) Unread Texts, Twitter, Facebook, Samwell Swallow, ESPN, and a few others. They hid the picture of Jack and Bitty on the lockscreen. He went to key in the passcode, but his fingers hesitated above the screen.
“Shitty, would you make me some tea please?” Alicia asked.
Shitty nodded and ambled over into the kitchen, leaving Bitty and Alicia alone.
Bitty took a deep, staggering breath. And then before either of them could move, the phone started to ring in his hands. It was his mother. Bitty answered the phone.
“Dicky, is that you?” Suzanne asked, frantically, and Bitty immediately felt bad. He knew she had been watching the game, of course she would have seen the kiss. And the first thing she would have done would be call him. But he wasn’t there to answer.
“Hi Mama.” Bitty said hesitantly.
“Oh sweet lord, Eric Richard Bittle! You scared the hell out of me!” Suzanne shouted. Bitty flinched.
“Mama…” Bitty tried to start talking, but she cut him off.
“No. Eric, I need you to listen to me right now. Okay? I need you to let me speak. Right now. And then you can talk. Do you understand me?”
“Yes ma’am.” Bitty strangled out, terrified of what was about to happen. Suzanne took a sharp breath. Her son was calling her ma’am. He was scared.
“Oh, honey, I…Look, let me start over. You know that your father and I were watching the game last night. And you know what we saw. But I need to hear it out of your mouth. Did you kiss Jack Zimmerman on center ice last night?”
“Yes.” Bitty wanted to say more, but he couldn’t force the words out.
“Because…because…he…I…” Bitty choked. Alicia put her hand on his shoulder, and glanced reassuringly at him. “Because he’s my boyfriend.” He finally said.
Suzanne was quiet. “For how long?”
“How long has he been my boyfriend?”
“Since Jack’s graduation.”
“I see. And how long have you known that you were…are like this?”
“Gay? Mama, is that what you’re asking?” Bitty spat out.
“Yes.” Suzanne spat the word back.
“Since middle school.”
The line was silent, and then the Coach came on the phone.
“You okay?” Bitty’s father asks that question with such softness that he nearly drops the phone in shock.
“I…yes. About as well can be expected, I think.”
“No one tried anything did they? Right after the kiss, the stations went to post-game analysis, and discussions on what happened. That, and they replayed the footage of the kiss a few hundred times.”
“No one got…physical?”
Bitty realized what his father was talking about. “No, we got out of there as soon as possible. No one attacked us.”
“Good. We were worried that something had happened, when you didn’t answer your phone.”
“No. One of our friends took both my phone and Jack’s, to keep us away from any bad press after the kiss.”
“The young man who answered the phone with “Jack Zimmerman’s personal pong palace”?” Coach asked.
Bitty rubbed his eyes. “Oh lord, Shitty…” he whispered. “Yes.” He answered his father.
“Yeah, your mother wasn’t pleased with that.”
“I imagine that she’s not pleased with me either.”
“Yeah, about that. She’s having a hard time coming to terms with it, but I can’t say I was surprised.”
That was a surprise for Bitty. “You’re not?”
“No. I suspected, I have for a while now. But I’m a high school coach, and a teacher, and while Georgia isn’t the most progressive state, you are not the first gay person I’ve encountered, nor the first that I’ve come to respect.”
“Wait, what? You’re not…you’re not mad?”
“No, son I’m not. I’m proud. You kissed your boyfriend on center ice, in front of a few million people. And I could tell, right there, while you were on tv, that you found a person who loves you, completely. And that, that is a hard thing to find. I don’t have a problem with that.”
“Oh, god, Coach…Dad…I…thank you. I don’t think you know how much that means to me.”
“I have an idea. And don’t worry about your mother, okay? She knew you were hiding something from her, she just had no idea it was…this. And she’s mad at herself, for not realizing, for not asking. She’s mad because she blames herself for not knowing.”
“She’s blaming herself for her son being gay.” Bitty lamented.
“No. She’s blaming herself…Suzanne...wha…”
“I’m mad because you felt like you couldn’t tell me.” Suzanne had stolen the phone from Bitty’s father. “Dicky, you are my son. You are my precious boy, and I accept the fact that you’re gay. I just blame myself because I put you in a situation where you couldn’t tell me about this, and that I can’t protect you from those that won’t accept you!”
Bitty froze. “What?” He said dumbly, his mouth hanging open. Alicia raised an eyebrow at him, and smiled.
“I. Support. You. And I accept you. Do you understand me?” Suzanne asks.
“Mama, I…yes…I, oh, god, thank you. Mama, thank you.” Bitty sobs, his hand covering his mouth as tears roll down his face. Shitty comes back in the room, and sends a mental message to Bitty. You okay, he asks. And Bitty, for the first time, since the kiss, nods to answer that question.
“You’re welcome. We love you Dicky, remember that. How’s Jack handling this?”
“He, uh…” Bitty coughs, trying to recover from crying. “He’s about to do a press conference, about the game. He’s terrified, but his dad and his team is supporting him.”
“And what about your team? Are they supporting you?” Coach calls out over the line.
“Yes, dad. They are.” Bitty runs a hand through his hair, and realizes how exhausted he feels, emotionally.
“Good.” Suzanne responds. “Dicky, do you want us to come visit, stay with you?”
“No, it’s okay. Alicia is staying with me, and I’m pretty sure some of my teammates are coming over later. One’s already here.”
“Alright then. Well, please sweetheart, be careful?”
“I will. Mom, I love you.”
“I love you too Dicky. I’ll call again tomorrow.”
With that, Suzanne ended the call, and Bitty fell down onto the couch in the living room, because he wasn’t actually sure if they would support him any longer.
“I assume, from what I heard, that that went well?” Alicia prompted.
Bitty nodded, his eyes unfocused. Shitty snorted.
“Come on Bitsy, you need sleep.” With that statement, Shitty snatched Bitty’s phone away, and picked him up off of the sofa. Bitty didn’t even protest to being slung over Shitty’s shoulder. Shitty plopped him down on the master bed, where neither Jack nor Bitty had gotten much sleep the night before, and Bitty promptly passed out.
Alicia leant against the doorway, and Shitty searched the room for a blanket. He found one on top of the pile of clean sheets and delicately laid it over Bitty’s lax form.
“Do you think he’ll be okay?” Alicia asks the law major.
Shitty walked out of the room, and beckoned for Alicia to follow him into the kitchen, where a teapot sat on the counter. He poured two mugs, and added six spoonfuls of sugar to one of them.
“Honestly. It depends on how this plays out. Hockey is not the most homo-friendly sport, and they are going to drag Jack’s name through the mud. Someone’s going to ask if he’ll be kicked off the team. Someone’s going to protest at the games. The Falcs will lose supporters. And he’s not going to be able to handle that well. Bitty will support him the best he can, but this is Bitty’s senior year in college. He’s team captain, and he’s going to be majoring in American Studies. That’ll mean a thesis paper. And that’s without the stress of when Bitty’s identity is exposed to the general public. Do I think Bitty will be okay? Right now, with all that looming over him? I think he’s not going to get out of this easy. Neither of them will.” The normally boisterous man said that with a severe solemnity, surprising Alicia.
“I think you underestimate them.”
“No, I think they’ll stay together. They’re good for each other. But Jack’s already tried going down a road he can’t get back from, and Bitty, well, Bitty’s had a bad history with homophobia. They got what they wanted, to be together, out to the world, but the shitstorm that’s about to hit them will wear and tear.”
Alicia couldn’t respond to that. She didn’t know how.