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Shitty watched Jack Zimmermann stare at his food. His captain had been even quieter than usual, gathering his brunch from the dining hall with barely a glance at the others. Practice had gone well, so it wasn’t that—

Across the table Bitty stretched upwards, his spine popping audibly, and Shitty caught Jack’s sideways shift of eyes, there and away again. Ah.

Bitty sighed. “Sorry, y’all, I gotta duck out early—I’m supposed to help the Home Ec club figure out a menu for their Halloween bash. Last time I checked they’d just written “pumpkin pie” down sixteen times.” He stuck his spoon in his mouth and stood, twiddling his fingers over the rim of his coffee cup.

Shitty waved back, and at his side Jack said quietly, “Good hustle today, Bittle.”

Bitty’s eyes widened a little, and the spoon threatened to dislodge itself when he smiled. “Thanks,” he said, a little muffled, and then spun on his heel, weaving through the cafeteria tables with a spring in his step.

Jack sat silent for a minute, then stood. “I’m gonna go as well,” he said shortly. He bumped his fist into Shitty’s shoulder in what was the equivalent of anyone else saying help help help oh god I’m falling apart and left, walking the opposite direction from Bitty. Shitty wondered if he even knew where he was going.

Holster shook his head. “You see Bitty light up? Sometimes I think that kid’s been starved for positive attention his whole life, but I’ve met his mom, so I know that’s not true.”

“Positive male attention, maybe,” Lardo said from her seat at Shitty’s other side.

"Jack’s positive attention, at the very least," Shitty said, wagging his eyebrows. “He wants to play a different kind of hockey with our dear captain.”

They all thought about that for a minute. "Floor hockey?" suggested Holster.

"Air hockey," said Ransom.

Lardo narrowed her eyes. "Field hockey."

"Field hockey is not hockey," Holster said. "That shit's lacrosse if it's anything."

At the table behind Shitty, a kid in a lacrosse jersey snorted.

"Fuck you," Lardo retorted. "Field hockey's nothing like lacrosse, it was my shit in high school."

"Really?" Ransom raised his eyebrows. “I always pegged you for the kid who never left the art room."

"I," Lardo said grandly, "am a many-faceted jewel of a person.”

Shitty rolled his eyes and knocked on the table to get their attention. "Tonsil hockey, you numbskulls,” he hissed, keeping his voice low.

Three faces squinted at him doubtfully. "Shits, hon," said Lardo, "that's not a term that anyone has used probably ever in real life."

"I don’t get it," said Holster, "It’s obvious Jack’s into him, why don’t they just go for it?”

Shitty stared at him, at the way Ransom was nodding sourly, at the way Lardo shrugged. "Y'all knew? I didn’t think anyone had caught on to his homo leanings."

"Bitty's rubbing off on you," Lardo muttered. "Soon you'll be saying 'gracious!' and 'sweetheart'."

"I always thought J—" Ransom started, only for Shitty to shove a hand over his mouth.

"No names, are you kidding? You know what a reporter would do with this shit!"

Ransom blanched. "Fuck—sorry. Uh. I always kinda thought he was ace."

Holster shrugged in agreement. "I dunno if I really ever thought he was gay, but I was pretty sure he didn't like women. I think our Lardo's the only girl I've ever seen him willingly talk to for more than ten minutes."

"She barely counts," muttered the LAX bro behind them.

Shitty was on his feet and into the seat next to him before he could think about it. "Hey," he said.

"Uh," said the LAX guy. "Hi."

"I got a question real quick," Shitty said casually. "Why do you say shit like that?"

The LAX guy stared at him, uncomprehending.

Shitty waited a minute, then patted him on the shoulder. "Never thought about it, huh?"

LAX Guy rallied a little. "Well, she looks like a dude, right?"

Shitty gave him a sympathetic look. "If you wanna talk about it, give me a call. I'd be happy to shed some light on the impetus behind patriarchal microaggressions, and I'd love your comments for my senior thesis. Tell you what, I'll even pay you in beer." He stole the guy's napkin and scrawled his number on it.

LAX Guy frowned at him. "You're gonna give me beer to insult your girlfriend? "

"Of course not," Shitty said cheerfully. "I'm gonna give you beer in exchange for your insights on the gatekeepers of gender and the insecurities of masculinity." He tucked the napkin with his phone number into the LAX bro's breast pocket with a wink. "Also, she's not my girlfriend, she's my favorite ladybro, and I'll thank you not to pigeonhole our relationship into your heteronormative mold."

He slid back across the divide in tables to his original seat. Lardo rolled her eyes at him. "Dudes like that are why you can't call field hockey lacrosse," she said to Holster. "Lacrosse dudes are universally the worst."

"The hell's that guy doing at Samwell?" Ransom asked. "Geez."

"Speaking of homo leanings," Lardo raised an eyebrow at Shitty. "You were kinda hitting on that guy, Shits."

Shitty shrugged. "Confusing, enlightening, and arousing the enemy, that's my goal." He cast a contemplative eye towards the awkward line of the bro's back. "If he does take it that way that'll be research for a separate chapter, but still good. Repressed homosexuality's a different, if related, motivator—point is, guy was a douche." He slung an arm over Lardo's shoulders, though he knew she couldn't care less what some asshole said.

"My hero," Lardo deadpanned, "my knight in shining armor."

"I'd be a pretty shitty knight," Shitty said. "Haha. Get it? Shitty Knight?"

"Funniest thing I've ever heard," said Holster, unsmilingly buttering his toast.

"It'd be funnier if you two didn't make that joke twice a day," Ransom added, and Holster tossed him a packet of syrup.

"Anyway," says Shitty firmly, pulling Lardo against his side, "we were talking about, y'know."

"Yeah, my conception of him as ace pretty much collapsed the first time I saw him with Bitty on the ice," Ransom said. "Could cut through that sexual tension with a knife."

"Trust him to express his sexual attraction through hockey," Holster agreed.

"Okay, right, so all of us know," said Lardo. "Does Bitty?"

Everyone looked at Shitty. He gnawed his lip and thought about everybody's favorite southern belle. "I doubt it," he said after a minute. "Bitty's smart, and he's a little scary-psychic, but his mind powers seem to malfunction around you know who and I don't think he's very good at stuff having to do with himself, either. Plus, far as I can tell he's not out to his parents."

"Ooh," said Lardo, wincing.

Ransom and Holster exchanged glances. "What's that have to do with anything?" Ransom asked, apparently chosen by mental coinflip in their shared brainspace.

"It probably means he hasn't had a relationship before, or at least much of one. Sneaking kisses, maybe, holding hands, shit like that, but no dates or open declarations of feelings," Shitty explained. "Bitty probably hasn't picked up on you-know-who's feelings for him because he doesn't know what it looks like when someone wants him."

"Dude," said Holster, his eyes huge, "that's so sad. We gotta get them together."

"This isn't a romcom, Holtzy, " Ransom said, patting his arm. "I'm sure that's not what Shitty had in mind."

"Actually," said Shitty, "that's exactly what I had in mind. And I've got a plan."

+

Freshman year, five people had come out to Shitty in the same week, and he'd kept up with all of them. One of them was a lesbian and one was a bi trans girl, but two of them… He called Nik first, because—well, because he was tall, dark-haired and a little bit broody, and also because he missed him.

"What's up, Shitty?" Nik answered, "I'm on break at rehearsal so talk fast."

"Right," said Shitty. "Well. Two things. You wanna come by the Haus soon and get stoned and watch Bend it Like Beckham with me and Holster?"

"Yes," said Nik immediately. "What's the second thing?"

Shitty told him. There was a silence. "Think of it like a theatre exercise," Shitty said. "I'll smoke you up in exchange."

"Throw in a bottle of wine and make sure Ransom's not at our movie date and it's a deal," said Nik. "That guy hates me."

Shitty squinted at the sky. "He doesn't hate you," he said unconvincingly.

"One time I patted Holster on the knee and I thought Ransom was going to bite off my hand," Nik said flatly.

"Well, 'pat on the knee' is a little chaste if I remember right," Shitty said. "Rans is just protective is all."

"It's not my fault Adam's so pretty in glasses," Nik protested. "Anyway, you madman, fine. I’ll do it. But I gotta go—text me."

Shitty blew a kiss into his phone and hung up. The wind picked up, making eddies in the dead leaves around his feet. He scuffed a toe through them and smiled to himself, thinking of Nik as a freshman, all choppy bangs and earnest eyes and a sarcastic sense of humor that tended to slip sideways out of his mouth almost out of his control. He remembered the look Nik had given him, after he'd confessed—sharp and darting, scared and defiant and sure. "Cool," Shitty had said, and passed him the blunt, and Nik had deflated like he'd been holding his breath all his life.

(The breakdown had come later, halfway down the slippery slope from smoking together to shotgunning to making out. His hand on Nik's chest, keeping casual distance. Nik's eyes, wounded—"but you're taking like four G & S classes!"—"Yeah, because I don't take that shit for granted, I wanna know what it means that I'm pretty much a straight cis dude, you know? How I can be that and be less shitty about it.")

He grinned. Got less shitty as he got more Shitty. There was something in that—identity formed in opposition as well as incorporation—but he'd used up all his smarts for the day. He texted it to Lardo instead, just that, identity formed in opposition/incorporation, slid in there right after their argument about Ghostbusters II. She'd probably paint it for him and represent it better than his theory could anyway.

It was so nice, knowing she would know. Knowing she would know what he knew better than he knew it. It was pretty much his favorite thing.

He wandered home, thinking about earlier, about the little grin she'd given him after they'd told their knight joke, about the way she'd curled into his side and stayed there when he pulled her in.

+

Bitty got to the library and stopped short. There was someone new sitting with Jack and Shitty and Lardo at the dedicated Hockey Table. Someone very much not hockey. Someone with carefully styled dark hair and the cheekbones of a Tolkien elf who was dressed like he actually paid attention to the time between alarm clock and breakfast table. He managed (barely) to neither whistle, exclaim anything, or fan himself.

Lardo looked up and saw him, and nudged Shitty, who grinned wide and waved him over. "Bitty," Shitty said in what passed for his library appropriate voice, "I want you to meet my friend Nik. Nik, this is Bitty—Eric Bittle."

Bitty held out a hand, and Nik took it, squeezing it rather than shaking it, like either he or Bitty was European royalty. He smiled, a sideways, sardonic thing, his brown eyes warm. "Pleasure," he said, and either he was better at observing library protocol than Shitty (which to be fair would not be particularly hard) or he was pitching his voice low on purpose. It was a very nice voice. "Should I call you Eric or Bitty? I know the nicknames are a team thing usually but it seems to vary whether or not other friends adopt them."

He still had a hold of Bitty's hand. In the seat next to him Jack slid a little lower, glaring at his textbook. "They're a team thing," he muttered, and Bitty blinked at him, because no they weren't. Everyone called Shitty Shitty, and most people called Ransom Ransom because honestly Ransom was an awesome nickname.

He was a little miffed anyway because those were the first words Jack had said to him in like three days, so he wasn't particularly inclined to obey the weird rules he was just making up now.

"You can call me Bitty," he said, leaving off the part where this was the first time he'd had to decide because he had no friends other than the team. "I've gotten pretty used to it."

"Bitty, then," Nik said smoothly, giving his hand another squeeze before dropping it. Bitty expected him to look back at the notes on the table in front of him, but he propped his head on his hand instead. "What are you studying, Bitty?"

Bitty slid into his seat. "Um, American studies, I think," he said. "Mostly because I can make food for credit."

Nik widened his eyes dramatically. "A boy who cooks! Be still my beating heart."

Bitty busied himself with his bag so he could get his face under control. He was being flirted with. What did he do? He had no precedent! He took out his notebook and a pen. "What about you?" he asked.

"Guess," drawled Shitty. "Literally the most obvious things."

Nik grinned. "He's not wrong," he said. He held up two fingers. "Double major."

"Um," said Bitty, "I'm gonna guess you know Shitty from G & S," because you are queer as—as someone very queer; his southern metaphor lexicon wasn't really updated for the 21st century, "and the second is—" he looked at Nik, his sardonic mouth, his waiting, attentive eyes, the almost studied way he was draped across his chair. Nik raised an eyebrow at him, smooth and practiced. "Theatre," Bitty said.

Nik snapped his fingers in confirmation like a beat poet. Shitty nudged him. "Gotta work on being less of a stereotype, Nik," he teased.

"Not everyone can be an enigma like you, Shits," Lardo chimed in.

Shitty grinned. "I'm a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in bacon," he agreed, shoving a hand into Lardo's hair. Lardo shoved him off, giggling, and both their chairs threatened to tip over completely. Nik ignored them, looking at Bitty instead. "It's not my fault I wear my heart on my sleeve," he said, and winked.

Jack sat up. "Think I'm gonna go," he said quietly.

Bitty looked at him, worry outpacing annoyance. Jack had sat through Ransom and Holster's Great Spitball War of 2013 (which of course Lardo had won) without more than a vague grumble. He'd even smiled about it. A little roughhousing and chatter shouldn't scare him away. "Jack," he said, just as quietly. "You okay?"

Jack met his eyes. Bitty prided himself on his ability to read people, but Jack Zimmermann was like a brick wall to his psychic eye. Jack's gaze slid across his face and away. "Fine," he said. "Just kind of tired." He smiled a little and stood. "I'll see you around, guys. Nik."

Nik wiggled his fingers in a goodbye. Bitty looked at Shitty as Jack left, raising his eyebrows.

Shitty shook his head. "He's sorting through some shit," he said. "Best let him be for now."

Lardo snorted. "Right," she said, "that's what we're doing, leaving him alone."

"We are," Shitty insisted. "He's gotta work it out himself, we're just providing some incentive."

Bitty looked between them, totally lost. "Guys," he said, "what the heck are you talking about?"

Shitty flapped a hand. "You'll find out soon. Hopefully."

Nik sighed. "I guess my work here is done," he said regretfully. "Shame. Bitty, you are cute as hell."

Bitty felt himself go scarlet. "Uh," he said, "thanks."

Nik smirked at him. "I don't suppose you wanna come help me run lines?"

Bitty was 98% sure that was a euphemism and almost 30% sure he didn't care. Nik was hot, and interested, and that was not a combination Bitty had really encountered before, and he was a boy with needs. But the other 70% of him was already shaking its head, caught in the distinctly miserable line of Jack's back as he walked away. "Some other time?"

Nik looked surprised—maybe the first uncalculated expression Bitty had seen on his face—and then smiled, small and genuine. "Sure," he said. He leaned over to peck Shitty on the cheek. "See you soon for that movie date. Remember, no Ransom."

"I'll do what I can, but he's kind of a barnacle." Shitty warned. "Besides, I'm not certain you don't want him gone just so you can have access to Holster's junk."

Nik pressed a hand to his heart. "You wound me," he said. "Adam's junk is entirely safe from me unless he happens to be tipsy, baked, and totally into it." He sighed. "And that only happened once."

Bitty raised his eyebrows at Lardo, who shrugged. "Before my time."

"I didn’t know Holster was, um," Bitty said. "Bi?" he hazarded.

Shitty shrugged. "Current theory is like 80/20 split leading straight," he said. "Drops to 90/10 when he's at a party and spikes to 60/40 when he's high."

Bitty raised his eyebrows. "What if he's high at a party?"

"All bets are off," Shitty said. "Doesn't happen often though, he's a private smoker."

Nik grinned. "This is the kind of shit we sit around and talk about in the G & S department," he said.

"Bits, you're the closest thing we sons of Kinsey get to an absolute these days," Shitty said. "95/5 leading gay, or the True Gay."

Bitty laughed, giving a little bow.

Shitty lay a hand on his own chest. "I am your natural opposite, the 95/5 straight. Lardo here's something even more rare, the perfect 50/50 bi."

Lardo grinned. "What can I say? Everyone's hot."

"Of course the whole system's old fashioned and breaks down as soon as you factor in the spectrum of gender as well as sexuality," Shitty said, "but it's fun anyway."

"I'm not quite at your level," Nik said to Bitty. "I'm like 85/15, I'll probably make out with a chick if she wants and enjoy it."

"I always thought Ransom was my brother in straightness," Shitty said, "but Nik has other theories."

Nik spread his hands. "All I'm saying is his protectiveness seems a little more motivated than you'd expect from a no homo bro," he says. "But like you said, the system's flawed. Or maybe he is a 95/5, and he's just found his 5."

Bitty licked his lips. "What about Jack?" he asked as casually as he could.

"Ah," said Nik.

Shitty sat up, his face going carefully blank. "Sorry," he said. "State secret. Roomie best friend soul brother platonic life partner vow of silence."

Bitty blinked. He'd expected a laugh, a joke maybe about how Jack transcended margin of error and achieved the perfect 100/0 straight, not Shitty getting more serious than maybe Bitty'd ever seen him.

"Now," said Nik, "I really do have to go." He smiled apologetically at Bitty. "It really was a pleasure to meet you."

"Pleasure's all mine," Bitty said, automatic, but found he meant it anyway.

"Cute, southern, and a gentleman," Nik said, teasing, "and you told me I'd have to act, Shits."

Shitty shrugged. "Just thought I should appeal to your artistic pride rather than just your libido," he said. "You know. Out of respect or whatever."

"Ta," said Nik dryly, and left.

Bitty raised his eyebrows at Shitty and Lardo. "Now what in seven hells was that all about?"

"That's Nik," said Shitty easily.

"Right," said Bitty slowly, "but why?"

Lardo raised her eyebrows at him. "Why is he Nik? I think you need Johnson for that one."

Bitty blew out a frustrated breath. "Why was he here?"

Shitty looked shifty. "He's my friend," he said, "and. I thought you might like him?"

Lardo glared at him, and he looked guilty.

Bitty frowned. "You were trying to set us up?"

Shitty hesitated. "Y—" he started, but Lardo smacked him upside the head before he could finish the syllable. "No," he said wretchedly. "Well. If you want?" He rubbed a hand across his face. "Hoo boy."

Bitty crossed his arms. "Shitty," he said firmly. "What on earth is going on?"

"I, um. Made what is turning out to be a kind of ill-considered plan," Shitty said, "and now I have to ask you to just kind of trust me? Because I'd really love to tell you but I really can't. Yet."

Bitty felt his heart sink. "Nik flirting with me," he said, his mouth tasting bitter, "that was part of your plan?"

"Um," said Shitty.

"Great," Bitty snapped. "So the only boy who's shown an interest in me since I got to Samwell was an actor who you told to show an interest."

"W-well, technically, but he really was interested!" Shitty said desperately. "He wouldn't have invited you to practice lines if—"

"Shut up," said Bitty. "Just." He stood up in a rush. He didn't really get angry—it was only a matter of minutes before this rush of rage turned to gross sobbing, and he'd really rather not be in the middle of the library when it happened. "I. I'm going home," he snapped, shoving his stuff in his backpack. "I can't believe you. I never would have expected—" he stopped, rolling his tongue around in his mouth. He shook his head and spun on his heel, getting the hell out of there before the tears in his eyes fell.

+

"You fucked up," Lardo said quietly.

Shitty stared after Bitty, his head spinning. "He was just supposed to be flustered and confused, not almost take him up on it," he protested weakly. "I thought he'd be too hung up on Jack to even consider it."

Lardo punched him hard in the knee. "Of course he nearly took him up on it," she snapped. "Shits, I don't have to say this to you often, but you need to check your fucking privilege."

Shitty blinked at her. "How so?"

Lardo's eyes were hard. "You're treating this like it's the same as if you were pining for some chick," she said. "You figure because every time you're into someone you don't have eyes for anyone else, that'll be the same for Bitty. But he doesn't have that luxury."

Shitty frowned. "I don’t know what you mean.”

Lardo sighed and turned to face him. "Shitty, you are a tall, hot straight guy, surrounded by mostly straight girls. If you're into someone, there's a pretty good chance they're into you, or at least you can imagine they would be, because girls have been into you for years. You probably had girlfriends in middle school and high school, right?"

"Sure," said Shitty.

"So imagine you're pining for this girl, right," Lardo continued, "only now imagine you've never had a girlfriend, and all your life you've been surrounded exclusively by lesbians. You may have had crushes, but you always knew for a fact that they weren't interested. You get to college, and you go to some college that's pretty famous for having a lot of straight girls. But you join, like. I dunno. Knitting club, dyke book club, something where even still you're surrounded by lesbians. And in knitting club you meet this girl, and you are crazy into her. But you have absolutely zero reason to think she'd be interested, because no one else has been, and it’s knitting club, she's the captain of knitting club, she has got to be gay."

"I don't think knitting clubs have captains," Shitty interjected despite himself.

Lardo flicked him in the temple, her nail snapping against tender skin. "Shut the fuck up. Anyway. You're just crushing like you always have, being your sweet self, making friends with her and figuring hey, that's all you're gonna get. And then your trusted friend introduces you to a hot straight girl who basically offers you no-strings-attached sex. Are you actually telling me you'd say no?" She held a finger above her nose in an imitation mustache. "Sorry, extremely hot girl, I'm saving myself for the emotionally repressed lesbian who will never love me ever?" She dropped her hand and gave him a withering glare. "Come on."

Shitty licked his lips. "Oh," he said.

"Yeah," said Lardo, "oh. And then picture this—your trusted friend? Turns out he told that hot girl to flirt with you, for weird secret reasons that he refuses to tell you. Doesn't even seem like it's about you, because if it were about you he could tell you, right? So this friend, this buddy and confidant, the first person you came out to? Turns out he's using you for something else, something clearly more important. Your new connection with that straight girl—the one that was pretending to be interested in you, probably one of the only straight girls you've ever even spoken to—that isn't even the point of whatever thing he's planning."

"Fuck," muttered Shitty, feeling sick. "Oh, god—but it is about him—the whole thing—"

"Is it?" Lardo said sharply. "Or is it about Jack? Because you've been treating those like they're the same thing, and they're not."

Shitty buried his face in his hands. "Shit. Fuck. Lardo, what do I do?"

"First," said Lardo, sliding a hand up his spine, "you never try anything like this without filling me in beforehand ever again, ever."

"Done," said Shitty fervently, trying not to melt too obviously as her fingers worked their way up to the base of his skull, little points of soothing contact.

"Second," said Lardo, "you figure out a damn good way to apologize. Like. I'm talking remodeling the kitchen of the Haus out of pocket apology. Beyoncé ticket apology."

"Both," Shitty muttered, his eyes closed. Lardo's fingers were in his hair now, her nails combing up from the top of his spine across his scalp. He shivered, and she pulled back, patting him on the shoulder. He opened one eye, pouting.

Her face was serious. "Third," she said, "you tell him the truth."

Shitty stared at her. "I can't," he says. "Lardo, I can't, I swore that day freshman year that I'd never tell anyone."

"You were talking about it with me and the boys the other day," she pointed out. "What's the difference?"

"The difference is Jack doesn't want to sleep with you and the boys," Shitty muttered. "Besides, you already knew, I didn’t have to spell it out. Bitty—" he shook his head. "In your hypothetical, I'd have to straight up hear that the knitting club captain was a straight girl all along, and that's violating my promise explicitly. I can't do that to Jack."

"Then you should never have embarked on this stupid harebrained scheme," Lardo said, unsympathetically. "Why did you? Why now?"

Shitty shrugged a little. "Because it's been making Jack crazy more than normal lately," he said, "and because." He looked at Lardo sideways. "We're graduating," he said softly, "and there's some stuff that shouldn't be left unsaid."

Lardo watched him, her head cocked. "That so," she said, voice unreadable.

Shitty stretched, his spine popping, pretending the tension in his chest was from sitting hunched over. "For example," he said, letting himself smirk at her, "you think I'm tall and hot."

Lardo snorted a laugh and jabbed him in the ribs. "Shut the fuck up."

He wrapped his arms around her as she continued to pepper him with tiny punches. "Nope," he said, grinning, "never gonna let you live it down."

She eventually stopped digging her knife-point fingers into his stomach and just let him hold her, and he felt like maybe he was floating, lost and sad and thrumming with light anyway, tethered only to her and through her to the earth. "Hey, Lardo."

"Mm?" Lardo said from where her face was shoved into his chest.

"Sorry you have to deal with me being such a fuck up," he said.

She raised her head so she could glare at him. "I refuse to cuddle if you're gonna turn into a stupid self-pitying ass," she said.

Shitty smiled down at her. "Okay," he said.

She searched his face. "Right," she said. "Good," and she put her head back down.

Shitty closed his eyes. He could feel her breathing, her ribs expanding and contracting in his arms. You're just crushing like you always have, being your sweet self, making friends with her and figuring hey, that's all you're gonna get.

Lardo didn't do relationships. Lardo barely did hookups—Lardo hung out at parties and made out with anyone she wanted, Lardo showed up at the Haus with hickeys on her collarbone and a middle finger for anyone who questioned them. Lardo, he was pretty sure, ruined lives, because Lardo was perfect and amazing and everything he'd ever wanted and she somehow tolerated his presence like, all the time, but he'd never met anyone she'd definitely slept with and that meant there was no way in hell he was ever gonna risk asking for anything but this, because this was awesome.

He'd been drunk once (or twice, or three times) and disabusing some frog of the notion that the friendzone existed, and he'd tried to explain why friendship with a woman was in no way inferior to sex with that woman. Which really shouldn't be a thing that needed explanation, but he'd resigned himself to the fact that many of his gender apparently disagreed a long time ago. "Okay," he'd said, "listen. I have this friend, right, and she's amazing, she's perfect. She's like. My best bro. And she's hot, and if she wanted to, I'd be down, Christ, I'd be more than down, but that event? That, you know. Sex. Session. Or whatever. That'd be nothing without the friendship, without the way I feel about her. Whereas," he said, and then noticed that the poor frog had passed out. "Whereas," he continued to the ceiling, not one to waste a drunken revelation, "whereas the friendship is whole, my feelings are totally whole, without the sex."

"Sure, buddy," Ransom had said, wandering by. "Sounds great."

Shitty let out a long breath and felt Lardo shift against him, pulling away. He let her go, watching her run a hand through her short hair. "Do you miss your length?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Hell no," she said. "Everyone always assumed I was straight, for one thing." She cocked her head at him. "Why, do you?"

He reached out to push his hands into her hair, and she tilted her head up to let him, her eyelashes fluttering. He swallowed. "Nah," he said quietly. "I like it like this."

She smiled crookedly at him and he was almost certain she could see it in his face. She knew what he knew better than he knew it, after all. "Good," she said. She caught one of his hands and used it to tug him to his feet. "C'mon," she said. "We've got apologies to plan, because you're a fucking dumbass."

He let her lead him out of the library and into the dark, his heart caught in the web of her fingers laced with his.

+

Bitty was halfway through his third pie when Ransom and Holster found him.

They tiptoed into the kitchen like they were afraid they might spook him, and he ignored them out of generalized spite. He'd managed to stop crying, but he was certain he was still all red and puffy from it—he was, of course, one of those criers who swelled up like overripe fruit. He wasn't really actively angry anymore. Shitty probably had a good reason. Shitty's plans were weird but they generally worked. It just. He sighed and wiped at the back of his cheek with a floury hand. It'd been nice to feel wanted.

"Bitty?" Ransom asked after they'd both been standing there for several silent minutes. "Are you okay?"

Bitty sighed. "Well," he said, frowning slightly at the mass of pans and jars that surrounded him. "Shitty introduced me to his friend Nik today."

Ransom scowled. "Man, I hate that guy," he said. "What'd he do? Was he a dick to you? I'll punch him in the mouth."

Holster stared sideways at him. "What's your problem with Nik? He's a good dude. Great taste in movies."

"Movies do not make the man," Ransom muttered.

"He was fine," Bitty reassured Ransom. "Better than fine, he was." He sighed sharply. "I think Shitty bribed him to flirt with me."

Ransom and Holster blinked rapidly in unison. It was unnerving. "He what?" said Ransom, and then Holster said, slower, "was Jack there?"

Bitty stared at him. "Um. At first, yeah. Why?"

Holster pivoted and gave Ransom a significant glance. "The plan," he said.

Bitty's heart sank. "Oh no," he said, "not you guys too!"

"Did Nik keep flirting with you after Jack left?" Ransom asked.

Bitty thought about that. "Yeah," he said. "if anything he got more direct."

Holster nodded. "That's real," he said. "Shitty maybe asked him to come make a show of it, but he really meant the flirting, if that helps.”

Bitty licked his lips, tasting confectioner's sugar. "He asked me if I wanted to help him practice his lines," he said, hoping his face had enough flour on it to cover his blush.

Ransom snorted, but Holster just nodded. "A classic, that one."

Bitty only saw Ransom's jaw tighten because he was looking for it. A bit more motivated that your usual no homo bro. "I told him maybe some other time."

Ransom raised his eyebrows. "You're interested in that guy?" he asked. "But—" He stopped, possibly because Holster had jabbed an unsubtle elbow into his ribs.

Bitty waited. "But?"

"But he's such a dick," Ransom finished lamely.

"Christ, calm down about it," Holster said, maybe a little too loudly.

"I'm not exactly spoiled for choice, boys," Bitty sighed. "Samwell might be filled with gays, but the crossover between those circles and ours is kind of minimal. Ancestral fear of jocks and everything."

“You haven’t met anyone you might be interested in?” Ransom asked.

Bitty wiped his hands on his apron. “Well,” he stalled, “that’s not really the question, is it, it’s all about the other way around."

"Bittle," Jack called, rounding the corner into the kitchen, "are you in here—" he stopped as he caught sight of the three of them, Ransom and Holster on either side of Bitty and Bitty himself covered head to toe in flour.

Bitty felt himself flush. "Jack, hey." He ran a knuckle under his eye in vain attempt at damage control. "You don't know anything about Shitty's plan, do you?"

Jack scowled. "Plan for what?"

Bitty let out a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness." He crossed to his first pie, just at the edge of being cool enough to eat. The fact that it was brown sugar apple was maybe not a coincidence, but Jack had been acting weird as hell and Bitty had a long history of solving problems by throwing baked goods at them. "Then you can have pie."

He served up a piece, making sure to lingeringly pass it under both Ransom and Holster's noses before handing it to Jack. His captain took it with a little smile. "Thanks," he said, something a little bit soft and unfamiliar in his voice.

Bitty smiled back, feeling warm down to his toes.

"We're gonna just go," Holster said from behind him, and Bitty watched bemused as he literally towed Ransom out of the kitchen. Ransom held up a hand, face hopeful. "Can I just have a little piece—'"

"No pie for conspirators," Bitty said firmly. "Repent, and we'll see."

Jack watched them go. "What's that all about?"

Bitty sighed and went to wash his hands at the sink. “I wish I knew,” he said. “Shitty’s got some secret plan, they’re in on it, all will become clear eventually.” He turned to lean against the counter, running his now-clean hand through his hair. “You were looking for me?”

Jack swallowed his bite of pie. “Uh,” he said. “Yeah.” He glanced around the kitchen. “Are you okay?”

Bitty raised an eyebrow at him and hoped Jack wouldn’t notice the swelling around his eyes. “You were looking for me to ask me if I was okay?”

Jack frowned. “No, but—”

Bitty took a step toward him. “Are you okay? I feel like I haven’t seen you in days.”

Jack kept his eyes on his pie. “You only bake like this when you’re upset,” he said.

Bitty lifted a shoulder in a shrug and waited. When the silence stretched too long, he laughed a little. “Alright, let’s both of us keep our secrets. What did you want me for?”

Jack took another bite and raised his eyes. They were so blue—blue even in the yellow kitchen light; Jack’s hips were canted against the doorframe and he was all angles and broad planes, cheekbones and shoulders and wrists and halfway-betweens. He was lingering on the edge of Bitty’s quite literal comfort zone, and Bitty wished—well. He wished a lot of things, but somehow it would help if Jack would take just one more step into the kitchen.

“Tomorrow before class,” Jack said abruptly. “We should get coffee again.”

Bitty blinked. “Oh, um, sure—” he started.

Jack cut him off. “And I wanna see you the day after that at the rink, 5:00 AM. We’re starting checking practice again.” He was staring at his pie again.

“Sure,” Bitty repeated. “Okay.”

“Good,” said Jack. “Thank you. For the pie.”

“Any time,” Bitty said. “And—if you do want to talk. You know I’m here for you, right?”

Jack met his eyes, and for a minute Bitty thought he might actually come in, might sit down and talk over pie and work out whatever weird knot of tension had been sitting in the air between them for days, almost weeks now, ever since Bitty had gotten that first assist. But Jack just nodded. “I know,” he said, and left.

Bitty sighed and surveyed the sticky, floury chaos of the kitchen. He set to work at the methodical work of cleaning. Everything else was too large, too nebulous; washing the blue of Jack’s eyes down the sink, he lost himself in the satisfaction of small, practical accomplishment.

+

Over the course of the semester Bitty had discovered Jack Zimmermann’s secret: he really liked fancy coffee. He would never actually order it for himself, out of some rigid adherence to tradition or to the Rules Of Manliness or something (probably Shitty was writing a chapter of his thesis on it), but he would watch Bitty order his vanilla macchiato or pumpkin spice latte with an attention bordering on eagerness and then steal sips whenever he thought Bitty wasn’t looking, his own cup of black coffee untouched at his elbow.

“They’ll be phasing these out soon,” Bitty mused, watching Jack swallow. “Will your white-girl heart be content with a peppermint mocha?”

Jack pulled a face at him. He seemed happier this morning, his movements looser, his smile more frequent. “I don’t actually like it,” he said. “It’s just weird, not coffee anymore. A whole different thing.”

Bitty rolled his eyes. “You elitist. True coffee has the consistency and flavor of mud, right?”

Jack shook his head. “Coffee doesn’t taste like mud. Most tea kinda tastes like dirt, though. I don’t know why anyone would drink the stuff.”

“Anglophilia, mostly,” Bitty mused. “Makes you more like Sherlock Holmes to drink tea. Whereas black coffee is like. I dunno, Teddy Roosevelt. Ooh, you could do your project on that - Revolutionary America embracing coffee as a way to separate itself from Britain, or whatever.” They’d been trying for a week and a half to come up with something for Jack to write about for his final project in their shared class. Bitty was beginning to give up hope. His own project—charting the evolution of the apple pie and its status as a symbol of American Values—involved following recipes from colonial America to the present day and comparing the results. The entire Haus was pleased with him for that one.

“Teddy Roosevelt’s not exactly a revolutionary American,” Jack countered. “Or, he is, but not like. Capital-R Revolutionary. And anyway, coffee is not American, coffee is definitely French. Americans have, like. Chewing tobacco.”

Bitty wrinkled his nose. “Gross,” he said. “And not a food.”

Jack stole another sip of his coffee, not even attempting to be subtle. “I mean, technically you chew it.”

“If you don’t swallow, it’s not a food,” Bitty remarked airily.

Jack choked a little on his sip, recovered, and then offered weakly, “That’s what she said?”

Bitty raised his eyebrows at him to distract from his pink cheeks. “I think that’s the first successful joke I’ve ever heard you tell, and it’s one that was outdated in 2009.”

“Harsh,” Jack said mildly. His eyes flickered over Bitty’s face distractedly.

Bitty ducked his head so he could catch his eyes again. He didn’t want Jack slipping back into whatever troubled space he’d been in lately. “Jack?”

Jack blinked and met his eyes. “Mm?”

Bitty smiled crookedly at him. “You still have my coffee.”

Jack glanced down at it. “Right,” he said. “Helping you… cut down on your sugar intake. Everything in moderation.” He slid the coffee cup back across the table.

Bitty caught it before it tipped over and spilled vaguely coffee-flavored liquid pumpkin pie all over his lap. “I appreciate it,” he said drily. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Jack checked his phone and frowned. “Probably get to class on time, for one thing,” he said, standing up.

Bitty yelped and rocketed to his feet. He slung his coat around his shoulders and then glanced around for his scarf. The team mocked him for bundling up this much this early, but he wasn’t used to this, goddammit. Mid-autumn at Samwell was the depths of winter back home.

“Bitty,” said Jack, and he looked up from checking under his chair to have Jack drape the scarf around his neck. Jack paused, looking down at him with a curious, intent expression. When Bitty met his eyes he stepped back, his fingers lingering after the rest of him had moved away. For a moment Bitty thought he might say something, but he just spun on his heel and led the way out of the coffee shop and into the brilliant autumn day.

Bitty shook himself and jogged to catch up.

+

Someone was yelling in the Haus.

Someone was pretty much always yelling in the Haus, Bitty was learning; usually it was Shitty or Holster or Ransom. But usually it was also a kind of joyful shouting, or at least laughing distress. This was a real, angry shouting.

Bitty jogged up the front stairs, following the raised voices through the halls half out of worry and half out of curiosity. When he recognized Ransom’s voice he slowed; when he recognized Nik’s he stopped altogether.

“—or back the fuck off,” Nik was saying. “It isn’t your place and it isn’t fair.”

“Isn’t my place?” Ransom snapped, disbelieving. “Of course it’s my place, he’s my best friend—”

“Yeah,” Nik said, cutting him off. “He is. And he’s my friend, too—just my friend, like he’s just your friend. I’ve made my peace with that. Have you?”

Ransom was silent, and Nik sighed sharply. “Listen. I get it. Trust me. And I know you think I’m an asshole—hell, I don’t even necessarily disagree. But you’re a good dude, Adam wouldn’t care about you so much if you weren’t. I don’t like seeing you make yourself miserable like this, and I refuse to accept you making him miserable. So figure your shit out and tell him, or I will.”

Footsteps approached Bitty’s corner, and he panicked, trying to find a place to hide so he wouldn’t be caught at his blatant eavesdropping. He was crouched against a wall when Nik rounded the corner and caught sight of him. He raised his eyebrows, and Bitty put a desperate finger to his lips.

Nik nodded and grabbed his hand, towing him quickly down the stairs. At the bottom he hesitated, and Bitty took the lead instead, pulling him down the hall to his room and closing the door.

Nik watched him for a minute, all dark angles in his fashionable black coat. It was the first time Bitty had seen him since they were introduced at the library nearly two weeks before. He really was very pretty. As Bitty stared embarrassingly, he smiled a little. “You heard that, huh?”

Bitty bit his lip. “Just the end,” he said. “I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry—”

Nik shrugged. “It’s okay. Not the first time it’s happened. Probably not the last.”

Bitty wandered over to his bed and sat down. “You wouldn’t really tell Holster, would you?”

Nik cocked his head. “You think I’m the kind of guy who goes around outing people?” he asked, a hint of his previous teasing back.

Bitty shook his head, and Nik nodded. “No,” he said softly. “I’m not that much of an asshole. But Ransom thinks I am.” He glanced at the floor, then back at Bitty. “Speaking of,” he said. “I think I owe you an apology.”

Bitty patted the bed next to him, trying not to be nervous. “What,” he said, aiming for teasing, “for flirting with me?”

Nik grinned at him and slipped his coat from his shoulders, coming to perch next to Bitty. “Sort of,” he said. “For the circumstances thereof. I should know better than to go along with Shitty’s plans.”

Bitty leaned back on his hands. “I don’t suppose you feel guilty enough to tell me what said plan actually is.”

“Sorry,” said Nik, not unkindly. “You’re cute, but my loyalty to Shits dies hard. Old ties, and all.”

Bitty licked his lips, flustered. “Are you, um. One of the five?”

Nik laughed. “Yeah,” he said, and held up three fingers. “Number three, Nikolai Alexeyev.” His eyes were warm. “Still friends with the other three,” he said. “Nina’s the fucking best. Paris and I dated for a while but he was a little too high strung. Too much like me—I like a boy who grounds me.” He flashed a smirk at Bitty, and Bitty laughed. “Haven’t seen Grace in a while, but last I heard she was taking the religion department by storm.”

Bitty raised his eyebrows. “Religion seems a—strange choice, for a queer girl,” he said.

Nik raised a shoulder. “Sometimes we seek out the things that hurt us most,” he said. “I think any queer kid’s familiar with that concept.”

Bitty stared at his knees and thought about Jack. “Yeah,” he said bitterly, then blinked. “Hang on. Other three?”

Nik smiled. “Ah,” he said. “You noticed. The fifth confessor is a mystery. They were the first, apparently, and Shitty refuses to give up the name. He says they transferred, but if they transferred then why won’t he tell us?”

Bitty thought about that. “Huh,” he said. “A mystery indeed.”

Nik draped an arm over his shoulders. “You know,” he said casually, “I fell hard as hell for Shitty freshman year.”

Bitty turned to stare at his (very close) profile. “Really?”

Nik grinned sideways at him. “You’re surprised? He’s gorgeous, he’s tall, he plays sports, and he was in, like, all of my non-theatre classes—which happened to be all the classes about queer people being queer. He was like all the hot parts of the jocks at my high school without all the parts that made them want to beat the shit out of me. And he liked me, as a friend if nothing else—he likes everyone, but I hadn’t figured that out yet. I thought I was dreaming the first time he invited me to get stoned with him.”

Bitty shook his head. “You poor baby,” he said, only half in jest.

Nik chuckled. “Tell me about it.” He squinted self-deprecatingly. “Threw a fucking tantrum when he told me he was straight,” he said. “I’m surprised he ever spoke to me again.”

Bitty shook his head. “He’s not that shallow,” he said. “He’s—trustworthy. That’s why so many people come out to him.” He folded his lips into his mouth. He shouldn’t be hesitating, it’s not like Nik didn’t know, but it was always—weird, a weird thing to acknowledge about himself, strange to tell anyone he didn’t know very well. “It’s why I did,” he said quietly.

Nik turned to face him, the arm over his shoulder sliding forward until his fingers were under Bitty’s chin. Bitty felt himself go red immediately. “I’m sorry,” Nik said seriously, holding Bitty’s eyes. “For going along with him even though I knew it was a bad idea, and for flirting with you the first time in such a—a fucked up way. But I think you should know that I think you’re probably the cutest southern belle I’ve ever seen, and if I’d seen you in other company I would have hit on you anyway.”

Bitty felt like his eyeballs might be boiling, he was so red. “Um,” he said. “Thanks. You’re—kind of gorgeous, that’s quite a compliment.”

Nik examined his face. “But,” he suggested.

Bitty swallowed. “But,” he agreed.

Nik sighed. “Figured,” he said, and slipped the hand from under his chin up to ruffle his hair. He stood, slinging his jacket over his shoulder. “Still,” he said. “I’m sure you need a break sometime from all this testosterone, or someone to talk to about boys, or whatever. Give me a call, yeah?”

Bitty nodded. “Thanks,” he said. “I’d been feeling bad that I hadn’t really made any queer friends.”

Nik grinned at him. “Come hang out sometime when Paris and Grace and Nina are over and we’ll have our very own Pride parade,” he joked, and Bitty laughed.

At the door, he turned. “The sullen celeb sitting with us at the library,” he said. “Right?”

Bitty thought about feigning ignorance, but he was tired of playing it off. He shrugged, giving up. “Yeah."

Nik raised his eyebrows. “Then you’re much luckier than freshman me,” he said, and let himself out. In the hall, Bitty heard him say, “Jack, hey,” and thanked God that he was an actor, because his voice was perfectly, studiedly casual.

“Nik,” Jack acknowledged, and Bitty shoved a hand over his eyes, flopping back onto his bed. Great. So Jack had seen Nik leaving his room, his closed room. Awesome.

“Bitty?” Jack said from his doorway, and Bitty sat up so fast he saw stars.

“Jack, hey,” he said, trying for casual and feeling his cheeks burning anyway. “What, uh, what’s up?”

Jack was frowning at him. “I didn’t know you and Nik hung out,” he said, a weird note to his voice.

“We don’t,” Bitty said quickly, and then winced. “I mean, we do—we did—this was the first time.”

“Ah,” said Jack, his face even more of a closed door than usual, and Bitty wanted to bash his head against a wall. “Okay. Just—wanted to make sure you were good.”

“Yeah,” said Bitty. “I’m—yes, I am good.”

Jack watched him for a minute, and then turned around and walked away. Bitty stood in a rush. “Jack,” he said.

Jack stopped, but he didn’t turn, and what would Bitty even say to explain, we weren’t making out, nothing happened, why would Jack even care, but he needed Jack not to be—not to look like that, not ever. “Are—are you good, what’s wrong—”

Jack still didn’t turn to look at him. “I’m fine,” he said, voice steady. “There’s just something I have to do.”

Bitty watched him disappear up the stairs and sank back onto his bed, feeling like whatever had loosened between him and Jack was wound right back up again. He closed his eyes. Great.

+

The painting was huge—nearly as tall as Shitty himself, three feet wide, and divided along the vertical axis. The central figure was all negative space—carved out from the riot of color on one side, fading hazily into the darkness on the other. It wasn’t white, but a multicolored paleness: a curled, fetoid human, knees drawn up to its chest, the line of its legs drawing the eye to its ghostly golden heart.

“This one’s for you,” Lardo said quietly, and when Shitty stared at her she pointed at the little label on the wall next to it: In Opposition, 2014. Multimedia, 177.8 cm x 91.44 cm (5’10” x 3’).

There was a weird tightness to Shitty’s throat. "Lardo, I—You're always making me beautiful shit." He shook his head. "I don't deserve you."

"You think I give you giant paintings of interesting psychological concepts because I like you?" Lardo mocked, but she was smiling. "Nah, Shits, I can't give the things away. You're the only one dumb enough to take ‘em."

Shitty stared her down. "You could sell these for thousands of dollars," he said. "You know that, right? You're a genius."

"You're biased, and also high," she pointed out. "I'm a junior doing visual arts at a liberal arts school, Shits. I didn’t even get in to real art school."

Shitty bumped her with a shoulder. "Because you didn't apply to real art school," he protested. "Don't pretend like you were rejected."

"If I were a real artist I would have applied," she said softly, staring at In Opposition.

Shitty snorted. "What, because real artists don't believe in compromise and maintaining civil relationships with their parents?" he asked. "C'mon, bro, I know you don't believe in that ivory tower bullshit. You're a real artist when you do real art, and this is fucking." He gestured around them. "Real."

She unhunched her shoulders, looking at him sideways. "Thanks," she said.

"They're gonna love you," he said. "You can't look at this stuff and not love you."

She raised his eyebrows at him. He kicked the side of her foot lightly. "Duh," he said to her implicit question. "Duh."

"Just checking," she said comfortably.

He ran a hand through his hair, all his nerves pleasantly abuzz. "How long do we have until the masses arrive?"

She checked her phone. "Fifteen minutes," she said. She took a breath. "Can we go outside?"

"'Course," said Shitty, slipping a hand to the back of her neck as they walked, rubbing soothing circles at the base of her skull. She leaned into his side, and as they crossed through the doors into the cool night air he pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

It was her first art show—not the first she’s had work in, of course, not even the first collection of work she’d presented to the art department, but her first, real, curated, public show, where it was only her art on display for the whole school and community to see and comment on and admire, and Shitty was one hundred percent certain that she was going to rock their fucking world.

His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he fumbled for it, stepping a little away from Lardo. He frowned at it, then answered. “Bits?”

“Shitty, um—it’s Jack.” Bitty sounded like he was going to cry.

Everything snapped clear-focus. “What? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Bitty said. “He’s really, really drunk—I know he doesn’t drink and this is, it’s bad. He won’t tell me what happened, but clearly something did. He said to call you, so.” Shitty heard Bitty swallow. “I’m sorry, I know Lardo’s thing is tonight.”

“It’s okay,” Shitty said automatically. “It’s–it’s okay, stay with him, will you? I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Yeah,” said Bitty. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Thanks.” Shitty hung up. "Fuck, Lardo - I'm sorry, I have to go. It’s Jack, Bitty said he got really drunk, I’m sure he’ll be fine, but. He’s asking for me.”

Lardo nodded. “Go,” she said.

Shitty ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry—your opening.”

She shrugged, but he could see the disappointment in the line of her shoulders and it was like someone was very slowly pushing a knife into his heart. "I'll make it up to you," he said desperately. "I promise, anything you want."

Lardo licked her lips, and there was a look in her eyes he'd never seen—appraising, maybe, a little nervous. She stuck her hands in her pockets, her whole posture saying fuck it. "Eat me out some time," she said casually, "and I'll consider forgiving you."

Shitty's heart stopped. "Um," he said carefully against the deafening silence of his own brain. "Y-you'd be into that, huh?"

Lardo shrugged again, like she was shaking off the cold. "I could probably stand it," she said, a little too fast, "what about you?"

Shitty shrugged back, his heart starting up again like a semiautomatic rifle. "Oh, y'know," he said. "There's, uh. Literally nothing I want to do more."

Lardo took a little breath, the corner of her mouth turning up. "Nbd," she said.

"Nbd," he echoed, a little hollowly.

Lardo blinked slow at him for another minute, and then grimaced. "If you even think the words 'mustache ride', the offer's rescinded and also I'll tear out your spine with my bare hands," she warned.

"Duly noted," he replied, knowing he was grinning at her like a fucking idiot but not quite able to care.

"Right," she said. "Good." She raised an eyebrow at him. "You better leave, or you'll have nothing to make up to me."

He swallowed. "Right." He thought about saying more. He thought about kissing her. He even thought, briefly and selfishly, about calling Bitty back and telling him to deal with it himself. But instead he just turned and started toward his car, feeling like a coward.

"Shitty," Lardo called. He turned, heart in his mouth. She was leaning back on her heels at the curb, the wind shifting through her hair. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, and he could feel her gaze sweep up his body. "I'll see you later."

He dropped his keys three times before managing to start his car.

+

Bitty knelt in front of Jack, the tile of the bathroom floor cold against his knees. He gnawed his lip, his eyes on Jack’s still face. His captain was sitting against the wall, his knees drawn up to his chest. He was breathing shallowly through his nose, gripping his own arms where they were wrapped around his knees. His eyes were so tight shut his eyelids were pale with it.

“Jack,” said Bitty softly, reaching out to touch his wrist. “Jack, open your eyes, please.”

Jack shook his head minutely, and then winced. “No,” he said. “D-did you call—”

Bitty nodded, and then realized Jack couldn’t see him. “Yeah,” he said. “I called him, he’s on his way. But I need you to open your eyes, okay?”

Jack licked his lips. “I don’t—I’m not going to pass out,” he said, his voice thick.

“Even so,” said Bitty firmly. He’d coached his fair share of frogs through being too drunk, and while this was about a thousand times more terrifying that didn’t mean it was actually different. “I’d really appreciate it if you looked at me.”

“Je veux pas que tu me vois comme ça,” Jack muttered.

“Jack, honey, I don’t speak French,” Bitty said gently. He ran his fingers over Jack’s wrist, hoping maybe touch would work where speech wasn’t.

Jack cracked an eye. “I know,” he said. He moved his wrist. Bitty started to pull back his hand, but Jack caught it, folding their palms together. “‘M sorry,” he said, not meeting Bitty’s gaze, but he didn’t close his eyes again either. “For. Lots of stuff.”

"Ain't nothing in the world you got to apologize to me for, Jack Zimmermann," Bitty said, maybe not as steadily as he might have meant. Jack's palm was warm and broad, his grip on Bitty’s fingers certain.

Jack dropped his head, and for a horrible moment Bitty thought he was crying. But the shake in his shoulders resolved itself into laugher and he finally met Bitty’s eyes, pushing his hair from his face with the hand that wasn’t currently giving Bitty heart palpitations. He was smiling a sideways smile, his eyes bright. “You’re so damn southern.”

Bitty felt himself blush, and fought the urge to look away. If he did, Jack might realize, and take his hand back. “Oh, I am sorry, I’m sure,” he said instead, playing up his drawl as much as possible. “Do my homespun Georgian ways offend your fancy northern sensibilities?”

Jack’s smile faded a little, leaving his lips parted and his eyes warm. “Not at all,” he said, and then murmured, “I—like it.” There was a sort of low, drunken slowness to his words, an unfamiliar cadence that sent shivers up Bitty’s spine. Jack lifted his free hand and brushed the backs of his fingers up Bitty’s jaw, so gently he might not have been touching him at all—Bitty might not be feeling anything but the radiant heat of his skin.

Bitty swallowed, and Jack dropped his hand. He tilted his head back against the wall, his eyes slipping closed again, and Bitty felt the silence press in on him, felt it going cold, needed to say something before that breathless heated moment fled entirely. “Jack,” he said, a little shakily, “I—”

“Jesus,” said Shitty from the doorway, and Bitty closed his eyes against his sudden and total misery.

When he opened them again Shitty was crouching beside him, looking at Jack worriedly. “Fuck, man,” he said. “What happened?”

Jack opened his eyes. He looked—hollowed out, despairing. “Called my dad,” he said shortly.

“Oh.” Shitty took in Jack’s state, the empty bottle at his side. His eyes widened when he saw Jack and Bitty’s joined hands. “Oh,” he said again. “Shit. You told him?”

Bitty fully expected Jack to let go, but he didn’t move. “Tried,” he said. “Didn’t—get very far.”

Shitty bounced on his toes a little, all nervous energy. “And?”

Jack made a little strangled noise, halfway between a laugh and a sob.

Shitty ran a hand over his face. “Fuck,” he said. “This—shit, Jack, I’m so sorry, this is my fault—”

“Your fault?” Bitty asked, before Jack could. “How?”

Shitty shook his head. “Me and my fucking stupid schemes, I drove you to this,” he muttered. He leaned in and took Jack’s face in his hands. “Jack, man, I’m so goddamn sorry—”

Jack listed forward, slotting his eye sockets against the heels of Shitty’s hands. “Not your fault,” he said, and his voice was choked—he was crying, now, his chest heaving with it. Bitty started to pull away—after all, Shitty was here now, and Shitty pretty much had a monopoly on touching Jack. But Jack clung to his hand, and so he stayed.

“Maybe it wouldn’t have happened now but it would still have happened. Had to,” Jack said. “I thought—I actually thought something would change, Shits. For the better, I mean.”

“Jack,” Shitty breathed, and he sounded like he was on the edge of tears himself. Bitty swallowed. He was almost certain that if Jack was sober he wouldn’t want Bitty here for this. This Jack—the Jack shaking himself apart against Shitty’s hands, muttering little bits of broken French—wasn’t his to see.

“Jack,” he said, and started to gently pry Jack’s fingers from his. “I think I should go.”

Jack clung to him for a minute, and then took a huge rasping breath. “Okay,” he said, and let go of Bitty’s hand. “I—thank you. Sorry.”

“Like I said,” Bitty said softly, his eyes on what he could see of Jack’s face. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“Bitty,” Jack said, almost pleading, and then he snapped, “fuck,” and rolled his head backwards into the wall, tapping the back of his skull against the tile rhythmically as he cried.

“Hey, hey!” Shitty got a hand between Jack’s skull and the wall. “None of that, now.” He glanced at Bitty. “Seriously, Bits, thank you. I couldn’t ask for him to be in better hands.”

Bitty stood up in a rush, brushing off his knees. “Well,” he said, a little self-conscious. “You know.”

Shitty nodded, and god, he probably did know, that was the worst part, Shitty probably knew all about the way Bitty’s palm itched at the loss of contact, how much he wanted to stay, wanted Jack to want him to stay. Shitty’s eyes were worried, grateful, reassuring. “Stick around a minute?” he asked. “I have something I wanna say.”

Bitty nodded. “Sure,” he said. He let himself out of the bathroom as quietly as he could and wandered down the hall a little, just far enough that he wouldn’t be tempted to listen at the door, before slumping down on the floor. He stared at his hands, willing them not to shake, and very carefully didn’t think about anything at all.

He didn’t know how long he stayed there. Eventually his heartbeat slowed and he closed his eyes, and then Shitty was touching him on the shoulder. “Hey, man,” he said. “You okay?”

Bitty looked up at him. “How’s Jack?”

Shitty smiled at him. “I got him to bed,” he said. “He’ll be better in the morning. Not—great, mind.” He shook his head, pale and exhausted himself. “It’ll take a while for him to sort through—everything that’s going on.”

Bitty nodded, staring at his knees for a long moment. “I know you’re like, sworn to secrecy,” he said, “but I’m not stupid.” He swallowed hard. “He came out to his dad,” he said. “He’s your fifth. Nik, Grace, Nina, Paris a-and Jack.” He risked a glance at Shitty, who was looking down at him, face unreadable. “He came out to his dad before he came out to the team?”

Shitty folded into himself until he was curled next to Bitty on the floor. “Jack doesn’t fuck around, and he doesn’t like lying. So long as it was just me that knew, I think he figured it wasn’t as bad, but.” He ran a hand around the back of his neck and sighed. “Me and my stupid fucking plans.”

Bitty raised his eyebrows. “You were trying to get him to come out?”

Shitty shook his head. “No, fuck, that’d be shitty as hell, although. I guess I kind of was. I just wanted him to be honest with himself about stuff. Feelings.” He looked sideways at Bitty. “Before graduation happens, and it’s too late anyway.”

“Oh, god, don’t remind me,” Bitty said quickly. “You two are never leaving, you’re not allowed.”

Shitty reached over and pulled Bitty’s head against his, temple to temple. “I’m sorry, Bits,” he said. “For the thing with Nik. I’m really, really sorry.”

“Beyonce ticket sorry?” Bitty teased, because he’s not upset, not anymore. He’s too full of other emotion to be upset, so full of other emotion he has no idea how to process it. Besides, he and Nik are friends now.

Shitty coughed a laugh. “You’ve been talking to Lardo,” he accused, and then sat up straight. “Oh. Fuck. Um.”

Bitty watched his face with interest. “You’re blushing,” he said.

“I,” said Shitty, bright red, pushing himself to his feet, “I—I’ve gotta go, I’m sorry. Get some rest, okay? And tomorrow—”

“Tomorrow I’m gonna talk to Jack,” Bitty said, more confidently than he actually felt.

Shitty looked at him for a long time. “Good,” he said. “I’m glad.” He shook himself. “Right. I—have places to be.”

Bitty watched him trip down the stairs, bemused, and took himself to bed. It was a long, long time before he managed to sleep.

+

Shitty shot off a quick text—so sorry, how’d it go, I’ll be at yours soon—as he made his way through the Haus by feel, only smashing his shins into two or three things and earning one muffled shout of “shut up,” before he slipped into his own room.

He was in such a hurry that it took him a minute to realize the lights were on and Lardo was sitting perched on the edge of his bed, rolling a joint. It was a familiar scene—her fingers were practiced and sure, the plate with her papers balanced on her knees—only usually she wasn’t doing it naked.

He stared, because he couldn’t do anything else, his feet rooted to the floor. She was completely relaxed, her slender shoulders rolled forward so she could work with her hands, her legs crossed at the ankles. He swallowed hard, wanting to run his hands from her ankles up her thighs, cup her hips in his hands, kiss the shadow between her breasts.

She glanced up at him, bringing the joint up to her lips and wetting the paper with a quick flick of her tongue that made Shitty sway embarrassingly on his feet. “Hey,” she said, and then quirked her mouth, half embarrassment, half amusement, and Shitty felt warm and overwhelmed to the tips of his goddamn fingers.

He shed his coat and kicked off his shoes. “Hey,” he said, as casually as he could manage.

“Is Jack okay?” Lardo asked, her attention back on the tiny movements of her fingers.

“He will be,” Shitty said. It was hard to think about Jack, right now.

Lardo finished rolling the joint as he crossed to her, setting aside the plate. He didn’t think about it, just went to his knees between her legs, looking up at her. She stared down at him, lips parted. “Hey,” she said again.

Heart pounding, he leaned in to kiss her.

She dodged, scowling. "Woah, woah," she said, "what's that about? The deal was one pussy-licking, none of this romantic shit."

He sat back on his heels, thrown. "Oh," he said. "Um, okay—"

She stared at him, eyes concerned. "Shitty," she said, and this was it, the moment where she figured out how deeply he was fucked and she called it off for fear of hurting him and he would be forever haunted with this image, her splayed out naked and languid in his bed and he'd never—

"Shitty," she said again, "I'm fucking with you."

He stared at her. "What?"

She shook her head and reached for him, tugging him forward with insistent fingers on his jaw. "I am 100% fucking with you," she said, her breath ghosting over his mouth. "God, you're the stupidest genius I know."

"Oh," he said shakily, and she kissed him.

His hands came up without his say so, cupping her jaw as he kissed back. Kissing was pretty much always awesome, but kissing Lardo was a whole other. A whole other thing. It was like he could feel the laughter in the corners of her mouth and the grin in the straight slick line of her teeth, he felt like his whole chest was filled with light and bubbles and a kind of winding, snaking, disbelieving heat that slid direct from the slide of her tongue against his right down into his dick.

She kissed slow and filthy, her hands skimming over his hair so she could tug it free of its bun and let it fall around his head. He shifted to kiss along her jaw and she laughed at him, warm and a little bit breathless. "I can't believe you believed me," she said. "What, were you just gonna stick your tongue up there, no foreplay whatsoever?"

He ran his hands up into her hair. "Shut up," he said, glad she couldn't see him because his face was radiating embarrassment. He nipped her lightly on the collarbone. “I'm a little fragile, okay? You can't mess with me like that."

"Can," she said, urging him on with her hands in his hair. "Will."

"Shut up," he said again, nuzzling up under her jaw.

She exposed her throat for him. "Make me," she said against his ear, and it was suddenly very difficult for him to breathe. He skimmed a hand up the curve of her side—her skin was so soft—and cupped her breast, running his thumb over her nipple. She made a little humming noise and arched against his hand, and he lowered his head to take her other nipple in his mouth, catching it gently between his teeth and tugging. The muscles of her stomach jumped against his palm, and that was way hotter than it should be, her body responding to him—to him, to the things he was doing, to the things she wanted him to do.

He ran his hands over her hips, and then did it again because god, the way they fit against his palms. His face must have been doing something embarrassing because she started to laugh, slipping her hand under his chin and tilting it upwards so he was looking at her again. “You just gonna sit there and admire me, or are you gonna do something about it?”

There was a little flush to her cheeks and he surged up to kiss her again, hooking an arm under her legs and swinging her so she was properly on the bed. He crawled up after her, propping one of her knees on each of his shoulders, folding her in half as he kissed her and kissed her. She yelped a little into his mouth and he grinned, tugging at her lower lip as he pulled away. She watched him with dark eyes, quiet for once as he trailed his fingers down her body. “Fuckin’ amazing,” he said quietly, and leaned down to kiss her nipple.

“Sap,” she sighed, but there was a needy thread to it and he slid lower in the bed, mouthing along the line of her hipbone and down to her mound. She hadn’t shaved in a bit, her stubble a pleasant-painful pricking against his lips, and her breath was coming fast, now, her hands wandering over his shoulders and neck, encouraging. He kissed her in circles—her mound, her inner thighs—until she cursed at him, burying her hands in his hair and tugging. “Come on, asshole.”

He hummed and curled his tongue in the hollow of the tendon between her inner thigh and her slit. She twitched sideways, trying to redirect him, and he could smell her, was suddenly dizzied by it, was suddenly unable to stand to tease. He buried his face in her, using his tongue to part her folds and then slipping a hand in to holding them open. She tensed, her hands spasming in his hair. “Ngh.”

He ran his tongue up her slit and found the little nub of her clit, licking once over it and then slipping to one side, keeping up a steady flicker of tongue at almost but not quite the right place. She was all twitching hips and little gasps, now, and he closed his eyes to concentrate, the hand not holding her open clamped around her thigh so he could feel her tremble. It felt—it felt like this was what he’d been practicing for all his sexual life, and he spent a distracted minute apologizing to all the women he’d ever eaten out before for basically using them to perfect his technique for this perfect moment, for the most important pussy-licking of his life. He settled into a quick rhythm, feeling her start to shake, and then eased off, slipping his tongue lower to lick long strokes, dipping the tip of his tongue into her and up and into her and up before returning to his previous spot. He built her up and eased off, built up and eased off until she was panting with it, and then he built her up and didn’t ease off, pushing himself to move his tongue faster despite the ache in his jaw and the cramp in his fingers, and her thighs were shaking, shaking around him, and he was struggling to breathe through his nose properly as she ground up against his mouth and he shifted his tongue to flicker over her clit properly without decreasing his speed.

She gave a little squeaking cry—simultaneously the hottest and the cutest thing he’d ever heard—and hit him in the side of the head with her palm when she came. He lifted his head, shaking it a little, and sat panting between her legs. He slid his hands up and down her thighs as her tremors slowed, watched the tense line of her jaw. Finally she shifted, picked up her head, and looked down at him. There was a dent in her lip from her teeth and her cheeks were flushed, her hair sticking up everywhere. “Well,” she started, a little weakly.

Holding her eyes for as long as he could, he lowered his head again to lick at the wetness of her thighs, following it up and into her, staying clear of her clit. She took a huge shuddering breath when his tongue touched her, her hands flying to his head again. “Oh, fuck.”

He grinned to himself and let his eyes slip closed, focusing on working his tongue as deep into her as he could manage. She tasted incredible, musky and sweet on his tongue, and he lapped up every bit of it he could from the folds of her, chasing it deeper and deeper in. Eventually her little post-orgasm twitches became demanding again, and he shifted upwards a little to lick flat-tongued up her slit to her clit, still gentle and slow. At the same time, he slipped a finger in where his tongue had been, crooking it so it brushed against her clit from behind, so he had her trapped between his finger and his mouth.

“Shit,” she snapped, and he had no idea whether it was a curse or his name. He was ruining his jeans—he could feel the dampness of them, his hips twitching against air, desperate for any kind of friction—but fuck if he cared about anything but the way her thighs clamped around his ears, her little waves of shudders as he worked his finger in and out of her, flicking his tongue in time, rocking her up and up until she was shuddering so hard it knocked him out of his rhythm. He kept his mouth on her as she arched up off the bed, her mouth opening soundlessly, and only slid his finger out when she’d collapsed back again. She gave a little cry of loss, her eyes clamped shut, and used the hand still in his hair to pull him up towards her head.

She kissed him hard without opening her eyes, and he couldn’t help moaning when she shifted her lips over his jaw, cleaning her own come off his face. She slid a hand down his stomach, making a little dissatisfied noise when she reached his fly. He swallowed hard. “Y-you don’t have to—”

She opened her eyes. “Shut up,” she said, and rolled onto her side, her other hand joining the first to undo his jeans and shove them down his legs. Shitty whimpered at the touch of cold air, his whole body twitching forward as Lardo wrapped a hand around him. She kissed him on the cheekbone as she jerked him off quick and businesslike. She worked her thumb over the head of his dick and licked into his mouth, her breathing still a little shaky, her movement still a little silted, and he knocked their foreheads together, careened sideways to bury his face in her shoulder as he came.

When he managed to convince himself to lift his head, Lardo was watching him with a little half-smile. “Should’ve known you were one of those dudes who really likes eating pussy,” she said. Before he could answer, she’d wiped her hand off on his shirt and rolled away.

For a horrible moment he thought she was leaving—their transaction was done, after all—but she just sat up to retrieve the joint where she’d left it on the plate and the lighter from the pocket of her coat where she’d hung it on the bedpost. He watched her mouth as she lit up, watched the hollow of her cheeks, the reddened parting of her lips as she blew out smoke. She held out the joint between two fingers and he knew that he was absolutely, positively fucked.

He shoved his pants the rest of the way off, stripped off his shirt, and took the joint from her, pulling in a long breath. “So,” he said. “How was your show?”

She leaned back against the wall behind his bed and he took a chance, shifting so his head was pillowed on her thigh. She gave no more notice than she would have if it was any other day, if they were fully clothed, if Shitty didn’t have the intoxicatingly perfect blend of pot and her come in his mouth. She squinted at the opposite wall. “It went pretty well,” she said, and there was a weird, jittery note in her voice. “Um. Someone offered to buy one of my pieces.”

He raised his eyebrows. “What? That’s awesome! Which one, how much?”

She didn’t look at him. “Two thousand dollars,” she said, and he whistled. “Um. In Opposition.

Shitty blinked. “Oh,” he said. Was she worried what he would think, that he wouldn’t want her to sell it? Obviously he’d prefer to keep it, but he wasn’t an asshole, he wasn’t going to lose her two thousand fucking dollars. “You said yes, right? That’s a lot of money.”

She scowled. “I said I didn’t know,” she said, “because I don’t know. I made it for you.”

“Lardo,” said Shitty, “I’m touched and it’s beautiful but don’t throw away two thousand bucks—”

“I made it for you,” Lardo said again. “It won’t have the same—” She stopped, her lips pressed together. “Good to know it’s so fucking simple for you, though,” she said, and there was a bitterness to it that shocked Shitty out of his post-coital haze. He sat up, looking at her for real rather than upside-down. She looked—sad, and hurt, and distant.

“Hey,” he said. “Hey.” He took her face in his palms, and for a minute she still didn’t meet his eyes. “Lardo, c’mon,” he said. “You know it means the world to me, right? That you spent all that time on something for me, that you produced something that beautiful out of one little passing thought that I hadn’t even—it’s so much of what I meant and it’s so much, it’s.” She finally looked at him, and he swallowed. “I don’t want you to sell it. I want to hang it right there—” he pointed to the wall at the end of the bed, “—and stare at it every day of my life. But if it means you can continue to go here, if it means you can pay your parents back even a fraction of what they insist you owe them, if it means I still get you—Well. I’d sell my own organs to keep you in my life.”

She stared at him for a minute, and then her lips twitched. “What, you don’t think my painting’s worth more than your organs? How dare you.”

He grinned back, relieved beyond belief, and for a minute he thought she might kiss him again. But she just stole the joint from between his fingers and leaned back against the wall again, taking a long drag. “Not like you’ll be around to miss me if I do get kicked out for not making tuition,” she said, voice tight with bottled-up smoke.

He let himself slump into her side, his head against her shoulder. “You’re tiny,” he said. “I’ll pack you in my suitcase and take you to grad school with me.”

He expected Lardo to laugh. Instead, she held her fingers up to his mouth so he could take a hit and said softly into the breathing quiet, “Promise?”

+

Bitty woke up to the shrieking of his alarm, smacked it silent with an open palm, and rolled over, jamming his eyes shut. Images filtered into his head anyway—Jack slumped against a wall, Jack looking up at him through lowered lashes, Jack’s knuckles slipping up his jaw—and he groaned and pulled the covers over his head. Silver linings: at least there’d be no check practice this morning; his dear captain’s head had to be splitting in half just about now.

He shoved his face into his pillow and tried not to think about Jack’s voice when he’d complimented his accent.

Ten minutes of totally failing to do so later, his phone rang. He blinked his eyes open—it was 5:00 in the fucking morning, who on earth—and picked up without looking at it. “‘Lo?”

“Bittle,” Jack said, and it was all Bitty could do not to yell and throw his phone. “Why aren’t you at the rink?”

Bitty sat up. “I, uh, assumed—”

“Is it Tuesday?” Jack asked, voice crackling harsh down the line. Bitty scrubbed a hand across his face. Fuck.

“Yes,” he said. “But Jack—”

“You have ten minutes,” Jack said shortly, and hung up.

Five minutes later Bitty slipped out of the Haus. Campus was still mostly dark—just the slightest touch of pre-dawn light—and cold, colder than it had been last week. Autumn really was starting to slip into winter. At least in Georgia when he’d been getting up even earlier for figure skating practice it had been warm. And light, sometimes. And he hadn’t been about to go meet his incredibly hungover, angry, desperately sad captain who he really very much wanted to kiss.

And suddenly there was a greater chance that Jack might not necessarily hate that idea. Greater than the absolute zero Bitty’s been working with since they’d met, anyway. And that was—that was something Bitty had literally no idea how to deal with.

“Jack’s gay,” he said, very, very softly, staring at the spreading glow of the eastern sky. Just to see how it sounded. Just to see whether it could ever be real. “Jack likes men.” It sounded plausible, anyway. He swallowed. “Jack could like me,” he tried, and then laughed at himself. Right. Sure. No one had ever been attracted to him except one girl in middle-school and middle-aged women; Bitty was pretty sure it was because he still looked about twelve. If Jack liked men Bitty hardly need apply.

Nik likes you, his optimism pointed out as he slipped through the outer doors of the rink. Nik would have made out with you last night.

“Yeah,” he muttered, “and I probably should’ve taken him up on it.”

“Taken who up on what?” Jack asked, stepping around the end of the lockers, and Bitty nearly dropped all of his gear.

“Nothing,” he said quickly, “no one.” He peeled himself out of his layers and kicked off his shoes, squinting through tired eyes at Jack. “You look awful.

It was an exaggeration—Bitty was pretty sure Jack Zimmermann had never looked anything but “distressingly handsome” in his whole life——but he certainly didn’t look happy. Jack was blessed with the deepest eyebags Bitty had ever seen on his good days—usually they just made the already distractingly-interesting topography of his face even more distracting and interesting, heightening his cheekbones and making his eyes gleam like chips of ice. Today, though, his face was drawn and his eyes so sunken it was like he was trying to hide within his own skin. He winced under Bitty’s gaze. “Yeah,” he said. “I know. I was really stupid last night.”

Bitty shook his head, leaving his kit on the bench and stepping up to him. “You weren’t stupid,” he said. He swallowed. “Do you remember much of it?”

Jack’s shoulders were a hard, anxious line. “I remember the conversation with my dad,” he said, the words bitter.

Bitty settled into a dancer’s stretch, balancing on the end of the bench closest to where Jack was standing with his knees pointing out to either side and the soles of his feet pressed together, heels pulled up as close to his body as he could manage. He focused on the singing pain of his muscles rather than on what he wanted to say. “I’m not out to my parents.”

Jack blinked at him. “What?”

Bitty put his palms on his knees and pushed down. “They’re good people,” he said, keeping his breathing steady. “My mom, I know she wouldn’t be surprised, and I know she wouldn’t hate me for it. Coach—” he wobbled, and used a hand on the bench to steady himself. He didn’t look at Jack’s face. “Coach wouldn’t hate me either, but it’d be. A different kind of not hating, you know?”

Jack didn’t say anything. Bitty untangled his legs and shifted backwards on the bench so he could stretch them out in front of him. “It’s the disappointment I can’t face, the confirmation of all their suspicions. No wife, no white picket fence, no grandkids. The disappointment and the knowledge that I’d—I’d be throwing my mother to the wolves. You’ve met her. She’d fight to the death for me, and in Georgia, she’d have to.”

He was staring at his knees, but in his peripheral vision he saw Jack move, stepping around him, and then his captain settled behind him. “My father doesn’t care,” he said.

Bitty swallowed hard, but Jack continued.

“The day that NFL player, Michael Sam, came out,” he said, voice steady. “I was sitting in my living room watching the press release on TV and for the first time in my life I felt like maybe—” He stopped and shifted on the bench, just a little, so his shoulder brushed Bitty’s back. “You know what my dad said?”

Bitty shook his head, swinging his legs down and turning so they were sitting side by side, and dared to glance sideways at his captain. Jack was staring at the floor, his brows drawn tight together. He licked his lips and quoted, dropping his voice into his best Bad Bob impression, ““There’s a career-killer if I’ve ever heard one.’”

Bitty winced. Jack must have seen it out of the corner of his eye, because he raised his gaze and smiled, a tiny, despairing twitch of lips. “He doesn’t care what I do,” he said, “so long as I keep it to myself and never let the media sniff it out and marry a—a Scandinavian supermodel and smile for the cameras.”

Bitty gnawed on his lip, bumping him with a shoulder. “So that’s alright then,” he said softly, “Scandinavian male models are hot as all get out.” He smiled, tentative.

Jack stared sideways at him and then grinned, a real, amused grin, his eyes warm. Bitty felt stupidly pleased with himself. He stood, holding out a hand to Jack. “Are we gonna get out on the ice, or what?”

Jack took his hand as if he was going to stand, and then stopped, staring at it. “I remember holding your hand,” he said abruptly. “Last night.”

Bitty froze. “Um,” he said. “Yes.”

Jack ran his thumb over Bitty’s knuckles. “Did I say anything to you?” He asked, detached, like the answer didn’t matter.

Bitty shook his head, because he doubted ‘I like your accent’ counted. “Don’t worry,” he said, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible when Jack (sober Jack!) was still holding his hand. “No Zimmermann family secrets have been revealed.”

Jack raised his eyes. He stared at Bitty long enough that Bitty shifted his weight in concern, and then stood up. “Okay,” he said, and let go of Bitty’s hand.

Bitty tried not to be disappointed while he strapped on his kit, and while he skated slow circles around the rink, warming up his legs. Jack was doing the same, going the opposite direction, flashing Bitty a smile when they crossed paths. He couldn’t help but admire the line of Jack’s body, the ease and power with which he sent himself swinging around the rink. It was a shame he was so utterly made for hockey; he would have looked amazing as a figure-skater.

Distracted by his mental images of Jack in sequined, fluttering black shirts—or, worse, in a solo-skater’s shining full-body leotard—he failed to properly react when Jack bore down on him. He raised his stick at the last minute, but Jack was already barrelling him into the wall, not Jack anymore but an inexorable tangle of helmet and shin-guards and stick. Bitty’s back hit the sideboard, knocking the air from his lungs. He shook his head to clear it and blinked to find Jack face-mask to face-mask with him, his eyes worried. “Sorry,” he was saying, “Sorry, I thought you were ready—”

He had his arms braced on either side of Bitty, his breath ghosting through the bars of their helmets, and this was a new kind of hell, he decided, being close enough to close the gap between their mouths—having Jack stay close, knowing Jack might (as small as that might was) want him to close that gap—and being physically prevented from doing so. He slammed his eyes closed because it was better than looking at any part of Jack’s face. “Didn’t I tell you last night to stop apologizing?” he muttered.

“Did you?” Jack asked, and he really wasn’t moving away. Bitty opened his eyes. Jack was looking at him with the same curiously intent expression he’d had in the coffee shop, his eyes flickering over Bitty’s face. When Bitty met his eyes, he licked his lips, a quick, almost nervous flicker of tongue.

Bitty wanted to scream. “Yes,” he said instead, holding Jack’s eyes.

There was another frozen moment of silence, and then Jack slid back from him, his eyes a little unfocused. “Let’s try again,” he said. “Pay attention this time.”

Bitty felt his heart beating its way through his whole body, out to his fingers where they were locked around his stick. Small chance of that, he thought, a little hysterically.

Somehow he managed, though—somehow practice went well, maybe the part of him that really always wanted to impress Jack had woken up, but it felt good to be riding high on a wave of nervous energy and be able to actually put it to use. When Jack finally called a halt they were both pink-cheeked from exertion, and peeled themselves from their gear with a lovely kind of fumble-fingered tiredness.

Bitty stepped from his skates as Jack moved past him to stow his stuff in his locker. Without letting himself feel anything but warm and awake and accomplished, Bitty reached out and caught his arm. Jack turned, his eyebrows raised, and Bitty leaned up and kissed him.

There was a long second where Jack didn’t react at all, and Bitty felt like he might die on the spot. He was about to pull back and—apologize, flee, leave the country, fake his own death—when Jack curled his fingers around the back of his neck and kissed back.

His lips were cold from frigid air of the rink, but they warmed as Bitty continued to kiss him, and that was kind of amazing in itself, and then Jack was pulling back and speaking against his cheekbone and he had to focus on that and not the way his hands were now skimming down his sides to settle on his hips. He swallowed and listened, picking the words out almost more from the shapes of them against his skin than the sound itself, Jack was speaking so quietly. “—weren’t interested, because you took so long to—”

Bitty cut him off in disbelief. “I took so long? I didn’t know you liked men until last night, I think that’s actually a pretty good turn-around rate—”

Jack pulled back to stare at him. “I thought it was obvious.”

Bitty narrowed his eyes at him. “You thought it was obvious that Jock Straightermann, Captain of the straight jocks, likes men.”

Jack laughed, ducking his head and nudging in and then they were kissing again and yeah, if he could just keep making Jack laugh into his mouth for the rest of his life that would be pretty much perfect. “Jock Straightermann,” Jack muttered when they surfaced for air, and then, in the same warm tone, “I didn’t think it was obvious I like men. Just obvious that I like you.”

“Oh,” said Bitty, and his voice came out small. “Um. Gracious.”

Jack was smiling at him, but his eyes were cautious. “So—you and Nik?”

“Friends,” Bitty said firmly. “He offered, but I told him I was, uh.” He bit his lip, looking sideways at Jack. “Preoccupied.”

Jack’s eyes sharpened. “Good,” he said, voice low, his hands tightening minutely on Bitty’s hips. Bitty ran his hands up his chest to cup his jaw, wanting to tell him he had nothing to worry about, from Nik or anyone. He kissed Jack again instead, and when Jack opened his mouth to him the shock of arousal that ran through him knocked him out of his sentimental musings entirely. He kissed back hungrily.

“Okay,” he said, pulling back, Jack’s slick mouth against his jaw, “Okay.”

Jack kissed the corner of his mouth and echoed, “okay?”

Bitty planted a palm against his chest. “Pancakes,” he announced. “You’re hungover. So. Pancakes, and bacon, and coffee.”

Jack caught his eye. “It’s still early,” he said. “We could just go back to bed.” Bitty raised his eyebrows at him, and he amended, reddening, “to sleep, and probably kiss some more?” He watched Bitty, kind of like a giant puppy. “Or breakfast, I like breakfast. I like your breakfast.”

Bitty thought about that. He was tired, but despite the earnestness of Jack’s face—and wasn’t that odd, how suddenly easy it was to read him, like that first kiss had been a key that unlocked a whole new obvious Jack, the Jack Jack thought he was—he doubted there would be much sleeping going on if they went back to bed together, and the fact that that was a sentence Bitty could even think in all seriousness and not as an embarrassing dream was so unbelievably overwhelming. “Breakfast, I think, for now,” he said, and Jack nodded without a trace of reluctance. He was letting Bitty set the pace, and that was. Well, that was sweet as hell.

Bitty kissed him to thank him for it, pulling back before he could regret his decision to not keep doing this for the next five hours. “Okay,” he said again, and turned back to stowing his kit.

As they slid through the doors of the rink, Bitty chattering about the various benefits of banana pancakes versus chocolate chip pancakes versus blueberry pancakes, Jack reached out and took his hand, lacing their fingers together tight.

+

“—so I guess it’s like—how am I supposed to know who to be attracted to, you know?” The LAX bro, whose name turned out to be Dan, gesticulated with the hand holding the can of beer. Thankfully it was empty, or he would have sloshed beer all over Jack and Bitty, who were sitting to his left, heads bent together over Jack’s computer. Shitty was barely listening to Dan in favor of staring at them.

They probably thought they were being subtle. Honestly, they kind of were—they’d already started hanging out more before Jack’s disastrous conversation with his dad, and Bitty was already touchy with anyone but Jack, so to an outsider’s eyes nothing really had changed. But Shitty would be damned if he’d ever seen Jack react to anyone leaning that far inside his space with anything but annoyed resignation before, and he’d caught Bitty letting himself out of Jack’s room at a pretty unrespectable hour the other night.

Well. He’d let them think no one had noticed until they were ready to announce it, but when they did he was going to throw a hell of a party.

“You could just let yourself be attracted to whoever, and not worry about gender,” Lardo suggested from Shitty’s side. She had her legs folded under her and her toes tucked deliberately under Shitty’s leg and he was definitely not extremely pleased about it.

Dan shook his head. “But I’m not gay,” he said, and then held up a hand. “C’mon, I know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if I was, or whatever. Whatever. But I’m not, and if I start being attracted to girls—” he caught Shitty’s eye and coughed, “—to people who I think are girls and then they’re like hey, no, I’m a dude—”

“Congratulations!” Shitty said, grinning at him. “You’ve correctly identified the problem with binary-based sexual identities in an increasingly nonbinary world.”

Dan blinked. “What?”

“Lacrosse douche, scram,” said Ransom, sliding into the room. He looked more stressed than he did basically ever except during finals, his shoulders hunched and his eyes tired. “Shitty, can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” said Shitty comfortably. “That concludes our talk for the day, Dan. For homework, consider the idea that sexual identities could serve as a chronicle of past experience, rather than a framework to be adhered to.”

“Um,” said Dan, his hand hovering over the rest of the sixpack on the table at his elbow. “Can I—”

Shitty waved a hand at him. “Toss one to my stressed-out friend here and take the rest.”

“Thanks, man,” said Dan fervently. He tossed a beer to Ransom, who caught it and stared at it morosely. “I hope you get the advice you need, bro,” Dan said, hooked his fingers through the plastic ties of the sixpack, and wandered out of the Haus.

“Nice guy,” Shitty remarked. “Kind of.”

“You want us to leave, Rans?” Jack asked, and Shitty noted the us with inner glee.

Ransom shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “Probably better you’re here, actually.” He shifted in his chair so he was facing Jack and Bitty. “How’d you guys do it?”

Jack just stared blankly at him. Bitty raised his eyebrows. “Do what?”

“Y’know,” said Ransom. “Confess. Talk about your—” he wiggled his fingers “—feelings for each other.”

Bitty went red, Jack pale. Shitty groaned. “Dammit, Rans, I was trying to let them think we didn’t know!”

“Know what?” Lardo asked in a wondering falsetto, her eyes impossibly wide. “Is something going on between you two?”

Bitty put his head in his hands. Jack scowled at all of them. “You guys knew?”

“Dude,” said Ransom. “You’ve been holding hands for like three days straight. Plus, what do you think Shitty’s plan was all about?”

Bitty let out a squeak. “What?” he demanded from between his fingers.

Shitty sighed. “Full disclosure,” he said, “I asked Nik to flirt with you because I wanted to make Jack jealous and threatened so maybe he’d stop sitting around pining and actually do something about it.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Didn’t, uh. Think it through too well, but it kinda worked, right?”

Bitty blinked at him, then smirked sideways at Jack. “Pining, huh?” he asked teasingly.

Jack didn’t look at him, just wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him against his chest. “Thanks,” he said quietly, holding Shitty’s eyes.

Shitty grinned at him. “Anything for you,” he said, meaning it completely.

Ransom cleared his throat. “You guys didn’t actually answer my question,” he said. “The talking, and the feelings?”

Bitty shifted a little to look at him, though he didn’t pull away from Jack’s chest. “We um, haven’t, really? We just kissed and it mostly. Sorted itself out.”

Ransom rolled his eyes. “Great,” he said. He turned to look at Lardo and Shitty. “What about you two?”

Shitty froze in the act of running his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said as naturally as he could manage. “What’s there to talk about?”

“Yeah, we’re just friends who occasionally have awesome sex,” Lardo said conversationally at his side, and worked her toes further under Shitty’s leg.

Shitty risked a glance at her. She wasn’t looking at him, so he nudged her side. “Awesome, huh,” he murmured. He wanted to shout occasionally?? at her, and everyone else he knew, because occasionally meant more than once in every context he’d ever heard it in, and that was. Well, that was the best thing he’d ever heard.

“Shut up,” she said sideways, and he forced himself to turn back to Ransom.

His teammate was looking back and forth between them with an expression of disbelief and dismay. “You’re fucking kidding,” he said. “So my options are kiss Holster without talking to him, or have awesome sex with Holster without talking to him?”

Shitty blinked. “Goddamn,” he said, “I owe Nik twenty bucks.”

Ransom ran a frustrated hand over his head. “You don’t, though,” he said. “Because I don’t really want to do either of those things. I just want him to know how I feel, because I’ve been really shitty lately and I know he knows but he doesn’t know why and that fucking sucks.”

Shitty exchanged glances with Bitty, who had shifted more into his own seat. Jack still looked kind of poleaxed—had looked kind of poleaxed since Lardo had announced that she and Shitty were having sex—but Bitty didn’t seem surprised at all.

“How do you feel?” Bitty asked quietly.

Ransom tossed his can of beer from hand to hand. “Jealous,” he admitted. “Of Nik, but not just him, everyone who’s close with him at all, like. Romantically.” He blew out a breath. “That’s the weird thing is like—I don’t care about who he sleeps with! I just get worried that he’ll meet someone he really likes and they’ll get married and then I won’t—I won’t be the most important person in his life anymore.” He stopped tossing the can, staring hard at the floor. “And I don’t think he’ll ever stop being the most important person in mine.”

“Uh,” said Holster from the doorway, “i-is there some team meeting I forgot about?”

Ransom straightened up slowly, putting the can on the table and turning to look at him. “Hey,” he said, a little thickly. “Thought you were in class.”

Holster took a step into the room, his glasses sliding a little down his nose. He didn’t fix them. “You weren’t there,” he said. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Let’s go,” Shitty hissed in Lardo’s ear, and she nodded, getting quietly to her feet.

“We were just leaving, actually,” she announced, although for all the attention either Ransom or Holster paid her she might not have bothered. Jack closed his computer and slid it into his bag, and the four of them filed out of the kitchen.

“How much of that did you hear?” Ransom asked from behind them.

“Enough to know we should probably talk,” Holster replied, and then Bitty was ushering them down the hall and into his room and closing the door. They all stared at each other for a long moment before Lardo said, “you probably owe Nik at least like. Five dollars.”

Shitty looked at her. She looked—a little on edge, not quite fully meeting his eyes. Jack and Bitty were perched on the edge of Bitty’s bed, pointedly not touching, but even not touching they were so totally wrapped up in each other that it made Shitty dizzy to look at them. He looked back at Lardo.

“You know what?” he said. “We should also talk.”

Lardo raised her eyebrows at him. “Oh yeah?”

He took a breath. “Yeah. Like I told you before—” he held out a hand, watching her face, “—there are some things that shouldn’t go unsaid.”

She looked up at him for a long moment, and then reached out and took his hand.

+

Later, when there were no more secrets bottled up in either of them, when they were lounging on the Haus roof under a sky going colder with every new star, Shitty’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Lardo was leaning against his chest, her head tilted back on his shoulder to stare upwards, and she made a little protesting noise as he dug around behind her to fish it out. He pressed a kiss to the skin under her ear just to make her smile, and unlocked his phone one-handed, the other hand tucked comfortably up under her shirt to shield it from the cold.

It was a text from Ransom. holster says i’m probably what you would call a romantic asexual which is weird bc i don’t hate sex but i guess i’m also not really motivated to ever have it

Shitty was contemplating the difficulty of responding one-handed when a second text arrived. also turns out i do kinda like kissing him so u shld give nik some money. ten dollars TOPS tho

Shitty grinned, and Lardo glanced over at his phone. She read the text and laughed. “Looks like he tried Jack’n’Bitty’s way anyway,” she said, sliding a little lower against his chest. “I wonder if Jack'n'Bitty tried ours?”

Shitty winced. “Please don’t make me think about that,” he said. “Jack’s my brother, man.”

Lardo hummed a laugh and turned her face to the sky again. “It’s snowing,” she said after a minute, and Shitty looked up to see that she was right.

“We should go inside,” he said against the corner of her jaw, “before it gets slick out here.”

She nodded, staying where she was, and he ran his fingers across the warm skin of her stomach, back and forth, back and forth. In his peripheral vision he saw her close her eyes against the cold.

He took a long breath of icy air, holding it in his lungs, and released it in a silver cloud. One breath at a time, he would warm them, make a little patch of air, a little piece of the world that wasn’t winter anymore, but spring, or maybe summer—some season when graduation was still far, far away.

“Stop thinking,” Lardo said in his ear. “We might not have much, but we do have time. Let’s not waste it.”

Shitty nodded. Lardo turned in his arms and he wrapped her up and pulled her in, burying his face in the crook of her neck. She let him cling, and when he released her she smiled crookedly. “Besides,” she said. “I can think of things we can do that are much more fun.”

There were snowflakes in her eyelashes and his heart was in his throat. She hooked her fingers through his belt loops and led the way back through his window, and for now, it was enough to be home.