Bitty serves up two plates of pie and says, “So tell me about yourself, Johnson. Do you have a first name?”
“Nah, not yet,” says Johnson.
He’s willing to bet that a few weeks ago the kid would have asked questions, but having since spent a few panels with Shitty, he seems to have built up some tolerance for the weirdness of the Samwell men’s hockey team. That’s good. If he can’t tolerate weirdness, he won’t fit in, and then people will lose interest and updates will slow down until they all eventually get abandoned in favor of schoolwork and playwriting.
“You know, it’s funny,” says Bitty. “You live here, but I’ve barely seen you around at all.”
“I show up, like, in the backgrounds sometimes,” says Johnson. “I’m not usually necessary.”
“Oh, that’s not true!” Bitty protests. “The goalie is the most important person on the team!”
Johnson shrugs. “Yeah, but the rink scenes are usually focused on you forward dudes, so it wouldn’t make sense to show much of our zone. It’s okay, I know I’m a decent goalie. Like, I must be, given how deep we go in the playoffs this season.”
“Oops,” says Johnson. “Spoiler.”
Johnson finds Bitty sobbing in the bathroom. He steps in to lay a comforting hand on the poor kid’s shoulder, because other people’s pain still exists when you aren’t looking at it.
“I--I’m sorry.” Bitty sniffles. “I’m still having a hard time with body checking and Betsy’s acting up a-and Jack doesn’t like me and I don’t know, I’m just r-really overwhelmed right now.”
Johnson gives him a hug, because he looks like he needs one and nobody else is gonna. He wants to tell Bitty that he’ll get better with contact eventually and that Dex will fix Betsy and that Jack is just about as far from hating him as it’s possible to be without breaking down and proposing in the middle of the quad, but that would ruin everything for everyone, so he just says, “Hang in there, Bitty buddy. Shit gets rough sometimes, but it gets better too. We got too many bright colors and big anime eyes around here to be an unhappy-ending kinda story, bro.”
Bitty wipes his eyes. “Thanks, Johnson. I don’t really understand what that means, but I appreciate the sentiment.”
“No worries,” says Johnson. There’s really only room for one character who knows what’s going on, and it has to be a minor character. If the main character were as self-aware as he is, the story would get way too meta.
Bitty comes out to Johnson in the Haus kitchen after baking four pies in a row. Bitty bakes when he’s nervous, but he also bakes when he’s happy, when he’s tired, when he’s irritated, and when it’s Tuesday, so it’s hard to draw conclusions. Unless you peeked ahead to the last panel first to check for cliffhangers, but Johnson would never do that.
“Johnson,” says Bitty, his chin jutting out in firm resolve, “I’m gay.”
“Pinky-swear,” says Johnson.
“Oh, sorry. Scrolled too fast. I mean, I’m here for you, Bitty. Totally got your back if anyone ever gives you shit.”
“Thanks,” Bitty says, shoulders slumping in relief. “But you can’t tell anyone, okay? Promise me.”
There’s a light shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits knock at the door, and Bitty’s voice says, “Johnson?”
“C’mon in,” Johnson calls. He’s lying on his bed reading a biography of Dominik Hasek, because he’s never really gotten to have any interests beyond being a goalie. Also because Dominik Hasek is the shit.
Bitty tentatively perches on Johnson’s desk chair. “I found out what dibs are,” he says. “Why would you do that for me? I haven’t even made you that many pies.”
Johnson shrugs. Obviously he has to give Bitty his dibs. It’s one of the main reasons he exists, beyond the fact that the team has to have a goalie. “It makes, like, narrative and artistic sense for the protagonist to have as many reasons as possible to appear in the primary setting of the team’s social interactions,” he says. “And I’m right across the hall from Jack, so, you know.”
“I really don’t,” says Bitty.
Johnson sets the book down on his chest and tucks his hands behind his head. “Sometimes I wonder what Shitty would think of all this,” he muses. “I bet feminists have got opinions about queerbaiting. I mean, it probs doesn’t count as queerbaiting if the two of you really are gonna end up together, and it looks like that’s where this is heading given the story’s, like, cultural context and, y’know, the creator’s background. But so far Jack has been depicted as straight, which just kinda makes me wonder. Is it queerbaiting to tease a relationship if one of the characters is canonically queer? Or is that, like, just regular old unrequited feelings?”
“Um,” says Bitty. “Are you saying Jack isn’t straight?”
Whoops. Johnson is way better at staying out of other people’s storylines in canon. This main character shit is harder than it looks.
“Well,” says Bitty, sitting down on the bleachers next to Johnson. “I guess that’s it.”
“For now,” Johnson agrees. He’ll probably show up in the NHL after Jack graduates to avoid copyright problems, but this is just about the end of his role in Bitty’s story.
Bitty sighs. “The end of a season feels so anticlimactic when you don’t win the championship. Somebody slips on the ice, the puck hits a funny bump, and there you have it, we’re packing up our things.”
“The end of your season was pretty climactic, bro,” Johnson points out.
“I mean for the team, though.”
“Yeah.” Johnson gazes out at the empty rink. “Funny how invested you get,” he says, staring at the goalposts. “Like, I’ve never cared more about anything in my life than the location of a piece of frozen rubber. And that makes sense for me, ‘cause I don’t really have anything else to care about. But I think about how many hockey players out there do have things going on in their lives, real important things, kids to raise and novels to write and stuff like that... and so many of them still care about nothing more than this piece of frozen rubber. And that’s weird as hell, but I don’t think they shouldn’t. The people that frozen rubber matters to, it really does fucking matter, dude. It’s powerful shit.”
“You know,” says Bitty softly, “I think this is the first time I’ve ever felt like I really understood you.”
“And like, it’s not even a real piece of rubber!” Johnson gestures vaguely in the direction of the equipment storage closet. “This rubber doesn’t exist outside our collective consciousness. I guess people dig it because they like to know what kind of arc to expect. People who care about real rubber, all their narrative satisfaction comes from coincidences, and those don’t always work out to a happy ending. Like, nobody on the planet has ever been sadder than a Philly fan when Richards handed Carter the Cup.”
Bitty’s moment of clarity has clearly passed.
“I’m just saying, dude,” says Johnson. “If you think about how strange it is for people to care so much about sports, and then how much stranger it is for them to care about fictional depictions of sports, and then how much stranger than that it is for them to care about a fictional athlete who’s barely even mentioned in the fiction, it’s superdupes illogical that anyone’s even reading this.”
“Reading what?” asks Bitty.
Johnson shakes his head. “Nothing.”
“No, stop doing that.” Bitty sounds mad. Johnson turns to look at him: yep, that is definitely a pissed-off Bitty right there. “You keep talking like we’re not real and then expecting us all to just ignore it. What is this, some kind of performance art thing? Are you messing with us? Do I need to get you some professional help?”
Whoa. Okay, that never happened in canon. “Just a thought exercise, Bits. Philosophy major, you know. Sorry, bro, didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Sure.” Bitty stares out at the ice. After a long time, he says, “In this thought exercise you’re living... you said Jack and I get together in the end?”
Well, it’s not like it’s canon. This version of Bitty won’t even exist in another paragraph, so why the hell not. “Yeah, Bitty,” says Johnson. “Yeah, you and Jack get together in the end.”