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On a road that I don't know

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It’s past midnight when the phone rings, startling Jack out of the half-doze he had fallen into on his couch, a nature documentary burbling softly in the background from his enormous television on the wall. He answers it without taking note of the caller ID.

 

“Oh, God, Jack, I’m so glad you’re still up, I’m so sorry but Shitty wasn’t picking up and I didn’t know who else to call, I don’t know what to do, it’s all gone so wrong, I thought it would be okay but--”

 

“Bittle?”

 

“I… yes, sorry,” Jack hears Bittle take a shuddering breath down the crackling phone line. “Hi. I probably should have lead with that, shouldn’t I.”

 

He’s not spoken to Bittle since graduation, not properly. They had exchanged a few texts, but every time Bittle rang, Jack found he just couldn’t bring himself to pick up the phone.

 

“What’s happened? Are you okay?”

 

Bittle laughs, and it’s a jagged, raw sound. “No. No, I’m not. I, I came out to my parents and… well, it didn’t go well.”

 

“Chit.” Jack sits up properly now, swinging his feet down onto the floor. “Where are you? Are you at home? Are you safe?” Adrenaline is thrumming through his body, for all that he knows Georgia is too far away from Providence for him to be able to do anything useful right away.

 

“I said I was going for a walk. I’m okay, my neighbourhood’s pretty safe, I just, I couldn’t sit there and listen to--” Bitty breaks off with a choked-off sob. “The things Coach was saying, I didn’t, I mean, I was worried but I think deep down I thought it would be okay, you know? And to find out-- to find out it’s not--” He breaks off again, and Jack wants to reach down the phone and gather Bittle in a hug.

 

“Crisse, Bitty, I’m sorry. What can I do?” He rubs a hand over his face, tries to get his thoughts in order. “Do you, do you need somewhere to stay? I have a spare room and I could pay for your flight if--”

 

“I-- goodness, I would so love to just leave, but I couldn’t ask you to--”

 

“You’re not asking, I’m offering.”

 

Bittle huffs a sigh. “That’s really kind of you.”

 

“I can book you a ticket right now if you need.”

 

Bittle chuckles, his breath catching in a half-sob again. “I-- can I get back to you on that? I should probably stay here, try to work things out. If I can.”

 

“Sure. Let me know. The offer’s open. Any time.” He feels so impotent, thousands of miles away while Bittle is having this huge crisis. It’s not a good feeling.

 

“Thanks, Jack.” Bittle’s voice has softened; he sounds almost fond.

 

They both fall silent. Jack sighs. This is why he’s not been able to pick up the phone to Bittle these past few weeks. He’s never been good with words, and this… thing... between them has only made it worse. He’s incapable of stringing more than a few words together at a time without seizing up. It’s just, it’s always there, hovering; the knowledge that if he was just a little braver, if he could only close the space (inches; miles) between them, then maybe-- But he knows it’s stupid, it wouldn’t be fair to either of them and he should just let it go. He’s not done so well at that, this past month.

 

Bittle chuckles again, a little wetly. “Right. I should probably head back, I don’t want my mom to worry too much. I-- Thanks, Jack, for, for picking up, and listening, and-- yeah, just. Thanks.”

 

“Any time, Bittle,” Jack finds himself saying. “Just, call me if you need anything? To talk, or-- whatever. I’ll do better at picking up.”

 

“Thanks, Jack,” Bittle says again. “I should go, though. Bye, now.” He hangs up.

 

“...Bye, Bittle,” Jack says to the dead air.

 

He texts Bittle the next morning when he wakes up. It takes him much longer than it should, as he tries to find the right words to say. His attempts range from the brief (u okay?) to the impotent (I hope things are better this morning), and eventually he gives up and just asks, how are you doing?

 

i’m ok, coach gone out, making pie with mama b

 

That’s a relief. If Suzanne is on-side and it’s just Coach reacting badly then maybe Bittle will be okay. He’s not been thrown out, at least.

 

Jack feels oddly shaken by the whole thing. He can’t imagine what it’s like for Bittle, who has always just seemed so himself, so comfortable with who he is that Jack had pretty much forgotten he wasn’t out to his parents yet. Whereas Jack… well, getting caught with your hand down your teammate’s pants when you’re eighteen is one way of ripping off that particular band-aid. He’s almost grateful; he knows himself well enough by now to know there’s no way he would have come out to his parents without that forcing his hand. Even after everything went to shit with Parse and the overdose and rehab, he doesn’t think he could have told them. He even struggles to find the words to talk about his feelings with Shitty, who’s still the only person Jack’s actually said the words “I’m gay” to.

 

Shitty skypes him that afternoon.

 

“Jack, you beautiful motherfucker! How’s Providence treating you?”

 

“...Shits, are you naked?”

 

“Brah, you know better than to ask me that,” Shitty says, swinging his sock-clad feet up onto his desk, into view of his laptop camera.

 

Shitty tells him about the trials and tribulations of apartment hunting in Boston (“I need to be somewhere I can let it all hang out, for less than $700 a month. I need some hockey room mates, bro.”) and Jack starts to tell Shitty about his latest series of meetings with the team staff (charity work, this time), when he remembers that Bittle had said he tried to call Shitty first last night.

 

“Uh… Shits,” he says, not sure where to start.

 

“Yeah bro?”

 

“Did Bittle call you?”

 

Shitty frowns. “Not that I saw, why? What’s up?”

 

That’s odd. Jack figures Bittle won’t mind him telling Shitty anyway, so he explains last night’s phone call.

 

“Shit, man. That’s fucking awful,” Shitty says. “I’ll call Bitty today, see how he is.”

 

“Good. I can’t believe his dad was so… well, I mean, I can, but it’s just... “ Jack sighs. “He shouldn’t have to deal with that sort of shit. Ever. And when it comes from your parents, it’s just that much worse.”

 

Shitty’s looking at him intently now, a sympathetic grimace on his face. “You’d know, brah.”

 

“Well, sort of, I guess. I think my parents were more pissed that I was drinking, than that I was fooling around with Parse.” Jack says.

 

“Bro.” Shitty’s eyebrows are practically up in his hairline.

 

“Uh…” It hits Jack that he had failed to mention the Parse aspect of this particular coming-out story before now.

 

“Bro, seriously? That’s why you hate Parson so much? Shit, man.”

 

“Uh,” Jack says, eloquently.

 

“Wow. Jacky-boy, I can’t believe you kept that one to yourself all this time!” Shitty’s grinning now, and Jack suddenly realises how very, very wrong this could all go.

 

“Shitty, you can’t tell anyone. I’m serious.” But Shitty’s not listening to him; he’s spinning around in his desk chair, whooping gleefully.

 

Jack’s stomach swoops low and nauseating. His heart is thudding in his chest. There’s a roaring in his ears. Shitty continues to cackle and spin.

 

Jack takes a deep, gasping breath and bellows, “SHITTY! STOP! LISTEN!”

 

Shitty brings his twirling to an abrupt halt. “Bro, what?”

 

“You can’t tell anyone this. It could end his career.” Jack can feel his palms sweating, his hands shaking. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I didn’t mean to say it.”

 

“Woah, woah, Jack, no. I wouldn’t.” Shitty is making calm down motions with his arms, palms up, facing the screen. “You’re okay, it’s okay, I’d never say anything to anyone, I swear.”

 

“Right,” Jack says, trying to bring himself back under control, “of course.”

 

“You all right? You need a minute?”

 

“I’m going to go get some water, I’ll be right back,” Jack says, and he can hear his voice has gone reedy and thin, wavering a little as he talks.

 

When he gets back, Shitty has his face right up against his computer screen.

 

“I’m so sorry bro, that was really fucking insensitive of me. I’m an asshole. You okay?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine, you’re fine,” Jack says. “Move away from your screen, Shits, I can see right up your nose.”