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Au pays qui te ressemble

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_X_

Jack brings it up with his mum about halfway to Providence.

“It would be good to do something. For the team.”

“Hm?” Alicia answers, distracted by weaving through the traffic on 495. “How do you mean, sweetie?”

Jack bites the inside of his lip, swallows, and rephrases. “Mama, I… didn’t get this contract by myself, you know? I was thinking it would be good to take a little of the signing bonus money and do something for the Haus, as a gesture.” His hands twist together in his lap. “To say thanks.”

He swallows and screws up his courage. “We already have something planned. For Bittle’s birthday. Maybe I could add to that?”

Jack can’t see Alicia’s eyes behind her big sunglasses, but she smiles. “I think that’s very kind and thoughtful of you. What did you have in mind?”

Jack feels his answering smile grow into a grin. “Just a couple things.”

 

_X_

The properties Jack looks at with his mum start to blend together after the twelfth listing they visit with the real estate agent. There are apartments and lofts and condos and houses, and—it’s a lot. Jack takes about a thousand pictures, and not just of kitchens. This is a big decision, he guesses. It’s not like Jack really cares about where he lives, beyond the basics. Hot running water, heat, walls, roof, commute time to the rink. He’s not really invested in comparing molded plaster to exposed brick, which is one of the reasons why his mum is helping him. She and the agent debate pros and cons while Jack wanders from room to room, snapping shots of the way the light slants across warm wood floors and listening with half an ear.

“...Jack, what do you think of this kitchen?” Alicia calls, and he walks over to peer over her shoulder at the setup. The agent starts to go on about soapstone counters and Spanish tile floors, which, okay? Is that special?

He interrupts her. “Is that a good kind of oven?” The logo says Viking, and it looks really—broad? Big, anyway. Like it could fit lots of pies.

The agent (Jack thinks her name is Madison, but he’s honestly not sure) blinks rapidly a few times and then plasters a big fake smile on her face.

“Yes! This is a 7-Series Viking gas range! Professional quality! I didn’t realize you were interested in cooking!” She speaks only in exclamations because, Jack presumes, she is Just! So! Excited! About! Real Estate! He’s honestly impressed that she’s kept it up for hours like she has. He couldn’t do it.

Jack clears his throat and feels a flush rising up his neck. “Er. I’m not. In particular.” He turns to look at his mum, who is looking back at him with a raised eyebrow and an expression that he has no idea how to interpret.

“Kitchen seems good,” he mutters, and walks away before she can see how red he’s about to be in about 10 seconds.

(Who is he kidding? She sees everything now, has done since Parse, since—Il est fucké.)

 

_X_

When his mum drops him off at the Haus, after they’ve talked it through over dinner, he stretches out on his bed, fiddling with his phone. He still plays that snake game that he used to have on his Nokia. Shitty made him replace the phone their frog year, but he downloaded the game app since Jack didn’t know how to do it himself.

The sun has nearly set, and his whole room is bathed in orange when Bittle pops his head around the jamb.

“How’d it go? Did you find a place?”

Jack smiles at his phone, then lets his glance flicker in Bittle’s direction. “Yeah. Seems all right. Wanna see the kitchen?”

Bitty’s face does something complicated, and he does this little back-and-forth dance over the threshold before bouncing over to Jack’s bed and sitting cross-legged on the end.

“Sure,” Bitty replies on a quick sigh. Jack doesn’t entirely understand why Bittle’s smile is fake, but it is.

Jack pulls his camera out of its bag and starts scrolling through until he finds the place, the place with the Viking stove. He hands the camera to Bittle and watches, stomach knotting, as Bittle chews his lower lip and scrolls forward slowly, totally silent. Jack can tell when Bittle gets to the photos of the kitchen because he just stops. Jack’s hands gradually turn to fists in the duvet at his hips, but he waits.

He knows how to wait. Has gotten really good at waiting, the last few months.

After what seems like forever, but was probably only a minute or two, Bitty looks up, and that brittle smile is back, but his eyes are soft.

“It looks amazing.” He holds the camera out to Jack, and Jack takes it.

Eric (Bittle, Bittle, remember it’s Bittle) looks out the window, and Jack’s breath catches as the fading light burnishes the dark brown of his eyes to bronze. Jack isn’t prone to poetry, but Eric Bittle is ravishing in this light. Jack feels flayed open by the very sight of him.

“I hope you know you’ll be terribly missed,” Bittle says.

“It’s not so far,” Jack says. He hears his own rough voice and lifts the camera to take the quickest of shots before he packs the camera back in the bag. He’s lying to himself; he knows why Bitty’s smile looks like it hurts. If they only had a little more time—

A bullhorn echoes up the stairs, and they both jump. Shitty. “BROOOOOOOOOOOS! HOCKEYMEN! LEND ME YOUR BEERS! WE HAVE STUDYING TO DO. WE HAVE FINALING TO COMPLETE. SOME OF US HAVE TO ACHIEVE ALUMNUS STATUS WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT. BUT FIRST! WE HAVE A DRINKING PROBLEM! CHOWDER! WHAT IS OUR DRINKING PROBLEM?”

Chowder’s uncertain reply warbles up and down so badly that Jack can’t make it out.

“THAT’S RIGHT! TOMORROW IS SPRING C, AND FOLLOWING SPRING C IS READING WEEK. HAUS RULES—NO BOOZE DURING READING WEEK! SPRING C IS YOUR OPPORTUNITY TO GO BIG OR GO HOME. WE HAVE HERE! FIFTEEN HANDLES OF POPOV! THREE FIFTHS OF JIM BEAM! A HALF CASE OF SAILOR JERRY! SHIT! LOADS! OF BEER! AAAAAAAND SOME MAKER’S MARK which I am taking with me because you are all goddamn heathens who CAN’T APPRECIATE DECENT BOURBON! YOUR MISSION! SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT! IS TO PARTY YOUR FUCKING ASSES OFF TOMORROW AT SPRING C responsibly, please.”

Bitty’s got his face in his hands, giggling, as the sun finally slips below the horizon.

“Well? You heard the man. We have a mission.” Bitty stands, affecting a gentlemanly bow, and Jack can’t help but smile at his effortless and unconscious grace.

“After you.”

 

_X_

It’s pretty easy to arrange things with the school. Usually Jack’s reluctant to use his name to make things happen. It seems really déclassé even though he knows that’s how the world works—that’s networking or whatever. But he talks to the student housing people that are in charge of the Greek and sports residences and they surprise him with how excited they are about his ‘donation.’ They tell him it’s tax-deductible, and help him fill out the paperwork.

One of the administrators is totally speechless when Jack shows them what he wants. The other admin, a guy with a calculator permanently attached to his hand, gets really excited because apparently they had budgeted for some improvements to the Haus, the LAX house, and a few others that were already scheduled for this summer. With Jack’s contribution the university will be able to do way more with the portion allocated to the Haus—make it nicer, do some plumbing work, look at the roof. Jack walks out of the student housing administrative office with a folder full of paperwork, having written the biggest cheque he’s ever written in his life, and heads back to the Haus to study for finals.

 

_X_

Jack doesn’t really have a favorite color. Their jerseys are scarlet, of course, but he doesn’t particularly have a preference for it or anything. Well. He didn’t. Until—

Spring C, Bittle’s birthday, and the weeks following pass by in a rush of more studying and less hockey than Jack prefers. Most of it blurs together, but there are two days in particular that are indelibly burned into his memory.

First of all: Eric Bittle in unfairly tiny, bright red shorts, swaying around the front porch of the Haus with only one shoe? Hysterical, as well as a near-lethal combination of adorable and hot that Jack can just barely resist. He has to quit drinking early in the day just to keep his damn hands to himself, crisse. Swiping Bittle’s phone to take that selfie-picture of Bits and Shitty for Twitter is… illuminating. Jack gets about eight entries back in Bittle’s timeline before Bittle squeaks and swipes the phone back out of his hands, but those eight entries are telling if you know what to look for. They give Jack enough courage to offer to take Bittle on piggyback when the PBR starts to catch up to him for real -- which turns out to be torturous in a really good way that Jack saves for close examination until he’s behind a securely locked door.

Second of all: Far be it from Jack to ever enjoy when someone else is crying, but he can’t help the hot, nervous jolts that rush through him when Bittle sees the new Viking oven, looks at Dex, then Shitty, then Jack for the longest moment, then spends the next hour alternately bursting into happy tears and flinging himself at whoever’s closest (Jack is closest; Jack is always closest; if Jack has his way, he will always be closest) and making elaborate plans to bake, like, galettes and soufflés and what-have-yous. That whole night Jack wants nothing more than to tighten his fist in Bittle’s shirt at the curve of his lower back, to pull him close, to press a kiss to each reddened eyelid, to lick into Bittle’s mouth in the middle of the Haus living room, with everyone there, so everyone can see.

He doesn’t, of course. But it’s a pretty close thing.

Regardless, for the whole first week after graduation, Jack wakes all in a rush to the muffled silence and new-paint smells of his Providence townhouse with the phantom pressure of Bittle’s arms and legs wrapped around him at Spring C; presses his face into his pillow and revels in the sense-memory of Bittle literally crying a blotchy mess onto Jack’s Samwell Hockey t-shirt; smiles into the dark to think of the morning after Bittle’s birthday, just the two of them in the kitchen with the early morning light streaming in, sipping coffee and splitting the best damn cinnamon roll Jack’s ever had.

Jack knows how to wait -- is happy to wait, now that he understands what he’s waiting for.

 

_X_

The student housing people keep Jack updated on the changes to the Haus. They send him specs and the revised proposal for final approval, and he signs off.

On the day demolition starts, Nursey just texts him five pages of exclamation points and the word “Dude.”

 

_X_

He and Bittle text even more than he expected, more than he and Shitty, even, because Shitty’s totally overwhelmed with preparing for law school and family shit and Lardo (Jack had hugged him, had initiated the hug, when Shitty cornered him the morning of graduation and told him, manic with joy and a total lack of sleep, that Lardo had stayed over, that they were together; as if there was ever any doubt). So, Jack knows that Bittle is in Georgia until mid-July; that he fibbed about how long he’d be home so he could get a summer job at a local bakery, and he loves it; that he’s planning to be back for training; that he’s ecstatic over a new album that’s about to drop by someone named Solange that Jack had to google; that he’s having a harder time than ever talking to his dad; that he misses Jack almost as much as Jack misses him.

Every morning before he goes out on the ice, Jack turns his phone on silent and stows it in his locker, and he knows that by the time he comes back there will be something there from Eric Bittle, something just for him.

Eric Bittle
Today 10:52 AM
I am firmly convinced that pastry
cream is an item which has
been put on this great green
earth to test my fortitude. Fuck.

Eric Bittle
Today 11:13 AM
Can you tell me the address of
where you practice? I want to
send some mini pies to your team.

Eric Bittle
Today 11:18 AM
UNLESS YOU THINK THAT’S A
BAD IDEA??????? IS THAT
WEIRD? I feel like you can
never go wrong with mini pies???

Jack Zimmermann
Today 12:34 PM
Bittle.

Eric Bittle
Yes! Hi!

Jack Zimmermann
I don’t quite know how to
say this.

Eric Bittle
Yeeeees?

Jack Zimmermann
If you send mini pies, they
won’t make it to the rink.

Eric Bittle

Jack Zimmermann
I leave the decision up to
you.
(Although, how would you
ship them? Have you
considered practicalities,
Bittle?
Inquiring minds.)

Eric Bittle
Chirp Chirp Chirp.

They always texted each other when Jack was still at Samwell, but this feels different. The tips of Jack’s fingers throb in time with his pulse as he types his responses; he can feel heat rising in his cheeks when he’s not quite sure that Bittle might be flirting with him; he almost makes an appointment with the team doctor before he realizes that he doesn’t have a suddenly-appearing cardiac condition -- his heart is skipping beats every time his phone buzzes.

It’s extremely unsettling.

He loves it.

Jack Zimmermann
Today 6:27 PM
Hey.

Eric Bittle
Hi Jack!

Eric Bittle
Today 6:39 PM
Were you just saying hi, or…?

Jack Zimmermann
Sorry.
I was about to burn my dinner.

Eric Bittle
Oh no!
What are you having?

Jack Zimmermann
Chicken.

Eric Bittle
I feel surprised.

Jack Zimmermann
I suppose your dinner is
composed of grits and lard
and pork all somehow
molded into pie form.

Eric Bittle
RUDE, JACK ZIMMERMANN.

Jack Zimmermann
At least there’s protein
in there.

Eric Bittle
JACK ZIMMERMANN I
SWEAR.

Jack finds himself smiling more, in general, which is weird. Like, he’ll walk into his bathroom and glance at the mirror and startle himself with the evidence of his own happiness staring him in the face. It makes him nervous. He’s trained himself very carefully, over a very long period of time, not to hope. Hope is a surefire route to disappointment.

Hockey isn’t about hope. It’s a thing he loves to do, and a thing he has to do, and a thing that, more often than not, is a certainty. Hope isn’t a factor if you practice like Jack does, which is a good thing, because Jack doesn’t indulge in hope.

He doesn’t. Shut up, he doesn’t.

Eric Bittle
Today 9:27 AM
I feel like it’s very wrong that
I have to get up even earlier
for this job than I did for
checking practice.

Jack Zimmermann
Surely not. It’s so hard for me
to imagine you wanting to get
paid to bake more than you
want to get checked. Are you
sure you’re feeling all right?

Eric Bittle
It’s a good thing you’re pretty.

Jack Zimmermann
Compensation for a traumatic
childhood.
I was a terribly ugly baby.

Eric Bittle
I know.

Jack Zimmermann
You do not.

Eric Bittle
I do! Rans and Holster showed
me that Cup news photo.
From when your dad won.

Jack Zimmermann
God, they are relentless.
Are you on a break?

Eric Bittle
Yeah, this is basically my
lunchtime, alas.

Jack Zimmermann
Me too.
Not lunch, obviously.
But taking a short break.

Eric Bittle
You don’t usually respond to
my texts until after practice
is over.

Jack Zimmermann
Well.
Maybe I couldn’t wait to see
what you had to say today.

Eric Bittle
:)

Jack Zimmermann
:-) 

By mid-June, they talk to each other one-on-one more than either of them participate in the Team Chat -- which is why Jack shouldn’t be surprised that Shitty notices.

Shits
Today 1:33 PM
so.

Jack Zimmermann
What?

Shits
bro. what’s up.

Jack Zimmermann
Practice?
What’s up with you?

Shits
BRO. Jack. Talk to me.

Jack’s eyes narrow in confusion, and he sits on the locker room bench in his shorts, toweling his hair dry, and tries to figure out what the hell Shitty’s trying to ask him.

Jack Zimmermann
About what?

Shits
Dude. I know you’re busy. But
you have to know that when
you go all quiet, the boys
worry about you.
I’m worried about you. I know
you’re allergic to talking about
your feelings or whatever, but
with all these recent changes
in your life, the radio silence
is a big red flag.

Jack Zimmermann
Oh.

Shits
YEAH FUCKING OH. I’m
surprised Bitty’s not blowing
up my phone by now wtf you
know he worries about you the
most

And that—Jack doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want anyone to worry about him, he doesn’t deserve

“Hey, Jack-O-Lantern! You got a fuckin’ hat trick in practice! Buck up!” Deetz slaps Jack on the ass as he walks by. Jack jumps, startled, and Deetz saunters off, calling out, “Nah, Jelly, that one doesn’t work either! He’s the only rookie without a nickname, we gotta get on this!”

Jack straightens up with a huff, sets his phone down on the bench, and finishes dressing. He says his goodbyes to his team and walks to his car. Even close to the ocean as they are, the summer sun bakes into him, makes sweat prickle at his temples. He sits in his Audi for a long time, lets the heat melt his muscles until every movement seems as slow as molasses, and stares at his phone.

He unlocks it, and scrolls through his contacts to S.

“Hey.” Jack’s voice sounds strange to his own ears, as if he’s hearing himself shout from a long distance. “So, about Bittle.”

 

_X_

It’s a relief, telling Shitty how close he and Bittle have become, confessing his own tentative hopes, and his growing confidence that Bittle may return his feelings. It doesn’t change anything in his daily life, but he feels like a weight’s been lifted. It’s similar to how Jack felt when he came out to Shitty in freshman year -- there’s a lot in Jack’s life that he feels unsure of, but he’ll always be sure of Shitty.

Jack settles into his place slowly. For the first few weeks, he lives out of boxes and duffel bags until his mum Skypes him and sees all his stuff jammed into the corner of his living room. After scolding him gently (it’s always gently now; Jack sometimes wishes she’d just shout at him), she’d threatened to fly down to help him out until he’d promised to start unpacking on the weekend. So he unpacks clothes and books and brand new linens and, finally, in the very last two boxes, kitchen stuff.

Jack’s no great cook, but he manages to feed himself well enough considering he’s fucking magané from training camp. There are things he misses, though.

He tries to make himself a salted caramel apple pie like he’s watched Bittle do at least fifteen times, and he must have screwed it up somehow because the crust gets all cracked and weird and it ends up overflowing onto the heating element in his stupid, giant, professional Viking oven. The smoke alarm goes off.

He takes a picture and sends it to Bittle. Bittle sends him a shocked face emoji that looks like Munch’s scream, and then a crying laughing emoji, and then a line of five heart-eyed emojis. Jack fumbles his iPhone and almost drops it in the ruined pie.

 

_X_

By the time the reno is well underway in late June, nearly the whole team knows Jack is somehow involved, but they don’t know to what extent. The only person who knows everything is Shitty, and as loud and ridiculous as Shitty can be, he is the most astonishingly loyal secret keeper that Jack has ever met. So Jack leaves it up to Shitty to disseminate just enough information to the team so they are aware that: a) the Haus is getting some major upgrades; b) the fact of the renovation itself isn’t particularly classified, but the nature of two of the upgrades is TOP FUCKING SECRET as regards one player in particular; c) Jack is vaguely involved in these upgrades, but his involvement is 100% TOP FUCKING SECRET FOR ALL TIME, FOR ALL TIME CHOWDER I AM SERIOUS.

The Team Chat is full of updates from Nursey and Dex, who were the only ones to stay through the whole summer. All references to Haus improvements are carefully steered away from mentions of the kitchen, instead focusing on new paint in the living room, the fact that the water is off for a day and a half while the wonky plumbing in the downstairs bath is finally addressed, and the noisy work on the roof.

Bittle’s main contribution to the conversation is to ask whether or not the bedrooms are being worked on. (“Only the empty ones, Bits, the worker guys said that as people cycle out over the next few years they’ll hit ‘em all up w/ new paint. Your inner sanctum is safe ;););)” “For goodness’ sake, I didn’t think I’d get chirped over a simple question” “You thought wrong brah” “See if I make those sour cherry tarts you loved so much again, Dex.” “SHIT. I’M SORRY BITTY I’M SO SORRY PLEASE” “...I’ll think about it.” Jack had smiled all afternoon and said nothing.)

Jack gets a lot of enthusiastic emojis from Ransom and Holster. Most of them seem happy, but a few he can’t decipher at all. What the hell does the eggplant one mean, anyway?

 

_X_

Johnson
Today 2:47 AM
I feel honored to have played
a small part in your Everyone-
Can-See-It romantic love trope,
and I’m rooting for this Gay-
Guy-Seeks-Popular-Jock
overarching plotline 100% all
the way until the ultimate
Love-Confessions-and-Kissing-
in-the-Rain scene.

Jack Zimmermann
Today 6:05 AM
...Thanks, Johnson. I think?

 

_X_

“You know this is a fucking big deal, right? I mean, this is a massive gesture, Jack, you understand that, right?” Shitty keeps running his hands through his hair, which is, tragically, pretty damn short since he cut it for graduation. Paired with the moustache, it makes him look weirdly grown up, and not in a good way. He’s gonna have to either shave it all off or grow a hipster beard, but Jack’s not gonna be the one to tell him so.

“Yeah,” Jack replies, refocusing on taping his stick. The Skype connection skips out for a second, so Jack only catches part of what Shitty says next.

“—o for it? I mean, have you talked to your mom?”

Jack shakes his head. “There’s not a lot to say right now. She liked my idea to do some improvements on the Haus.”

Shitty rolls his eyes. “Jack. I’m fucking trying to talk to you seriously, here. I don’t care how you couch this. It doesn’t matter how little I’ve told the guys. What you are doing, bro, in the eyes of everyone who knows you and Bitty the best of just about anyone on this fucking planet, including both of your parents, is effectively declaring your intentions.” Shitty sighs gustily. “Is that what you want to do? Because there’s no motherfucking takebacks. You may stay in the closet as far as your public image is concerned, but once this is done, with regard to your private life, you will be out.”

Jack bites his lower lip hard, and finally forces himself to look at Shitty again. “I know.”

Shitty nods. “And you want this.”

Jack nods back. “I do.”

A smile creeps around the edges of Shitty’s moustache. “With Bitty.”

Nervous heat flashes through Jack, and he can’t help but grin. “Yeah. With Eric Bittle.”

Shitty raises an eyebrow. “You’re sure.”

“Shitty,” Jack replies, unable to keep his voice from wavering a little, “I’m as sure about this as I am about hockey.”

Shitty blinks twice, then rubs both eyes fiercely. “Fuck, Jack, I can’t take this level of happiness, brah, you’re killing me, here.”

“Well,” Jack says, marveling at his own ability to chirp even at a time like this. Four years ago, he was never so easy with anyone, not even Kenny. “He could hate it and be mortally offended.”

“Yeah, okay, sure,” Shitty replies, deadpan. “He could also declare a moratorium on baking until graduation to focus on hockey and his grades. Anything’s possible.”

“I mean,” Jack says, his voice wavering as he holds back his laughter, “that would actually do him some good, yeah? Unless he’s planning to major in food studies, he needs to crack the books.” He rubs a considering hand over his chin. “Maybe this was a bad idea, after all.”

Shitty bursts into loud, braying cackles. “Va chier, you fucking nerd.” His accent is still the worst ever, except for Bittle’s. He sits back and sighs, still grinning. “I fucking love this. I fucking love you, man.”

Tais-toi, toton,” Jack says, and ends the call.

 

_X_

In the hospital, after Parse, after the pills—

After.

Jack’s dad pretty much gets to come in whenever he wants, because he has no qualms about abusing the system if it means Jack isn’t alone.

Jack spends more than one overly long, hot shower letting the water hit his face so no one can tell he’s crying over it. It’s amazing, that his dad wants to be there, that he’s trying. It’s late, and they both know it’s late. But he’s there.

It’s also a lot for Jack.

It’s late at night, far past visiting hours, and Jack and his dad are watching the Red Wings playing the Leafs -- the Leafs are losing, surprise. Bob had budged up next to Jack on the hospital bed, and Jack hates it, but doesn’t want to say anything. When he was a kid, he wouldn’t see his dad for days and weeks at a time, and he wasn’t tactile and didn’t hug or say he loved him much, and—

It’s a lot for Jack.

Halfway through the third period, Bob turns to look at Jack, and sighs long and low. “Jacques.”

“Oui, papa,” Jack says, and looks at his hands.

“I—” Bob says, then stops. He sighs again. “You should take some time, after you’re discharged. To consider.” He turns and lifts a hand to squeeze the back of Jack’s neck briefly. “It’s very hard, being in the spotlight, even when there are no problems. No— complications. It’s double- or triple-hard to withstand that kind of scrutiny when you’re— different. Tu comprends?”

Jack wants to throw up.

“Oui, papa. Je comprends.”

 

_X_

On June 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States declares same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. Jack doesn’t hear until he leaves practice that afternoon and checks his phone for texts from Bittle.

Nothing.

He does have like 17 texts from Shitty, all in rainbow text and pictures of stick figures throwing up rainbows, and he doesn’t get it until he checks the rest of the notifications on his phone. His pulse starts buzzing in his fingertips, which is absurd, because he’s Canadian and it’s been legal in Canada forever.

It’s not like it changes Jack’s life in any way.

He wants to text Bitty.

He sits on one of the stools at the breakfast bar thing in his kitchen and composes twenty-one separate texts, and deletes them all.

He cooks and eats dinner; then watches an episode of Game of Thrones; then texts Holster which episode he’s completed; then he opens his phone, quickly sends Bittle the little rainbow emoji before he can talk himself out of it, and goes to bed.

Jack wakes up to his phone buzzing incessantly into the pitch black of his bedroom.

He sighs, rubbing his eyes, then squints at his alarm clock as he grabs the phone. 11:23 PM. Fuck, whoever’s calling better have a good—

His phone displays that Spring C picture with the red shorts, a name flashing on the screen. Eric Bittle. Jack sits up all the way and swipes to accept the call. “‘Alo? Eric?” Fuck, his accent goes so French when he’s tired.

On the other end, silence, and then a great, heaving sniffle. “Jack?”

Suddenly very awake, Jack draws his knees up under the covers and hunches over them, his phone pressed so tight to his ear it starts to hurt immediately. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m so sorry, did I wake you?” Eric’s—Bittle’s—voice is a little muffled, restrained. Jack can hear the faint rustle of fabric in the background. Bittle rushes ahead before Jack can answer. “I’m so sorry, Jack, I know you have practice in the morning, but I tried Shitty and he didn’t answer, and Lardo didn’t answer either so they’re probably together, right? A-and I don’t want to interrupt that, I mean, how inconsiderate—”

“Bittle—”

“—and honestly they’re both amazing friends but I don’t expect them to drop everything whenever I have a problem—”

“Bitty—”

“—but this is kind of a big problem, I mean, this is THE big problem, and I really wasn’t planning to do it until after graduation, so it’s about two years earlier than I intended and—”

The pitch of Eric’s voice is ratcheting higher and higher. Jack’s heart is in his throat. “ERIC.”

There is a long silence, punctuated by a few shaky breaths on both their parts. Finally, “Yes, Jack.”

There’s no amount of deflection that Jack can employ here, no way to avoid addressing the elephant in the room anymore. To do so would hurt Eric more than it would protect Jack’s privacy—and Jack’s realized over the last couple of years that there is almost nothing that he wants to keep private from Eric Bittle anymore. “I need to ask you a couple questions. Okay?”

A loud sniffle. “Okay.”

“Are you in danger? Physically?”

Eric makes a surprised noise. “No?”

Jack nods, then remembers that Eric can’t see him. “Okay. Do you need me to come get you? Tonight? Right now?”

Eric makes another noise, a kind of strangled laugh-sob that makes Jack’s stomach tie in knots. He’s already considering whether or not it’s too late to call Georgia and his coaches when Eric replies, “No, Jack, but I love that you just offered, truly. Thank you.”

A flush of heat rushes through Jack from head to toe. He’d thought Eric was about to say-- To tell him— Quickly, before he can lose his nerve, “I know today was kind of a big deal. Did you come out tonight? To Coach?”

“No, I— No,” Eric near-hisses, his voice gone low and conspiratorial. “But. He’s really starting to ask a lot of questions about why I’m not calling home about dates with girls, why am I not trying to meet anybody, what’s going on, everybody loves a jock, he met my mama in college, et cetera. And it’s starting to really, like, hurt?”

Eric hiccups over the line, and Jack’s hand clenches in his sheets.

“To lie like that. And the news was all about—well, you know what it’s about, and I already spent my lunch break crying in the bathroom because this is so wonderful and overwhelming, and I didn’t even think it would happen, and. And of course when I went home, Mama was pretty quiet, and then Coach came home, and. You know.”

Eric’s voice thickens and starts to quaver.

“He watches an awful lot of Fox News, you know? And, um, after he went to bed, mama stayed up with me for a bit, and she, uh. She basically said that she loves me a lot, and.” He pauses to blow his nose. “Sorry. Um. That she loves me a lot, and wants me to be happy, and she’s really worried about me? And that, um. Coach loves me too but, and I’m quoting her here, ‘isn’t all that good at understanding people who are different from him.’ And, uh. I feel like she was telling me to keep my light under a bushel, but I’m so—angry. And scared. And exhausted?

“The thing that makes me so sad is that my first thought when the news broke is, ‘Oh God, I hope no one congratulates me in public, because I won’t know what to do.’ Even before, ‘Yay I can get married in my hometown.’” Eric sniffles and hiccups through an inhale. “What the fuck, Jack.”

Jack nods again. “Yeah. I get that.”

“You do?”

“Eric. You know I do.” Jack nips at a cuticle, lets the ensuing silence drag.

Finally, “Yeah,” Eric says, voice clogged with tears. “I guess I do.”

I want to hold your hand, Jack thinks but doesn’t say. I want to put my arms around you right now.

“Look, I don’t know if it’ll help, or what, but.” Jack shifts into a cross-legged position that redistributes his weight more evenly on the mattress and puts less pressure on his joints. “I once had a conversation with my therapist that really— changed me. Changed the way I thought.”

Another sniffle from the other end of the line. “Okay?” Eric sounds bewildered.

“She said—”

“She?”

“Yeah?” Jack scratches the back of his head. “So?”

Eric laughs a little, and Jack counts it as a win even though he doesn’t know what he’s laughing about. “I’m not trying to imply anything about female therapists, but you don’t really seem to seek out female friends to talk to, in general, aside from Lardo. And y’all more like…”

“...Sit in companionable silence together?” Jack finishes, finally grasping what Eric’s trying to say. Eric laughs again, stronger and more sure this time.

“Yeah.”

Jack shrugs. “I guess, at the time in my life when I was looking for someone to talk to, this particular person just seemed to get what I was trying to say, you know?”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah, Jack.” Jack can hear the eyeroll in Eric’s voice, and smiles. “Okay. So, you had a conversation with your therapist that changed you?”

Moonlight slants across Jack’s duvet in a pale sliver. He passes his hand through it, watches it trickle over the peaks and valleys of his knuckles. “So, we were talking about stress, and how everyone experiences stress all the time, but every single person who experiences stress reacts to it differently, you know?” He slows the movements of his hand, presses it flat on the bed, bisected by the moonlight. “School creates stress, and work creates stress, and even daily tasks like taking care of yourself create stress, because a healthy amount of stress is— motivational, yeah? Do you follow?”

“Mmm-hm,” Eric hums. He sounds just a little sleepy. Good. Jack lowers his voice just a little, to encourage things in that direction. It’s a hell of a lot better than crying, fuck.

“Okay. Anyway, stress, on a base level, makes you do stuff. Get stuff done. Which is a good thing. But then she said something that I won’t ever forget. She said that it’s when we can’t accomplish goals, when the thing causing stress just builds and builds, and we can’t move past it, that’s when stress turns to distress. And then even the normal stress can be too much, can turn to distress that much faster.”

Eric makes a surprised, inquiring noise.

“So,” Jack continues, “there are daily stressors that most people can generally cope with, like, like schoolwork, or interacting with your teammates, or even—” Jack takes a deep breath, lets it out, “—negotiating a relationship with your parents, which can be pretty hard. But when you add in, say, internal and external pressure to excel in a sport, or, say, staying in the closet when it’s hurting you, then—”

“Distress,” Eric says softly.

“Right,” Jack manages, and falls silent.

Eric’s long, slow breath in and gusty exhale into the receiver reverberate in Jack’s ear. “What do you do when you’re distressed, Jack?”

Jack blinks into the dark, then shifts his legs back up to press his eyes against his knees. “I think every hockey fan on the planet knows what I do when I’m genuinely distressed, Eric.”

“I—” Eric starts, then stops.

Jack swallows, bites his lip. “What is it?”

Rushed, “Nothing, I. Thanks, I guess. For answering, for talking to me.” Eric huffs a short laugh. “I think that’s the longest I’ve heard you talk at one time outside of discussing hockey.”

Jack rolls his eyes and flops down onto his side, still holding the phone to his ear. “Shut up.”

Eric’s on a roll now. “No, I mean it! Things are getting pretty serious here!”

Jack presses his smile into his pillow for a second. “Yeah. I guess so.”

 

_X_

Jack can barely drag himself through practice the next morning. The bags under his eyes have their own carry-on luggage. It’s not a good look. The chirps from his teammates about his late night activities are pretty easy to ignore; the concerned looks from the coaches are a little harder to brush off. He tells himself it’s one day, it’s just one day, but it’s hard to move past the building anxiety, especially after revealing so much of himself last night. Deetz tries out a few more nicknames—Jackie (“Ugh, Dietrich, he’s not a girl.”); Bimmermann (“False advertising. He drives an Audi.”); and Zebra (“NOPE! Deetz, you are really scraping the bottom of the barrel here.”)—because he never knows when to shut the fuck up, especially when he’s embarrassing himself. He just doubles down. Jack doesn’t even have it in him to chirp.

Still, at mid-morning break, he takes his phone out of his locker and scrolls until he reaches that picture he took of Eric, the day he found his townhouse. He holds his phone close to his chest and lets himself take in every detail of the way the setting sun gilds Eric’s hair, the bright contrast of his profile, the long lines of his slender neck cast in sharp relief.

It’s beautiful. It’s one of the best portraits he’s ever taken.

Jack thinks about how he has that Spring C photo as Eric’s contact photo, so whenever Eric calls or texts him, a picture of Eric and Shitty pops up on his phone and reminds him that he barely has any photos of Eric at all that wouldn’t look really weird popping up on his phone for a casual phone call from a friend. Over the past month or so, he’s gone back to the sunset picture over and over, despite the fact that if anyone ever finds him interesting enough to hack his phone, it would be out there.

He brings up the menu thing and selects “Make Contact Photo.”

Maybe it’s time to stop worrying about the little stuff, when he feels like he’s on the precipice of something huge.