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The Left Hand of Godlessness

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It doesn’t truly hit Jack until the late fall sun is streaming through the windows and all Jack can think about is what Bitty might taste like, right here helping him bake pies for class. He wonders if Bittle’s delicate, well-loved mix of cloves and nutmeg and cinnamon would taste as balanced when Jack licked it from his mouth. Perhaps this is what astronauts feel like when they are no longer weightless and bend to the force of Earth's gravity. It's a pleasant realization, really—a casual rendering.

Plainly, regardless of what lies in front of him, he doesn’t want this to end.

He has contracts waiting to be reviewed and potential new linemates to consider. His whole career is stretching out in front of him but he knows, suddenly and all too clearly, he’d give it all up in an instant. He’d drop everything to have Bitty laughing at him in a kitchen, feet bare and sun streaming through the curtains, highlighting the smattering of freckles strewn across the bridge of Bittle's nose, stubborn memories of summer unwilling to fade away and let him go. Jack doesn’t blame them for wanting to stick around. But he does blame himself.

That is the problem with being near Eric Bittle; it makes him never want to be anywhere else. Or perhaps more accurately, it makes Jack aware that Bitty’s presence could only improve any place that Jack is.

It is a greedy, selfishness that reminds Jack of when he was using.

He doesn’t kiss Bitty. It's close, though. Instead, he lets himself enjoy the moment, pretending he might. He looks his fill and doesn’t cheat away when Bitty catches him. He sways into Bitty’s warmth and watches his long fingers correct Jack’s haphazard pie lattice. He lets the want splay over his features because it’s a truth he knows and doesn’t want to deny, not today. Maybe it’s wrong of him, when he’s uncertain about what this will mean. But he is tired of running away. That’s what being a recovering addict is about: realizing you’ve been running for too long, finding the strength to stand there and take the checks life gives you.

So Jack basks in Bitty’s attention and lets himself feel the curve of Bitty’s hip as they move around the kitchen together. He smiles when he wants Bitty to know he’s having a good time and he lingers when he thinks he can get away with it and even when he thinks he can’t.

Janice, his favorite in a long string of therapists, had always said it wasn’t enough to simply survive. Just living sober couldn’t be his be-all-end-all. He needed to add a life beyond hockey. He had one, before, never was the hockey robot they all tease him about being. In fact, feeling too much has always been the problem. It’s not that he doesn’t have thoughts and feelings and concerns about things outside of hockey. It’s that he hasn’t been able to handle anything but the game in a long time.

With Kenny, everything was always sharp; the way he hit, the way he played, the way he fucked Jack, and the way he loved. It was like being dunked under water too fast, held there just a second too long until the sharpness was all that could be felt. Jack dulled it the only way he knew was guaranteed to work—convinced he didn’t have the luxury of mistakes and capitalized on the chances he knew were going to guarantee him wins. He threw Kenny between him and the world. And when that wasn’t enough, he let Kenny cut him deep enough that even sinking inside himself, so fucking high and still choking on the immensity, was just a symptom.

With Eric, it’s never… Jack thought love was always that way. That it was sharp and beautiful and dangerous. But the way he feels about Eric is none of those things. And he’s starting to realize it doesn’t make what happened with Kenny not love nor does it make what he’s feeling with Bittle less like love. This soft, expansive feeling Jack has for Bittle feels infinite. In the Q, Jack spent most of his time sober praying for it to end—the pills, the pressure, even Kenny. All of it hurt to the point that he just wanted it to stop but he didn't know how to articulate that without feeling like he was failing someone. The truth is, there wasn't some omnipotent figure he was failing... he was fucking failing himself.

But for the first time in a long time, he’s not praying for it to stop; he’s honestly asking for more and he thinks he can handle it. He’s never wanted something in his life so badly as he wants to keep Bitty. Even though he knows damn well if he wants to be fair to Eric then he’ll be honest, too.

“Quit fussing with it,” Eric says, drawing Jack out. He gets swat with a kitchen towel as Bitty grins, unaware of the subject of Jack's thoughts. “Put that in the oven and be careful not to burn yourself somethin' fierce.”

That night, he listens to Bittle record a video in his room, laughing when he messes up. Jack makes sure he times his walk to the kitchen so he can stop by, looming in Bittle’s open door and watching the blush rise on Eric’s cheeks when Jack teases him about making too much noise with his ‘video journal’. He stays there too long, until Bitty starts to yawn and the temptation to crawl in bed next to him, to knee walk across the mattress until Eric is settled underneath him, is too great.

It’s not desperation. It’s not drowning. It’s rising to the top before his chest bursts and finding acceptance—rediscovering the full capacity of his lungs.

Jack finds a meeting the next day.

<3<3<3

He’s not able to skate after practice because someone else has booked the ice. So Jack goes back to the Haus, gets changed and goes for a run long enough that eventually the way his hands shake has everything to do with physical exhaustion and nothing to do with Jack.

‘Own your feelings. People don’t make you feel a certain way. You feel.’

Bitty doesn’t make his hands shake.

He’s reminding himself of that fact when he walks out of the shower to find Shitty spread eagle on Jack’s bed. He’s definitely not wearing pants but at least he’s wearing underwear. Jack’s thankful, even if the underwear are very small. He blinks but no, the ass of Shitty’s red underwear is still printed with ‘CONSENT IS SEXY’ in large white print.

“Are those women’s underwear?”

Shitty’s flow whips across the pillow. “Gender is a construction, my Canadian love muffin,” he says. “However, you’ve requested I no longer put my man clit on your duvet—so I’ve chosen the best underwear ever, bro. Because I love you, man, and respect your space.”

Jack smiles. “I’m not some bro in your gender studies class, Shitty. There’s no need to woo me.”

“I woo you every day, Jack. Every day damn day.”

The list of dudes Jack has found the morning after still looking shocked they went home with Shitty is kind of large. He doesn’t know if he counts for the list. They only managed to jerk each other off a few times before Jack realized he was in fact too gay for this and Shitty admitted he wanted to love Jack forever as bros and not in a one-night-stand-to-fuck-the-patriarchy-sort of way.

Ironically, Jack thinks that is sort of what’s been happening with Shitty and Lardo—in reverse. He still remembers the first time Shitty came home, pleasantly high with wide eyes, and said he met the most life-changing woman. The difference between Lardo and Shitty is: Lardo lets Shitty keep coming around, no matter how weird and star struck he is. Shitty always tell his bro-stands they can have breakfast but bro-jobs were no longer on the table.

“I’ll woo you with my consent panties, brah. Yes means yes,” Shitty says, wiggling his eyebrows in a way that also makes his mustache jiggle.

Jack turns to rifle through his closet. Once he finds what he’s looking for he looks over his shoulder and says, “been there and done that, Shitty.”

It gets the rise he was hoping for. Shitty sputters. “Okay, ‘done that’ is such a relative term, Jackabell! And fuck off, you came back for more.”

Jack laughs because Shitty’s right. He used to regret never kissing Shitty on the mouth. Now, three years later, he’s so grateful he didn’t fuck up the best friendship he’s ever had. Things have a funny way of starting one way but ending up another. The idea is no longer paralyzing. Jack is still in control, even when relationships morph into something different from what they were because of him.

“That I did, Shitty. But I wouldn’t kiss that nasty ‘stache,” Jack chirps, wiggling into his own briefs and then his jeans.

“Stop distracting me from my mission,” Shitty exclaims. “I know what you’re trying to do, bro. I won’t be derailed with your chirping or your huge, fucking ass.”

Jack pulls on a shirt and a sweatshirt. “Here I thought you were just being annoying.”

“Solid effort but also, no.”

“Cool, could you hurry up? I have somewhere to be,” Jack says instead and he hesitates a bit, flexing his hands before he decides not to tell Shitty he is going to a meeting. He wonders if he’s feeling ashamed or he's just being careful. He shelves the thought for another time.

Shitty narrows his eyes but doesn’t press. “I dropped by the love-fest in the kitchen yesterday. Except you didn’t see me because you were wrapped up in the brown-sugar eyes of one Eric Richard Bittle.”

Jack looks away but he doesn’t deny it. Instead, he goes to find some clean socks.

“Don’t ignore me.”

Jack sits down in the chair across the room to pull on his socks but he raises his head to see Shitty has managed to get upright and he looks serious. Jack takes a deep breath, shrugs and doesn’t waver from Shitty’s gaze when he says, “I like Bitty’s eyes.”

Shitty blinks slowly. “You like Bitty’s eyes?”

Jack nods and looks away to finish putting on his socks, grabs his tennis shoes. He takes a few deep breaths but he feels fine. He wiggles his toes.

“And does Bitty know you like his eyes?”

Jack frowns. “Stop saying it like that,” he pauses, thinking about the way he caught Bitty looking sad at times yesterday, wistful and maybe a little scared. “And, I don’t know,” Jack settles on.

Shitty chokes on his tongue. “Are you going to tell him?!”

Jack can hear the exclamation point. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Oh Jack,” Shitty whispers, but Jack doesn’t look up because Shitty sounds like he’s going to cry and that is just not what Jack wants to deal with. Instead, he double knots his laces and flexes his toes.

“Last question, can I hug the ever-loving-fuck out of you right now—hush, don’t answer, just come here you overgrown—”

Jack ends up carrying Shitty down the stairs because he needs to leave for his meeting but Shitty isn’t done “being proud of him”, which apparently involves aggressive mustache nuzzling and piggy-back rides. As disturbing as the scene is, it’s not a deterrent at all. Before he leaves, he catches Bitty’s eyes from the couch where Jack’s dumped off Shitty, who is still carrying on about ‘emotional growth’ and ‘true bae-dom’.

He lets himself smile—hoping Bitty knows it’s for him—before he turns to leave. His chest goes tight, just for a few seconds, when Bitty’s eyes widen. They are impossibly round before he smiles back, shy and honest. Jack doesn’t look away when it turns a little off at the end. He knows there is a timeline for this and Jack can’t ignore the bad things. He won’t let himself. It’s not fair.

He goes to his meeting.

He thinks about the way his chest loosened when Bitty smiled back and then he gets up and says, “Hello, my name is Jack and I’m an addict. Pills mostly—but at the end, I would have taken anything.” No one looks at him like Bitty does. However, their gazes are steady like Shitty’s and his hands shake but his voice is strong.

<3<3<3

Janice never pressured him to get a sponsor. She said everyone deals with recovery differently but sponsor’s are like neutral lighthouses. No matter the storm, all they care about is sobriety. After his freshman year, he told her he found a sponsor and his name was Shitty. It’s still true. They say you shouldn’t mix your battle for sobriety with someone who is close to you. Friendships are fluid; there is a give and take to them. Friends have something to gain from you and sometimes that can jeopardize the lighthouse concept—they’ll focus on their investment in you, not your sobriety.

But Jack knows if Shitty had to choose between Jack’s sobriety and Jack’s friendship, he’d pick the former without even blinking.

That’s enough, for Jack at least.

He doesn’t share his story at the meeting. He introduces himself because it’s polite and it’s important for people to trust each other. It’s supposed to be this safe space. It doesn’t really feel safe to Jack—not like the rink does with a fresh sheet of ice but it has its own purpose. His mother always thought it was odd, that hockey wasn’t a trigger. But Jack knows hockey was not the problem.

It was Jack then and it is always going to be Jack going forward.

‘Own your mistakes. Own your addiction. Own your sobriety.’

A woman gets up to speak. She’s visibly strung-out. She’s too thin and her chest looks like it might crack if she breathes in deep. She’s not crying but she looks like she might have been pretty recently. Her coffee cup shakes when she puts it down on the lectern. Jack wiggles his toes and flexes his fists.

She doesn’t smile.

“Hi. I’m Emma. It’s been four days and I’m not—I don’t think I’m going to make it another hour.”

Jack claps with everyone else when she finishes. Privately, he doesn’t think she’ll make it either, not the way she’s jonesing. But her spine is straight and her gaze never wavers so he thinks she’ll be back. He doesn’t make small talk after the meeting. It won’t make him feel better and he can’t imagine anyone will get comfort from him. That’s okay.

He finishes his terrible coffee. It is nothing like the stolen sips from Bitty’s sweet pumpkin coffee, but it’s something to do with his hands. Then he goes to meet Ransom for a booze run.

<3<3<3

No matter how far Jack’s come, being in an enclosed room during Epikegster with Kenny takes him back to hotel rooms he would never like to relive. They fight because it's what they do. They owe each other so many apologies but Jack can never find the words. The ones he does find are as sharp as Kenny’s kisses and he feels like he’s chewing on glass when Kenny talks about freeing up cap space in Vegas.

Kenny smiles and it feels fake. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it's just Jack, but he can't help but know that Kent's incisor is artificial—a memento from crashing the net with his face. Being false doesn't make them less sharp. Jack remembers what they feel like in his skin. He remembers that they didn't taste fake when he ran his tongue along them. Jack also knows that it's impossible for him not to hate Kenny for those memories. But he leaves the fuzzy gaps of time between them for his own self-loathing.

Jack feels vile.

The person he is when he’s with Kenny is not who he wants to be. He slams the door on Bittle because Eric deserves better than this ugliness. It’s not a ghost from his past; Jack doesn’t kid himself there. The person he becomes when he’s with Kenny is just another version, past and present. But Jack can be better now. This momentary relapse reminds him of who he was when he first met Bittle: scared and not ready to come in from the cold.

It’s a stark reminder that being high didn’t make him a raging asshole and he can manage it still; vicious and nonsensical and lost.

He doesn’t deserve the cookies he finds in his bag but it confirms his suspicion that Bittle heard every word of his conversation about mistakes with Parse. Breaking a cookie in two, he puts a half in his mouth and takes a deep, steadying breath.

He’ll figure this out.

He flexes his toes on the hardwood floor, eating the rest of his cookie and wonders why Bittle is apologizing at all.

<3<3<3

He leaves for home two days later. Jack waves off his mother’s offer to pick him up when he lands in Montreal. She sounds worried and he’s sure she’s texting his father, who is at an event in Toronto, the second they hang up. But he knows what he needs right now, even if it feels a little desperate. The last few days have felt fragile and he hates it. It’s a control thing, he figures.

He lost control with Kenny. He lost control with Bittle after. These are the repercussions of disappointing himself. He knows this but he’s not sure what will fix it. But when he’s googling in the taxi for a late night meeting, he hears Janice’s voice, “sometimes things aren’t meant to be fixed, they’re meant to be learned from. Grown away from. Visualize the way a plant grows toward the light—it’s growing away from the darkness, yes?”

Jack feels like Emma from the meeting. Perhaps not sure of relapse like she was, but certain of failure—of what he's capable of. He thinks about Bittle’s shocked face and the soft, hurt noise he made when Jack slammed the door and left him in the hallway, key abandoned in the wake of Kent Parson.

Most of all, he thinks about Bittle’s texts outside the group chat. Jack has always hated technology, not because he’s illiterate but because it makes things harder. Communicating is hard enough in person. It’s harder when things can be misconstrued through text. Jack’s never minded really but this thing with Bitty feels like it deserves clarity.

Bittle deserves crisp passes.

And for once, Jack finds a text might communicate more clearly than he can right now.

To Bittle:
You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t have to apologize.

He checks his phone before he gets out of the taxi. Bittle's already responded.

They’re not apology cookies. Have a good break, Jack.

He’s the first one to stand up and walk up to the wooden pulpit in the church. It’s almost eleven on a Tuesday. There are only ten people in the pews but they’re all bright-eyed in the candlelight. He doesn’t play the game of trying to figure out if they know who he is—it’s not fun anymore and it’s not particularly calming. That’s not why he’s here. Meetings are supposed to be about finding what you need so you don’t relapse, even when you have any no idea what you want.

Jack knows what he wants.

He just wants to make sure he’s the kind of person he wants to be when he finally gets there. Sobriety is about many things. Finding a resting peace where the wants and the needs overlap is probably part of it.

“I’m not an addict because of hockey. I’m not an addict because I’m gay. I’m not an addict because—life did not make me this way. I am an addict but I am getting better at being more.”

His hands don’t shake.

<3<3<3

His mother is asleep when he gets in and Jack quietly has a full-blown panic attack in the solitude of her kitchen. It’s well past midnight and it started to snow while he was in the meeting; the meeting where he outed himself to several strangers who didn’t need the added pressure of knowledge which could earn them enough tabloid money to ease their pockets and their personal pain. It was selfish.

His panic attacks have changed since his recovery. They used to be loud. Everything was always so loud and the roaring in his ears wouldn’t stop for hours. He would sit on the bathroom floor and vomit, breaths coming in gasps as his chest heaved. Kenny would find him, pull him into the shower and sit with him in the tub as cold water pounded down on them until Jack was shaking only from the water temperature. He remembers the way Kenny would pat him dry, still soaking wet in his own clothes because he wasted no time getting Jack in the shower. He remembers blinking into reality, Kenny wrapping him in the warmth of a towel and tipping a few pills into his mouth. He remembers every single moment of them as if they were yesterday.

Rationally, he knows that not all his memories are real but they feel as vivid as a bruise.

He had a few bad ones with Shitty his freshman year. Then again, Shitty isn't Kenny and he wasn't even remotely like him then. Shitty would wrap him with a thick comforter that smelled mostly like weed and Axe, press their chests' together until Jack was rooted back to his dorm floor, sitting with Shitty and this time, Shitty was usually the naked one.

It doesn’t go like that anymore.

Now, sometimes he doesn’t even know he’s having them. And maybe they’re not panic attacks anymore—he just doesn’t know what to call them. Everything just goes still. He feels like he can’t speak because the silence is so oppressive. He loses time. Caught up in the quiet like it’s the only thing tethering him to the ground.

It’s better than the old ones, at least. He likes that he doesn’t puke anymore.

This time he comes around to the sound of Shitty’s voice; but he’s not here and it throws Jack for a loop. His surroundings start filtering into his awareness. He’s sitting with his back against the fridge and his hands are cold. It’s still dark outside but the kitchen is flooded with light. His mother has her hand tight around his ankle. It hurts.

“He’ll come to in a bit, Mrs. Z,” Shitty says, his voice that forced calm he uses when he’s talking about law school or Lardo spending time with anyone remotely attractive or on the Lacrosse team. “As long as his breathing is even, there’s not really anything we can do. Believe me.”

“I didn’t know he still...that he still had them,” his mother sounds hushed and guilty.

Jack’s face is wet.

“Parse came around two nights ago,” Shitty says, casually betraying Jack to his mother. “They had an argument and I think him and Bittle—”

Jack blinks. “Shut up, Shitty.”

“Jack, oh Jack, baby,” his mother lets got of his ankle but he snatches her fingers and guides them back until her nails crease into his skin.

“Put that dumb fucker on Facetime,” Shitty scolds and Jack works his hands over to push the right buttons on his mother’s phone. Bitty taught him how to do this. He said it would be good for Jack to talk to Shitty when they were both away, to ease the separation anxiety, but Jack hoped they would use it so Jack could say goodnight to Bitty. He likes the way Bitty looks when he’s about to go to sleep.

“Don’t curse,” Jack says but his mouth is dry and the words stick to his tongue. His mother kind of chokes and Jack wishes he didn’t make her cry. “She’s my mother.”

Shitty’s mullet is a mess and his mustache looks grimy.

“You’re not okay,” Shitty says. “What the hell happened? Is this about Parse? Did he—”

Jack shakes his head sharply. “No, I just—I did something stupid.”

“Are you high?”

It’s a straight-forward questions. There is no emotion in Shitty’s voice. Jack feels his mouth twitch into a smile.

“No, Shitty,” Jack says and he sees his mother visibly relax. “Thanks for asking though.”

Shitty laughs. “Yeah, no problem. Anytime. Jesus. You’re a scary mother-fucker you know that?”

“Sorry.”

“Stop making me curse in front of your mother. She’ll never leave Bad Bob if I keep having to curse like a sailor instead of wooing her.”

Shitty keeps talking and Jack just nods. Eventually, his hands stop being so cold and he uses them to hold his mother’s until she stops looking so scared. Shitty goes back to bed and finally they get off the kitchen floor.

He makes tea because his hands aren’t shaking but his mother’s are.

“I’m sorry,” he says but he’s not sure he means it. He feels guilty she’s awake and taking care of him but he doesn’t think he’s sorry he needs it.

“Don’t be, baby. Please don’t be,” she says, voice soft in a way that reminds him of very bleak days in rehab, when the sound of her voice over the phone was the only bright spot in his day. “Do you want to talk about what happened?”

Jack pauses.

“I’m sorry for scaring you,” Jack says carefully after a few moments. “I went to a meeting—I needed to go and I might have shared too much. But I’m not… I’m not unhappy. I’m not high.”

“I believe you.”

Jack smiles. “Merci, maman.

“You don’t have to thank me, darling.”

They sip their tea. It’s late but the snow outside is beautiful. It reminds Jack of the way his father would flood the pond in the back; insistent he could do it, for Jack, when they all knew they would be better off paying someone. It’s a good memory.

“Parse is not to blame—for this. For me,” Jack clarifies. His mother stops playing with the string of her tea bag. “J’suis d’même; Un drogué.

Mon petit coeur de Lion.”

“No, not at all. I just—the way I feel about Eric,” Jack says, quiet. “It’s different. Still consuming but better. Good. Happy.”

She’s smiling but she’s sad. Jack knows it’s because he doesn’t make this easy. They love him and they’ve been nothing short of amazingly supportive but he’s their broken star with one hand and their gay son with the other. It’s a lot. Sometimes it must be too much on top of being Bad Bob's wife but she’s always there, loving him and standing out as Alicia. It reminds him of Eric in a way—who is so many things to various people but still himself. It scares him a little. He didn’t know this feeling existed outside a mother’s love.

“Go take a shower and we’ll go back to bed,” she says.

He nods and goes, turning the water until it’s scalding and it pinks his skin. He doesn’t think about Kenny but he does think about the soft, quiet hurt he sees in Eric sometimes, when he thinks Jack’s not looking.

He wants to be the one to erase it.

<3<3<3

There’s no more big revelations or panic attacks during winter break. Jack’s dad comes home and they definitely don’t talk about it, even though Jack knows his mother probably told him everything. Jack knows he’s lucky not to have Coach as his dad but nothing between him and his father has ever been easy. Mostly it’s because Jack has anxiety and Bad Bob has never been anxious about anything in his entire life. It’s completely foreign and he can’t beat it into submission; he can’t win it away for Jack.

That his dad would even want to try is what Jack can’t begin to understand. None of what Jack is has ever been enough for Jack and he always thought his dad would understand the need, the drive to be more. But he doesn’t. His dad loves him regardless of his hockey or his sexuality or his substance abuse. That has always morphed into a different kind of pressure. Even before his overdose, his dad was worried playing in the Q was too much pressure—the NCAA would be better and Jack would be able to live a more normal life. Jack hadn’t understood at the time but he sort of sees it now. He’s older, not higher than the rafters at Rexall, but even though logically he gets it, none of it makes the anxiety go away. Facts don’t make Jack stop from feeling however the way he feels—which is, conservatively, complicated and in Shitty-speak, “fucking fucked the fuck up with a little bit of even more fucked up sprinkled on top”.

Jack just wants to live up to Bad Bob’s legacy. And Bad Bob? He just wants his son to smile more.

So there’s tension in that disconnect. But it’s not bad. It mostly translates into a lot of early mornings spent at the rink together. It’s better there. They get each other a lot more there. It’s only off the ice where Jack’s drive to be the best gets messed up with his anxiety. On the ice it is nothing but the will to win.

His dad just wants him to be happy.

Jack still just wants to win everything.

They are a work in progress.

<3<3<3

Spring semester looks like hell laid out before him. There’s hockey and hopefully a long playoff push; his thesis and classes; his agent and contract negotiation; free agency in general and well, trying to figure out exactly what Jack wants from his life post-Samwell.

He’s gotten as far as Bittle but not much further.

Idly, he wonders if that’s why he’s so keen on Providence. He knows it’s probably not true. Providence has been the best team, far and wide, dealing with not only Jack’s hockey needs but also his circumstances as both an addict and closeted man. Georgia is the only one who never shied away from the substance abuse conversations. Nor did she bat an eye when Jack laid out the stark truth in a coffee shop on campus (“I’m an addict. I’m gay. I still struggle with anxiety and medication. That’s never going to change. Do you still want me to play for you?”).

He’s not sure what he would do if he were away from Shitty for too long. A few weeks here and there is fine, but Jack doesn’t do well without some sort of constant Shitty Knight presence in his life.

He says as much, the first night back. They’re sitting on the roof just outside his window on the pretense that Shitty is smoking and Bittle hates it when he tries to hot-box the entire Haus. In reality, Jack’s just trying to breathe and Shitty is keeping him company.

“Is that… a problem?”

Shitty takes a sip of his beer, says, “That you don’t want to move that far away from me?”

“Yes.”

“Bro, you’re fucking stuck with me,” Shitty pronounces, reaching out to take Jack’s hand. “I am as in love with you as I will ever be. You’re a fucking nightmare and I love you, man. Basket case or functional adult, I don’t want to be away from you, either.”

“Okay.”

“In a different universe, I totally locked that ass down freshman year,” Shitty adds when Jack is climbing back into his room. “And you’d never get that pie-in-the-sky look for southern bell’s that have super perky nipples.”

Jack stumbles, doesn’t say anything.

“Don’t pretend that you haven’t noticed Bitty’s titties; bros got mad nipple game.”

Jack raises an eyebrow. Shitty almost falls into the room but instead morphs it into a stop, drop and roll sort of maneuver before getting up and throwing Jack some finger-guns.

“Look at that enigmatic, Canadian Mountie smile,” Shitty says, wiggling his hips and twirling his mustache between his fingers like the disgusting man he is. “I’m pickin’ up what you’re puttin’ down, Jazzy.”

He waits until Shitty has sauntered out of his room, chugging the rest of his beer and yelling for froyo, before he texts Bittle.

To Bittle:
Shitty is about to call for froyo but do you want to get coffee instead?

Jack hesitates before adding, I’ll buy you a pumpkin one.

From Bittle:
Aww, Jack. Those are seasonal!

Jack frowns before carefully typing out, Are those the only kinds you like? He pockets his phone because his hands are shaking and goes to find a jacket. Even if Eric turns him down, he’s going to need a coat and scarf for froyo, since Lardo’s window doesn’t roll-up all the way in the back.

From Bittle:
I’d love for you to buy me a coffee, Jack. <3

It’s not nothing.

<3<3<3

They sneak out the back door. Shitty is hollering up the stairs as they leave but it’s hard to care what kind of slander he’s spouting when Bitty is breathless from their little jog up the street and into the park that leads to campus. It’s cold. Not bitterly so like it can be in late February but still and soft, like it’s thinking about snowing again.

“You need a better coat,” Jack says, watching as Bitty stuffs his hands deeper inside his pockets. “I could have brought you one of mine.”

Bitty flushes. “Oh hush, Jack. My coat is just fine.”

It’s not, but it gives Jack an excuse to sway closer until their sides knock together on every step. Bitty keeps looking up at him like he’s amazed Jack is here, like he’s awed. Jack kind of hates it. He doesn't know how to say that without sounding mean. So he doesn't say anything at all.

He’s content to let Eric run the conversation, chiming in when it’s polite but Bitty seems to know Jack is working his way up to something. Shitty is always expectant. He’s waiting and if he has to sit in silence and stare at Jack until spontaneous telepathy manifests, then so be it. But Bitty always seems to give off this air like he’d really, really love it if Jack had something to say but if not, it’s alright because he can say enough for both of them.

It’s just different.

Bitty dithers over the spiced cider or a peppermint chocolate latte until the cashier gives him an annoyed look. He orders the coffee and so when Jack offers his own order up, he feels braves enough to catch Bittle’s eye when he orders the cider.

“Larges, please,” Jack says, handing over his card and ignoring the way his own cheeks feel hot to the touch. He hopes Bitty doesn’t think it’s from the warmth of the coffee shop.

They talk about Lardo’s art show and then everything sort of tapers down until it’s comfortable silence. Jack is having a nice time letting Bitty sip from both of the mugs and watching Bitty peel out of his layers slowly. Except…

“I wish you wouldn’t look at me like that,” Jack says, then winces. It comes out too sharp and Bitty looks like someone cross-checked him in the face with a insult intended to leave scars. Jack replays it hastily in his head, curses the way he can’t seem to get the words right with Bitty most of the time and then he hastily tangles their feet together underneath the table because he can see Eric retreating. That’s not what Jack wanted. So he tangles their feet together, a little awkwardly but he hopes it’s as grounding for Eric as it is for him.

Bitty blinks, slow, confused and maybe a little hurt.

“I just—” Jack shakes his head. “You look at me like you’re so lucky—like you’re so privileged to be here with me when—”

Jack blows out a breath. He’s fucking this up. He stops staring at his mug.

“It’s not hard to be with you,” is what he forces out. “You look at me like you’re so lucky when I’m sure it’s the other way around.”

He makes sure he keeps Eric’s wide, gaze because it’s important that Bitty gets this.

“Jack, what are you trying to say?” His voice is soft and scared and Jack hates it. Bitty should always be happy, should always be like he is when he’s in the kitchen with Christmas music blaring out from the wireless speakers Jack got him before break, swaying to the beat with flour on his cheek, intent on baking until everyone comes running into the kitchen.

Jack shakes his head. He wants to reach across the table and take Bitty’s hand but it just doesn't seem right. Instead, he tucks Bitty’s ankles between his own and says, “I want to be here. With you. This is the easy part. That’s—that's what I’m saying.”

Eric tilts his head a little, like he’s trying to understand but he’s willing to wait for it to come to him instead of puzzling it out. Jack stares back until Bittle starts to look less confused and more happy.

“Okay, Jack,” he says, nodding and sipping his coffee.

“Is it?”

Bitty smiles slowly, genuine and half-hidden by his mug. “You know it is.”

Jack smiles in return, hoping it doesn’t look scary. Chowder is always whispering about how cool it is when Jack’s happy but he kind of looks like a shark, which is extra cool for Chowder, Jack supposes, but not really good for what he’s trying to do here with Bitty.

Eric starts talking about his science credit. Jack is listening, but it’s easy to get lost in the hum of the coffee shop and the anonymity it affords, the way Jack can feel the soft corduroy of Bittle’s pants against his bare calf where his jeans have ridden up. He counts his breaths, flexes his toes against the soles of his shoes. When there’s a lull in the conversations he asks, for no other reason than he honestly wants to know, if Bitty might want to do this again sometime.

The answer doesn’t disappoint.

<3<3<3

There’s nothing tragic about Jack’s day.

He has a good morning session at the gym; gets an A- on his Russian Revolutionaries paper; and Shitty sends him a photo taken from the library of Ransom and Holster asleep, curled together over their books.

But when he gets home he just feels listless and he can’t seem to feel his feet on the ground. He takes a hot shower, lets the steam fill the bathroom and stays in there long enough that he doesn’t have to analyze whether he’s crying or not. It doesn’t really matter. He’s tired and so he crawls into bed—it’s just past six but he shuts off the lights, cracks the window a little so cold air seeps in and pulls out all the extra blankets from the trunk at the end of his bed.

It’s only when his electric blanket starts to warm up that he can take a deep breath of cold, crisp air and go to sleep with the heavy weight of his blankets grounding him.

Recovery is a never-ending process. Blahblahblah, Jack thinks mutinously. Some days, he’s just tired of it all.

Jack doesn’t need to have a bad day to feel anxious. It’s the days when he feels nothing at all that scare him the most, a subtle reminder that all the rays of Bitty’s sunshine won’t ever make Jack warm to the touch. It’s not a comforting thought. But it’s the thought that eases him into sleep.

<3<3<3

Spring semester goes by too quickly. Maybe it’s because Jack feels like he’s chasing time but between finalizing his thesis and keeping up with his extra training—the days fly by. From an NHL perspective, he still has time to put on some weight and he already likes the fact that he’s been able to keep up his bulk through the long run of the season. He doesn’t feel like he’s gotten the midseason gaunt his mother always worries about—but it makes him think about how small Bitty looks next to him. He doesn’t know how he feels about it.

What he is sure about is how much he likes that he’s lost track of how many coffees he’s bought Bittle and has learned studying with him isn’t nearly as horrible as Jack imagined. He thought he’d be too drawn in by the bleak winter sun on Bitty’s face or the way he huffs at his reading, digging out his brightly colored pens to make notes in a complicated system he swears helps with reading comprehension. And there are times when Jack chases those thoughts instead of doing any studying, but it doesn’t feel distracting.

There’s a quiet certainty here with Bittle.

“You’d make a good captain,” Jack says. It’s almost eight and the coffee shop is closed but students are still piled around in clumps, waiting to brave the cold to go home from the student center.

Bittle hums. He’s writing a paper on excess social imaginaries of the American audience and how it makes them addicted to reality TV. Jack thinks they just have poor taste and enjoy watching other people be unhappier than they are—but he’s not sure what “social imaginary” means anyway.

“I’m serious," he says again, nudging Bitty with his foot. "You’d be good with the frogs.”

“Don’t be silly, Jack,” Bitty says, typing away at this laptop. “I wouldn’t want to be captain after you. Besides, hockey isn’t second nature to me like it is for you. It would take a lot of work for me and I’m not sure I’ll have time for that.”

Jack lets the pause fill up between them. Eric’s got a high blush rising on his cheeks and it makes Jack knock their ankles together again until a smile tugs, blooming but easy, on the corners of Bitty’s sly mouth.

“You gonna be too busy for hockey next year?” Jack asks, his tone isn’t as light as Bitty’s but it’s hard for him to think about this without feeling heavy. It’s nice to see Bitty like this—no dramatics, just the easy knowledge that wherever they’re going, they’re getting there together at their own pace. Everything else can go to hell.

“Oh heavens no,” Bitty says, lashes fluttering. “But there are some things more important than hockey, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Bitty goes back to typing but Jack just can’t help himself. “So you’ll come to Providence? When you can, I mean.” He says it quietly but it’s a little more intense. He sometimes worries about the way Eric makes him react. Sometimes he doesn’t think at all before he speaks and his tone is often all over the place. It used to make Bitty make all sorts of faces—confused mostly but sometimes hurt. Now, he just looks up at Jack from across the table, eyes bright but focused, lashes long, doing nothing to dampen the intensity of his stare.

“So it’s Providence?”

Jack feels himself blush now. He shrugs. Bitty wrinkles his nose in response and then, because he’s a shit, shrugs back.

They go back to studying but Jack can’t stop himself from wondering if his hands would shake as much if they had Bitty’s to hold onto.

<3<3<3

He never misses a weekly meeting and sometimes, when he’s running an errand off campus, he’ll head to another one. He doesn’t tell anyone. In between contract advice and complaining about the weather in Montreal, his father asks if he’s ‘doing okay’. Jack doesn’t feel like he’s lying but he’s not sure if it’s because he’s going to meetings or if he’s actually doing okay. It’s most likely neither or perhaps both.

Regardless, he keeps it close to his chest.

It’s a bitterly cold day when Jack’s two o’clock seminar is cancelled because his TA has the flu. The Haus feels drafty even to him and the team is either in class or at the library. It’s just as well because Jack’s agent has sent him a preliminary contract from the Falconers and a sample standard contract negotiation for an NCAA player. He is trying to sort it out into a spreadsheet but his efforts are half hearted at best. Jack isn’t sure if he is aloof about it because he knows he’s going to sign anyway or because the company he has is distracting him.

He usually goes to the library after his seminar to get a head start on assignments for the next week while his ideas are fresh. He’d made an attempt to head there anyway to work on his contract comparisons—he really had—but two in the afternoon on Tuesday is, apparently, a pre-set baking time. Jack sits at the kitchen table, wondering if Shitty might be any help with his comparison issues, while Bitty makes three different things at the same time. His agent is a lawyer, but Shitty will probably be using his mustache and his brains to bail third-world refugee children out of jail someday and that’s got to bring some perspective to Jack’s contract dissection.

“What’s that for?” Jack says, nodding curiously at the huge tub of Greek yoghurt Bitty is pulling out of the fridge. There’s a blackberry and elderberry cobbler in the oven with some sort of butter crust. The heat from the oven makes the kitchen warm enough that Bitty has wiggled out of his sweatshirt and Jack loves the way he looks in what might be an old green sweater of Shitty’s.

“The fruit tarts!” Bitty says, like he’s told Jack before. “I made a carrot crust for you so you won’t feel so guilty about eating ten of them.”

Jack glares. “Slander, Bittle. I don’t even know what a fruit tart is—let alone ten delicious ones.”

“I have it on good authority, Jack Laurent, that you adore my fruit tarts.”

“What authority is that?”

Bitty points a spoon at him. “I will have no more sass mouth out of you, young man.”

He blushes when he says it though and Jack allows himself to stare at the flush that spreads down Bitty’s neck and disappears underneath the sweater. To Bitty’s credit, he doesn’t break eye contact. Jack openly looks his fill, backtracking up to Bitty’s eyes to make sure he’s still watching.

The oven beeps, sending Bitty into motion rotating the cobbler to promote “even browning” but Jack ignores his spreadsheet for a few more moments, watching Bittle slice grapes. He goes back to his computer, spends a few minutes looking up the Sharks latest highlights so he can talk to Chowder later, before he goes back to reading a particularly dense paragraph in the standard contract. Twenty minutes later, Eric nudges him with his slipper-covered feet and hands Jack a mixing bowl.

There’s yoghurt and some lumpy white stuff.

“Use those ridiculous biceps to smooth out the lumps,” Bitty says, nodding to the large wooden spoon stuck in the middle of the goop. “I want no lumps in my tart filling.”

It’s Eric’s turn to stare and Jack can’t help but feel like he’s smiling a little too aggressively again, but Bitty looks warm, comfortable, and happy to have Jack in his kitchen, even if he’s a glorified substitution for the fancy mixer Bitty always coos at when they go to Target.

The lumpy bits turn out to be cream cheese and Bitty watches him while he carefully stirs the bowl free of anything suspicious looking.

“Can I ask you a question?” Jack raises an eyebrow and Bitty shrugs before he tilts his head toward Jack’s laptop. “Did they offer you a contract?”

No one in the Haus talks about Jack’s future with the NHL—not in realities. Chowder will sometimes stare at him and whisper, “Jumbo Joe” but he’s not sure that counts. Shitty is more interested in delaying reality than Jack is—considering his dad and law school and Lardo. It’s an unspoken rule in the Haus, Jack supposes, but certainly not one he instituted himself. He suspects Shitty has declared a moratorium on any discussion of life after graduation. Unless Ransom and Holster have suddenly rediscovered the disturbing, but effective, subject-changing wrestling Tourette’s all by themselves.

Jack is pretty sure it’s a Shitty mandate.

“Not really,” Jack says, nudging his laptop over to Bitty in a fit of bravery. He keeps his hands busy though because they might be shaking or perhaps he just can’t feel them from all the stirring. “My agent is just trying to help me understand contracts—what’s normal for someone out of college, what might be different for me, eh? He’s nice—uh, good about this kind of stuff.”

Bitty nods a little. He’s not scrolling through the contract but he does click over to the spreadsheet. Jack waits to feel embarrassed but it doesn’t come. He mostly just feels an exhausting rush of wanting to see where this conversation is going but also just wanting to kiss Bitty on the soft edge of Bitty’s jaw until nothing else matters.

He clears his throat. “I want to make the right decision.”

“I guess a lot of teams are going to offer you a contract, right? Choosing must be hard.”

“You’re right—but the hockey isn’t really the only deciding factor,” Jack says, nodding to the spreadsheet again. There are a lot of columns and one of them says 'Supports Being Out'. It's highlighted green because it's a mandatory contract stipulation. He doesn't know how to tell Eric that.

“No matter where you go, Jack—” Bitty sighs, clearly frustrated with himself. “Any team would be lucky to have you.”

“That’s not what I said,” Jack says, snaps a little. "Listen to me—"

Eric sits down but the look on his face makes Jack regret his tone and he swallows. He sets down the bowl of tart filling and takes a deep breath.

“That’s what I’m saying. That’s what I’m telling you, Bitty,” he says and turns the laptop.

Jack puts his shaking hands on the table and watches Bitty read the screen. It’s moments like this when Jack wants to know: does Eric stop himself from reaching out to hold Jack’s trembling hands because he thinks he can’t or because he doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with the way they shake?

“Jack, what—”

“The columns in green are non-negotiable. I should say, Bitty—fuck, Eric—”

Bittle holds his gaze. “You don’t need to say anything at all, darlin’.”

He doesn’t have to. Eric is right. But the silence is what almost killed him the first time and he wants to try, wants to do something different this time around.

“Right,” Jack says. “I know you’re better at this than me—” Jack gestures between them but then he doesn’t know if he’s making any sense and laughs at himself a little. Bitty sits on the edge of his seat. Jack idly wonders if the cobbler is going to be okay. “But I already told Georgia and I won’t be—I won’t spend my first year in the NHL like I spent in the Q. I want—pour l'amour du ciel—I want to be better to me.”

Bitty waits him out.

“Bitty, if we do this…”

This is not a very specific way to describe anything,” Bitty says, firm but soft in a way that reminds Jack of non-apology cookies and suddenly, ‘this’ feels easier than pass, shoot, score.

“Sorry, Bitty,” he says, laughing a little. “No matter what you decide: about us, whatever it is you want—I’m not going to hide. That’s why it’s on the spreadsheet because it matters to me. With or without you. Providence or not. It's a non-negotiable clause in any contract I sign. No hiding—not from anything.”

Eric’s crying but Jack’s fairly sure it’s a good thing. He’s smiling, the manic way he gets when Chowder gets an A on his midterms or when Lardo sits too close to Shitty when they get froyo. Jack wants to tell him that he's not going to be the first out and proud player in the NHL but he doesn't want to get into frighteningly depressing specifics. There will be more quiet press conferences than Pride parades.

“I’m so proud of you,” Eric says and then he’s holding Jack’s hands but he doesn’t hold them down to the table in order to still them. They keep trembling, in that way they always are, and Bitty presses them to his mouth. Bitty’s lips are soft and slick with lip balm and it’s sort of wet because he’s crying but his teeth keep grazing Jack’s knuckles as they shake against his mouth. Jack’s thought about kissing Bitty before but none of the ways he’s imagined feel like this. He hopes, selfishly, that the skin of his knuckles tastes better than any pumpkin coffee—that it’s something Bitty won’t want to go without.

“I need to go blow my nose,” Bitty says, squeezing Jack’s hands. “This isn’t romantic at all.”

Jack smiles. “Okay.”

The Haus comes home shortly after Bitty gets back from the bathroom. He finishes up the fruit tarts (apparently they’re a ‘healthy version’ for ‘brain food’) and starts in on dinner for the rest of the team. Jack finishes a few more pages of the slow contract work, thinking he’ll ask Shitty for help tomorrow—finally tell him that he wants to sign with Providence—and watches the kitchen swell and sway with the team. It’s the kind of busy hum that reminds him of road trip dinners and Mario Kart tourneys in hotels. Bitty makes enough baked ziti to feed the team for at least twelve hours and Lardo helps Nursey do up some garlic bread without too many incidents. Even Dex stays quiet when Nursey burns the last batch.

Through it all, for the first time in a long time, Bitty doesn’t feel too far away. When it’s all said and done, Jack leaves Shitty to dictate the proper portioning of midnight-snack Tupperware and goes to his meeting.

<3<3<3

The Haus is tense over the following week. Shitty’s had his second interview with Harvard, early acceptance into NYU and Marquette, which all resulted in a screaming match with his father over Skype and Lardo setting fire to half of Shitty’s clothes as “performance art”. Dex and Nursey are violently pissed at each other on top of everything else. The resulting skittish frogs and D-men jokes drive Jack out of the Haus and to the library. Bitty has a huge project so he’s always rushing off to meet with his group halfway across campus. They’re still texting constantly and it’s enough to know Bitty’s still thinking of him when he’s not there.

He’s walking back from Faber, lengthening his strides to stretch his sore hammies, when Uncle Mario calls. Mario never turned his back on Jack, even when everything went to hell and Jack woke up in a hospital bed with soft wrist cuffs holding him to the bed and it probably would have been better for Mario to keep his distance. But he hadn’t. Instead, he had made a statement about mental health in sports and encouraged his own players to speak freely.

Waking up to find Sidney Crosby defending his complete mental breakdown had been surreal.

Jack doesn’t feel like talking to Mario today but he’s going to answer. Mario’s never screened his calls, even when he should have for the sake of his business, and Jack cannot ever repay him for the support he leant Jack and his family. The least he can do is answer the phone.

“Âllo, Mario,” Jack says into the phone. It is biting cold but it somehow makes him feel better being outside during this unwanted call.

Bonjour, fiston!

The sound of his accent is instantly soothing—a trap that has ensnared Jack many times before. Uncle Mario is a shrewd businessman and the way he manipulates is honest. He knows what he wants and how to achieve his goals with the best possible outcome. Jack wonders what it must be like, to always be so sure.

It is idle chatter. Mario fills him in on Natalie and the kids. He eases into the conversation much more gently than Jack ever thought he would. He speaks of mite games, art projects and nefarious soon-to-be boyfriends with ease. He talks about Sidney’s new house and how he is sure Pascal’s Carole-Lyn is with child again—how nice it is so have so many compatriots on the team with their big, Quebecois families. It’s a heavenly picture, even as Mario so obviously crafts it. Jack has always wondered what it would be like to have the life Mario has. He also knows this phone call is to paint the picture and say it could all be his. Jack isn’t so sure it works like that. Mario has a lot to give but Jack’s not sure he can simply promise a life.

J’veux que tu signes avec nous,” he says. “Les Penguins d’Pittsburgh veulent être l'équipe.

“Mario...”

They’ve talked enough that Jack’s walked all the way home. He’s walking down Greek row and the closer he gets to the Haus, the faster his pace gets. Pittsburgh seems so far away—the life Uncle Mario depicts even farther.

It’s like the moment in recovery when he realized meetings aren’t simply about his catharsis but about theirs too. An unselfishness about the selfish, endlessness of addiction and recovery—a lot like love, Jack thinks. Meetings are important if he needs them to be important, but they happen to also be vital to others. A side effect. A mutual understanding that as much as he takes for himself, he happens to give just as much away.

“J’vais pas t’mentir, Jack. J’te veux ici. On peut te protéger,” Mario says, sure. And maybe he is right. The Penguins are in the business of legacy. They have stars to nip at the lime-light, even while they peddle the story themselves, controlling the news cycles and molding the message until Jack is nothing more and nothing less than the media sensation they need. They would take care of him. They would protect him. It is not a false promise.

Except.

Tu peux pas me protéger d’moi-même, mononcle Mario," Jack says.

Ne nous sous-estime pas,” Mario says, unthreateningly. “Think about it, yes?”

Jack comes to a stop in front of the Haus. It’s a little loud for a weekday but he likes how lit up it is in the early dusk. He can see Shitty typing at his desk, beer can tower next to his laptop. Chowder is watching ESPN on the couch downstairs while Nursey and Dex do something with an inflatable blow-up doll that is bound to get them all in trouble once it hits the internet. If Jack cheats a bit, he can see the light from the kitchen. He imagines Bitty swaying his hips to music as he makes food no one in the Haus actually deserves, save Lardo.

His addiction put his family in perspective for him but Samwell has illuminated the concept of found-family more than any other team Jack has been a member of.

Mario’s promises are not false but the truth stands. They cannot protect Jack from what he wants. The thing about being Shitty Knight’s best friend is that Jack has spent the past four years relearning that wanting everything isn’t a crime. Being Jack is overwhelming and the parts of him that can never be extinguished are the parts that Mario would bargain with. We can protect you, Mario says but Jack knows the cost. All of himself now so he can have Mario’s life in his future.

He does want Mario’s life, or some version of it. He just wants it this instant instead of twenty years from now. If Jack’s learned anything from Shitty, it’s that Jack deserves nice things now. There is not a timetable on happiness. And Shitty is certain a future means “fucking fuck all” if Jack’s “a miserable, broken robot”. And regardless of any promises, Jack is certain no one could protect him from Eric Bittle because even the armor of Jack’s recovery had done nothing in the face of southern hospitality and unconditional, unapologetic love.

Between Shitty and Bitty, Jack is spoiled with the now.

So why would he wait for Mario’s future?

"Promets-moi d’y penser," says Mario. "Le contract va rentrer cette semaine. Prend-le pas à la légère. Ici, on croit en ton avenir.”

Jack hums. “Thank you, Uncle Mario. Of course I will. Thank you for calling.”

They say goodbye and Jack takes a deep breath, before he walks into the Haus.

<3<3<3

The next day, his agent sends him the contract the Penguins have drawn up for him. There’s also a note about Chicago wanting to know if he’s coming to rookie camp and another asking if he’s given any more thoughts about Las Vegas. The next email is from Georgia, just a list of community outreach programs Providence is currently involved with and a second list of ones they wouldn’t mind being affiliated with. Jack reads through both emails twice and then spends twenty minutes watching cat videos Chowder sent out in the group email.

It’s only eight but Shitty has drawn a bath, candles lit around the small bathroom they share, and is Facetiming Lardo. She waves from Shitty’s iPad and Jack reluctantly waves back. Jack isn’t sure Lardo and Shitty have worked out what’s happening past graduation but Jack’s never known what’s a Sex Thing, a Shitty Thing, or an Art Thing between the two of them. Facetiming bath time while Lardo is in the pottery studio—well, Jack’s not sure what category it goes in.

He goes to find Bitty.

“Where’s Chowder?”

Bitty smiles, shrugging while he stirs a huge bowl. “Farmer wanted to show him her autograph book.”

“Is that supposed to be a euphemism?” Jack says, waiting for Eric’s nose to wrinkle in laughter. It’s his favorite part of Bitty—for now.

“Oh heaven’s, Jack! I wish it was but we both know they’re probably hunched over hockey cards right now,” says Bitty.

Jack shrugs. They most likely are. It’s hard for him to imagine Chowder kissing Farmer—let alone anything more physical. He wishes he had the same problem with Bitty. It’s a bit distracting. His sex drive has always been a muted sort of thing and Jack always thought it was because of his meds. It’s not like him and Kenny didn’t fuck a lot but they did it because Parse wanted to and Jack got with the program eventually. He liked making Kenny pant, hips rabbit up into Jack’s mouth or stutter-stopping into Jack’s ass. He liked the way Parse said his name when they fucked and objectively, sex was completely fine. It was something to do.

So Jack’s a little surprised with the amount of times he’s resorted to touching himself frantically, dry and a little too hard, thinking about getting Bitty naked.

They haven’t kissed yet, a fact that is glaringly amiss in Jack’s eyes, but he hasn’t stopped touching Bitty. He’s stopped holding back when he wants to run his hands over the trim cut of his hips when Bitty lifts his hockey bag into the overhead on the bus—and instead of stepping away, Jack lingers there until someone clears their throat trying to get by. He lets himself sit too close during team dinners and rub his thumb as casually as he can manage over the blades of Bitty’s shoulders. Jack’s not sure how much Bitty’s done before or where he stands with wanting that with Jack. They are clearly trying this out. But it doesn’t stop Jack from wanting or wondering what it would be like.

He’s new to the wanting.

“Jack, are you even listening?” Bitty has a spatula in one hand, hip cocked and he’s flushed from the heat of the oven. Jack wants to run his trembling hands all over him.

“Sure, Bitty,” Jack says. “Something about pies and then BC’s shitty power play.”

“You’re a charmer.”

Jack smiles. He presses up against Bitty when he’s doing the dishes on the guise of making sure the window is closed before he heads to bed. He listens to the way Eric’s breath catches and keeps the way he feels, warm and solid pressed all up against Jack’s front, back with him to bed.

So yeah. It appears Jack’s meds have nothing on Jack’s Bitty-minded sexual drive.

<3<3<3

It's Jack's first Beanpot final. Which, considering he decided not to go to a Boston school, he's a little surprised he's at one at all. But his sophomore year, Samwell won a centuries old fight to be allowed to participate in the 62 year old tournament. Quinnipiac, Providence and Salem are also allowed to play but Samwell lost in the first round the past two years. This year, they get Northeastern in the first round—a team riddled with injuries—and beat them soundly.

Harvard eliminates Quinnipiac, Providence annihilates Salem, and Boston College gets absolutely murdered by Boston University. It’s a needlessly violent game and Jack watches Bitty hyperventilate over the size of BU but he stays out of it. He won't be any help and Chowder is much better at handling this sort of Bitty panic. Jack can deal with the practical part of it and he's proud of how far Bitty has come since the hit against Yale that fucked him up for a while. But he's not good with this stuff—the comforting and shooting-the-shit part of being the captain. So he leaves that for Chowder, who pumps Bitty up, and the D-men, who swear they'll run anyone into the boards who thinks they can hit Bitty.

“They have to catch up with you first, Bits,” Chowder says. Bitty blushes but he seems to feel better when the D-men go off about how much they'd fuck up those Boston University yuppies.

Jack doesn't worry about it just yet. Boston University has to play Harvard to get to the finals and Samwell needs to stop being cute with their passes if they're going to beat Providence.

They play Northeastern on a Sunday night and have to wait until Wednesday to play Providence. It's a bit more drawn out now, with a full week of games leading up to the final but Boston is heaving with people and Jack loves how crazy college fans can be. It's something his father admires—how loyal college fans seem to be, especially alumni, and how different they are than NHL fans.

They get to beat Northeastern at home but they do have to go into the city for the game against Providence.

Because of a game-time decision on the 4th line, they have an odd number of players. Coach offers the single room to Jack first and Jack checks with Chowder first, starting goalies always deserve a room by themselves if they want it, but Chowder declines. It doesn't surprise him because Chowder has never been a typical goalie but Jack is ultimately grateful, because that means he can take the room without any guilt.

Jack is not superstitious.

“Jack's ritualistic,” Shitty is saying as they board the bus for Boston Tuesday night. Jack's not blushing but is very pleased when the seat next to their back-up goalie, Ouellet, is free. Jack has always liked to sit with goalies on trips—it's good for them to know that their captain supports them. But Chowder doesn't seem to gain anything from Jack's presence so he's taken to sitting with the back-up. It's nice because Ouellet is quiet, from Montreal as well, and doesn't mind Jack's game-day schedule.

It's just good business. It's not...

“Ritualistic is just fancy for crazy-ass, superstitious,” Holster says, nodding at Dex. “Jack is crazy as hell when it comes to tournament play.”

“Now, now, Jackabell is absolutely crazy but it's not a superstition. He just likes his...” Shitty pauses dramatically and then the whole bus says, “Routine”.

Jack ignores them all, puts in his headphones and listens to his audiobook all the way into Boston.

The hotel is practically attached to Boston Garden—which is cool but awkward because they get there around the same time as Providence. Everyone plays nice, nodding to each other as they get their bags arranged and checked into the hotel, everyone juggling at least two duffles. Except for the frogs, who are required to carry all the goalie equipment bags too. That's just polite and that's what Jack had to do when he was a frog to earn dibs.

He gets settled into his room, carefully unpacking into the drawers, when the team chat blows up.

Dex: I'm gonna fuck up some Providence pussy! Those mother FUCKERS. I'm sorry people are tiny, tiny little dicks to you Jack.
Bitty: It's so rude!
Shitty: How do I break into someone's twitter, Bits? I'm gonna TAKE BACK THE INTERNET.
Lardo: I'm taking care of it, boys.

Jack scrolls up and there's a link. He clicks it and immediately regrets it. It's a link to a Providence player’s account that must have been standing behind Jack when he went up to ask for extra pillows. The hotel concierge asked if his roommate also needed another pillow but Jack had declined, saying that he was in a single but thank you.

@realBryanTerrance
Looks like Jack Zimmermann gets his own room on trips—how special.

There are a lot of replies and 'retweets', which Jack guesses means that everybody thinks he's a spoiled asshole who demands his own room on tournaments. Great. That's fantastic.

Jack changes and goes down to the gym, avoiding the guys by taking the stairs and getting in a workout before dinner. He doesn't bring his phone and instead opts to watch a weird documentary on badgers on the treadmill because he couldn't figure out how to change the channel.

Ouellet is already dressed when Jack knocks on his door. He's rooming with a frog but he's still sleeping so Jack lets Ouellet wake him up before they go down for a team meal. Shitty smiles at him too widely and Jack rolls his eyes. “I'm fine, you dick”, Jack says but Shitty just nods solemnly and jostles his shoulder until Jack smiles.

Dinner is good. Jack gets a huge spinach salad to go with his spaghetti. Everyone is in a pretty good mood and there is no mention of the Providence tweet at all during the meal. Jack doesn't know exactly what Lardo means when she says she “took care of it”. But he almost feels bad for the player—she's probably got all his teammates to shun him or something equally as annoying and scarily mafioso-like.

It's fine, really. Jack's over it.

When they get back to the hotel, they all go their separate ways for bed. Jack breaks off from Ouellet to get some almond milk for his protein shake but by the time he makes it back up to his room, his phone has blown up with a million other texts.

Apparently, someone moved Bryan Terrance's room to the hallway lobby on the third-floor and the pictures are all over college hockey Twitter. All their furniture is exactly as the room is set up—tv, dressers, two beds, two nightstands—it's a perfect replica. And the Providence players are tweeting about watching Bryan and his roommate navigate the elevator with all the furniture before the hotel staff notices. Jack smiles, then thumbs out of the team chat and texts Lardo directly.

To Lardo:
You're a good friend, Larissa.

From Lardo:
Who are you, my mom?!?! JK, you're welcome boo.

He stretches out, using the foam roller until he's sweating and tired. He takes a quick shower, jerks off thinking about Bitty and falls asleep almost as soon as he gets into bed.

<3<3<3

All game-days are the same. Routine is designed to help players focus but it also isolates everything so that all Jack has to think about is playing. There are as little changes as possible to every game-day he has. He doesn't work out alone on game-days. He gets up for team breakfast, sits next to Ouellet and Shitty and then they head for morning skate. Lunch is with the team, too, at a place near the practice rink. After lunch, it's back to the hotel for a nap. When Jack was in the Q—napping was the hardest thing to do. He was always so keyed up—which was why Kent usually fucked him until he was tired enough to sleep. It wasn't a romantic kind of sex. It was necessary because Jack was too scared to up his doses before games. So he was a little shaky after lunch, only getting to take his prescribed doses but Kent was good for that—never let it be said that Kent Parson doesn't capitalize on opportunities. Sometimes Jack wonders if he would have said no to Kenny a bit more if he wasn't constantly on the edge of a come-down. It's hard to blame Kenny for being opportunistic. Jack never said no—in fact, he begged, but he just didn't know what he was begging for and more often than not, Kent did whatever he wanted.

“As long as it doesn't affect my game,” Jack had said back then.

That being said, it rattles him when there's a knock on his door. Everyone had split off to their own rooms to take naps or clustered in threes and fours to watch a movie. Jack had declined and so when he answers his door, he's surprised to see Shitty.

“Hey Jack, you weren't asleep yet?”

Jack doesn't open the door enough for Shitty to come in but he's leaning up against the door-jam. Their faces are very close together.

“Ten more minutes,” Jack says, because it's true. He doesn't like to sleep too long.

“Yeah yeah, I get it. Listen, I know you're all dialed in but can you do me a favor and reply to Bitty's texts?”

Jack blinks. “Bitty's texts?”

“I know you usually go without your phone, brah but it's getting sad. He's sensitive about this stuff,” Shitty says, quiet. “Also, we wouldn't want it to affect his game.”

“You don't have to add that to get me to do something.”

Shitty puts up his hands. “Just throwing it out on the stoop, seeing if my favorite prickly little Canadian kitten will lick it up.”

“Go away now, please.”

There are a few texts from Bitty on his phone. Jack hadn't noticed them. He tends to leave his phone in his room when he's at the rink or with the team—which is pretty much always on roadies.

From Bittle:
Do you want to hang out before nap?

From Bittle:
Shit sorry. Probs not, huh? I forgot.

From Bittle:
Sorry for sounding needy. UGH. Which apologizing also sounds needy. I'm going to stop now.

Jack frowns down at his phone. He doesn't know what to say but knows he wants to say something to ease Bittle's fears. Jack's a sure bet where Eric is concerned but he knows he doesn't always show that as much as he should.

He considers a few responses before he carefully taps out: Please don't be sorry. I can't on game-days because you won't be with me next year.

By itself, it looks rude, so he adds, because I would be distracted with how much I miss you.

He turns off his phone and goes to take a nap. However, when he wakes up he can't stop thinking about making Eric feel shitty on a game-day just because Jack is gone on him. So after he wakes from his nap he lets himself check his messages.

From Bittle:
you sure do make it hard to stay mad at you. <3

It's sheer luck that they pull out the dub that night. An unlucky bounce for Providence, paired with a tight transition game keeps them alive. Jack doesn't score but he assists on Bitty's goal and spends a little too long hugging him on the ice before he lets the rest of the team get to Bittle but no one minds.

The next day, Boston University beats Harvard and the narrative of the “Two Jacks” hit every hockey blogger website on the east coast. Jack's never personally compared himself to Eichel—who is young but talented. In fact, Eichel reminds him more of Kenny when they were going into their own draft year. But Jack’s barely spoken to the guy – hasn’t even met him properly. He seems like a good guy, if a little salty by default. But Jack didn't spend his formative years being compared to Kenny. They were always mentioned in the same sentence but hardly ever in competition. He can't imagine playing as much hockey as Eichel has and always coming second to his Canadian counter-part.

So it's a lot like him and Kenny but then again, really, really not.

Two days later, they become the first expanded team to win the Beanpot. Jack scores two goals and assists on the other two. Playing in Boston Garden is beyond amazing and when he shakes Eichel's hand, he knows it's not the end of it. He can see it in the set of his mouth and the way he says, good-game and means it—leaving the but next time we'll be better unsaid.

On the way home, Jack sits with Ouellet but spends the entire time texting Bitty, loving the way he can hear Bits' laughter floating up from the back of the bus where Shitty is holding court, telling everyone with various tales from freshman year.

<3<3<3

A week before Lardo’s art-show, there’s a mini party in the Haus and Jack spends his evening writing the rest of his paper. He’s digging through his books to find a quote he wants to use when Bitty knocks.

He only knows it’s Bitty because he’s the only one with any (misguided) sense of decorum. Bitty knocks—everyone else just barges in or pretends they tripped and fell into his door and it magically opened. He doesn’t understand his hockey team.

“Can I hang out in here? The floor of my room is vibrating.”

Jack’s nodding before Bitty fully explains himself, but it’s alright because Bitty’s sliding into the room before Jack’s even done inviting him inside.

He sits on the edge of Jack’s bed, feet barely off the ground and Jack says, “Sorry, I don’t have any other chairs.”

“This is fine, Jack,” Bitty says, and he sounds like he means it. He’s fond around his eyes, like there is nowhere else he’d rather be than sitting in Jack’s room and watching him do his homework. Jack likes that—the way Bitty openly appreciates the little things. Jack turns back to his books and his Albertine Lapensée essay.

Bitty settles in, saying, “I’m just going to read a bit before bed.”

Jack finishes his draft to the soft sound of Bitty rubbing his socked feet together and easily diminished sound of pages turning. It takes a while but Bitty eventually relaxes back into Jack’s pillows. He’s still on top of the duvet but he wiggled underneath the thick, plaid blanket Jack keeps at the foot of the bed when Jack asked if he was cold.

He looks incredibly at home in Jack’s bed.

He’s also asleep.

Jack only stares for a few minutes, watching the rise and fall of Bitty’s chest and the snuffling snores he makes every few breaths. It’s creepy to watch people sleep. Jack used to watch his goalie sleep on the bus in the Q—because it was a pregame ritual and helped Jack visualize his defensive game. (Kenny never chirped him about it, even when the rest of the team would. Kenny always understood the hockey—just the rest of it was a fucking miss for both of them.)

He is watching Bitty for a completely different reason. But Jack goes back to his essay anyway. There’s no skate tomorrow and Jack pushes through. He edits and even manages to complete his bibliography without too much cursing. It’s well past three when he’s finally satisfied and the party downstairs is silent.

He really should wake Bitty up and get him back to his room. But it’s warmer on this side of the house and Jack doesn’t have the heart to wake Bitty up. It’s selfish, but why can’t Jack have this?

He didn’t talk to Georgia and his agent for Bitty. He talked to them and made being out to his perspective teams a priority—he worked out verbiage until his brain hurt—but he didn’t do it for Eric.

He did it for himself. So he could have this.

At half four, Jack turns out the lights and crawls into bed with Bitty. He doesn’t touch him-- because that might be creepier than watching him sleep. But he curls up at the bottom of the bed, back along the wall and lets the hum of Bitty’s snoring lull him to sleep.

He wakes a bit later but it’s still dark. He doesn’t understand why he isn’t asleep until he feels another tug on his arm.

“Jack, come on, sweet Jesus you’re heavy—wake up and come here,” Bitty is whispering but it’s loud in the predawn morning. Jack tries to open his eyes but they’re full of sleep and instead he just crawls toward the sound of Bitty’s voice. Jack’s too tired to ask if Bitty’s okay with them sharing a bed and he’s mostly asleep enough not to be distracted by the possibilities of Bitty in his bed. Instead, he lets Eric boss him around until Jack is arranged to his liking—both of them tucked underneath the duvet; Jack stretched along the wall with Bitty to his front, tucked into the extension of his arm underneath the pillows and close enough for Jack to relax until his nose is pressed against the softness of Bitty’s hair.

“That’s better,” he hears Bitty say, breath hot against Jack’s chest but Jack is caught by sleep before he can reply. He manages to curl one arm around Bitty’s waist between one snore and the next.

<3<3<3

When Jack wakes up next, he’s alone.

He rubs the sleep out of his eyes and doesn't think about the way the bed is still warm next to him. Shitty’s in the shower so Jack makes his way into the hall. He doesn’t know why Bitty left but he’s not pleased. It didn’t seem like there was anything wrong—everything seemed good and Bitty was the one who pulled them close in the night. Jack was looking forward to knowing what it looked like when Eric woke up in the soft tangle of sleep warm sheets. Did he read that wrong?

Of course, he’s thinking about that when he runs right into Bitty coming out of the bathroom.

“Oh, you’re up,” Eric sounds disappointed but Jack can’t track it because Bitty is leaning into him. Jack holds him tighter, his hands cupping one shoulder and the secret bend of Bitty’s elbow.

“You weren’t there when I woke up.”

It sounds a little desperate but Jack doesn’t know how not to be. He didn't stand up to his agent and jeopardize his entire NHL career (again) not to come this close to getting what he wanted. When Jack looks down, Bitty’s socked feet are dwarfed by Jack’s flexing toes.

“I just had to use the bathroom,” Bitty says. “I was coming back, Jack. Of course, Jack--”

He knows he should ask first but he can’t. Bitty’s voice has gone all dewy with awe, like he’s amazed at the franticness Jack feels to get Bitty back inside his bed. Jack hates that. Bitty should know by now; Jack should have made it clear. He should ask first but he doesn’t. Jack kisses Bitty right there in the drafty hallway. It’s not the soft tender thing he wanted it to be. It’s a little clumsy because Jack crowds Bitty against the wall too fast and doesn’t stop pressing their lips together for a moment. He breathes into Bitty’s mouth between one breath and another until they’re kissing open-mouthed and greedy.

Bitty gasps into the kiss but he holds onto Jack, leans up into the breadth of his body, arching off the wall and holding onto Jack’s wrists. Jack can’t help but notice how his hands shake as they clutch at Bitty’s jaw; his fingertips pressing into the firm muscle of Bitty’s neck and the short, soft hairs of his nape. Jack doesn’t know if Bitty gets it but he wants him to. He kisses him and tastes toothpaste and a night of stale-sleepiness. He licks it away until he’s nipping at the give of Bitty’s lips and feeling his own sense of awe when Bitty licks back into his mouth, shameless and strong in his desire.

“Jack… Jack,” Bitty says, pulling away but not going far. Just far enough to speak with his lips moving against Jack’s stubble, letting Jack cling to him in the hallway. “Jack, I was coming back to bed.”

“Right,” Jack replies, refusing to be sheepish, relaxing his hands only to sweep his fingers up and down the back of Bitty’s neck and then back to cupping the curve of Bitty’s face, thumbs sweeping his flushed cheeks. It’s not the warmth of the room or the glow of a good book heating Bitty’s cheeks but Jack’s kisses.

“Right.”

“Come back to bed,” Bitty says and Jack nods, letting him guide them both back to his room. Bitty bosses them into bed the way he likes; almost in the same position, except he’s pressed into all the spaces Jack has.

“The spreadsheet—” Jack starts but Bitty hushes him with a soft, not-kiss. More of a firm brush of his lips to silence whatever wandering commentary Jack had, whatever confessions Jack wants to give up. It won’t make Bitty stay.

“We will talk about it later. Sleep with me.”

Jack doesn’t argue but it takes him a bit longer to fall back asleep as the rest of the Haus slowly wakes up. He holds Bitty and listens to the floorboards creaking until he falls asleep with the heavy weight of Bitty’s everything pillowed on top of him.

<3<3<3

Jack doesn't get better at talking at meetings. Granted, he doesn't get worse and he doesn't end up sitting in the shower crying so really it's just part of it. It's odd to be one of the youngest people at the meetings—he's so used to being the oldest now since he left the Q. It reminds him of when he was first getting serious about hockey, lobbying to play in leagues two years older than him and traveling farther away from his mom.

He's nursing a cold cup of coffee—it's a small group today but Jack's chest is loose just by being in the rundown soup kitchen hall with his ass getting numb from the folding chairs. He can't really complain. He can feel his phone vibrating in his pocket but he leaves it be. It's probably Bitty and he doesn't like to think about Eric when he's at meetings.

"I guess I'm just wondering when I'm going to want to get better," a guy is saying across the circle. He's got headphones sitting useless around his neck and Jack can't help it, he snorts and leans forward in his chair.

The group leader, Harry, raises his eyebrows at Jack and says, "Do you have something to share, Jack?"

"You're never going to want to be sober," Jack says, matter of fact. "Nothing is better than being high."

Harry makes a noise but Jack shakes his head. "Don't lie—that's not going to help him. It's just the truth. You're an addict," Jack says. He meets the headphone guy's gaze. "Nothing is going to be better than using. And it won't change for the rest of your life—that's what being an addict means. You're always going to think a second too long about giving up everything for one more escape."

"Jack, that's not constructive," Harry says.

Jack shrugs. "It helped me," he says. "Once I realized that I wasn't going to want to be here anymore, not like I was before, I understood what I needed to keep me sober. Once I realized I wasn't ever going to want to be sober but that it was something I needed to do, then it got easier."

Fairytales never worked for Jack. Lying about recovery was stupid and Harry spent most of his time talking about meditating and "guiding the light of sobriety into your life". Jack thought Harry was an idiot. But—whatever kept him sober. Jack just thought maybe not everyone needed happy thoughts to keep them sober.

The meeting breaks up after that.

There is something incredibly soothing about the scraping of metal chairs against linoleum and the awkward stillness of strangers deciding whether they want to still talk to each other outside the safe structure of the meeting. He checks his phone while he's moving the chairs back to their place around the long, plastic banquet tables. The group chat is kicking off about whether or not Shitty will be able to eat six mozzarella sticks at once without choking (probably not but worth it) and whether or not Lardo is going to let them throw a Kegster (only if it's Disney themed because Lardo wants to be Mulan and Disney makes Chowder really happy).

"You did good today," Harry says and Jack blinks up from his phone, shielding it from Harry's prying eyes.

"It wasn't about me."

Harry smiles. He's got really beady eyes that get swallowed up by the crinkle of his skin. Jack thinks that Harry is the type of people Shitty warned him about.

"Have you ever thought of being a sponsor?"

Jack blinks. Harry doesn't go away, nor does he take the hint. "I think you give new meaning to 'tough love' but some people need that to stay connected to sobriety."

Jack doesn't think anyone can 'connect' to sobriety. Addiction owns Jack. So Jack has to own sobriety.

"Think about it," Harry says, smiling like the conversation with Jack was amazing and strolls off whistling a little.

Jack doesn't.

<3<3<3

Lardo’s art show is good, at least, Jack thinks it goes okay. He doesn’t pretend to understand performance art or even some of the super abstract stuff—but he likes the photography pieces and Lardo is a genius with sculpture. She manages to say more than Jack’s ever even tried to say with every photo he’s ever taken. Except, Shitty’s in a horrible mood the next day—even with the news from Harvard. Bitty disappears for a good chunk of the day and not having him around on a game day makes Jack grumpier than he’s pleased to admit.

That’s not going to work because next year, well, it won’t matter how much routine Jack sticks to: Bitty won’t be there. None of them will.

That night, Shitty takes a check with some extra pushing and shoving that knocks his helmet off. Before anyone can blow the whistle, a puck comes off a skate and pops Shitty in the mouth. It’s probably not too serious but it’s hard to tell—face injuries always bleed something awful. And sure enough, the blood pooling on the ice makes Jack sure that Shitty’s lost some hardware.

Ten seconds later, Shitty’s spitting teeth and Lardo is hoping the bench like she’s bound and determined to be the first non-hockey player to get a “leaving the bench” penalty. Jack thinks she looks pretty like this, mouth set in a firm line, eyes wild and hands directing traffic. Jack stays back, lets her scream at medics, trainers and Shitty all at the same time. Even the refs give her a wide berth, casually giving them a pity penalty for roughing when all is said and done.

Jack would rather have Shitty’s face in one piece but he doesn’t need help getting off the ice, which is a point toward dental work sans concussion. In pure Shitty fashion, they have to clean the ice because he bled all over it, trailing his way to the dressing room. But that's hockey sometimes and no one seems too upset once they see that Shitty is mostly coherent. Jack even offers to chip away the bloody ice but he gets shooed away by the refs and the ice crew.

“He’ll have to shave his ‘stache,” Chowder says solemnly from the net. Jack had skated over after grabbing some water because Chowder looked pensive. He thought maybe Chowder was upset by the blood or the possibility of injury. Chowder gets upset about weird things sometimes.

“He’ll be fine, Chowder,” Jack says. “He was smiling there at the end. Shitty is probably excited to be a toothless, goon lawyer.”

Chowder nods and then, in a fit of goalie perfection, sprays Jack with his water bottle. Jack sputters and stumbles out of the crease—only to get swatted on the ass with Chowder's stick.

“Greedy forwards,” Jack hears Chowder saying to the opposing team’s D-man. “Always taking my paint. Get outta here, right?”

He bets it’s going to be pretty awesome with Shitty high on pain-killers. The same goofy high he gets when he over-indulges on edibles but hopefully with a lot more clothes. Regardless, Shitty’s injury puts the whole team on edge. They’re all too distracted by whatever might be going on with Shitty and the rink medic to really put much effort into the game. Thankfully, there’s only five minutes left and Chowder keeps them ahead until they’re finally done; a win in their pocket even if it comes at the expense of Shitty’s face.

By the time they get to the locker room, Shitty is showered, dressed and still sluggishly bleeding.

“Oh man! Shitty! Your face!” Chowder exclaims, wobbly in his gear. “Did you—”

“Fucking gross!” Dex is screaming, covering his eyes as Shitty pulls the towel away from his face and shows at least two completely missing teeth, gummy and bleeding, and one that looks jagged and sharp enough to cut. It’s a miracle he didn’t slice his tongue open. Jack spent a good six months during mite hating his life after a chipped tooth cut the bottom of his tongue and it refused to heal. He could barely swallow—let alone eat or talk.

“Brah! It’s all good,” Shitty assures them. At least, that’s what Jack thinks he says, Shitty’s obviously lost all of his ability to articulate and Jack can tell that his eyes are either glassy with lingering pain and adrenaline or they’ve shot him up with the good-stuff directly in his mouth.

“If you don’t shut your mouth right now,” Lardo says from where she’s folding dirty jerseys into a bag. “I will sew your stupid face shut with your mustache hairs.”

Shitty nods, a little dopey, but stops talking. Jack watches him sway a little as he sits in the stall and watches the rest of the team get undressed. Everyone comes around to pat his shoulder or sneak a look at his fucked mouth but Shitty stays silent and stares openly at Lardo, like he’s waiting for her to praise him for following her simple instructions. Eventually, a doctor comes in to pull Shitty away to get him squared away for the bus-ride home and Jack doesn’t miss the way Lardo follows him into the tiny little training room.

Jack doesn’t claim to understand Lardo and Shitty’s relationship much but he selfishly hopes Shitty’s injury will at least help with the tension between the two of them over the past weeks.

Graduation looms and Jack knows that if affects more than just him—more than just what’s going on with Providence and with Eric—but it’s hard to see beyond himself sometimes. Tunnel vision is often the mark of athletes, his mother always used to say and that she would spend the rest of her married life trying to break Bob out of it but Jack finds it true of himself as well.

Coach gives a short recap that means they’re getting bag skated at practice in two days but Jack doesn’t feel any of the resentment he usually does when their team under performs. Instead, he does his post-game ritual, talks to the small group of familiar reporters—always an interesting mix of genuinely bush-league students and hockey bloggers who live in the area—before he follows the team on the bus.

He waits until everyone’s settled, headphones on and most of the team happily dozing after seeing that Shitty looks to be quite high and pleasantly drooling on Lardo’s lap, before he leaves his seat and slides next to Bitty.

He’s facing the window, reflection solemn. And he hates himself for having forgotten but not enough to promise he'll stop.

Jack tugs the ear-buds out of Bitty’s right ear but he doesn’t turn away from the window. He does sigh, shoulders heaving and says, “Jack, don’t—”

“I’m sorry,” Jack says. “I forget—”

He doesn’t know how to say what he means. So he pushes up the arm rest between the seats and leans into Bitty, snaking one arm around Eric’s shoulder and using his other to tuck Bitty’s iPhone under his thigh so that Jack can take his hand.

The bus isn’t that dark and he can tell that Holster is staring at them from three rows up, wedging his head between the seats to get a proper look.

Jack doesn’t care. It’s only going to get harder to remember that Bitty exists outside hockey and Jack. He isn’t just a solution to Jack’s sullen mood or a perfect patch of sunshine on an entirely cloudy day. Bittle is a whole person and he exists outside pie and whatever is happening with Jack. He's not just someone that makes Jack happy and even though it makes him an asshole to admit it, Jack knows that he's going to forget some days, going to be an even bigger asshole and end up apologizing for it.

Jack leans forward and presses his face against the soft, dampness of Bitty’s hair.

“Shitty’s going to be okay,” Jack murmurs, lacing their fingers together.

“I know.”

Jack hums. Eric seems startled, too still in Jack’s arms, but Jack holds firm until Eric turns away from the window. They’re very close.

“Jack—”

“This is going to happen sometimes,” Jack says. “I’m going to forget about you.”

Bittle looks hurt and confused. Jack forces himself to pull Eric closer until Bitty’s almost in his lap and Jack can rub his thumb over the length of Bitty’s index finger.

“But you have to know, Bitty—I never really forget. It's going to get worse—with Providence and you still being at Samwell. Traveling with the team and not seeing you...”

Eric shakes his head. “That’s not what I’m upset about, Jack.”

“Okay. That’s okay but I was upset about it,” he says, brave enough to brush his lips against Bitty’s eyebrow—the closest thing. “I always know where you are. You should know that.”

Bittle watches him. His eyes are always so wide, like he never wants to miss anything and Jack loves it when Bitty is only looking at him.

“Thank you, Jack.”

And then, by some miracle, Eric leans up and kisses him. Jack is forever thankful for the rumble of the road and the snores of his team because he can’t help the noise he makes into the soft expanse of Bitty’s mouth. It’s a little clumsy but it smoothes out when Eric turns more heavily toward him. Jack doesn’t stop from making the desperate, needy noises because as shameful as they are they are Eric’s to have. Also, he's honest enough with himself to know that he wants Bitty all the time and he's determined not to pressure him into anything but Jack is desperate for whatever contact he can get.

When Bitty pulls away, it’s only by a bit and Jack is upset that the moonlight is casting shadows over Eric face. He can’t see his eyelashes.

“What is it?”

Bitty shakes his head a little but that doesn’t stop Jack from pressing forward again to kiss him on the split of his mouth, the soft, hesitant curve of Bitty’s lips.

“It always feels like goodbye, is all,” Eric says. “Watching Shitty go down, kissing you, playing hockey—when does it stop feeling like all I’m doing now is saying goodbye to the people who matter the most to me?”

“I don’t know,’ Jack says.

They breathe into each other. Bitty stares at their entwined hands and Jack lets him until the own tightness in his chest urges him to lean forward and kiss down the slightness of Bitty’s face. He catches Bitty’s eye and holds it. He doesn’t know how to be clear about this, he doesn’t know how to make this as perfectly clear as he can.

“Eric—”

Bitty laughs. “Are you using your Captain voice Jack Laurent Zimmermann?”

Jack smiles. “I want to be clear,” he says.

Eric squeezes their hands together but it doesn’t hurt. Jack flexes his toes in his dress shoes.

“I don’t know when it stops feeling like goodbye,” Jack says. “But I know it isn’t goodbye. I can’t make you stop feeling things—I know. I know that’s not how it works.”

“But?”

Jack smiles, nudging his nose along Eric’s until they’re almost kissing again, wholly wrapped up in the ease of this.

“But it’s not the way it is. Everything, you and me, this is just the beginning. And with Shitty—Harvard isn’t goodbye. If I thought that’s all it would have taken to get rid of Shitty, I would have tried to transfer my freshman year. It’s not—I’m not saying you can’t feel like it’s goodbye and I don’t know when feelings start matching up with reality because my—”

Jack takes a deep breath.

“Because my hands still shake, Bitty. And you can't fix me.”

“Jack,” it’s a gasp, soft and honest and Jack can’t decide if he can want someone more than he wants Bitty all the damn time.

“But this isn’t goodbye. Soon it will stop feeling like this and start feeling like what it is,” Jack says firmly, and as sure as he can. “You can't fix me, Bitty. But you make me better. It has to count for something.”

The next kiss isn’t nearly as chaste as the first one and it doesn’t take long before Chowder’s head is slowly popping up from the seat in front of them—eyes wide, mouth gaping enough for the moon to be shining off his braces and Nursey to be wolf-whistling loudly enough to wake the whole bus and bring their attention to Jack and Bitty.

Jack pulls away, feeling himself blush because this was not how he imagined sharing the progress of his and Bitty’s relationship. However, he’s not sure he even wanted to share it at all. (Shitty has a power-point that he gets out whenever Jack yells at a frog. Jack's never actually seen it but he once saw a slide of a crudely drawn hockey player titled: The Care and Feeding of Jack—Now With Expanded NSFW Content.)

“Hey guys?” Bitty says.

Shitty hollers something unintelligible but certainly vulgar that gets lost in all the gaps of his mouth but Lardo smacks him with her clipboard and tells him to 'shut up' and 'stop making that motion'. Jack can’t see him but he imagines there’s some sort of indecent hand gesture too.

“Get some, Bits,” Nursey says, gleeful from his seat almost half the bus away.

Bitty stands up a little and says, “Mind your own business.” Then he flips them all off and the noise of hollering and laughter is enough to make Jack blush for days.

When Bitty resettles, he’s less in Jack’s lap and he puts his headphones back in. There’s not anymore kissing, leaving Jack to run over plays in his head and watch the lights play off Eric’s face from the window. But he doesn’t let go of Jack's hand the entire way home and maybe that’s a good start after all.

<3<3<3

Jack spends two hours on the phone with his lawyer and an NHLPA representative. The new CBA has a lot of new stipulations around NCAA players and free agency. Everything is soaked in enough legal jargon to make even Shitty balk but they work through it. Since Jack withdrew from the draft rather than see what team would take him locked up in the psych-ward, he's not locked in until August like some of the other pending UFAs coming out of their college with a degree but unwilling to sign with the team that currently has their rights. (Jack also doesn't understand why anyone would drop out four months before they got a degree just so they could reap the benefits of an early free agency.)

Regardless, it takes a long time to sort out what he can and can't do. It's not that he doesn't already know what he's going to do but he wants to know all of his options. A lot has changed since he thought he was going into the draft and discussing what it would look like if he decided to play NCAA after or if he wanted to stay in the Q—or if he'd make the team. Being a traditional draft pick is incredibly different from being a free agent with zero entry or age restrictions. It feels impulsive and naïve to sign with Providence so early without understanding the full breadth of his decisions. So he's waiting... even though it's practically a done deal. He often wonders if that makes him a jackass to Georgia or if she understands that this isn't a play but just what Jack needs to feel the best about signing.

By the end of the conversation, Jack knows that he can sign whenever he wants and that the contract teams that will be sliding across the table will be much more than an entry-level $925,000. The thought is dizzying that anyone would take that big of a cap hit for Jack but the reality is that with a competitive free agency, it's likely that teams will spend a lot more on him. It's not likely they'll waste their entire frenzy on him, since he's still a gamble, but the possibility of multi-year contracts is on the table and the entry-level stipulations are eased away by his age. It all boils down to when he wants to sign really. Teams that don't make the playoffs will likely make offers first. Following that is the frenzy that Jack wants to avoid; or he could wait and go to rookie camps—a modified PTO, except he'd be skating with seventeen and eighteen year olds who likely won't be making the team so it's not truly indicative of who he'd be playing with.

He can play with anyone. Hockey players are douche bags across the board, although some are better than others off the ice. That doesn't affect chemistry—Jack used to think it would but it doesn't. He hated Kenny some nights, to the point of being sick with it but they still played electric on the ice. (The nightmares Jack had back then didn't come from his chemistry with Kenny. They came from sitting in locker rooms and long bus rides feeling like a sheep in wolf's clothing.) Therefore, who he plays with isn't the issue but who he plays for matters a lot more now than he remembers it mattering when he was going into his draft year.

Granted, that doesn't mean much but it feels a lot different this time around.

He gets off the phone and goes for a run because his mind is all over the place. He knows he should head to a meeting—and he will after he gets back—but for now he needs to tire himself out. Running is not Jack's favorite workout. He'd much rather be skating or spending time on the bike to get his cardio in but variety is everything to his muscles right now and there will be more time to skate soon. The playoffs start next week and he can't afford to drop too much weight going into the off-season. He's been limiting his cheat snacks and sticking with two-days on non-game days plus morning skate. So he goes for a run until his feet are numb, pushing harder when he wants to stop, and then he turns around and runs back to the Haus.

If he signs soon it will be less money. That doesn't seem important; he just needs enough for a condo with a nice kitchen and enough extra cash to keep Eric as close as he can geographically. His father is wary of Providence. Jack thinks it's because his father can be shortsighted when it comes to money but he also knows that he has a point in regards to what Providence wants from him. Sure, they're willing to be the house built on Jack's gay, recovering addict self but they're also telling him he's going to be the face of the franchise. They're an expansion team with good bones: they've got a few vets with two or three years left on their contracts and half a dozen rookies ready for the call up but they're missing someone to establish a core around. They're missing a Captain and they fully intend for Jack to fulfill this role.

His father wants him to sign with Pittsburgh or Kansas City. Both teams that promise they have enough stars, that Jack would be attributing to a stable team looking to add depth down the center. It's less media. It's less pressure. It's less money. A point of contention between Jack and his father is always going to be: hockey was never the problem for Jack. And his father? Well, Big Bad Bob is willing to take down the whole league if it means curing Jack. Logically, that should make Jack feel great but it really just makes him angry. His dad wants him to go to camps. But the prospect of trying to survive the free agent frenzy makes Jack want to vomit. It's not dignified as far as he can tell from his agent—who looks way too excited at the prospect of wadding into bidding wars for Jack's future career with dollar signs in his eyes.

It would be too much. Jack's sure he would not be able to make very good decisions.

Georgia said they would offer before the regular season ended and earlier if Jack was sure. But Providence is still in the running for a wildcard spot so their roster is still up in the air for the foreseeable future. When he gets back from his run, he texts his agent and says he wants to avoid the June 1st deadline as much as possible but if they can't get a deal done—he's waiting until the end of August to sign because he'll go to camps.

It feels like a compromise even though they both know it's false.

He doesn't say Providence is the only team with a chance but he's not fooling anyone. Teams know where his interest lie and how hard Providence has been courting him, which is as much as they could with the NCAA breathing down their neck. According to his agent, it just means the offers will be higher from other teams—that Providence's unwavering confidence in him makes other teams want him more.

"Hard run, Jack?" Chowder says, when they pass on the stairs. Jack blinks. "You're breathing really hard."

"Yeah. Good run."

Chowder disappears up the stairs to the attic and Jack retreats to his room. He needs to shower and hurry if he wants to make the early afternoon meeting. He prefers to hit meetings at odd times—because he connects better with people who don't have a 9-5 job, which is who shows to a lot of the evening gatherings. Maybe it's because he can't ever imagine having that or maybe he knows he never will but it rattles him.

He likes to go when the people are falling apart a little. He likes to know that the people who go to his meetings need it just as much as he does.

Which is unfair. Everyone needs the meetings—it's why they're there. And Jack has no right to judge anyone about how much it helps them. It's none of his business and nothing he could possibly understand from the outside.

But reality versus a feeling is not just something Bittle struggles with. And Eric is much, much smarter than Jack. Proven every day but especially in small moments like this, a plate of cookies on his bed with a note.

Also, there's nothing broken about you, Jack Laurent.
Eat this. It has lots of protein for your MOODY self.

He makes the three o'clock easily but when Shitty texts him for dinner, he pushes the time back so that he can stay for the 5:30 too. It's okay because the peanut butter paleo cookies (apparently—according to Bitty's text) hold enough protein to tide him over. Jack makes sure to text him several emojis in thanks because he knows how much Bitty likes it.

Jack doesn't have any "chill", which means he sends a heart and a hockey stick but he hopes Bitty understands.

<3<3<3

Kissing Bitty never stops being really fucking good.

It reminds Jack a lot of when he first met Eric. How he was convinced Bitty was only one kind of person and that person wasn't going to fit in on a winning hockey team for a multitude of reasons that centered around Jack. Not everything is about Jack, obviously, which was sort of the crux of the problem but Eric also isn't a one dimensional skater and neither are his kisses. Jack knows better now.

He didn't appreciate discovering different aspects of Bitty before—at least, not nearly as much as he should have. So it's nice for Jack to get to enjoy the unveiling of Eric in a different way. Jack's much better prepared this time around.

"Gettin' some of that sweet Bitty-bits is like watching you on cheat day," Shitty says one night on the stairs up to their room. It had been a nice evening and surprisingly subdued for the Haus. They had watched the Bruins and Montreal game, which usually divided the Haus pretty staunchly. But it had only resulted in a wrestling match and a slightly purpling-black eye but nothing too horrible like seasons past. (Johnson's favorite Haus story to scare the shit out of frogs’ centers around the Habs and Bruins rivalry. Jack thinks most of the chaos and blood of the story is made-up but their last team manager had a scar running down his cheek and a shrine to the Bruins bear in his room. So what does Jack know, really.)

Jack had spent the first two periods of the game with Shitty in his lap on the over-sized leather recliner that had appeared in the living room earlier in the year. Part of coaching peewee had meant that Coach Jack had to learn how to braid the girls hair to go under helmets or after games to avoid melt-downs—so that's what Jack was doing in between periods, braiding Shitty's hair on demand and nursing a protein shake.

Banana was his least favorite kind.

But before the third (Habs up by two—viva la Nationale), everyone got up for popcorn and forties and Shitty 'accidentally' took Bitty's spot on the couch.

"You're not clever," Bitty shouted from the kitchen from where he was dividing popcorn into bowls.

Shitty just smirked at Jack from his spot on the couch. The rest of the team hadn't seemed to pay them any mind. Dex and Nursey quietly debated the serious superiority of PK Subban to "literally everything, come on brah—like name a thing better than him" and Lardo was sketching out something for her final project on the floor in front of the couch. It was effortlessly good. It felt limitless and Jack liked that about nights when the Haus was quiet—or as quiet as it will ever be. There was still casual substance abuse, wrestling arguments that end up with broken noses and DIY stitches but it was with good people.

Nights like those make it easy to forget that time wasn't standing still.

Which was why Jack didn't put up too much of a fight when Bitty snuggled next to him on the chair, in front of half the team and shared a bowl of popcorn with him.

“There's no butter,” Bitty had said, quiet so the boys wouldn't chirp them. And Jack had smiled at Bitty until Chowder started rambling about Pricey's skills at too high of pitch not to distract the entire team.

"It's like that face," Shitty is saying, leaning up against the wall outside their rooms. He's smirking. "That face Lardo gets before she smokes a perfectly packed bowl—that's the face you've got, brah. The Cheat Day face is becoming the Bitty Dicking face."

Shitty pretends to wipe a tear from his eye. “I'm so proud of you.”

“Are you done?”

“That Cheat Day Oh-Face, Zimmermann.”

"Impossible, Shitty. I don't have cheat days," Jack says, rolling his eyes and letting himself into room while Shitty shouts, "Cold! Cold!"

And it's true. Jack doesn't have cheat days. He has cheat meals or snacks—a whole day of gluttony makes him feel terrible and he prefers to spread out his indulgences. Which is why when he closes the door to his room, Bitty is already folded up in his bed.

Bitty had watched only half of the third before declaring Boston "officially ready for a rebuild" and retreating from the aggressive boos and popcorn throwing, only to keep texting Jack from upstairs. It was nice to sit with Bitty; thighs pressed together, in front of the Haus and not have to worry about anything. But it was much better to come up to his room to find Bitty mostly asleep in his bed, soft and comfortable looking—a small, inoculate secret that Jack could keep for himself.

This was the real cheat.

Jack doesn't deviate from his routine. He steps into the shower for a few minutes to wash off the day and let’s himself think about contract bullshit only for the duration of his shower. By the time he's drying off, it's been back-burnered in his mind. He half-heartedly looks for his favorite sleep shirt—a worn-thin remnant from his peewee coach days. He always liked coaching the kids even if the Montreal Wanderers were accurate to their name in their style of play (whimsical and lost at best). Jack was also partial to the history behind the name.

He gives up after a few minutes of searching and just settles for boxer-briefs that Sauce Hockey sent him in an attempt to gain his sponsorship. He is apparently cool enough for hipster clothing lines now—his agent assured him that this was a good thing and that if an invitation to Camp BioSteel came, Jack wouldn't have an choice in accepting. Regardless, the underwear is comfortable... even if it says 'duster' on the ass.

Jack's nudging Bitty into the center of the bed when he realizes his shirt has found its way onto Bitty and not the laundry basket like he had originally assumed. (Or Shitty and Lardo—both notorious clothing thieves. Jack had once found a pair of his trousers in an art exhibit Lardo was in. His pants were twisted around the neck of a pig sculpture eating a television.) While it certainly isn't the strangest place Jack has found his clothes, it's probably his favorite.

"That's my shirt," Jack whispers, plucking at the shoulders of the tee until Bitty rolls over and opens one eye.

"Shut off the light," is all Bitty says in response before he rolls closer, hands snaking up Jack’s chest and curling him near until Bitty's mostly hidden into the curve of Jack's body.

It's good.

Jack turns off the light. When he takes a deep breath and counts backward, willing his mind to be present and switch off a little, he takes in the smell of his own body wash and shampoo on Bitty. There is something that makes his hands shake about that—or well, his hands might have already been shaking but he feels the tremble as he runs them down the length of Bitty's curved spine. Jack likes the way Bitty smells like him and selfishly never wants Bitty to smell of anything else but sleep soft sheets and Jack—maybe cinnamon and cloves on occasion. Jack breathes in as deep as he can, careful to exhale softly as to not jostle Bitty.

Jack eventually finds sleep when Eric starts to snore. He's not thinking about anything in particular but he does feel the tremor of excitement he always has when he's with Bitty—of what kind of kisses Jack will discover tomorrow. He likes that he sometimes can't distinguish what is anxiety and what is a side effect of being with Eric. It makes him better than before.

Tonight, Bitty kisses him in the middle of the night when they've gravitated apart in the bed. Jack sighs into the kiss and happily catalogs it—greedy, short kisses that never really end but melt into one another like the heavy cover of sleep. Eric kisses him as they fall back asleep, sipping kisses that make Jack hard even though he's giving into sleep. Or maybe it's just that Jack never quite wakes up. Regardless, he lets Bitty maneuver him until Jack's the one pressing his face into the material of his Montreal Wanderers tee and breathing in the intoxicating smell of Bitty underneath Jack's artificial soaps.

There's no room for caution here with Jack's want between them but he can hear the warning. Jack falls asleep with Bitty's fingers curled around the nape of his neck and hopes he remembers just how devastating such innocent kisses can be.

<3<3<3

Samwell is in the throes of a fitful spring. The sun improves Bitty's mood, which is good because Jack doubles down in the playoffs. The ECAC is a mess of solid teams and the best of three format is exhausting. It just never feels like enough games to be honest but it is what it is. The first round is a scrambled mess but the team puts up some big points in a few games that carry their momentum. They're seeded third but everyone knows that their pair wise could give them a large-bid—which is good because they get out of the first round and promptly lose to Yale two games to one. They don't play badly at all—at least that's what Jack tells himself. But Yale plays better and no matter how many rallying speeches are given in the room, they don't come back in the third game. It's no one's fault but they don't win.

The only consolation is that with Yale playing Harvard in the final—Samwell clinches an NCAA tournament spot.

On one hand, it's amazing that the hockey isn't over. On the other...

“How are you doing my little Lionheart?”

Jack shakes his head at his mother over Skype. She's got a cup of tea in her hands and for the first time in a long time, he misses her enough that he wishes he were there instead of here. It's been a few days from the loss and everyone's more or less gotten over it—except for Bitty, whose taking it hard, feeling like he just doesn't play as hard against Yale as he could (Jack doesn't think this is true). But most of the team is focused on their first game against Miami Ohio in a few days.

“I'm fine, mother. Stop worrying,” he says and musters up a smile for her. It's small and tired looking in the corner of his screen but it's honest.

“Don't tell me what to do,” she says. “How is Eric?”

Jack flushes immediately. Telling his parents about him and Bitty had been easy. His mother was upset—but only because she had to admit that Bob was right. Apparently, Jack's dad was convinced him and Bittle were making their way together. His mother was holding out for a lawyer in the family apparently.

“He's taking the loss against Yale hard. I've tried to tell him that no one blames him but he's not himself—there hasn't been any pies in two whole days.”

On the screen, Alicia sips at her tea. “Poor child. You all put so much pressure on yourselves. It's a wonder your posture doesn't sag with the weight of it.”

“It's hockey, maman. There’s still the Frozen Four.”

She brushes him off. “What is the point if he still mourns this loss! What have you been doing to help him?”

“Doing?”

This time, the teacup doesn't cover up her smile. “Yes! Soothing words from his captain pale in comparison to the comfort and reassurance of a boyfriend, yes?”

Jack feels himself flush absolutely scarlet. His mother thankfully moves onto a different topic but true to form, and surely her intention, it sticks with Jack long after their conversation ends. Which he supposes that's how he ends up getting the courage to touch Bitty's dick.

Not that he would ever tell anyone that a loss to Yale and his mother's insistence inspired him to finally get his shit together but it's mostly true.

The Haus is never empty but Sunday afternoon is usually the closest it will get. Just because Samwell is in the tournament doesn't mean that school doesn't stop. They're going to be missing classes and everyone's focused on homework to get ahead so that they won't be terribly behind. While everyone believes that failing their classes is fine as long as they win the national championship, their parents and professors don't agree.

Therefore, Sunday afternoon is for dragging their asses to the library or meeting with group projects at various popular spots on campus. It's a cold day for late March and it's windy enough to make the Haus whistle out of its gaps. Jack had spent the morning at the pool and then in the weight room. He even spent an exhausting thirty minutes on the phone with his agent—the contract considerations for him were cluttering up his desk apparently.

Jack can't make a decision about that now. There's more hockey to be played here—he'll think about after when it's over.

Most of his classes are papers and fewer tests this semester so he's not going to be too far behind. He finishes two books in the early afternoon and works on a few extra credit assignments to make up for the dip in class participation he will take during the tournament. It's half four when he's finished and he winds up in the kitchen trying to cobble something together for dinner.

There's Kraft Dinner—because when Bitty's not around, that's really all they can manage other than sandwiches. But Jack's not impossible. He can at least handle a croque monsieur. Toasted sandwiches have got to be an upgrade from ham and cheese with crushed Doritos—Chowder's go-to meal when Bitty's out.

He's hardly finished fishing out all the ingredients when Bitty walks in.

“Where is everybody?”

Jack smiles over his shoulder. Bitty must have come from campus because he's still bundled up in a thick beanie and the wool peacoat Jack bought him for Christmas. The navy blue looks good with his flushed cheeks and it takes a minute before Jack realizes that he doesn't have to stand there, thinking about how beautiful Bitty is—he can actually kiss him hello.

Instead of answering Bitty's question, Jack walks over and unwinds the plaid scarf from Bitty's neck and let’s himself watch the wide set of Bitty's brown eyes. When he's done, he takes the kiss he came over for. Bitty's lips are cold in contrast to the hot push and pull of his tongue. He tastes bitter like coffee but that doesn't stop Jack from holding him closer, pressing his warm hands all over the chill of Bitty's skin. There's this hitch, a needy gasp that Bitty makes when Jack deepens kisses that Jack craves—and when Jack tilts Bitty's head back and sneaks a hand down to press into Bitty's hip, he gets to hear it.

Admittedly, things get a little out of control but it's only because Bitty keeps making all these noises and Jack keeps chasing them. Jack's worked himself down to the warm stretch of Bitty's neck when a door slams upstairs. There's not accompanying footsteps so Jack doesn't pull away but he does stop working the patch of skin with his teeth. He licks over it, realizing that Bitty is clinging to him and his sandwich ingredients are still spread out on the countertop.

“Sorry,” Jack says, kissing the tender spot on Bitty's neck. “Everyone's at the library or out—I think it's just Holster and Ransom.”

“Oh. Right,” Bitty says.

Jack tries not to feel accomplished at the breathy, spaced out way Bitty's voice has gone but he doesn't succeed. He smiles, face still tucked close to Bitty's neck. It's starting to strain his neck and he really should eat but he waits a few beats, breathing him in.

“You hungry, Bitty?”

Jack puffs out a breath and watches Bitty's neck goose flesh and then Bitty is hitting him in the arm, pushing him away and then pulling him closer until they're almost kissing again.

“You're a smug tease, Jack Laurent,” Bitty says but he's smiling.

Jack kisses him, teeth and all but keeps it light. Bitty doesn't seem to protest—he kisses Jack back at whatever pace he sets. It's confusing most of the time, because Jack doesn't know if that means he's fine with more or wants to stay where they are. Logically, he knows he could just ask... that he should ask before they go any further. But for now, it's nice to set the pace that eases them both away from the heat of their earlier kisses.

“Eat dinner with me.”

Bitty smiles, easy and bright. “I could eat. What are you making?”

“We're making croque monsieurs,” Jack says.

“Fancy grilled cheese?” Bitty counters.

Jack pokes Bitty with his spatula. “Hockey player grilled cheese,” Jack corrects.

“And what's so hockey player about these?”

Jack pulls out the eggs and stuffs them in Bitty's arms. “Protein.”

“You're a dork,” Bitty says but Jack pays him no mind. He preheats the oven like his mother taught him and goes about buttering his bread. They pull out the big pan so that they do both at the same time—and stick it in the over. Jack usually hates to do the eggs in the same pan with the sandwiches but that's because he's not careful enough with the eggs. Bitty's here and assures him that he'll help with the egg frying bit.

“This would work so much better with a griddle you know,” Bitty says when they've got the open faces of the ham face down on the skillets and Bitty's licking cheese off his hand. Jack shrugs.

“My mother always uses a pan and the oven.”

The way Bittle smiles at him feels like he won something. He wonders if this is what his mother was talking about when she asked what Jack was doing to make Eric feel better about the loss. It's not hard to make Bitty happy.

Jack's mixing the Dijon mustard with the horseradish he found in the fridge and is applying it liberally when Bitty starts chirping the egg.

“I thought the one with the egg is called something different,” he says.

Jack frowns. “It is but these have both.”

“Why?”

When Jack looks over Bitty is biting his lip and trying so hard not to laugh. “Are you chirping me about my defense of maximum protein in my sandwich?”

“Noooooooo,” but he starts laughing anyway and the whole thing is ruined.

They finish the rest of the sandwich in relative peace. Once the ham is crispy enough for Jack, the other side of butter bread gets a turn and Bitty skillfully fries two eggs next to their sandwiches with ease. They're almost done when the sandwiches get popped into the oven with their perfect eggs on top and a smattering of cheese.

Bitty leans back against the oven and listens to Jack tell him about the time that he threw a fit with his father over the egg—where Bob forgot the egg while Alicia was sick with the flu and Jack accused him of trying to ruin everything. He looks amazing. His eyes are crinkled at the corners because he's smiling and the slim set of his hips looks even more dramatic against the oven. Only the consequences of horrible burnt sandwiches keep Jack from kissing Bitty again. He knows that if he starts—he's not sure he's going to want to stop.

“Thank you, Jack,” Bitty says afterwards when he's doing the last of dishes and Jack's putting away all the ingredients. “This was nice.”

Jack walks over and presses himself up against the curve of Bitty's back, letting his arms wind around Bitty's chest for a hug before he settles himself against Bitty's neck with a kiss.

“Thank you for having dinner with me.”

Bitty laughs, flirty and a little throaty and god, Jack does not what to stop.

“My, my, Jack—did you make me fancy French grilled cheese so I'd put out?”

Jack hums. He's busy laying open-mouthed kisses along the back of Bitty's neck. But when he's done he keeps his mouth there, scraps his teeth along the skin and says, “Not at all. I made you dinner because I wanted you to stay.”

“And now?”

Jack likes the hopeful, breathy tone in Bitty's voice. It makes him brave—makes him feel like he could do anything. Which is why he grips Bitty's hips and brings his perk, squat altered ass right up against Jack's thickening erection.

“Now, I don't want to stop,” Jack whispers. “If that's okay with you.”

He's pretty sure this is what pressuring his boyfriend to have sex is like. He's also fairly sure this is exactly what he's not supposed to be doing before the last NCAA tournament of his career. This could upset the balance of the team on the ice and they all need to be sharp.

“Jack?”

He stills. He doesn't pull away but he doesn't keep kissing the soft skin of Bitty's neck. But Eric's voice is clear, no longer flirty and Jack kind of feels like he should be pulling away.

“Yeah, Bitty?”

“I don't think we should take our chances in the kitchen,” is what Bitty says. “The team has to come home sometime and I don't want to scar them.”

Jack chuckles, low. “Don't bring yourself down like that, Eric. I think you're hot.”

“Oh hush,” Bitty says, turning around in Jack arms until he can feel Bitty, hard and hot pressing up against his hip. “I just meant that being cool with your two teammates dating is one thing but walking in on them having sex is another.”

“Having sex, eh? Bold, Bitty.”

This time, Bitty is the one kissing Jack's smiling mouth and they abandon the skillet in the sink in favor of walking up the stairs hand in hand. Jack's never done this before—really dating someone—not sneaking away to fuck or make out. Kenny never held Jack's hands unless he was trying to get them to stop shaking.

Bitty uses Jack's trembling hands to pull him up the stairs. It's just a nice change.

Their first stop is Jack's room but Shitty is probably coming home soon and the first time he gets Bitty naked, he doesn't want to be interrupted by an equally naked Shitty. Jack's body has a completely negative reaction to Shitty's naked body; it feels like a locker room almost immediately or a lecture hall where he gets scolded about heteronormativity and other gender-studies buzz words.

He doesn't want to be thinking about heteronormativity when he sucks Bitty's dick.

So he pushes Bitty across the hall.

When Jack pictured having sex with Bitty, it was always in kind of an abstract manner. He'd seen Eric flirt with guys before; all long lashes and a high flush on his cheeks. But he'd never seen Bitty with anyone else longer than a fleeting moment so it was hard imagining what Bitty would be like. Jack doesn't pretend to know much about Bitty's dating before but he finds himself surprised at the ease that Bitty guides them into his room, turns on some music and manages to keep them kissing through most of it.

It makes Jack feel a little less sure-footed but he ignores it in favor of the soft way Eric's mouth keeps falling open when Jack scrapes his teeth over the sensitive stretch of his neck.

Jack loves how loud he is—or perhaps loud isn't the right way to describe the way Bitty arches into his kisses with his whole body; mouth open with a hitched gasp or a quiet moan that has Jack scrambling to do whatever it was he just did to make sure he never stops hearing that sound. Jack's so used to sex being a mostly silent affair—hotel rooms are thin, with players always trying to barge in and after that, he was living in a dorm, then the Haus.

“You're so vocal,” Jack murmurs. He wishes he said responsive but Bitty just giggles in his arms, where Jack is pressing his palms into the sweet sides of Bitty's ribs.

“How else are you supposed to know how good you make me feel?”

And that, well, that makes Jack groan because he doesn't know why this surprises him but it does. Bitty looks comfortable in Jack's arms and his kisses are sure, full of want and eagerness. He's not the blushing virgin Jack thought he’d be. Then again, it's not as if Jack has a ton to compare him to. He's not sure what he expected but Bitty, as always, is full of surprises.

He sweeps his hands up the planes of Bitty's back, taking the soft Samwell Hockey t-shirt with him until he has to lean back to work it over Bitty's head. He's flushed, freckled skin a blotchy pink that makes Jack think about hockey, the way he's been able to steal glances of Bitty striping out of his gear or wandering back from the showers still pink from the hot water there. In the locker room, it's just another body that Jack can use to make hockey but here, it's a different kind of intimacy that makes Jack notice how fucking beautiful Eric is and Jack can't believe he gets to have him like this.

“Is that—” Bitty stops, licking his lips when Jack rubs his thumbs over the pink buds of his nipples. “Is that okay?”

Jack never wants Eric to sound that hesitant again. While he is surprised that Eric's so quietly brazen, now that he knows—Jack doesn't want Bitty to be anything but. Jack supposes that it suits Bitty, really.

“Yes,” Jack says emphatically, moving up to kiss Eric firmly. “Yes, of course. Fuck, Eric, you're amazing.”

He feels Bitty flush harder. Their cheeks pressed up against each other as Bitty rolls their hips together—his fingers haven't left Jack's neck and shoulders, they sweep up and tangle in his shirt but every time Jack gets distracted by them, Eric's hips roll and Jack can't think about anything but the way Eric's body eagerly arches into the touches he wants more of.

They manage to make it to the bed but only because Jack doesn't want to bend so aggressively to get his mouth on the sharp curve of Bitty's hip.

“There, Jack—” Bitty is quietly moaning, with these hitching breaths that make Jack's cock leak in his jeans. “Please—harder.”

It's a plea and Jack can't stop himself from giving it to him. He bites at the spot he's been sucking on and the red mark blooms purple underneath his mouth. Bitty's hands are wandering, scrambling at the riding hem of Jack's tee and pulling at hair until Jack has to pull away or he's going to get strangled with his own shirt.

“This works better if you're naked too, Jack,” Bitty teases and Jack smiles up at him. The nerves that Jack thought would be there for Eric aren't—he seems relaxed and sure of Jack—and it's better than any anti-anxiety med that Jack's ever taken. He thought he'd feel awkward too, maybe in the face of Eric's inexperience or the intensity of the feelings between them; the slow build. And he does feel a little jittery but it's mostly with want and how much he wants to make Bitty feel good but it doesn't feel like he can fuck this up.

Bitty seems pretty damn sure they won't fuck this up.

Jack presses his fingers into the bruise he's made with his mouth and Eric squirms, arching into it and smiles down at Jack. “It looks like it hurts,” Jack says, kisses it lightly and feeling how hot the skin is beneath his mouth.

Bitty hums. “I like it,” is all he says. Then he guides Jack's mouth back to his taunt skin between his hips and Jack doesn't hesitate to lick and suck at the sensitive skin until Eric's not smiling anymore but biting his lips as Jack marks up his skin. Jack chases Bitty's soft moans and willingly goes where Eric's hips buck. He likes the way Eric rubs at the tips of his ears; it's oddly comforting, even as Jack sucks vulgar hickeys into Eric's skin and palms at the bulge in his own pants. He likes the way his teeth make Eric sound—the way he says Jack's name makes both of them shiver and Jack desperate to get his mouth on the hot, hard promise of Eric's dick.

Speaking of—it's so close to Jack's face and he can't think beyond wanting to make Eric feel good. He knows they should probably slow down a little, talk about sex and experiences and handle this in a mature manner but Jack can't do anything but want to make Bittle loud—give him everything he wants.

He likes the way Eric's pants feel against his palms, the soft corduroy hot against his hands as he spreads them across the breadth of Bitty's thighs, up the dip of his knee and the curve where Bitty's ass fills out in Jack's hands. Eric is solid muscle, not huge like Jack's that make him look oddly proportioned but firm and steady underneath Jack's groping.

“Jack, please—“ Bitty is saying, rubbing at the top of Jack's ears again.

Jack looks up but as soon as he pulls away, Bitty is climbing into his lap and pushing them both back onto the bed. There is a lot of awkward scooting until they can both get onto the bed properly but Bitty is giggling into Jack's mouth and it's good, it's so good.

“I'm going to have the worst beard burn,” Bitty doesn't sound very upset about it. Still.

“Sorry, I can shave,” Jack says, but that's stupid because they're in the middle of something and Jack can't just go shave. Eric laughs though; head thrown back and carefree, like Jack is the best thing to have happened to him and Jack can already see a small hickey on the side of Bitty's neck. Jack must have put it there.

“Nah, I think I want you to stay here,” Bitty says. “But thanks.”

Jack finds himself smiling, even though he's uncomfortably hard and he feels like he's never done this before.

“Hey Jack,” Bitty says, their noses are touching now and Jack takes advantage of Bitty solidly on top of him to shifting him up until their hips line up and Jack can helpfully use his grip on Eric's ass to get them grinding together. “Jack—“

He hums in response, enjoying the filthy but lazy grind of their hips together.

“Jack, let's not wear pants anymore.”

He whispers it, like it's a conspiracy plan and when Jack looks up, Bitty is smiling again, a little shy but coy too. They get Jack's jeans off but aggressive undressing derails sharply when Jack gets Bitty laid out beneath him, corduroys half-way down his thighs—straining—but effort abandoned because Jack's too busy running his teeth all over Bitty's ankles. It makes Bitty jerk, pushing into him. Jack can't help but do it again and again when Bitty's shoulders strain against the bed, hips lifting up as he struggles to get his pants off. Jack doesn't help. He likes the way Bitty arches and moves, his briefs doing nothing to hide his leaking dick and Jack can't help but stare at the way Bitty's hips keep seeking friction.

Jack hasn't had a lot of sex since coming to Samwell. He's not Shitty—and Shitty is actually the last dude he'd come close to fucking around with since coming here. He hasn't been sexless by any means but he's never been driven to seek out partners. He goes to parties or lets the Haus fill up with beer and people and finds someone who wants him. It's always been girls—but Jack learned that if he was going to hook up with girls, he needed to get better with his mouth. He's never felt comfortable enough to do much more than exchange oral sex—because he doesn't like people staying over and he doesn't want to be an asshole if he can help it. So he's always played it safe by happily enjoying someone's willing mouth in exchange for letting someone ride his face.

The point being, if there's one thing he knows he's good at; it's using his mouth. He's out of practice with pretty much everything else.

He waits until he's done sucking an awkwardly blooming bruise on Bitty's ankle before he asks, and he only asks because he knows he should. Back when he was sneaking around with Kent, his mother had pulled him aside and asked quite plainly if he was being careful. Jack had not been too keen to talk about it. To make matters worse, days later his father had initiated the most awkward conversation of Jack's life but the take-away was very plain: if he couldn't talk about what he was doing naked with other people, then he wasn't mature enough to do it.

Jack wasn't sober enough to be doing it either but they hadn't known then.

“Can I suck you off?” He winces because he sort of shouted at Bitty a little but he keeps eye-contact because he's not embarrassed. Jack wants nothing more than to use up his mouth until he's sore and Bitty's aggressively sated.

Below him, Bitty smiles and it's soft, despite the heated situation. “Only if you want to,” Bitty says but he helps Jack get the pants off him. “We don't have to do anything you don't want to do.”

Jack looks up from where he's hooked his fingertips into the elastic of Bitty's underwear.

“I thought that'd be my line,” Jack says.

“I've had a long time to get used to the thought of being naked with you,” Bitty says, looking happy. “Enough time to know what I want—whenever you're ready.”

Jack feels embarrassed it's taken this long. The year is almost over and he should have figured this out, gotten to a better place when Bitty was a freshman so they could have figured this out together.

“Sorry I kept you waiting,” Jack says and then, “also, I hope this isn't disappoint—”

“Oh Jack, hush your face!” Then Bitty is kissing him, open mouthed and little sloppy and whatever reservations about living up to Bitty's expectations take a backseat.

When Jack finally gets Bitty's dick in his mouth it makes them both moan a little bit too loudly. Bitty's dick is bigger than Jack thought it would be fully hard. Jack thinks it would probably feel good inside him because it's thick—thicker than his own and he knows that he likes the feeling of being full. Jack had always wanted Kenny to put in his fingers too when they were fucking because Kent's dick was—and Jack supposes it still is—long and curved but not especially thick. It kind of weirds Jack out that he still remembers what Kent's dick looked like. He also wonders if there's something to be said about the automatic way Jack categorizes Bitty's dick, comparing it to his own—and thinks that maybe Shitty would have something to say about that.

But the thought leaves him when he's able to hook one of Bitty's legs around his shoulder, and press forward, the path from Bitty's marked up hips down to the thick, light blonde and ginger patch of hair that gives way to Bitty's dick.

Jack mouths at the leaking head, listening to Bitty gasp—one of Bitty's hands is twisted in Jack's hair but the other is raised above his head and keeps sharply knuckling the headboard when Jack sucks a little harder.

“Jack, god,” Eric is saying, hips shoving a little rudely into Jack's mouth but he doesn't mind. He's got one arm trapped underneath Bitty's body, his fingers pressing into Bitty's shoulder blade and the other is holding the base of Bitty's cock so that Jack can ease him into his mouth. He kind of likes the way Eric's hip jerk uncontrollably into Jack's mouth, likes the way they chase Jack's hand as he jacks him off when his mouth pulls off to wander. He dips to suck at the crease between Bitty's thigh, mouthing at his balls and pressing his tongue back until he can press hard in the space before his hole.

Eric's cock leaks so much precome—salty on Jack's tongue and even though it's bitter and not great tasting, Jack grinds his hips into the bed when he thinks about what that would feel like inside of him. He can't help a little moan of his own, muffled by the thickness in his mouth, but he wonders if Eric would let him sit on his cock, making him so full with how thick he is. Jack likes that the most—feeling full but not a lot of movement, just steady pressure on his prostate and the most he can get spreading him open as he jerks off.

Bitty gets louder when Jack pulls back to work at the length of him with his hand and concentrates on light suction at the tip. That makes Bitty's hand smack, open palmed on the headboard and Jack sweeps his tongue over the head. Bitty's cut and the head feels oddly bulbous in his mouth.

Jack rubs his calloused hand on the soft underside, right underneath the head and Bitty spurts hard into his mouth. “Jack, fuck, Jack I'm— oh.”

Bitty's hip jack-knifes off the bed when he comes and Jack almost chokes but manages to pull back enough to work Eric roughly, twisting his wrist and letting him fuck Jack's mouth with tiny rolls of his hips as he chases his orgasm. Eric's gasping wetly, saying his name over and over again as he comes thickly in Jack's mouth and fuck—Jack can't help it. He's grinding hard against the bed and Bitty's absently fucking his mouth, still making this 'oh-oh' little noises with his open mouth and his pupils are blown so wide above him and—

Jack pulls off with a pop and curses, “fuck, fuck, fuck—” but it's too late because he's coming in his briefs. He sinks his teeth into Bitty's hip to stop the needy moan that rolls through him but he can't stop working his hips against his soaked briefs. It takes him completely by surprise—punches out of him in waves that leave him breathless. Embarrassment surges through him. He's still coming so hard though—it's hard to focus because Bitty's hand is twisting in his hair, his wet dick head is pushing up against Jack's neck and Jack is still coming desperately in his pants as he humps the bed.

Not exactly how he pictured it going.

“Oh babe, did you just—oh my days that's the hottest thing that's ever happened to me,” Bitty is saying, soft and sweet. He's petting Jack's ears again, rubbing them with his thumb and forefinger. Jack's stopped coming, removed his teeth from where they had savaged Bitty's already messy skin but he can't bring himself to look up.

He can't believe he just came in his pants.

Eventually Bitty's insistent tugging brings Jack out from his hiding place in Eric's thigh. He doesn't really want to go but Eric rewards him with a long, lazy kiss that is distracting enough to not notice the way Bitty's divesting him of his wet underwear. Jack's still half hard, riding the knife-edge of embarrassment and how unsatisfying it was to come with nothing more than the pressure of the bed beneath him.

“Sorry,” Jack mumbles into Bitty's mouth but he gets hushed, which is all fine and good because Bitty's wrapped his hand around Jack's very sensitive cock. “Bitty—”

He stops talking because Bitty's kissing him again, tongue pushing into his mouth rhythmically. It's too much—Jack's too sensitive and it's too soon but Eric is relentless. His touch starts out feather light, just grazing the soft rivets of Jack's dick. It makes Jack squirm, clutch at Eric's sides, and pull them closer together.

They've made their way onto their sides, which is just as well because Eric's right hand is free to do whatever it wants to Jack's cock, which is caught between getting harder, filling again so rapidly that it hurts—still unbelievably sensitive—and the bone wrenching embarrassment he feels.

“Jack, come on—Jack,” Eric is saying, their mouths are pressed together but it's not really kissing anymore. Bitty has pulled them a part a bit, slotting their lower halves together, so that they can grind against each other, even with Bitty's hand methodically working Jack back to full hardness.

It really doesn't take long. Jack's embarrassment fades eventually because Eric keeps biting at his mouth and moving Jack's fingers to his chest to pinch at his nipples. Bitty keeps his own hand on Jack's cock, working him to full hardness and rubbing his own dick against Jack's abs and hips.

Jack shifts them until their dicks are touching when he gets over the extreme sensitivity and finally feels like he might be able to come again. It doesn't take long for Bitty to take them both together in his hand, moaning into Jack's mouth and rabbiting his hips against Jack's. It's a little dry but Jack likes the way Eric's hand has calluses from hockey and keeps getting distracted from rhythmically jerking them off to cup Jack's balls and slip back to press the pad of his finger to Jack's hole. He's just as loud as he was when Jack was sucking him off. He moans and gasps into Jack's silent mouth, sucks on Jack's tongue when he presses their dick heads together and he shouts Jack's name when he comes, chanting out his pleasure as he comes between them.

He's really, really loud and so hot that Jack whines into his mouth—suddenly needy again, back to the edge of coming and Bitty hushes him, readjusting his grip and jerks Jack off using his own come to slick the way.

“Harder? Or tighter?” Bitty asks, adjusting his grip around Jack's dick and looking between Jack’s face and his hand working him over. “Or like—please, Jack—tell me how to make it good.”

Jack moans at that. Bitty's come twice and Jack's remarkably close and it's good already. But Eric sounds sincere, ducking in to kiss Jack and thumbing at his foreskin with every pass.

“Just, a little –” Jack reaches down and tightens the ring of fingers until he's working him in and out of his foreskin. This time when he comes, it's a rolling orgasm that is so much better than the desperate, crash of one he had before. Bitty coaxes it out of him, working him like Jack shows him until Jack starts to come and then he's twisting to use his other hand to press just below the head, thumb sweeping over Jack's over-sensitive slit while his other hand keeps a building rhythm.

Jack feels like he's been coming forever but this time it's easy to sigh into Bitty's mouth and come all over his hands in waves. When Jack opens his eyes, Eric is smiling shyly at him. Jack pulls them together for a lazy kiss. His mouth is sore from kisses and from taking Eric's dick a little wildly at the end but Bitty doesn't seem to mind.

“Hi,” Bitty says, pulling away.

Jack thumbs at his lips and then grimaces because there really is jizz... everywhere. Bitty laughs at him but leans over the bed to grab a package of baby-wipes from his nightstand. Jack moves to help but Eric makes the same noise he makes when Jack's in the way in the kitchen, so he lets Bitty clean them both off. It takes three baby-wipes to get them remotely clean and a shower would certainly be better but now that Jack's not completely absorbed in Eric, he can hear the sounds of the Haus around them—music, distant voices and the background of a TV.

“Do you think you could stay?” Eric says from where he's wiggling back into his briefs. Jack's are still damp and he's figured that with the sex bit out of the way, it's more like a locker room so he's probably allowed to be casually naked.

“If that's okay?” Jack asks, because he honestly hadn't planned on leaving and now he feels awkward. Was he supposed to offer to leave?

“Of course it is,” Bitty is saying and then bossing them both around the bed. He rearranges them a few times but settles for spooning up against Jack, their hands tucked around Jack's waist. He likes being naked in Bitty's bed—is surprised he feels comfortable here but Bitty's room is a lot less in danger of being barged in on. Because of his videos, the boys are a little bit more conscious of what a closed-door means. Besides, Eric always has his room open so they leave him alone when it's closed.

It takes a minute for Jack to relax; he's still keyed up. But eventually the day and the two pretty intense orgasms catch up with him and he's dozing to the sound of Bitty's even breaths against his neck. They should probably talk, Jack thinks, but he's warm and when he shifts them more solidly underneath the covers, he can see that it's snowing outside. It's a little late for snow but New England seems to be clinging to the last vestiges of winter with a malice Jack finds to be endearing and reminds him of home. He's warm, sated and enjoying the smell of Bitty's sheets when Eric pinches him in the side a little.

Jack hums in response.

“Do you usually—um, do you usually top?” is what Eric asks, quiet and haltingly against Jack's neck.

“Oh,” Jack says. “I have? But not a lot, I like it better—” He stops because it feels weird telling Bitty he really likes to have things up his ass but then he thinks about what they just did and yeah, he should probably be passed that reluctance now. “It will be good both ways with you,” is what he settles on.

Bitty sighs. It sounds a little relieved. “Sorry,” Bitty says. “I know we've just had sex but you just—Jack, you're really big.”

Guys have always teased him in the locker room but it's just talk. Kent had never said anything on the rare occasion that Jack topped—he figured the main reason they mostly did it the other way around was that they both preferred it and Jack didn't always stay hard when they had sex. So it was much better if his dick wasn't in charge of the literal dicking.

“I've never had anyone... inside,” Bitty finally says. “But I think I'd like it. Just—you're really big and it might take some time before I can, you know.”

Jack's face burns, he resists the urge to turn into the pillow but Eric must have noticed.

“Oh sorry, Jack. I'm sorry—I didn't mean to embarrass you but sweet baby Jesus, you must know that you're—Jack, you're really big,” Bitty says but he's got a teasing edge to his voice now, like before he was just being honest and now he's embellishing it a little now that he knows Jack's ears are burning.

“I'll probably have to work myself up to it. Get myself on a training plan,” Bitty is saying, leaving kisses on Jack's neck between teasing. “Maybe blog about it, get some advice from my listeners about taking a twelve—”

“Oh shut up,” Jack finally cuts him off because Bitty is giggling so uncontrollably that it's definitely a joke now. “It's not twelve—Bitty!”

Eric's kissing his neck now. “It doesn't really matter,” Jack defends. “I like it better on the bottom.”

Bitty kisses the tops of his ears and Jack wants to mention it, wants to ask why he keeps doing that but he doesn't. “We'll figure it out,” Bitty says.

“Oh will we?”

Jack can feel Bitty smile against his neck. “Oh please, Jack. That was the best sex I've ever had—you think I'm letting you run away just because it got a little awkward?”

“Eric—”

“You made me feel so good, Jack. I'm not worried about us,” Bitty says, matter-of-fact. “Not even the size of your dick can scare me away from sex with you now. I'm probably addicted.”

“It's not that big.”

“It really is but that's okay now that I've found out you're secretly a bottom.”

Jack grumbles out, “it's not a secret” but Bitty is squeezing him tighter, holding him firmly and Jack just gives up. It's good with Bitty, he's not sure why he was worried, except that he's always worried.

“Did you set an alarm?”

Bitty sighs. “Why can't we sleep in?” Jack doesn't even dignify that with a response and Bitty makes a little noise before he reaches back and presumably sets an alarm.

“Six, Bitty,” Jack says and Eric makes a pathetic noise but doesn't argue, just fiddles with his phone a little and then comes back to settle against Jack's back. It takes a few moments for Jack to realize that the music is still on. It's not anything he recognizes, which isn't surprising, but it's low and acoustic. Jack doesn't think he'll be able to sleep with it on but he doesn't want to say anything now that Bitty's already tucked up against him. He should probably tell Bitty not to tweet anything ambiguous about their sex life... or the size of his dick but Bitty's making those little snuffling noises he makes before he falls asleep and Jack is too busy thinking about how lucky he is to know Eric even makes those noises.

He falls asleep between this breath and the next.

<3<3<3

Jack wakes up an hour before the alarm. At first, he thinks it's because he desperately has to empty his bladder but when he blinks awake, he thinks it also has to do with the fact that Bitty's stolen all the blankets.

Or because Shitty is standing over them smiling widely.

He doesn't panic outwardly, only because this isn't the first time Shitty has been standing over Jack when he wakes—so he manages to keep still and avoid waking Eric. He shifts out from Eric's burrito blanket, since he was still using Jack as a pillow, and takes his disgusting briefs from Shitty.

He doesn't leave without setting Bitty's alarm back an hour and scribbling a note on a bright pink post-it. He hasn't been in a relationship in a long time but he knows sneaking out after sex while his partner is still sleeping is not a good move without a note.

Shitty was watching us sleep. Going for a run too.

Then, before he over thinks it, he also writes: Dinner again? and then follows Shitty out the room. Thankfully, the hallway is empty, since Jack is still holding his come-dirty briefs and he’s with Shitty. Jack can't imagine Chowder's face if he were to see them. Jack doesn't think Chowder would believe him if he had to explain that him and Shitty weren't dating... again.

As soon as Jack shuts the door to his room, Shitty is clapping.

“You, my fine Canadian beef-cake, have been holding out on me.”

“Is there anything that can get me out of this conversation?”

Shitty grins, wide and manic. “I'm willing to negotiate.”

“I would really like to go for a run,” Jack says, in case it matters, and goes to find clean underwear and some leggings for his run. It's a lot easier to take Shitty's brand of affection if he's got something to do with his hands.

“You owe me a hug for insisting the Haus get froyo last night because, and be honest with me, did you know he would be such a screamer? I am impressed. I feel like you could have only treated our little Bits to such a delightful night because of the time you spent slumming it with me.”

“Shitty...”

“I'm so proud of you. Did you talk about your feelings? Because my Jack-spidey sense was going off. Did you come so hard you cried? Did you tell him you want him to be your Con Smythe winner every year?”

Jack pulls on his Under Armor and pushes Shitty out of the way so he can find some socks. Shitty sticks close, arm around his shoulder.

“This is such a touching moment,” Shitty says.

“Yes, I'm so happy that you decided to stop by,” Jack says, dry.

Shitty looks at him and then points. “You wanted morning sex, you sly dog!”

Jack finally shakes him off and manages to put on his shoes while Shitty goes on about 'personal development' and 'a beautiful, maple-flavored butterfly blooming'. Jack looks up when he's done tying his running shoes. “Are we done now?”

“Bring it in,” Shitty says and Jack lets himself get roped in for a hug. “I'm gonna go chug like three beers for you, ya beauty, and when Bitty wakes up, I'm going to apologize for ruining his morning orgasms by letting him make me pancakes.”

Jack doesn't laugh but it's a near thing. “How magnanimous of you.”

“That's it—come here, let me kiss that money maker.”

Jack flees before he has to explain why he has beard burn to Bitty, considering his youthful peach fuzz.

<3<3<3

The first game of the NCAA playoffs is kind of a mess but the rink is familiar to Jack and he likes that he knows the local meeting schedule of the areas around the Providence rink. But Jack doesn't think too much about coming back to this rink. The only thing that matters is playing this one game because he won't be coming back to Providence as an NCAA player. He's got the leave everything he has on the ice because there's no going back, not really.

The first period is locked down—full of missed opportunities and sloppy passes. They come out knotted at one but the second is worse because they completely hang Chowder out to dry. They can't seem to get their defense game together, Jack turns over as many pucks as he puts in the back of the net. This is only fortunate because even with Jack scoring four goals, it takes seven to get it done and Miami Ohio goes down after five.

Jack gives a grizzly speech in the locker room and makes every single one of them promise Chowder they'd be better next game.

It's a long day and Jack barely restrains himself from saying something he regrets during press. It frustrates him because yes, a win is a win but they didn't play well and Jack wouldn't have had to score four goals if they hadn't let Miami Ohio play the stretch game and absolutely murder them in the neutral zone. Jack lets Shitty handle the extend interview and hits a meeting after clearing it with Coach. He hates it when Jack goes to meetings on the road—only because it's not a team activity but he understands when Jack looks him in the eye and says he needs to do this.

He knows he shouldn't welcome any distractions and even bar that excuse, he shouldn't make Eric such a centralized part of his routine but he's tired and according to the nine texts he has from Shitty (all eggplant emojis) he deserves something for his dick-trick.

Thankfully, Bitty's already in his bed when he opens the hotel-room door.

The overhead light is off and there's just the low-light of the bedside lamp illuminating the fact that Eric is passed out. Which is good because Jack wants the physical comfort of Bitty but wasn't feeling particularly keen on talking about anything. He had talked a bit at the meeting, even though he didn't want to and even if it's childish and petty, Jack doesn't feel like doing more things he doesn't want to do.

Hence, he strips down, finds his Montreal Wanderers shirt in his duffle and crawls into bed. Bitty grumbles a bit when Jack shuffles until Eric is the big spoon but he wakes up enough to mumble, “put in your headphones” before he kisses Jack's cheek and falls back asleep.

For a moment, Jack can see years stretching out in front of him.

Crawling into bed after a hard game on the road, Bitty already asleep and knowing that Jack can't go to bed without watching game tape and highlights from around the league. For the first time since Jack started this, he thinks that maybe he can't do this.

It lasts all of ten minutes, listening to his own uneven breathing until Bitty says, “don't forget the light” and Jack comes crashing back to earth. It's ridiculous because Bitty won't be able to travel with him when he signs with Providence. That's just—that's just ridiculous.

He turns off the lights, dims the iPad brightness and puts in the headphones on autopilot but it takes him a long time to fall asleep. It's fine. He has plenty of highlights to review.

<3<3<3

The next day, they beat Denver four to one. They play a tight game and Jack could literally kiss every single one of them for the beautiful hockey they put together. It's not perfect, but it's one goal. A single goal means nothing in the face of a semi-final appearance. Chowder even lets Jack sit with him on the bus back to Samwell. They've got almost two weeks before they face Omaha in the semis and make the trip to TD Garden. They don't magically have class off—although Jack's already done a lot of make-up work so that he won't miss anything when they come up on the 7th. They'll play Thursday night and if they do everything they're supposed to, they'll play Saturday too.

Each player has a different way to handle the stress but Jack's not sure anyone he ever plays with will handle it the way Samwell's players do.

Holster and Ransom treat the break like they're cramming for a test. They have flash cards for Omaha players, key points they want to make as a D-pair and when they quiz each other, they always end up doing push-ups in the living room for the ones they get wrong.

Nursey and Dex don't speak to each other the entire time. They don't even fight. Sometimes Jack will catch them staring at each other in silence but that's about as expressive as it gets.

Shitty vapes, he's too worried about his lungs to smoke so he vapes hard and spends a lot of time on the couch naked. Which is really fucking gross but Jack tries not to judge.

Surprising no one, Bitty bakes. He fills the entire house up with amazing smells and Lardo eats everything he makes. Jack doesn't know if that's part of Lardo's ritual or Bitty's but it happens.

Chowder lights many candles and Jack catches him talking to his life-size cutout of Patrick Marleau more than once. But with Chowder, it's hard to tell what's ritual and what's just goalie.

And Jack, well the only reason he knows any of this is because he's the captain. It's part of his role in the room to make sure he knows where everyone's heads at because if he wasn't wearing the C, he'd probably isolate himself so he can stick to his routine as much as possible. But he slept with Bitty the night before they won against the Redhawks and so he tells himself that that's part of it—that he has to. Eric doesn't call him out and they don't talk about it but they spend their nights together.

And they don't have sex because Jack really needs to stick with his routine.

Jack's reading in the living room while Shitty gets high and Bitty's baking in the kitchen. At least, Jack assumes he's making something—all he really knows is that a lot of pots and pans are being abused and everyone in the Haus is afraid to go into the kitchen.

“Brah, I know you're all robot captain right now but you've got to do something,” Shitty says from his place melting into the couch. “Like, I can take the incense candle thing Chowder's got going on and the lack of hostile environment between Nursey and Dex but this is too far.”

Jack blinks. He doesn't really know what Shitty's talking about.

“Suck a dick,” Shitty says. “For all of us, man.”

In the kitchen, a pan goes flying followed by some colorful cursing.

“What are you talking about, Shitty?”

Shitty leans forward. “I'm taking about you getting yourself some Bitty-bits and now, modern day hockey god, you've taken away the dick privileges and I think it's getting to our home-boy.”

Jack strips away the weird syntax of Shitty's sentence, then gets up and goes to the kitchen. There doesn't appear to be any damage but Bitty is up to his elbows in soap suds, leaning over the sink and taking deep breaths.

Jack rallies. “I'm sorry I can't have sex with you.”

“Did Shitty talk to you?” Bitty says and then shouts, “Because I EXPLICITLY TOLD HIM TO MIND HIS DAMN BUSINESS.”

“You're welcome!” is what comes from the living room and if Jack doesn't snag Eric by the waist, he's not sure what kind of harm might have come to Shitty. (His money would be on Bitty—because Shitty is defenseless when high.)

“Hey, talk to me,” is what Jack says because he hasn't noticed Bitty being any more tense then the rest of the Haus. They spend their days mostly apart because of school and Jack's rigid routine but he always finds Bitty at night, whether it's his bed or Eric's—and even though they're not having sex, it seems to be going alright.

“Do not try and Captain this relationship,” Bitty says.

Jack shrugs. “Yeah well, this might be affecting your hockey and I'm fairly sure I'm still your Captain in that regard. So tell me what's going on.”

Bitty's face goes scarlet fast and Jack raises an eyebrow. Bitty throws up his hands, leaning back against the sink and letting Jack crowd him there.

“Jack Laurent, you are so stupid sometimes,” Eric says, looking away. “But you're still hot so just—make out with me a bit.”

Jack sighs. “Bitty, you know I can't—”

“I know! And I'm not asking you to but please just, I need you to touch me,” Bitty says, deflating until his forehead is pressed into Jack's chest and Jack can't help but rub his own hands down Bitty's back. “I miss you so much and I know we can't get off but can you please just touch me?”

Jack's an idiot. “Sorry, sorry,” Jack says and Bitty wrenches away but Jack holds him still. “No, I just meant that I'm sorry I didn't figure it out sooner.”

“Oh,” Bitty says and then bites his lip.

It's not hard to kiss Bitty then and only when Jack feels how tentative Eric is against him that he realizes that they haven't kissed since the day before the game against Miami Ohio. Which, no wonder Bitty felt like shit—Jack's been crawling into bed with him but giving him nothing more than what amounts to a lingering hug. And Jack knows that Bitty would never mess with his no-getting off during the playoffs but fuck, he didn't mean to freeze Eric out completely.

They kiss messily for as long as Bitty can handle it. Jack's dick doesn't even attempt to get hard, it knows the drill by now, but he doesn't realize how much he's missed the affection until he's giving it to Bitty. They make-out against the sink until Eric is whimpering, body pliant and warm underneath Jack's hands.

“Sorry,” Jack says again, kissing a row of barely-there kisses along Bitty's neck. “Didn't mean to be an ass.”

“I'm sure it won't be the last time,” Bitty says and they both laugh, breathless and Jack goes back to licking into Bitty's mouth and enjoying the way his fingers knead into Jack's neckline, it's like a scalp massage and wow, he's a fucking idiot.

Luckily, everyone is still afraid of the kitchen so Jack can kiss Eric until the tension has melted out of his shoulders and his lips are swollen from Jack's mouth.

“Can we not go that long again?” Bitty asks. Jack's just holding him now.

“I'll be better.”

Bitty nods and then disentangles himself from Jack. “Now, do me a favor and take out that pie in about ten minutes, okay, Jack?”

“Wait, where are you going?”

Eric smiles, coy and dangerous. “Just because you've sworn off orgasms before we play Omaha, doesn't mean I have to.”

Then he's gone and all Jack is left with is Bitty's pie and the knowledge that Bitty's getting off to Jack's kisses and the promise of more... after the playoffs.

“You are your own worst enemy, Zimmerman,” he says to himself before pouring himself a glass of water and sitting down to wait out the pie.

<3<3<3

The two weeks pass in a bit of haze, zooming in and out of focus until everything narrows from one day closer to one practice closer, one meal closer, one shift closer until all Jack can do is take a deep breath and focus on each minute he's on the ice.

They get up there on Wednesday morning. They aren't supposed to go until Wednesday night but Jack has written a paper about the importance of routine, team bonding and how NCAA sports helped change his life for the better. He gets Lardo to help him lay it on thick (she's spent the last three years getting scholarships for the weirdest shit) and they get to leave eight hours earlier than expected.

Ouellet lets him have the window seat.

Everything goes exactly to plan. The 4-1 win against Omaha doesn't feel good—it's a relief. However, he regrets the NCAA policy about letting players shower before media scrums the moment someone snags him on his way to the conference room.

“Jack, Boston University just won,” says Tim, their offensive coordinator but he doesn't stop, just keeps going to wherever he was headed before he gave Jack the tip.

It can't be helped but Jack really wished it could be. It's not that he doesn't think Eichel deserves a shot, because if there is anybody else who does—it's Eichel. But Jack isn't particularly keen on the Jack vs. Jack narrative again. They'd managed to avoid it most of the year, with Jack to sign with the Falconers before June and Eichel's main narrative being tied up in draft drama. Jack prefers the Eichel vs. McDavid story lines and his name left out of the articles all together. Jack likes Eichel really. He's salty as fuck but Jack guesses not everyone spent their life playing with their rival, instead of against. And Jack always had bigger issues going on with Parse than who had more points or who was going to go first. He imagines he would've ended up just as bitter as Eichel if the narrative of second best was all he'd heard throughout his formative years.

Who knows what would have happened if Jack and Parse hadn't played on the same line in the Q—their story had aligned with McDavid and Strome—and had become national rivals instead. Jack supposes now it will be the closest they'll ever get to the rivalry byline. Jack's not going to Vegas and he'll never be Kenny's centerman again.

Bottom line is Jack would rather be playing Eichel than not playing at all—so he takes a deep breath and walks into the conference room. If the NCAA would just be savages like everyone else in the hockey world and make the players do press directly after a game in their nasty gear then Jack would already be done with his scrum and showering when BU won.

No such luck.

If he was Shitty or Eric, he'd have a funny one-liner to break the tension but once he gets into the small conference room, nothing comes to him. Jack recognizes many of the people there—college hockey isn't huge and the beat writers are pretty much the same handful. There's more cameras now, but Samwell's in the final four now, so he should have suspected a bit more press. Jack notices that Hockey Canada has sent a representative, whom he nods at when he sits down, uncapping the Gatorade in front of him and clearing his throat. He's resigned to the whole experience being fairly shit, saying at least three things that make him sound emotionless and wonders briefly if now would be a good time to talk to the media about his substance abuse history.

Instead, he leans forward and says, “I'll take questions in French first.”

<3<3<3

They have Friday to watch tape and get a game plan together. But Jack knows there's not much to prepare for—they know exactly what's going to come from BU and that's aggressively sure hockey. Eichel's line is dangerous but they're rolling three solid lines, each of them dangerously fast and Jack knows that watching game tape isn't going to change the result of Saturday's game. However, that doesn't stop him from watching it.

It's practically home ice for BU, so they let Samwell have a good chunk of ice time. Jack imagines that their days aren't going to be much different than BU's: team breakfast, film review, ice time, lunch, naps and then a few meetings in the evening, special teams mostly, team dinner and then time to unwind before bed. It's almost comforting to know that no matter what team he's on, preparing for big games is always the same. It's reassuring. Soothing.

Except—

Jack can't help but notice how warm Bitty looks at lunch. He's wearing a Samwell hoodie that Jack is fairly sure is Shitty's and a thick, black knitted scarf he got at Christmas from Lardo. It's textured to look like rope, the way bulky sweaters always are, but it looks incredibly warm. There's too many rowdy hockey players between him and Bitty to know what sort of conversation he's engaged it but he's animated—talking with his hands, even if they're almost eclipsed by the length of the sweatshirt and giggling into the curve of his scarf. He looks good. Like he belongs.

“There is no way McDavid and Eichs have hate fucked,” Ransom is saying gravely, from where he's sitting across from Jack. “McDavid is probably pure as the GTA suburban snow he grow up on.”

Holster nods his head. “Truer words have not been spoken.”

“Not to mention the fact that if McJesus was banging anyone, it was definitely Strome. Those OHL boys stick together, even if they are getting mad pussy in the CHL. Besides, if anyone is having hate sex with anyone, it's that asshole from London. What is that fucker's name?”

“Marner,” Holster says helpfully. Ransom snaps his fingers and takes a drink of water. “If anyone is shutting anyone up with a dick, it's that dude. My buddy played against him last year and that's when Domi was around—I heard he's even more of a cunt now.”

“Max Domi,” Holster comments sagely, “that's a beast of a motherfucker. I'd do him.”

“Me too man,” Ransom says. “But not rage-dick—like tenderly. Beauty status. For a forward.”

Then together they say, “Noah Hanifin” and then fist-pump.

Jack really hopes no one from the media is staying in their hotel because he's fairly sure Holster and Ransom wouldn't mind reading about their predictions in every college newspaper and NCAA blog they could. Jack's fairly sure they're making everything up. Although, Ransom does know more than half of Canada's CHL population and Jack had asked why he didn't play too. Ransom had just said, “My mother is no fool and she knew I'd be a shit about my studies. According to her, only 16% of CHL players graduate with a degree. Not good enough. If I was playing hockey, it was going to be NCAA , CIS or nothing at all.”

They wrap up lunch with only one minor incident and a Nurse/Dex argument about Bob's Burger's that has Lardo separating them with her clipboard. But they make it back to the hotel with a little free time before naps. Everyone likes to go down for different lengths of time—some guys just under an hour and some stretch it out to two and some change—but everyone kind of splits off to do their own thing beforehand for routine’s sake. He knows a lot of the guys who prefer shorter naps like to watch a movie before or play Mario Kart. Jack usually stretches out, calls his mom and then goes down for exactly one hour and forty minutes.

But Bitty spent the entire lunch looking soft and radiant, even though he's been more than a little frustrated by Jack's brand of hockey related stress management the past few weeks. And he still finds time to text Jack, even though Jack has been right there with him these past weeks because he knows Jack likes to leave his phone in the hotel room and read his texts at his leisure.

To Bitty:
come to mine for a nap?

Jack stares at the text a little before he sends it. Immediately after he sends, only if you want to and just to sleep. He doesn't get an immediate reply back so he puts his phone on the charger and stretches out. He's decided against the roller and is just walking through some basic yoga poses that help him relax and stretch out his back, when there's a knock on his door. He doesn't bother with clothes, because it's probably just Lardo (coming to lecture him on his slap-shot), but he can't help but blush when he opens the door to Eric and he's only wearing his boxer-briefs.

“Oh hello, Jack,” he says and Jack feels himself blush even harder because Bitty looks him up and down slowly, licking his lips absently before he gets back up to Jack's face and just... smiles. “If we're just napping, then you're gonna need to put on more clothes.”

Bitty giggles when Jack stutters a little because he didn't mean to answer the door almost naked like he was beckoning Bitty in. But it doesn't seem to matter since Eric looks bound and determined to chirp him about it.

“I was stretching,” Jack says in defense but Bitty's already toeing off his shoes and wiggling out of his over-sized sweatshirt. Jack wants to say he doesn't watch Bitty's ass shift in his leggings as he crawls across the bed but that's just a lie. He's always watching Eric—especially when there are leggings involved.

“Where's Ouellet?” Bitty asks, already fluffing up Jack's pillows.

“Chowder's room.”

“Well, I'd text him and warn him that I'm napping with you,” Bitty says, eyebrow up. “Just because he's Quebecois doesn't mean he's a fan of sexualized homosexuality.”

Jack quirks an eyebrow and Bitty shrugs, “Sometimes Shitty says stuff and I actually listen.” Which, fair—and Jack texts Ouellet.

To Ouellet:
Bitty is staying for nap. But you should feel welcome to come back.

He gets a reply almost immediately.

From Ouellet:
thx. Je serais de retour avant que tu t’endormes.

Jack appreciates pretty much all the ways Ouellet handles himself on and off the ice. That taken care of, he puts his phone back on the charger and then does as Eric asks, grabs a t-shirt from his duffle. When he looks back to the bed, Bitty is nestled down and looking at Jack.

It's a different kind of look than he's used to seeing. More assessing and less awe-filled. Jack prefers this one.

When he climbs in bed, Bitty turns off the TV and they fit themselves together easily. Jack puts his cold feet against the curve of Eric's calf and rubs at the fabric of his leggings.

“Just because I'm not bare legged, doesn't mean I can't feel those icebergs,” Bitty says but it's without bite.

Jack exhales, flexes his toes against the fabric there and says, “Thank you.” Because he is thankful. Eric starts to play with his hair and Jack instinctively leans forward and scoots down the bed a little. He's angling for the way Eric absently runs his fingers through Jack's hair and it doesn't take more than that to get him to acquiesce Jack's silent request. He likes that Eric will touch him more now and that he does it freely. He likes what that means.

“Lardo thinks you're cheating on me,” Bitty says into the dark and Jack raises his head so fast, he almost hits Bitty in the face. “Oh sweetheart—“

“Do you?”

Bitty presses his hands to Jack's face and he can't help but lean into the touch. “Do you think I'm—” Jack can't even say it really. Eric huffs a bit of laughter and traces his cheekbones with his thumbs.

“Of course not,” Bitty says and Jack cannot hear a lie. “I just thought you would like to know. That's where she thinks you go all the time—to be with someone.”

“I'm with you,” Jack says because it bears stating, he thinks. Bitty smiles at him in the dimness of the room.

“You bet your ass you are.”

“And I—Bitty, I would not—I cannot even—”

And he can't. Eric is a lot of the good things in Jack's world. He is the first thing Jack ever looked at and wanted more than hockey and there are days that Bitty even out-shines Jack's addiction. Jack can't imagine wanting anyone but Eric—the soft cant of his hips, his reckless love of everyone around him, the fiercest desire to be more than just a kid from the American south—Jack doesn't know a world where even the smallest moments with Eric aren't to be craved so deeply it seems that he'll always be hungry.

“I told her that was impossible,” Bitty says, resuming the trace of Jack's face with the pads of his fingertips. “You barely got your shit together and I live in the same house as you—having clandestine affairs seem like a lot of work.”

Jack doesn't laugh. He does kiss Bitty's hands though when they skirt his mouth.

“So she doesn't think my slapshot is weak?” Jack says, humming with pleasure when Bitty presses down harder when his thumbs sweep down and massage his temples.

“No honey,” Eric says. “She's just protective.”

Jack wants to say that she used to be protective of him but he can't blame her. He would choose Eric over himself in a heartbeat. Jack tries to think of a reason why he wouldn't want to tell Eric everything about himself. He doesn't find any, even about this and that's reassuring. He knows he won't ever find the words but at least the malicious intention to be secretive isn't there. When he was using, he would lie about everything. Most of the time, it was because he didn't know what the real answers to the questions where. Other times, it was because he wasn't even aware of the question. But all of it was lies.

“I go to meetings,” Jack says. “I go to meetings.”

“Oh.” Bitty pauses his hands but only to take a breath and then he's moving them again, along Jack's jaw and up to this eyebrows. “Because you need them?”

He sounds small when he asks—like maybe he's afraid of Jack's answer. Part of him wants to tell Bitty that he'll never abuse pills again—that he'll never use again. But that's not a promise he should make. Jack is an addict with an unpredictable future and casting for comfort in futures is almost as bad as reliving the past.

“Because I'll always need them,” is what Jack says firmly because Eric should know that whatever parts of Jack that Bitty makes better—there are some things that will stay the same, not broken but fundamentally and irrevocably flawed. When he opens his eyes, he's surprised to see Bitty's smiling. But that's what greets him. Bitty looks warm, the pillow behind his head is enormous and he looks sunken into it like he's about to go to sleep.

“Okay,” Eric says, radiant.

“Okay?”

Bitty leans forward to kiss him. It's a little hesitant. And now that Jack thinks back to the catalog of kisses he's exchange with Eric, he's not sure he's had a kiss like this. It's at once unsure but it gains a softness when he drifts to the corner's of Jack's mouth that feel reassuring and blooming. Jack's heart is beating so fast and the way Bitty is holding his face, his palms cover Jack's ears, it feels like it's roaring in his ears.

“Just okay,” Eric whispers against his mouth and Jack wants nothing more to deepen the kiss now. It’s not just him—he can feel the way Bitty is holding back. “Okay to Providence,” he says with a kiss. “Okay to cold feet. Okay to as many meetings as you need. Okay to having things for yourself. Okay to us. Okay to—just okay, Jack. For as long as we can be.”

He's certain Bitty is equipped for sudden, dramatic declarations. This is probably just for Jack and although he wants to think it's pandering for Bitty to wrangle his emotions for Jack or perhaps unfair for Bitty to dial-down his epic levels of emotions, he likes the way Bitty is kissing him now. Firm kisses that part at the end, with a kitten hint of tongue that makes Jack want to let Eric do anything as long as he stays. Which, he supposes, is the whole point.

They kiss for a while, until Bitty pulls away and says, “My my you are easy, Jack Laurent—one tiny little promise to love you forever and now you're eager to put out like a—”

Jack puts his hand over Bitty's mouth. “Let's save that Southern idiom for another time.”

Bitty bites his hand.

Jack pulls away and they're still smiling when they rearrange themselves so that Bitty is the big-spoon because Eric “doesn't want Ouellet to get the impression that Jack runs this show”, which, Jack is sure no one thinks that he's in charge of anything that has to do with Bitty. He's hardly in charge of himself on the good days. As always, the ice changes everything.

He falls asleep smiling.

<3<3<3

They lose it in over-time.

Jack forces himself to feel every single moment of the loss. He stays as present as possible on the ice while Boston celebrates. As O'Connor strips off his goalie mask and screams; as Chowder looks as calm and quaked as all losing goalies do; as Jack Eichel accepts the win like every hockey player Jack has ever known—with exuberance shared by his entire team.

It's devastating. It's raw. It's hockey.

But just as important as sharing a win with your team, every captain knows that sharing the loss is the most important part of leadership. So that is what Jack does. Regardless of how much it all fucking sucks—the important part is that they did it together. Jack never got anywhere by himself, except for that hospital bed years ago. So regardless of half the team in frustrated, anguish ridden tears—he'd still never be anywhere else. He doesn't know how to say that though. Everything Jack comes up with seems inadequate. He sticks with sound bites. He sticks with shared silence.

On the bus back, he thanks Ouellet before he passes him by and takes the open seat next to Eric.

<3<3<3

A week later, Jack's opening up the final draft of his contract. His agent sent him a hard copy, saying that he needs to make a decision. Jack doesn't know if anyone believes him when he says he's not ready yet—if Providence even cares that Jack's got four other contracts, some even better offers, because he's been so transparent.

If he wants to sign, he'll have to go up to Providence. They'll have to do media and a press conference but for now, it's just him in the kitchen of the Haus going over the final draft. There are post-its next to almost every paragraph, pinpointing what's different between Montreal, Pittsburgh and Quebec City. The first two cities were sentimental, safe bets. The last was just the most competitive offer, trying to use up their cap space.

It's all relatively the same. The money is insane. The expectations are huge. And Jack has four whole pages dedicated to reading between the lines—it's the most legal love letter he's ever read but it's not to Eric, although maybe he does deserve a line or two in Jack's contact (he certainly deserves love letters). His mother has been referring to it as the "La clause de l’amour de soi" and he knows that she is correct.

“You're life isn't a contingency plan,” she said to him. "Mon petit coeur de lion, il est ta flamme, oui?"

This is why Providence has four pages of contract law insuring that Jack will never have to lie about his past, his recovery status, or his life outside of hockey. He'll have his own PR person who will help him control the narrative but they'll attempt to play it by ear as much as Jack wants. Of course, he's not naive. He knows they'll have binders upon binders about how to deal with him but as far as Jack goes—he gets to say what he wants, when he wants, when it pertains to his personal life. There is an understanding, that if anything Jack decides goes against the clubs' views or jeopardizes their values, he will be dealt with publicly but he can handle that. He imagines he'll spend a lot of his time doing whatever his PR representative says.

Pittsburgh's paragraph promised a fortress. Montreal promised nothing. Quebec City promised to make the city love him no matter.

“Are you signing with Providence right now?”

Jack looks up to see Chowder munching on a fruit-roll up. He's got several wrappers tucked into the kangaroo pocket of his hoodie and Jack imagines they're sticking to his braces.

“Oh,” Jack says, gesturing to his papers. “No. This is the final draft.”

“Cool. Can I see?”

Which is how Jack goes about letting Chowder read his NHL contract—something he was explicitly told not to do, and explaining the parts that Chowder doesn't understand. Jack only understands because it's been hashed out so many times and when it was particularly difficult, Shitty made him a play diagram.

“This is great, Jack,” Chowder says. His fingers trace the place that Jack's signature will be. “You'll be a great Captain.”

“Oh, Chowder—I won't be—”

Chowder smiles, braces and quirkiness but also that odd goalie calm that many people find alarming. Jack finds it a constant on every team.

“You're always the captain, Jack.”

It's not patronizing or idle worship. Jack nods. Chowder smiles wider. “You'll be my captain! Like Joe,” Chowder continues, of course finding a way to work in the Sharks. Then he winks at Jack—scrunching up his nose and says, “well, except when you're with Bitty. But Providence is gonna need a good captain like you, Jack.”

Chowder pushes the contact across the table and leaves Jack then. It doesn't take long for Jack to abandon the contract in favor of texting his mother (and his agent) and thinking about what Chowder said about him and Bitty.

<3<3<3

That night, Jack takes Bitty out to dinner. They don't talk about Jack's contract much—other than Jack mentioning that him and his parents are flying up to Providence in two weeks so that Jack can sign. But Bitty doesn't get sad. He talks animatedly across the table and let's Jack hold his hand. Jack's favorite part is when the split second comes when Bitty used to hesitate, as if he was scared someone would see, is gone. Jack knows they should talk about it but he doesn't want to.

They go back to the Haus and fuck in Jack's room. Bitty puts on music, sticks a sock on the door and Jack's amazed how much of the time they spend laughing. It's intense—like literally every moment of sex with Eric is—but Bitty laughs at himself when he talks about how he wants Jack to talk dirty to him in French and then at Jack when they're struggling to get the condom on Jack. It's drawn out mostly because of the laughter; it seems to dial the tension down a little bit so that Jack can enjoy fucking Eric up against the wall of his room. Bitty is way too loud, scratching at Jack's shoulders and even does some dirty talking himself—forcing Jack to clutch at his thighs and stagger back to the bed.

Jack slips out of him in the frenzy and when Eric slides back onto him, Jack is breathless with laughter and how good it feels with Bitty experimentally rolling his hips over Jack, riding his dick without any of the hurry they'd just had against the door. But like Eric's kisses, Jack likes this too, just as much as he loved driving up into Eric's body, how it yielded and fluttered around him when he slammed just a little too hard into him, the angle too wrong and then way too right. He loves this too: Bitty sweating above him, thighs flexing as he tries to find a rhythm and depth that makes him chase his own pleasure.

Bitty's grinding down on him, cock bobbing between them as he reels Jack up with his hands. Jack's practically mid-crunch but he lets himself be kissed. Eric's holding onto his shoulders, panting into his mouth when he says, “I like this—riding you, ah and when you fuck me really hard.”

Jack struggles to catch up.

“Not the fullness,” Bitty says, pulling off a little to encourage the frantic pump of his own hips back into Eric's heat. “Not like you—god, Jack, I want to get inside you all the time. Make you feel so full again. God, the way you looked—how much you wanted it.”

Jack feels like he's going to shatter—they've only had sex like that once and the entire time Jack was one stroke from coming too soon because it was too perfect. Bitty had been thick inside of him—and so still when Jack squirmed and jerked off on top of him. Jack had been so caught up in it all, he hadn't noticed Bitty had come until Eric was kissing his face and saying Jack's name in a tone that was quickly becoming Jack's favorite indulgence. The fact that Jack knows how to want like this at all is devastating enough on its own at times.

“Oh, Jack—just, ah—”

Above him, Eric's legs strain as he bounces in short but forceful bursts, riding Jack hard but barely taking in half of him. He collapses after a frantic minute when it seems like he's so close to coming, wild and out of control on Jack's lap—he's loud enough that Jack has to kiss him, fuck into his mouth with his tongue so that Bitty's pleasure is muffled. But he loses his control fast—he gets sloppy the better he feels and Jack groans when he slips in deep again. Bitty grinds down on him and bites at his neck.

“I like this,” he says with a grind of his hips. “But I—give it to me, ah—Jack, I like it better when you—harder, please, just—really hard.”

It takes a minute but Jack works his hands underneath them and gets Bitty back onto his back, puts some space between them and wedges his hands between the crease of Eric's ass and his legs. It helps him control the depth and makes Eric twist, shouting into the bed a little when Jack gets it right. This time Jack doesn't have to focus on holding Eric up and he can fuck him as hard as he can. This—god, this would hurt if it was Jack but Eric seems to come alive, thrashing into every single thrust and saying Jack's name over and over again. The pleasure is consuming, licking up Jack's back and driving him harder into the demanding cant of Eric's hips.

Bitty comes so hard it looks like it hurts—his cock a wet mess between them as he does. It takes everything Jack has to stay the course and fuck him through it. Eric's punched out breaths and the way he curls his fingers around Jack's ears and says, “give it to me, please” and “Jack, you need to keep—yes, just keep going, please a little longer—” is enough to keep going until Bitty finally relaxes into the afterglow and Jack finally lets himself come.

He's quiet, shaking through his orgasm, groaning when Bitty flutters around him. Eric doesn't let him sit inside but squirms as soon as Jack stops moving inside of him. They're still close though and Bitty gathers him nearer until Jack's almost face-planted next to him in bed, their softening dicks pressed together in painful pleasure. Jack hates the feel of a condom dragging over flesh but he can barely breathe—let alone be coordinated enough to tie a condom off.

“I wanted you to eat me out this morning,” Eric says, breathless and shy when Jack's ear is close enough for him to whisper over their panting. “But I didn't say anything and that was stupid.”

Jack curses. They had taken a shower this morning; early enough to have sex in the downstairs shower where no one could hear them unless they were in the kitchen. Eric was as loud as Jack's learning he can be nearly always, but he had gasped then, pushing Jack's head back when he came until Jack's fingers were almost in his mouth when they fucked into Bitty. It... makes sense. Jack had come not seconds later from his own hand, Bitty's come in his hair and the horrible taste of lube in his mouth.

“I just—I want to tell you everything,” Bitty continues. “You make me feel so good, Jack—not just with sex. And I want you to know that. But I can start here—I can start by showing you how good it is when we talk. I think we'll be good at everything. Only if we can talk to each other though.”

Jack shifts until he can see Bitty's face. “Did you just—is this a relationship lesson?”

“You're very coachable,” Eric says, smiling through his blush and Jack just—Jack is amazed by him. He's immediately thrown back to his conversation with Chowder.

And it's clear, ever so quietly, that while Jack is an active part of this relationship—he's not the captain here. It's also quite apparent, that he's in the steadiest hands he could be in and that letting go of this, letting Bitty be their captain, is the best thing he can do.

It isn't until later, when they've shucked off the covers and are paging through apartment listings that Jack stops staring at Bitty's profile enough to say, “So, I can—you want. I mean, as hard as I can but shallower?”

Bitty stops looking at granite counter-tops in the condo by the river. A blush rises across his cheeks and Jack almost shivers. When Eric talks about sex, it makes Jack crazy because he's still Bitty, all southern accent and big, innocent brown eyes.

“As hard as you can,” Bitty confirms. “Harder really—we'll have to work on your strength and conditioning. Too hard really doesn't seem to be something I've found yet.”

Jack almost laughs, because he's heard both the hilarious and sexy stories about Eric's masturbation habits. But he looks back at the iPad instead, thinking about what Eric is saying and then at Bitty when he says, “I don't care how hard. Just, um, full. Fingers too—if you can.”

Eric blinks at him slowly. “You want my...”

“Yes, but um, not so much—uh, movement?”

And my fingers in there?”

Jack feels his face flame. “Yes just not after I've come—not like you. Overstimulation isn't my thing.” Jack shakes his head. It reminds him of when Kenny would fuck him and he would go soft but he'd let Kenny keep going. Sometimes Jack would get hard again but usually not and he used to blame it on the meds but, looking back, it was probably more than that.

Then it occurs to Jack that this is probably what Bitty is talking about.

“I never liked it,” Jack says, swallowing around the way his voice shakes. “I never liked it when Kent would—keep going. I don't like it.”

Bitty closes his eyes and Jack can't breathe until Bitty kisses his cheek softly. “I hate that boy so damn much,” Eric says but it doesn't sound like pity—it sounds like honest fury. Jack doesn’t say anything. He knows there’s more to the story that Bitty doesn’t know, but now is not the time. “But thank you, for talking to me instead of having half of our conversations in your head. I love you, so thank you kindly.”

Then Eric settles back down in his arm, back against Jack's chest as he continues to page through listings. He's talking about heating high ceilings by the time Jack's breathing has returned to normal and Jack just—he feels like he's drowning but it's so good. Just like Eric promised it would be. Jack doesn't know if this is love—doesn't think he'll ever feel like Bitty is capable of feeling, so freely and honestly and beautifully. But he likes whatever this is.

“I like dark hardwood,” Jack interjects and Bitty squeezes his hand. Jack relaxes immediately. He hadn't realized he was squeezing so hard.

“Me too but lord above, we better get you some rugs—you have the coldest feet and I don't think I can survive weekends in Providence with your bricks of ice in bed with me,” Eric says.

Jack lets him talk. In a few weeks, he'll sign with the Falconers. His parents will be right there and Jack will do his best not to feel 18 again—and instead, attempt to stay in the moment. Maybe he'll answer some questions about looking for a condo in Providence with his boyfriend. Maybe he'll limit questions to hockey. Maybe he'll simply thank his parents, Providence for giving him this chance and Samwell for changing his life. Maybe he'll say no comment.

Maybe he won't.

Either way, graduation doesn't seem like some looming deadline anymore.

In fact, Jack's starting to look forward to the summer like he never has before. When he was little, the summer meant no ice and no hockey and more time with his father; summer was just a horrible waiting period. He remembers crying about it in his mother's arms. It's one of those stark memories he has of feeling so much, he felt like his chest was going to crack open and he would never mend. He feels like that all the time now but it's no longer a death sentence.

“After I find a place—I could come home with you for a while, before camp,” Jack says when Eric's mostly just paging through pictures half-heartedly. He's mostly asleep.

“I'd love that, Jack.”

Jack thinks he will too.

<3<3<3

April is still cold—days of sun burst forth every once in a while but mostly it's just windy and cold. There's no more snow, which is a pity, but spring seems reluctant to appear. Which is why he's keeping an eye on whomever is outside his room on the roof. Jack heard the windowsill open almost thirty minutes ago and he's not heard it again. He's expecting Shitty when he climbs out, whose mood has been erratic since their OT loss (“to that rat-ass looking ginger fuck! What does he need a title for—he's gonna be the face of an NHL franchise—no offense, Jackabell”) and the certainty of graduation getting harder and harder to ignore. But when Jack pulls the blanket out of his window and sits down, it's not Shitty.

“Jack,” Lardo nods at him. She's smoking but it's a cigarette—which she hardly ever does unless she's drunk. Jack settles next to her and pulls the blanket around her as well until it's over both their shoulders. He's careful not to touch her. They haven't talked a lot since Bitty shared her concerns with Jack but things haven't been awkward between them. Jack supposes they just haven't gotten around to talking about it—both of them with other pressing concerns on their mind.

It takes a few minutes before Jack realizes that she's crying.

The clouds keep covering up the moon but when it's bare, Jack can see that she's crying the kind of silent tears that indicate a numbness or an excruciating emotional state that leaves them involuntary. It's a shame. She's incredibly beautiful like this, the turn of her mouth and her eyes bright. But then again, Jack's never really seen Lardo happy. Not like other people, at least. She doesn't show the joy on her face at least—so she's always beautiful when she's sad. A default state maybe but Jack doesn't kiss her. It's an odd urge to have but it's one that comes from kinship he thinks.

They sit for a while, watching their breath and Lardo's shaky exhales as she finishes her smoke.

“Do you ever think about how much you're gonna fuck someone up?”

Jack assumes it's a rhetorical question.

Jack breathes. Lardo's shoulders, so tense before, slump and she leans into him. He leans back.

“I always said, 'no fuck, boys' but I didn't really think I'd be one.” She's digging out another cigarette and when Jack helps block the wind, he notices that both their hands are shaking.

Jack says, “Sure. But I don't really know what that means.”

“Bitty is so bright, you know,” Lardo continues, staring out at the street. “He's all pie and wanting to make people happy because that's what drives him. And you're just... you're this recovering drug addict who’s going to ruin his life but you just can't resist? Like, you know it's gonna end badly for him—he's got so much ahead of him and yet, he still wants you. It's mind boggling to me how we just eat it up. We're always so fucking hungry for them and we're trash.”

“He could have anyone he wants but he wants you,” Lardo repeats and then whispers, “We're gonna fuck it up so badly.”

Jack thinks about it a bit.

“Yeah,” he breathes out when Lardo exhales smoke into the air between them. He knows that they're not just talking about him and Bitty. He just doesn't have a lot of opinions about Lardo and Shitty. “But I already did that once—trying to make choices for him, trying to make him stop wanting me. It didn't make things better. It didn't make him happy then and I'm not sure it would have been made him happy forever. I don't get to dictate who he decides to become just because I already am the way I am.”

Lardo nods and inhales, sounding snotty and ragged.

“I'm sorry about—” she starts to say but then stops, shrugs and holds out her hand on her knee, tipping it toward him. “I'm not really sorry about what I said—why I said it. But I didn't believe it.”

Jack takes her hand, laces their fingers together. Her hands are so small inside his but he likes the way her hands are soft. There aren't any calluses but her fingernails are ragged, cuticles ripped and torn away. Both their hands are cold but Jack holds onto it tightly. It trembles like a bomb of tangled fingers.

“He loves you,” Jack says because he doesn't know anything about what's going on between Lardo and Shitty other than it's complicated.

“He loves you more,” she replies.

It's not bitter. It's honest, simple and cold. “Maybe,” Jack says. “I'm not sure if it matters. I'm not sure it's different.”

Jack gestures a little vaguely between them but he doesn't really know how to say it. He thinks what he has with Bitty is this scary, organic thing that feels so good in a way that makes Jack want to work harder than he ever has before, even though it's easy, but it doesn't feel incredibly different than realizing that Shitty was never going to go anywhere without Jack—that Shitty was a constant. That comes from the same place for Jack. He doesn't know what that means. He doesn't know if it's the same for anyone else and he really doesn't know how to say that.

He doesn't say anything else.

Lardo finishes her smoke and they sit for a little while until her breathing evens out for a bit. Jack holds onto her hand and thinks, not for the first time, that him and Lardo are a lot alike. They leave a lot on that roof, Jack thinks. She doesn't have to say that if she wanted to, Lardo could make it hurt like it did when Jack's world was Kenny and pills and falling. Jack doesn't say that if he asked, Shitty wouldn't go to Harvard. They don't kiss but their breathing syncs up—and he wonders if she's thinking about it too, what it would be like to fuck each other—what it would be like if things were different.

When Lardo goes inside, she takes the blanket with her and doesn't look back.

Jack wonders, when he climbs into his room, if Lardo's climbing into bed with Shitty, just like Jack's climbing into bed with Eric. He doesn't think about it too long but he acknowledges it before he slips his cold body next to Bitty's and falls asleep.

He dreams but he can't remember what it's about when he wakes and whatever lingering memories melt away with Bitty's morning kisses.

<3<3<3Epilogue<3<3<3

Jack barely makes it in time. He's still a little late but not late enough that it's horribly rude. He slides in with what he hopes is an apologetic smile—although he probably only managed a grimace. But he makes up for it by talking first.

“It took me almost two years to get this,” he says, spinning the little green chip in his hand. “It's just a three month chip but I couldn't get past two back then. There was this guy I used to know who said sobriety was this light that you had to accept into your life. I—um, I think that's bullshit, eh? And if anyone, well, I've been sober for almost six years—so if anyone wants to talk about that, you know where to find me.”

Sometimes Jack gets sullen about the fact that meetings are literally the only place he can go without getting asked for his autograph or his phone number. But for the first time since he's been in recovery, he gives out his phone number. She's older than him but her hands—god, they shake just like his. She's swollen in the face like she's been drinking and her name is Alicia.

“That's my mom's name,” Jack says.

Alicia coughs. “Is it weird to say I know?”

Jack shrugs. “I'm not going to quiz you to see if you're really an addict,” he says. “If I'm your sponsor, the only requirement is that you choose sobriety. Don't call me when you don't. Call me before that. You call me before you've made up your mind. I can help you then. Can I pick you up from a bar? Yes, but I won't. Your friends and family can and will enable you just fine. You call me before. We'll work on it.”

She cries but she shakes his hand after he's done. He gives her his number and two days later, Jack's in Kansas City having dinner with the boys when Alicia texts him.

From Alicia:
It doesn't feel like there's a reason for it to get better.

He excuses himself from the table and goes outside.

To Alicia:
You don't need a reason. I'm available if you want to call.

She doesn't but she keeps texting him and afterwards, he goes back to his room and calls Eric to hear about his day. He doesn't tell Alicia that he didn't need a reason to be sober but that having one can make it easier—not for everyone. It can be a burden to have to stay sober for other people. But it also can be a way to realize that staying sober is a gift that he can give Bitty—one that will always be welcome and treasured as much as anything else he gives Eric.

“That tramp called me out on Twitter,” Bitty is saying.

Jack laughs, unknotting his tie and trying to hang up his suit and talk to Eric at the same time. It's not working but it's really not helping that he's imaging Bitty's face: twisted with faux bitterness that's hiding a little bit of hurt and probably a ton of annoyance, endless bossiness and a riled temper.

“That 'tramp' is named Hanzel and he's the team nutritionist, Bitty.”

“He's a no-good, nosy... butter fascist!”

Twenty minutes later, Eric is wrapping up his rant but Jack is already jerking off. He tends to like things a little rougher when he's by himself—likes it to be wet and thick with sweat and Bitty's come when he's with Eric. So it's a lazy thing but he likes the way Bitty's voice slips into his southernmost drawl when he talks for too long. Jack listens to Bitty talk about Mrs. Patterson's shingles for a full minute too long before he sighs and says, “Fine, you caught me.”

“Shameful! You didn't even wait for me to get done with my day before you started being a perv,” Eric laughs into the phone, breathless and beautiful. It makes Jack wish he wasn't in Kansas City for a brief moment—before he remembers why he's there and then he's back to jerking off. He plays hockey, wears an A on his chest and gets Bitty.

There's a lot to be pleased about.

“Bitty—” Jack says because while it was fun to just listen to Eric's voice, now that he's been caught out—he wants a little more.

“Oh fine but if you think you're getting a warm welcome when you get home...” He trails off because Jack laughs at him. Bitty always meets him at the rink. They'll leave Jack’s car if he drove by himself or Bitty will take a car and they'll drive Jack's back. It's not always quickies in the car on the way back to the condo but Jack's ridden home more than once with Eric curling over the console and it's almost always the warmest welcome.

Jack waits until Eric catches up. He thinks about the thick way Eric pushes into him when Jack's not quite stretched enough. He thinks about how Bitty always says his name during sex. About the deep flush of Bitty's chest and—comes when he remembers the time his hipbones had bruised the backs of Bitty's thighs once from how hard they had slammed into him, twisting an orgasm out of him that left him crying out so loudly that Jack had come with him. Tonight, Bitty comes saying Jack's name, loud and the same as he always does—possessive and reverent. Jack follows him easily.

“I miss you,” Bitty says before he hangs up.

“We'll win for you,” Jack says. “We'll win and come home.”

“Good. Or else I'm telling Mister Hanzel about those Nanaimo bars.”

Before Jack goes to sleep, he sends Alicia a text. It's well past two on the east-coast but if Jack knows anything about recovery, it's that it never sleeps. It can't afford it.

To Alicia:
I'm thinking about getting a cat.

Then:
You did good tonight. You'll do good again. You'll be proud of being alive. I promise.

 

The End