Bitty can't keep track of the littlest party guests swarming the rented Victorian house in North Cambridge. They're too small, they're too fast, there are too many of them, and he's pretty sure they're working together.
"You! No!" He grabs the largest by his clip-on tie and steers him out of the front room. "Not until later!" The rustle that comes from behind him lets him know too late that he's been fooled by a decoy. He turns and spots two little girls in Disney Princess dresses scuttling away with a cookie in each hand. It's too much. He puts his hands on his hips and hollers for Chowder.
"If anyone under 18 sets foot in this room, block them," Bitty orders. He levels a narrow-eyed glare at the knot of children in the hallway and continues, "I don't care what you have to do."
Chowder grins at the kids and drops effortlessly into his best goalie split in front of the dessert table. While his audience giggles and gawps, Bitty makes a break upstairs with a silent prayer for the continuing health of Chowder's dress pants.
He taps on the door nearest the top of the stairs before cracking the door just wide enough to slide in. "Good lord," he says as he kicks off his sneakers. "From the way those children are acting, you'd think they'd never been allowed dessert in their entire lives."
"Fuckin' savages," Lardo concurs from behind a door. "Runs in the family."
Bitty whips off his shirt and shimmies out of his jeans at the same time. "You need any help?"
"Just a second set of eyes." She steps out of the bathroom and turns slowly. "Yes, no, maybe?"
Bitty wrings his hands and gasps in delight. The spill of crimson satin fits Lardo's torso like a second skin before shattering into crisp asymmetrical folds below her waist. Her hair — also asymmetrical, a fraction of an inch long on one side and brushing her jawline on the other — is topped with a veiled, sequined fascinator the precise shape and size of a hockey puck. Her eyeliner is flawless.
"Can you believe this heteronormative bullshit?" she asks, but she's beaming. Bitty knows how proud she is of the outfit, not just because she designed it herself, but because the color is both a nod to Vietnamese tradition and a sly reference to her time managing the Samwell men's hockey team.
"You look amazing." He gestures to her to twirl around one more time. "Absolutely perfect. Now get out of my way so I can jump in the shower."
The bedroom is empty when he emerges. He dresses quickly but carefully — suit pants, dress shoes, freshly ironed shirt, cufflinks because he's not a savage for heaven's sake, and finally the jacket he had altered to fit like custom-made. He shoots his cuffs, looks himself over with satisfaction, then frowns when he can't apply the finishing touch. He yanks the door open and calls out, "Where's my tie?"
Jack pokes his head out of a door across the hall. "Your tie? Lardo said it was my tie."
"All I know is, there was a tie in this room and now there isn't, and I can't not wear a tie today."
Jack swings the door open and waves him in. He's not wearing a tie. He's not even wearing a suit. Bitty stomps across the hall and shoulders past Jack, grumbling, "You should be getting dressed, too."
"I've had other things to deal with," Jack mutters back as Bitty stops just past the doorway and takes in the sight of one Shitty Knight wearing nothing but black socks and bright red boxer briefs with "Property of L. Duan" written in silver fabric paint across the ass. The lettering is clearly visible because he's leaning over the dresser, white-knuckled and shaking his head.
"Oh lord, what is it?"
Shitty looks up with a glare that actually makes Bitty take a step back. "My goddamn father, that's what."
"I thought he wasn't invited."
"He isn't," Jack says. "But that didn't stop him from calling."
Given what Shitty's said over the years about his father's side of the family, Bitty doesn't have high hopes about the reason for Knight the Elder's call, but he's an optimist, darn it. "That's good, right?"
"Oh, it's fuckin' fabulous," Shitty growls. "He had the grandparents on speakerphone. They wanted to extend their best wishes to — and I quote — 'that little Asian gold-digger'." He makes the air quotes as he speaks.
"They did what?"
"Yeah, well. At least I spent my whole trust fund on law school before they could take it away to punish me for being such a terrible WASP."
Jack has wrapped an arm around Shitty's shoulders and is rubbing small circles between his shoulder blades. "They don't deserve you, man," he says.
"Damn right." Shitty leans into Jack. "Jay-Z, best of all men, I need something to settle my stomach. Would you — "
"I've got it," Bitty says, already opening the door. "You two get changed. I'll be back in a minute."
Navigating around the caterers in the unfamiliar kitchen takes him a bit longer than a minute. He's acutely aware that he's losing his window of opportunity for racing back to the Somerville apartment he shares with Shitty and Lardo to retrieve another tie. By the time he finds Shitty a can of ginger ale, he's resigned himself to borrowing a tie from whichever of his former teammates has the least objectionable one.
Jack is waiting for him at the top of the stairs, immaculate in a dark suit, crisp white shirt, and the silver-blue tie Bitty had been looking for. Bitty can't even bring himself to object, because the tie is a perfect match for Jack's eyes. He has to clear his throat before he can manage to say, "Oh, Mr. Zimmermann, don't you clean up nice."
He doesn't even notice that Jack is holding something out to him, not until Jack lifts his hand and dangles it at eye level. It's another tie, a rich black-red silk that coordinates with Lardo's dress. "Here, I had this in my bag," Jack says. "Are we even?"
They're more than even, as far as Bitty's concerned. He reaches out with his free hand, but Jack steps in close to turn up Bitty's collar and drape the tie around his neck. Bitty can't stop his mouth from dropping open a bit.
"Crisis averted, eh? I'll let you tie it yourself, though." Jack takes the ginger ale and watches Bitty knot the tie by touch and snug it up under his collar.
It's distracting, especially when Jack moves even closer and adjusts the knot so it's even. Bitty covers up the hitch in his breath by asking, "Is Shitty okay?"
Jack is near enough that Bitty can feel the warm gust of his sigh. "About as okay as you can be when your family reminds you that they don't respect you."
Bitty can't help thinking about the call he had with his own parents midway through his senior year, the one where he told them about his plan to stay in the Boston area and work as a personal chef. Bitty had actually made the call with his phone on speaker, with Shitty and Jack muted on Skype for moral support. His parents had been so surprised that he wasn't coming back to Georgia that the oh, and also, I'm gay part of the conversation had been almost anticlimactic. When Coach had said gruffly, "But can't you be gay a little closer to home?" he'd looked over at his laptop and burst into happy tears at his friends' silent applause.
"Some families are better than others at letting their kids be who they are," he says, remembering.
Jack fumbles behind himself for the doorknob of the room where Shitty is supposed to be getting dressed. "And some people are brave enough to be who they are," Jack says as the door unlatches. He steps backwards, eyes still on Bitty. "You look good, Bittle," he adds quietly before he shuts the door again.
It keeps echoing through Bitty's mind, you look good, you look good, as he heads back downstairs. It's downright unfair, the way Jack has become exponentially more attractive and kind in the five years since they met. He doesn't suppose he's ever going to stop being floored by the one-two punch. Still, he's made a real effort to keep Jack in a well-insulated mental compartment labeled not for you, not like that, and for the most part, it's worked. He almost — almost, but not quite — lets himself take Jack's phone calls for granted now. He relishes his occasional visits to Providence, the rare times when Jack can drive up to Boston, and the even rarer times when Jack crashes on the couch and then helps him make breakfast for four before heading home. It's normal to miss one of your best friends and be happy for any chance to spend time together, isn't it?
Besides, Bitty did some dating around in his last two years at Samwell, and even more since moving to the city. He's 23, single, out, and proud — if he's ever gonna sow some wild oats, now's the time, right? And if the boys he occasionally brings home after a night out tend to be tall, dark-haired, and blue-eyed, well, so he has a type. He's not pining. He's not.
He finds Lardo in the living room with her Grandma Vo, who's clearly the person from whom Lardo has inherited the ability to be both tiny and terrifying at the same time. Grandma Vo is patting her arm affectionately as she pours out a stream of rapid Vietnamese, but Bitty can tell from the set of Lardo's shoulders and the tone of her grandmother's voice that there's a lecture in progress. As soon as she spots him, Lardo widens her eyes and tips her head ever so slightly toward the doorway. He sweeps in and whisks her to safety in the next room.
Lardo leans on a chair and sighs her thanks. "She was starting in on the name thing again. How hurt Shitty must be that I'm not changing my name and how difficult it'll be when my kids and I have different last names." She shakes her head. "Wait until she finds out that he was thinking about taking my name instead."
"And yet she's okay that he goes by 'Shitty'," Bitty says.
"Well..." Lardo says, deadpan, "No one has translated that for her yet."
Lord, but Bitty loves his friends.
The handful of weddings Bitty's been to before now have involved sitting in a church watching the groom stand and jitter at the altar until the bride appears in a froth of organ fanfares and white lace. At this one, the bride is already circulating through a crowded house when the groom comes barreling down the stairs to throw himself at her, lift her shrieking and laughing off the ground, and whoop, "Let's get this party started!"
And that's everyone's cue. Ransom and Holster throw open the French doors to the backyard. Dex and Nursey help the two little girls dressed as princesses drag a white runner over the grass between two banks of white folding chairs, and Johnson, who's performing the ceremony, takes his place at the far end of the runner. Lardo leads the way down the aisle with her mother on one arm and her father on the other. Shitty follows with his mother. They seat their parents in the front row and stand there hand in hand, beaming, as they watch the chairs fill up.
Jack comes up behind Bitty and says, "Do you have the rings?" directly in his ear. Bitty jumps and spins. Only Jack's NHL-tuned reflexes save him from catching an elbow to the gut.
"Don't do that," Bitty scolds. "And yes, I have the rings, what do you think of me?"
Jack holds out a hand and Bitty thinks for a confused instant that Jack wants them to walk in holding hands, too. Then he remembers: right, he has to give Lardo's ring to Jack so Jack can give it to Shitty during the ceremony.
He scoops the two bands out of the breast pocket of his suit jacket and slides the larger one onto his thumb. He intends to hand the other to Jack, but Jack abruptly makes a fist, little finger extended. "So I don't drop it," he says.
Bitty swallows hard. He won't, he absolutely will not, let himself think about the fact that he's putting a ring on Jack's finger. It's Lardo's ring, and it's the wrong finger entirely, and even if it wasn't, it's a small ring and Jack has large fingers. In fact, Jack keeps snugging the ring farther up against his knuckle, which makes Bitty worry about it getting stuck. "Make sure you can get it back off again," he frets as Johnson waves everyone across the lawn.
They take their positions, Bitty next to Lardo, Jack next to Shitty. Johnson, in his usual inexplicable way, starts with a comment about how Lardo and Shitty are "a sterling example of the time-honored trope of the beta couple." Bitty thinks it might be a reference to beta software and being the first of their friends to get married, but he's not sure. Shitty looks just as baffled, and from what Bitty can see of Lardo's face, she is, too.
By the third reading, Jack is rocking almost imperceptibly back and forth on the balls of his feet. He's got the crease between his eyebrows that says he has a problem in his sights and that he's running over plays in his head, looking for the right one to start the attack. Then Johnson starts talking about how secondary characters are the main characters in their own stories even as they help to move other stories along, and Jack's head snaps up. He looks directly at Bitty and mouths "What?"
Bitty makes a face intended to convey "I have no idea."
Jack sucks his lower lip between his teeth and closes his eyes in an obvious attempt not to laugh, and wow, isn't that awkward, because Bitty has imagined him making that face under very different circumstances. Bitty goes hot all over in a way he's going to have to blame on the late afternoon sun. His brain goes into a loop of imagined lips and hands and whispers that only breaks when Jack opens his eyes again and smirks at Johnson's next mystifying turn of phrase. At least that's what Bitty hopes he's smirking at. There's only one thing less appropriate for a wedding attendant than zoning out during the ceremony, and Bitty has to resort to mentally converting cooking measurements from volume to weight and back to avoid it.
He's already heard Lardo and Shitty practicing their vows, but he's no less charmed when Lardo says that since "honor and obey" aren't quite her style, she hopes Shitty will accept her promise to "aid and abet." And then there's the way Shitty looks at Lardo when he swears in return that he'll always have her back. Bitty can only hope someone will look at him like that someday. He can't seem to swallow past the lump in his throat as he and Jack hand over the rings.
When Johnson pronounces their friends "legally bound to ride or die," Bitty squeezes his eyes shut for a moment to hold back the tears, and when he opens them again, he's looking straight at Jack. He wants to pretend he hasn't been caught staring, but Jack has tears in his eyes, too. Now Bitty has to live the rest of his life with the knowledge that yes, Jack Zimmermann cries at weddings, and looks good doing it. Ugh, the unfairness is brutal.
Bitty and Jack only rehearsed their wedding speech three times — twice on Skype, and once last night in Bitty's kitchen while he finished the last batch of cookies. Thanks to Bitty's baking vlog and Jack's media training, though, they crush it, or so everyone tells them afterwards. Jack does a pitch-perfect impression of Shitty's standard rant about marriage as a patriarchal institution and manages to keep a straight face almost all the way to the end. Bitty responds with an imitation of Lardo's beer pong victory belch that makes her drop her face into her hands.
By the time the caterers replenish the dessert table for the second time and someone Lardo knows from the Somerville Arts Council has asked Bitty if he's available to bake for a fundraiser, Bitty's earlier maudlin mood has faded to a faint wistfulness that only emphasizes how happy the day is, the way a smidgen of cocoa makes pumpkin pie taste a little richer. It helps that someone keeps topping up his wine glass. When he spots Shitty and Lardo heading for the corner with the sound system, Bitty pushes his chair away from the table. He's so ready to dance. Except that instead of cueing up the first song, Shitty hollers, "Listen up!"
The room goes silent. Shitty puts his arm around Lardo, looks down at her like she's the only person in the room, and says, "I have something to confess. I almost called off the wedding earlier today."
Lardo smiles up at Shitty like he's said nothing more unusual than "we're out of Doritos" as a murmur of astonishment ricochets through the room. He goes on, "A couple of our bros here have been keeping an eye on the door just in case certain members of my family showed up uninvited and needed to be escorted politely back to their cars. Fortunately, it looks like Nursey and Dex are now free to enjoy the rest of the day." He blows a showy kiss toward Samwell's current first-line D-men, who raise their glasses in return.
"Unfortunately, these family members are still assholes who called me right before the ceremony to offer you fifty grand not to marry me." Bitty isn't the only one who gasps. Lardo just starts to giggle. "I'm so sorry, Lards. I hung up on them. We could have taken the money and just kept living together, and I know that would have been just fine with you. But bro. Bro. The chance to tell them, 'screw you, I want to be on this woman's team in any way she'll have me'? That's worth every fuckin' penny of it."
Lardo goes up on her toes, sinks her fingers into Shitty's hair, and pulls him down for a kiss that goes on until everyone else in the room is cheering. Bitty turns to ask Jack if he had any idea Shitty was planning to say that, but Jack looks flabbergasted enough that the answer is obvious.
Jack slips out of the room a few minutes later — and stays away through half an hour of The Most 'Swawesome Wedding Playlist Ever, a joint production of the Samwell Fine Arts Department and Men's Hockey Team. His absence distracts Bitty so much that he can't even enjoy Beyoncé the way he should, and that's just all kinds of wrong.
Bitty makes a circuit through the house, getting progressively more antsy as Jack fails to reappear. He ends up in the kitchen, staring at the dirty dishes as if Jack might be hiding among them. One of the caterers brushes past him with a loud "coming through" and an armful of empty wine bottles. She nudges open a door Bitty hadn't noticed before. A moment later, he hears the clatter of glass tumbling into a recycling bin, and oh, of course.
He slips through the door into what turns out to be a tiny side yard blocked off with a wooden gate at each end. There's a fire escape leading down from the second floor, and about halfway up, there's Jack, fiddling with his phone.
"Hey there, Mr. Zimmermann," Bitty calls up to him.
Jack looks down and gives a little nod.
"Y'all coming in any time soon?"
Jack shrugs and tucks his phone into his suit jacket. "Is anyone looking for me?"
"Well. Here I am."
It's not exactly an invitation, but it's not a dismissal, so Bitty climbs up and settles on the stair next to Jack. "You okay?" he asks.
"Yeah, just had to make a phone call."
From here, they can see over the gate into the backyard, where a circle of guests seems to be passing a joint around. Bitty watches absent-mindedly, focused on the soft pressure of Jack's shoulder against his, until...
He leans forward a little and breathes, "Oh my goodness, is that Shitty's mama? I didn't know the mother of the groom was allowed to do that."
Jack presses his face into his knees with a strangled sound. Bitty is horrified until he realizes Jack is laughing, not crying. "I guess we know now where Shitty gets it," he confides, less because he believes it than because it makes Jack sit up and quake with suppressed mirth.
"Bittle. You're terrible." Jack wraps his arm around Bitty's shoulders, all bright-eyed and flushed with a comma of hair falling forward onto his face. Bitty wants to reach up and brush it away. "Come on, we should go back inside."
When they come out of the kitchen, the familiar beat of Shitty's favorite song is pulsating from the speakers. Lardo comes running up to grab Jack's hand and drag him across the dance floor. Jack pretends to resist, but he's too innately graceful to convince anyone he has two left feet. Bitty follows, giggling, as Jack reaches back for him and hauls him along by one arm.
They form a circle of past and current Samwell hockey players with Lardo and Shitty at the center. Jack drops one arm around his shoulders again, bumps their hips together to the beat, and pulls Bitty against his side as they all sway in a circle, singing along. Bitty laughs up at Jack and hopes he always smiles back like that.
It takes three trips up and down the stairs to unload everything from Shitty's ancient Volvo wagon. Bitty keeps telling Jack that he's fine, that Jack should head home to Providence before it gets too late, but Jack isn't having it.
"Bittle," he finally says, "another night on the couch won't kill me. I'll drive back in the morning."
And that's fantastic, actually, since Bitty doesn't really want him to leave. It's awfully nice to have Jack puttering around the kitchen with him in their pajamas, helping load the dishwasher with empty pie pans and make room in the fridge for the leftovers. It's even nicer when Jack declares that his cheat day isn't technically over until midnight. He points at the clock, which is creeping up on 11:30, and insists that Bitty needs to help him eat more wedding pie right now.
They settle on the couch with two forks and pass half a Vietnamese coffee chiffon pie back and forth. When it's gone, Jack slouches down into the cushions, a smudge of whipped cream in the dip of his upper lip. He's leaning against Bitty from shoulder to knee, and Bitty never wants to move again unless the building catches on fire. Even then, he might have to give it some thought.
"Long day," Jack finally sighs.
Oh, well, of course. He just watched two of his best friends get married. Bitty can understand that. "It was so emotional, I'm surprised I wasn't one big hysterical hot mess," he says. He tries to sound matter-of-fact, but he can't help the edge his voice gets. "I mean, I'm so happy for them, but I worry that they're gonna want their privacy now that they're married. I worry that I won't be able to find another place to live. I worry that I'll have to go back to Georgia and never be able to leave again."
"Aw, come on, Bits." It's startling to hear the diminutive coming from Jack, who only ever calls him Bittle. "They would never kick you out. You're practically their second husband."
"Mmmaybe," Bitty allows. "Their male sister-wife. Brother-husband?"
"And if you did have to move..." Jack coughs and looks back up at the ceiling like it's fascinating. "Providence is still pretty close to Boston if you have work here, and it's not like I don't have the space."
Bitty wants to say "yes, please!" and start packing his things on the spot, but he isn't sure living with Jack again wouldn't be the sweetest, slowest torture in the world, the worst possible version of look-but-don't-touch. He's never allowed himself to consider it. He isn't prepared to let himself think about it right now, either, not with Jack pressed up all warm against his side. So he deflects. "I think after what happened with Shitty's dad today, they'll need to keep me around just to help pay the rent."
"Fucking incredible. And telling everyone about it, too! I've never been so proud to know him."
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a good relationship with their parents, Bitty knows, but how bad would it have to be before he gave up any hope that it could ever get better? "I don't get that boy's family. What's wrong with them? They should be over the moon that they raised such a good man."
"And a brave one. Braver than me, anyway."
"What? Jack, how can you say that? If you're a coward, I'm...I'm...I'm one of the Kardashians."
Bitty expects Jack to pretend not to know who the Kardashians are so he can chirp him for the thousandth time about his terrifying ignorance of pop culture, but Jack does nothing of the kind. Instead, he says, "There's a lot you still don't know about me."
"Oh yeah? Like what?"
When Jack hesitates, throat working, Bitty suddenly wants to retract the question. A dozen potential worst-case scenarios race through his head: Jack is sick, Jack is being traded to a team on the West Coast, Jack is (please, no) dating someone. He feels compelled to blurt, "It's okay, you don't have to — "
" — no," Jack cuts him off, "there's actually...um. Okay, I'm doing this," he says, almost to himself. He pulls out his phone and pokes at it for a moment. "I got this right before the wedding."
He holds up the phone and a voice comes out of it that Bitty usually only hears in post-game interviews on TV. "Hey, Zimms, it's Kenny," the voice says. "I'm sorry I haven't called in a while, and I'm really sorry about why I'm calling now."
Well, that's definitely something Bitty didn't know about Jack. He knew playing against Kent Parson had gone a long way to helping Jack make peace with him, but he hadn't realized they were friends again, the kind who leave each other messages and call each other nicknames. He swallows back the jealousy spiking in his gut and listens to Parson rattle on, words tumbling over each other.
"You know that thing I always said I'd do some day? I'm doing it. ESPN at 9. Just wanted to give you a heads-up in case anyone asks you about me." His laugh is tinny and humorless, but when he speaks again, his voice is soft. "Ah, who am I kidding, you know they will. You say whatever you need to." There's a long pause before he adds, "Catch you later, bro," and hangs up.
Bitty blinks at the clock on the wall. It's just shy of midnight in Boston now — nearly 9, Las Vegas time — and it occurs to him that this is why Jack's been so distracted all afternoon, why he vanished during the reception, why he didn't drive back to Providence. Whatever this is, it's a big deal, and Jack's been stalling so he wouldn't be alone when it happened.
Jack reaches for the remote to switch on ESPNews. Bitty can't remember the last time his hand shook like that.
"What — "
"Ssh," Jack says. "Here we go."
Kent Parson strolls into a conference room and sits at a table in front of an Aces backdrop. He looks all nonchalant with his shirt collar open under a blazer and just the slightest hint of blond scruff along his jawline. Jack leans into Bitty's side. Bitty can feel him trembling.
Parson pulls the microphone toward himself, taps it twice, and starts to speak. "I'm here because I wanted to say a few words about some photos that someone posted to Reddit this morning of someone who looks a lot like me, at the Luxor pool, having a private moment with another man." He looks straight into the camera with a smirk familiar to anyone who's seen Sports Illustrated in the last few years and says, "I think I looked pretty good."
"Holy shit," Bitty breathes. "Did he just — "
Jack shushes him again.
"Look," Parson says, leaning in. "I'm about to start my tenth season in the NHL, and I've been gay the whole time. I'm the same guy you thought I was when I woke up this morning — ten-year NHL veteran, captain of the Aces, two-time Stanley Cup winner. The only thing that's changed is that you now know I have a boyfriend. It's 2018. It shouldn't even be worth mentioning. So let's not mention it again, because it's got nothing to do with my career in hockey."
He says "No questions," stands up, and just like that, the press conference is over.
Bitty has one hand over his mouth. The other, he discovers, is clutching Jack's leg. Jack's own hand is shaking and shaking, clasped over Bitty's like Bitty is the only thing keeping him from floating away.
"That's what he meant." Bitty stares at Jack. "They're going to call and ask if you knew. When you knew."
"No, what they're going to ask is how I knew." Jack takes a deep breath, blows it out, and says, "So. I knew because ten years ago. Our last year in the Q. We were together."
A lot of things Bitty has been wondering about for years suddenly make sense. He digs his fingers a little harder into Jack's leg. "Together together?"
"I told you there were things you still didn't know about me."
"Like...liking boys." Bitty is going to wake up any minute now. Really.
"Some boys. And some girls. But not very many, and nobody at all for ages. Ow, Bittle, that hurts!"
"Sorry, sorry, oh my god." He lets Jack pull his hand off his leg and lace their fingers together. Jack knew Kent Parson likes boys. Jack likes boys. Jack...Jack is holding his hand.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner," Jack says, rubbing his thumb back and forth across Bitty's knuckles. "I guess I just got used to hiding. I didn't want to force you to keep my secrets."
"You're one of my best friends, Jack. I won't tell anyone, I swear. I would never."
Jack smiles, a tiny, cautious thing that hits Bitty like a hard check. "I'm not going to force anyone to keep my secrets any more. Not even Parse. Anyone who doesn't like it better have more Stanley Cups than I do."
Bitty didn't think he could adore this boy any more than he already did, but it turns out he was so, so wrong. Without even thinking about it, he blurts, "Jack Zimmermann, I'm so proud of you right now, I could kiss you."
Jack's smile blooms into something amazing. "Yes, you could," he agrees. "Come on, it seems like a good day to be brave."