The practice rink’s locker room is even smaller than the one the Samwell team used at Faber, but none of the Falconers seem to mind. Jack pulls his t-shirt down over his head, then sits on the bench to put his shoes on.
“We still on for lunch?” Whits asks, toweling off his hair. He’s completely naked otherwise, one of a handful of guys on the team who never seem to be in a hurry to put their clothes back on after a shower.
“Sure.” Jack pulls his phone from his duffel and settles in to wait.
The home screen is full of text notifications: the Samwell group chat apparently blew up in the last couple of hours. He’s been trying to keep up with it, even if he doesn’t have much time to participate lately. He skims through, then frowns and scrolls back up to read again.
Holster: BITTY NO
Lardo: BITTY YES
Nurse: Sorry Bits shoulda kept my mouth shut
Bittle: It was NOT what it looked like y’all
Ransom: ET TU BITTY
Chowder: Wow what did I miss???
Lardo: The LAX frat sent one of their frogs over to “borrow a cup of sugar.”
Bittle: It was totally a hazing thing, ok? They were giving him a hard time.
Nurse: And you felt sorry for him?
Bittle: Yes. I let him in and talked to him.
Holster: Feeling sorry for =/= MAKING OUT WITH
Bittle: NO ONE WAS MAKING OUT WITH ANYONE
Nurse: Bro I walked in on you
Bittle: OMG we were just talking!
Bittle: He kissed me right before you came in. I was NOT expecting it!
Lardo: Surprise kiss ftw
Lardo: [thumbs up]
Bittle: Nursey came in like a minute later
Ransom: You kissed him for at least a minute? That totally counts as making out.
Nurse: So you’re saying I cockblocked you, basically?
Bittle: OMFG STOP
Bittle: Do any of you ever want pie again?
Bittle: I am not even kidding rn
Holster: Bitty I will find you a boyfriend ISTG
Holster: You can literally date anyone in the universe except for one of the LAX asshats
Holster: HELP ME HELP YOU
Bittle: I’m turning my phone off
Jack blinks at his phone, then looks up to see Whits tying a shoe. “Um. Yeah.” He thumbs the phone off and puts it in his pocket. “Just catching up on the group text from my old team. Habit, I guess.”
“It’s pretty cool that they’re not far away. They gonna come to a game?”
“I think so.” Jack leans back in his stall. “Did any of your old teammates manage to come see a game last year?”
“Yeah, some of the guys drove over when we played the Blackhawks.” Whits snorts. “Always good for your friends to see you get your ass kicked.”
Jack nods and looks away. He hasn’t let himself think about that possibility just yet. “You still close with any of them?”
Whits shrugs. “Not really? I mean, I thought we would all keep up with each other, but it was harder than I expected. Michigan is a long way from here, yanno? There’s only so much you can do with Skype and texting. The guys still in school are busy, and the ones who graduated are getting on with their lives.”
“Yeah.” Jack tries to ignore the stab of panic in his chest. He knows this is how it goes, that you move on and lose touch with people who were once so important in your life, but he doesn’t have to like it.
“One of the other guys signed with the Avs, and I thought we’d at least be able to—” Whits stops, his expression suddenly unreadable. “Well, you know how it is.”
Jack thinks about Parse for a moment, how they’d once sworn they’d stay best friends no matter where they ended up playing. Parse had said they’d get a beach house together even, spend the summers hanging out. He sighs and rubs his hand over the back of his neck. “Yeah, I know.”
Whits shrugs. “Anyway, here I am. And Providence is great.”
“Yeah.” Jack’s only been here a few months, but he likes it well enough. The guys on the team are pretty cool, and he feels like they’re playing well together. There isn’t the same sort of camaraderie he’d experienced at Samwell, but he hadn’t expected it so early in the season.
“Ready to bounce?” Whits asks. He glances in a mirror by the door and tucks his hair behind his ears. He’s got flow that would have put Shitty’s to shame, almost to his shoulders.
Jacks stands. “Sure.”
“Swear to fucking god, bro, if one more douchebag in a fedora tries to tell me white privilege doesn’t exist, I’m gonna fuckin’ get violent.”
Jack grins at the screen. “I’d kinda like to see that.”
“I’m just up the road, man.” Shitty disappears from view for a moment. Jack’s pretty sure he’s toking up. “You know where to find me.”
“Like I’ve got that kind of free time.”
“It’s still the preseason, man. I know for a fact you’ve got more free time than I do.” Shitty reappears. Even after six months, Jack’s still getting used to seeing him with short hair. “You been back to the Haus yet?”
Jack’s insides twist. “No. I haven’t.”
“Nah, man, I know. I thought I’d go down for the Back-to-the-Grind Kegster, but I had a metric fuck-ton of reading to do, right? I can’t afford to lose a weekend day to a hangover.”
Jack raises his eyebrows. “You could go and not get schwasted.”
“Naw, man. Not possible.” Shitty grins at him. “You still on the group text?”
“Yeah. I keep meaning to reply, but.” Jack shrugs. “It feels weird. I text some of the guys, though. Holster and Bittle, mostly. Lardo sometimes.”
Shitty smirks. “So whose side are you on in all of that?”
“All of what?”
“Bitty and the Lacrosse frog. Lardo told me his name, but I forgot it immediately. Hayden or Caiden or Braden, whatever the fuck.”
Jack sighs and slides down in his chair. “I dunno. Holster thinks they’re hooking up, but Bittle hasn’t said a word about it to me.”
Shitty takes drink from a bottle of beer. “You think he’d tell you if he was?”
“I dunno.” Jack frowns. He hadn’t wanted to ask, to be honest, and he’d been relieved when Bittle didn’t bring it up either. It’s not like he has a right to an opinion one way or the other about who Bittle dates. Or who he… does whatever with.
“Hunh.” Shitty sets the bottle down again. “You going to the home opener?”
“I’m planning to. We’re at home Thursday and Saturday that week, so I think I should be able to swing it. Probably can’t stay too late after, though.”
“You could get up at the asscrack of dawn and make it back for morning skate, man.”
Jack snorts. “Nope. Not risking it on a game day.”
“So basically, the NHL hasn’t changed you at all.” Shitty grins at him.
“If you say so.”
Jack feels his phone buzz in his pocket a dozen times while he’s running, but he waits until he gets home to look. He leans against his kitchen counter, drinking water, and thumbs through the texts he’s missed. A few are from the Falconers group text — those are always easy to pick out because of the atrocious spelling — but the others are from Bittle.
I’ve been put in charge of organizing those of us going to your game on the 24th.
There’ll be 12 of us, including Shitty.
I don’t know if you can get that many tickets or not?
If I need to call somebody else, lmk?
Oh, and I hope you had a good run! [smiley]
Jack can’t help smiling. He taps out Yeah, that should be fine. I’ll set it up.
The reply comes a few seconds later: Great! What are you up to right now?
Shower, then lunch. I have some PR stuff today. You?
Just studying for now. I have two lectures this afternoon. Trying to get ahead.
Jack smirks at the phone. Bittle always says that at the beginning of the semester, and it never happens. Everything else good?
Yeah! The team’s doing fine. We really miss you, though. Ransom and Holster are doing a great job, but
The dots appear and then vanish.
Jack waits, and Bittle doesn’t continue. Jack thinks for a moment, then writes, I miss Samwell. It’s different here than I expected.
There isn’t a response for a full minute. Jack goes into his bedroom and strips off his clothes. The phone buzzes from the nightstand.
Do you have time to talk?
Jack picks it up and replies, Yes.
He taps the voice call notification as soon as he sees it. “Hey, Bittle.”
“Hey. You okay?”
Jack crosses to his bed and lies back across the duvet, closing his eyes. “Yeah.”
“It’s so weird not having you here. I knew it would be, but god, the Haus without you and Shitty is a different place.”
Jack chuckles. “I can imagine.”
“But I’m sure you’re enjoying having your own place. Lord, I can’t even remember what it’s like to have privacy, and no one trying to hook up in your room on Saturday nights.”
“Yeah.” Jack smiles at the ceiling. “It’s weird not to have school to think about, though. I didn’t think I’d miss having something that took my time away from hockey, but I kind of do.”
“You seriously miss taking classes?” Bittle sounds incredulous. “You sure you’re okay?”
“It was nice having the distraction. And always having people around. It’s so quiet here, you know?”
“The Haus is kind of the opposite of quiet, especially now that Dex and Nursey are always here. They haven’t exactly moved into your old room, but Chowder got a huge air mattress and that’s where they sleep on the weekends.”
Jack tries to imagine it, and can’t. He sighs. “I should probably have some people over or something.”
“But then you’d have to make an actual effort to be social. I know you better than that, Mr. Zimmermann.”
“Whatever. You should come visit.”
“Really?” Bittle sounds pleased.
“Yeah. I’ve got a really nice oven here. Someone ought to use it.”
“I’ve got a really nice oven here too, you know.”
“I know.” Jack stretches, feeling the pull of muscles sore from his morning workout. One hand trails circles on his bare abdomen. “I miss your pies, though.”
“I’m guessing they wouldn’t be nutritionist-approved.”
“Probably not, but it’d be worth it.” An image of Bittle standing in his kitchen floods his mind, and he smiles. He hears the sound of Bittle shifting on his mattress on the other end of the line.
“I baked an apple pie last night. Something about September always makes me want to do appley things.”
“I love your apple pie.” Jack inhales slowly, releases it. Talking to Bittle always makes him feel weirdly relaxed. “And those turnovers you did last fall. Those were amazing.”
“You really do need to eat lunch, don’t you?” Bittle laughs.
“Yeah. So how are you, really?”
“Good, fine,” Bittle replies, quickly.
Jack opens his eyes. He doesn’t want to ask, but the question is buzzing in the back of his head now. “So, uh… Is Holster still mad at you?”
Bittle sighs. “Probably. I don’t know. It’s not…” He’s silent for a moment before he continues. “Braden is nice, you know? And it’s not like I’m… I mean.” Bittle sounds like he’s taking a deep breath. “It’s not, like, a thing.”
“Hunh.” Jack is already regretting bringing it up. He doesn’t want to hear about whatever the thing is between Bittle and… Braden. He hadn’t even wanted to know the guy’s name. He fervently hopes he’ll never have to meet him. “You know how he and Ransom are about the Lacrosse team.”
“Did he have some sort of traumatic childhood experience with a Lacrosse stick or something?”
“Heh, maybe. So, when you say it’s not a thing…”
“Jack Zimmermann, are you seriously asking for deets right now?”
“No! God, no.” Jack winces. “You’re my friend, eh? I guess I’m curious if you’re actually dating this guy or not.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it… dating, to be honest?” Bittle sighs. “I’m not really sure what the line is between hooking up and dating.”
Wow, too much information. Jack grits his teeth. The idea of Bittle hooking up with some random guy makes him feel… uncomfortable, which makes no sense. It’s not like he finds the idea of it distasteful. He’d be a damn hypocrite if he did.
“So it’s more of a…” sex thing. God, Jack doesn’t want to say that out loud. He has a sudden mental image of Bittle on his knees in front of some faceless guy in a Samwell Lacrosse jersey, and he flinches.
“Jack…” Bittle’s voice sounds strained.
“No, yeah. Let’s talk about something else. How’s practice going?”
Bittle launches into a detailed update of every member of the team, including the frogs Jack hasn’t met, and Jack can finally relax again. The rhythm of Bittle’s voice is comfortable and familiar, even soothing. Jack closes his eyes, offers comments when he can get a word in, and feels better than he has in days.
Curtis Janssen groans as he settles into his stall. “God-fucking-dammit, Zimms, why you have to make the rest of us look bad?”
Jack leans over to unlace his skates. “It was in my contract. Skate harder than Janssen in particular.”
The other guys within earshot chuckle. There’s more good-natured chirping after that, but none of it is directed at Jack. They still seem a little wary of him, and he’s not sure what to make of that.
Whits squeezes Jack’s shoulder when the others make their way to the showers. “Janssen and Rolly and I are heading to lunch after this. You wanna come with?”
“Yeah, sure.” Jack smiles at him. Whits had volunteered to be his unofficial team mentor at camp a few weeks back, and he’s taken the task to heart. Jack isn’t eighteen by any stretch, so he hardly needs the kind of babysitting most rookies do. He definitely appreciates the way Whits has tried to make him feel included, though. Left to his own devices, Jack probably wouldn’t have socialized with the team much at all.
They pile into Brad Rollins’ giant SUV (he unlatches two car seats and tosses them in the back first) and head to some burger joint Janssen had read about. The menu isn’t really what they ought to be eating this close to the start of the season, but no one says anything.
“Rolly, what crawled up your ass this morning?” Janssen asks after the server takes their orders.
Rolly takes a deep breath and looks down at his hands. “Carrie’s pregnant.”
“Whoa, shit. Congratulations!” Janssen grins at him.
Rolly’s smile is tight. “Thanks, man.”
“Wait, didn’t she just have a baby?” Whits asks.
“Yeah, Melanie’ll be 6 months next week.”
Janssen shakes his head. “How did you even have time to make another one? We’ve just got the one and I’m lucky if I get some once a week.”
“It was an accident.” Rolly scrubs at his face with one hand. “Shit, I’m gonna have three kids.”
“Three kids in three years, man.” Janssen elbows him. “You do know what causes that, right?”
The server returns with their drinks, and they all fall silent until she walks away again.
“So like, tell me to fuck off if this is too personal,” Whits says, looking at Rolly from across the table, “but you were over the moon about Melanie. You don’t sound so excited this time.”
Rolly shrugs. “I dunno. It’s just scary, you know? I mean, I’m not gonna play hockey for the next twenty years. At some point I have to get a real job, and I can’t do anything else. God, I shoulda taken that scholarship to New Hampshire. At least I’d have a degree then.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Janssen says. He looks over at Jack and Whits. “You two at least have something to fall back on. Rolly and I are gonna have to buy a damn food truck to put our kids through college.”
“What did you study anyway, Zimms?” Rolly asks.
Rolly and Janssen crack up laughing, and Jack flushes.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Janssen shakes his head. “Of all the practical shit you could’ve done, you picked history?”
“It’s not like he’s ever gonna have to use that degree,” Whits says, grinning.
Jack shrugs. He has no idea how to reply to that in a way that won’t make him look like an asshole.
“I’ll bet you got mad pussy at that college.” Rolly grins at him. “Sorority girls lined up around the block n’shit.”
Jack pokes at the ice in his drink with the straw. “Not really.”
“Don’t be modest, dude! C’mon, give us some deets. We gotta live vicariously here.”
Jack looks up again to see them both grinning at him expectantly. “I didn’t really do much other than play hockey and study a lot.”
“Bro, you can’t be serious.” Rolly looks disappointed. “Didn’t you live in some kind of frat house?”
“Yeah, but… Well, there were parties, but I usually didn’t…” Jack presses his lips together, uncertain what he should say. He barely knows Rolly and Janssen. “I hung out with my teammates a lot, I guess.”
“Look, y’all don’t get how much fucking hard work it is to be a college athlete,” Whits says. “You do a lot of what we do during the season, but you have, like, a full time job on top of it. You have to miss classes for a roadie, do homework on the bus, go straight from a hard practice to an exam you were up half the night studying for, then play in a game that night. That doesn’t leave you much time to chase skirts.”
“Huh.” Janssen looks skeptical, but he’s listening. “So what did you study, Whits?”
Jack turns to look at Whits, surprised. He knows the answer to this question; it was one of the first things he’d asked Whits back in camp. These guys have been playing with him for a year and it hasn’t come up?
Whits leans back in the booth and pushes his hair back out of his face with his fingers. “Mathematics.”
“Shit, man, are you serious?” Janssen’s eyes widen almost comically.
Rolly shakes his head. “I had no idea you were a fuckin’ brainiac.”
Whits rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Point is, college isn’t actually like Animal House.” He considers for a moment and then grins. “Well, maybe every now and then it is, but not every weekend.”
“That how you met Dani? She a brainiac too?” Rolly asks.
Whits’ expression tightens almost immediately, and Janssen punches Rolly in the shoulder.
“Fuck, man, they broke up this summer.”
“Shit, sorry.” Rolly winces. “I didn’t hear about that.”
Whits shrugs, but the tension is still visible in his shoulders. “Ah, you know. The long distance thing was never gonna work.”
“She’s in Colorado, right?”
Whits looks down at his hands. “We thought we’d be able to see each other more, but our work schedules didn’t exactly coincide. And by the summer… well, it turns out there are a lot of guys hotter than me in Denver.”
“That sucks, bro.” Rolly shakes his head. “Cause I know for a fact you didn’t cheat on her. You didn’t so much as look at a hot chick last year. Not while we were out with the team, anyway.”
Whits flushes slightly. “Yeah, well. I’m an idiot.”
The server arrives with their food, and they all fall silent. Whits still looks tense even after she leaves, and Jack’s stomach twists.
“Sorry about the breakup,” Jack says quietly. He doesn't know Whits well enough to have noticed anything was off. He hasn’t exactly been paying attention to anything other than hockey, anyway.
Whits looks over at him and smiles. “Whatcha gonna do, you know? You graduate, you move on with your life. Things change. People change.”
A cold wave washes over Jack. He looks away, stares down at his food. Is that what’s going to happen now? He texts Bittle and Shitty every day, Skypes with each of them a couple of times a week. In some ways, he feels closer to them now than he did while they were at Samwell, even though their lives are all completely different. Is he going to be like Whits in a year, sadly remembering friendships that have long since faded?
“Zimms,” Whits says quietly, and Jack turns to see him watching Jack with a worried expression. “You okay?”
Jack takes a deep breath and forces a tight smile. “Yeah. Fine.”
“Oh my god,” Rolly groans from across the table, drawing their attention. “I just realized this means Carrie’s tits are gonna be off-limits for, like, another two years. Fuck me.”
Janssen snickers around a mouthful of burger. “I just got my clearance back, bro. I feel for you.”
Jack casts Whits a confused glance, but Whits is shaking his head and grinning at them. Jack forces a small smile, but he’s completely out of his element here. He’s just a few years younger than Rolly and Janssen, but he has very little in common with them. They went from Juniors to the AHL, and spent years working their way onto an NHL roster. Outside of hockey, their lives revolve around their wives and kids, not endorsement deals and maintaining a media presence. They’re solid, respected players, but they’ve never been under the sort of scrutiny Jack has been his whole life, and never will be.
Jack almost envies them.