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Bless Your Heart, Kent Parson

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"What did that poor boy ever do to Dicky?" Mrs. Bittle asked, equal parts concern and amusement in her voice.

"Hmm?" Jack asked. They were sitting at the table on the back patio of the Bittle residence in Georgia, the air still thick and hot at half-past eight. Jack was peeling potatoes to make potato salad for tomorrow's Fourth of July celebration. Bitty and Coach were across the way, discussing something sports-related with animation. Next year's Stanley Cup odds, he thought, vaguely hearing something about the Penguins' new goalie and the Aces' offensive line ("Kent Parson, bless his heart," Bitty had said a moment ago, Jack's attention still catching on that name despite himself and all the years.)

Bitty had expected Jack to get along with his father easily and fall right into the sports talk that seemed to be Coach's default means of communication. But Jack had never actually been good at that kind of sports talk. He'd never had a chance to be just a fan, and dropping an "Uncle Mario" into a casual hockey conversation always seemed to stop it dead. And he didn't really have anything other than hockey to talk about, when it came down to it, unless someone was really into modern Western history.

So this was how it had worked out, in the two days of the visit so far, since they'd come down from Montreal: Bitty talking sports with his father like the born and bred Southern boy he was, and Jack sitting quietly with Mrs. Bittle - Suzanne - chatting to him, Jack occasionally trying to get her to let him help with the cooking.

He liked it, to be honest. Talking to Coach was exhausting, with so many layers of tensions and things to remember not to talk about, but Bitty's mom was relaxing to be around in a way that reminded him of his own mother.

Maybe too relaxing. He had to remember that Bitty wasn't out to her any more than to his father, and the reasons were the same.

"'Kent Parson, bless his heart,'" she clarified eventually. "I haven't heard Dicky bless anyone's heart in that tone of voice since-- oh, since Bonnie Vickers at church, and she still can't look at a pie without breaking down in tears. And Bonnie Vickers it was only the once, but Dicky says bless his heart like it's part of the poor boy's name. So I gotta ask, what did he do?"

"I-- as far as I know, they met once. At a party. And I was there the whole time. I don't think they said more than a couple sentences to each other." He and Kenny'd had more than a few sentences to say - and he knew Bitty must have overheard more of that than any of them were comfortable with - but he and Kenny and all their fraying loose ends were his problem, not Bitty's.

Kenny's name had been coming up a lot this weekend. Partly because these days, it was hard to talk about the NHL without talking about Kent Parson. Partly because before Samwell, Jack's experience of an American Independence Day had always included a birthday party for Kenny. Partly because - well, because being in Madison with Bitty was. Well. Strange and uncomfortable, in a lot of ways, this week of all weeks, that maybe had him worrying at those old frayed ends more than usual.

And it stood out, now that Mrs. Bittle had pointed it out, that every time Bitty said Kenny's name, he followed it up with a deeply-felt "bless his heart."

"What does-- what do you mean, 'bless his heart'?" Jack asked. "I thought it was just. I don't know. Kind pity, I guess. Eric used to say it about me all the time." And, well, Kenny probably deserved to have someone good like Bitty offer him a little compassion.

"Jack Zimmermann, bless your heart," Mrs. Bittle said, and laid a hand on the arm he was using to cube potatoes.

"Yes, exactly like that, that's how he used to say it," Jack said. Canadian polite had served him well enough to impress Coach and Mrs. Bittle with what a well-bred young man he was, but he was learning that it didn't help at all with decoding the subtleties of Georgia polite.

"I imagine when he said it to you, he did mean kind pity, as you put it," Mrs. Bittle said, that same honeysweet tone in her voice that Jack had gotten used to, Bitty's freshman year. She resumed potato-dicing. "It's a versatile phrase. Sometimes it's even sincere. But generally it means that whatever you truly want to say about them, ain't something you're willing to say in present company. The rest you have to deduce from tone of voice and so on." She tilted her head in Coach and Bitty's direction.

"Bless his heart, Kent Parson," Jack heard again, Bitty's tone dripping with the kind of ice you could use to stab someone.

"So you see why I ask what the Parson boy did to Dicky," Mrs. Bittle concluded.

"No idea. Ma'am." Jack shook his head and concentrated on the potato peeling. He wondered what would happen if he said, 'actually it's his birthday tomorrow. Anniversary of the first time we kissed.' He's never really felt the desire to come out before, but there's something about watching every word around Bitty's parents, something about the feeling of an American fourth of July, that's making him want to be reckless.

"What did Ms. Vickers do to him?" he asked instead.

"Oh, well, that ain't my story to tell," Mrs. Bittle said. "Not mostly. But Dicky brought her that pie at fellowship hour after church, gave it to her right in front of God and everybody, and said how much he'd always admired her as a Christian woman and a compassionate soul, and he'd made her that pie 'just to remind you of that, bless your heart, Miz Vickers' and I swear, if she hadn't been sat down already she'd've keeled right over, he was that cold."

"What did he do to the pie?" Jack asked, morbidly curious. "Poison it?"

"You shut your mouth, dear" Mrs. Bittle said. "Dicky would never ruin a good pie. She told me later it was the best pie she'd ever had by a far way, and now she can't even taste pie crust without the guilt spoiling it."

That was one difference between Southern polite and Canada polite, Jack thought: if someone had brought his mama that kind of pie, she wouldn't've eaten it. Gave it away to someone who needed it more, maybe; or let it sit out on the kitchen table, reminding her of what she could've had if she was a better person; or hid it hauntingly in the back of the fridge until someone else told her to stop dwelling on it and threw it away. But you didn't eat a pie like that, you didn't deserve to. In Georgia, he thought, you ate it anyway, just so you'd know exactly what it was you didn't deserve.

"So it might be worth asking Dicky, if you don't know," Mrs. Bittle finished.

He asked Bitty late that night, on the swing on the back porch. Mr. and Mrs. Bittle had gone up to bed some time ago but laughingly told "you young folks" to sit up as long as they wanted.

If they had been Jack's parents, that would've definitely been a not-very-veiled invitation for them to make out under the stars. It had been, when he'd been sixteen and golden and sitting out on the porch with Kenny. It had been two days ago, when it was him and Bitty, kissing slow and sweet as the big full moon rose over the house in Montreal.

But this was Bitty's parents, so it was, if anything, a signal that they trusted that they were nice, normal boys who wouldn't even think of anything like that. Not like if one of them was a girl.

They were keeping a good eighteen inches between them even if there was no possible way Bitty's parents would know the difference.

"So what did Ms. Vickers do to deserve the best pie she'd ever tasted?" Jack asked, to distract himself from the way his hand kept creeping toward Bitty's across the empty space.

"Oh Lord!" Bitty said, laughing. "Mama told you that old story? What brought that up?"

"Something about the way you said 'Bless your heart', I think," Jack told him, staring up at a silver-haloed moon.

"Oh," Bitty said, and then "Ohhhh. Well, she didn't do anything to me, actually, Jack. She was never anything but sweet to Coach Bittle's kid. But she had a nephew who got this seventeen-year-old girl in trouble, and then even after his daddy gave them a real talking-to Courtnee wouldn't marry him - which I don't blame her, that boy was not marrying material at all, and Miz Vickers ought to have known it if anyone did - but you should have heard the things she said about her, in open company, and the poor child with enough to worry about already. 'Ungrateful' was the least of it. Courtnee didn't want me to drive her down to Atlanta - I surely offered - but damned if I wasn't going to do what I could. And Mrs. Vickers never did say anything else about it, she even gave Courtnee a baby shower in the end, so it all came round."

"Ah," Jack said. Bitty was telling him, clear as day, I don’t get that mad when people do something to me. I’m mad at Kent Parson, bless his heart, because of what he said to you, Jack. "You haven't sent a cursed pie to Kent Parson, have you?" he asked casually.

"Jack Zimmermann!" Bitty said, and flushed, "As if I would even think about a thing like that."

Jack looked at him and said "Mmm-hmm," not believing it for a minute.

Bitty stuck his nose in the air.

"He doesn't... deserve it," Jack said, feeling incredibly awkward in the way he usually didn't around Bitty, these days, and wondering if he was cursed, to keep seeing Kenny around every corner this week. "What he said at the kegster was way out of line, but everything between us is all... at least as much my fault as his."

It was Bitty's turn to make a noise of disbelief, and then he shoved over next to him, a compact warm package of boyfriend snuggled into his side.

Jack raised an eyebrow, but put an arm around him anyway.

"You and me are bros," Bitty explained. "Being bros. Mama and Coach know all about hockey bros. Besides, I'm at least 90% sure they're asleep by now."

"Mmm," Jack said, and didn't lean over to kiss him, even though he thought maybe he should, even though he wanted to.

The next day started early. It would have anyway - Jack went for a dawn run, when it was still cool enough to be a good idea, and Bitty, yawningly, joined him. By the time they were back and showered, Mrs. Bittle was already in the kitchen, marinating meat and rolling pie crust. She shoved some waffles and bacon at them, with golden syrup instead of maple, and then shooed them both out into the backyard to "help Coach get set up."

This involved mowing the already immaculate lawn, re-edging the flowerbeds, putting up several canopies, and then moving them and various tables and chairs around according to Coach Bittle's directions. Bitty begged off after the gardening was done to help his mother cook. Coach looked after him with an expression on his face that was completely unreadable.

Jack hoped his own was unreadable. Luckily he'd been told it pretty much always was.

He would rather have gone in too - he wanted nothing more than to go back into the air-conditioned house, sit at the kitchen table, steal food while he watched them cook, and silently tease Bitty. But it seemed safer to go and be manly and help Coach move the largest picnic table another three feet closer to the shade of the big live oak, and then start dragging barbecue supplies out of the back shed.

Around lunchtime, Coach called it good enough, and then went back in, where Mrs. Bittle cut a peach pie for them.

"This one's a little too brown on top," she explained. "Not good enough for real company, but you were Dicky's team captain so you're practically family, eh, Jack? And we're eating at three so I don't want y'all to spoil your appetites, but I know how you boys work up an appetite out there."

Coach made approving noises as he ate.

It was very good pie, even if Mrs. Bittle didn't think it was company quality. Bitty was across the room washing baking dishes and didn't make a move to join them. Jack thought about how his mother had told Bitty that any boyfriend of Jack's was family to them, and kept his head down, and ate the pie.

Carrying food out to the tables kept him busy until guests started arriving, all of them bringing more food, until the picnic tables were groaning under the weight and a couple of Coach's football players had to carry the ping-pong table up from the basement for the overflow.

He realized in the back of his mind he'd expected something like one of Kenny's birthday parties at the park in his hometown in New York, with better food and worse beer and different accents maybe, less Springsteen, and nobody actually expecting him and Bitty to be all over each other the way he and Kenny had never bothered hiding.

It was and wasn't. Kenny's family was his mom, grandma, sisters and aunt, and his sisters' friends and some guys from various hockey teams who could make it down for the weekend. Bitty's family was more aunts, uncles, cousins, and assorted less specific relations than he could keep track of for more than five minutes. Along with several teams' worth of football players that had been Coach's boys. And their families. And there wasn't any beer at all.

"Well, my cousin Harry's kid Belinda and her husband are recovering, so it's just easier to call the whole event teetotal," Mrs. Bittle told him as they sat by the drink table. "Besides, with Coach's boys here, we wouldn't. You and I know teenagers are going to drink if they want to, but there's no call encouraging it, I say."

Jack though about how his dad had started offering him and Kenny beer with dinner as soon as they'd started Juniors, and how even when he was just out of rehab nobody had suggested not keeping up that part of the family routine. And then a man Jack vaguely remembered having been introduced to as one of Bitty's Phelps uncles came up to grab a Coke (actually a Dr. Pepper, but in Georgia, it was always Coke, he had been learned), and decided to strike up a monologue about current events.

"...And the whole country's going to hell in a handbasket. Letting the gays marry! Next thing you know it'll be people marrying pigs. Or kids. I say we should try to secede, see what those Godless liberals in Washington think about that."

"I wouldn't know, bénisse votre cœur," Jack said, playing up his accent. "I'm Canadian."

The man gave him a confused look. Mrs. Bittle gave him a sharp one. Jack was on the verge of saying the sort of thing Jack Zimmermann didn't say, not unless he was in private, yelling in Kenny's face. "My leg's falling asleep," he said. "I'm going to go walk around a bit."

He didn't make it even to the grill before he overheard Coach telling somebody about how he wouldn't want any daughter of his using a public bathroom if "those people" were allowed in, and one of the other men saying "surprised you let Dicky use 'em then," and everybody laughing as Coach said, "Did I tell you his NCAA team up North made the Frozen Four this year? His team captain went to the NHL, he's come down--" and Jack's heart broke a little, and he went to find Bitty.

He was standing under the peach tree with a couple cousins his own age, talking about Chowder's goalkeeping, to judge by the hand motions, but as soon as he saw Jack his face lit up. "Jack!" he said, "There you are! They need another team for flag football," and dragged him to the empty field across the street that they had permission to use for party overflow.

'They need another team' apparently meant Jack was going to be playing on his own against the entire pack of four-to-twelve-year-olds, in a game vaguely resembling football where the only rule seemed to be that to make someone give up possession of the ball you had to grab a bandanna out of somebody's waistband instead of tackling them. This rule didn't seem to stop the five-year-old twins from trying to climb him like a tree to bring him down, however.

"You're a real pro sports star," Bitty yelled at him from the sidelines, "You can take a few checks," and hung around watching with a grin on his face for a couple minutes before he wandered back to the grown-ups' side of the party.

He should've known that telling Bitty about how much he'd loved coaching peewee would come back around to bite him. After the littlest ones got tired out and tumbled into a hammock in the shade, the rest self-organized into something more resembling an actual game, with two teams of color-coded bandannas and actual goal lines. They appointed Jack referee despite his protests that he knew nothing about football.

"Well, we can't let you play," one of the pre-adolescent captains told him, "You're too good and even if we talked one of the varsity football players into joining the other side it wouldn't be fair, but Dicky said we had to keep you busy so you didn't just stand around looking awkward and scary, so you get to be ref. Don't worry," he added, "we'll try to make it easy on you. Unless Jason cheats again."

"I don't cheat!" said Jason, who was about four feet tall. "You cheat!" And there it went, Jack had to start refereeing already. It was good. Coaching peewee had been good, and Bitty knew him well enough to know that. He didn't miss it, because he didn't miss who he'd been then. But he was still that person, sometimes. And kids helped.

Refereeing kept him busy until the sun started down and the fireflies came out and they had to clear the pasture for fireworks - little Jason's team lost two out of three, despite the cheating, which Jack had started to suspect was mostly to give him something to do.

Bitty brought him a large wedge of watermelon and dragged him down to sit on a plaid blanket next to where his parents had set up lawn chairs, and they sat stretched out and watched as Coach's football players lit off a collection of fireworks in increasingly foolhardy ways, until Coach had to go up and supervise. Other displays went up in every direction around the horizon, and Bitty and his mother took turns telling him whose they were and how far away they were. It was almost too much like watching the fireworks on Kenny's birthday, except neither of them were in each other's laps, and neither of them were drunk, and he definitely wasn't going to be able to kiss Bitty during the finale.

Lee Greenwood was drawling on someone's ipod speakers about how he could lose everything as long as long as he had his children and his wife and America, and that had never bothered Jack before despite all of Shitty's teasing about his taste in music. Lee Greenwood could love his wife without it being an assault of Jack. But somehow on a blanket in the Georgia summer evening it was just one more stinging reminder of who Jack would never get to be.

The Red Team captain from the flag football came by dragging a wagon full of ice-packed freezers and a trail of smaller children. Bitty forced him to take a two-scoop waffle cone of homemade chocolate-chocolate chip. "It's dairy, Jack, lots of protein. Think of it as a double-double."

"He's a good kid," Jack said, watching the wagon roll away to the next blanket of people.

"Oh, yes, you were helping with the football, weren't you, Jack?" Mrs. Bittle said brightly. "I always like to see a man who's good with kids. You have any plans to meet a nice girl, find some of your own? New generation of Zimmermanns on skates?"

"Mom!" Bitty said, flushing. "Bad enough you pull that with me, leave Jack alone."

"And I do still expect grandkids from you, too, sweetheart."

"I think I need to learn how to interact with kids in some mode other than coaching before I think about that," Jack said, trying to cut the tension, and then he saw how Mrs. Bittle was looking at Bitty and realized he'd made it worse.

"Anyway, he was a great team captain. He was really good with the other kids, too, encouraging and keeping them from getting too competitive. A couple of them--" he stopped, and reminded himself again that he wasn't at the rink in Montreal or at Samwell, that Coach's comments about bathrooms hadn't been the worst he'd overheard even since the fireworks started, that 'he told them "gay" wasn't an insult and to shut up or get off the field' wouldn't necessarily be taken as a recommendation. "A couple of them started getting a little bit personal with the chirping, and he shut it right down. Knows how to keep control of a ball, too."

"I'll make sure to tell Coach to keep his eye on him when he gets to JV. That's Kailen, right?" Bitty asked his mother. "One of the cousins?"

She nodded. "One of my Uncle Bobby's daughter Jenny's ex-boyfriend's wife's kids."

"Dear me, how could I have lost track of that," Bitty said, shaking his head sadly. "Jack, did I forget to warn you that once you've been adopted by the Bittles, you can't get rid of us? You have a standing Independence Day engagement for the rest of forever."

Jack though about the unopened evite sitting in his inbox with the subject line "you're invited to Kent Parson's Birthday Bash!" And the newest Zimmermann family Thanksgiving tradition, his mom inviting Kenny over right before the regular season started and Kenny texting Jack to ask "Do you want me to come, I won't if you don't say yes" and Jack not answering because yes and no would both be equally lies, and anything more complicated was more than he could deal with.

"My parents have adopted you, too, you know," Jack said to Bitty. "You're welcome at all Zimmermann family events now. They still invite some of my friends from back in the Q to Thanksgiving." He wondered if Bitty knew him well enough to read 'friends from the Q' as 'Kent Parson'. Wondered if Bitty would understand he meant that even if everything between them went wrong, his parents wouldn't give up on him. On Bitty, or on Jack. Wondered if he knew that even if the worst happened and Bitty's parents did give up on him, Jack would cede him his without thinking twice.

"We really have to get Coach up to one of your home games to meet Bad Bob someday," Bitty said.

"Good luck luring him north of the Mason-Dixon line," Mrs. Bittle said, laughing. "I haven't managed yet."

"Talking about me?" Coach asked, sitting back down with his own ice-cream cone.

"Dicky's planning to get you up to New England next year," Mrs. Bittle said. "See Jack play."

"Huh. Well, that'd be a thing," he said, and shot Jack another one of those sharp looks.

They ran out of fireworks by about half-past nine, and by ten people were starting to trickle home - first the families with small children, then the high schoolers, presumably going to a party that did have alcohol. A little after eleven Mrs. Bittle shooed away the last few relations who were trying to help with clean-up, and the four of them split a bottle of sweet red wine and one last cherry pie before the elder Bittles went up to bed.

Bitty sat with Jack on the porch for awhile, but he was yawning, so Jack told him to go up to bed too.

"You sure?" Bitty said.

"I'll be fine," he said. "I just need to let all that food settle for awhile before I tackle the rest of the pie." He had half a slice still sitting on a plate next to a mostly-full goblet of wine that he hadn't been able to force down after the ridiculous amount of food he'd had already. And all of the other things, said and unsaid, he'd had to swallow that day.

Mostly he needed time without people, but he didn't really know how to say that to Bitty yet without it sounding like he didn't want Bitty.

Bitty laughed, and went upstairs.

Jack sat on the swing by himself and thought.

He thought about how Bitty fit into Georgia, all the family and friends and places and stories he was a part of, laughing with his father and his uncles as they did something with barbeque sauce at the grill, cooking in his mama's kitchen, racing Jack down twisting back roads in the morning light. How he let his accent go and seemed steadier and looser and part of everything, the way he never quite did at Samwell.

He thought about all the ways Bitty didn't fit there. About the narrow definition of masculinity that Jack matched perfectly, at least if you ignored the years of therapy, and also ignored all the other things nobody here knew about. About how Bitty had an uneasy truce at best with that masculinity. About how you had to cling to that masculinity at all costs, because the alternative was unthinkable. About the way sports was woven tight into everything about life here, the way even hockey wasn't in Montreal. About the way Coach's son Dicky was almost as much of a local celebrity as Bad Bob's son. The fierce tribal loyalty that meant they'd accept and defend things from their athletic heroes that they'd spit on from anyone else.

He thought about how he'd always thought of himself as the closeted one, and Bitty as the gloriously, radiantly out one, with his Beyonce and his baking vlog. And how he'd had no idea what being closeted really meant until he'd come to Georgia: how exhausting it was, how confining, how Bitty had lived his whole life like this before Samwell, how he held himself so differently here that you probably couldn't even tell how much smaller he was making himself until you'd seen him dancing in tiny shorts by the pond at Samwell.

He understood utterly why Bitty didn't want to come out to his family. Jack wouldn't want to risk losing this either. Oh, he didn't think Coach and Mrs. Bittle would disown him or anything, they didn't seem like that kind of people, but he wouldn't have this: tumbling with the little cousins on a blanket, laughing with his aunts over redpop, inviting his college friend to stay over for a week in the summer.

Tightening his shoulders a little bit every time his father started to talk, no matter what the topic was. Carefully making sure he was never alone with more than one of the football players at once. Having to think twice about what he could wear, who he could be. That wouldn't stop being part of Georgia whether he was out or not.

Jack had always expected he'd have to hide who he loved, because it would get in the way of the NHL, and he'd known it wouldn't be easy, and it wasn't, but hockey was more important than anything. He'd never thought anything else would be worth risking it, not even with Kenny. And he'd known Bad Bob would be disappointed in him if he did something stupid and let it get it the way of hockey.

But he'd also known his parents would never think less of him just because he was gay. They'd probably figured out they weren't ever getting a daughter-in-law before he had. His parents friends' hadn't all known, but they'd all known better than to be bigoted about it in the Zimmermann house, or learned fast. So at home, at least, he'd never had to calculate everything, he'd never had to guard himself against a thousand tiny stings, he'd never had to worry about how close he could sit to Kenny on the back porch. He'd never had to be in the closet in the safe private parts of his life, the way Bitty had always had to be.

And then he had let his inability to manage his own feelings get in the way of the hockey, and he'd learned it still didn't matter to his parents, not when it came down to it, and for awhile it had stopped seeming like being gay was even one of the more important things about him.

And then there was Samwell, where he wasn't out because he still wanted the NHL, and there wasn't anything happening to hide anyway, but he knew he could be out, and nobody there would be anything but happy about him. And now he had the NHL, and he had the Falconers, where he hadn't told anyone outside the management but he had Georgia's absolute reassurance that he could tell the team anytime he wanted to and there would be no problems, in that way that strongly implied someone else on the team had gone first. And she'd said that if he did get publicly outed, the Falconers' PR people had a contingency plan that they were, in confidence, dying to get a chance to use.

So he'd planned on hiding, at least enough for public deniability, but he hadn't thought they'd have to be too careful, not look-over-your-shoulders-all-the-time careful, and maybe if his first few seasons went well they could think about going public.

He'd thought he was the one dragging Bitty back into the closet.

He'd forgotten that-- Shitty talked sometimes about how "coming out is a process, bro, it's not something you do once, it's part of your life. Shit sucks, but that's life under heteronormativity. Upside is it means you still get some control over who knows what, and when. You'll want privacy for that shit sometimes no matter how much you're okay with who you are. Downside is you can't just 'come out' once and then never have to deal with all the hetero bullcrap again." It was part of his standard patter for reassuring freshmen who'd just come out to him.

Bitty was good at that, at being out some places and not others, at showing just as much of himself as he could get away with, as much as he needed to survive, a self for Georgia and a self for the internet and a self for the Haus and a self for the rest of Samwell and a self just for Jack.

Jack had the hockey robot, and the identity he'd painfully, teeth-grittingly carved out of the hockey robot since Samwell, and that was it. He couldn't give up the first one and he couldn't bear to give up the second one and he wasn't sure he could be the Jack he'd had to be this weekend for very long, not without reverting to the first or losing the second or falling back on the self he'd been with Kenny, angry and reckless and scared and stupid and in pain. That self hadn't known how to be partly out and partly in anyway; he'd just been working really hard at not thinking about the future, not beyond the draft.

Of course, Jack had always known that Shitty's speech on coming-out-as-a-process didn't apply to him. He could be out to his very closest friends and his family and in the closet everywhere else, or he could come out once and for all. And if he did that, everybody in North America - right down to Uncle Phelps and Kailen, probably - would know him ever after as Bad Bob's gay son, the first fag in the NHL.

He thought about Kailen, already old enough to know when to be kinder than his parents. And Bitty, and the way he looked on figure skates. And Kenny, age sixteen, scared and putting up a brave front and not even out to his mom yet, and the Jack who'd kissed him then, just as scared and just as brave and knowing even then that he had nothing to lose but hockey.

The other thing about coming out all at once to the world was that it wouldn't be just about him. It couldn't be. He'd be doing it for those scared kids, sure, but it would also mean his every public interaction with Bitty or Shitty or Kenny or his new teammates being examined under a microscope. It would be Suzanne telling Bitty that maybe he should be careful spending so much time around that man.

Bitty could be out in Massachusetts and keep to the closet in Georgia, but he couldn't be Jack Zimmerman's boyfriend in public and also in the closet in Georgia. It didn't work like that.

And then there was Kenny. And years' worth of recklessness in the Q that meant they were always going to be linked in the press, that neither of them kept a secret that was only his.

He'd known he'd have to figure out what-- he'd have to figure out Kenny. Sooner rather than later, now that he wasn't in the safe cocoon of college anymore. And he couldn't let Kenny haunting him interfere with his play, and he knew it would, one way or another.

And if he did decide to come out in the press-- it couldn't be just his secret. He'd have to at least be able to be civil with Kenny first. He'd always known that. Be able to talk to him. This probably wasn't the best time for it but it wouldn't be the best time once training camp started, either, and during the season definitely wasn't and he thought, maybe, here, he was in a place where he could be brave enough to push through it. Madison, Georgia, of all places.

He look up at Bitty's darkened window, and then said "Eat the damn pie, Zimmermann," right out loud, and turned on his phone and opened Skype before he could think better of it.

Kent Parson's name was on his contacts list, because why wouldn't it be? He ignored the years' worth of unread text messages and typed "Happy Birthday, Kenny."

And then, before he could chicken out, "We should talk properly sometime."

There was no way Kenny would actually check Skype before morning; he knew Kenny and he knew that the party wouldn't be ending until the wee hours. That gave Jack at least until morning to figure out if he was actually going through with it, and Kenny the chance to take his time figuring out how he wanted to reply.

So, of course, less than a minute later, there was a reply: "Sure. Are you free now? Now works for me," and then almost immediately an invite to a video call.

Jack nearly turned off his phone and ran upstairs immediately. He could always claim later, if he was asked, that he'd sent the messages right before bed and been away from his phone by the time Kenny answered. But then, he couldn't make himself imagine any scenario in which Kenny asking why he hadn't answered would end well.

"Kenny, it really wasn't urgent, this could have waited," he said, as soon as the image came clear on the screen. Kenny's eyes were a flat toneless gray on the screen.

"Zimms, I did not need to wait, I've been waiting for this call for years," he said, and then stopped, ran a hand through his hair. "That came out wrong, didn't it? That sounded creepy. Or just sad. Look, can we just agree for this conversation that we all get unlimited takebacks when we say shit we shouldn't have said? I promise I haven't been sitting around lonely and pining for you for six years."

Jack raised his eyebrows. It was a Saturday night, a holiday, and his birthday, and he could see that Kenny clearly wasn't out at a party; he was in a loose old Oceanics t-shirt and sleep pants, and the camera showed a large, mostly empty apartment behind him, picture windows screened with blackout curtains.

"Okay, this looks bad," he said. "I admit that this looks bad. The guys and I went out for my birthday last night, this is my recovery day. You should have come, Taylor really wanted to meet you."

Knowing Kenny, 'Taylor' was about equally likely to be either Tyler Seguin or Taylor Swift. That was more like the Kenny he'd been expecting, and he started to relax a little.

"So yeah," Kenny said, "Me and Kit are just having some quality family time tonight, you aren't interrupting anything."

"Is that what that noise is?" Jack asked. There was a sort of distressed yodeling coming over the speaker under Kenny's voice.

Kenny grinned. "Yeah, she's upset that I'm paying attention to someone who isn't her. And she doesn't like the fireworks. Say hi to Zimms, Kit!" he said, and lifted up a lump of angry, indistinct fur that was presumably the most famous feline in hockey.

"Hi Kit," Jack said.

She yowled and slashed at the camera and he put her down. "So what's the noise on your end? Weirdest rave beat I've ever heard."

It took him a second to realize even what Kenny was asking about; it was amazing how quickly you got used to things like a constant buzzing whine in the background. "I'm told it's cicadas," he said. "I'm in Georgia. At my boyfriend's parents' house." And left the rink to Kenny on that play.

"The cute little blond with the drawl?" Kenny said after a worryingly short pause.

"Is it that obvious?" Jack asked.

"I doubt it, knowing you. But you forget, I saw you together. And I know what you look like when you're desperately pretending not to have feelings for someone."

"Ah," Jack said. He probably should have been offended at that, too, at Kenny thinking he knew what Jack wanted. But. Well. He was probably right, this time. And he could be a grown-up for the length of one Skype call.

Kenny peered at him. "So what was it you wanted to talk about?" he said.

"I can't just want to talk?"

"After how many years?"

Jack winced. "Yeah. I'm. Sorry. It's been brought to my attention that 'ghosting' someone is. 'Not cool.'"

"Someone taught you the word 'ghosting'!" Kenny said brightly. "It's like you're less than forty years old! The little boytoy must be good for you."

"Fuck off, Kenny," Jack said, eyes narrowed.

"Yeah. So," Kenny said. "It might have been brought to my attention that cornering you in your safe place at college was also a dick move. Actually, I might have realized that myself, five, ten seconds after we started screaming at each other."

"It was," Jack agreed. He'd spent quite awhile trying to convince himself that if Kenny hadn't been the pushy, boundary-lacking asshole he was, and had found him somewhere that he could leave, maybe they would have both gotten out of that conversation without a meltdown, maybe they could have managed to communicate.

Probably not. Even six months ago, Jack though he would've been a lot less ready for this. But it had been a useful way to shift all the blame to Kenny.

"It was probably also a dick move to keep trying to contact you years after I'd been comprehensively ghosted," Kenny added.

Jack shook his head at that one. "I mean, probably. It was you, Kenny," he added with a half-smile. "But I could've told you to stop. And I never did. I liked knowing you still gave a damn even if I couldn't give you anything. It was selfish as hell of me."

Kenny shoved down the cat that was trying to get back up on his lap. "So," he said. "If I agree not to corner you again, and you agree to occasionally voluntarily talk to me, do you think we can be, like, mature adults and shit?"

"It's not going to be like it was, Kenny. I'm with Bitty and that's not going to change. And I'm not playing for the Aces."

"You say that," Kenny said, "But you're in the NHL now, buddy. You go where your contract goes, and the Aces are still looking for a new--"

"Actively trying to get one or both of us traded to the same team counts as cornering me," Jack interrupted.

"Fuck," Kenny said. "Fine. Fair. Mature adults who are friends and communicate and shit, right?"

"I can try if you can try."

"So what brought this on? An excess of patriotism?"

Jack laughed. "No. It's just... Bitty's not out. And I kept thinking of you this weekend." It occurred to him only after he'd said it that those wouldn't necessarily have an obvious connection to each other.

But Kenny, being Kenny, knew what he meant better than he did. "I hate to be the one to tell this to you," Kenny said. "But neither of us are out, either."

"Bitty's not out to his parents," Jack said.

Kenny shook his head. "That's gotta be weird."

"They're very... Georgia," he said.

"Lots of football and old-time religion?"

"Exactly."

"At least you can talk about country music with 'em, eh?"

Jack winced. "It's amazing how homophobic and misogynistic you don't realize a culture can be when you only listen to what gets radio play in Massachusetts. I've been. Thinking about coming out."

Kenny narrowed his eyes. "Oh, now we learn why you finally decided it was worth talking to me."

"No!" Jack protested. "I'm just tired of... everything us... still being an open wound. When everything else is getting better. You have every right to throw it back in my face. I know I haven't been fair. And, yeah, I also know that coming out without getting it right with you first would be the ultimate dick move."

"Good thing you know I'm secretly a softie, huh?" Kenny said. "Well, there goes my excuse."

"Your excuse?"

"Yeah, you know, 'I can't come out even if I want to because that would bring back all the old stories and screw things up for Zimms. He's delicate, he can't take it'."

"You can," Jack said blankly. "If you want." Somehow it had never even occurred to him that Kenny would be first, but then, Kenny'd always been the braver one. "I could weather it. And I've screwed enough up for you."

"I knew that somehow," Kenny said. "If I'd really wanted to I could've asked you through your parents, and you wouldn't have said no. But you made a good excuse."

"I'm just an excuse now?"

"Zimms," Kenny said, leaning forward seriously, "You've always been my best excuse. 'I missed that goal because I learned bad habits from Zimmermann,' 'I can't go out tonight because I have to stay in and be sad about Zimmerman, it's on my calendar,' 'I went clubbing and got hungover the night before the game because I'm still traumatized'-- Oh. Too soon to joke?"

"You are such an ass, Kenny," Jack said, letting out a long breath.

"Well, some things don't change. Zimms, I'd been leaning on that excuse too long, I've been thinking about it too. Just being too chicken to do anything about it. Not having any urgent reason to."

"Don't make me your reason," Jack said. "Not if you don't want to. Look, I haven't even talked to Bitty yet. I could do it without outing him, maybe, but it would be complicated. And if I do, it won't be for at least a year, maybe two. The Falcs' GM says coming out in my rookie season would be the wrong place in the narrative. But. Eventually. Maybe."

Kit dropped off the camera for a second, then reappeared holding the cat, who still looked disgruntled. "Okay," he said. "Look. Have your PR people talk to the Aces' PR people, okay? Tell them when you're ready they can work me into their narrative if it helps. We can backstop each other."

"Don't. Just for me."

Kenny shook his head. "For me. I think. Look, let me keep using you as my excuse, okay? This is going to be hard enough as it is without me having to peel open my feelings on that too."

"That's probably not healthy," Jack said. "But fine."

"Greatness. Okay, did you need to say anything else right now? Only Kit wants her second dinner and I have to go-- saying 'go have a panic attack' would be dick-level insensitive here, wouldn't it?"

"Probably," Jack said. "But if anyone's earned the right-- are you going to go have a panic attack?"

"I'm going to go drink tequila shots and watch The Great British Bake-Off until running out into the desert to hide from this entire thing stops sounding like a great plan," Kenny said. "I dunno, does that count?"

"I'll ask my therapist. Good night, Kenny. Don't, uh, go too far overboard with the tequila, eh?"

"Yeah," Kenny said. "Hey. Zimms. Don't be a stranger, okay? Talk to me anytime."

"Right," Jack said.

"I mean it," Kenny said.

"I promise."

"Okay." Kenny took a deep breath. "'Night, Zimms."

"Night, Kenny. Happy birthday."

"It's getting there," Kenny said, and closed the call.

Jack took a deep breath, and stared out into the night, watched a few fireflies blinking aimlessly around. A panic attack was sounding pretty good, actually. Except not at all. Ever. And he wasn't, really, feeling it. Like he wanted to crawl out of his skin, maybe, but that was probably just the talking about feelings part.

"I had a conversation with Kenny and the world didn't end," he told the fireflies. Someone in the distance set off some very late fireworks, red and white against the sky, and he leaned back in the swing. He should ask Bitty about the merits of The Great British Bake-Off as a coping mechanism.

That made him remember something, and he reopened Skype.

"By the way, Kenny," he text-messaged under the phone call. "Did anyone happen to send you a pie lately?"

"Actually, yeah. A month or so ago?," he sent back. "Your boyfriend sent it, it was amazing. The card with it read 'bless your heart, Kent Parson' so I figured it was him trying to demonstrate why you were dating *him* when you could have someone much cooler."

"Pretty effective argument in his favor," Kenny added a moment later. "I no longer wonder why you're dating him, that's for sure."

The 'person is typing' indicator was still blinking. "Either that or it was a thank-you for introducing you to the joys of gay sex, in which case tell him you're welcome and I deserve at least one more pie for teaching you that thing with the tongue."

Jack shook his head. Apparently in Las Vegas, you ate the pie and failed to even notice you were supposed to feel bad about it. "I'm fairly sure you got that one from your sister's Cosmo, so no," he typed back. "But I'll tell Bitty you liked his pie. And-- thanks."

"Np," Kenny replied. "What for?"

"Just-- thanks," Jack said. Thanks for not overthinking pie. Thanks for still being there, mostly. And he went upstairs to sleep on the futon in the spare room that shared a wall with Bitty's.