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Broken Rules

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May 17, 2016: Providence, RI

“George wants to see you tomorrow, before the game,” Jack said, burying his nose in Bitty’s hair.

They were lying under a sheet in Jack’s—in their bed. Life had been a weird blur for a while, but the busy had only intensified around the rush of playoffs and graduation and Bitty moving to Providence for the summer. Plans had already been made for a visit, together, to Georgia, and another to Montreal, but with school out and the media nonsense having mostly settled, their only focus now was Jack’s next playoff game.

“Whatever you need,” Bitty murmured, dropping a weary kiss on Jack’s chest. “God, I missed you.”

“Sorry I couldn’t be at graduation,” Jack said.

“Sweetheart, literally everyone understood. I just hated missing the game. Holster cried when he found out I was staying for grad.”

“He was touched?” Jack asked.

“Upset, actually,” Bitty said. “Worried I might be sabotaging your whole team by not showing up, just to watch them get their papers.”

“We won anyway,” Jack said. “I’m not incapable when you’re not there.”

“I told him that. And besides, Pittsburgh and finals weren’t compatible anyway.”

“Pretty sure you’re traveling with us for the rest of the season,” Jack said.

“Whatever you need. Until I find a job, I’m a kept man. At your service.”

“You’re worth keeping on the payroll for your cooking alone, chéri,” Jack said, laughing.

Bitty laughed and said, “Oh, is that all you love me for?”

“That, and your cock,” Jack said.

“Well, that’s fair, since I’m really only here for your ass,” Bitty chirped back.

“I actually think she wants to offer you a job.” Jack’s hand moved absently up and down Bitty’s back.

“Mascot?” Bitty asked.

“Nah, you do that for free. Something about outreach and publicity. That cooking show thing, maybe?”

“I should get a costume,” Bitty said.

“For the cooking show?” Jack’s confusion drew a laugh out of Bitty.

“For the mascotting,” Bitty said, nudging Jack lazily with his leg.

“I want to be able to see your face,” Jack said.

“Well, like I said, I’m here to do whatever you need,” Bitty said.

“Anything?”

“We already did that. Like five minutes ago. And you have a game tomorrow.”

“I really missed you, Bits.”

“I’m here, now. We’ve got three months together.”

“Bits…” Jack stopped, and sighed.

“What?”

“I… Please, if she doesn’t offer you a job, or it isn’t right for you… I… Please don’t… I mean, I… shit.”

Bitty pushed himself onto his elbow and looked at Jack. “I need to make money for the next school year.”

“You don’t,” Jack said. “You really don’t.”

“Jack, I can’t…”

“You can,” Jack said. “I want you to. We have so little time, and I have ridiculous amounts of money, and calisse, I could just fucking pay for your school and it wouldn’t make a dent in my budget for the next ten years. There is literally nothing I would rather spend my money on than being able to spend more time with you. You know you’re capable of making money. You’ve done it several summers running. You know and I know that you could walk into any bakery in town and they’d take you on tout de suite. But you’d be leaving the house at 2 am and coming back at noon, exhausted, and maybe in a year or two during the season that might make sense when I’m gone, but can we just have this summer? Can you let me make up the difference?”

“She might offer me a job,” Bitty said. “I… If she doesn’t, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack dragged Bitty out of bed for a run the next morning at 6 am. Bitty started to make “but vacation” noises, and Jack just laughed and threw shorts at him.

“If you tag along on my workouts,” Jack said, as they slowed to jog in place at a crosswalk, “you’ll have an easy time during conditioning in August. Maybe even put on some muscle.”

“You’d like that,” Bitty said. “Besides, who’s tagging along with who?” He sprinted away as the light changed, and Jack was hard pressed to keep up.

Back at the house, Bitty stared for a long moment at the instructions from the nutritionist, and then, with a grim and determined look on his face began chopping veggies.

“I can…” Jack started, but stopped as Bitty shot him a look.

“Veggie three-cheese omelette, sweet potato/turkey sausage hash, and a bowl of fresh berries for breakfast. Lightly glazed salmon with brown rice pilaf and steamed broccoli for lunch. Whole grain banana pecan muffins for the team pregame, plus a mixed charcuterie and fruit plate, with yogurt smoothies. Sound about right?” Bitty didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “Breakfast will be in about thirty minutes. I’m getting my chop prep and prebake done and then taking a three-minute shower, everything else goes together very quickly. Lunch at noon. The muffins will be done around the time we’re done eating.”

Jack nodded.

“Now, git. You smell,” Bitty said, a little smile playing across his face as he moved the peppers aside and put the onion in place. “Plus, you’ll cry like a baby if you stick around for this part.”

“Yes, sir,” Jack said, chuckling.

_x_ _x_ _x_

They arrived together at the rink after lunch, the tray of warm muffins cooling in a tote in the footwell of the back seat of Jack’s SUV.

There were a couple reporters hanging around in advance of the game that night. Someone called out to them as they went in the back way, Jack loaded with a bag of equipment and Bitty’s arms full of tote, “Are you going to win tonight, Jack?”

“Got my good luck charm, don’t I?” Jack retorted, laughing, and bumping Bitty’s hip.

“Watch it, sweetheart, the muffins….” Bitty said.

“What do you have, Bittle?” the reporter called back.

“Didn’t your mama teach you any manners? Come over here and stop yelling if you’re going to ask me about food.” Bitty turned to look at the reporter. Jack raised an eyebrow, as they had mostly dodged the press in the two months since they’d come out.

A moment later, the reporter and his camera guy were in front of them.

Bitty shifted the tote to his hip and handed them muffins. “Y’all’ll find the recipe on my YouTube channel,” he said, smiling into the camera. “These are Game Day Banana Pecan Whole Grain Muffins.”

“Is it hard keeping up with the nutritional demands of an NHL player?” the reporter asked.

“I like challenges,” Bitty said, with a fond look at Jack.

“Hey Jack,” another reporter came up, “how’s it been being out?”

“Looking forward to playing great hockey tonight,” Jack said, and he and Bitty walked away.

“Don’t I get a muffin?” the guy asked.

Bitty turned back, raised an eyebrow, and then went through the door Jack was holding open.

_x_ _x_ _x_

George looked up as Bitty came into her office, and accepted his offered muffin with a smile. “Bribery will get you everywhere.”

“It isn’t bribery,” he said. “It’s just… how I say hello.”

She laughed and gestured at the overstuffed leather chair in front of her desk, then looked back down at her laptop. “So, you’re done with school for a few months.”

He nodded, sitting primly upright on the chair.

“I can’t hire you right now,” she said, not really looking up, her fingers moving on the laptop keyboard. “Not without getting into some very dicey areas of the rules surrounding NCAA eligibility for next year at Samwell.”

He sighed, and nodded. “I was wondering.”

“I can, however, offer you a part-time internship,” she said. “Unpaid. But I think you’ll find the schedule reasonable enough. I’ve also put out some feelers, and there’s a position open that might dovetail nicely with our interests and yours. We’re putting some money into a local youth outreach program. They work with disadvantaged and LBGT youth. There’s a drop-in center, and they need friendly people there to keep the doors open longer hours. They have a grant, so you’ll be getting roughly $900 per month as a cost-of-living stipend. We’re also willing and able to provide you with your baking supplies for anything you make for the team or the center. We like your stuff, kiddo, but no one wants to see you go broke buying butter.”

“What’s the schedule?” he asked.

“It’s not our traditional internship. We have… more interest in you long-term than we typically would with someone your age not on the team. Oddly enough, that will make your work demands lighter. Here, we’d want you present for every game for the rest of the season, of course, and working with our nutritionists for about five hours per week all summer long. Most of that will be study time for you, learning what they expect and why. In order to meet the legal requirements of an unpaid internship, the internship needs to be for your benefit more than ours. Before we get back into preseason for next year, we’ll be doing a week-long intensive with our athletes and their spouses and significant others on nutrition and meal planning for athletes. We’ve got some big names coming, and the plan is that you’ll have one-on-one time with each of them.”

“Wow,” he said.

“I might, theoretically, have some abstract plans for after you graduate, assuming you remain… beneficial to Jack’s game.”

“You mean, as long as I’m still dating him?” Bitty asked.

She shrugged. “Like I said, I don’t want to mess with your NCAA eligibility. But I have… ideas for your future. We’d like to see you at as many games as you can fit in your schedule.”

He nodded, then gave a sly smile. “So I assume that if Jack continues playing as well as he has, it would be reflected in a salary bonus?”

She looked up then, one corner of her mouth turned up as she raised her eyebrows at him.

“I’m sure that’s a discussion between his agent and management.”

He grinned.

She wrote a figure on a piece of paper, and held it up. “We take the Cup, that’s his,” she said. “But you didn’t hear that from me.”

“Hear what?” Bitty said, raising his eyebrows at the figure on the paper.

“So, you game?”

He grinned. “When do I start?”

“Please tell me you’re coming to tonight’s game? I really don’t want this one going to seven.”

He nodded.

She took a bite of the muffin. “Did you make this from the guidelines?’

“It’s whole wheat, but white whole wheat, because it has a better texture, with added gluten, egg-rich, lots of ripe bananas, and the only added sugar is in the maple glaze on the nuts, but because it’s caramelized, the sugar is less ‘shocky’ to the system.”

She stared long and hard at the muffin in her hand.

“That’s whole wheat?”

“Higher protein, too. I estimate about 8 grams per. Oh, and the only fat is from the eggs and the nuts, I subbed extra banana for the sugar and the oil.” He grinned. “I can even do them gluten-free, god forbid, if you have any players who have jumped on that bandwagon.”

“Staff, yes, players not so much, though that can vary week to week,” she said.

“Do you guys have a gluten-free kitchen on site?” he asked.

“In the daycare,” she said.

“There’s a daycare here?” he asked.

“We’ve got a lot of families and it simplifies some things,” she said. “But enough of the kids are gluten-free that they decided to just keep the daycare kitchen gluten-free and if they want to do gluten stuff they come over and cook it in the main kitchen to keep things separate. Why? You sound surprised?”

“I used to babysit,” he said. “Kinda miss it.”

“You and Jack thinking about…”

He laughed. “Lord, no. I mean, I’m 21. Like maybe a decade from now? I just like babies. They’re… uncomplicated little people.”

“Uncomplicated…” at that she just shook her head.

“Do you have kids?” he asked.

She snorted. “My wife’s a teacher. She spends all day every day surrounded by eight-year-olds, and me, I’ve got the team. I don’t have time for more infants. I’m surrounded by twenty of ’em.”

“Jack included?” Bitty said, holding back a smile.

“Nah, he’s one of the calm ones. We’ve got more than twenty guys on the team. But look, I’m texting you the details for this volunteer position. Call them tomorrow, please. They’ll be expecting you. You can start when the season is done.”

He looked down as his phone buzzed, and then nodded. “So, June 8?”

She laughed.

“Hey, I’m going to every game between now and then… If your goalie can keep the puck out of the net, and Jack keeps putting it in…”

“Get out of my office, Bittle,” she said. “Oh, but you can bring me another muffin when you get a chance.”

“If the ravening hordes haven’t devoured the other 95. 93. I gave two to a reporter and his camera guy.”

“Asked about your cooking, did they?”

“Yep. The asshole who asked about Jack being out in the NHL didn’t get any.”

“Good instincts, kid.”

“Shitty calls it Pavlovian training.”

She laughed and said, “Get out. Some of us have more work to do than baking and looking pretty.”

He started to open his mouth, but she held up a finger and said, “Out!”

“Yes, ma’am. Back with your muffin in a minute.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

The muffins were gone, but the layer under the muffins was still intact. He pulled out the cooler bag and found a refrigerator for the meats and fruit and smoothie ingredients, set up the mini blender, snuck a mini pie out of the bottom compartment of the organizer, then latched the tote and slid it under a counter. He’d been to enough of the Providence games to know his way around the breakroom. He quietly slid the pie onto George’s desk and went to watch the warmups.

Jack seemed focused enough as Bitty watched him from behind the glass, but when Jack glanced up and saw him, Bitty could see the immediate shift in energy levels.

Coming off the ice for a breather, Jack said, “Well?”

“Internship plus a volunteer position at an LGBT youth outreach center,” Bitty said. “There’s enough of a stipend that if I let you cover my room and board, I’ll have enough that I won’t have to work another job before the school year starts. And the schedule… we’ll pretty much be doing it all together, if you’re willing to come to the center with me.”

Jack nodded. “If it’s not too much? I mean… I missed you.”

“I missed you too, honey. I—last year was so hard. Sophomore year it felt like we were together all the time, even if we weren’t together-together, and I don’t know, I just—isn’t it a good thing if the more time we spend together, the more we like each other? People talk about needing space and… I don’t. It’s not hard being with you. I don’t feel like I can’t be somewhere else, I just… don’t want to be somewhere else.”

“You always tell me if you need space,” Jack said. “I like that.”

“I do?” Bitty said.

Jack put on his worst attempt at Bitty’s accent and said, “You go over there, y’hear? I need to get this here batch in the oven.”

“I do not sound like that.”

“I tell you when I need space, too,” Jack said. “You never seem to mind when I want to read.”

“I’m all over you when you read.”

“But you don’t talk then. You always talk, but not then. And I like it when you snuggle.” Their heads were close together at this point, and Bitty looked down and blushed.

“Yo, Zimmboni! Save the canoodling for after we win,” Snowy hollered from the ice.

“Shut up, man,” Thirdy said. “It’s good for his game. Canoodle all you want, Zimmbo!”

“Lord, we’re just talking. Chirp him again and just see if you get any victory pies!” Bitty yelled back.

At least six of the players in earshot immediately mimed zipping their mouths shut, even the ones who hadn’t been chirping.

Jack laughed, and flushed, and then got a devilish gleam in his eyes

“Jack Zimmerman, what…”

“I’m just happy,” he said. “Play along. It’s our anniversary.”

Bitty looked momentarily baffled, and then just as he realized what Jack meant, found himself swept up into Jack’s arms for a kiss. He squeaked and flailed for a moment and then put his hands behind Jack’s head and wrapped his legs around Jack’s waist because with Jack on his skates, he’d literally had to pick Bitty up to reach him..

Jack helped him down, grinned, and then turned to the ice. “Yep, we’re gonna win tonight!” he yelled, and went charging back out into the warm-up.

“No chirps from me,” Tater said, slapping Bitty on the back and making him jump. “Pie too good to risk.”

“Aw, Tater, you know I could never deprive you of pie,” Bitty said.

“Anniversary, eh?” Tater said.

“A year, to the… hour, just about, from when he first kissed me.”

“Happy anniversary, Bitty baker. We win game three for you tonight.”

“Just think, if game three of the conference final is mini pies, what do you think I should do if y’all win the cup?” Bitty asked.

“Bigger pie?” Tater asked.

Bitty laughed. “I like the way you think.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

They won. The intensity of the playoffs broke Jack’s streak of hat tricks, but it didn’t matter. The Penguins did their best to keep him away from the puck, but that just gave the other guys an effective ongoing power play, and Jack still scored one, using one of Bitty’s spins to slide the puck under and in.

They won the next one too. And then it was just watching the Sharks and the Blues go at it, and Chowder wailing over how he didn’t know if he could LIVE watching Jack fight his Sharks, but so, so happy at their success, and Jack just laughing and sending Chowder tickets to the Cup to make Bitty happy.

They took two days of their “breather” between the last game of the conference championship and the first game of the Stanley Cup to go down to Georgia to visit Bitty’s parents.

It was a quick visit, without a big family gathering, just several easygoing meals with the Bittles and a whole lot of Bitty and Suzanne baking while Jack and Coach talked sports.

“Mama, I don’t know if we’ll make it down for the 4th,” Bitty said. “We have the tickets, but I just got a job and I don’t know what the schedule will be…”

“You’re a grown man, now, baby. Twenty-one years. I feel blessed you still come home because you want to. Don’t you worry about the 4th. Come if it makes sense with your schedule. If it doesn’t… there will be other years. Now tell me about your job—”

_x_ _x_ _x_

The team rainbow-wrapped their sticks for the Cup. Most of the Samwell crew made it for the first two games, in Providence. Chowder showed up wearing the oddest mishmash of Falconer and Sharks gear, and cried the whole time. Shitty kept trying to take his shirt off, and seemed about to levitate from the sheer force of the profanities he hurled at the ice.

And they won both games.

Bitty and Chowder headed to San Jose with the Falcs for the next two games. On home ice, the Sharks managed one win, despite amazing play by the Falcs, due to a high number of penalties and a wide open net, and Chowder’s idol in the Shark’s goalie mask.

The fifth game, back in Providence—with what felt like everyone they knew in the crowd—they won in a dizzy blur of confetti and a ridiculously public kiss which was followed by Tater hoisting Bitty up onto his shoulders when Jack raised up the Stanley Cup.

It took a couple days for them to come down from the high of the Cup win.

June 13th, Bitty started his new job.

Chapter Text

The drop-in center was in the middle of downtown, a nondescript storefront in a row of cute storefronts. When they got there at 10 am, a small group session was starting in the central area, and they were met by a large woman with medium brown hair, who ask their pronouns, introduced herself as Megan, and smiled quite a lot as she gave them the rundown on the center’s mission.

“Now, most of our kids are regulars,” she said, “but we’ll get new ones now and then. They can be… a little skittish. Like they don’t quite know if they belong here.”

“They’re not used to belonging anywhere?” Bitty said.

“You know, of course you do. Georgia, you say?”

He nodded. “But it’s getting better. Some places. A little.”

“Better some, worse others. I feel like we’re all holding our breath and gritting our teeth until this damned election is over. That man gets elected and I don’t know whether we’ll be helping people or painting targets on their back, just existing.”

They shuddered.

“But that’s not what we’re here about today,” Megan said. “Both of you passed your background checks, so we’re fine for you to be working with the kids starting today. How much experience do you have?”

“Summer camp counselor, babysitting,” Bitty said.

“Coached Peewee for a while,” Jack said. “Best part of hockey.”

“That’s saying something for a man who just won his first Stanley Cup,” she said.

“The Cup is great. But for sheer joy on the ice, it’s hard to beat six-year-olds,” Jack said.

“Either of you worked much with teens?”

“I just barely stopped being a teen,” Bitty said. “But I tend to mother our frogs—that’s our incoming freshmen. And Jack is very good at coaxing people’s better selves out of their shells and getting people over their fears.”

She nodded. “Remember that these teens… I know your parents are supportive. These kids… a lot of them don’t get what they need at home. Sometimes it’s really bad. We’ve got a Social Services coordinator over there, they can help if you get someone in here in crisis. And that will happen. We’re all mandatory reporters in this state, and that can get dicey depending on the situation. The coordinator is the one who can help you parse out who needs to be told what and when.”

Megan pulled out a pair of index cards, and handed them over. “Emergency numbers.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

The kids were excited to see them, recognizing both of them immediately. The first flush of starry eyes settled into a more comfortable familiarity over the next couple days, and they sat in on several of the discussion groups to get more familiar with the work of the center.

The culture of the group was very tolerant yet simultaneously formal. Every introduction was accompanied by pronouns. Some of the kids wore earrings in patterns, others wore pins or necklaces with a variety of signals, words or other marks indicating sexual preference, availability, willingness to converse, and level of touch comfort. Jack took to the clear markers like a duck to water. It felt continuously startling to Bitty—after his lifetime of learning the social rules of the South—for the first 48 hours, until someone explained that he could have a button that said, “I like hugs, please ask every time.” At which point he wished that everyone everywhere would adopt the system.

School released for at least one of the high schools in the city on Wednesday, and on Thursday there were new faces there in the daytime, but Bitty got the sense quickly that they’d been here before, just not so much during the bustle of the school year. At around 2 pm, a bustle of kids left and Bitty noticed someone sitting cross-legged in the window seat, looking through the rainbow-painted glass out across the downtown street, eyes unfocused.

The kid had light brown skin, and medium brown hair, close cropped on the sides and in neatly organized short twists of tightly coiled hair on top. They were almost entirely enveloped in a large, baggy grey zip hoodie with a Christian Bible camp slogan on the front.

Bitty sat down nearby and said, “I’m new here, too. I’m a volunteer. I go by Bitty, and my pronouns are he and him.”

The kid turned red-rimmed hazel eyes to look at Bitty for a long moment, and then spoke. Low alto, high tenor, he wasn’t sure, but the kid whispered, “T-theo. I… he? I think?”

Bitty smiled. “It’s totally up to you, darlin’.”

“You’re from the South?” Theo asked.

Bitty nodded. “Georgia, born and bred. Going to school in Massachusetts though. When I was there, they weren’t any too friendly to little gay boys like me.”

“Did your parents kick you out?” Theo asked.

“Oh no,” Bitty said. “Did you not hear about us?”

Theo looked curious.

“Jack and me… our parents were the ones who talked to the press when we came out. He’s famous in hockey circles, so’s his dad. His mama was a supermodel. My dad is more local-famous as a football coach. They were… I was afraid they’d react badly but they were never anything but supportive once we got talking.”

“I wish,” Theo said, and turned back to the window.

“You want to talk about it?” Bitty asked.

“I’m not out to my mom,” Theo said. “She wouldn’t… I can’t… Please, I can’t.”

“You don’t have to come out, sweetie,” Bitty said. “If it’s not safe. Or even if you just don’t want to.”

But Theo had lapsed into a miserable silence, and with no buttons or other markers, Bitty decided to let him be.

He brought over a plate of cookies later, which Theo stared at for a long time and then took one to nibble at. Bitty left the plate without a word.

Bitty didn’t think too much of it until closing time, as the kids left in small groups and Theo walked out slowly, a little hunched, looking guarded and awkward.

Jack brought the car up while Bitty carried out a tote, and as Bitty loaded stuff into the back of the hybrid SUV, he noticed Theo come back into the recessed doorway of the center and slide down to sit on the low concrete step, back against the glass door.

Bitty moved around to Jack’s side of the car and said, “Sweetie,” and then nodded at the doorway, “I don’t think he has anywhere to go.”

“Megan just drove off,” Jack said. “I can try to call the social worker?”

“Can we… I think I started to make a connection with him, and he’s real skittish, I think if we bring in the big guns before we find out what’s going on, he might just run.”

“He’s a minor, not a frog, Bitty,” Jack said. “There’s…” He stopped. “You’ve got a feeling about this one, don’t you?”

“I just don’t want him to fall through the cracks. I can offer him some pie and see if I can get him talking? We’ll call in backup once we know what’s what?”

“Up to you,” Jack said. “Just, we need to call someone as soon as we get a sense of what’s going on.”

Bitty went back up to the building, and Theo looked suddenly wary. “I was just resting…” he said.

“Can we give you a lift back to your house?” Bitty asked. “Or did your mama already kick you out?”

Theo’s chin quivered, and an angry tear slid down his cheek. “I didn’t even come out to her.”

“Come on. I’ve got a pie to make. You can help.”

“I’m ace,” Theo said.

“And I’m completely in love with my man over there. But I’m not going to leave a sad boy crying on the sidewalk when there’s perfectly good pie to be had. How old are you?”

“Fif...fifteen,” Theo said.

“So, your mama doesn’t get to just kick you out, but I can understand you not wanting to go back to someone who treated you that way.”

“You don’t know…” Theo started.

“Why don’t you come tell me. You’re not alone, and we’ll help you sort out whatever it is that you think is so bad that your mother might be remotely justified in kicking you out.”

Theo stood, and straightened to his full height, a couple inches taller than Bitty. With his shoulders back, the hoodie fell open a little, revealing a round, full belly and full breasts on an otherwise slender frame.

Bitty looked down, and then up, and he shook his head. His eyes were soft and sad. “Sweetie, if that’s why she kicked you out, she’s even wronger than I thought. Come get some pie, and tell us what happened.”

“It was my fault…” Theo said.

“Pie first,” Bitty said. “Then we’ll talk about just exactly whose ‘fault’ it is.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

They were silent on the short drive to Jack’s place. As they pulled into the parking garage, Theo said, “You don’t have to…”

Jack’s laugh cut him off. “Theo, Bitty mothers everyone. It’s better just to let him. It makes him happy to take care of people.”

“You can help me with the pie,” Bitty said. “What’s your favorite?”

“Chocolate peanut butter banana,” Theo said. “With whipped cream.”

“I think I can manage that,” Bitty said, “Plenty of protein, Jack.”

“Protein. Sure,” Jack said, with an eyeroll, grabbing the second tote and using the keyfob to lower the lift gate.

They rode the elevator up to Jack’s level, and Theo’s eyes widened as they came into the apartment.

“It’s so big. Mom and me… our place would fit in your living room.”

“There’s a closet as big as my first dorm room,” Bitty said.

“You both live here?” Theo pulled a stool up to the other side of the counter.

“This is Jack’s place. I’m in college, on summer break. I used to go home, but Jack’s my home now.”

Jack paused in emptying his tote to give Bitty a fond look. “You know it’s as much yours as mine.”

“You say that…” Bitty said low and quiet.

“Because it’s true.”

“You guys are cute together,” Theo said. “Are you married?”

Bitty laughed. “I just turned 21. It’s kind of young…” He stopped.

Theo looked down. “Yeah.”

Bitty started pulling baking ingredients out of the fridge and cupboards, handing the large tote to Jack to stack and put away, and said, “If you’re ace, and trans, and fifteen… How could it possibly be your fault that… you are pregnant, right? I’m reading that right?” He reached out and turned on the oven.

“I thought it might be a tumor until it started kicking me a week ago,” Theo said.

“But you had to have had sex…” Jack said.

“It… I… It was the youth group before Thanksgiving… I was telling the youth group leader that I thought I might be trans. I never… girl stuff never made sense to me. I made my mama call me a boy or a puppy or a dinosaur or anything but a girl when I was small, but she said I ‘grew out of it.’ I never did, I just started caring more what people thought and they told me I had to be more… everything and I tried so hard and then it just didn’t work and my breasts started growing and I hated it and my periods and I just wanted it to stop.

Bitty opened a tin of thin, crisp, homemade chocolate wafer cookies, and poured them into a bowl. He took a heavy-bottomed glass out of the cupboard and said, “Use the bottom of this to squash these into crumbs, will you? I’m going to melt the butter and peanut butter together for the crust. Don’t be shy with the cookies, they’re meant to be smashed. It’s therapeutic. So you didn’t feel like a girl. And you told your youth group leader? At church?”

Theo nodded, pushing the glass down into the bowl of cookies experimentally, and then with more enthusiasm.

“Southern Baptist, by chance?” Bitty asked over his shoulder, scooping a blob of peanut butter into the pan with a little more force than necessary.

“You know, then,” Theo said.

“Sunday school, summer camp, and Bible study. Got out of the after-school nonsense with figure skating and hockey. It’s part of why I was so terrified to come out to my father. But he managed to actually pay more attention to the Book than the sermons. The Book ain’t quite so… judgmental, not the part he cared about.”

Jack returned from putting the totes away, laptop in hand, and sat down at the dining room table, pulling his phone and the emergency number card out of his pocket and setting it next to the laptop.

“You’re not calling CPS, are you?” Theo said, his eyes wide.

“Not right now we’re not,” Bitty said, shooting a warning look in Jack’s direction. “We’re going to figure this thing out and then we’re going to find out who the best people to talk to will be.” He scooped butter into the pan, and turned the gas on low, working a spatula in familiar patterns around the sides and across the bottom of the pan, watching the nut butter and dairy butter go creamy and runny together. He tossed in some dark chocolate chunks.

“Some of the foster homes around here are awful for pregnant kids, and they’re worse for trans kids,” Theo said.

“You’ve done some research?” Jack asked.

“Just… I wanted to see if I could get an abortion.” A small spray of cookie crumbs came up as he jabbed the glass down harder than necessary.

“If it happened before Thanksgiving, probably not. Was it just one time?”

Theo nodded.

“Do you know when you’re due?”

“I… It’s confusing? I put in when we had...when he… and it said I was 30 weeks, a couple days ago, but it wasn’t quite that long ago? But it said August 17 if I did it right.”

“They always count these things from your last period,” Jack said.

Bitty looked at him strangely, and Jack said, “They taught us that in high school health.”

“They told us to leave room for Jesus and not to have sex because we’d die and go to hell,” Bitty said. “So, Theo, when was your last period then?”

“I don’t keep track of that,” Theo said. “I was just so glad that it stopped for a while.”

“You haven’t seen a doctor,” Bitty said.

“I called when I realized… told them when I.. when it happened. And they said that unless my life was in danger there was no way, and even then it would be hard, because I’m so far along.”

“How old was the youth group leader?” Bitty asked, bringing out a glass pie plate and setting it down in front of Theo.

“He’s twenty-nine,” Theo said.

Jack swore under his breath.

“Theo,” Bitty said. “Sweetie. You were what, fourteen when that happened?”

Theo nodded.

“There is no way that wasn’t rape, you know that? Legally? Morally?” Bitty poured the fine crumbs into the pie plate.

“He asked if he could show me why he knew I was a girl. I said yes.”

“Did he ask you if he could have sex with you?”

“No,” Theo said.

“Age of consent is sixteen,” Jack said, looking at the laptop screen. “There are multiple statutes stating children fourteen and under is child molestation, not statutory rape.”

“He said no one would believe me.”

Bitty looked down at Theo’s belly. “We’ve got evidence.” He brought over the liquid mixture, sprinkled brown sugar over the crumbs, gave them a stir with his fork, and then poured the liquid in.

“My mother said I led him on.”

Jack and Bitty looked at each other, then Bitty closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “Theo, you could have been stripped naked and saying ‘Fuck me now.’ At age fourteen, you cannot consent to sex with a twenty-nine-year-old man. And besides which, you did not consent. You told him you thought you were trans. That’s not leading anyone on. You didn’t want to have sex with him. What did you say when he did?”

“I didn’t… say anything. I couldn’t move. I don’t… he’s not all that much taller than me? But he’s wide? And he just pushed me over on the rec room table. I got a bruise from it…”

“Did you tell this to your mama?” Bitty asked, mixing everything with a fork and then patting the mixture up against the sides of the pie plate.                           .

“Mom said… She knew how it was, she was fourteen once herself. That she’d raised me better. That she wasn’t about to have a baby in the house. I don’t even want a baby. I don’t think I ever want a baby. I was planning on getting surgery, it wasn’t going to be possible…”

“Have you seen a doctor yet?” Jack asked.

Theo’s eyes widened in fear. “I can’t. We don’t have insurance, Mom doesn’t have enough money and won’t take government help.”

“We can help with that,” Jack said.

“You can’t… that’s expensive.”

“He won’t have to,” Bitty said. “I think we should call one of the people from the center. I think they’re going to help set you up with all that. Here, slice this banana into coins.” He put a ripe but not soft banana in front of Theo, with a knife and a cutting board.

“They’ll put me in foster care, you don’t even know. I had a friend…”

“Maybe,” Jack said. “Maybe not. One of our support staff, he and his wife do foster care. We might be able to pull some strings to get you placed with someone we know. And the center might have some ideas.”

“In the meantime,” Bitty said, “We’re going to feed you. You can… when did your mama kick you out?” Bitty turned around and put the pie crust into the oven, and then moved back to the stove to make the chocolate cream filling.

“Yesterday,” Theo said. “I slept with some kids downtown, they told me to go to the center.”

“And you don’t have anything stashed somewhere,” Jack said, and it wasn't a question, really.

Theo shook his head and held his hands out, palms up. “She didn’t even let me take my phone.”

“Right,” Bitty said. “Let’s do this in the right order. The banana slices are perfect. Jack will point you to the guest bath. You can wear one of his shirts and a pair of his sweats if they fit. While you’re getting cleaned up, I’m going to make enough food to make up for the meals you missed, and we’re going to make some phone calls. No one is going to come swooping in here until after you get a chance to get cleaned up and eat something, and even then we’re going to see about keeping the swooping to a minimum.”

Jack was already on his feet. “This way, sir,” he said with a smirk at Bitty and a grand gesture at Theo.

Bitty was dialing his mother before they even got out of the room.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Suzanne Bittle listened to her son describe the situation over speakerphone, with the familiar rattle of pans and bowls in the background. Before he was done talking, she was looking up possible flights, though she didn’t pull the trigger on the buy button.

“Baby, I know where this is going,” she said.

“We’re going to call the on-call and tell them what’s happening, and they’ll help with the next steps,” Bitty said.

“You’ll call them, and they’ll talk about sending a social worker over, and that… boy is going to flip and you’ll say he can stay there, and they’ll let him because he’s fifteen and no one really wants to come out at 7 pm and do an emergency placement for a kid who has a place to sleep already. And by morning you’re going to be looking into being that foster placement. What is he going to do about the baby?”

“I don’t even think he knows,” Bitty said. “I would assume adoption would be the best option. He’s fifteen. And a young fifteen at that.”

“That fucking monster,” Suzanne said.

Bitty blinked, not sure if he’d ever heard his mother use language that vulgar. “I want to see the guy who raped him go to jail,” he said.

“I’m talking about his mother. I don’t care who you are, you don’t throw your raped, pregnant, scared fifteen-year-old out onto the street. The law will get the bastard who did this, but he wouldn’t have had a chance… ugh.”

“Mama?” He tried to remember if he’d ever heard his mother use more than a “Damn” before, and memory failed to produce an example.

“You’re a grown man, Dicky, your ears won’t break… Do you want me to call you Bitty like your team does? Or Eric? I’ve been meaning to ask.”

“I… Dicky’s okay, coming from you, I guess. It’s familiar. Bitty is what I usually use anymore for people I’m on a first-name basis with.”

“If the result of you calling that center is anything other than them having a ready spot for Theo tonight that Theo is willing to go to, I’m going to be on the next flight up there.”

“Mama, I know you’re busy.”

“Not that busy. And I’m sorry, but you and Jack don’t know thing one about pregnancy, and Social Services is going to be all over the legal issues, and if you’re lucky they’ll either have someone good with trans kids or someone good with pregnant kids and they’re going to pick the wrong one because, sweetie, Social Services always gets it wrong. And that child needs kid gloves right now. I can be there first thing in the morning, I just need to know by about 8.”

“Jack will get your flight,” Bitty said, slightly dazed.

“I know he will. Call Alicia, by the way. She might have some ideas. Oh, and make some dinner. I  know that child’s not been eating enough.”

“He’s pretty thin.”

“That baby is taking all the extra reserves. Make him some food. Tell him that this will all be easier if he gets enough to eat.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack came back shortly after and made his first phone call while Bitty cooked. The pie had gone together quickly and was already in the fridge, he’d moved on to chicken stir-fry.

The emergency coordinator, Linden, said, “We can get someone over there, but they’ll end up taking him to the general emergency shelter tonight. If the rape had just happened, I’d say take him to the hospital, but your evidence isn’t going anywhere. We absolutely must report this, we don’t have a choice, but it can wait until morning.”

“I have an extra bedroom,” Jack said.

“And I know you’ve both cleared our criminal background check,” they said. “We don’t normally house the kids ourselves, but this isn’t the first time. The LGBT-friendly group homes all have months-long waiting lists, and the teen mom shelters that have immediate openings tend to be run by conservative Christians, and while they tend to be very good with their girls, we’ve had some issues in the past…”

“You have many pregnant trans boys?” Jack asked.

“We’ve had one other,” Linden said. “But we get bi girls and even the occasional lesbian girl now and then. When there isn’t rape involved, it has to do with trying to be straight. They end up with us when they realize that’s not working for them. But we usually catch them earlier in the pregnancy, when they have more options. After 24 weeks, finding a provider is difficult, and after 30? There’d have to be something massively wrong where the mother’s life was in immediate danger to get an abortion. That baby could be born now and would survive, though the first months wouldn’t be fun. And there’s a high probability with a sick newborn that Theo would just leave the baby at the hospital and not want to come back. He may do that anyway.”

“He may be suicidal,” Jack said. “Passively so. I have… experience with that feeling.”

“How much help can you give him?” Linden asked. “We’re talking about a kid with complex needs here, who needs really specific support and a lot of it, for possibly months. Longer, maybe.”

“Money’s no object,” Jack said. “My salary is a matter of public record. I’ve got space, and Bitty is here, and his mother could come up for a little while. The issue might be time. Things are slow right now. By which I mean I’m only training four days a week instead of six or seven. We have a couple of trips planned a little later in the summer, but nothing that can’t be postponed.”

“I’m going to be here all summer,” Bitty called from the kitchen. “I need to be back in Samwell in August, I’d planned to get there before our frogs but Chowder might be able to handle that to buy me another week. It’s absolutely no trouble for me to take care of a teenager.”

“And possibly a baby,” Linden said. “If he keeps it.”

“He said he thought he might be due mid-August,” Jack said. “My full-time training doesn’t start back up until September, and between us and our parents and my teammates, I can’t imagine we wouldn’t know by then what the longer-term solution would be.”

“With teenagers, Social Services has a little more latitude. When funding is low, they don’t even remove teens from the home. I’ve filed complaints only to be told, ‘Well, if it’s that bad, the kid should run away.’”

Bitty actually gasped. “You mean you can tell them a kid is being beaten and their solution is the streets?”

“If the census is up, they can flat out run out of places to put kids, and the priority goes to the younger ones. With a pregnancy, the priority might be higher. But we can see about getting you fast-tracked to a foster license if you want him formally placed with you.”

“Can we decide that tomorrow?” Jack asked.

“We can. The other option is to persuade the mother to voluntarily surrender custody and do a legal guardianship. Sometimes parents will do that to escape legal punishment, and Social Services might offer to not press neglect charges if the child is surrendered voluntarily. Since the rapist isn’t family, that might be the easiest option, and that way the rape charges will be separate from the neglect case. But this is all assuming you want to be a resource to this boy.”

“I don’t mind,” Jack said. “And it will make Eric happy.”

Bitty said, “You haven’t seen him. He thinks what happened to him is his fault.”

“It’s going to be a lot,” Linden said. “Even if it’s only for the next two months, it’s going to take a lot of emotional energy. It’s going to be complicated. And we still have no idea if he’s keeping the baby or giving the baby up, and to whom. And all the pregnancy issues aside, you’ve got a young trans kid coming from an emotionally abusive situation, a survivor of sexual violence, at least one and possibly two legal battles. You can offer a space to crash for tonight and let the system take over tomorrow. But you need to be really realistic about what you can handle, it’s not fair to him to offer an open-ended invitation and then rescind it later.”

“We know a lot of people,” Jack said.

“Tomorrow, first thing, you’ll need to talk to the police, but I’ll be there for that. What time do you get up?”

“Six,” Jack said automatically.

Linden snorted. “I think nine should be early enough. Can you make sure someone is with Theo at all times?”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Theo said from the hallway, toweling his hair gently. Jack’s Samwell T-shirt hung off his shoulders and stretched across his middle.

“It’s okay, darlin’,” Bitty said. “Gets me out of running.” He checked the rice cooker, which was almost done.

“You can go after me,” Jack said.

“I don’t want to talk to the cops,” Theo said.

“We’ll be right there with you,” Linden said. “We’ll have them send over an officer trained for this kind of case.”

“If they charge him, he’ll know I’m pregnant. He could take the baby. And the last thing I want to do is inflict that man on a baby.”

“If you were on your own, kiddo,” Linden said, “that would be a significant concern. But all it takes is a DNA test to prove rape. He comes up as the father, you prove your age, and he is categorically guilty. There may be some wheeling and dealing to get him to plead out, but we can push for his parental rights to be severed. When did you turn fifteen?”

“March,” Theo said.

“So you just completed ninth grade? Tell me you did complete it…”

Theo nodded, and then remembered to say out loud. “I got a B in one class.”

“That’s good, we can work on getting your other grades up,” Linden said. “The center has…”

“No, I got A’s in the others,” Theo said. “But my English teacher didn’t like one of my essays.”

“What did you take last year?” Linden asked.

“Lit, Geometry, Chemistry, World History, French—”

At this, Jack startled.

Theo continued, “Choir, and Pre-Engineering.”

Linden was silent for a moment, “So you’re on track for Calculus… how many AP courses are you planning?”

Theo hesitated. “I was planning on taking as many as they’d let me. But this—and I need a rec from my English teacher for the honors class I wanted, and I couldn’t get it… I wrote an essay about gender and sexuality and she didn’t like it. That was at the start of the year. Everything she marked off… it was weird. Bullshit. Sorry, like, if my margins were a millimeter off from the printer being out of alignment. I missed some class around when—in November, and when I came back we had a paper due and she gave me an extension but didn’t give me the style formatting guide, so I got a C on that paper. I was sick again in February and there was another incident. I couldn’t get anyone to listen. I tried so hard.”

Jack stared at Theo for a long moment, and then looked at Bitty, who was pulling veggies out of the fridge. Bitty raised his eyebrows, and Jack gave a little nod. He said. “Theo, we’re going to figure this out. You’re a good student, and from what little I have seen, a good kid in a really fucked up situation. I can’t guarantee that you’ll stay here forever, but I can guarantee that we’re going to do everything we know how to do to make sure that you can get to where you want to be. Some of it is out of our control. But if it’s something that money and networking can fix, we’ll do it.”

Bitty said, “I have no reason to expect you to be anything but a good houseguest, but I know it helps our frogs at school if we spell expectations out. If you’re able, I’ll have you help me with the things I’m doing in the kitchen. You’ll need to respect the space, pick up after yourself, and help with chores if asked.” He diced the veggies up quickly.

“I did most of the cleaning at home,” Theo said. “Mom worked a lot. I can cook.”

“Well, there’s cooking, and there’s cooking,” Bitty said, reaching for a large metal bowl under the counter. “You can show me what you can do tomorrow if we have time.”

Linden spoke, “Theo, I know that tomorrow is going to be hard, talking to the police. It’s never easy, but it’s worse with rape. I need to know that you’re going to stay put tonight. I know it’s tempting to run…”

“I never wanted to run,” Theo said. “I wanted to keep my head down and go away to school and never look back. But she…” He stopped, and swallowed, his eyes getting red. “She told me that she hasn’t raised me to be such a stupid tramp, that she wasn’t going to support another baby, and that if I was going to spit on her values, I could go live somewhere else. I tried to pack a bag, but she kept screaming at me to get out, and she started throwing things and… I just ran. I don’t have my phone, or my laptop, or my graphing calculator, or my books…”

“We can replace the things,” Jack said.

“We can send a police officer over to try to retrieve some of them,” Linden said. “If she hasn’t already destroyed them, it’s usually possible to… persuade someone to give those up. The other thing we need to do is get you in to see a doctor, about the baby.”

“Please, I… I know Jack offered money but it’s so much…”

“As a pregnant minor and ward of the state you will automatically qualify for insurance. If you’re adopted or become someone’s legal ward, you may be able to get private insurance. It will cover everything. And coverage will back-date to the day you apply.”

“I hate hospitals,” Theo said.

“There’s other options,” Linden said. “I have a good friend who’s a midwife in Massachusetts. You can talk to her. But for now we need to get you seen, an STD screening, and we need to get a definitive due date and proof of pregnancy.”

“Definitely pregnant,” Jack said.

“For DHS purposes, we need a doctor, CNM, or nurse practitioner to sign off, unless the baby’s head is actually coming out in the welfare office, and even then I think they’d want something notarized.”

Bitty snorted as he quickly fried the veggies in the pan the chicken was cooking in, and Theo looked at the phone, suddenly revolted at the idea of babies coming out of anywhere. “Oh god. I changed my mind. Can they knock me out for the whole thing?”

“I know it sounds like the easy option,” Linden said, “But it’s really, really not. There are a lot of choices to make in the next few weeks, but I can tell you from personal experience that it is much, much easier in the long run if you let your body do this thing, and that means going through it. But you won’t be going through it alone, no matter what. If I have to come down there myself when you go into labor and hold your hand, you’re going to have someone with you through this.”

Theo sank down onto one of the dining room chairs, and burst into tears.

Bitty stirred a little cold soy sauce and pineapple juice mixed with cornstarch into the pan, stirred until the sauce thickened, turned the stove off, and opened the rice cooker. He pulled a chair up, and wrapped his arms around Theo’s shoulders.

Jack stood quietly and went to get plates.

Theo said through his tears, “How can you know me for less than an afternoon and just take me in when my own mother kicked me out after fifteen years?”

Jack said, “I don’t know your mother, and maybe you really are an awful person, but I really doubt it. Bits and I have had a ton of help in our lives, and we’ve both lived in the closet, in fear, and neither of us is ever going to go through what you’ve been through, but it’s easy enough to see that you’re a kid who works hard and tries your best, and that you’ve been dealt a shit hand. We have a lot of blessings in our lives, and it would be really obnoxious for us to not pay forward a tiny fraction of the gifts we’ve been given. I mean, we’re taking it on faith that you’re not an axe murderer, but you really don’t seem the type.”

“Axe murderers never seem like axe murderers until they’re murdering you with axes,” Theo said.

“We really need to introduce him to Holster,” Bitty said.

“That’s more Ransom’s style,” Bitty said.

“Hence introducing him to Holster.”

Theo looked baffled.

“Teammates,” Bitty supplied.

“Hockey?”

“We do a lot of hockey around here,” Jack said.

“By which he means hockey is his first love and I am but the mistress,” Bitty said, taking a plate from Jack and scooping rice onto it, then spooning the chicken stir fry on top.

“Mister,” Jack said, loading his own plate. “Please.”

“I’ve never been skating,” Theo said, staring at the plate that Bitty put in front of him.

“Don’t start now,” Linden spoke up. “Your body is more vulnerable to injury and your balance is probably off this late in pregnancy,”

“I’m not that big,” Theo said.

“He’s really not,” Bitty said, loading his own plate, “My cousin was out to here by the time she was halfway through.”

“How tall is your cousin?” Jack asked.

“Mama’s height,” Bitty said.

“Theo’s tall,” Jack said. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have hid it so well. Maman said she was able to hide her pregnancy until she was 7 months along, and she’s tall.”

“I kind of popped out a week ago,” Theo said around a bite of stir fry. “I didn’t even look pregnant up until then. I thought it was just aftereffects of...what he did.”

“Well, technically,” Jack said.

“I don’t get how you didn’t know?” Bitty said.

“I was busy. And I didn’t… since I decided I wanted to transition some day, I decided to put my head down and get through until I could do that. I haven’t spent much time looking in the mirror. I couldn’t do anything about my body that would make it what I wanted to be, so I ignored it as hard as I could, and not having periods just made that easier.” Theo stared at the plate. “Why is this so good?”

Bitty laughed. “Pintrest. If you’re very good, I’ll teach you.”

Linden said, “Jack, can you text me your address to this number? I’ll see you at nine. We don’t have drop-in hours at the center on Fridays anyway, so they’ll be okay without the two of you for the day.”

“We… I have a training session in the afternoon,” Jack said. “The morning is free.”

“I need to call Mama and let her know she was right,” Bitty said.

“We’ll need to do a background check for her, too,” Linden said.

Bitty said, “She’ll pass, she teaches in Georgia.”

“Goodnight, boys, I’ll see you in the morning,” Linden said, and the line went dead.

Theo yawned abruptly and frowned. “It’s only seven,” he said. “How can I be this tired?”

“Big day,” Jack said.

“You know this is the first time anyone’s called me a boy since I hit puberty?” Theo said.

“Does it feel right?” Bitty asked.

“It feels…” Theo looked down. “It feels like home.” He yawned again.

“Eat more first,” Bitty said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

There were more phone calls after Theo had gone to bed.

Shitty said, about three sentences in, “Bro… bros, I gotta stop you. Okay, so here’s the thing. I’ve had one year of law school. That’s it. And that’s just about enough to know that a) this is way the fuck over my head and b) you’re in Rhode-fucking-Island and I’m in Massachusetts and even if I had my JD I’d be telling you to talk to someone local. I’ll text you some names by morning. And fucking bless you for doing the work of the angels.”

Suzanne just said, “I’ll email you the flight info. Can you pick me up or should I rent a car?”

“Rent the car,” Jack said. “But just for a couple days.”

Alicia listened for a long moment, then said, “Call George. I know you forgot, but at the very least the WAGS will have hand me downs for Theo. He’ll need his own clothes first thing, the tabloids will have a fit if you go out with a pregnant person in your clothes, Jack. And if that baby spends any time there, you’ll need stuff.”

“The baby isn’t due until mid-August,” Jack said. “We think.”

“Which could mean August first or it could mean August 31st, babies don’t read calendars. You were ten days late, Jack. Longest ten days of my life. Most first babies are late.”

“I’d be at school already,” Bitty said. “You’d be in training almost immediately.”

Jack blanched. “Bits…”

“We’ll figure something out,” Bitty said.

“You could let Social Services take over,” Alicia said. “This is a huge thing for a couple of guys your age to take on. Or we could come meet Theo. We’ve got space and time up here.”

“If there’s a legal case, sending him out of the country might not be an option,” Bitty said.

“The legal case won’t be forever and it won’t be all the time,” Alicia said. “Keep us in the loop. If it looks like Theo will be sticking around for a while, we’ll come down.”

“Mama’s coming tomorrow,” Bitty said.

The relief was evident in Alicia’s voice. “Good. Now call George.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

George listened, then said, “I’ll put out feelers throughout the organization, see if we’ve got someone with the space and time to help. Don’t worry about any of the baby stuff, I think Marty’s littlest should be outgrowing the clothes, and there’s only two infants right now and three cribs in circulation.”

“You keep track of this stuff?” Jack asked.

“There’s almost always someone pregnant around here,” George said, laughing. “Some of the wives just want to buy their own stuff, but by the third kid, the charm of buying all new wears off, even with as much money as these guys make. There’s a maternity clothes exchange, and we don’t have anyone in their third trimester right now. I’ve got a spreadsheet in front of me; god knows I don’t want that taking up brain space.”

“He’s not going to want girly stuff,” Jack said.

“Have you seen how the WAGS dress during the off season?” George asked. “I know you need to pick some things up soon, but we’ll have a box by evening. In the meantime, no team logos, nothing personal. The last thing that kid needs is your kind of media circus. Do you have someone who can stay with him next week when you’re in Vegas?”

“Mama, maybe?” Bitty said.

“Can you believe I forgot about Vegas?” Jack said.

“Holster would chirp you into next year,” Bitty said, laughing. “Dude, how could you forget to SHOW UP TO THE AWARD CEREMONY YOU’VE BEEN WAITING YOUR WHOLE LIFE FOR?”

Jack dropped his head into his hands. “And just when I thought it would be a quiet summer… Also, that’s a terrible Holster imitation.”

“Bring the kid to a skate next week,” George said. “Let him meet some of the team. If he gets tired he can come hang in my office. And Jack, if you need to miss tomorrow afternoon, it is optional, no matter what the guys told you. I’m not worried about you slacking. Do you want me there tomorrow morning? Do you want a lawyer present?”

“If you can,” Jack said. “I have a friend working on a referral for a lawyer.”

“We’ve got a family law attorney that many of your teammates have used,” George said. “I can see if he’s available. He handled some things for me a few years back and was blazingly competent.”

“Please do, then,” Jack said.

Chapter Text

They both lay on their backs in the bed, staring at the ceiling, not touching.

“Are we crazy for doing this?” Bitty asked.

“I can’t imagine a planet on which either of us would be willing to let a pregnant kid sleep on the streets when it was within our power to make that not happen,” Jack said. “You wouldn’t be you, and I wouldn’t be me.”

“I just… I was having a hard enough time thinking about another year away from you, and the idea of leaving you with a teenager and maybe a baby… Darling, I want to help and I want to make this work and the idea of being an hour away…”

“What if you weren’t?” Jack said, and there was something in his tone that had Bitty rolling over to look at him.

“Honey? You have that look on your face. The look that ends up with you spending a ridiculous amount of money.”

“Providence is only forty minutes from Samwell by car.”

“If there isn’t any traffic,” Bitty said. “I’d be commuting for an hour and twenty minutes a day, minimum, and I don’t have a… Sweetheart, you aren’t going to…”

“If we’re doing this, if it’s anything like long term, I most certainly am. And it doesn’t have to be a forty-minute drive.”

Jack …”

“If he decides to keep the baby, I am definitely going to need you to have access to a car other than mine,” Jack said. “Just to make my life easier.”

“You think he’s going to stay,” Bitty said.

“Our parents would be great for him, but getting him out of the country is going to be next to impossible until the legal stuff is resolved, and there is no way in hell we’re sending a pregnant 15-year-old trans kid to Georgia, I don’t care how much progress your town has made, and that’s even assuming we could get permission to take him across state lines.”

“Fair,” Bitty said, wincing.

“I mean, maybe someone will step forward to help, someone who is a better fit than us. Someone with a better schedule. But your schedule is a year. Theo could be around for another three years before college.”

“You’re planning that far in advance, already,” Bitty said.

Jack laughed. “If you knew how much I had planned in advance… I don’t tell you the whole process because you don’t like to think that far ahead.”

Bitty blushed. “But it’s comforting for you…”

“I know plans change. I know. But I like to have a starting point.”

“Why doesn’t it have to be a forty-minute drive?” Bitty asked.

“Because this place is fine for one bachelor or a childless couple, but it’s too small if we’re adding a teenager, let alone an infant. Not if we’re going to also have guest space, and you know how much I need the guest room. To keep Shitty out of our bed when he visits, if nothing else.”

“Like that works,” Bitty said, laughing.

“But we’re ten minutes from the rink as it is, and still forty minutes from Samwell. If I got a place ten minutes north-east of the rink, your drive would be an hour a day, tops, and I’d be just as close. Stretch my commute to fifteen minutes, and yours ends up being twenty-five, and that’s practically local.”

“You want to get an apartment closer to Samwell?” Bitty asked.

“I think a house would be more practical. Our house.”

Bitty flopped backward on the bed and put his hands over his face. “Practical. You’re asking me to move in with you when you buy us a house. Because it’s practical.”

“You already moved in with me, Bits. And it’s been very… practical.”

“But the Haus…” Bitty tried to imagine his senior year, without the Haus, without the rambling late nights with… No. Dex and Nursey weren’t the late partiers that Ransom and Holster had been. Chowder had never been. With the upperclassmen gone…

“…can keep your room there,” Jack was saying.

“Everyone in the Haus next year is going to be younger than me,” Bitty said. “I was thinking about how it’s been, the nights we spent with Shitty, with Ransom and Holster and Lardo, and I have this idea of things always being the same, but they’re not. Every year they change.”

“You can keep your room,” Jack said again. “Use it as a place to crash mid-day. Someplace away from the chaos. So you can bake when you need to, and nap before practice. Just come home at night, when the traffic is light. Just, Theo or not, I don’t… I can’t do another year like last year where we see each other once or twice a month. I’d rather commute from Samwell.”

“You’d burn out.” Bitty said.

“People do that, you know. We’ve got one guy who goes home to Boston. Another who lives an hour out of town, and does the drive every day. There are people who live in NYC who commute an hour each way routinely every single weekday of the year for decades. I could do it for a year.”

“We don’t know if we could even take Theo to Massachusetts,” Bitty said.

“So we find something in Pawtucket,” Jack said. “Just… I love having you here with me. I love that we’re looking at this huge thing and I’m not afraid.”

“I am,” Bitty said.

“But you don’t have to be. Bits, we are so much stronger together.”

“I—You have this amazing life. You have an incredible job. Lordy, I do not even know how much money you have, but I know it’s more than I’m likely to make in my first ten years out of college. You’re famous-famous. Sweetheart, they’re going to give you so many trophies next week, we’re going to have to hire a moving truck to bring them all back. I’m still in college and worried about being a captain again and keeping my grades up, and I can see this future you’re talking about but it’s, like, after I graduate and I don’t usually think about after. If I can help it.”

Jack turned, and ran his fingers from Bitty’s shoulder down to his knee. “You forgot to mention the great boyfriend I have. Who worries too much. Let me problem-solve, Bits. There’s so many possibilities.”

“A house, darling, that’s huge. Gigantic. Damn near permanent.”

“I want that with you, Bitty.”

“I just don’t know where I fit,” Bitty said.

“None of this works without you, chéri,” Jack said. “If this life of mine is a body, you’re the beating heart. If it’s a machine, you’re the fuel. You know and I know that I could get through this next year without you. But I just… I don’t want to. I love you, but also, I like being with you. And the more we're together, the more I like being with you. And I have a lot of money. The performance bonus is probably going to be more than my first year’s salary. I have to set a chunk of that aside for taxes, but it’s still enough to buy a house and a car. Just using the bonus.”

“We’re going to have to have help if Theo stays,” Bitty said. “Someone to stay in the house when we’re on the road at the same time.”

“He slept on the street last night.”

“That’s irrelevant. I’m not leaving an emotionally devastated teenager alone so I can go play a game. Mama can probably stay through next week, but I can’t ask her during the school year.” Bitty got up and started pacing.

“Come back to bed, Bits. We don’t have to solve this tonight. Thinking about the possibilities is comforting for me. It helps me get my mind around the problem. But it’s winding you up, and we don’t have anything like enough information to know if Theo will be here next week, let alone next school year.”

“Jack…” Bitty said.

“You’re using my name. Stop that. It’s unnerving.”

“Sweetheart, I’m just… Are we in over our heads?”

Jack laughed. “Absolument! Sans doute. Come to bed.”

“How you can be so calm,” Bitty said, climbing back under the light blanket and snuggling up against Jack, “is completely, utterly beyond me.”

“I’ve got a feeling,” Jack said. “And whatever we do, it’s not going to be worse than what he was facing without us.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Suzanne pulled up to the apartment complex just as Jack was getting back from his run the next morning. He jogged alongside her car to the guest parking, and let her into the building with him.

“What time did your flight get in?” he asked, as they waited for the elevator.

“About midnight,” she said. “I decided to sleep in Boston and drive down this morning. The flights were miserable trying to get here directly, it was simpler to just drive. Any updates?”

He filled her in on the plan for the day, and she said, “The ticket was one-way. I told my mother that someone else could host the 4th if I wasn’t back in time. I don’t have any hard commitments until July 16th, and even that one I could probably get out of if I really needed to. I do need to be back the first week of August for prep week.”

“Do you mind the couch?” Jack asked. “If you need to, I can get you a hotel room.”

“The couch is fine, hon, as long as there are no strategy meetings going on at 2 am.”

“Coach doesn’t mind you being gone so long?” Jack asked.

She laughed. “He’s going on a fishing trip. His eyes lit up when I said I was coming up here for a few weeks and that if he was ever going to go on a long camping trip without feeling guilty, now was the time. I love the man, but I got over the joy of camping by the time I was 35.”

Jack looked thoughtful as he opened the door. “Fishing, huh?”

“Lordy, you boys,” Suzanne said, laughing.

Bitty was making breakfast while Theo perched on the stool at the counter eating bacon. “Mama!” Bitty cried, and threw his arms around her, still holding a wooden spoon in one hand and the potholder in the other.

Theo looked over and waved awkwardly, looking wary.

Suzanne gave him an understanding smile. “I know the subject of mothers is probably pretty sore with you right now, but please rest assured that I am not here to judge you or make decisions for you.”

“Why… Bitty said you flew? Because of me?” Theo said.

“Did he tell you anything about me other than that I’m his mother and that I was coming?”

“Things were busy last night,” Theo said. “He said you were supportive of him?”

“I’m his mother,” Suzanne said. “And in my world, mothers are supposed to be supportive, no ifs, ands, or buts. And it sounds like you got the raw end of that stick.”

“She… She worked really hard supporting me for a long time,” Theo said. “My father… I’ve never met him. She said he left while she was pregnant. She always told me not to have sex until I was married. I never… I never wanted to.”

“Did you explain?”

“I tried, but she just—”

“Things were thrown,” Bitty said.

Suzanne nodded. “Come sit down with me at the table, it’s not good to let your legs dangle like that, your ankles will disappear.”

Bitty handed her a plate with two pancakes, fresh fruit, and two strips of bacon on it. Butter and syrup were already on the table. He handed another to Theo, and then continued making pancakes for him and for Jack.

As Theo started to eat, Suzanne said, “Now, it’s possible, maybe, that with some counseling and a good long talking to, your mother might be able to be better informed about the realities of the situation. But you’re not out to her, D… Bitty said?”

“I don’t even think she knows what ace is, though she might not be too upset about that. But the idea of me being trans… I don’t think she’d ever come around on that.”

“I think we’re going to have to tread carefully then. Do you want to try to mend fences with her?” Suzanne asked. “There’s not a right or wrong answer, by the way.”

“I… I think I would always be afraid,” Theo said.

Bitty and Jack both sat down with their breakfasts, listening.

“And if someone told her you were trans, and she still had authority over you?”

“If she was willing to have anything to do with me at all, I think she’d get one of those people to try to cure me,” Theo said. “She’s talked about how wrong-headed ‘trannies’ are. I don’t even think she knows that there’s anything more than drag queens and butch lesbians out there. She still calls Caitlyn ‘Bruce’ and says he needs less money and more church.”

“Before all this, how did you get along?”

Theo shrugged. “I just… didn’t argue with her, but I didn’t confide in her, either. I didn’t want to set her off, so I just did my work and did what she said, and I was trying to get good enough grades for a scholarship so I could go to college without her help. I… she blamed me for ruining her life, I think.”

Suzanne put down her fork and closed her eyes for a long moment, then took a deep breath. “So the goal here…”

Theo looked up from his pancakes. “I want to finish high school. I want to go on hormone blockers and have my breasts removed. Maybe start testosterone. I want to go to college and learn how to design robotic spacecraft. I don’t want people to look at me and think I’m there for them to f…” His voice caught and he stopped. “I never wanted that. What he did.”

“You don’t have to,” Suzanne said. “When someone wants it, it can be fun. It can be emotionally fulfilling. But it’s not necessary. And you’re young. You’re too young for anyone to have pushed that on you, even if you were ragingly heterosexual and actively interested. And maybe someday you will want it or maybe you won’t, and maybe that will change at different parts of your life, but there’s nothing wrong with not wanting it right now, and if it stays that way forever, that’s fine too.”

“I don’t want to go back to her,” Theo said. “I’d rather die. And I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t even want to be a woman. But I’m terrified that if I tell them what happened, somehow he will get his hands on another child, and as much as I don’t want to be a mother, I don’t want to make him a father even more. If I have to give birth to this baby, I don’t want him to ever get his hands anywhere near it.”

“I did some reading while I was waiting for the plane,” Suzanne said. “Here’s the thing. That child, when it is born, and maybe before, is incontrovertible evidence that he had sex with you while you were fourteen years old. In Rhode Island that is called ‘Child molestation sexual assault in the first degree,’ and the sentence for it is between 25 years and life in prison. While you may have heard that many cases for rape don’t go to trial, this is one that they will probably take all the way and win. Men like that don’t just rape once. There’s a very good chance that once he’s arrested, others will come forward. Even if you are the first, usually once a man gets away with something like that, he’ll do it again to someone else. That’s why the punishment is so severe. Even when he gets out, he’ll have an ankle bracelet on for the rest of his life. That’s why the boys didn’t have a choice about reporting this.”

“But I’d have to get his permission to give the baby up for adoption,” Theo said.

“Maybe,” Suzanne said. “Different states have different laws about that, and I think it depends on where the baby is born. He can never get custody or visitation, though, not in Rhode Island or Massachusetts.”

“If I go across state lines though, and my mother changes her mind…”

“Do you think your mother would give guardianship to someone else?” Jack asked. “Because if one of us could be your guardian, then we’d have a little more freedom of movement in that regard.”

“I don’t know. If she’s just washed her hands of me, she might. But if she thinks she’s teaching me a lesson or saving my soul… she wouldn’t give it to a gay person if she knew they were gay. And I mean, could I actually stay here? You guys have a life…”

“We’re exploring our options,” Jack said. “There might be someone with the Falcs who could take you in right away. Or Linden may have someone with the drop-in center who can do it.”

Bitty leaned over a little and said, “We want you to be safe, and taken care of, and we want you to be able to get your life back in the direction you want it to go. And if that’s with someone else, we’ll do what we can to help you find that place. But we’ve also been talking about getting a larger place, between my school and the rink, and there’s a good chance we’d be able to make room, whatever you need.”

Suzanne raised her eyebrows and said, “You’re thinking about commuting to school?”

“There’s places where it would be twenty minutes each way. I used to drive fifteen minutes to get to high school every day, it’s just not that impossible. We’d just have to have someone here when the travel schedules collide.”

“If he won’t consent to the adoption and I have to keep the baby,” Theo said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Jack shrugged. “There’s childcare at the rink during the day and during home games,” he said. “Nannies can be hired.”

“I don’t even know if I could love a baby that man forced me to have,” Theo said.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Suzanne said. “I cannot imagine that a child living in the same house as my son would go without affection.”

“I love babies,” Bitty said around a bite of pancake.

“I’ve never held one,” Theo said.

“Di— Bitty used to make his spending money babysitting,” Suzanne said. “He stayed with my sister for a week when the twins were tiny, just to be an extra pair of hands to rock them. I don’t even think he got paid for that.”

“They were cute,” Bitty said. “They snuggled. It wasn’t any trouble. She had a thingy to sort of tie them on, and it let me cuddle them and bake at the same time. Just took them out for her to feed them when they tried to give me neck hickies. Forgot I was wearing them half the time.”

Jack stared at Bitty for a long moment. “I never knew that.”

Bitty shrugged. “Doesn’t come up much in a frat house.”

“If you move, would I be able to go to the same school?” Theo asked.

“I have no idea,” Jack said. “Would you be averse to switching schools if it came to that?”

“If they can transfer my credits and have an AP track?” Theo said.

“Private school might be an option,” Jack said. “Private schools are used to transfers.”

Theo’s eyes widened. “I can’t ask you to…”

Bitty shook his head. “You don’t get it, Jack’s not only making ludicrous amounts of money, but his parents are rich too. Both of them are independently wealthy. If he got injured tomorrow and had to retire, he knows they’d support him 100%. He doesn’t spend much day to day, but he likes taking care of people. Not only that, but pretty much everyone he works with is also rich.”

“I put aside enough money to pay for a modest living for the rest of my life already,” Jack said. “I’m pretty sure the performance bonus this year is going to be sufficient to buy a reasonably sized house with money left over. And that’s not even taking into account whatever contract I sign next month. My father had a long career where he was making millions of dollars a year, and my mother was a supermodel. If I can’t use that money to give a good student a good education and a better future, I don’t even know what the point is.”

“There’s no use arguing with him,” Suzanne said.

“But why me? Why not one of the other kids at the center?”

“You’re the one who needs it,” Bitty said. “And maybe we’ll help another kid at some point, or run a fundraiser for a better group home, or something like that. In the meantime, you’re here, and we can help, and we want to.”

“Why not you?” Jack asked.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Linden showed up with a social worker and a detective at 9 am, by which point a dozen mini quiches, three batches of muffins, and a loaf of banana bread were coming out of the oven.

“Are they always like this?” Theo had asked Jack, who was washing dishes as they were dirtied, watching Bitty and Suzanne work together.

“I think they’re a little distracted, actually,” Jack said. “I’ve seen him turn out six pies and four dozen cookies in about an hour when he was really trying to procrastinate.”

“I heard that,” said Bitty. “And I’ll have you know that with a commercial kitchen I can put out a dozen pies, a birthday cake, and a four course meal in an hour.”

“I’ve seen him do it,” Suzanne said. “He was twelve.”

“You’ve no room to talk, Mrs. ‘Of-course-I’d-be-happy-to-make-dinner-for-fifty-firefighters- with-half-an-hour-notice.’” Bitty said.

“It was spaghetti. I could have made spaghetti for a hundred if they’d given me another fifteen minutes.”

“By spaghetti she means three different kinds of pasta, four different sauces to accommodate allergies, garlic bread and salad with a homemade dressing,” Bitty said. “And dessert.”

“Of course,” Jack said. “So cooking for the hockey team…”

Bitty snorted. “Easy as, well, pie.”

“My superpower is hockey,” Jack said. “Bitty’s … is taking care of people.”

The kitchen was clean by the time Jack answered the front door.

A tall, thin person in their fifties with short, greying dark hair and pale skin reached out their hand. “I’m Linden, we talked last night. This is Ms. Kerry, from DCYF. Social Services, essentially.” They gestured to a shorter, stouter Black woman with straightened, shoulder-length hair. “And this is Detective Paulson, who specializes in crimes against juveniles and special populations.” Detective Paulson was an angular, tall auburn man in his mid-thirties, with a close-cropped beard and mustache two shades brighter and redder than the hair on his head.

“Come in,” Jack said, and held the door open.

They followed him past the kitchen and down the steps into the living room, where Theo sat in Jack’s red flannel shirt, curled up in the corner of one of the couches, reinforcing the small twists of his hair, his eyes focused on a random corner of the coffee table.

Bitty came in with a tray of quiche and muffins, and Suzanne followed with plates and forks.

Jack introduced each of them, and pulled over a wingback chair from the corner and sat down.

“So, I’ll start,” Linden said. “We’re going to need to get a lot of detailed information. Theo can decide who he wants in the room with him while that happens. Since none of you are part of either complaint, we won’t need you to make statements about that, but we will need you to describe how you got involved, for the record, and if Theo will be staying here for any length of time, Ms. Kerry will need to inspect the bedroom and the common spaces.”

“They can stay,” Theo said. “They’ve heard it all.”

“We’ve got a lot of overlapping questions, the detective and I,” said Ms. Kerry, putting a little recorder down on the coffee table. “So to save you having to repeat yourself, and to make sure we’re getting everything just right, I’d like to record our conversation. Is that okay?”

Theo nodded.

“Oh, I’ll need you to say ‘Yes’ out loud for the recording if you can,” she said.

He sighed and said, “Yes, I am willing for this to be recorded.”

“First, we’ll need your legal name and date of birth,” the Detective said. “I understand you’re using a new name, and we’ll try to stick to that when we’re talking, but we have to have the name that will match your birth certificate and your current ID, if those are different.”

“I prefer Theo, but my mother named me Emily Rochelle Burton, and I was born on March 13, 2001. I was assigned as female at birth but am trans and male, and prefer he and him pronouns,” Theo said.

“Can each of the rest of you say your name for the record, please?”

Each did.

“Now, I understand you’re pregnant,” the Detective said, scribbling on a notepad.

Theo leaned back and stretched, smoothing his hands over his round belly.

“Have you seen a doctor yet and had the pregnancy confirmed?” Ms. Kerry asked.

“My mother won’t take me to doctors unless I’m dying,” Theo said. “And I don’t have any money for one on my own.”

“We can take care of that,” Ms. Kerry said. “You will categorically qualify for Medicaid. Refusal to seek medical care for any minor child is a red flag: for a pregnant minor child, given the resources we have for teen parents, it constitutes neglect.”

“She didn’t know I was pregnant until a couple days ago,” Theo said. “I didn’t know until a week ago.”

“You had sexual contact when?” the detective asked.

“November 25, 2015, one of the youth pastors at our church raped me,” Theo said.

“Do you know his name?” Paulson asked.

“Peter Jones. I’ve known him since I was ten. He was trying to convince me I wasn’t trans.”

The detective scribbled something on his notepad, then said, “If we can get DNA evidence and proof of your age, this is pretty cut and dried. We will need you to write a complaint against him in order to subpoena a sample of his DNA, and you may need to testify briefly.”

“I don’t want him anywhere near me or the baby. And I think I want to give the baby up? Is it true he could stop that?”

Det. Paulson and Ms. Kerry looked at each other. “You always have the option of relinquishing the baby to DCYF. Technically you could take the baby to a fire station and relinquish it,” Ms. Kerry said. “But the first place we’re instructed to look for adoptive parents, in general, is in the family. If he is convicted, he won’t get custody, but his family or your mother might. You can attempt to do a more traditional adoption and ask him to relinquish rights to the couple of your choice, but that, too, can be challenging. It may take up to twelve to fifteen months for us to force a termination of parental rights. No one can force you to parent this child, but you can’t decide to not parent the child and also retain control of who does, and if you decide to parent the child, you will need to have a stable home with support.”

“I don’t want my mother anywhere near another child either,” Theo said.

“What happened with her?” Ms. Kerry asked.

“After I realized I was pregnant, I called to see if I could get an abortion, but when I told them the only time I’d had… when I was raped… They told me it would be very difficult to get an abortion now. And I tried to talk to her about it, but she… She screamed at me and called me names and told me to get out and threw things at the wall next to me until I left. I stayed on the street for a night and then went to the drop in center, and that’s when Bitty found me.”

“Were you afraid she was actually going to hurt you?” the detective asked.

Theo nodded, then looked at the recorder and said, “Yes. She’s got really bad aim, so I honestly don’t know if she was trying to hit me and missing, or trying to miss me and succeeding, but the lamp came so close I could feel it as it rushed by.”

“She threw a lamp at you?” Ms. Kerry asked.

“And a can of soup. That one left a dent in the wall.”

“You told her you’d been raped?” Det. Paulson asked.

“Yeah, I said he’d pushed me down and pulled my pants down and she said I must have been leading him on. I had a bruise for three weeks. I was wearing really baggy sweats.”

“You could have been wearing a miniskirt, and it still wouldn’t have made you old enough to consent, even if you’d asked him flat out to have sex with you,” Linden said.

“I didn’t… I don’t… I’m ace. I don’t want sex. I never wanted sex. He was trying to prove to me that I was a girl. He said, ‘God made you this way,’ and I said, ‘Trans and asexual?’ and he laughed at me. And then he was on me. I… couldn’t talk. I was so shocked. He’d always been nice before.”

“He may have had practice at getting vulnerable people to trust him,” the detective said.

“You think…” Theo started.

“It’s rare for something like this to be an isolated incident.”

“It’s called corrective rape,” Linden said. “And it’s actually classified as a hate crime. It could add five years to his sentence if that charge is added.”

“But moreover, if he raped one vulnerable fourteen-year-old, there’s a significant chance he’s done it or tried to do it before to someone else, and an even higher chance he’d try it again if we didn’t intervene,” the detective said. “Do you see why it’s so important that we get your statement?”

“I just don’t want him to find me,” Theo said.

“Once he’s in jail, it won’t matter. Getting you out of your mother’s house and into a secure place like this is a step in the right direction,” Ms. Kerry said.

“Can I stay?” Theo asked.

“We need to get a bit more information, and I need to look around, but we’ve got a little bit of time to work to get our ducks in a row. I have until Monday to file this, and you don’t appear to be in any immediate danger. I’ll need to discuss things with your hosts…”

“Whatever you need,” Jack said.

“So I think we’ve established that you were raped, Theo. We will need to have you checked out, today if possible, and they’ll need to either do an amnio or wait until the baby is born to get a DNA analysis done. We’ll need a confirmation of the pregnancy and likely gestational age, and get a sworn statement from you that you believe Peter Jones to be the father. At that point we will bring him in for questioning with a court order for a DNA sample. It will take a few days to get the results of that back. I’m not sure of the lead time on the amnio, if you want to go that route.”

“I… I don’t know yet.”

“Can we talk about your mom?” the social worker asked.

“She… I told her that I thought I was pregnant, and that I was scared, and that I wanted to go to the doctor, and she… she flipped. She said she’d raised me better than that, and that I wasn’t going to ruin…” Theo stopped and took a breath. “That I wasn’t going to ruin her life again. I tried to tell her what happened. She just kept screaming at me. And throwing… and I left.”

“Has she ever hit you or yelled that way before?” Paulson asked.

“Not like that. But she spanked when I was younger, and she… runs a tight ship, as she says. I tried really hard to be good. But she’d told me ‘not in my house’ about a lot of things. I didn’t want to come out while I was still dependent on her.”

“If you don’t want to come out now, we may have to leave your new name and gender identity out of the complaints against her,” Linden said. “We’ll have to use your deadname and misgender you, and we can’t guarantee that he won’t tell her.”

“Do I have to go back to her?” Theo asked.

“Theoretically, if she complied with every step of a reunification process, we might have you go back to her. But in reality, it’s rare in a situation like this that it would be enforced for someone your age. If you were six? It might be another story, but at your age you have more… agency than someone younger.”

“I’m just worried she’ll fight harder if she thinks someone is ‘making’ me gay , because that’s how she’ll see it. If she just thinks I’m her pregnant slutty daughter that someone is willing to take responsibility for and they make it not her problem, she’s more likely to just go away.” Theo’s chin quivered and his eyebrow furrowed.

“It’s okay to be angry, sweetheart,” Suzanne said.

“I just… I was trying so hard, and I love… loved her and I don’t understand why she would treat me that way.”

Linden leaned over and said, “There is probably a reason. But it isn’t you. How people react to traumatic news tends to go back to their hardwiring, the things that happened to them in the past. And that’s not an excuse, and it’s not your responsibility to fix it, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep you from being vulnerable to it again, but knowing that there’s probably a reason and that, as personal as the attack was, it’s not actually about you can be helpful moving forward.”

“I just haven’t had anyone to talk to about this,” Theo said. “At school, they have to talk to parents about everything. And the kids… and I’m at this school that’s like, really polarized, and I’m not Black enough to fit in with the Black kids and not white enough to fit in with the white kids, and not really gay enough for the out kids and…”

“And you just put your head down and hope no one realizes how alone you are, because that’s when they lash out,” Bitty said.

Theo stared at him for a long moment. The intercom buzzer went off, and Jack went to answer the door.

“Up until we moved to Madison, I didn’t have anyone at school who felt safe. Even there, with the hockey team, it was really… superficial. I didn’t even dare say the word ‘gay’ until I got out of state.” Bitty looked down at his hands. “I know it’s not the same, but I know what it’s like to be afraid all the time. I was lucky, my parents were way better than I was afraid they might be. But I didn’t find that out until this year.”

Theo said, “The problem for me was the religious kids. They all knew me from church, and the neighborhood, and they were starting to talk… that’s why I figured it out, they were starting to ask questions.”

Jack returned then, followed closely by George, who was wearing a power suit that Jack wasn’t sure he’d ever seen her wear outside of a contract negotiation, and a middle-aged, greying attorney in a very expensive suit. He looked at the social worker and said, “This is Georgia, my boss, and Mr. Severson, a family law attorney.”

Linden looked up and smiled. “George!”

George leaned down and gave Linden a hug. “Nice to see you, hon. Coffee later?”

“Definitely,” Linden said.

“Is Mr. Severson formally representing you?” Ms. Kelly asked.

“I’m here to offer legal advice as a courtesy based on my relationship with Mr. Zimmermann’s employer, but he does not have me on retainer yet,” the attorney said. “We’ll be discussing that later. I’m mostly here to listen and clarify. My understanding is that this is not likely to be an adversarial relationship between DCYF and Mr. Zimmermann.”

She nodded. “That’s fine.”

Jack brought down two more chairs from the dining room, as the social worker asked Theo if the new additions were acceptable.

Theo nodded, and Ms. Kelly said to him, “We have some latitude about your mother, because of your age and because what she did constitutes domestic violence. It’s assault, but because you are family, and a minor, it’s more serious than simple assault, even though she didn’t actually hurt your body.”

“Our DA tends to pursue these cases pretty aggressively,” Paulson said. “But they’ll offer her a plea bargain which will allow her record to be expunged after a period of time if she relinquishes custody completely and takes a domestic violence prevention course.”

“What would happen to me then?” Theo asked.

“You’d be cleared for adoption, or permanent guardianship, whichever you prefer. I understand these folks are interested in helping you.” The social worker gestured at Bitty and Jack.

“We’re looking into what we’d need to do to make it work,” Jack said.

George said, “I’ve been making calls since I woke up. We’ve got an extensive support network among the WA… Spouses and Significant Others. We tend to be a close-knit club, and it’s not unlike a military wives’ group in terms of support. We’re going to have Theo’s material needs met by the end of the day, and certainly enough supplies for the infant by the time it’s born. Come fall, if Theo is still with Jack, I’ve got two volunteers to come stay overnight whenever Jack is on the road.”

“Oh, are you not living together?” Ms. Kelly asked, looking between Jack and Bitty in confusion.

“I’m a college student,” Bitty said. “My senior year begins in August. We didn’t live together this past school year but we’re discussing options for this year. If there’s a baby in the house, there’s no way I wouldn’t be here most nights. But I’d already planned on living with Jack all summer.”

“Eric plays hockey too, at his school,” George offered. “We’d be able to find a chaperone for Theo when both of them are on the road.”

“I really don’t need that much chaperoning,” Theo said. “I don’t want to party, and I actually want to do my school work.”

“Which will make it even easier to find someone to hang out with you,” George said. “My wife is a teacher and she offered immediately. She never comes to the away games.”

“I’d be more concerned about the infant,” Ms. Kelly said. “If Theo isn’t interested in parenting but unwilling to place the child through our system, we’d need Theo’s guardians to be committed to the child’s well-being.”

“I adore babies,” Bitty said. “Really.”

“We have on-site childcare at the rink for babies over six weeks old,” George said.

“At the very least,” Jack said, “We’d be more than happy to help until the child could be placed permanently with someone who meets Theo’s approval. Even if it means hiring a nanny to bring the child along to our away games.”

Suzanne said, “Jack’s parents and my husband and I spoke last night, and I think Alicia and Bob might be willing to come down to help with part of that process. They’re both retired.”

Jack snorted.

Detective Paulson laughed. “Bad Bob Zimmermann? Yeah, retired is one way to put it. I follow him on Twitter. By retired, she means he’s rich and spends most of his time golfing and coaching Peewee for fun.”

“You know his dad?” Ms. Kelly asked.

“You don’t know… do you follow hockey at all?” The detective looked shocked.

She straightened and frowned.

“That one has been famous since he was in diapers,” the detective said, nodding at Jack. “His dad was one of the biggest forces in hockey short of the Great One himself, for something like seventeen years. He’s a good guy, and he’s loaded.”

“Would you be able to keep a child away from the media?” the social worker asked.

“We’d certainly make every effort,” Jack said. “While I can’t make guarantees, I don’t go out of my way to court the media, and I have always intended to keep my children far from the public eye. I’ve had anxiety issues myself and I don’t feel children need that extra stress of public judgment. We would not be making any announcements or publicity appearances.”

“Well, back to immediate concerns, you’d need to get licensed, which can take some time. We might be able to do a temporary waiver,” the social worker said. “When a child’s current situation does not present a clear danger, we can put a status quo order in place…”

“What if she did a guardianship directly? Would they have to get licensed?” This came from Suzanne.

Mr. Severson said, “No, but it would require an appearance in front of a judge. The judge will only allow it if DCYF signs off on it. But I could approach the mother for you about that, if you wanted to handle it privately.”

“We’re considering moving about twenty minutes away from here if it looks like we’re going to have Theo long term,” Jack said. “But it would be over the state line.”

“Guardianship would be preferable, then, though it provides less financial support. Going through us, there’s a stipend and insurance,” said Ms. Kelly.

“Jack’s insurance will cover his dependents,” George said. “And here’s his salary contract, if you don’t mind, Jack. That doesn’t include his upcoming performance bonus.”

Jack nodded, and she handed the paper over to the social worker, whose eyebrows climbed nearly to her hairline at the figure on the paper.

“We can get Theo into a drop-in clinic today and get the Medicaid process started, in any event,” Ms. Kelly said.

“That won’t be necessary if he’s going to be Jack’s dependent,” George said. “His insurance covers dependent minors, and the OB practice that works with most of our families said they’d work him in this afternoon. I get my GYN care done there myself, and they have an endocrinologist in the same building who works with many transgender youth and young adults. Jack will have 30 days to officially add Theo to his coverage.”

Mr. Severson said, “I know that financials aren’t your main focus, but allowing us to handle this part through a private guardianship would save the state at least fifty grand in the next year.”

“If she’ll cooperate,” Ms. Kelly said.

“Can you tell me the worst case/best case for the child neglect case?” the attorney asked.

“Worst case, she’s charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for throwing a lamp at her pregnant child, and spends a chunk of time in prison. That’s not likely on a first offense with no obvious injury, but we could argue medical neglect, abandonment, emotional abuse…and those things would tend to mean at least some prison. Best case, a simple assault with domestic violence, she gets probation and has to attend a class and there’s a no-contact order for three years for both Theo and the baby, which gets Theo to age 18 and the baby adopted away from the family.”

“And would that be more likely if she signed a voluntary permanent guardianship?”

“I’d recommend it, if Theo is okay with that. Assuming the process is started before I have to file the initial case on Monday.”

Theo inhaled sharply and then said, “I don’t really want her to go to prison, but I don’t want to see her and I don’t want her anywhere near me. What do we have to do to terminate the rights of the father?”

“That’s harder,” Ms. Kelly said. “Or, well, not particularly difficult in the long term, but not in a short enough term to allow you complete control over the adoption process when the baby is born. They would eventually terminate his rights if he’s found guilty or pleads guilty, but it will be months, most likely, before he’s sentenced, and months after that for an involuntary TPR to go through. We can place a child provisionally before that happens, but if he’s allowed out on bail and the baby is born before he’s convicted and you relinquish the baby prior to his conviction, there is a chance that he might be able to assert parental control long enough to be the parent we have to work with. A conviction will preclude him having custody, but those take time.”

“So I have to parent this baby for a while?” Theo asked, face completely blank.

“No.” Bitty said.

They all looked at him.

“It shouldn’t be Theo’s problem. We’ll figure it out, but this doesn’t fall on him. Everyone else here gets a choice. Theo needs to go to high school. We might have half a dozen people helping us out until it gets sorted, but this shouldn’t be on Theo. And if I’m not mistaken, you have enough information to start your case,” he said, nodding to the detective. “And you know what you’re doing next,” he said to Ms. Kelly. “And Linden, can we say right now that my priority should be working with Theo for the foreseeable future?”

“Sure. You’re welcome to both come into the center, but we can prioritize your time. We actually have several different people who help with medical appointments and such, but if you can take care of that transportation…”

“We’re buying a car today or tomorrow,” Jack said. “For Bitty’s use.”

“Get a minivan,” George said. “Theo doesn’t need to be climbing into a SUV pregnant.”

Suzanne nodded. “With all those boys up at the college, you’re going to want seven or eight seats.”

Bitty shrugged. “Whatever we need.” He turned to the attorney, “Do you need anything more from us right now?”

Severson handed over a manila envelope. “Look that over, fill it out, drop it by my office with the retainer as soon as you’re ready to start. I’ll see myself out.”

Ms. Kelly was rummaging through her leather messenger bag, and brought out a three-ring binder. She opened it and popped the rings open, then used a staple remover to pull a staple from each of three packets and then inserted them into the folder.

“I’ve included the initial application for foster parenting, our handbook, and what we look for in a home study,” she said, handing the binder to Jack. “If the mother won’t do the guardianship, you’ll need to start this process. If she is willing to go the guardianship route, I need to know as soon as possible. I can get you an emergency hearing with a judge in that case.”

“Thank you,” Jack said, taking the binder in a little bit of a daze.

“I want to meet with Jack, Eric, and Theo on Monday. Suzanne if she’s still here. Oh, and I know all three of you have cleared background checks in the past year, but we have to do our own on all adults who will be in the home, and that I must do ASAP.” Ms. Kelly reached out and slid her business card into the plastic sheath on the front of the binder in Jack’s hands, and then slipped another paper into the front of the binder without putting it through the rings. “Take that with you to the doctor and have them fill it out for me. Page 14 has the information for getting the background checks done.”

She closed her messenger bag, and took a last bite of quiche, and then asked, “Where did you buy these?”

Bitty and Suzanne looked at each other, and Jack put a hand on Bitty’s knee.

“We baked them this morning,” Bitty said. His tone was… friendly.

George laughed. “The Falconers have become rather attached to Eric’s baking. I’m absolutely certain that you will not find store-bought baked goods in this house. And if I remember correctly, his mother taught him everything she knew.”

“He passed me a couple years ago,” Suzanne said. “I’m a recipe baker. He innovates.”

"You innovate, Mama!" Bitty looked scandalized.

“Well, regardless, this is delicious,” Ms. Kelly said.

“Since I got here, he’s made chocolate peanut butter banana pie, stir fry, pancakes with bacon, and those things, and I only got here at, like, six yesterday,” Theo said. “I’ve eaten more in the past 18 hours than I did in the previous week.”

“I’m used to cooking for a team full of hungry hockey players,” Bitty said.

“Did your mother not feed you?” Ms. Kelly asked Theo.

“I mostly cooked for myself out of what she bought, but it wasn’t always a lot. She works really hard.”

Ms. Kelly gave a tight-lipped nod. “I need to see the rest of the apartment, but from what I’ve seen so far, this certainly seems a safer environment, from what you’re telling me.”

“Right this way,” Jack said, standing.

She looked around the apartment, noted the guest room, and said, “Where is—” She checked her notes “—Suzanne staying?”

“She’s only in town temporarily, and can either stay on the couch or we’re more than happy to get her a hotel room,” Jack said. “When we’re out of town next week, she’ll be staying in our room.”

The social worker nodded. “We don’t normally allow living rooms to be used as bedroom space, but for the weekend it will be acceptable. If the guardianship goes through, I assume you’ll be moving?”

He nodded, and then showed her the guest bathroom and the master bed and bath.

She looked at him and said, “Do you always jump into major life changes this way?”

He suppressed a laugh and said, “You should ask Eric how we started dating.”

“You and Eric are planning for a long-term relationship?” Ms. Kelly asked.

“I intend to marry him someday,” Jack said. “He knows that.”

“That’s an odd way to put it.”

“He hasn’t graduated yet,” Jack said.

“This could be a serious distraction for him this coming school year. You know that, right?” She put her notebook in her messenger bag.

“Since we’ve been together his grades have actually improved,” Jack said. “I make him do his homework. He helps keep my anxiety at bay. It works really well.”

“I don’t think you understand how stressful parenting a kid in crisis can be,” she said. “And throwing a baby into the mix…”

“Does it help to know that we’ve got a support network that is actually designed to deal with exactly these kinds of issues?”

“If you didn’t have the help you have, I’d be taking Theo today,” she said. “I don’t doubt that you can keep Theo healthy and safe. But it’s a lot to juggle, and as well-intentioned as you may be, you really need to understand what a huge commitment you could be making here.”

He looked down, and then said, “Seven years ago, I nearly died of an accidental overdose of anxiety medication. I was eighteen, and everyone insisted that I was going to be the best thing ever. I spent the next two years thinking I was a failure, and the next four after that reminding myself both that I could succeed at things other than hockey, and that winning wasn’t all I wanted from life. I’ve proven myself in my sport. I have an amazing boyfriend. I’ve had so much help along the way. I know this may be hard, but I have so much… I can’t walk away. I don’t have the job I have because I’m afraid of things hurting or working hard. That kid out there got dealt a raw deal. And one way or another, we’re going to make it less raw for him. You tell me how many foster families you have right now who have openings who would be a good fit for Theo.”

“I might have to go out-of-county,” she said. “We’d find something.”

“We’re here. We can do this. We can pull in whatever resources we need.”

“One word of advice… if you think you’re going to be picking up more strays, once you’re settled, get licensed. If you were already, this would be simple.”

“We weren’t planning…” Jack stopped. “If Bitty keeps volunteering…” He laughed. “Yeah, maybe.”

“And touch base with your therapist. Working with traumatized kids tends to bring up old trauma, even if your traumas aren’t the same. I assume you’re stable now, playing at the level you play at?”

He nodded. “I have strategies for dealing with attacks. I haven’t had a severe one in almost a year and a half. Even when the whole media storm happened around us coming out, I was able to self-talk through it. It was actually harder before we came out, being afraid of being outed. I can’t guarantee I won’t have more, but I can guarantee that Theo isn’t at risk from my anxiety issues.”

“You clearly have ways of getting done what you need to get done,” she said. “Just… Be aware. Do keep me in the loop this afternoon. As soon as you get back from the doctor, I need to go talk to that mother.”

He said goodbye to her at the front door, and returned to the living room to find George remaining, the detective already gone.

“I have an idea,” Suzanne said. “I think it might get around a number of issues with getting Theo’s mother to sign off. I’d like to go with Mr. Severson when he goes to make his proposal. I grew up in her church, and we still go, though they’re none too happy with your Daddy right now, Dic…Bitty.”

“You can call me Dicky, Mama, I don’t mind,” Bitty said, reaching out to take her hand.

“Dicky is a quiet, closeted boy who doesn’t talk to me,” Suzanne said. “I like Bitty better, my brain just needs to get the message.”

“Aw, Mama, it’s okay either way,” Bitty said.

She gave his hand a squeeze. “As I was about to say, I think I should be the one to have primary guardianship of Theo. Because I suspect his mama will happily sign custody over to a married woman from her church, and she won’t likely recognize me. I can say, honestly, that I will only let her child stay with people I trust implicitly, and that I understand her being upset at her child coming home pregnant, and that I have the resources to make sure the baby is safe.”

“Like she cares,” Theo said.

“Don’t get me wrong, Theo. I think your mother did a terrible thing to you, and she’s deeply wrong. But I grew up in the culture she grew up in, and I got pregnant, and if Bitty’s daddy hadn’t stepped up to the plate, I don’t know what I would have done, but my mama certainly would have had words for me. As it was, I was twenty-two and engaged before she found out, and it wasn’t her problem and… you say she’s a single mother… what do you know about your daddy?”

“Mama’s as blonde and white as you are,” Theo said. “So clearly he was Black. I don’t even know his name, or how they met, she just wouldn’t talk about him.”

“I’ll see if I can get that information out of her,” Suzanne said. “I can rightfully say that they need to know his medical history.”

“Mama, is it safe for you to…” Bitty started.

Suzanne held up a hand. “I’ll have Jack’s lawyer with me, and we’ll have the police on speed dial. But I think I’ll be okay. We’ve been doing a ridiculous number of trainings this past year.”

“Let me give you the OB’s address,” George said. “I need to get back to my office, but keep me in the loop. We’ll have that box for you by 5 pm. The sooner you get to the doctor’s office, the sooner everything else can happen.”

Chapter Text

In the parking garage of the large medical center across from the university hospital, Jack and Bitty sat in the car, waiting for a message from Suzanne. George had suggested they wait until the staff let them in the employee entrance, to avoid the waiting room. Theo and Suzanne had gone ahead.

The waiting room was large and open, with muted greyish carpeting, high-end taupe textured wallpaper, wide windows looking out on mature trees, and a large, donut-shaped fish tank in the center of the room. A number of pregnant women sat around the room, some talking, some with exhaustion written all over their faces watching toddlers press handprints onto the aquarium glass, and several on their phones.  When Suzanne and Theo went up to the front desk and gave Theo’s name, the receptionist nodded and ushered them back immediately. They sat in a small, private waiting room while someone from the office went down the service elevator to get Jack and Bitty.

Immediately after they sat down, a woman with medium brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, wearing flowered scrubs, sat down next to Theo. She smiled and said, “I’m Becca, and I’m the ultrasound tech. I understand you’re probably pretty far along?”

Theo nodded, and looked at Suzanne, who offered her hand for Theo to hold. Theo said, “I pretty much had to have gotten pregnant on November 25th.”

The tech nodded. “Then we don’t need you to guzzle water. They want to get an ultrasound first, just to make sure everything’s consistent with that date and that you are, in fact, pregnant. I’m going to get a lot of pictures of baby. Do you want to know the baby’s gender?”

Theo snorted. “You can tell me if it has a penis or not, but that won’t tell us the gender.”

The tech looked confused, and Suzanne said, “Theo is trans, assigned female at birth, pre-transition.” When the look of confusion didn’t disappear, she said, “All you can tell on an ultrasound is whether that baby has an inny or an outy, and while we might make guesses based on that, we try not to make too many assumptions anymore in this family.”

“Are you Grandma?” the tech asked.

Suzanne blinked, considered, and then said, “Well, not exactly. Ish? I’m not Theo’s mother, but I don’t mind standing in…” She hesitated a moment, then came to a realization, and said, “Now, I know how these things usually go, but this situation is nothing you’ve ever seen. How about you assume that assuming anything is probably going to make you look like a fool, and go at this understanding that this child here was raped, is looking at birthing a baby he didn’t choose, and that his entire life is in flux, and we don’t need to make that worse by jumping to conclusions or rushing to judgments or worrying too much about gender. And before you ask, the boys coming up here, neither of them caused this situation. But they’re likely going to be spending some time with this baby, and they’re really interested in seeing it, if that can be arranged.”

“Um.” The tech took stock for a moment and then said cheerfully, “Okay, so we can have one person back with us in the ultrasound room, but we can also send the video out here to that screen, and we’ll have audio as well.”

Theo had a death grip on Suzanne’s hand, and Suzanne said, “How about I come back with Theo once the boys arrive, and they can watch out here while I come back there?”

“Is that okay with you, Theo?” the tech asked.

Theo nodded.

“Do you want to see the screen when we do this?” the tech asked.

Theo blinked, and then said quietly, “I have a choice?”

The tech’s eyebrows furrowed, and she swallowed, looking sad as she said, “Sweetie, you don’t have to look if you don’t want to.”

“Can Suzanne watch? If I don’t?”

“I can do that,” the tech said. “Do you want me to explain what I’m seeing out loud?”

Theo shook his head. “I know I have to be here, or they can’t get him, but this… it’s too much.”

“And do you mind if I type in information that will be visible to Suzanne and…”

“Jack and Bitty,” Suzanne supplied.

“It’s fine,” Theo said.

“This will just be on your tummy, by the way,” Becca said. “There will be a warm gel that will spread from the top of your pubic bone,” she gestured on herself, “to just under your ribcage. I have a handheld device that’s a little bigger than a cell phone, and I’ll press it against your stomach. It shouldn’t hurt, and if it does, you tell me. If you need to stop, we can stop, but the more information I can get right now, the less likely we’ll have to do this again down the road. Now, we might be doing the same thing a little later if they decide to do an amnio, but that will be very short and we won’t be looking for information, just making sure we know where to put the amnio syringe so that it doesn’t hurt either of you.”

Theo nodded, as a knock sounded at the door. It opened immediately, and Jack and Bitty came in. The nurse holding the door said, “Doc’s going to join you in a few. You can get started now, though. I’m going to take the history while you work, Becca.”

Jack sat awkwardly on one of the stylized plastic chairs, while Bitty leaned against the wall nearest Theo.

“I’m going back with Suzanne, if you don’t mind,” Theo said.

Bitty put a hand on Theo’s shoulder. “Don’t worry a bit about it, hon. You get to decide what you need here.”

The tech stood, and said, “Ready?”

“No,” Theo said. “But I’ll do it anyway.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack and Bitty sat in the little waiting room for about five minutes before the television mounted high on the wall clicked on with a little hum, and the screen showed four windows, two of them entirely filled with snow.

A moment later the door opened and a tall, thin, white man with medium brown hair salted with grey walked in briskly. “I’m Dr. Thornton,” he said. “That was an amazing season, Jack.”

Jack looked at the doctor’s name badge, and said, “Thank you, Greg.”

The doctor blinked, then gave a wry half smile.“Are you two planning on adopting, then?” he asked.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to help Theo get through this with as little trauma as possible,” Bitty said. “Where the baby ends up is going to depend on a lot of things we just don’t know yet. That’s not our primary concern right now.”

The screen blipped and then resolved, shifting areas of snow and darkness oozing like blobs in a lava lamp until the image stilled, and it became immediately obvious that they were looking at part of a spinal column and a skull.

“Wow,” Jack said, tipping his head. “That’s even weirder than I was when I was tiny.”

“You can’t tell cute from the 2D image,” Dr. Thornton said. “She’ll do a 3D and a 4D. Then you’ll see about cute. But this is confirmation of pregnancy.”

The image shifted, and a convulsing plus-shaped brightness in a circle of dark became obvious.

“That’s the heart,” the doctor said. “Four chambers…” and the top corner window shifted and turned into a rippled stream of wavy lines. It moved for a moment, and then froze, and they could see a cursor marking tick marks along the tops of the waves. “…nice and strong, 145 beats per minute,” he finished.

The lower image became a rapid ooze of shifting blues and reds. “Flow looks good,” said the doctor.

For another twenty minutes, each body part was cataloged and measured. Including a very obviously outie.

“A boy,” the doctor said.

“Perhaps,” said Bitty, which got a strange look from the doctor.

Then the image shifted again, and Bitty gasped. “Look at that face!” he said.

Jack blinked at the bronze, shifting image on the screen. “Yeah, that kid is way cuter than I was.”

Bitty’s eyes were wide as the baby’s hand came up and brushed a round cheek. The head turned, and the baby pursed its lips and then slurped fingers into its mouth.

“Good sucking,” the doctor said. “We like to see that at this stage.” He started to say something and then stopped. “Breastfeeding isn’t going to be a topic here, is it.”

“Highly unlikely,” Bitty said.

“We like to use donor milk at the hospital,” the doctor said. “We can’t recommend peer-to-peer milk sharing, but we do have a milk bank for the newborns who aren’t nursing, if that is desired, while they’re in the hospital.”

“Why can’t you recommend it?” Bitty asked.

“Too much liability,” the doctor said. “The internet will explain it to you.” He stood as the image snowed out, and offered a perfunctory handshake to both Jack and Bitty, and then left.

_x_ _x_ _x_

In the ultrasound room, the tech handed Suzanne a strip of images printed on slick thermal paper. “I know he doesn’t want… but the adoptive parents might.”

“I’ll make sure the pictures get where they need to go,” Suzanne said, tucking them in her purse and then squeezing Theo’s hand. He was lying on his back, shirt hitched up and a towel tucked into his pants, belly exposed, with his other arm thrown over his eyes.

The door opened, and the doctor came in. The nurse handed him a file, and he skimmed it rapidly.

“Hi, Theo,” the doctor said.

Theo pulled his arm down and looked up at him.

“First of all, we don’t need to do any vaginal exams today.”

Theo’s whole body relaxed.

“Second, I understand that there’s a legal case against the father due to your age?”

“He raped me,” Theo said. “I didn’t want it.”

“We have a couple of choices then. The first, and least risky to the baby, is to wait until the baby is here, and take a sample of the cord blood, and DNA test that. But we’re looking at… probably eight to eleven more weeks of pregnancy before that’s available. We could do non-invasive paternity testing, but that’s less likely to hold up in court. Or we could do an amnio today, now, even, and take a little fluid from around the baby, and it looks like there’s plenty, and do genetic testing on that. It’s quite reliable, and while it might be a little uncomfortable, it will get your case moving much faster. There is a risk of loss of the pregnancy--about one in every 400 amnios might result in a fetal demise--but at this stage the most likely risk is preterm birth, and even that is not terribly likely.”

“Do it,” Theo said.

“We’ll put brown goop on your belly,” he said.

“Betadine,” Theo said flatly.

“We’ll swab your belly with betadine,” the doctor continued, “and then numb you up. Then I’ll use a long needle, while Becca holds the ultrasound monitor in place, and I'll draw out a bit of fluid.”

“Just get it over with, please,” Theo said.

The doctor nodded at the nurse, and she stepped out, and then came back in with a draped cart.

The procedure was fast, but left Theo cramping and unsettled. When it was done, the doctor said, “Go ahead and get cleaned up, and we’ll talk back in the private lounge.”

A few minutes later, Theo and Suzanne joined Jack and Bitty in the private waiting area.

“You okay?” Bitty asked.

“I’m not sure I’m ever going to get all the jelly out of my navel,” Theo said, grimacing. “And ow. And no, I don’t think it’s ever going to be okay.”

Suzanne put an arm around Theo’s shoulders. “This is temporary,” she said. “It’s undignified, and it’s not what you want, and it’s not fair, but it’s temporary. And you don’t have to be okay.”

Dr. Thornton came in a few minutes later, and pulled a chair over to sit facing Theo. “So, you’ve got some decisions to make here in the next few weeks,” he said. “First of all, I strongly, strongly recommend that you take a labor preparation course. I know that you don’t want to be doing this right now, but I find that having information can make this process a lot less scary. And we’d like to keep from making this more traumatic for you than it has to be.” He held out a business card, which Theo stared at like it might turn into a snake and bite.

Suzanne reached out and took the card. The doctor said, “The lady on that card will do a private class for you, since I’m assuming you don’t really want to face a room full of…”

Theo shook his head, looking alarmed.

“We’ll do the class,” Jack said.

“Right, so, you have some choices about the labor and birth.”

“Can you take the baby out now?” Theo asked. “So I don’t have to do this anymore?”

Thornton gave a sympathetic frown. “I know it sounds like the easiest way out, but we’d like to avoid surgery if we can, and I probably couldn’t force your body to give birth any other way right now. And we’re not allowed to do early inductions anymore, because while the baby would most likely survive if born now, it would be at high risk of a lot of health problems and would be in the hospital for a very long time. Now, term is technically 37 weeks, but we aren’t allowed to do elective induction before 39 weeks. I can, and will induce you, if you want, at exactly 39 weeks, which would be… Thursday, August 11. Assuming you don’t go early, but most first time mothers don’t.”

Theo looked resigned. “Do I have to be awake for it?”

“We don’t do general anesthesia for births if we can possibly avoid it,” Dr. Thornton said. “The risk to you is not insignificant, and the risk to the baby is also something I have to consider. We can give you an epidural, but there are no guarantees about whether it will work perfectly or not, and it can make labor a little longer and more difficult. Most of our moms who are induced end up with an epidural, and most of them go okay, but it’s not without risk to you. We consider them safe enough to use when people ask for them. The lowest risk to both of you is if you go into labor on your own, without an induction, and give birth without needing other interventions. I find that the moms who labor and birth without meds tend to recover a little faster, but I don’t want to make this worse on you than it has to be. You don’t have to decide until you’re doing it, however. I’ve had mothers who swore they were going to go straight to a section give birth in the lobby, and I’ve had mothers who swore they were going to do it naturally ask for every med in the cabinet once they were here. We don’t know how it’s going to go until it’s over. You’re young, your body is strong, the baby looks healthy, you’re not tiny, there’s no reason to think that this has to be physically terrible. You can help things along by going for walks and eating good food and taking care of yourself.”

“If you did a c-section, you could take out my uterus and ovaries,” Theo said.

The doctor blinked. “I can’t, actually, unless there was something going on that required me to do that in order to save your life. Which I see no sign of on the ultrasound. For minors, all sterilizing surgery requires an ethics committee review. I know that the endocrinologists here prefer to do hormone blocking and in some cases replacement hormones to age 18, and then they’ll consider surgical options once you are an adult.”

Theo sighed, “Worth a shot.”

The doctor pulled a sheet off the stack and looked at Theo, and then handed it to Suzanne. “You’ll want to fill that out and give it to the police. It would be best if your parent or guardian could sign it, but if they send their paternal sample to the lab, we can get a faster match. I’ve instructed the lab to use a divided sample, so if we need to send something over to their lab, we can do that, too.”

Suzanne nodded.

“Do you have any questions for me?” he asked.

Theo shook his head.

“We’re going to get you through this,” Dr. Thornton said. “I can’t guarantee that it will be a fun ride, but I can tell you that by mid-August, you’ll be recovering, and by September you’ll be back in school and likely fully physically recovered from the birth.”

“What I did with my summer vacation,” Theo said, looking vaguely nauseated.

“Are there any foods he should or shouldn’t be eating?” Suzanne asked.

“We sometimes give a list of foods to be avoided,” the doctor said. “But honestly, as long as Theo isn’t smoking, drinking, or doing drugs, and is getting enough to eat and has a safe, supportive environment at home, I think we can call it good. I have patients who seem to subsist entirely on chicken nuggets and french fries, which, while far from ideal, still seems to produce reasonably healthy babies. If you want to have a piece of brie or sushi, I’m pretty sure the French and Japanese would laugh at us for telling pregnant women not to eat them.”

Theo gave a dry laugh. “Like I’ve ever been able to afford brie or sushi.”

“I suspect that’s not a problem, now,” the doctor said. “If you’re concerned, avoid cold cuts. I know Jack probably follows a tight nutritional plan with lots of veggies, whole grains, lean meats, and healthy fats, and that’s not an unreasonable approach, but you don’t have to be as strict as he is, and you don’t need to eat quite as many calories. I’d like to run some bloodwork today. And we need to schedule another appointment. At that appointment, I’d like to do an STD screen, just to be safe, and that will require a very brief vaginal exam, but it shouldn’t hurt. Normally I’d run a pap smear, but at your age, and given that you’re contemplating a hysterectomy in the next five to ten years, we can hold off on that until after the baby is born. I’d like to do one at your six-week postpartum checkup.

“I’d like to do your next appointment next week. It will be a little more involved. After that we’ll see you every 2 weeks until you hit 36 weeks, and every week after that.”

Theo nodded.

“Right. I’m done now; the nurse will be in when I leave to draw your blood, then you’re welcome to go out the employee entrance. The waiting room can be a bit much when you’re not happy about your situation. In the future, call the front desk and they’ll let you in there.”

“Thank you,” Suzanne said.

The doc shook hands with everyone, and walked out. The nurse slid in with a phlebotomy kit and Theo held an arm out, looking away from the process as the nurse filled a handful of vials.

She released the tourniquet and put a band-aid on the inside of Theo’s elbow, and then patted him on the hand. “We’ll take good care of you, you know.”

Theo stared at her for a long moment, and then looked down.

“It’s okay. Come on and we’ll get you scheduled and you can get out of here.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack was on the phone while Bitty drove them back to the apartment, first to George, then to the social worker, police officer, and the attorney.

“We’re kicking over a nest of bees on your behalf,” Bitty said over his shoulder to Theo, between Jack’s phone calls.

“You’re doing so much,” Theo said.

“It needs doing,” Bitty said. “We’re here, and can do it.”

“I don’t want to be any trouble,” Theo said.

“You’re fifteen,” Suzanne said. “You’re supposed to be a bit of trouble.”

“I’m really pregnant,” Theo said. “My belly hurts.”

“That’s the amnio. The info sheet said you might have cramps for a few days.”

“Tell me it’s worth it?” Theo said.

“If it gets that man out of circulation and on the way to termination of parental rights sooner,” Suzanne said, “it’s worth it.”

“What about the epidural?” Theo asked.

“I didn’t have one,” Suzanne said. “It wasn’t that bad. I’d have had a dozen more if I’d ever managed to stay pregnant after that. Dicky… Bitty came out backwards, really fast, and kind of early. I didn’t have time to get too worked up about it. My sister-in-law, though, she went to 43 weeks. They kept offering her an induction and she just said, ‘This kid will come when she’s good and ready,’ and just kept not showing up when they scheduled her.”

“I just wish they could make it stop,” Theo said.

“I know, sweetie. I can’t… I know how hard it was for me, at 22, juggling all the things I juggled, and that was with wanting my baby and loving his father with my whole heart. I can’t possibly know what you’re going through right now, but it’s clear that this is really, really hard, and a terrible thing happened to you, and it’s okay for you to be sad and angry and feel however you feel about it. You don’t have to be happy about this, and if anyone tells you that you should, you send them to me. But the doctor is right. This is temporary. Your body is going through a lot, but you’re going to be done with this. You have far less time left than has already passed since he hurt you. And you got through that alone. You won’t be alone for this.”

“I never took drugs,” Theo said. “But I kind of understand why people do now. I just want to make it all go away and not think for a while.”

“There’s a rec center with a pool at my apartment,” Jack said. “I like to zone out in the water sometimes when my head is noisy. Oh, and they have a couple therapy tubs at the rink. I bet we could get you in there, they’re temperature controlled.”

“I don’t even understand your life,” Theo said.

“Me neither,” Bitty said. “I’ve learned to just go with it. It is remarkably easy to adapt to luxury.”

“I… Is it weird if i don’t want them to punish my mother? Like, I don’t want to see her, and I really don’t want her to have control over my life, but I don’t want her to go to jail, either.”

Jack murmured something to Bitty, and they turned at the next light.

“George’s got a box for you,” Jack said. “Clothes and such.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Mr. Severson picked Suzanne up from Jack’s an hour later. They drove to one of the poorer parts of town and climbed the steps to the second-floor apartment Theo had called home for years.

“She might not be home,” Mr. Severson said, but the door opened a moment later, and a blonde woman with frosted hair and blue eyes opened the door. Her eyes took in Suzanne and the well-dressed attorney and she seemed to debate shutting the door. “Ashley Burton?” he asked.

“Wait,” Suzanne said, “…your child is safe.”

“Shelly made her bed,” the woman said, frowning.

“Ashley, I know you must be upset,” Suzanne said.

“Are you a social worker?”

“No, I’m just a mother. And… Shelly kind of landed in my lap yesterday, and I’d like to help her,” Suzanne said. “Can we talk? There’s a lot happening right now and turning us away won’t make anything better for anyone, especially you.”

“Why? Why do you care?”

“I’m a Christian woman, and I don’t want to see a child suffer,” Suzanne said. “I have resources that can take the financial burden off your plate, and make sure that Shelly finishes school and goes to college, and that the baby ends up adopted to a good home if Shelly doesn’t want to keep it.”

“Well, I’ve washed my hands of it,” Ashley said.

“The problem is that it doesn’t work that way,” Suzanne said. “If we could sit down somewhere and talk, he can explain.”

“Just a minute,” Theo’s mother said, and the door closed. There was a scraping sound, and Suzanne quietly turned on her phone’s camera, then tucked it in her pocket.

The door opened, and Ashley held it while they stepped through into a small, neatly kept living room with a threadbare carpet.

There was an awkwardly placed coat stand near the front door, pushed tight against the wall. Suzanne looked down, and saw a faint sparkle near the baseboard.

“The kitchen table will do,” Ashley said, pointing through an archway to a tiny dining area in a small, dingy kitchen.

They pulled out the ancient metal chairs and sat.

“Okay, talk. Who are you?” Ashley said to Mr. Severson.

“Joe Severson, attorney at law. I am here on behalf of my client, to seek permanent guardianship of Emily Rochelle Burton, so that my client can help her obtain medical care and schooling and navigate the upcoming rape trial. My client is also willing to provide medical insurance, food, a safe place to live, and ensure the well-being of both your child and your child’s child. In the event that child is placed for adoption, a guardian would be able to consent to the adoption. This would, in fact, allow you to fully ‘wash your hands’ of the situation.”

“Rape trial… she wasn’t raped. She said it was Pete, but I don’t believe her. He’s a good, Christian man.”

“That will be determined by DNA testing,” Mr. Severson said. “The police are bringing him in for questioning as we speak.”

“Even if it was him, she probably led him on.”

“In the state of Rhode Island,” Severson said blandly, “The age of consent is 16 years. Sex with a minor who is over 14 years and not yet 16 years is a third degree misdemeanor. According to the doctor who just saw your child, the conception would have taken well before Emily’s 15th birthday, which means that if the DNA is a match, he will be charged with Child Molestation Sexual Assault in the First Degree. This is not statutory rape, it is child abuse. Moreover, we are informed that Shelly in no way sought sexual contact with this man, and did not invite or agree to sexual contact, which means that it is, in fact, rape.”

“She didn’t want it,” Suzanne said.

Ashley looked away. “I just can’t imagine why he would… he’s married. What was she doing alone with him, anyway?”

“She trusted him,” Suzanne said. “And he abused that trust.”

“I can’t afford another baby,” Ashley said.

“You don’t have to. Let us help.”

“I don’t…“

Suzanne stood up, and pulled the camera out of her pocket, and slid the coat rack aside. She snapped a quick picture of the dent in the wall behind it.

“How… What are you…”

The lawyer put his hand up. “Just listen for a moment. Shelly asked for help, and when she told us what had happened, because of the laws in Rhode Island, we were obliged to report the rape to the authorities. A DCYF worker was present, as was I, as was my client, while Shelly explained to us both the rape and how you kicked her out of the house. She wasn’t trying to get you into trouble, she was just trying to explain why she didn’t have anywhere to go. She spent a night on the streets before my client took her in. So far, every single thing she has said has been corroborated. She is, in fact, pregnant, and about as pregnant as she would have to be to have been impregnated just before Thanksgiving last year. She told us that you threw a lamp at her, and a can, and that they did not hit her, but that she was afraid.”

“I was so angry,” Ashley said. “I had her at 16, and I didn’t want that for her.”

Suzanne sat back down. “I understand that, but the problem is that you threw a lamp at your pregnant child and kicked her out onto the street without so much as a change of clothing. She is 15 years old, and you are legally responsible for her. Now, I understand being disappointed. I understand being upset. But I cannot understand rejecting your child.”

“The big problem for you, right now, Ms. Burton,” Severson said, “is that DCYF and the police are opening investigations. The charge will be assault with domestic violence.”

“I never laid a hand on her.”

“If you had, it would be battery. Assault merely requires threat of bodily harm. Now, this can go one of two ways, as I understand it from DCYF and the detective in charge of the case. If the charge is assault with a deadly weapon with domestic violence, the conviction would be a felony and would involve several years in prison. No one wants that. If the charge is simple assault with domestic violence, and it’s a first offense, there will be a mandatory class and probation and a 3-year no-contact order. I’m not going to give you legal advice on what you should do, and I’m not your lawyer, but I can tell you that with DCYF, if you demonstrate that you have your child’s best interest at heart, they’re very likely to go with lesser charges, or even no charges at all. They could throw the book at you if they feel you’re standing in the way of your child’s well-being. Juvenile court almost always follows their recommendations.”

Ashley’s eyes were wide. “And what do I have to do?”

“Well, there are two options to provide for Shelly’s care right now. DCYF could place her in a foster home, and then they’d either charge you and seek to terminate your parental rights, or they’d set up a reunification process for the next year, and then terminate your parental rights if that was not successful. You will end up paying child support while she is in care. Not paying child support would be seen as failure to comply. They may reserve the right to charge you at a later date. The other option is private guardianship. My client is willing to take over parental responsibilities for Shelly for the foreseeable future. Her education will be provided for. You can voluntarily terminate your parental rights, or not. A guardianship must be performed in front of a judge, and can only be revoked with a hearing.”

“You’d pay for her college? Why?” Ashley asked Suzanne.

“Do you have one of her report cards?” Suzanne asked.

Ashley went to the refrigerator and pulled something off it, and then slid it in front of Suzanne. “That’s last term.”

“With grades like these, in classes like these, she’s what my husband would call ‘a safe bet,’” Suzanne said. “Who wouldn’t want to support a kid like that, if they could, especially with what she’s been through? We'd support her even if her grades weren't good, but college is what your child wants.”

“And they’d let me be?” Ashley asked.

“We can’t guarantee, but the worker indicated that they mostly want to see Shelly safe, and if you cooperate, they aren’t all that interested in seeing you in prison. They’re more concerned about the man who raped her.”

“I just can’t… I don’t understand how… I’ve known him since we were kids.” Ashley looked down at her hands.

“Shelly found a safe place to be, with people who care about her and want to help her,” Mr. Severson said. “You can make that go smoothly, and make her life easier, and make your life easier, or you can punish her for something she doesn’t deserve to be punished for, and hurt yourself in the process.”

“What… What do I have to do?” Ashley asked.

“We can get an emergency meeting with the judge in about…” he looked at his wrist, “an hour and a half. Sign the guardianship papers. We’ll need her things, her clothes, her phone, her computer, and any medical records, birth certificate, that kind of thing. Does she have a passport?”

Ashley nodded. “The church did a trip to Canada last year.”

“And we’ll need a full medical history,” Suzanne said. “Including her daddy’s information, if possible.”

“I haven’t seen him since I was pregnant,” Ashley said. “But I can give you his name.”

“Does he know about her?” Suzanne asked.

Ashley looked away. “I never told him. My father… if I’d told her daddy, he would have stuck around. My father would have killed him.”

“For getting you pregnant?” Suzanne asked.

“For being Black and getting me pregnant,” Ashley said. “My father didn’t speak to me for five years after she was born. He tried to make peace after that but I… I couldn’t let him be around Shelly, not with how he felt about Black people.”

“They kicked you out?” Suzanne asked.

“Not at first. When she was born and it was obvious… I stayed with our pastor and his wife for a couple years. They were good to me.”

“We’ll be good to Shelly,” Suzanne said. “We won’t let it… we won’t let him ruin her life.”

“I don’t even know you,” Ashley said.

“You didn’t know the street kids Shelly slept with in an abandoned building before she came to us,” Suzanne said. “We’re a huge improvement.”

“You’re Southern Baptist?”

“Born and bred. My husband, too.” Suzanne said. “We’ve been married a couple of decades.”

“You have kids?”

“A son. He’s away at college during the school year.”

“She’ll finish school?”

“Pretty much any school she wants,” Suzanne said.

“What’s the catch?”

“Catch?”

“Why would complete strangers help a pregnant teen just out of the blue like that? School isn’t cheap.”

“We were impressed by Shelly. There are a lot of kids with a lot fewer obstacles doing a lot less than she has. She was raped in the middle of this semester,” Suzanne said, holding up the report card, “and still managed to bring in six A’s and a B, with an incredibly difficult course load. She managed to finish the school year and find help, and was still blaming herself for something that could not possibly be her fault. And the Bible is pretty clear about helping those in need. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone who needed us more.”

“Where’s all this money coming from?” Ashley asked.

“My client’s parents are very wealthy,” Mr. Severson said. “And I have been assured that an educational trust fund will be set up for Shelly regardless of whether she is permanently placed with my client or not.”

“So she might not live with you?” Ashley asked Suzanne.

“Shelly is 15 and has a say in where she ends up. We have an extensive support network here in town, and I think she’s going to have several options to choose from. Making me her guardian means that I will have the final word on appropriate placements for both her and her child. My primary concern is helping her through this very difficult time with the most safety and the least psychological damage.”

“I… Can I talk to her?”

“She’ll have to be at the hearing, and you can talk to her then,” Mr. Severson said. “The judge will talk to her privately to make sure this is what she wants. We may request that you terminate your parental rights at some point if she wants to be adopted formally by her permanent placement. I strongly recommend that you consult your own attorney on this.”

Ashley snorted. “I can barely afford to feed us, you think I can afford that?”

“If DCYF charges you, you will be provided with an attorney,” Mr. Severson said.

“I could go to prison?”

“Not likely, but it is possible, and the more you interfere with your child’s long-term stability and well-being, the more likely it is that they’ll file the more serious charges.”

“I need to… I don’t have a car. I need to gather the paperwork.”

“We can wait,” Suzanne said. “We’ll drive you.”

“I’ll call Ms. Kelly,” the lawyer said. “She’s the DCYF worker in charge of the case, and she can confirm anything you need to know.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

It was just after 5 pm when Suzanne, Ashley, and Mr. Severson entered the courthouse. Ms. Kelly sat with Theo on a bench in the hallway outside a courtroom.

Theo looked up as they came, and then looked away.

“Shelly,” Ashley started, but Ms. Kelly stood up and said, “Please come speak with me over here.” She turned to Theo, “Honey, are you okay staying with Suzanne?”

Theo nodded. Suzanne sat down and held out a hand, which Theo took.

Ms. Kelly took Ashley into an empty courtroom, and said, “I understand that you’ve agreed to the guardianship?”

“You trust this woman?” Ashley asked.

“I’ve spoken with the school she teaches at, and they speak very highly of her, as does her pastor.”

“She said that Shelly’s school would be paid for? That I wouldn’t have to pay support?”

“I’ve confirmed the income and resources of the family,” Ms. Kelly said. “A very generous offer has been made to pay not only for college but for private high school as well, if necessary.”

“I didn’t hurt her,” Ashley said.

“You did,” Ms. Kelly said. “You threatened her, and you threw her out of the house, and you neglected to ensure her well-being. You denied her medical care despite our state having ample resources for insurance for low-income families. You made her feel so unsafe that she has asked me to pursue a no-contact order for the next three years. Simply because you did not injure her body with a physical blow does not mean that you did not severely jeopardize her physical safety and her emotional well-being. Your child was raped, and your actions made that so much worse than it had to be. When she sought help, she was still blaming herself for something that categorically, statutorily, and morally was not her fault, because you made her feel like it was. Were it not for this family stepping up and making a tremendously generous offer, you would be looking at your child being put in a group home and you in prison. Because you don’t have other minor children, and you are cooperating with your child’s best interests, if you cooperate with our investigation and recommendations, the legal consequences for you will be far lighter than you deserve. This is in part because your child, the one you threw out of the house, asked me to, and I quote, ‘Go easy on you.’ ”

“She asked that?”

“All that, and she still loves you.”

“She wouldn’t look at me.”

“She still thinks you blame her for being pregnant. She’s being forced to carry a baby to term that she didn’t ever want. She may not be able to give it up for adoption right away because she wants to keep the baby away from the rapist and his family.”

Ashley sat down heavily. “She has to keep it?”

“Her benefactors have made it clear that she will not be responsible for the child’s care. Their priority is that she be free to go to school and achieve her goals. They are willing to care for the baby until it can be placed in a permanent home of Shelly’s choosing.”

“Suzanne seems like a good person. She goes to church?”

“She does.”

“She’ll see that Shelly goes?” Ashley asked.

“She’ll use her judgment. Shelly associates the church with being raped. If anyone can get her past that, it’s Suzanne, but for a fifteen-year-old, we wouldn’t insist they go to church in any foster care setting, and rest assured that even if you don’t do the guardianship, that kind of decision is not going to be in your hands. I’m prepared to recommend this guardianship to the judge, but I also have a removal order drawn up, which the judge would happily rubber stamp if I asked.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

While Ms. Kelly talked to Ashley, Jack and Bitty were in the judge’s chambers.

The judge knew who they were. He knew who Suzanne was.

“It’s unorthodox, naming one guardian with the intention of immediately assigning another guardian, in order to get the parent to relinquish custody without knowing who she’s relinquishing to.”

“She’d have less say in the matter if you made Theo a ward of the state,” Jack said. “Theo is terrified that she’ll do everything she can to block the guardianship if she knows who we are and that we’re gay. Given that the rape was a hate crime due to Theo being trans… and that it only happened because his mother spoke loud and long about how bad trans people are…”

“I don’t like it, but I understand it,” the judge said. “And I get why you’re doing this.”

“You do?” Bitty asked.

“I saw your dad’s speech,” the judge said. “And your parents’ interview. I’d be startled if you’d been able to make yourself walk away.”

“It’s just wrong,” Bitty said. “He shouldn’t… no one should…”

“We’ve both been scared, and alone, and we’ve both been hurt and had a system that was supposed to protect us fail us,” Jack said. “I can’t fix all the terrible things that people do to their children, but I can make this kid’s life a little easier. I can’t right the wrong, but I can mitigate the damage. Give Theo room to succeed.”

“What does his mother call him?” the judge asked.

“Shelly,” Bitty said. "Emily Rochelle."

“Okay, you two can go wait in the jury deliberation room. I’m going to do the hearing in the courtroom. I’ll bring Theo in here because I really have to hear this from him before I do any of this, but if the mother cooperates, when you leave here you will be the legal guardians. I’m going to require a guardian ad litem and a full evaluation before issuing a final order, but this will get you through the next ninety days. I know there’s a lot in the air right now.”

“Will we be able to take Theo to Montreal with us in July?” Jack asked.

“If his doctor says it’s okay for him to fly,” the judge said. “I know you’re tied to the community.”

“And if we decide to move to Massachusetts?” Bitty asked.

“I assume that would be in easy driving distance of the court, so that the court case against Mr. Jones can go forward?”

“The absolute farthest we’d possibly move is Samwell,” Jack said. “Attleboro or Pawtucket are more likely.”

“If you can afford it, maintain your residence here until the guardianship is final, if it ends up being finalized,” the judge said. “You don’t have to live here full time, but having residency established here would sidestep any need to transfer the case to the new jurisdiction. They’ll honor a guardianship made here, but they might insist on their own home studies and monitoring.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

The guardianship hearing was anticlimactic. Ashley signed and left when Ms. Kelly escorted her out to discuss the DCYF case. The judge nodded to the clerk when she was out the door, and the clerk brought Bitty and Jack in.

“This is what you want, Theo?” the judge asked.

Theo nodded, and then said, “Yes, your honor.”

“I’ll see you all in September,” the judge said. “Please don’t make me regret this.”

“We’ll do our best, your honor,” Bitty said.

As they were walking out, the judge said, “Mrs. Bittle? A word?”

She waved the others ahead and stepped back into the courtroom.

“Mrs. Bittle,” the judge said, “Have you ever considered becoming a CASA volunteer?”

“I started the training in January,” she said. “I was going to start taking cases this summer. They asked my husband because of the speech… he pointed them at me.”

“Wise man,” the judge said. “You could have told us before…”

“I can’t be a CASA for a child my son is probably going to end up adopting. I had enough training to know that is a conflict of interest.”

“You think they can do it?”

“I know they can do right by Theo and that baby. Whether they can do that and keep all their other pucks in play, I have no earthly clue.”

“They’ve known the kid for 24 hours.”

“It took less than 24 seconds for me to fall in love with my son when I first met him. Much less. They’ll be all right.”

“I’ve got kids,” he said. “Point taken.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

That night, Theo went through the box of maternity clothes at the dining room table while Bitty made lasagna.

It was a big box, which got sorted into “Never,” “Laundry day,” and “It will do.”

At the end of it, the box of “nevers” contained a variety of “ensembles” that Suzanne said she’d never have worn either (though she’d mostly gotten through her pregnancy with Bitty in twinsets and sundresses, both of which George had not bothered sending.)

The laundry day items were mostly leggings with big stretchy belly panels, which almost got put in the never pile until Suzanne said, “You don’t know what that last month is like, when nothing fits.”

A variety of t-shirts, shorts, a pair of black slacks and a couple of button down shirts made it into the “it will do” pile.

“Is there anything that would make you really happy, clothing-wise, right now?” Suzanne asked.

“Something that isn’t maternity?” Theo said.

Jack caught Suzanne’s attention and nodded in the direction of the bedroom.

“You want to see if something of Jack’s would do?”

“Maybe see if they fit, and get something of my own?

“I wish Lardo was here,” Bitty said.

“She’d have a blast shopping for bro-ternity wear,” Jack said.

“I cannot believe you just said bro-ternity,” Bitty laughed.

“What else would you put on a pregnant guy?” Jack asked.

Theo stared at them, and said, “Who’s Lardo?”

“Right,” Jack said, and picked up his phone.

_x_ _x_ _x_

They didn’t end up buying a car. George pulled some strings and they ended up leasing a 2017 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan, not yet available to the general public. The company wanted to just loan them the car, because having their minivan driven by a top NHL player was too good to pass up, but the NCAA rules and the fact that it would be dicey because the car was primarily intended for Bitty meant a lease was the safer way to go.

“It practically drives itself,” George said. What she meant was that it actually could drive itself, but that the whole concept of the car driving without help freaked Bitty out so much that he would never willingly turn the feature on.

House shopping… that was nowhere near as simple.

“We should just buy a piece of land and put the right house on it,” Jack said.

“Do you have any idea how few decent parcels there are in the very narrow range we’re looking in?” Bitty asked, elbow deep in Zillow tabs on his laptop, sitting on their bed Sunday night.

Theo was sleeping. Since the guardianship hearing 50 hours prior, Theo had slept for approximately 24 of those hours. Suzanne just laughed it off as normal, but turned in early herself, claiming jet lag, though she hadn’t actually switched time zones.

“Probably more than there are houses that I’d be willing to live in that you don’t veto for being ‘too expensive to breathe in.’ ” Jack turned a page of The Story of Civilization, Vol: 5.

“The last one was three million dollars!” Bitty said.

“It had a swimming pool.”

“Here’s one with nine bedrooms for $275,000, which still seems like an obscene amount of money,” Bitty said.

“What’s wrong with it?” Jack asked, leaning over to look at the pictures.

“Um,” Bitty said, looking at the most depressing kitchen he’d ever seen.

“Three kitchens means three apartments in one building, and three crappy kitchens wouldn’t come close to one good one,” Jack said. “You capped it at 500k?”

“Jack Laurent Zimmermann, half a million dollars is an obscene amount of money to spend on anything.”

Jack took his phone off the sideboard, and dialed. “Maman, I think we might need your help.”

Bitty pulled the phone out of Jack’s hands and said, “Alicia, I’m so sorry. We’re fine. No, he’s just insisting we need to spend more than $500,000 on a house and there are so many that would be okay, but… what?”

“She says that I’m right,” Bitty said to Jack, and then listened for another moment. “Under no circumstances are you to spend that much money on a house.” He continued to listen, and then said, “But, no, Mama is here, I think we can handle… Okay, yes… We’ll see you then.”

He blinked as he handed the phone back to Jack, the call ended. “They’re coming tomorrow, she said. To help us house hunt.”

Jack paled. “Mais non.”

“ ‘Fraid so,” Bitty said. “Is it going to be as ridiculous as I think it is?”

Jack put his head in his hands, drawing his knees up to his chest. “Worse.”

“Don’t tell George, she’ll want the Falcs PR crew to follow you around for the sheer comic value of Bad Bob house shopping,” Bitty said. Then his eyes widened. “Oh god, and Mama’s here.” He turned his head and thudded his forehead onto Jack’s shoulder. “What have you done?”

Chapter Text

Theo was completely daunted by both Bob and Alicia and their unbounded enthusiasm.

They arrived in a flurry of activity around 2 pm on Monday, announcing that they’d rented a two-bedroom efficiency suite for the next two weeks and of course Suzanne should come stay there until the boys found a house.

Alicia had Bitty pull up the searches he’d been using, then pulled out her own sleek 2-in-1 and did some searching on her own, then called the real estate agent they’d used to find Jack’s apartment in the first place.

At around 3 pm, Ms. Kelly called for an update. She’d started the case file for Theo’s mom, and had the name of the guardian ad litem assigned to the case. More appointments were set up, and they all piled into Bitty’s new van to go meet the real estate agent in Attleboro.

“Which houses are we looking at?” Bitty asked.

“If I tell you that, you’re going to be worrying about prices,” Alicia said. “Trust me that I’m not going to stick you in a thirty-bedroom mansion. But it’s better to just buy what you need.”

“And what do we need, Maman?” Jack asked.

“You need a master bedroom for the two of you. You need a room for Theo that is not right next to your bedroom. Ideally there’ll be another bedroom close to the master bedroom. If the baby ends up with you, that will be more convenient. If not, one of you can use it as an exercise area or study. You want at least one guest room, probably two. So between four and six bedrooms. If it ends up being too much space, you can always get roommates, but this way you have space for visiting family, your college friends, teammates…”

“We’ve never had more than three bedrooms,” Bitty said to his mother.

“There were five when I was growing up, but I had siblings and cousins,” Suzanne said.

“You need a gorgeous kitchen. That’s Bitty’s moneymaker and sanity. Given how much time he spends there, an open plan leading into entertaining spaces would be ideal. If it was just Jack, it wouldn’t matter, but Bitty is a people-person, and that means you’re likely to entertain.”

“It can be hard to babyproof an open kitchen,” Suzanne said.

“Hire it done,” Alicia said. “You can babyproof anything if you throw enough money at it.”

“You need a rec room,” Bob said. “Finished basement, ideally, space for exercise equipment, well-insulated so you can be rowdy down there without waking people up upstairs. If you end up with a teenager who takes up drumming, you’ll be grateful for that. Or maybe a detached garage.”

“Land, if you can get it,” Alicia said. “Green and trees and snow are good for Jack’s mood.”

“Bookshelves,” Jack said.

“You can always add bookshelves,” Bob said. “Bathrooms are more challenging.”

“Enough bathrooms is a must,” Alicia agreed.

“We had one bathroom for four kids,” Suzanne said. “If you can afford more, and someone to clean them, it could completely save your sanity.”

The first house was lovely, four bedrooms, five baths, gigantic master bedroom, and a really nice kitchen. Bitty was impressed. “Acres of counters, Mama!”

Alicia looked around and said, “It would do, but we’ve got a couple more to look at.”

The grounds were well landscaped but devoid of personality.

The next house was located between a country club and a zoo. New construction, the interior was lovely, but Alicia clucked over how close the master bedroom was to the large family room, which made Bitty blush when he realized what she was implying. The agent gushed over how the yard was a blank slate that they could do anything with, but Jack winced at the bare ground and the complete lack of trees on the lot, though there were many nearby.

Bob looked around and said, “No.”

“What, Papa?” Jack asked.

“You see all these trees around here? This is new construction. Those trees will be gone, and it will be all houses in another five years. You want something more settled, so you know what you’re getting,” Bob said.

They had to follow the real estate agent to the next house, because Google Maps couldn’t find it.

“I like it already,” Jack said. “If Google can’t find it, people are less likely to show up unannounced.”

The address turned out to be deceptive, because it was essentially where the street dead ended into another street. “I haven’t seen it and I already think you should get it,” Alicia said. “The listing says it’s an acre, and we can’t even see it from the road.”

“Can’t see anything but trees on Google Maps,” Bitty said, as they pulled up the driveway behind the realtor’s car. Then he gasped. “You said no mansions.”

“It’s not even 5500 square feet,” Alicia said, laughing. “Only six bedrooms.”

The house sat on a slight rise, surrounded by mature trees. The rich, red brick and windows were capped by steep roofs and the building seemed to curve in almost a C-shape away from the front yard. “It goes on forever,” Bitty said.

They parked in front of the attached two-car garage, and Bob pointed over to the second garage.

“We do not need more than two cars,” Bitty said.

“No, but when we visit, we do, and your parents do, and your friends do,” Alicia told him.

They got out and walked around to the back, where the C-shape of the house seemed to cup the large back yard. The agent pointed through the trees to a clay tennis court and said, “The country club is right over there.”

“How many country clubs does one town need?” Bitty asked.

Theo kept a death grip on Suzanne’s hand as they walked in the back door. They found themselves on a landing, facing the front door and stairs up, with one wing of the house off to their right and another to their left.

Despite the trees and the dark exterior, the whole house was filled with light. Large windows and hardwood floors combined with high ceilings to create a bright space with clean lines. To their left, they found a master suite on the ground level that Bob approved of.

“If you get injured, you will bless this room being on the ground floor forever,” he said.

There was an elegant office, and a private sitting room, and more bathrooms than people. Jack took Bitty’s hand and said, “Want to see the kitchen?”

“Jack, this is so much,” Bitty said.

“I’ve got a feeling,” Jack said.

They found Alicia as they headed to the other end of the house, and she just said, “Be prepared to catch him,” which baffled Jack until they stepped into the kitchen.

He glanced around the room and then immediately turned to see Bitty’s reaction. He grinned, because Bitty’s eyes were so wide, and his hands were over his mouth, and… “Bits, are you crying?”

“We cannot afford this. There is no way we can afford this,” Bitty said.

“Hey, you’ve got to admit, the kitchen is pretty nice.”

Bitty stared at Jack as if he’d grown three heads and an extra butt cheek. “This… Nice is having a stretch of granite countertop and an oven wide enough for my biggest cookie sheet.” He swatted Jack's chest. “Nice is a double sink with a pull handle and a soap dispenser.”

He looked around, at the double wall ovens, the enormous refrigerator, the wine chiller, the built-in microwave, the six burner gas range. The pantry. The second sink. “This is an eight-butt kitchen, Jack. This… if I became a top TV cooking personality and had a best-selling cookbook, this is the kind of kitchen I’d build with it. This is not nice, Jack Zimmermann. This is a goddamn work of art.”

“So you like it, then?” Jack asked. “The space over here would be awesome for a party.”

“If you think I’m turning a bunch of frat boys loose in this amazing kitchen…”

“Actually, it would be ideal for entertaining, the way you cook,” Alicia said. “With the connecting dining area and den? And there’s a formal dining room back that way.”

“Who needs two dining rooms?” Theo asked.

“It’s nice for formal events,” Alicia said. “And holidays.”

“I’d put an air hockey table in the second one,” Bob said.

They all stared at him.

“Or you can turn it into a playroom,” Suzanne said.

Bitty was leaning over the stove, and running his hand along the counter.

“We should look at the other bedrooms,” Jack said.

Bitty appeared to be petting the range.

“Bits?”

Bitty didn’t seem to hear him.

“Is he okay?” Theo asked Suzanne. “I think he’s crying.”

“He’s fine,” she said. “It’s just a lot.”

Jack turned to the agent. “So how much is this one?”

“Don’t tell him,” Alicia said.

“What are you thinking…” Jack said warily.

“Your papa wants to buy it for you,” Alicia said.

“If it’s under a million and a half, I can afford it easily,” Jack said.

“It might be the last big gift I ever get you,” Bob said. “Let me. Tu ne peux pas t'imaginer à quel point  on est fier de toi et tout c’que t'as accompli. On parle pas juste de la Coupe, c'est sûr qu'on est fier de ça, mais surtout du fait que t’es en train de devenir un adulte. J'aurais pas la chance de te dorloter pour toujours, alors laisse moi prendre cette chance.”

“I…”

“Just go look upstairs, if you can pry that boy of yours away from the second sink.”

Bitty was staring down into the perfect steel half-sphere of the island sink, stroking the satin finish with his fingertips.

“Bits? We should look at the bedrooms.”

“I can’t,” Bitty said.

“Pardon?”

“I can’t fall in love with this place, it’s too much. You should be putting money aside. I’m only going to be at Samwell another year. If we get this place I don’t know if I can ever leave, and I can’t get my hopes up, and it must, must be too much money.”

“My parents want to buy it for us,” Jack said. “I don’t think I can talk them out of it.”

“We haven’t even seen the upstairs,” Bitty said, dazed.

“Right? That’s what I’m saying,” Jack pulled Bitty’s hand out of the sink and tugged gently. “Come on.”

“We’re going downstairs to check out the rec room,” Bob said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty’s reaction to the kitchen paled before Jack’s reaction to the largest upstairs bedroom. The dormered windows were charming, and the high peaked roof with exposed rafters was lovely, but the built-in shelves and cabinetry and the intricate nooks and reading areas made Jack’s face light up.

“Theo can have the downstairs room,” he said, petting the shelves.

“Sweetheart?” Bitty said.

“This one feels right,” Jack said.

Bitty tugged him out the door and into the next door down, where they found a small bedroom. It was painted pink—clearly a child’s room, one of the few in the house without an attached bathroom.

“I think we found the nursery,” Bitty said, and suddenly he could see the empty room, full, with a crib, a rocking chair. With Jack in the rocking chair, with a baby on his shoulder, his head tipped back, rocking slowly as the baby dozed. He reached out and found Jack’s hand, and said, “There’s going to be a baby in this room, and we’re going to be taking care of it.” His whole body felt strange.

“Jack?” he said, when he got no response. He looked up and Jack’s eyes were wide. He turned and took Jack’s hands. “Sugar, I need you to talk to me.”

“I just saw you rocking a baby,” Jack said, staring past him into the empty pink room. “And… Bits, I know you said it’s too soon, but please let me ask you to marry me? Because I want… I want to live in this house with you and I want there to be babies and friends and family and I cannot imagine ever wanting anything more than a life with you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” Jack looked down at Bitty, who seemed to have stopped breathing. “Breathe, chéri.

Bitty opened his mouth, and then shut it again, and then burst into tears.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s too soon,” Jack said. “I should… we can wait, you know I’d wait forev…”

Then Bitty was kissing him, standing on tiptoes, pulling him down. Jack reached down and lifted, and Bitty’s legs wrapped around him, and it was not until they heard footsteps on the stairs that Bitty let go and put his feet back on the ground.

“I don’t know what…” Jack started.

“Yes,” Bitty said.

“I can ask?”

“Yes.”

“Or is that the answ…”

“Yes,” Bitty said a third time.

“Really?” Jack said, his whole face lighting up.

“Yes.”

“Did you boys come to a decision?” Suzanne asked, from the landing halfway up the stairs.

“Yes,” Bitty said.

“We want it,” Jack said. “It’s perfect.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

It was still perfect when they went down into the finished basement and found the large, carpeted rec area and, god help them, a small “listening room” that Alicia said would make a perfect recording studio for voiceovers, with only minor modifications.

The laundry was down there, with a large pull-down table and built-in drying racks, and a small sauna and hot tub, and the seventh bathroom, and the sixth bedroom.

“We could have everyone I’ve ever lived with in the Haus stay here and still have a room left over,” Bitty said.

“You’re assuming some are sharing a room,” Jack said.

“Duh.” Then Bitty leaned in and said, “Are we going to tell them?”

“Maybe later,” Jack said.

By the time they got upstairs to the kitchen, the real estate agent was drafting an offer, while Bob was on the phone to his accountant.

“Are you seriously buying this house because of me?” Theo asked Jack abruptly.

“Technically my father is buying this house because I decided not to be apart from my… boyfriend for another year,” Jack said, “if that makes you feel better.”

“I’m going to live here.” Theo said, disbelief written across his face.

“We thought we’d give you the bedroom on the main level,” Jack said. “For now, so you don’t have to deal with the stairs.”

“Is that the one with the deep tub?” Theo asked.

“It is,” Bitty said.

“Does it have to be brown?” Theo asked.

“We can paint it however you like,” Jack said. “I have a friend I might hire to do murals on the walls, if you want.”

“Where do I go to school if we live here?” Theo asked.

“Any private school between Samwell and Providence,” Jack said. “George’s looking into it. If you go northeast, Bits can drop you off in the morning and pick you up when he heads back, until you’re old enough to drive. If you go to Providence, you’ll ride in with me. Assuming you decide you want to make this your permanent home.”

“Drive…”

“Yes, we’ll probably get a car for you to drive. No, it won’t be your car, and yes, there will be rules,” Jack said. “Do you have your permit?”

“What… no. Mom doesn’t drive, and driver’s ed is expensive.”

“I’ll teach you,” Bitty said.

“Is that… wise?” Jack asked.

“You think your nerves can take shotgunning for a brand new driver?” Bitty asked, eyebrows raised.

“I wonder how much it costs to get a car with a chicken brake?” Jack mused.

“Jack, we’re going to need so much furniture,” Bitty said.

“Put it on the registry,” Jack said.

Everyone in the room stared at him.

“Or we could go to Ikea?” he said.

Bitty put his head down on the cold stone counter. “Babe. Darling. Sweetheart.”

“Please don’t say ‘Bless your heart,’ ” Jack said.

“Bless your heart,” Bitty said. “You do not… how much does this house cost? No, nevermind. I don’t want to know. You do not buy a jewel of a home like this and then stuff it full of Billy and Hemnes.”

Alicia said to Suzanne, “How do you feel about antiquing?”

“As in applying a glaze and blacking and burnishing? Or shopping for furniture?” Suzanne asked.

“Furniture shopping,” Alicia said.

“Budget?” Suzanne asked.

“Not really,” Alicia said. “I mean, there’s no point in spending twenty thousand on a single piece when there’s going to be a baby and frat boys in the house, but we don’t need to go cheap.”

Suzanne smiled.

“Do we get a say in any of this?” Bitty asked.

Alicia considered for a long moment.

“Depends. What registry?”

Bitty looked at Jack.

Jack blushed.

“Tu n'as pas,” Bob said, a wide smile blooming across his face.

Jack shrugged, and grinned.

“Eric Richard Bittle Junior…” Suzanne said.

“You didn’t see the nursery,” he said in the tiniest voice.

“There’s a nursery?” Suzanne asked.

“The pink room?” Alicia asked.

“Well, it just… and then I could imagine, and he could... and then…”

“And?”

“And I...” Bitty started and then stopped. He blushed, and grinned bashfully..

She crossed the room and put her hands on both his shoulders, looked him in the eye, and then threw her arms around him, sobbing.

“Mama?” he said, patting her back awkwardly.

Alicia pressed her hands together and brought them up to her mouth, and stood there blinking at Jack for the longest time.

“Maman?” he finally said.

“Come here, you ridiculous boy,” she said, finally, and Jack came around the counter to her, and accepted her hug.

Theo looked confused, until Bob finally took pity on him. “I do believe Jack asked Bitty to marry him, and Bitty said yes,”

“Do they always talk like that?” Theo asked.

“They’ll use their words if you insist,” Bob said. “But one grows accustomed to it.”

“Is this a good thing?” Theo asked.

“Bitty’s young for it,” Bob said, “But it was inevitable. You just nudged things along.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

“Who knew that buying a house for a ridiculous amount of cash could be so complicated?” Bitty said later that evening, after a celebratory dinner at a restaurant with too many forks and too many too-small portions, serving Theo a slice of pie back at the apartment after the parents had all gone off to the trendy Italian residence hotel.

“Even with as much as my parents have, freeing up that much cash is not instant,” Jack said. “Sitting around with money in a bank account is a good way to have less money. He’s got to pick out investments to sell, get them sold, get the money into escrow, and in the meantime they have to accept the offer, we’ll have to get an inspection done… It’s a process,” Jack said.

“So we can’t move in right away?” Theo said.

“A month, give or take a couple weeks,” Jack said. “Today is June 20th, so perhaps by July 20th? If we get in a little sooner, we can give Lardo some time to paint it for us.”

“So when are you getting married?” Theo asked.

They both blinked at him. Jack turned to Bitty and said, “I honestly have no idea.”

“Oh God,” Bitty said. “My mother is going to want to throw a wedding.” He put his forehead on the table.

“That’s good, right? I mean, you’ve been daydreaming about your wedding day for years.” Jack said.

Bitty sat up and stared at him. “You… I’ve gone through approximately a dozen weddings in the extended family. The process is brutal. I can’t even begin to get my mind around it. Dreaming about it is one thing, but we’re busy this year. A fancy Southern wedding can take a solid year to plan under the best of circumstances.”

“My mother swears that the big wedding was a ridiculous piece of nonsense she wishes she’d never let her parents talk her into,” Jack said.

“I… God, Mama said she totally let Moo Maw plan it, because she was knocked up and in school. With me. So she didn’t… ugh, I feel like I owe it to her. But she’s busy, too,” Bitty said.

“It doesn’t have to be right away,” Jack said. “I just… I don’t want there to be any doubt in your mind that I’m 100% in.”

“Oh, baby, I know that,” Bitty said, putting his hand up to cup Jack’s cheek. “And I’m here for this, and I want that with you, I just… the whole process is so daunting. Flowers. Registries. Catering. Venue. Guests, oh god, she’ll want to invite—and they’re raging homophobes. Lord.” He let his hands drop to his lap and stared up at the ceiling.

“This isn’t supposed to add stress.” Jack looked baffled and vaguely sad.

“Sweetie, no, it’s not… I absolutely, positively cannot imagine a future in which I’m not married to you. I just want… I want to skip the part where we plan a wedding.”

“So let your mother plan it?” Jack said.

“You. Do. Not. Understand. How. This. Works.”

“Do you have to do a wedding?” Theo asked.

Bitty stared at Theo for a long moment. “I don’t want to disappoint my mother.”

Jack picked up his phone and dialed Suzanne, and put it on speakerphone. When she answered, he said, “So, Bitty thinks you’d be terribly disappointed if we didn’t have a wedding.”

“Jack!” Bitty said. “Mother, ignore him, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

They heard a round of laughter come from the phone.

“Darling, is this because you think I’m desperate to plan it?” Suzanne finally said, when the laughter had finally died down.

“Um,” Bitty said, perplexed.

“Sweetheart, it’s been a running joke for twenty-two years in our family that I was somehow cheated out of planning mine. But honestly, I’m just grateful I didn’t have to worry about it. And the day was lovely, and exhausting, and completely unnecessary. Knowing what I know now, I’d have married your father in a feed sack in a barn in order to be married to him. Because honestly, the wedding was an expensive lot of stress. Being married to him has been fantastic. We were just discussing whether we should try to talk you out of some big event.”

“The media is ridiculous,” Alicia’s voice was a little distant, like she was sitting across the room. “We’d all love to see you get married, but a wedding… I’m not sure there’s a venue large enough for all the hockey players y’all would feel obligated to invite.”

“Maman, did you just say y’all?” Jack asked.

They could hear Bob’s guffaw in the background.

“I don’t understand my life,” Bitty said.

“It’s okay, darling,” Suzanne said. “Just decide what you want to do, and if you want us there, we’d love to be there.”

“If you don’t, we reserve the right to throw you a party afterward,” Bob called.

“I think you might have to arm wrestle Shitty for the privilege, Papa,” Jack said.

“When were you thinking?” Alicia asked.

Jack said, “I don’t know, maybe a couple weeks?”

They heard coughing noises through the phone, as if someone had just accidentally inhaled their beverage.

“Weeks?” Bitty said, his voice rising. “Jack, no, please, can we just, you know, have no more than five major life events at any given time? I mean, good lord, you just got me a car, we’re buying a house, helping Theo, there’s a baby coming, and I’m about to start my senior year of college, captaining the team. Can some of those things happen and can we just have some time to get used to them before we throw marriage into the pile?”

“Whatever you want, Bits,” Jack said, grinning.

“What… I… Lord. You will be the absolute death of me. Mama, was your life this crazy when you and Daddy got engaged?”

“I was pregnant, we were both finishing degrees, we moved that year, bought a house, had you, he got a new job… Sweetheart, this is just life. It’s being a grownup. I was maybe a year older than you are right now.”

“I… you don’t have to help me, you know,” Theo said.

Bitty stared at him. “Don’t be ridiculous. We are not going to throw you to the wolves just because I’m a little overwhelmed at all the good things happening in my life. I want to help you.”

“But it’s so much,” Theo said.

Jack said, “If it wasn’t a challenge, it wouldn’t need us to do it, and it wouldn’t feel as important. I don’t play hockey because I need things to be easy.”

“Busy keeps him out of his head,” Bitty said. “It’s actually really good for him.”

“And for you?” Theo asked.

“I like a challenge,” Bitty laughed. “But I don’t need challenge for the sake of challenge. Anyway, I absolutely thrive on taking care of people. This isn’t a one-way street, no matter how much it might feel like it.”

“Are you okay, Eric?” Alicia asked.

“I’m fine, thank you for asking, ma’am.”

She snorted. “Your son just called me ma’am,” they heard her tell Suzanne.

“You’re going to have to be very specific if you want him to call you anything else.”

“Bitty, darling,” Alicia said. “You’re joining the family. You can call me Alicia or you can call me Maman.”

Bitty blushed.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The next day, Bitty made breakfast and then he and Jack and Theo headed to the drop-in center. Alicia, Bob, and Suzanne called early and said they were going furniture shopping.

There was a trans support group meeting at 10 am, and Theo went. Bitty and Jack hung back with the other kids, and Theo emerged from the meeting room laughing shyly with a couple people about an hour later.

At noon, Linden called them back into her office. “I just heard from the court,” she said. “They’ve arraigned him. Grand jury is set for a week from Friday.”

Theo blinked, and then sat down, breathing hard. “They believed me.”

“He was arrested Friday,” Linden said. “They held him over the weekend, and he’s been denied bail. The DA is treating it as a capital case.”

“What does that mean?” Theo asked.

Jack said, “Cases come in different levels of severity. Capital cases are ones that could result in life imprisonment.”

“In this case, the most likely outcome is something between ten and thirty years,” Linden said. “They want him to know that he could go away forever, because that will make it more likely that he’ll plead out. They timed it so they’d have the paternity results back before the Grand Jury.”

“If I hadn’t gotten pregnant…” Theo said.

“They wouldn’t have had many options without immediate action. It would have been a lot harder once the physical evidence was gone. There would have been a lot more he-said-she-said to it.”

“I didn’t even try to get help until I knew I was pregnant,” Theo said. “I didn’t think anyone would believe a Black girl’s word against the word of a white pastor. That people would believe he raped me and accept that I’m a boy…”

“Hard to know, it would depend on which cop and which judge,” Linden said. “The baby is a great insult to your body and your life, but that child may well prevent that man from doing this to anyone else. But we believe people around here. There’s no upside in lying about something like that.”

“He said the whole church would back him,” Theo said. “I confronted him a few days later, and he said… He said that they’d never take the word of a queer over him. That I’d consented, and that even if anyone believed anything had happened, they… my mom would lose her job. I cared about that, then. He said it was at most statutory rape and that was just a couple years’ probation, if that, that everyone would think I led him on.”

“He apparently said something to that effect to the police officer,” Linden said with a snort. “After they Mirandized him. It’s part of why the judge didn’t release him on bail.”

“He must have looked up statutory rape age in Rhode Island at some point,” Jack said. “That says between 14 and 16.”

“It means 15 years old,” Linden said. “14 and under is child molestation, age 16 marks the age at which someone is considered able to consent in this state, and that means that the statutory rape law literally only applies to 15-year-olds. The only exception is if the sexual partner is under 18, in which case they wouldn’t be prosecuted with a 14-year-old.”

“That seems weirdly specific,” Theo said.

“You should see Georgia’s statutes,” Bitty said. “I looked them up out of curiosity and it is the weirdest mix of prudery and disregard. They still have sodomy laws. But statutory rape goes down to like age 10.”

“The sodomy law is on the books, but not enforceable,” Linden said. “But the important thing is that between his comment to the arresting officer and the physical evidence, they have enough to throw the book at him.”

“I just want it over with,” Theo said. “I want to stop thinking about it.”

“Honey, I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, but if he pleads out, this could be over by fall,” Linden said.

“So long,” Theo said.

“If he were to fight the charges and insist on a trial, we’d be looking at a year. Minimum, and possibly longer if he appealed.” Linden reached over and took one of Theo’s hands. “But you need to know, with a case with this much evidence, the chance is that he’s going to plea. Depends on how angry the DA is at him whether they offer him a deal of 10 years with 30 hanging over his head if he doesn’t take it, or 30 years with life in prison hanging over his head.”

“Could they really send him away for life?” Theo asked.

“If something happened to you as a result of it? Yes. If someone else comes forward? Yes. They’ve had sentences for child molestation as long as 70 years.”

“I just want to make it so he never does this again to anyone,” Theo said. “And that he never, ever gets a hand on this child.”

“I think that’s a pretty safe bet,” Linden said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

At 4 pm, Bob called to say that their offer had been accepted on the house.

On hearing the news, Bitty sat down hard on a chair that Jack hastily pushed under him. “That house. For real?”

“Yep. Contingent on inspection and appraisal, but yeah,” Jack said.

“I… Do we know how long those things will take?” Bitty asked.

“Papa said Friday for both.”

“That’s… soon.”

“If they find something, it could take some time to fix it,” Jack said.

“That house was perfect.”

“It really is,” Jack said.

Jack and Bitty headed to the airport with Bob and Alicia not long after, leaving Theo with Suzanne at Jack’s apartment.

_x_ _x_ _x_

“I’m never going to get used to flying first class,” Bitty said, at the start of the flight.

“Yes, you will,” Alicia said, smiling at the attendant and accepting a glass of wine.

They chased the solstice sun to Vegas, the plane eventually descending through a crisp twilight over the glittering, gleaming exuberance of the city’s lights.

It was a surreal thing, stepping out of the mass of busy their summer had become  and into the extravagance of their five-star hotel, and the media who tried to talk to them on their way in.

Bitty had become familiar, during playoffs, with both the random crushes of media near airports and hotels for events like these, and with the inevitable crush of Jack’s hand around his, clinging tightly as he worked to maintain his media face.

This time, Bitty took the side closest to the cameras, and said with a smile, “It’s past midnight, our time, and I think we turned into pumpkins before baggage claim. Good night!”

The next day was a blur of press and interviews and the award ceremony itself, where Jack’s name was called so many times that his teammates started chirping him about his new “climbing the award stage” exercise routine. Then more interviews, including one with other players who had come out that spring, as part of a documentary in conjunction with the You Can Play project.

They asked Bitty to join that one, but he declined, citing rules for the NCAA. “Get me next year,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be back.” In truth, he wasn’t quite sure if that was covered, but at 6 pm, no food for hours, and knowing they’d be taking a 1 am flight, he just couldn’t get his mind around looking it up, let alone being interviewed one more time.

Kent Parson was there for the documentary roundtable, acknowledging Bitty with a tip of the crystal-encrusted snapback he’d thrown on after the award ceremony.

Bitty looked at the hat for a long moment, and then elbowed Jack.

Jack stared at the hat, and then shook his head, laughing.

“Tell me you got that made, and that the hat’s not merch,” Jack said to Kent.

“I effing bedazzled the thing myself,” Kent said. “Why the fuck not?”

“Hot glue or gem setter?” Bitty asked.

“Industrial grade setter. Can’t get through the brim with the cheap one.”

Jack looked back and forth between them. “Is this some dicksizing thing I should learn about?”

“Some of the guys knit, Zimms. It’s a hobby.”

“Well, it’s, um, very you,” Bitty said.

“Nice bowtie, Bittle,” Kent said.

Bitty had worn a tux and a bow tie in a dark blue-on-black silk brocade. He straightened. “Thank you.”

He felt Jack’s hand on his, and said with a tight smile, “It was lovely seeing you, but I think they’re starting shortly.”

They put in an appearance at an afterparty and ate dinner at the airport very late. The time difference meant a short night and arriving well after sunrise the next morning.

Someone asked Jack as they waited for their luggage in Boston, “So, which trophy is your favorite?”

Jack smiled, and said, “Well, the Stanley is nice, but that’s for the team. I think the Masterson is the one that is the most personally significant. It’s been a long road.”

“Any regrets you didn’t start sooner?”

Jack tightened his arm around Bitty’s shoulder. “None whatsoever.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty and Suzanne went with Theo to the obstetrician that afternoon, while Jack went shopping with his parents.

They were ushered directly into the private waiting room, and then Theo was whisked away to pee in a cup and step on a scale. They were reunited in an exam room a few minutes later, Theo dressed in two gowns, one forward, one backward, rubbing his arm where the blood pressure cuff had squeezed entirely too hard.

Twenty minutes later, the obstetrician came in. It was a new doctor, a perky woman with straight brown hair and a compact figure who glanced at the chart and said, “Theo… interesting name. So how are you feeling, Mama?”

Theo looked momentarily baffled.

Suzanne glowered and said, “Perhaps you should read the chart notes?”

The doctor looked, and frowned, and said, “I’ll be right back.”

Ten minutes later, Dr. Thornton came in. “I am so sorry,” he said. “We usually rotate, and Dr. Ellis grabbed the chart before I realized it was here. I flagged it for me, for this visit, and she missed the flag.”

“I’m sorry, that’s not reassuring,” Suzanne said.

“I can’t guarantee that you’ll get me for the birth,” he said. “And I do want you to rotate through our other doctors over the next few weeks, but we usually sit down Friday mornings and go over the caseload, and you just missed last week’s session, we haven’t had this week’s yet. The next time you’re here, all our docs will have been briefed on the situation.”

He looked at the chart. “Your vitals look good, Theo. Your bloodwork is fine, and your A1C is very good, so I’m not too worried about gestational diabetes. Baby was very appropriately sized at the last ultrasound. I need to do a quick vaginal swab, and we’ll measure your belly. Would you like them to step out?”

Theo blanched.

“I can stay, or we both can stay, and Bitty can turn his head,” Suzanne said.

Theo nodded.

“Just me, or both?”

“Both,” Theo said.

“You can stand on either side,” the doctor said.

Bitty moved to Theo’s left and Suzanne to his right.

The doctor kept up a running patter the entire time he was setting things up. “The speculum has been in a warmer for a while, so it shouldn't be too bad. Scoot your butt down here, we’ll keep the gown up on your knees for modesty. That’s right. Now let your legs fall open… I’ll talk through everything so nothing surprises you, okay?”

Theo gave a tight nod, and gripped their fingers tightly. Bitty turned so he was facing Theo completely, and said, “I’m right here.”

Theo nodded, and the doctor said, “I need to touch now, and then you’ll feel the speculum.”

A tear slid down Theo’s face, his lips pressed tightly together.

“Right here,” Suzanne said. “You’re safe, and this is almost over.”

“Quick swab now,” Thornton said, and Theo winced.

There was a little click and then Theo relaxed as the doctor said, “All done, you can put your legs down.”

He sat up almost immediately, and then winced. “I think… Can I have a minute?”

The doctor handed him a washcloth, and said, “You can put your clothes back on,” and they all stepped outside.

“Is it always that invasive?” Bitty asked, once they were out.

“That was… nothing. Not compared to the birth,” the doctor said.

“Ten years isn’t long enough for the bastard who did this to him,” Bitty said. “It’s like every time you have to do something to him, he’s reliving it again.”

“I… There are standards of care we have to meet,” the doctor said. “We’re going to keep things to a minimum, but this is a necessarily intrusive process.”

“They barely touched me when I was in labor with Eric,” Suzanne said. “He was breech and early, and fast, and they just never had a chance.”

“There are midwives, I understand, who will never do a vaginal exam,” the doctor said. “But that style of midwifery isn’t legal in Rhode Island, and usually doesn’t happen in a hospital, and if Theo isn’t in a hospital, they can’t do meds.”

“This sucks so much,” Bitty said. “He shouldn’t have to…”

“If we’d known earlier,” Thornton said, “An abortion would have been possible.”

“He didn’t know,” Bitty said.

Suzanne shook her head. “And he didn’t want to know.”

The door opened. “Ready for us?” Dr. Thornton asked.

“I… Can Suzanne come in for a minute?” Theo asked. “Just Suzanne?”

She nodded, and stepped through the doorway. Bitty could hear the light murmur of their voices, and then a pause, and he looked at Dr. Thornton. Then the door opened, and Theo said, “I want to go home now.”

The doctor looked at the chart, and then said, “We can skip the belly tape this week.”

At Jack’s apartment, Theo went straight into the guest room, brushing off an offer of pie, and Bitty stared at the closed bedroom door, worried, for a long moment, until his mother’s hand on his shoulder drew his attention away.

“It’s going to be hard for him for a while,” Suzanne said.

“I just wish there was something… anything…”

“You’re already doing it, baby,” Suzanne said. “When he said he wanted to go home, he meant here.”

“It’s not enough,” Bitty said. “I don’t know if anything ever can be enough.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

The next day, Jack took Theo with him to the rink to spend time with George while he trained, and Bitty, Bob, Suzanne, and Alicia went back to the house for the inspection.

It went well; the inspector talked constantly about the disasters he could be seeing, but wasn’t. “Whoever was here spent the money to maintain it,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how many of these mansions end up decaying because people don’t understand that you have to pay to protect your investment.”

“I told you it was a mansion!” Bitty said.

“You’ll want to replace that roof in about ten years,” he said. “But they’ve already redone the plumbing, I’m not even seeing signs of lead paint. I’m pretty sure it’s been abated. I’ll run a radon check, but so far, so good.”

The appraiser and an air quality tester came out as the inspector was leaving. The mold guy set out a zillion tiny sample collectors and said, “We’ll get you your results on Monday.”

On Saturday, Bitty and Jack spent some time together at the rink, skating for fun, just the two of them. When they returned, they found Alicia and Bob at the kitchen table slicing vegetables while Suzanne moved efficiently around the kitchen. Theo was working on his laptop down in the living room. They were all laughing and talking, and laughed harder when they noticed Jack and Bitty standing in the doorway of the kitchen.

“I don’t think I want to know,” Bitty said, and went to the sink to wash his hands.

“I’m curious,” Jack said.

“Suzanne was just telling us about Baby Dicky,” Alicia said.

“Oh God, Mother, you didn’t.” Bitty leaned his head against the pantry door.

“Oh, please do tell the Baby Dicky story. He already knows all about my notorious infancy,” Jack said.

Bitty elbowed him and shot him a look.

Jack reconsidered. “On second thought…”

The evening was spent looking at pictures of furniture. Alicia and Suzanne had given up on antiques, taken measurements and drawn up a floor plan. They’d spent most of the afternoon tinkering on Alicia’s laptop to get a 3D representation of the house, and were now dropping furniture models into it and arguing amiably over the function of each room.

Jack looked over, pointed to the upstairs large bedroom and said, “Ours.” The one next to it: “Nursery.” The downstairs master bedroom: “Theo.” One of the other upstairs bedrooms he said, “King.” The basement bedroom: “Bunkbeds.” The last upstairs bedroom: “As many pull-out couches as will fit comfortably when they’re expanded.” Then he looked at the kitchen/dining/den area and said, “We need a dining room table that goes from very small to very large, preferably at the same height as the island. And the den needs to have furniture that can be moved aside easily or rearranged.”

Alicia typed notes in as fast as he was talking.

“Did you just run that through your hockey processor?” Bitty asked.

“It’s spatial relationships and team strengths,” Jack said. “Oh, that office on the farthest end from the kitchen is mine, the one nearest the kitchen is Bitty’s.”

“But I’ll have the recording room,” Bitty said.

“You’ll have both,” Jack said. “Maybe you won’t use one. I don’t care. Oh, and that formal dining room needs to be set up with couches.”

“Play area?” Suzanne asked.

“We’ll decide that later, when we know how long the baby is going to stay,” Jack said.

“What about the big rec area?” Bob asked.

“I’m going to talk to my trainers tomorrow and ask them what they want me to have down there… Non, Papa, I know you have ideas, but they have really specific ways they want us to train in the summer, and it’s really different from how you used to manage me.”

“Who’s using all the other bedrooms?” Theo asked.

“The king-sized bed is for our parents or any couples who stay with us,” Jack said. “Shitty and Lardo, probably. The bunkbeds… hey, we could fit a couple down there, maybe? Those are for teammates, same with the pull-out couches. There are going to be times when we have half a hockey team here.”

Theo looked vaguely alarmed, until Bitty said, “They’re perfect gentlemen, and we wouldn’t have anyone stay in our home who wasn’t comfortable with us or with you.”

“And it won’t be all the time. It won’t even be all that often, I’m not that much of a partier,” Jack said.

“Thanksgiving, really,” Bitty said. “Christmas.”

“I’m thinking leather,” Jack said.

“Agreed,” Alicia said.

“And I’d like the furniture to match the style of the room? That kitchen area is really different from the upstairs bedroom. Every bedroom is pretty unique,” Jack said.

That launched a conversation between him and Alicia and Suzanne that lasted until Bitty and Bob, utterly done with furniture talk, teamed up to swipe the laptops and drag people away, after nine. Jack protested until Bitty finally resorted to whispering something in his ear that made Jack blush.

“Nice tactic,” Bob said, and looked speculatively at his wife.

“Do not even, I’m going,” Alicia said. “Poor Suzanne does not need to be around that nonsense tonight.”

Suzanne snorted and grabbed her purse, giving Bitty a one-armed hug as she followed Alicia and Bob out.

_x_ _x_ _x_

“Are you sure that you don’t want more say in this, Bits?” Jack asked him in bed that night.

“Your mother’s taste is impeccable. My mother knows what I like. I cannot even start to look at those things, because then I’m going to wonder what they cost, and that way lies madness and curling up in a corner questioning the reality of my existence.”

“They’re not that bad,” Jack said. “I already have two of the beds and two of the couches.”

“That. House. Has. Two. Dozen. Rooms.” Bitty said. “You’ve just put four pieces of furniture in three of them.”

“Which is why we’ve been talking about it for days.”

Bitty gave a small, frustrated shriek into his pillow and then said, “I can’t decide whether I should shut you up by kissing you, or whether that would just be encouraging you to talk more about furniture.”

Jack grinned. “Why choose?” he said, and rolled over to nibble on Bitty’s neck.

“Not fair,” came the muffled reply. Then, “I didn’t say you could stop.”

Jack laughed into Bitty’s shoulder.

Sunday, they went out shopping, setting up their purchases to be finalized as soon as the inspection and appraisals came back. Alicia managed to coax Theo into picking furniture for his bedroom, which seemed to be a completely novel experience for him.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bob insisted on tagging along to the rink while Alicia and Suzanne went to continue their furniture reconnaissance mission. With the off-season in full swing, the mood at the rink was relaxed, though Bob’s presence always created little flurries of excitement.

Bitty got pulled over to talk to the nutritionists while Jack was coached through yoga by one of the trainers. Bob was chatting with another of the trainers when George came in and spotted Theo, sitting on one of the trainers’ computer chairs, spinning around in lazy, bored circles.

“I like the outfit,” George said, nodding at the cargo shorts and short sleeved button down hanging open over a maternity tank top.

“It fits,” Theo said. “I hadn’t realized how many things didn’t.”

“So, want to come look at high school options?” George asked.

“I don’t even know where to start,” Theo said.

“Well, we’ve got some choices. Not many parents of teenagers here, but there will be as the team matures and the support staff get older.”

“Don’t you have like, important manager things to do?”

“I’m an assistant general manager,” George said. “My biggest job is helping the boss find and keep good players. Keeping Jack happy after a season like he just helped us have, and helping solve the logistics problems—it’s not a tiny part of my job. And I mean it when I say this is a useful thing to know in my line of work.”

“He’s a big deal?” Theo asked, following George down the hall.

“The big deal right now,” George said. “Which is part of why you and I get to talk about the media.”

“We came in a side door today,” Theo said.

George pushed open the door to her office, and said, “There may be times when that’s not enough. They’re going to be curious about why Jack Zimmermann has a pregnant teenager in tow. I made you a media card, you say nothing on camera, and you give them one of these if they won’t leave you alone.”

The card said, “I am a minor and my guardian does not consent for me to be filmed or named in the media for safety and legal reasons. Please respect our privacy.”

“Will that stop them?” Theo asked.

“The decent ones. We won’t be able to prevent any coverage but we can make it harder. Throw them a single scrap and they’ll never let go. Do you do social media?”

“Not much,” Theo said. “My mother didn’t like it.”

“Well, you’ll start doing it more, most likely. Please don’t mention Jack or Bitty by name. It’s best to keep your own real name out of it, as well. Don’t brag, either, the hockey community latches onto that sort of thing like a puzzle and they’ll worry it until the secret pops out if you give them an opening. Now about high schools…”

Bitty came and found Theo at noon to offer him an elaborate sandwich and fruit salad. George said, “Where’s mine?” and then grinned at Bitty’s worried look. “Kidding. I’ve got a standing order, but that looks delicious. Theo, I’m jealous, you must be in heaven with his cooking all the time.”

“I’ve eaten more in the past two weeks than I had in the previous two months, I swear,” Theo said. “And it’s all going here,” he pointed at his belly.

“Probably playing catch-up,” George said. “Hey, if you come in Friday, you should get one of the trainers to give you a back massage.”

Theo looked guarded. “I… don’t know.”

“They’d be happy to do it,” George said.

“I’m not… I don’t really want people touching me,” Theo said.

George frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry… I didn’t think.”

“No, it’s okay,” Theo said. “I just…”

“You don’t have to explain. Bitty, were you going to drag him off?”

“Yeah, we’re planning to go to the center this afternoon,” Bitty said, “since we missed Wednesday last week.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

The afternoon at the center slid by. Jack ended up taking Theo home for a nap early, and Suzanne came by for Bitty at closing time. Bitty was blown away by how many hours his mother and Jack and Alicia were able to talk about furniture, poring over catalogs and websites and, god help him, swatches. Even after the huge shopping trip over the weekend, it never seemed to end. Most of his passion was for the kitchen and recording studio, but he’d already helped Jack get most of what he needed for the apartment kitchen, and the recording studio was a matter of telling Bob what he was going to do and Bob gleefully researching the electronics to make it happen.

Good results were emailed from the mold guy. The appraiser took the rush fee to heart and their realtor was able to schedule closing for that Friday.

“I swear it’s meant to be,” Alicia said. “The first time we tried to buy a house, it took us two failed offers, and the second time, three. One place had ceilings that were made almost entirely of crumbling asbestos.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

With the closing set, the endless shopping turned into actual ordering, and between that and the full day at the drop in center, the amnio results arriving were almost an afterthought.

As Jack, Theo, and Bitty sat in Linden’s office taking the phone call from the doctor and then calling Ms. Kelly, Theo shrugged off Linden’s question as to whether the result was a relief.

“I always knew what it would say,” Theo said. “I’m just glad it’s back now.”

“This means the grand jury can go forward on Thursday,” Ms. Kelly said. “You’ll be spending Wednesday with the DA’s office.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

It was Bitty and Alicia and Suzanne with Theo at the district attorney’s office the next day. Ms. Kelly was there as well, and they started with an assistant district attorney, who went over the basics for an exhausting hour before having Theo sit down with the guardian ad litem.

“I want to be there with him,” Bitty said. “He shouldn’t be alone.”

“The GAL is trained,” Ms. Kelly told him. “But it’s good that you’re thinking about that. Jonas is very sensitive to the issues at hand. Tell me about the house?”

They spent the next ninety minutes in tense chitchat about the house and Theo’s future school options.

“He’s narrowed it down to a couple of private schools,” Bitty said. “One of them would be here, pretty much on Jack’s way. The other would be closer to Samwell, but since Theo’s going to be there for three years and I’m only going to be there one… It would mean he’d be driving himself to school next year, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.”

“Dicky, you drove yourself to school from the day you got your license,” Suzanne said.

“That was what, five years ago?” Alicia asked, amused.

“I… he’s been through a lot,” Bitty said. “I want him safe.”

When the GAL was done, the district attorney, a stern, dark-haired woman in her forties, was ready to sit down with Theo. They were in an interview room, with a video recorder set up at one end, pointed at the seat where Theo was directed to sit. The DA pressed a button on the camera, opened her folder and said her name and the people present, “Today we’re recording the video testimony of Emily Rochelle Burton.”

“Theo,” Theo said. “Please call me Theo.”

“Emily is transitioning to male and prefers to be known as Theo. Your legal name is all over the file,” she said. “You’ll hear it a lot. Can you tell us what happened to you last November?”

“Peter Jones raped me. The whole reason he raped me was because I told him I thought I might be trans. That’s my testimony. He raped me and now I have this thing growing inside me, and it’s going to hurt like hell getting it out no matter what I do, and my mother kicked me out for getting pregnant, and I didn’t want any of it. If I’m going to have to suffer through this for being trans, the least people can do is call me by my name, and not the name the woman who threw me out gave me,” Theo said. “He told me he was going to show me I was a girl, and the next thing I knew he was…” He looked at the room full of people and then said, “Do I have to say it?”

“You may need to explain it to the Grand Jury in person if they have questions,” the DA said.

“He pushed me over onto a table,” Theo said. “I was in sweats, he pulled them down…”

He explained it in blunt, unemotional terms, his face set. The act. The bleeding afterward. The bruised hip.

“And did you ever confront him about it?”

Theo frowned, and his voice was ragged as he said, “He said no one would take my word against his. That no one was going to send an upstanding Christian man and father to jail because…” Theo paused and then choked out, “because some Black girl said he did something no one would ever believe he’d do. And that God made me a girl and I ought to… get used to it.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said I still wasn’t a girl, and that I hated any God that would make someone like him. He just laughed at me, and told me Jesus would forgive him, but that I was going to hell, with all the other queers. That he’d tried to show me, but I was too stupid…”

“And you are now pregnant?”

Theo nodded, looking miserable.

“And you had an amnio done.”

“Yes. I knew what it would say anyway, he’s the only one who ever… I didn’t even want to have sex with anyone. I never want that. I never wanted it. I don’t think I ever will want that, especially not after what he did. If I’m pregnant, he’s the only one who could possibly have made that happen.”

The DA asked a few more questions, and then turned off the camera. “You won’t have to be there tomorrow,” she said. “The Grand Jury might ask for you to be there Friday if they have any questions for you, but honestly, this is straightforward.”

“How much time is he likely to get?”

“He’s blustering now,” the DA said. “He turned down my first offer, which was 10 years, sex offender registry, and five years probation. I’m inclined to add five years to my offer for every time you have to tell the story. He thinks the Grand Jury won’t indict. He’s wrong. After the Grand Jury, I’m going to offer 15 years plus the rest if he folds quickly, but if he goes all the way to trial, and you have to testify, I’m going to push for a life sentence.”

“He didn’t hold a gun to me,” Theo said.

“You were fourteen years old,” the DA said. “And he raped you, and he got you pregnant, and you lost your home because of it. And he’s a cocky asshole who thinks he can do no wrong. And it’s a hate crime. Aside from the asshole bit, we call the rest of those aggravating circumstances. Being an asshole is just aggravating, it doesn’t actually add legal weight.”

“What about the baby?” Theo asked. “I want to give it up for adoption, and I have to get his permission?”

“We’ll see if we can encourage him to do that,” the DA said. “But it’s going to be a tricky thing. We can get the courts to do it, and they will, but that’s a juvenile court proceeding and it takes a while. He might do it voluntarily, but from talking to him the other day, my impression is that he’s likely to balk just because he can, and it may be the last place he has any power.”

“We can wait him out,” Bitty said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The Grand Jury did not ask for further information from Theo the next day.

They deliberated for less than an hour.

They came back from deliberation and issued an indictment for aggravated first degree child molestation as a hate crime, assault, battery, and child endangerment.

Theo’s rapist went into a conference room with his attorney, and then came out and asked for a settlement conference.

Jack, Bitty, Suzanne, Alicia, Theo, and Ms. Kelly watched with the Guardian Ad Litem on a closed-circuit camera in another part of the courthouse as he pled nolo contendere to (not aggravated) first degree child molestation, with a recommended sentence of fifteen years, lifetime on the sex offenders list, and a no-contact order for both Theo and his unborn child. The judge declined to sentence that day, and scheduled the sentencing for the following Friday, a little more than a week away.

Bitty held Theo’s left hand, while Suzanne held his right, as the plea was entered.

“He can’t touch you ever again,” Bitty said.

“He hasn’t stopped,” Theo said, and turned to Ms. Kelly. “Can you please do what you need to do to terminate his rights?”

“I could talk to him,” Suzanne said.

“That would be highly irregular,” Ms. Kelly said.

“Well, you try to do it your way,” Suzanne pressed her lips together and sighed. “If it doesn’t work soon, I’ll pay him a visit in jail to talk about our Lord.”

Bitty shivered.  

_x_ _x_ _x_

The next day, they went to a nondescript downtown financial office, where Bob wrote a very large check and spent two hours signing documents. Jack had a smaller packet of documents to sign, as a minor joint owner with right of survivorship.

“Even without a mortgage, it’s that complicated?” Suzanne asked.

The real estate agent gave a weak chuckle, and then a heartier laugh, and then the title company’s representative started laughing, too, and Suzanne looked very confused. “There is no way to make this not complicated and still protect everyone,” the agent said.

By noon, they were done, and the real estate agent placed a packet of papers and a set of keys in Bob’s hands. Bob tossed the keys to Jack. “Have a house.”

“Technically your house,” Jack said.

“Only until my accountant stops hyperventilating and tells me the most tax efficient way to give it to you outright,” Bob said.

“I want Bitty on the title,” Jack said.

“That would best wait until you’re married,” Alicia said. “The tax consequences disappear then, I know that much.”

“My dowry,” Jack said, dryly.

“I would have settled for a couple of goats and a nice milk cow,” Bitty said. Suzanne elbowed him.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Later that afternoon, Jack signed an $80,000,000 eight-year contract with the Falconers, frontloaded with signing bonuses and to Bitty’s relief, with a no-movement clause starting the following year.

“He could have paid for the house outright from the signing bonus,” Bitty said to Bob, later.

“I know,” Bob said. “But I wanted to do this. Will you stop worrying about the money?”

“I can’t even grasp the number of zeroes involved,” Bitty said. “It’s obscene.”

“So will you stop fussing about how much he’s spending?” Alicia asked.

“Probably not,” Suzanne said, laughing.

Bitty just shook his head, dazed.

Chapter Text

Lardo and Shitty came down the next day to help paint. The number of cans, rollers, sponges, rags, brushes, drop cloths, rolls of blue painter’s tape, and paint trays was staggering. At one point on Saturday, they had eight people working simultaneously. Lardo was everywhere at once, assigning tasks to suit skills. Shitty followed her, dressed only in a pair of once-white smudged overalls, toting paint and supplies. Floors and windows were masked, trim removed, walls deglossed, and then a friend of hers came in with an industrial sprayer and primed every room that was going to be painted. Meanwhile Lardo sketched and talked each room over with Jack and Bitty and Theo.

Jack’s study got a layer of dark red paint as soon as the primer was dry, with a layer of brighter red ragged on while it was still tacky. When they came back to it a few hours later, Lardo rolled a thin eggshell glaze doped with gold mica pigment over the top. The result was almost womb-like, but looked like rich book-leather. Black trim was painted with her deft hand, and then lightened by a sponged-on heavier gold glaze. Despite the darkness of the paint, when the sun slanted through the trees and into the window in the evening, the room glowed.

Theo had asked for line art for coloring, and between coats in Jack’s study, Lardo prepped the room with a matte white paint. They talked for hours about what Theo wanted. Each wall would end up being different. One wall got a series of geometric shapes, heavy on optical illusion and improbable boxes, each part blending Escher-like into the next. Another entire wall featured a line art dragonfly on a floating leaf, every vein on the leaf a black outline, every part of the wing detailed, even the eyes segmented. An empty husk was outlined in the corner near the floor, under the wavy line of a sketched pond surface.

“It’ll look like stained glass,” Theo said, “when I’m done with it.”

The third wall was sketched with gears, interlocking around the bathroom and closet doors. The last, solid black. Bitty frowned until Lardo held up pots of luminescent, brilliant glow-in-the-dark paints. That wall would became a fantasy of glowing foliage against the dark background.

“Light out of darkness, bro,” Lardo said to Theo.

The ceiling would be a mural of the underside of a lilypad during the day, echoing the otherworldly foliage of the dark wall, and at night, Lardo planned to paint—at Theo’s request—a detailed nebula, the shell of a supernova, in transparent glow-in-the-dark paints. They would only be visible with the lights off.

Most of the other rooms they either painted simply or left as-is.

Saturday afternoon, Bob went out and came back with self-inflating air mattresses, and that night the ‘rents, as Shitty insisted on dubbing the Zimmermanns and Suzanne, all went back to their hotel. Everyone else collapsed on air mattresses in the rec room after the second person nearly fell asleep rollering a wall.

They were winding down, Lardo already asleep on Shitty’s chest, when he said to Theo—who was lying on a mattress a few feet away from Shitty’s head, “Bro, mad respect for you.”

“Why?” Theo asked. “I… I didn’t do anything.”

“You told your truth, and you asked for help, and you stayed true to who you are,” Shitty said. “You’re, like, so young it hurts, but you already know yourself better than some people ever will.”

“I don’t… everyone is helping me, and I don’t quite understand it, but I feel like everything is happening to me, and I’m just… reacting.”

“You could have run, or lied, or refused to cooperate,” Shitty said. “I’ve been interning at a low-income legal clinic. We see so many people making bad choices, and there’s only so much we can do to help them.”

“I’m like, no income,” Theo said. “My mom… we were so poor. I mean, we were never homeless, but it was a close thing.”

“Jack’s bankrolling you now, kid,” Shitty said. “He’s your legal guardian. You’ve got, like, options.”

“I don’t even know what it all means,” Theo said. “I keep trying to think about what’s going to happen, and I… I can’t. It’s like my brain won’t. Like, I know there’s a baby, but it feels almost like it’s happening to someone else, and I’m just along for the ride. I feel like I should be doing something, but all I can do is wait. I mean, I don’t want a baby. How can I be having a baby? It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s not right, man,” Shitty said. “That you have to share your body when it’s not what you want.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Theo said. “I mean, I can tell it’s there, but mostly it’s just there. It’s what happens when it comes out that’s scary.”

“Scary as hell,” Shitty agreed. “You looking for parents for the baby yet?”

“It seems like it wouldn’t be fair to draw someone into that with not knowing what the asshole is going to do,” Theo said.

Shitty chuckled, and Lardo’s brow furrowed in her sleep. “I like that you call him the asshole. Dude doesn’t deserve a name.”

“My mother would wash my mouth out,” Theo said.

“Shit, for real?” Shitty asked.

“Ivory bar soap,” Theo said.

“Fuck, brah, you are better off here.”

“I didn’t quite get how wrong she was until she threw me out,” Theo said.

“Yeah, that’s kind of hard to come back from,” Shitty said.

“I think I could have understood it if I’d come out to her,” Theo said. “I wouldn’t have liked it—”

“Damn straight,” Shitty growled.

“—but at least I’d have understood if she’d kicked me out for being trans. But this…”

“You’re safe now, kid,” Shitty said. “They’re the best people I know.”

“I don’t feel safe,” Theo said. “Everyone’s been great, but I… I’m not sure I’m ever going to feel safe again. I’m not sure I know what safe is.”

“Life isn’t a tame lion,” Shitty said. “But as people go, I don’t think you’ll find better.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Monday was the 4th of July. Ransom and Holster showed up in the late morning to help paint.

“Bro,” Holster said, looking around as Bitty gave the tour. “Seriously. Bro.”

“Man, I should have chosen Brown after all,” Ransom said.

Bitty laughed. “We do have room.” They followed him up the stairs.

“When Stanford says yes, though, you move to fucking California,” Holster said.

“So far away,” Bitty said. “Holster? Where are you gonna be?”

There was a moment’s hesitation before Holster said, “Still applying for jobs. I don’t know yet.”

“Where are you looking?” Bitty asked.

“He put in some applications in New York,” Ransom said. “Hasn’t heard back yet.”

“Here and there,” Holster said. “So, what’s this room for?”

“That?” Bitty said. “That’s the nursery.”

“Fuhhhhh.” Holster stared at the room, primed white walls and tarps and tape everywhere. “There’s going to be a kid here.”

“That’s some huge shit right there,” Ransom said, looking over Bitty’s head into the little room.

“What’s the plan?” Holster asked.

“I’m thinking nothing cutesy,” Bitty said. “Lardo suggested a jungle, but since we don’t know how long the kid’s going to be here, it seems… We’ll paint it, but maybe not Noah’s Ark or trains, right?”

“It would be hard to get used to having a baby here,” Ransom said.

“Harder getting used to not having a baby here if you got attached,” Holster said. “Ugh, show me the rest of the house.”

Holster’s favorite space was the listening room/recording studio. “So you can, like, chill in here and not hear anything out there?”

“It’s for recording,” Bitty said.

“It’s soundproof,” Holster said. “At the very least you need a couch in here. And a nice big monitor.”

When Bitty explained the plan for bunkbeds in the basement bedroom, Holster said, “I could cry, I’m so touched.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Ransom ended up working with Lardo and Theo in Theo’s bedroom. He turned out to be an absolute natural at the precise lines of the geometric wall.

“Medical school?” Theo asked him. “Bitty said…”

“Yeah,” Ransom said. “Weird, though, to be going without Holster.”

“You guys aren’t a thing?” Theo asked.

Ransom laughed. “Nah. Tried. Didn’t work. We work better as friends.”

“So you’re not straight?” Theo asked.

“If I was ever going to be gay for anyone, it would be him,” Ransom said, “But apparently I’m pretty hardwired het. Kind of a wakeup call that I couldn’t just decide to be gay when I really wanted to. But I’m not really even bi.”

“He is?” Theo asked.

“That’s his story to tell,” Ransom said.

Theo’s eyes widened. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m being really nosy.”

“You’re fifteen, and going through some fucking heavy shit,” Ransom said. “I don’t mind you asking questions. I’ll tell you when you’re out of your lane.”

“I’m ace,” Theo said. “The idea of doing that with anyone just… I’d love to have someone, maybe, someday, who really understood me, and wanted to make a life with me, but I don’t know anyone who would be okay with no sex.”

Ransom finished taping the line he was working on and said, “Plenty of ace people out there. Probably some wanting exactly what you want. Fuck, Holster and I have one of the best relationships I’ve ever seen, sex just isn’t a part of it.”

“Then why are you going to Stanford and he’s looking sad all the time?” Lardo asked.

“Shit, Lards, you know how expensive the Bay area is, I can’t ask that of him,” Ransom said.

“Did it even occur to you to ask him at all?” Lardo asked. “Is March going to be there?”

“Yeah, so, we broke up. She’s headed off to Orlando. Said something about being Elsa at Disney World for the summer, but I haven’t really heard since.”

Lardo walked over to where Ransom was crouched down, taping another line, waited for him to finish, and then hip-checked him in the shoulder. “Dumbass.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Holster and Shitty worked at painting the nursery the pale blue base coat.

“Okay,” Shitty said after a while. “Out with it.”

“I keep turning down headhunters in New York,” Holster said.

“What are you holding out for?” Shitty said.

“I haven’t applied for the ones I’m holding out for.”

“In San Fran?” Shitty asked.

“He… It would be presumptuous of me. Since it’s not like that.”

“Ask him if he wants you to come with him,” Shitty said.

“And do what? Be his platonic bro roommate forever?” Holster asked.

“You want something more?” Shitty asked.

“It didn’t work,” Holster said. “I’m apparently not attracted to guys who aren’t attracted to me that way.”

“Shit. What do you want?”

“I don’t know. I want my best friend to be happy and taken care of. I could kind of get my mind around it when he was with March, but with that done… I just don’t know, bro.”

“You’re worried about him.”

“Aren’t you?” Holster asked.

“I’m worried about both of you, brah. You’ve been doom and gloom since he accepted.”

“Shits, I tried not to…”

“You’ve been trying pretty obviously,” Shitty said. “Like, I’m not around that much but I totally see it every time I see you two. Every time. He’s scared shitless about doing it without you and you’re scared shitless of him doing it without you and I don’t understand why you don’t just apply for some jobs in California.”

“Yeah, I don’t understand it myself,” Holster said. “This summer has been good. Bittersweet, but good, you know? We can’t all be Bitty and Jack. Or you and Lardo, for that matter.”

“We’re not together-together,” Shitty said flatly.

“I only saw three air mattresses downstairs, and I don’t think the Grown Ups would be letting their ward bunk with you or Lardo.”

“Fuck, Holster, I’ll snuggle anyone. You know that.”

“She still mad at you for not going to Samwell Law?”

“She never was. She’s never asked me to do anything other than what I wanted to do,” Shitty said.

“You’re living together,” Holster said.

“I love living with her,” Shitty said. “Keeps me from climbing the walls.”

“Have you asked her what she wants?” Holster asked.

“Have you asked Ransom?” Shitty threw back at him.

“You’d think as enlightened as we are, we’d be better at this,” Holster said.

“Too much fucking self-awareness,” Shitty said. “Breeds self-doubt.” He picked up the corner tool and slapped too much paint into the corner.

“Hard to imagine Jack with a baby,” Holster said, handing over a mini-roller to help spread the excess.

Shitty took it and the white primer disappeared behind the growing swath of blue. “Harder to imagine Bitty getting his hands on a baby and then giving it up.”

“Does he ever give up anyone?” Holster asked.

“We’re here, aren’t we?” Shitty said, laughing, finally. They worked in silence for a while.

When the first coat was nearly done, Holster said, “If Bits wasn’t in his senior year, bet they’d adopt.”

“If this case drags on, that baby could be here his entire senior year anyway,” Shitty said. “Want to be a nanny?” He finished the last corner far more neatly than he’d done the first.

Holster nearly dropped his paint roller. “I’ll talk to Rans. California has great weather.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Late in the afternoon, Bob drove up to Boston to pick Coach up from the airport while Bitty and Suzanne cooked a massive picnic. A weathered picnic table in the backyard at the edge of the treeline looked out over a neighboring field—which might have been part of the country club and might have been simply someone’s large yard—with an incongruous tennis court in the middle of it, and in the early evening Bitty drafted everyone to carry foil pans and paper plates out back. The field radiated heat as the shadows stretched, and Lardo spread a relatively unsullied painter’s drop cloth out to serve as picnic blanket.

“You need lawn furniture, son,” Coach said to Bitty, sitting on the grayed bench with him, while a roving game of kickball got underway in the field.

“I think it’s coming?” Bitty said. He called over in the direction of the large boys, “Jack, did we order lawn furniture?”

“Seating for twelve,” Jack called back without looking. “Plus folding lawn chairs. They’ll be in next weekend.”

“It’s a good place here,” Coach said. “Mama said he proposed.”

Bitty blushed. “I… I want that with him.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Coach said. “I was younger than Jack when I asked your mother.” He chuckled. “And for oddly similar reasons.”

“We couldn’t…” Bitty sighed. “I knew I was going to be helping Theo before we even knew about the baby. That was just…”

“Of course it was,” Coach said. “And you know I don’t approve of standing by when you can step in and help.”

“I just don’t want to fail them,” Bitty said, looking at where Theo lay on his side watching the romping boys while Alicia rubbed his feet. Then he looked at Jack. “He didn’t even blink, you know. Never questioned it for a minute.”

“He’s a good man,” Coach said.

“I’m so worried that the stress will catch up to him,” Bitty said.

“He doesn’t look stressed,” Coach said, as Jack bowled Shitty over and the two of them landed at Lardo’s feet.

“Daddy, why isn’t he stressed? I’m stressed.”

Bob swung his legs over the bench opposite them, and said, “You picked the spot with all the food.”

“I picked the spot that I could get up from without cracking my knees,” Coach said.

“I sat next to him,” Bitty added.

“Still,” Bob said, “handy.”  He picked up a plate and loaded it with chicken and a pile of three-bean salad. He took a bite and then said, “Jack is happy. The things he spent his whole life worrying about, he’s conquered. I’m sure that he’ll find new things to worry about, but right now? He’s got you, Bitty, and he’s won every trophy he could possibly win this year, and I think he can see a life he wants to live sitting right in front of him. He’s never been afraid of being busy, he’s just been afraid of being inadequate, and right now, he’s got a whole lot of success in front of him.”

“I’m so worried,” Bitty said. “I don’t know how to be who he needs me to be, and be there for Theo, and be there for the team, and do school, and I have no idea how it’s going to work with a baby in the house.”

“You’ll get a nanny,” Bob said. “You’ll hire absolutely everything done that you can possibly hire done. You’ll focus on the things you have to focus on.”

“And it’s okay to prioritize,” Coach said. “It’s okay to let some things go. You don’t have to take care of everyone all the time.”

“Yeah, but someone has to,” Bitty said. “You had Mama when I was tiny, and she wasn’t working.”

“You should hire a housekeeper and a nanny,” Bob said again. “Absolutely. Even if it’s only for the school year.”

“The way we’ve been spending money,” Bitty said, shaking his head.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Bob said.

“It’s not how my daddy raised me,” Bitty said with a chuckle.

“That’s true,” Coach said. “But that’s because we weren’t on NHL salaries. If you can afford it, do it.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Coach spent the rest of the week with them, and it passed in a blur of painting and furniture deliveries, of workouts and some time at the drop-in-center. The OB visit on Thursday was a perfunctory checkup, not invasive, with an OB they hadn’t met but who had clearly been briefed on the situation.

They asked if plane travel was acceptable, and the OB checked the calendar, and said, “No later than 36 weeks. Theo is 34 weeks today.”

On Friday, Peter Jones was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, five years of probation, and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. Theo declined to speak at his sentencing, but watched from a private room on closed-circuit video while the sentence was handed down. Suzanne, Jack, and Bitty sat with him in the small room while the rest of the crew waited outside.

“How do you feel?” Suzanne asked him, after Jones was led away in handcuffs.

“Like I want to go really far away from this place.” Theo said.

“How about Montreal?” Jack said.

“Sure,” Theo said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Saturday morning, Bitty made brunch for everyone at the new house.

They’d all slept there the night before, Jack and Bitty in their bedroom, Theo in his, and Shitty and Lardo had put one of the air mattresses in the nursery, though Lardo was still working on mural details. Coach and Suzanne took the bedroom with the king-sized bed at Bob and Alicia’s insistence, while they were in the room with the pull-out couches, and Ransom and Holster were downstairs in the bunk room.

“And you were worried that it was too many rooms,” Jack said to Bitty while he was cooking.

“We could have had the rest of the hockey team here, both hockey teams, and still not been crowded,” Bitty said.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Jack said.

“I’m just overwhelmed, honey.”

Jack came up behind him and wrapped his arms around Bitty’s waist. He dropped his head down next to Bitty’s ear and said softly, “This is good. It’s okay to let it be good.”

“I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Bitty said. “I just feel like we’re missing something.”

As people filtered in and filled plates, Bitty looked down along the long expanse of counter into the dining area and den, and smiled. He brought a plate over and sat down next to Ransom and Holster. “So where are you going next?” he asked.

“Oh, I wanted to tell you,” Ransom said to Holster. “There’s an opening in the business office at Stanford, and I wondered if you wanted to apply? I mean, I know you’ve been applying in New York, but…”

“Chyeah!” Holster said. “Duh. Want a roomie?”

Ransom rolled his eyes. “Like you had to ask.” He looked at Bitty. “Think we’re driving to Cali. Might take the long way.”

Bitty smiled, and looked over at the couch, where Lardo and Shitty were balancing plates on their knees. “How about you, Lardo? Plans?”

“I was going to ask if you’d mind if I stayed for a couple weeks,” Lardo said. “I want to work on the murals while you’re gone.”

“Make yourself at home,” Jack said. “Shits?”

“I’ve got to get back to the law office,” he said. “This was a minimal court week, because of the holiday, so they didn’t mind me being gone, but they’ll need me next week for sure.”

“We’re heading back to Georgia,” Suzanne said. “At least while you’re in Montreal. I was thinking about coming back up for a little bit when the baby’s born, if the timing works, but Bob and Alicia said they were happy to come if you need help then, and with school starting on the 5th of August…”

“You’ve already done so much, Mama,” Bitty said.

“I’ll miss you,” Theo said quietly.

“I’m a phone call away,” Suzanne said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bob and Alicia drove Suzanne and Coach to the airport that afternoon, and then dropped the rental car off. Lardo drove Jack, Bitty, and Theo in Bitty’s van, and dropped them off before returning to her project in the nursery.

Theo sat next to the window in first class, staring out almost the entire trip, except for the moments when the cabin steward offered beverages and snacks. Bitty watched Theo, and Jack watched Bitty, and Bob and Alicia watched all three of them from one row back, amused at Theo’s wonder and Bitty’s concern and Jack’s obvious joy.

The week went by in a blur of sightseeing and Bitty and Theo trying to speak French and failing ridiculously. Thursday night, while they ate dinner at a restaurant Jack had loved as a child, Alicia said to Theo, “You’re 35 weeks today. When I was pregnant with Jack, that was the point they told us that if we went into labor, they wouldn’t try to stop it.”

“Can’t come soon enough,” Theo said. “I’m starting to waddle.”

“We’re doing a private class Sunday, when we get back,” Bitty said.

“Jack too?” Alicia asked.

“Of course,” Jack said.

“Just don’t treat it like hockey,” Alicia said. “Your dad was a terror of a Lamaze coach.”

“I don’t think it’s Lamaze?” Bitty said. “I mean, she didn’t say Lamaze.”

“The breathing was wild,” Alicia said. “All that hee-ing and hoo-ing and when I was actually in labor I just wanted him to shut up so I could concentrate.”

“Did he?” Bitty asked, laughing.

“I did,” Bob said. “She shoved a washcloth in my mouth, so I kind of had to.”

“You kept dabbing my forehead and telling me to breathe,” Alicia said. “I just needed you to rub my back and hold me up.”

“Did it hurt?” Theo asked.

“It did,” Alicia said. “But only until I actually believed I was in labor. Then it was just work? I remember being really focused, and I remember it taking all my effort to put one foot in front of the other, but I don’t remember it hurting after I knew it was really happening.”

“Did you have drugs?” Theo asked.

“No. I thought I was going to, but once I was in it… I don’t know, I kept remembering how they said it was like a marathon, and that taking drugs in the middle of the marathon would only mean running longer, and having to fight the drugs to get through. I think they have other options now, but I don’t regret not having medication. But… I wanted to be pregnant. I wanted to have a baby. I don’t know how I would have felt about labor if I hadn’t. But I do know that I felt like I was in control the whole time, even when what my body was doing was beyond my control, I didn’t feel helpless? The epidurals, they make it hard to move. And that would have been hard for me.”

Theo nodded.

“Still haven’t decided?”

Theo shook his head.

“You don’t have to, not until you’re in the middle of it,” Alicia said. “I didn’t even go to the hospital until a couple hours before he was born. Scared Bob to death.”

“I’m not a goalie,” Bob said. “They didn’t train me to catch.”

Alicia snorted. “That’s not how it works.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

They arrived home late on Saturday. Lardo picked them up in Boston and drove them down to Attleboro, where they found the house transformed. The tarps and blue tape were gone, and most of their things had been brought over from the apartment. The air mattresses had been taken to the apartment for the moment, but the house itself looked not only like a home, but like their home.

In Theo’s room, the mural and line art walls were done, a desk, bed, couch, and small table were all in place, a throw rug covered the floor, and a stand full of paint markers for the walls waited in the corner.

The rec room walls were lined with Jack’s photographs, with one wall set up for trophies and awards, and a large, framed picture of Jack with the Stanley Cup and Bitty in the center. There were a few pieces of exercise equipment there already, with more on order. The recording studio was equipped, with a leather loveseat facing a large screen on one wall, and a desk with recording equipment facing the other blank wall.

Upstairs, their bedroom had been painted a pale sage green, and the shelves were filled with fiction books and mementos from Samwell. Two reading chairs were positioned near the window, with a small table between, and the attached bathroom had been filled with moisture-loving plants.

The nursery was a grove. Against a gradated sky blue background, birch tree trunks were painted, with branches interlacing up into a cloud-filled sky. A crib sat against the far wall, with a castle painted on the wall above it. A rocking glider sat next to the crib, and a white changing table was set up against one wall next to a dresser which had been painted to look like a stable.

“George brought over the furniture,” Lardo said, as Bitty and Jack stared. “There’s a highchair and playpen in the closet right there, and a stroller downstairs in the front hall closet. She said you’d want to get your own diaper sausage thing, but I’m not sure what she was talking about, you might want to check, I guess they’re not good hand-me-downs. There’s a ton of clothes in the drawers, but she said you might want to rewash them. Guys? Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Bitty said. “It’s just a lot.”

“It’s beautiful,” Jack said. “You did an amazing job.”

“It’s why you pay me the big bucks,” Lardo said.

“Damn straight,” Jack laughed. “Be prepared for other commissions once the guys see this.”

“We should invite the SOAPs over,” Bitty said. “They’ll flip.”

“Oh, you haven’t seen, though,” Lardo said, and she turned off the light.

A moon glowed and tiny lights dotted the ceiling. Glowing flowers could be seen around the room, near the floor, and when they looked closer—

“Are those fairies?” Bitty asked.

“Pixies here,” Lardo said. “Will-o-the-wisps over there.” She pointed at several ethereal colored glowing spots on the opposite wall.

“My goodness!” Bitty said. “It’s magic!”

“I figured that even if this baby doesn’t stay long, chances are you’ll have another someday,” Lardo said. “And this way they’ve got no excuse to be afraid of the dark.”

Bitty felt Jack’s arm slide around his waist, and leaned into Jack’s side, overwhelmed.

When they turned around, Theo had disappeared back downstairs without a word.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The next day, an upbeat and soft-spoken woman in her thirties came to the house with an easel and a giant spiral bound book of pictures. “I’m Sharon,” she said. They invited her in, but she said, “Just take these, I need to go back for the rest.”

Bitty took the easel and the big book and Jack followed her out to the car. She loaded his arms up with a large duffel bag and a big exercise ball, then pulled out a second bag and a large cushion.

“Usually when I teach at the hospital or birth center, there’s already a lot of stuff there,” she said. “But I understand this is a unique situation.”

“We appreciate you being willing to come to the house,” Jack said.

“The last thing any of you need is you being seen coming into the hospital with a pregnant teen and a pillow,” Sharon said. “It’s fine.”

They set up in the den, and Bitty brought over a tray of savory cupcake quiches and a plate of cookies.

Theo joined them, but his face was a blank mask.

Sharon took his hand and said, “I know this is a rough situation, but I promise you that what we do today will make it easier to get through, not harder.”

Theo stared at her and then said, “I’m here. I won’t pretend to be happy about it, but I’m listening.”

Sharon nodded. “How much do you already know about the mechanics of pregnancy and the birth process?”

“The baby grows in the uterus,” Theo said. “It comes out the vagina. It probably hurts when that happens.”

Sharon pressed her lips together, trying not to laugh, trying not to cry. “That’s one way of putting it. Let’s go over how the uterus actually works, though, because that might help you understand better what you’re feeling.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

By the end of the day, Bitty knew more than he’d ever thought he’d want to about the mechanics of childbirth, they’d watched several memorable videos, and Jack had proven himself adept at helping Theo get into a variety of odd positions. Bitty recognized some of the support techniques as things Jack had taught him to use in the event of panic attacks. They were left with a workbook and schedule of things to practice and comfort measures to use. It felt functional, to be doing something real, to be studying and figuring out ways to make things easier.

Theo listened and asked a few questions, but was subdued. Jack took notes on almost everything, and Sharon helped them put together a short birth plan, highlighting the essentials of the situation.

Bitty drove Lardo back to Boston that evening after dinner.

It was a relief the next day to slip back into their old routine, though Suzanne’s absence was felt. But the three of them went to the rink in the morning, and Bitty worked out with Jack and some of the other Falconers for a little while before sitting down with the nutritionists to talk about the science of recovery and pick their brains about the care and feeding of a pregnant teenager who seemed to be losing interest in food.

Theo went immediately to George’s office. She grinned at him as he walked through the door, and said, “You got in at Weller!”

“Really?” he said, with more enthusiasm than he’d felt in weeks. The school was down the street from George’s condo, about five minutes from the rink, and it had both a challenging curriculum and a reputation as being very friendly for LGBT students.

“Erin said she’d love for you to hang out with her after school if Jack can’t be home,” George said. “You’ll be able to walk over. And they don’t start until after Labor Day.”

Theo snorted. “Hopefully my labor day will be a lot sooner than that.”

“It’ll come soon enough,” George said.

“Can’t be too soon,” Theo said. “My back hurts.”

“If you’re up to it, go get the PT to give you a back rub,” George said, scribbling a note. “Snowy can wait for his glute massage.”

Theo considered for a moment, and then said, “That actually sounds really good.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

The next day they headed to the drop-in center, where the teens crowed over how big Theo’s belly was getting and drew him off into a meeting. Linden said to Bitty, “I know things are getting really busy, and I want you to know that we’ve designated you as Theo’s 1:1 for the next few months for bookkeeping purposes.”

He laughed. “I’d forgotten about the stipend, if you can believe it. The way Jack throws money around—”

“The Falcs made a huge donation. You’re doing good work,” she said, “Even when you’re not here, what you’re doing for Theo…”

“I cook and I bake and I listen,” Bitty said. “The rest is all Jack.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” she said. “This could have been so much worse for him.”

One of the kids came running up. “I think something’s up with Theo. He’s in a lot of pain.”

They rushed into the other room, where they found Theo with his hand on his back, wincing.

“Braxton Hicks?” Bitty asked.

“They’ve never hurt like this,” Theo said.

“How many?” Jack asked.

“Four,” Theo said. “Since we got here.”

They’d arrived at almost ten. It was about 10:45.

“I think I want to go home,” Theo said.

“One of us can stay,” Bitty said to Linden.

She shook her head. “We’re alright. Go take care of Theo.”

They packed up. Theo had two more contractions in the time it took them to get out to the car, and when Theo sat down in the passenger seat of the van, at Bitty’s insistence, the worst one yet struck.

“I’m driving over to the hospital,” Jack said. “We need to get you checked out.”

Theo groaned.

Bitty leaned forward  and put a hand on Theo’s shoulder. “They’ll take care of you, darlin’, and make sure everything’s okay.”

“Ugh,” Theo said, and then leaned his head against the window, grimacing. “Yeah, all right.”

The emergency room desk clerk took one look and pointed at the sign that said, “All pregnant patients in the third trimester report directly to the Mother-Baby unit.”

An orderly pushed over a wheelchair, and Theo sat in it, looking embarrassed, both feet on one of the support pedals, his knees to the other side, sitting crooked in the chair.

A nurse greeted them, and Jack pulled a folded 3x5 card out of his wallet and handed it to her without comment. She skimmed it, her eyebrows went up, she looked at Theo, and said, “Let’s check you out. How often have you been having contractions?”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Five hours later, they left the hospital. Theo said, “I told you it was nothing.”

“Not nothing, you need to drink more and eat more,” Jack said.

“We’ll take care of that at home,” Bitty said.

“I hate those monitors,” Theo said as they pulled into the driveway twenty minutes later.

Bitty nodded, but he’d found the trotting horse thump of the baby’s heart to be reassuring.

“I felt like everyone was looking at me,” Theo said.

“That’s because everyone was looking at you,” Jack said, opening the front door.

“Yeah, well,” Theo said, “made me feel like a ticking bomb.”

“More like a ticked bomb,” Bitty said, and headed to the kitchen.

That night, Bitty got an email from Linden with the name and number of a Massachusetts midwife and the comment, “If you have many more false alarms, she can come check Theo out at home.”

Bitty called immediately and the midwife suggested they meet on Saturday.

Theo looked wrung out on Wednesday, so Jack went in to do his workout alone. Theo and Bitty hung out at the house. They called the OB office to see if Theo really needed to come in, given that most of what they’d do in the office visit had already been done at the hospital. The receptionist cheerfully rescheduled them to the following Thursday.

Thursday they spent some time at the drop-in center, leaving early when Theo started yawning mid-afternoon.

Friday, they all went back to the rink, but left early when Theo had a dozen contractions in an hour, the one that started in the car lasting until Jack insisted on going back to the hospital. This time it was eight hours before they were released, and there were two vaginal exams, which had Theo climbing the walls.

“Do you need me to come?” Suzanne asked Bitty over the phone four hours in. He was standing in the hallway outside the room.

“Mama, I don’t know,” Bitty said. “They don’t think it’s labor, but they’re not letting us leave, either.”

“I can be there in the morning if you want,” she said. “Is the baby okay?”

“Theo’s 36 weeks yesterday,” Bitty said. “They think the baby would probably be okay if it happened now, but they won’t help it along. Theo hates the exams.”

“Baby, imagine someone you didn’t know putting a hand in your body to see how you measure up. Nobody likes the exams.”

“He just goes away when they happen,” Bitty said. “And when they stop it’s like—he just looks so broken. Jack goes out for them, but I just stay and keep my eyes on his face.”

“Just remind him that this isn’t going to go on forever, no matter how much it feels like it,” Suzanne said. “I’ll come if you need me.”

They picked up pizza on the way home. It was twilight already, and even Bitty had no desire to cook.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The next day, a sturdy woman with short graying hair came to the house and introduced herself as Mary. A certified professional midwife, she exuded quiet competence.

She sat and listened as Theo talked about how the two false alarms had gone, and said, “I’m happy to come out and sit with you if it happens again. I can keep an eye on the baby and make sure he’s putting up with the contractions, and we can work on making you comfortable. And if things shift into actual labor, it will be your choice whether we go in to the hospital or not. I have all the equipment I need to handle a normal birth at home, but I can’t give you pain meds if you decide that’s important.”

“Is that safe?” Jack asked.

“In a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy, as long as everything is looking good,” Mary said. “Most of the things that might go wrong will give us enough warning signals that we could get to the hospital about as quickly as they’d react to it if you were already in the hospital. And the things that happen faster than that, well, they can happen like that to anyone, before labor, whether they plan a hospital birth or not. Even an emergency cesarean usually takes a hospital longer to get going than it would take for us to drive there. I have oxygen, oxytocin, IV fluids, and resuscitation supplies with me at all times. It’s safer to transport with me by ambulance than without, though I have to stop doing anything that resembles medical care at the Rhode Island border. The EMTs still listen to me, though, and I know the staff there.”

“I could do this without going back there?” Theo asked.

“You might want to go back there,” Mary said. “If you decide you want an epidural, for example.”

“I hate exams,” Theo said.

“I don’t do them very often,” Mary said. “They don’t actually tell us much useful information that I can’t get other ways. When I work with survivors, I often won’t do any exams at all. I usually feel someone’s belly, and look at other signs to tell me if progress is being made. If things stall out when they’ve been going well, I might do an exam then, or if the waters break while the baby is high, but it just doesn’t really help much to stick my fingers in. I’ve seen women go from two centimeters to ten and pushing in about ten minutes, and I’ve seen someone be at six centimeters for a week. It’s just… not that relevant. All my July mamas went already, and my August mama isn’t due until the 25th, so really, it’s no trouble to come out whenever you need me.”

“Would I have to go in after the baby’s born?” Theo asked.

“Probably not. About one in ten of my clients who give birth at home need to transport after the birth. So it’s possible, it’s just not likely.”

“I have an appointment next week,” Theo said.

“You can keep it if you want,” Mary said. “I’m here to support you on your terms. If you want me to go with you to the hospital and just hold your hand, I can do that too.”

“I assume you have some sort of contract?” Jack asked.

She handed over a stapled set of forms.

“It’s up to Theo,” Jack said, flipping through. “Your fee is no problem.”

“I’d just be happy if I didn’t have to go into the damn hospital every time my belly hurts,” Theo said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack spent most of Sunday testing out the new exercise equipment, and then went back in on Monday to the rink, leaving Bitty and Theo at home.

Theo was grumblesome and surly. Bitty finally just made him a big tray of snacks, set it up next to the big tub with a stack of towels and a large glass of water, and a Ziploc bag for Theo’s phone. “Call me if you need help getting out,” Bitty said.

He didn’t hear from Theo for another four hours. When several texts went unanswered, he went over to the master suite and called out, “Are you okay in there?”

Not hearing any response, he went into the bedroom and knocked on the bathroom door. “Theo?”

“’M fine.” came the mumbled response through the door.

“Just making sure you didn’t drown,” Bitty said.

“So tired of this,” Theo said. “Can you help me out? I’ve tried twice, and my legs are too rubbery.”

Bitty pushed the door open, and averted his eyes. “Just tell me where you need me.”

“I'm really not worried that you’re going to look at me with a ‘lustful gaze,’” Theo said. “I mean, if it was anyone else, but I happen to know that big ol’ pregnant girl bodies aren't your thing. You can look enough to keep from tripping over the floor mat, I’m sure if you tripped and fell and hit your head because you were too busy trying to preserve my broken modesty, Jack would never recover.”

Bitty shrugged and looked down. Theo was leaning over the edge of the tub, and absolutely nothing was visible anyway.

“It’s a pregnant boy body, even if it looks girly,” Bitty said, picking up a large bath towel and draping it over his arm. “But it’s still not my thing. What do you need?”

“Two fists,” Theo said.

Bitty held out his arms and balled up his hands. Theo grabbed his wrists, stood carefully, and then stepped over the edge of the tub. Bitty held up the towel, and Theo wrapped it around himself. “Thanks.”

“How many?” Bitty asked.

“About three in the past hour,” Theo said. “Nothing to call Jack about.”

Bitty drained the tub and cleared away the remains of Theo’s snack.

Later that afternoon, the cleaning service Jack had hired came out and blitzed through the house.

_x_ _x_ _x_

At 11 pm, Theo started having contractions again, about five minutes apart. At 1 am, they called the midwife, who came out and helped a very sleepy Bitty find pressure points on Theo’s back to ease the spasms. Jack, she put in front of Theo, telling him, “Just hang on Jack. He’s strong like a tree, let him hold you up.”

Then she got down underneath Theo, and said, “May I put my hands on your belly?”

Theo nodded against Jack’s chest, and Jack said, “He says yes.”

She reached up and pressed her hands against Theo’s belly, waiting until the contraction subsided. “Stay there,” she said. “It’s easiest when he’s relaxed.”

She pressed, and palpated, and then said, “I think baby’s trying to turn into a better position. While Theo’s having contractions, if he could be on his hands and knees, even knees and chest, with his bum in the air, it will be faster to get the baby turned around, and then the contractions might quit for a while.”

She did something to Theo’s hips during the next three contractions. Then Theo yelped and put a hand down on his belly, lying on his side waiting for another contraction. Jack and Bitty stared as Theo’s belly rolled and bumps could be seen.

“The guys would flip at that,” Bitty said.

Theo gave a weary chuckle. “Holster saw the baby move and he freaked out. I think his exact words were, ‘That is some freaky alien shit there.’”

“Sounds like Holster,” Jack said.

“He’s not wrong,” Bitty said.

Mary sat down next to Theo and said, “Can I check again?”

Theo nodded, and she slid her hands over his belly.

“Feel this, here?” she said, putting Theo’s hand along the hard curve.

Theo nodded.

“That’s the baby’s back. That’s where we want it to stay. Let’s get you comfy here, and have you drink some water, and maybe you can get some sleep.”

“Tell me this is going to be over soon,” Theo said.

“It could be three days, or it could be five weeks,” Mary said. “I know better than to guess. When you get up, if baby is still just like that, do some squats to help get him nice and low in the pelvis.”

Theo nodded.

“You two go back to bed,” she said. “I’ll crash on Theo’s couch until I’m satisfied that he’s done for the night.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

The next day there was no question about going into the drop-in center. Even Jack slept until ten. It was a sleepy, strange day. They’d been doing so much for so long that to just be at home seemed oddly indulgent. Bitty baked and cooked and froze things, and Jack hung out at the kitchen counter, reading, while Theo took another long bath. This time Theo actually texted when he needed to get out, and Bitty went to help him.

“I could…” Jack said.

“It’s fine,” Bitty said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Wednesday, Jack went in just long enough to touch base with the trainers and get an updated workout sheet for home, and then came back to find Bitty and Theo laughing in the kitchen over a Shitty story.

“He wore clothes the entire time he was here,” Theo said.

“Yeah, I think law school has changed him. Also, you’re a minor,” Jack said.

“No more contractions since Mary was here,” Bitty said.

“I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed,” Theo said.

“Why choose?” Jack asked.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Thursday, everything just seemed hard, from helping Theo out of bed in the morning, to getting out of the house for the doctor’s appointment that afternoon.

The OB’s office was swamped, and they sat in the parking structure for an hour waiting for the all clear to come up. The receptionist was apologetic. “Doctor Thornton got called to a birth, so we’re way behind and had no free rooms. Even the private waiting room has someone in it.”

When they got to the room, it was another wait, the nurse asking Theo to gown up, and then a male OB they had never seen before, who introduced himself as Dr. Phelps, came in and looked at the chart, saying, “Right, you’re 37 weeks. It looks like you’ve been in for prodromal labor twice?”

“Plus a third bout at home earlier this week,” Bitty said.

“Well, how about we strip membranes today? It won’t likely put you in labor, but since Dr. Thornton wants to induce you in two weeks, it will make it more likely that your cervix will be ripe enough for that to to work. And a significant percentage of women will go into labor within 2-3 days of membrane stripping, though not the majority.”

“It could make me have the baby sooner?” Theo asked.

“Possibly.”

“What does it mean?” Jack asked.

“I’ll put on a sterile glove and do an exam,” Dr. Phelps said, “And run my finger inside the cervix between the membranes and the uterine wall.”

“Is that safe?” Bitty asked.

“It’s safe enough,” Phelps said. “We do this all the time, and it’s rare to have any complications from it.”

“Will it hurt?” Theo asked.

“It can be uncomfortable,” the doctor said, “But most people tolerate it really well.”

Theo made a face. “I hate exams.”

“It’s up to you,” Jack said.

“I could get this over with sooner?” Theo asked.

“Maybe,” Dr. Phelps said. “If it was my wife, I wouldn’t hesitate.”

“I’m so not your wife,” Theo said.

“You know what I mean,” the doctor said.

Theo sighed. “Do it.”

“Do you need someone to step out?” the doctor asked.

Jack and Bitty looked at each other, and then turned their back to the doctor on either side of Theo, each putting a hand out for him to grasp.

“Right, then. Scoot your butt down to the edge, and put your feet up in the stirrups.”

Theo complied, and the doctor had the nurse bring over a tray with a sterile glove sitting open. A minute later, they heard him say, “You’ll feel a touch.”

Theo grimaced.

“I’m trying to find the cervix,” the doctor said.

Bitty reached up and stroked Theo’s forehead. “Look at me, kiddo. We’ve got you.”

Theo suddenly arched his back and swore.

“Found it,” the doctor said. “Anterior and… 2 cm. Baby’s engaged in the pelvis.”

“Ow, fucking ow,” Theo yelped.

“Do you need him to stop?” Jack asked.

Theo sobbed, his eyes looking wild, and Bitty turned and said, “Get your hand out now or one of us is going to check you into that wall.”

The doctor froze and started to say, “I just need—” when Bitty interrupted and said, “And if you’re lucky, it will be me and not my NHL boyfriend over here. I said, NOW.”

The doctor put his hands up in the air and stepped back. The gloved hand was slightly bloody.

“What the fuck did you do,” Jack said, his voice low and angry.

“That’s normal.”

“Did it occur to you that this child was raped and maybe bloodying him wasn’t worth the trauma?” Jack asked.

“Get out,” Bitty said, helping Theo scoot up on the exam table.

“But…”

“Just get out,” Jack said. “We’re done.”

The doctor threw his glove in the biohazard disposal and walked to the door, then said, “Feel free to let the hospital know to call in the second backup if I’m on call when he goes into labor. I wouldn’t want to traumatize him again.”

There was no rancor in his voice, just resignation.

“He was trying to help,” Theo said.

“It wasn’t worth it.” Bitty untied the gown at the back and then undid the one at the front.

“I really want this baby to come out,” Theo said. “I know there has to be some pain.”

“Not like that,” Jack said.  “That was not ‘uncomfortable,’ that was brutal.”

“Thanks for defending me,” Theo said. “That was pretty badass.”

“No problem,” Jack said.

“I meant Bitty,” Theo said.

Jack gave Bitty a fond smile. “It was, wasn’t it?”

Bitty just shrugged. “Like hell anyone’s going to hurt you that way when it’s not life-and-death necessary.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Theo was crampy for hours after, and Bitty made eggplant parmigiana at Theo’s request. The cramps subsided, and Theo went to bed early.

As they cleaned the kitchen together, Jack said, “That really was hot, earlier. Would you have checked him?”

“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to. I’m glad the Mom Voice worked,” Bitty said.

“It was still really hot,” Jack said, nuzzling from behind while Bitty worked at the sink.

Bitty laughed. “Let me put my towel down, you lecherous man.”

A few hours later, they were sleeping, entwined, when Bitty’s phone buzzed insistently on the nightstand.

Jack reached over and grabbed it without looking and showed it to Bitty, who squinted sleepily at the screen.

Ow. help.

Bitty stumbled into his boxer briefs and was downstairs less than thirty seconds later, still pulling his shirt on. Jack was a few steps behind. They found Theo on his knees on his bed, rocking back and forth.

“It hurts,” he said. “I want Mary.”

Jack was already calling.

“Come on over here, like we practiced,” Bitty said, and reached out to steady Theo.

Theo knelt on the bed in a tank top and boxers, and reached up to put his arms around Bitty’s shoulders. A moment later he tensed, and then sobbed into Bitty’s neck.

“Jack,” Bitty said, “call my mother when you get off the phone with Mary.”

“On it,” Jack said.

Thirty minutes and ten contractions later, Mary used the combination Jack gave her to get the front door open, and found them in Theo’s bedroom. Bitty had started the tub filling, Theo was now hanging on Jack. Mary took one look at Theo and said, “Bitty, please get the other two bags from my trunk, and the O2 cylinder.”

He took the offered key while Mary sat down on the bed next to Theo, waiting for the contraction to end.

When Bitty got back in, Theo was frantic.

“I can’t do this,” he said. “They should just cut it out of me.”

“Sweetie,” Bitty said, “that would hurt a lot. Can we try the tub? We haven’t even tried it at all.”

Jack stepped back a little, bringing Theo with him, and Theo put first one shaking foot on the ground and then the other.

“Each of you on one side,” Mary said, and they slung Theo unevenly between them and helped him stomp his way, one step at a time, to the bathroom.

He climbed into the tub without taking his clothes off, and then stared down. “I’m too hot,” he said, and stripped off the tank top and pushed down his boxers.

“We can cool you off,” Mary said. “Just push the boxers all the way down into the water, we don’t care if they get wet.”

Theo sank into the water, and Mary grabbed a stack of washcloths off the shelf and dunked them unceremoniously into the sink, running cold water. “Bitty, those on the back of his neck, please.”

Bitty obediently drapped a washcloth over the back of Theo’s neck, and yawned.

“Let’s see what the next contraction brings,” Mary said.

“Oh god, that’s better,” Theo said, rolling to let his head loll back against the side of the tub.

Mary smiled. “Your uterus is doing just what it needs to do right now. I can see it lift up from here.”

Theo groaned, but the frantic note was gone. Mary leaned forward and draped one of the cold washcloths across his forehead.

Bitty and Jack were standing awkwardly behind Mary. She turned and said, “Why don’t you two go lie down in the other room? I’ll call you if we need something.”

They dozed lightly for a couple of hours, until Mary called from the bathroom, “Theo’s getting out.”

They rolled off the bed and onto their feet, and back into the bathroom, where Theo was sitting on the toilet. Mary sat in front of the toilet on a short stool with her hand between Theo’s knees holding a small fetal monitor against his belly, talking Theo through the end of a contraction with low, quiet words.

“What do you need us to do?” Jack asked when the contraction ended.

“I mostly need you to be ready,” Mary said. “We might be close.”

“Close,” Bitty said, and then his eyes widened. “Like, baby close?”

“That is what we’re doing here,” Mary said, chuckling at his surprise.

Theo was leaning against the wall next to the toilet, face slack against a towel, apparently asleep.

“That can’t be comfortable,” Jack said.

“Very little about this process is, but it’s actually a really good sign,” Mary said.

“I thought this was supposed to take all day,” Bitty said.

“I’ve seen it take three days and I’ve seen it take less than an hour,” she said. “I don’t guess anymore.”

“Is the baby going to be okay?” Bitty asked.

“Probably. Heart tones are great.” Mary said. “Our odds of transporting are a little higher with a boy, at 37 weeks, but he’ll probably do fine. Oddly enough, stress helps mature lungs, and I think Theo’s had his share of stress these past few months.” Mary watched as Theo’s belly started to tighten, and ran the cool cloth over his forehead. “Nice slow breaths, sweetie. You can do this.”

Theo’s eyes flew open, but they were wild, unfocused. “Breathe with me,” Mary said. “Nice and slow.” She took an exaggerated breath in, and then out, and by the the third breath, Theo was in sync with her, until his breath caught, and Mary looked at Bitty and pointed at her bag in the corner of the bathroom. He brought it over and she pulled out a glove. There was a small pile of used washcloths and towels on the floor next to the tub, and as the contraction ended, Mary said, “Can I help you wipe and then you can go back to the bedroom?”

Theo nodded sleepily, and a moment later, Mary was tossing the washcloth on the pile, and the glove into the garbage. “Okay, boys, now we need you. Jack, I think.”

Jack stepped forward and helped Theo to his unsteady feet.

They made it four steps before the next contraction hit, and Theo was hanging from Jack’s neck, feet wide spread, groaning, his head thrown back.

“Okay, kiddo,” Jack said. “I’m here.”

Theo grunted and then sobbed. “Hard.”

“Mary says it’s almost over,” Jack said.

“I want it oooout,” Theo said, the last word turning into a moaning grunt.

“Let’s get back to the bedroom,” Mary said.

It took another two minutes to actually make the fifteen-foot journey to the side of the bed.

“You sit on the bed,” Mary said to Jack. She put a gardening pad on the floor. “Theo, you can kneel there and lean on Jack.”

Theo went down on one knee and his eyes widened. “Something’s happening.”

“You just opened your pelvis up,” Mary said. “That’s the point.”

“No, you don’t—” Theo rocked forward into Jack’s arms, then pulled back. His breath caught and held and they could see him push with his whole body.

Mary took a flashlight out of her pocket, and shone it on Theo’s bottom. “I can see the baby’s head,” she said. “More gloves, please, Bitty.”

He reached for the bag and was back at her side in a flash. She gloved up, and then sat on her heels, waiting.

“Do we need to be doing anything?” Bitty whispered.

Her voice was low and quiet as she said, “Grab me a clean towel, but mostly we just wait. I can see a little bit of the top of baby’s head, more when he’s pushing. Oh, you should take off your shirt.”

“What?”

“Babies need skin-to-skin contact. You’re probably going to be where the baby ends up about a minute after it comes out. Unless you want to catch?”

His eyes widened. “I don’t… I… What?” He was already shrugging out of his shirt, and grabbing a stack of clean towels.

“I won’t let you drop him, I promise, but it’s worth doing.”

Theo hung there for another minute, one knee up, clinging to Jack’s lap as he sat there, one hand resting lightly on Theo’s head. Then another contraction hit, and a deep, guttural yell came out, and Mary said, “See that? The baby is crowning.”

Bitty looked, and put a hand over his mouth. “I see the baby, Jack. It’s right there.”

Theo yelled again, and Jack held him, and Bitty watched as the baby’s eyes and nose were suddenly visible. Mary had a compress against Theo’s bottom as the head emerged the rest of the way, then turned, and shifted. She said, “Put one hand on the baby’s head, and the other down below.”

Bitty knelt down and a moment later, a slippery little body landed in his hands.

He fumbled a moment and then had it. Had him—a tiny blonde boy, wet curls plastered to his head, skin red and covered with sticky white—cradled in his hands.

“Oh my god,” Bitty said, and looked up at Jack, then down at the baby, bursting into tears as the baby let out a pure, mewling cry. Jack cradled Theo’s head with one hand, supporting Theo with his other arm and his legs, tears streaming down his cheeks as he watched Bitty stare in awe at the little boy in his hands.

Theo hung there on Jack’s lap. “Is it out?”

“He’s here,” Mary said. “You’re almost done. Do you want to see him?” She reached out and helped Theo bring his knee down.

Theo hesitated, and then shook his head. “I… I just want to sleep.”

“Soon, love,” Mary said, watching blood pooling on the white towel between Theo’s knees.

She handed one of the clean towels to Bitty and said, “Wrap that around the both of you, don’t try to clean him, that baby needs to stay warm.”

Bitty turned, and sat on the floor next to Jack’s legs, the baby tucked snug against his chest. He felt Jack’s hand on his hair, and reached one hand up to it.

A few minutes later, Mary reached down and felt the umbilical cord, and said, “I’m going to cut this now, so that everyone has a little bit more freedom of movement.”

She wrapped a bander around the limp, white cord next to the baby’s stomach, and a moment later he was no longer attached to Theo at all.

Bitty climbed carefully to his feet, and sat down next to Jack on the bed, Jack put an arm around Bitty, keeping one hand on Theo, and looked over at the baby. “He’s really, really small,” Jack said.

“Should I put clothes on him?” Bitty asked. “Take him out of here so Theo…”

Mary frowned. “Stay close for now. Theo, I need you to push for me, one more time.”

Theo bore down, and the placenta slid out into the metal bowl Mary held between his knees.

Mary said to Jack, “I’m going to put down some chucks and towels in the bed, and then I’m going to need you to help Theo up into it.” Then she turned to Theo and said, “Sweetie, I know, I know you don’t want to breastfeed, and I know you don’t want to look at the baby. But right now you’re bleeding, and we really need to get that under control. I can give you a shot, but the fastest way to get your body back to where it needs to be is to put the baby to your breast for a few minutes. We’ll do all the holding and helping, and you don’t have to look, but it will help your body get back to normal faster.”

Theo nodded, and Mary threw the sandwich of chuck pad, towel, and chuck pad into the middle of the bed and said, “Okay, Jack, lift.”

Jack stood and just scooped Theo up, and then set him in the middle of the bed.

“That works, too,” Mary said. “Not quite what I had in mind. Bitty, bring the baby over.”

Bitty let go of the baby reluctantly, and the baby made a soft protest at the cool air, and then Mary helped Theo onto his side and put the baby against his skin. The baby bobbed his head and then latched on, and Theo looked down, closed his eyes, put his hand on the child for a moment, and said, “I can’t look at him.”

“You don’t have to. I can do the shot if you need me to,” Mary said.

“No, I can do this,” Theo said. “I just can’t look. He doesn’t feel like mine.”

“I don’t understand how something so perfect can come from such an awful act,” Bitty said quietly to Jack. Then he walked over and sat down on the bed next to Theo, and put a hand on the baby’s head. “I’ll take him, when you’re okay,” he said.

Theo nodded, eyes closed.

“I need to check,” Mary said, and put a hand on Theo’s knee to look between his legs. “Good. Another minute or two and we can stop. Putting the baby to breast will help if the bleeding increases, but if you don’t want to do that, I can give you a shot of Pitocin.”

Theo said, “It’s… something I can do, for now.” Then he looked up at Bitty. “I’m really, really hungry.”

With a last pat on the baby’s head, Bitty hopped off the bed and went to heat up a meal.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Three hours later, Suzanne Bittle pulled into the driveway, let herself into the house, and found Jack sitting with his back against Theo’s headboard—with Theo sound asleep to his left—looking down at Bitty, who was curled up around the baby, stroking his face while the midwife cleaned. Theo was under a comforter, Bitty and Jack were still dressed in their boxer briefs, shirtless.

“Do you need help?” Suzanne asked Mary quietly.

“I’m fine,” Mary said. “Go meet your grandbaby.”

Suzanne looked at the expression on Bitty’s face, and on Jack’s, and sighed. “That does seem likely, doesn’t it?”

She thumbed her phone unlocked and dialed without looking. A moment later, she said, “When you’re right, you’re right. You best come.”

Chapter Text

Mary stayed for a while. Once she was sure that Theo’s bleeding was at normal levels, she checked the baby out from head to toe in another room.

Jack and Bitty and Suzanne watched as she spread a receiving blanket on the couch in the den. Jack had his camera, finally, and pants, and he snapped pictures without looking at the screen as Bitty, wearing shorts and an open button-down short sleeved shirt, leaned in close to look at the baby.

“All fingers and toes accounted for,” Mary said, hands moving over the baby’s body. “He’s certainly not overcooked, but he’s breathing well, and he’s been holding his temperature well. Hips are nicely balanced, suck is good.” The baby peed into the air, and she laughed. “Kidneys are working.” She felt the baby’s belly, and then drew the sides of the blanket up, at which point they noticed rings on the edges of the flannel blanket, which she hooked onto a gadget, and then lifted the baby, blanket and all.

“Six pounds seven ounces,” she said. “Nice size for a 37-weeker. Anyone got a diaper?”

Jack said, “Upstairs, I’ll get it.”

“Get the whole bag,” Bitty said.

“Does the baby have a name?” Mary asked.

Bitty blinked. “Um, whose job is that?”

“Theo has a right to name the baby, but if the baby is going to be adopted, the adoptive parents will also be able to name him when the adoption is final.”

“He… The… He can’t name the baby, can he?”

Mary shrugged. “He’d have to sue to do it, and someone would have to tell him the baby is born.”

“Doesn’t it go in the paper?” Suzanne asked.

“Not if we don’t tell the paper. We will file for the birth certificate, but they’re not married, and he won’t be automatically put on the birth certificate. Given his situation, I don’t think the court is going to worry too much about his ‘rights’.”

“So we ask Theo when he wakes up,” Bitty said.

Suzanne took the diaper bag from Jack, looked inside, pulled out a package of newborn disposables, and handed them to Bitty. She held the diaper bag up and then laughed. “Of course, of course y’all have a Falcs diaper bag.”

“It was in the stuff George sent over,” Bitty said, sliding the diaper under the baby’s butt, bringing it up in front, turning it down to avoid the umbilicus, and then bringing the tabs across.

“You just know how to do that?” Jack said.

“Practice,” Bitty said. “Do we need to swab the cord?” He picked the baby up and held the child against his chest.

Mary shook her head. “Leave it alone. Damp washcloth if it’s yucky. Air dry often.”

“Are you going to clean him?” Suzanne said, looking at the white vernix that coated the insides of the baby’s elbows and the backs of his knees.

“In a day or two,” Mary said. “Right now the vernix is helping to protect his skin. You have formula?”

Bitty nodded. “Three kinds, just in case.”

“I’d rather see him skin-to-skin than dressed, but make sure he’s not getting chilled. If you’re using AC, keep it a couple degrees warmer than you normally would. Do you have a sling?”

Bitty said, “Jack, hold the baby,” and Jack set the camera down, gingerly taking the diapered newborn from Bitty.

Bitty held out his hands for the diaper bag. Suzanne gave it to him, and he reached down into the bottom of the bag, pulling out a dense roll of fabric. He took off his shirt, then unfurled the long length of cloth, and found the center tag, then stared at it for a long moment, closed his eyes, and wrapped it around himself.

“Down the front,” Suzanne reminded him.

“Right,” he said, dropping the tails down the front, crossing them, tying them behind his back and then spreading everything out. “It’s been a few years.”

He shrugged back into the shirt, but didn’t button it. “Gimme,” he said to Jack, who was standing with the baby cradled in one arm. Jack looked at the baby, and then curiously at the contraption on Bitty’s front, and then leaned forward so Bitty could reach the baby.

Bitty put the baby up on his shoulder, pulled the fabric down, and slid the baby down to the middle of his chest. “Hey, this is like nothing compared to the twins.”

Jack snapped a picture. “I’m so tempted to send this to group chat.”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” Mary said. “Until the baby is adopted, I wouldn’t let a picture of that child leave your camera.”

“I said, tempted,” Jack said. “This isn’t my first potential media circus.”

“Have you called your mother?” Suzanne asked.

“They’re on their way,” Jack said. “They’ll be here in… What time is it, anyway?”

“Baby was born at 5:23 am,” Mary said. “It’s been what, four hours?”

“They should be in Boston in another four hours,” Jack said. “Would have been sooner, but it’s a Friday and the flights were packed.”

“That’s close to when your daddy gets in, Bitty,” Suzanne said. “Jack, can your parents drive him down?”

Jack sent leaned over and picked up his phone from the coffee table. “I’ll send them a text.”

“Did you call George yet?” Suzanne asked.

Jack blinked. “Er. No. Right.”

Bitty looked down at the fuzzy head of the baby on his chest, and said, “Shouldn’t he be hungry?”

“Offer him something soon,” Mary said. “He did nurse twice already. I need to check on Theo. But babies only drink drops this young. He’s got no stomach capacity yet.”

“Have you slept?” Suzanne asked.

“No,” Jack said, at the same time as Bitty said, “I’m really not tired.”

“He wouldn’t close his eyes,” Jack said.

“He’s hardly had them open,” Bitty said.

“I meant you. You could have been asleep when Suzanne got here.”

“I was looking at him,” Bitty said. “He’s really an exceptionally pretty baby.”

Suzanne looked between the two of them, and said, “So, does this mean you’re thinking about keeping him?”

“Where else would he go?” Bitty said. “Everything’s up in the air.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Sugar, I know smitten when I see it, and you are smitten with that baby.”

“I need to make a pie,” Bitty said. “And a bottle.”

“Let me get the bottle,” Jack said. “Suzanne, you want to show me?”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty had moved on from pie and had two batches of bread dough rising, a pot of soup on the stove, and three different kinds of muffins in the oven by the time the rest of the parents arrived. Suzanne was napping on the couch.

Jack had coaxed the baby away from Bitty in the guise of getting a lesson in using the baby carrier, but Bitty kept interrupting his baking to come over and drape himself over Jack’s shoulder to look at the little boy, nestled on Jack’s bare chest. Bitty swiped the camera to grab a picture when Jack got up to rinse the bottle out, and said, “Honey, the slacks with no shirt and baby look really works for you. I highly recommend it.”

“Really,” Jack said, amused, and sat back down with his book and a piece of pie.

“I’m going to take some food to Theo,” Bitty said. “While I’m bereft of baby.”

“I’ll give him back if you insist,” Jack said. “I just wanted you to have your hands free.”

“That is the whole point of the carrier,” Bitty said. “But that,” he gestured up and down at Jack’s whole self, “is ridiculously hot, so I’m torn.” He made a sandwich and put that, a piece of pie, and a large glass of milk on a tray.

Jack laughed. “Do you like all babies this much? Or me with a baby? Or this baby in particular?”

Bitty set the tray down and stood leaning against the counter with both hands, staring at the flecks in the granite. “Jack, he landed in my hands. He looked at me. I was the first thing he saw in this whole world. When I put him on my chest, he stopped crying like he knew I was home. And you—you’re my forever, and I don’t know how this is going to go and I don’t know what we’re going to do but… Yeah, I like babies. But this is so far beyond, ‘Yeah, I like babies,’ that I don’t even know where to start.”

“We’ll figure it out.” Jack stood up and came over and caught Bitty in a gentle, angled hug, careful not to squish the baby between them. Bitty leaned in against Jack’s chest, and stroked the tiny head.

They were still standing like that a few minutes later, when the front door opened.

Alicia was the first down the stairs from the landing, and her hands came up to her mouth, seeing them there. “Oh my god,” she said, rushing down the stairs. “Oh…”

Bitty looked up, and said, “Aren’t my boys beautiful?”

Alicia set her things down on the dining room table and came over to where they were standing. One hand went up to Jack’s cheek, the other to the fluffy blonde head sticking out of the top of the baby carrier. Her mouth kept moving, but no sound was coming out, except little whispered, “I… you…” She spared a hand for Bitty’s cheek too, and said, “I just don’t… How… Can I see him?”

Jack pulled back the fabric to show more of the baby’s face. He was a little less red than he’d been at first, and his hair had dried into tiny blond curls. He had a tiny, turned up, wide nose, and it was hard to tell whether his skin had much pigment or was just flushed from being brand new. His eyes were wide open, and a deep slate blue so dark they were almost black.

Bob stood at the top of the stairs, next to Coach, and they looked at each other, and then down to where the boys were standing with Alicia.

Coach sighed. “Yep. Called it.”

Bob snorted. “I didn’t take that bet.” They started down the stairs.

Coach looked over to the couch, where his wife was lying down, clearly not asleep. She looked up at him, and sighed, and shook her head with a small smile.

Mary came from the hallway, and said to Bitty, “Theo’s awake.”

“Right,” he said. “I’ve got a tray. I’ll take it…”

Suzanne sat up. “I’ll take it to him.”

“Are you sure, Mama?” Bitty said. “I want to see how he’s doing.”

“I think I should,” Suzanne said. “You can come in in a little bit.”

“In that case,” Bitty said, “Can I have the baby back?”

“What needs doing in the kitchen?” Jack asked.

“Nothing I can’t do with a baby,” Bitty said.

“We’re definitely going to need another of these,” Jack said, pointing to the baby carrier.

“Can I… Can I hold him?” Alicia said.

“That would actually help while we’re getting him moved over here,” Bitty said.

It was another half hour before Bitty managed to reclaim the baby, as he was passed from Alicia, to Bob, and finally to Coach.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Theo was lying on his side staring at the partially-colored mural in his bedroom when Suzanne came in with the laden tray.

“I can’t call you pumpkin anymore,” Suzanne said.

“Maybe zucchini?” Theo suggested.

“How do you feel, darling?” Suzanne asked.

“Weird,” Theo said. “Like I should be doing something. Like I got run over by a truck. Like something is missing. Like a giant weight got taken away. Really, really gross on every level.”

“Sounds pretty normal, actually,” Suzanne said, setting the tray down on the side table. “Hungry?”

Theo shifted up to sitting. “God, yes.”

“I think… Mary’s going to need a name for the birth certificate.”

“I can’t,” Theo said. “Let Bitty and Jack name him.”

“They might be falling in love with that baby,” Suzanne said, gently. “If they name him, it will be harder for them to let him go if he goes to an adoptive family.”

“I… They’re so good with him,” Theo said. “I just don’t know if I can… I thought this was going to be home, but I can’t even look at him.”

“You don’t have to decide right now,” Suzanne said. “And there are so many, many choices to be made. You’re going to be really busy during the school year.”

“So’s Bitty,” Theo said, taking the plate of sandwich and taking a bite. “So’s Jack,” he said after he swallowed. “You know, I nursed the baby.”

“How did that feel?” Suzanne asked.

“Like nothing at all. Like something happening to someone else,” Theo said. “I feel like a child should probably have more than I could possibly give them. And I only did that because I didn’t want to go in to the hospital and I didn’t want more pain.”

“The baby really isn’t your problem,” Suzanne said. “Not right now. You can sign guardianship papers Monday. Until then, there will be six adults in this house, all of whom are more than happy to dote on him.”

“Will anyone still dote on me?” Theo asked, his voice flatter than the words he was saying.

“Sweetie, oh honey,” Suzanne said. “I’m here for you as much as for the baby. They didn’t take you in because they wanted your child, they took you in because they wanted to help you. If you wanted to move to Montreal, if we could get the paperwork dealt with, Alicia and Bob have already offered to take you. The only reason that Eric Senior and I haven’t is that the town we live in, while pretty good by Georgia standards, is nothing like what you need medically, educationally, or socially. And I know there are other people you’ve connected with as well.”

“I really want to see George,” Theo said. “I got into a good school for next year.”

“Good,” Suzanne said. “You deserve it. And I think George is headed over after work.”

Theo put the plate down and said, “Can I get a shower first? I didn’t know it was possible to feel this gross. Everything’s squishy.”

Suzanne nodded. “Let me check with Mary.”

Suzanne and Mary helped Theo to the long bench of the walk-in shower. “They really gave you the nicest bathroom,” Mary said. “I’ve had more moms faint during their first shower.” She held the spray for Theo, who leaned against the wall, watching blood run down the drain.

“Is it always this gory?” Theo asked.

“Usually,” Mary said. “Some worse than others. You’d have less bleeding if you were nursing more, but I’ve seen plenty of women bleed more.”

“I… I think it’s probably better for the baby to look at someone adoring him when he’s eating than to nurse when I can’t even look at him.” Theo said. “My butt hurts.”

“Did he tear?” Suzanne asked Mary.

“No,” Mary said.

“Tear?” Theo said, looking back and forth between them. “That can happen?”

“You were in a good position,” Mary said.

“I don’t think I’ve been naked in front of that many people in my life,” Theo said. “Why doesn’t it feel weird? Bitty and Jack didn’t even seem to notice, and I know Bitty had to be staring at my butt.”

“There was a baby coming out of it,” Mary said. “I think he was pretty focused on that. And most of my clients don’t have much modesty during the birth and a few days after. Trust me that no one is judging you for it.”

Theo closed his eyes and leaned back. “Is it normal to be this tired? I want to get out.”

“Absolutely,” Mary said, turning off the water and helping Theo to his feet while Suzanne dried him off. “You should sleep a lot the next couple days. I’d like someone to stay with you most of the time, and they should call me if you’re not feeling well or have any questions at all. I’ll be checking on you and the baby tomorrow. We’ve got forty days to register the birth, but it will be easier to get him insured and whatnot if we get it done within the next week, so I’ll check in with you tomorrow and if you aren’t ready then, we can work on the birth certificate on Monday when I come.”

“I don’t have to go to the hospital?” Theo said.

“Nope. You don’t even have to go back to the doctor’s office unless you really want to. If you want to sign a waiver, I can talk to your worker, so they don’t get excited at DCYF.”

Suzanne helped him into a t-shirt, and Mary offered a Depends.

“Shit, what’s that?” Theo asked. “A diaper?”

“Honestly, it will be more comfortable for the next 24 hours,” Mary said. “The alternative is a pad this long,” she held out her hands, “and this thick.”

Theo flinched, and then leaned heavily on them while stepping in. “Is my belly going to stop being so… squishy?”

“Eventually, probably, if you exercise,” Mary said.

“I’m not sure people are allowed to live here if they don’t exercise,” Theo said. “They exercise, like, all the time.”

“It’s Jack’s job,” Suzanne said. “And Bitty’s a high-level college player himself.”

“I’d like to see that,” Theo said.

“I’ve got recordings,” Suzanne said.

“I want you to rest as much as possible for the next week, minimum,” Mary said. “If your bleeding picks up, you’re doing too much. It usually takes anywhere from two to six weeks for your uterus to heal, and up to a year or more to really feel 100%.”

“I just want to be done,” Theo said. “When does this all stop?”

“Monday’s going to be hard,” Mary said. “Your milk will come in, nursing or no. Your breasts will hurt. You’ll probably feel pretty sick for a couple days while they adapt. Your emotions are going to be all over the place because of the hormone changes. Not nursing the baby, your body will go through a kind of physical grief, and you may have a lot of emotional storms around that. Put cabbage in a bra and don’t bind your chest tightly.”

“I don’t even own a bra right now,” Theo said.

“Suzanne, can you pick up a sports bra?”

Suzanne nodded.

“The cabbage will keep things more comfortable. If you don’t nurse and don’t pump, it should take a couple days for the pain to subside.”

“If I do nurse or pump?” Theo asked.

“It will hurt less but take longer. Stopping lactation before a couple years is usually uncomfortable unless it’s extremely gradual. You could pump, but it’s a time commitment, and can feel invasive. Also, it tends to keep your breasts large.”

“They’ll get smaller?” Theo asked.

“Monday, they will be shockingly huge,” Mary said. “When your body gets the message, they should go back down to about where they used to be.”

Theo flopped down onto the bed, and then winced. “I just want this all to stop.”

“If you don’t nurse, and you get a lot of rest, and you don’t overdo, the worst should be over by next Friday or Saturday. If you keep things low-key for the following week, you’ll probably be fine by the time school starts. But you essentially have an open wound on your uterus right now, that is being held shut by your own muscles, and when you get too tired, those muscles don’t work very well and the wound opens up and you bleed more. I cannot overstate how important it is that you rest.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” Theo said, with a sloppy salute.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Mary left not long after, and Suzanne left Theo asleep to bring the dishes back out to the kitchen.

“Alright, my dears, we need to sit down and figure things out,” Suzanne said, setting the dishes down and holding out her hands for the baby. Bitty stopped fussing at the cooling racks and pulled the fabric back to ease the baby out.

They walked over to the den, where Jack was showing off the several hundred pictures he’d taken in the previous five hours.

“I want a copy of that one,” Coach said, pointing to one of Bitty staring into the baby’s wide-open eyes.

“Look,” Suzanne said. “Actual baby.”

She sat down next to Coach, and Bitty sat down next to her on the long sectional.

“So,” she said, “Theo wants you boys to name the baby.”

Bitty blinked and looked at Jack, then said, “We hadn’t talked about it.”

“And the big question right now is whether you are going to be a temporary haven for this child, or whether he’s going to be yours.”

Bitty looked down at his hands, and then at the baby, and then at Jack.

Jack said, “Seems to me the hard part is going to happen here, one way or another. I mean, we don’t even know if he’ll be available for adoption within the next year.”

“I can talk to the…” Suzanne stopped. “I don’t even want to call him ‘father’, and sperm donor is a nauseating concept under the circumstances. Either way.”

“It just seems like a really enormous thing to be doing your senior year,” Alicia said to Bitty. “Don’t you start next week?”

“Week after,” Bitty said.

“I don’t start playing again until September,” Jack said.

“Bob and I have cleared our schedules,” Alicia said. “We can certainly stay until the baby is old enough for daycare.”

“How old is that?” Bitty asked.

“Six weeks is the usual minimum,” Suzanne said. She pulled out her phone, and thumbed her way to the calendar. “September 9. If I could, I’d stay, but classes start this Friday in our district. I really should be there Monday unless I’m taking a leave of absence.”

“You don’t need to,” Alicia said. “I’m happy to stay, and it would be good to spend time with the boys.”

“I’m more worried about Theo,” Suzanne said. “He needs a lot of TLC right now, and I’m worried about how the blues are going to hit him.”

Alicia sighed. “I actually have a fair amount of experience with dealing with that kind of crisis. And postpartum depression.”

Suzanne met Alicia’s gaze, then nodded and looked at Bitty. “You’re going to need to seriously think about whether you’re going to be able to let go if the baby is freed for adoption. Because you may have to choose between keeping the baby and keeping Theo. And I don’t know what the right answer is going to be there.”

“The baby should have his own name,” Jack said, changing the subject.

“Of course?” Bitty said, confused.

“I mean, we don’t know if we’re keeping him. We shouldn’t use family names.”

“I wouldn’t do Eric Richard Bittle the Third,” Bitty said. “I don’t mind being a Junior, but it’s a lot of weight to carry, for any baby.”

“And as much as I love our dads,” Jack said, “naming a child after family seems just as… weighty.”

They all stared at the baby, who was currently sleeping in Suzanne’s lap, head in her hands, resting on her thighs. He seemed oblivious.

“I need to make a list,” Bitty said, and stood up. He disappeared into the office near the kitchen.

Jack stood up and went to the island in the kitchen, and brought back his laptop.

“How do you name a baby, anyway?” he asked no one in particular, sitting down in the seat Bitty had vacated.

“Jack was the only thing we could agree on, and Laurent was after your grandfather,” Alicia said.

“We took the easy way out,” Coach said. “It was her idea.”

Jack peered at the baby, thoughtfully. “So, who are you, little one?”

“Sir Sleepsalot,” Bob said.

“We are not naming the baby ‘Sir Sleepsalot’,” Jack said sternly, pulling up a baby naming site on his laptop.

_x_ _x_ _x_

They didn’t name the baby that day. They did, however, start a group chat of just Ransom, Holster, Shitty, Lardo, Jack, and Bitty, to let the others know the baby was born.

JZ: Baby boy, 6 pounds 7 oz, 5:23 am
Shitty: !!!! DEETS
Holster: Bro, you sure you want those?
Lardo: Still at the hospital?
ERB: We didn’t end up going
Ransom: what
JZ: A CPM came to the house, T didn’t want to leave. Bits caught the baby.
Holster: !!!
Shitty: fuuuuuuuck
Lardo: SKYPE NOW
Ransom: what

The Skype group call took a couple minutes to get organized, mostly due to a truly astonishing diaper that delayed both Jack and Bitty and required multiple interventions from their parents as they were introduced to the conjoined concepts of “meconium” and “this is why babies have so many onesies.”

But finally they gathered around Jack’s laptop in the den, and Ransom and Holster appeared in another window, and Shitty and Lardo in a third.

“Wait, where’s the kid?” Holster asked.

“Before we show you,” Jack said, “No screenshots. We’re not putting his picture anywhere until the legal side of things is finalized.”

“Wait, are you going to adopt him?” Lardo asked. “I thought this was going to be a temporary thing.”

“Wherever he ends up,” Bitty said firmly. “Whether with us or someone else, we need to keep things really private. If the wrong people know who has him or where he is, it could be a real hassle.”

“Bro, tell us about catching the baby,” Shitty said.

“I want to see the kid,” Holster said.

Bitty shook his head and laughed and turned to Suzanne, who handed the baby down.

Bitty carefully held him up, and the baby tucked his chin down, stuck his lips out, and squinted skeptically at the screen.

Ransom was the first to speak. “Oh. My. God.”

The baby yawned.

Shitty stared in disbelief. “That is a tiny human.”

The baby looked supremely bored, and his eyes drifted shut.

“Bro. My bros. Little bro. I…” Shitty burst into tears. Lardo looked up at him in disbelief.

Shitty pointed at the screen. “That’s a tiny human being right there, and someone put Jack Zimmermann in charge of it.”

“Hey,” Jack said. “I’ve changed a diaper. I’ve fed a bottle. The baby likes me. And besides, Bits is definitely in charge.”

Shitty sniffled. “Oh, well, of course, that’s fine then, are you KIDDING me? We are in no way old enough for that much responsibility.”

Suzanne leaned down into the frame, “Coach and I were younger when we had Bitty than Jack is now.”

Shitty stuck his fingers in his ears and said, “Lalalalalalala, I can’t hear you.”

“Don’t mind him,” Lardo said. “He’s just having an existential crisis and confronting his impending adulthood and real responsibility. Law school’s a bitch. Oh, sorry, Mrs. B.”

“Note that she didn’t apologize to you,” Bob said to Alicia.

“I went to college,” Alicia said. “And I’m pretty sure Lardo has heard me swear at games.”

“For the record,” Suzanne said, “y’all are adults, and allowed to use adult language, and my poor Southern Belle ears are in no way that fragile.”

“But back up,” Ransom said. “Bitty caught the baby? How the heck did that happen?”

“I’m still not quite sure,” Bitty said. “Mary, that’s the midwife, I was next to her, and she just said, ‘Put one hand here, and the other here,’ and the next thing I knew I was trying not to fumble a very slippery infant.” He stopped talking for a minute, and brought the baby in, cradled to his chest, and looked down at said infant, smiling. He sighed. “It was amazing. Lord, y’all, you don’t even know.”

Holster and Ransom looked at each other, and at Bitty, and then Holster said, “You imprinted on that baby like a mother duck, didn’t you?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the ducklings that do the imprinting,” Ransom said.

“Nuh-uh, look at Bits’ face.” Holster said. “That’s the face of someone who just fell head over heels for a tiny larval human.”

They spent the next ten minutes arguing over whether the baby was a larval human or a pupal human, while Jack and Bitty ignored them completely to comment on the truly epic series of half-asleep faces the baby was making, including a frown worthy of Grumpy Cat followed by a broad, toothless, sleepy grin.

Shitty just stared at them the whole time, and Lardo finally said, “It’s not an insect, it’s a kid, and it’s an eighteen-year commitment, well, more if the kid is anything like you layabouts, and how the hell is Theo taking all this?”

“Theo’s asleep right now,” Suzanne said. “He’s really tired, and really overwhelmed, and isn’t sure what comes next, but no one is throwing Theo to the wolves just because the baby is cute. He doesn’t want to see the baby.”

“That’s going to be difficult if the baby lives there,” Lardo said.

“He is awfully cute,” Holster said. “Does he have a name yet? Or is that top secret?”

Jack and Bitty looked at each other, and Bitty said, “Um, we’re taking that under advisement.”

“Wait, you get to name him?” Shitty said.

“Maybe temporarily,” Jack said. “We need something for the birth certificate.”

“What’s Theo’s last name?” Lardo asked.

“Burton, but we’re not sure Theo’s going to even want to use that.”

“What else would he use?” Shitty asked, and then said, “Oh, you’re thinking maybe Zimmermann? Or Bittle? Or Zimmerbittle?”

“I wouldn’t use Zimmermann,” Jack said. “I’m probably going to take Bittle myself when we get married, and use just use Zimmermann professionally, for privacy purposes.”

Bitty stared at him, slack-jawed, and Shitty and Holster both burst out laughing at the look on his face.

“I take it you didn’t consult Bitty about that?” Lardo said, trying not to laugh.

“Clever,” Bob said. “Don’t blame you a bit.”

Coach put a hand on Jack’s shoulder, and said, “Welcome to it, son.”

“I love being your son,” Jack said, looking up at his father, “but the name took on a life of its own, and I don’t want to saddle a kid with the same expectations.”

“No, I understand,” Bob said. “Besides, if you took the last name Bittle, you could name the baby ‘Borton Oxford’... wait, no, ‘Bickford Owen’. No, that’s not right. ‘Byron Oliver’?”

Holster twigged to what he was doing first. “No, oh my god, you can name him ‘Birkholtz Oluranski’!”

“What?” Bitty said. “Why…”

“Brian Oscar!” Bob said, triumphant.

Shitty paled. “No. Not Brian.”

Ransom squinted at him. “Bro…”

“Bob, you are not going to get them to give the child a name that has the initials ‘BOB’,” Alicia said. “It is not going to happen.”

“Why not ‘Brian’, Shitty? Perfectly good name…” Ransom said, a sly grin starting to pull at his mouth.

Holster cocked his head, and then laughed. “Dude, really? What the hell is wrong with ‘Brian’ that you’d have to hide it all these years?”

Shitty put his face in his hands, and mumbled, “Tell them.”

Lardo put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “They can drop it if you want.”

He shook his head, still covering his face. “Just tell them.”

Lardo sighed. “His full name is Brian Shipton Knight. And some of the basketball team at Andover got mad because he blew a curve on a test or three, so they started calling him ‘Brain’. For years. Then someone found out about his middle name and started calling him ‘Shit for Brains.’ And ‘Bullshit’ because of the initials.”

“I took Shitty for my nickname as an act of self-defense at Johnson’s suggestion senior year of high school,” Shitty said.

The rest of the guys were quiet for a moment, and then Jack said, “Right, so not Brian. And no, the baby’s not going to have initials that spell something, so you can just stop that right now, Papa.”

“We’ve got a few days. It’s not like I’m going to use his name anyway,” Bitty said. “Isn’t that right, sweetpea?”

“I’ve been logging the nicknames,” Jack said. “So far, the kid is what, twelve hours old? And we’ve had Sweetpea, Darling, Sugar, Snookerbaby, Pudding, Gumdrop, and at least six varieties of pumpkin, puppy, kitten, three different kinds of rodent, and at least four other flavors of candy.”

“I didn’t know there were six varieties of pumpkin,” Holster said. “Please elaborate.”

Bitty rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Jack laughed and said, “Sugar Pie, Sweet Dumpling, Sugar Loaf, Buttercup, and my favorite, Baby Boo.”

“I didn’t even know that was a pumpkin,” Bitty said.

“I started cross-checking. That’s why I said at least.”

“That’s only five,” Shitty said.

“Oh, he’s just called him Pumpkin at least three times,” Jack said.

“You missed three varieties when you were out of the room,” Suzanne said. “Small Wonder, Sunshine, and Baby Bear.”

“I swear to God I did not know those were pumpkins,” Bitty said.

“Still, worrying about the child’s name when you’re never going to use it seems a little premature,” Jack said.

“There’s a pumpkin called the ‘Red Warty Thing’,” Ransom offered, looking at a browser window on his laptop.

“We are not putting ‘Red Warty Thing Bittle’ on the birth certificate, have you lost your mind?” Bitty said. “Besides, this is a gorgeous baby. He’s the prettiest baby I’ve ever seen, and I babysat for years.”

“They’re chirping you, Bits,” Lardo said. “Though he is still kind of red and squashy.”

Holster peered over Ransom’s shoulder at the pumpkin variety list. “Hey, when he’s eating, you can call him Snack Jack!”

Bitty closed his eyes and shook his head and covered the baby’s ears. “Don’t listen,” he said. “They’re just chirping.”

Jack said, “If you have any actual ideas about baby names, text them to us.” He started to lean forward to disconnect the call.

“Wait,” Shitty said. “When can we come see you? And the kid?”

Bitty looked up. “We’ll be at Samwell in two weeks, I think.”

“Two weeks?” Shitty said. “That’s… No. How about Sunday?”

“Don’t make me use your full name,” Bitty said. “This baby needs to be at least a week old before we have any more visitors.”

“So, a week from Saturday,” Shitty said.

Bitty sighed. “Okay.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

George showed up just after dinner, with a Falcs onesie and a bouquet of balloons. “Put them in the nursery,” she said. “Not where Theo will see them.” She looked the baby over thoughtfully, said, “Cute kid,” and then, “Where’s Theo?”

“I’ll show you,” Suzanne said. “I need to take him some food anyway. He’s been asleep.”

George followed her back to Theo’s bedroom and waited while Suzanne knocked. When they opened the door, Theo was sitting up in the bed, staring at one of the coloring walls, looking miserable.

“Could you give us a minute?” George asked Suzanne, holding out her hands for the tray.

Suzanne gave George a long, considering look and nodded. “Just holler if you need me.”

George set the tray down on the desk, took a plate off of it, and brought it over. “Bitty’s cooking, I’m sure it’s outstanding,” she said, pulling the desk chair over.

Theo took it, and started eating. “It’s all right,” he said.

“Rough day?” George asked.

“It was… I don’t know what it was,” Theo said. “I felt out of control, like my body wasn’t mine. But like, on my own terms? I just had a giant thing come out of a very small place, and my whole body is weird and gross and different…”

He stopped talking for a moment and took a few more bites. She waited.

“It wasn’t as bad as I was afraid it would be, after the doctor… I mean, it might have hurt more at the time? But it didn’t feel the same kind of wrong, and it wasn’t someone doing something to me, for once, but my body doing something to get rid of the problem.”

“How do you feel?” George asked.

“I don’t feel anything right now,” Theo said. “It’s actually kind of scary, except I’m not feeling afraid. Like, I want to say I feel angry, but I don’t. Or sad. Or hurt. But mostly I’m just tired. Like I should feel so many things, and I’m just… done. Empty.”

George listened, and then sat in silence while Theo picked up his plate and started eating again. Finally, she said, “I don’t think there’s a way you’re supposed to feel right now. Like, almost any emotion you might name, wouldn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t surprise me that after so much hurt for so long, you might be numb.”

“It’s not even that,” Theo said. “Like, numb you can feel. This is nothing. I don’t… I don’t feel like I belong here. But I don’t belong anywhere else either.”

“You belong in school, in the fall,” George said. “And Jack and Bitty care so much about you. This whole family does.”

“I… I know they do, but they can’t… He’s little. They’re going to have to put him first. I’m going to have to choose between staying in my room all the time or going out and seeing this reminder of something I really want to forget. He deserves to be his own person, not my bad memory. I think they love him, or could love him, and if I could feel anything, it would be anger that anyone could love something that represents so much pain. But he’s a small human being and he didn’t create the situation, and he can’t help who he is any more than I can. Intellectually, I want him to be cared for, loved, parented better than I ever was. But part of me can’t understand how anyone could forgive enough to get past how he was made.”

“You can’t help your feelings,” George said. “And you don’t have to try. It’s okay to be really angry.”

“But I’m not,” Theo said. “I just feel like I ought to be. Mostly I want to sleep until it all goes away.”

“Theo, can I see if a counselor I know is willing to come and talk with you?”

Theo shrugged. “I… Do you really think it would help?”

“You’ve been in crisis mode for two months,” George said. “It’s probably time to start working on healing.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

George took the plates out half an hour later, and Alicia got up to go sit with Theo.

“You know this isn’t sustainable,” George said to Jack, sitting at the dining table.

“I think we can manage the baby’s care, and Theo’s…” Jack said.

“Theo is going to end up feeling like a second-class citizen, a prisoner in that gorgeous bedroom,” George said. “We can probably find someone to take the baby, if you want, but I think that I want to talk to Erin and see if she’s willing for us to have Theo move into our condo. We’re right by the school, and there are no babies in the house, and it would let him have a fresh start.”

Jack looked over at the kitchen, where Bitty was laughing with his mother, one hand absently on the baby’s head, and he sighed heavily, leaned forward, and put his head in his hands, elbows on the table. “Shit,” he said.

“You can keep the guardianship,” George said. “But if Erin says yes, then as soon as Theo’s up to moving, he can come.”

“Fuck,” Jack said. “Bitty’s going to be… Have you talked to Theo about the possibility, yet?”

“Jack, he is so shut down right now. You need to keep someone with him until we can figure something out, because I’m afraid the minute he stops being tired, he’s going to be suicidal.”

“You’ve seen it before,” Jack said.

“You’ve lived it before,” she said. “He feels trapped right now.”

Jack’s face went bone white. “Osti d’crisse de tabarnak, of course he does. We’ve been so busy, of fucking course he would… Shit…” His body went numb, his hands tingling, starting to shake.

George’s eyes widened. “Bob,” she said, raising her voice enough to carry over to the end of the sectional where Bob and Coach had been chatting.

Bitty was there before Bob, handing the baby to Suzanne without a word. He sat down and took one of Jack’s hands in one motion, the other going up to Jack’s brow. “Sweetheart, breathe for me,” Bitty said. “Listen to my breath. Follow along. You know what’s happening. You know why. You know we’ll solve it. Follow my breath.”

Jack followed his breath—slow, square breathing, in, hold, out, hold—raggedly, for a few minutes, while Bob sat on his other side, a hand on his shoulder.

When the pressure on his chest felt merely heavy and not obliterating, he said, “Bits, I don’t know if we can solve this.”