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take everything for what it is and never try to change it

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Bitty has never really liked New Year’s Eve. As a holiday, it never seems to live up to anyone’s expectations. There is no special meal to prepare like Christmas and Thanksgiving, there are no presents, and the associated decorations are, frankly, gaudy. He does quite like fireworks, but the Fourth of July has fireworks as well, and it also has a barbecue. At New Year’s, people only seem to want finger food. What’s more is that New Year’s traditions have a way of never working out. Despite several years of making resolutions, the only one Bitty has ever been motivated to keep was last year’s Better Booty Bureau – and that was a special circumstance. There’s also that other New Year’s tradition. The midnight kiss.

 

Truthfully, it’s not something Bitty had ever thought on before. It wasn’t like he grew up pining and self-pitying about not being able to kiss someone at midnight. Also, New Year’s Eve parties were mostly family affairs, and so none of his cousins had anyone to kiss either. He wasn’t missing out, really. But this year… he’d be lying if he didn’t acknowledge that something felt distinctly different. The concept of Jack looms in the back of his mind, reminding him that there is someone who wants to kiss him (Jack even told him as much – “I’ll be thinking of you at midnight,” he’d said). But also some of the cousins have brought along girlfriends or boyfriends. Girlfriends or boyfriends who apparently have met the family before.

 

A small part in the back of Bitty’s mind constructs a scene in which cousin Sandra asks, “Eric, you didn’t bring a nice college girl home with you?” and he says, “Actually Sandra, my significant other is spending New Year’s with his family in Montreal. You remember him from Fourth, don’t you?”

 

A person dropping heavily onto the sofa next to him startles him out of his daze. He clutches his can of coke to his chest and looks over, aware that he’s radiating with guilt.

“What’s got you so smiley, Dicky?” Travis is a slightly older cousin on the Phelps side, who is also slightly larger than Bitty, and right now slightly drunk.

“Oh. Hi, hello. Travis. Nothing, I was just. Thinking.”

 

Travis is a ‘wink-nudge’ kind of guy. This is what he does now; wink exaggeratedly, nudge overzealously. Bitty forces out a chuckle and takes a steeling swig of his coke. He wishes it were something stronger, even if that something stronger were terrible keg beer.

“I know that look, Dicky. That’s a thinkin’ ‘bout a girl look.”

And just like that, it’s the moment. The moment where Bitty could turn a resolute smile on his cousin and say in a bright voice, “Actually, it’s a thinkin’ ‘bout a boy look.” What he does instead is chuckle again, and maybe it’s a little high and hysterical, but Travis is slightly drunk and it’s all the same really. Travis laughs along, and waggles his eyebrows a little, then throws Bitty a question about the Bulldogs. Bitty sighs internally, and retreats into that secret corner of his thoughts again. He could talk football in his sleep; his attention isn’t really needed here.

 

Come midnight and Bitty is tucked under his father’s arm in the doorway of their living room, his mother on Coach’s other side. TV blaring the broadcast of the ball drop in Times Square, the some-twenty-strong Phelps-Bittle clan chanting along with the countdown, Bitty feels momentarily caught up in the moment. At three, Bitty thumbs out a text. At one, he feels his father lean over to kiss his mother on the lips. At Happy New Year, Bitty sees Travis latch on to his girlfriend’s mouth with what appears to be an enthusiastic amount of tongue.

 

00:00

Happy New Year honey xx

 

00:01

Wish I was there. Love you :)

 

Bitty turns to hug his father, and allows his mother to kiss him on the cheek, and smiles big and real as he tells them “Happy New Year.”

 

---

 

“I’m finding it a little hard to believe you’re awake this early after getting to sleep so late. And you were drinking.” Bitty’s huffing a little, breath coming in misty little puffs. It’ll be warmer later on, but now the sun is still down and hasn’t had a chance to heat the frost out of the air. Georgia does get winter, though Jack refuses to admit that truth. It’s even drizzling with rain, forcing Bitty to have pulled up his hood. It’s making him sweat quicker than normal as he runs, but he thinks he quite likes it. The extra perspiration feels invigorating.

“You’re awake too. And I only had two beers.”

 

Jack is also breathing slightly heavier through Bitty’s earbuds, as he usually does around their sixth mile. Bitty can only imagine what the frigid Canadian air is doing to aid that along.

“The cold’s waking me up,” Bitty comments mildly. He’s asking for a chirp, and isn’t disappointed.

“That whole fourteen degrees must be really giving you frostbite, eh? Better get inside and under a blanket, Bittle.”

“When you say it like that, it only sounds truer. Fourteen degrees is Antarctic, Jack.”

Jack laughs and mutters something in French, and Bitty tries to sound indignant as he asks “What was that?” but can’t help the smile smoothing its way across his face and seeping into his voice.

Jack chuckles again, once. “One more mile? I’m on my home stretch.”

 

Bitty turns at the next street, redirecting himself on a shortcut that will match up with Jack’s remaining time. “One more mile,” he agrees.

 

They take it without talking, Bitty matching his breathing to Jack’s in his ears. He rounds the last corner towards his parents’ house, their letterbox visible about four-hundred feet in the distance.

“Race you?” He makes his tone light and teasing, but with an edge of challenge that he knows Jack won’t be able to back down from.

“Race? How’s that going to – “

“Get set, go!” Bitty cuts across him, and launches himself down the street as fast as he can make himself go. He’s laughing, and it feels breathless and giddy, and all he can hear is that Jack is laughing too. Caught in the moment, Bitty throws himself onto his parents’ front lawn as he reaches it, shouting “Yes!” as he broaches the yard.

“Foul! You had a false start; no way that stands for the adjudicator.”

Bitty rolls onto his back, dew-damp grass chilling through his hoodie, and looks up at the purple haze of the lightening sky. “No one likes a sore loser, sweetheart.”

“You do.”

Bitty snorts. “A decision which I am rapidly coming to regret, Mr Zimmermann.”

“Well, if that’s how it is, I guess you can find your own way from the airport today.” He says it through a laugh, just like the rest of their exchange has been, but the statement still makes Bitty go still. He flops his arms down onto the grass and closes his eyes, taking a deep breath through his nose. Madison always smells the same; grassy and sweet and heavy. Bitty only really started noticing it when he moved away. He’s been silent for a few moments when Jack says tentatively in his ear, “Bits? You know I was joking, right, bud?”

“Yes, of course honey. It’s just. Today.”

“Right. Today.”

 

Bitty sighs, long and loud. It doesn’t really do anything to lift the weight that’s settled in his chest.

“Bittle… Bits. You know you don’t have to. You don’t have to do it today, if you don’t want to. You can just keep saying you’re going back to school to get some things sorted before term. You’re allowed to wait as long as you like.”

Bitty fists his hands in the grass. It’s definitely wet, and chills his fingers more than the air has done.

“If I don’t do it today, I’ll never do it. I’ve just got to get it over with. Like a Band-Aid.”

“Push off and skate through.”

That’s what gets Bitty laughing again, lying back on his childhood front lawn, staring up at a Georgia sunrise. Today, he’s going to tell his parents he’s gay. Right now, though, he’s going to laugh at his ridiculous hockey tragic of a boyfriend.

 

---

 

There is comfort in blueberry pancakes and maple bacon. Bitty can associate making this particular breakfast with lethargic post-kegster Sundays, with fervent and buzzing morning-after-game celebrations, with breakfast for dinner to raise spirits during finals. Paired with the gingerbread-syrup-laced coffee he’s brewed, Bitty doesn’t think there’s anything else he can do to make this a Positive Vibes meal. If his lifetime of cooking has told him anything, it’s that full people are happy people.

 

Just as he sets the stack of pancakes on the kitchen table, his father walks into the room with a well-practiced “Smells good, Junior.”

Bitty’s reply is just as practiced. “Thank you, sir. Get it while it’s hot.”

 

Coach obliges, hefting a few of the pancakes and a sizeable portion of the bacon onto his plate. Bitty sets a cup of coffee in front of him, which he immediately takes a swig from.

“Mm, good Joe.”

 

Bitty has sat down to his own plate when his mother wanders in, fixing an earring in place. She drops a kiss to Bitty’s cheek before sitting, and smiles warmly at him as she helps herself to a pancake.

“Lovely rise on these, Dicky.”

Bitty buries his murmured “thank you, mother” in his coffee. He sets his mug down with a decisive movement, and folds his hands on the table top. The feeling he’s got is familiar, making his hands twitch of their own accord and zapping the moisture from his mouth. His thoughts are already tripping over themselves, their speed pushing shadows into the corners of his vision. His eyes dart between Coach and mama, and he’s unable to make them settle anywhere. There is a clock on the wall, between them both; he forces his gaze there, following the second hand instead. It’s moving syrupy slow, and when it finally reaches the twelve, Bitty clears his throat.

“Mama, Coach. I wanted to talk to you about something.” He chances a glance down from the clock. His mother is holding her knife and fork, food untouched and attention on Bitty. His father is chewing with a slight frown on his face. Bitty doesn’t look back at the clock. “I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while now, because I don’t like the idea that I’ve been keepin’ a lie up with y’all for so long. It honestly just never felt like the right time, and I was never really sure how to fit it into a conversation. I’ve told a few people this now, and it really is more of an open secret at this point, but. Um. It never really gets any more straightforward. I’ve been tryin’ for a while to get up the nerve, but I decided to do this today because then we’ll all have some time to think and adjust, and I do want you to think about it. To really, really think about it.”

 

Coach’s frown has deepened, and Mama’s eyes have widened, and neither of these facial expressions is doing anything to slow Bitty’s heartrate. He clears his throat a little and steamrolls on.

 

“I want you to know, before I say anything, that it doesn’t change anything. It really doesn’t. You may think otherwise, but I can assure you that it doesn’t change anything about me, or you, or… anything at all.” He takes a brief pause, takes a quick sip of his coffee, takes a slow breath. “I’m gay.”

 

The lack of response presses on Bitty’s eardrums, ringing distantly as his cheeks feel hotter and hotter and pressure builds behind his eyes. Finally, his mother sets her cutlery down and says, simply, “No.”

“Mama?”

“No, Eric. Just no. You’re not.”

Bitty grips the table edge and tries to swallow. “I am, Mama. I really am. But like I said, nothing’s changed.”

“Nothing’s changed?” She sounds bewildered, and watery, and the expression she casts at him is the very definition of hurt. She opens her mouth as though to say something else, then shakes her head minutely and presses her lips together. Bitty watches as his mother pushes away from the table, stands, and leaves the room. He squeezes his eyes shut, and exhales through his nose. One, two, three.

 

When he opens his eyes, Coach is still frowning at him.

“No?” He knows his tone is a little petulant, that he’s provoking a response.

“Check that attitude, Junior. Now I don’t know why you thought –“ Coach breaks off, folds his arms, grunts. “We love you, and always will, but I know I’m speaking fairly for your mother as well when I say this is something we cannot approve of.”

A voice that sounds laughably like Shitty pipes up from the corner of Bitty’s brain to say, “that seems fucking contradictory.” Bitty suppresses a snort. What he says out loud is, “I expected as much.”

Coach sighs, and lays his hands on the table. “Then Eric, why’d you have to do this at all?”

“I don’t know, Daddy. I don’t know. Maybe I was sick of hiding, sick of lying. Maybe I wanted to be able to tell you that I’m not flying back to Boston this afternoon; I’m going to spend a few days with my boyfriend instead. I shouldn’t have to sneak around behind your back. I’m not a kid, and I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Coach’s eyebrows had climbed to his hairline as Eric spoke, but shrink back into a frown when he finishes. He grunts again, and leans back in his chair. “I’m feelin’ our definitions of wrong are a little different here.”

 

The pressure behind Bitty’s eyes is back, and he can feel hot wetness seeping in at the edges. He stands quick as he can, and nods firmly, once.

“Alright. I’m going to finish packing.”

 

Somehow, he manages to get his bedroom door closed before the tears fall.

 

---

 

As he packs, Bitty hears a few things. His mother’s voice, raised and terse. A slamming door. Something smashing in the kitchen – a dropped cup or plate, probably. Loud and wrenching sobs.

 

He puts his earbuds in, queues up Lemonade, and books an Uber. Thankfully, he budgeted for an hour-long car trip to the airport. He shoulders his duffle bag and goes to wait curb side – his car is allegedly four minutes away.

 

His parents stand from the couch as he passes the den, tandem and careful. He stops, and takes out his earbuds.

“I’m heading to the airport; my flight’s in a few hours.”

He doesn’t miss the look his parents share, and then his mother steps forward.

“Dicky, you should stay. We need to –” she takes a breath, her voice starting to shake again – “we need to figure out what we’re going to do about this.”

Bitty adjusts his stance, and resists the urge to wrap his arms around his middle. He thinks back to every conversation he had with Jack about this, everything he decided he was going to say and do. He’s distantly proud of how calm he sounds when he says, “What do you mean?”

“We need to – to fix this, Dicky. You need to stop; you know it’s not. It’s not –” She starts sobbing in earnest, and Bitty has to look away. His phone buzzes in his pocket.

“My ride is here. I… I’ll call you in a few days. Please, Mama. Just… think about it?”

He looks back to his mother, and considers stepping over to hug her. Coach is watching him, frowning again, arms folded again. Suddenly, the door seems terribly inviting.

 

Bitty hauls his duffle into the back of the Uber, and tries to ignore how empty the doorway of his parents’ house looks as he drives away.

“Home for the holidays?”

 

He catches the driver’s eyes in the rear-vision mirror, and manages to affect a smile.

“No, just visiting. Headed home now.”

 

---

 

Bitty didn’t have to check his bag, so he just strolls on out through the airport and to the level of the carpark that Jack had texted him. If the large green H painted on the column by Jack’s car weren’t enough, Jack has also pulled himself from the driver’s seat and is looking around with all the restraint of a meerkat. The Falconers cap on his head isn’t helping.

 

Bitty smothers a smile in the folds of his scarf, and cuts his way over to the car. It’s not until he’s a few yards away and Jack is still looking in the wrong direction that he calls his name. Jack’s head jerks around, and his alertness settles into a smile that seems almost liquid.

“Hey,” he says when Bitty gets closer. “Good flight?”

“Fine. Quick. I napped.”

 

They look at each other over the roof of the car, a moment which hangs and drags. Bitty bites his lip, feels his brow furrowing. Jack grimaces slightly before drumming his fingers on the roof of the car.

“Just toss your bag in the back, it’ll be fine.”

Bitty does so, and when he slides into the passenger seat, Jack is fiddling with his phone. A few taps and he deposits it in the cup holder, leaning across to turn up the volume of the radio minutely. The opening notes of the song are familiar, a Jay-Z and Beyoncé collaboration, and it makes Bitty want to cry again.

“This is the playlist I linked you.”

“Yeah.”

Jack’s hands are resting on the steering wheel, but he’s making no move to start the car, simply watching Bitty across the centre console.

“Can we go to your place? Now? I just need to be… somewhere. In your bed, probably.”

“Sure. I don’t have a problem with that.” Jack turns away and starts the car.

 

Once they’re out of the twisted channels of the airport and onto a main road, Jack drops one hand from the wheel and onto Bitty’s leg, thumb rubbing in careful circles which Bitty can feel even through his jeans. He rests his own hand over the top of it, linking their fingers. He thinks he may be squeezing just a little too hard, but Jack doesn’t say anything.

 

---

 

The wine that Jack has given him is sweet and cold, and Bitty has to resist downing the whole glass in a gulp. He moderates his sips with bites of grapes and cheese-and-crackers. He’s sitting next to Jack on his couch, not touching him, legs tucked up underneath his own body. Jack’s arm is stretched over the back of the couch, but he doesn’t seem intent on encroaching into Bitty’s space unless asked to.

 

Bitty wants to ask him to.

 

He forgoes pretence and knocks back the rest of his wine before crowding under Jack’s arm and burrowing into his side. Jack immediately drops his arm from the couch and wraps it around Bitty’s shoulders, pressing a fleeting kiss to his hair.

“There wasn’t any shouting, which was good. But Coach has never really been a shouter, outside of football.”

Jack hums, and rubs his arm a little. Bitty lays a hand on Jack’s chest, and traces his fingers over the collar of his t-shirt.

“Things went… pretty much exactly like I told you they would. They denied it; Mama cried; Coach was disappointed. Considering how well I predicted it, I shouldn’t be feeling so…” He sucks in a damp and trembling breath, and Jack kisses his forehead with a murmured and emphatic “buddy.”

 

“Part of me, honestly, is relieved. Because now they’ve done exactly what I knew they would, it means I wasn’t panicking over nothing. Like, I wasn’t overreacting or makin’ mountains out of molehills. I was right to think that they wouldn’t. Um.” He sniffs a bit, and coughs, and sighs.

 

Jack reaches across with his other arm and fits it under Bitty’s legs. He uses his grip to scoop Bitty into his lap, and presses his face into Bitty’s shoulder.

“Jack Laurent Zimmermann, I’m not a doll you can just manhandle at your own convenience. I swear, sometimes you’re like a territorial animal of some kind.”

“Shush. I just want to hold you.” His breath tickles across Bitty’s neck, making him squirm and huff out a small laugh. Jack seems to catch on, and blows deliberately and coolly across Bitty’s exposed skin.

Stop, silly boy.” Jack presses a quick kiss to the spot before leaning back, head resting on the back of the couch. Bitty traces a finger along his jaw line. “I’m not even sad, really. No, I swear I’m not,” he adds as Jack raises a sceptical eyebrow. “I’m just kind of… exhausted by it, I guess. Because that should have been the end, but it’s just the start, isn’t it? Now is when I have to keep trying to talk to them and keep waiting for them to understand. Like, I’m hurt, definitely. But I’m not sad.”

 

Bitty looks down at Jack, aware that his eyes are damp again, and trips the pads of his fingers across Jack’s cheekbone. Jack cups his hand around Bitty’s face and licks his lips briefly before pulling him down into a kiss. It’s soft, and short, but soon followed by another. Jack continues like this, pressing minute kisses to Bitty’s lips, occasionally sucking lightly on Bitty’s lips, rarely opening both their mouths and delving his tongue inside. There’s no clear intent here, which Bitty is grateful for. He lets himself be kissed, and lets it calm him down, and then when he doesn’t feel like he wants any more, rests his face against Jack’s neck.

“Do you want pizza?”

“Yes, I want pizza. I want pizza with so much cheese that there’s more cheese than bread.”

Jack chuckles, and rubs a broad hand over Bitty’s back before tipping him sideways and sending him sprawling across the couch. He stands, and watches with the barest hint of a smirk as Bitty tries to right himself on the cushions.

Rude. Just, endlessly rude. I can’t believe I signed up for this relentless chirping. Non-verbal chirping, even.”

“If I get wings, will you eat some?”

Bitty sighs in a put-upon way, stretching over the couch. He still can’t touch either end. “I suppose I’ll eat some wings.”

 

Jack wanders off to call the pizza place, so Bitty sits up and leans over to pour himself another glass of wine. He’s singing mildly to himself and sipping at his wine when Jack drops back onto the couch, immediately slinging an arm around Bitty’s shoulders.

“The Senators are playing the Caps. We’re against them both soon. Do you want to watch?”

“Honey, I don’t think you especially need to be preparing hard for either of them. But yes, I do want to watch.”

 

When the pizza arrives, Bitty pads over to the door with his wine still in is hand, and when he returns he lays the pizza box across Jack’s lap. The cheese smells thick and rich, and pulls strings as Bitty picks up a piece. Jack smiles at him as he pulls it as far as it will go, and they’re both watching it stretch and stretch and they laugh a little before finally –

 

It snaps.