Bitty thinks sometimes about how the end of a memory changes the beginning. He thinks a lot about how different things feel when he’s in the moment than they do after the fact, with some time and some space to process them. With some time for the end of the memory to filter backwards to taint everything that came before it. With some time to try to piece together whether the end of things should even change the beginning at all.
Most of Epikegster was fun. If the party had stopped three quarters of the way through, Bitty would’ve had nothing but good things to say about it. He had time to hang out with his team without worrying too much about school or hockey or responsibilities. Jack looked soft and happy and animated talking to Bitty, their backs pressed against the wall. Lardo kicking everyone’s asses at flip cup was a sight to behold.
Everyone was so excited when Kent Parson showed up, and everyone was even more excited when he actually seemed like a nice guy. Kent talked to Lardo for a while, swapping out shutter shades and comparing kitten pictures after Lardo saw his lockscreen. Holster and Kent got into an extended discussion about upstate New York that Ransom had to pull Holster away from. Kent and Shitty had a weird, kind of intense moment that Bitty didn’t entirely understand at the time, but Shitty gave Kent a fist bump and called him a fucker, which is just about as much of a warm welcome as Shitty gives anyone.
Kent didn’t run around acting too big for his britches. He actually would’ve blended in fairly well if it weren’t for the fact that he was in a frat full of hockey players who all seemed to recognize his face on sight. He signed things when people asked him to, though he didn’t make a point of inviting it. He posed for selfies, too, because he seemed to realize it was a big deal to the people taking them. But he mostly sat there with a cup in his hand and a smile on his face and a backwards snapback on his head, his cowlick poking out through the hole above the strap.
It’s hard for Bitty to reconcile with the man he saw talking to Jack.
And Bitty’s not a fool. Bitty knows better than to think that everyone is what they seem. Bitty’s used to taking people with a grain of salt. He’s from the South, where there isn’t a soul without a passive-aggressive bone in their body. Everyone keeps their skeletons in the closet, and family business stays family business unless someone goes and runs their mouth. Or until the neighbors come snooping, which they always do.
Either way, Bitty isn’t naive enough to think that Kent Parson is all quiet smiles and shiny sharpie signatures.
It still shocked him, though, hearing the way Kent talked to Jack. Seeing the way Jack shook before he slammed the door shut. It left Bitty staring at his own selfie with Kent, after, debating whether he should put it on Twitter or delete it or…
“You should tag me when you post it,” Kent had said, his arm around Bitty. Bitty remembers how warm Kent’s body felt as he pressed against him to get the picture, how steady and solid Kent’s hand was on Bitty’s back. Not the top of Bitty’s back, or Bitty’s shoulder, but the small of Bitty’s back, almost to his side. “I’ll follow you on Twitter.”
Through the lens of what happened after, Bitty knows he shouldn’t think of that moment the way he does. He shouldn’t have a vivid memory of the way Kent touching him through his clothes made him shiver and made his cheeks flush in a way he hopes Kent attributed to the cup of tub juice Bitty carefully hid from view for the photo. He shouldn’t think about how little of a height difference there was, about how close Kent’s mouth was to his own. He shouldn’t still feel Kent’s voice whisper-warm in his ear when he gets a whiff of Kent’s cologne on his jacket. He shouldn’t even smell Kent’s cologne on his jacket at all.
Bitty stress cleans the entire next morning after the party ends, before anyone else is up, and he bakes something to send home with Jack. Their eyes don’t meet when Jack leaves to go home the next day. Bitty is embarrassed but relieved.
Bitty thinks that Kent Parson might not be a good person. But Bitty thinks that Kent Parson is an attractive person.
He’s hoping he doesn’t see Kent Parson enough for that to become a problem.
He finally makes his mind up and posts the photo on Twitter.
He tags Kent.
Ten minutes later, Kent likes it and follows him.
Bitty goes home to Georgia, and he mostly forgets about Kent.
He notices a sharp uptick in favorites from a certain NHL player’s official Twitter, on simple tweets talking about the Great Jam Debate or changing the oil on Coach’s truck. But he has more pressing things to worry about, like making Christmas cookies with Mama and remembering that his family all somehow thinks he’s straight. Being home again is exhausting in a way he didn’t expect, even though he’s glad for the quality time with his parents.
The time passes more quickly than it should, and before he knows it, it’s time to head back to school. According to the group chat, Bitty will be going back to an empty Haus; the others are due to filter in in the days after him. But Bitty is ready to be back up North, even if it means a day or two without his teammates around and with unnatural cold weather.
Bitty tweets in the airport to kill time, but he makes the trek up to Samwell safely. He unpacks his bags and goes grocery shopping and settles into his kitchen. He’s glad for the brief and rare period of peace and quiet, and he takes advantage of the opportunity. Once the Haus’ heater finally gets going and he’s cleaned up from dinner, he starts putting together a pie in his pajamas, a pair of slippers and a baggy t-shirt from co-ed hockey back home and a comfy but very short pair of shorts. He’s looking forward to maybe filming a Q&A video for his channel and then calling it a night early, in the hopes of stretching out a normal sleep schedule for at least one last night.
He’s just putting the pie in the oven when that plan falls apart, all thanks to the quiet ping of a direct message notification.
“is zimms in?”
For a second, Bitty is frozen. Because right there with the message, clear as day, is Kent Parson’s Twitter handle. Bitty has to check a couple times to make sure it’s actually from Kent’s real account and not a convincing fake.
But he’s pretty sure no one else calls Jack Zimms besides Kent, anyway. He’s pretty sure the message is real. It doesn’t change how weird and out of the blue it is, and how much it sets Bitty on edge, but it’s almost certainly real.
“Um,” Bitty starts to type out, but he doesn’t have time to press send before there’s another brand new message.
“i may be outside your frat house”
“it’s actually kinda freezing”
That jolts Bitty into action.
He can’t see the street from the kitchen, but he has a feeling Kent wouldn’t lie about showing up at the Haus unannounced. Bitty doesn’t even bother responding to Kent. His coat is upstairs in his closet, and he knows he should run up and grab it before braving the outdoors, but he settles for snagging a blanket from the living room to wrap around himself as he heads towards the front door.
Taking a deep breath, he unlocks the door and opens it, bracing himself against the cold. There’s a car parked in one of the spaces at the end of the Haus walkway, a small Civic that is much, much more subtle than the car Bitty remembers the LAX bros wanting to take pictures with on the night of Epikegster.
And then there’s a shock of blonde hair, seeming almost golden in the light of the streetlamps. There’s a windbreaker that looks even less equipped for the cold than Bitty’s blanket and slippers combo. Kent’s leaning back against his car, his hands stuffed in his pockets, and if it weren’t for the fact that he is standing in the Massachusetts winter outside the frat house of a boy who used to be his teammate, and if it weren’t for the fact that Bitty can see him shivering all the way from the porch, it would look startlingly casual. Movie star casual.
There’s no snapback this time, and no smug grin. Kent Parson looks cold and small and subdued, and when he hears the creaking of the Haus door and sees Bitty poking out, Bitty could swear that for a second, he sees a flash of hope on Kent’s face.
“Hey Eric,” Kent says. If Bitty weren’t hung up on how familiar an introduction it is, if he weren’t hearing Hey Zimms echoing in the back of his head, he’d be wrinkling his nose at the name choice.
“Bitty,” he corrects, anyway. It’s easier than saying any of the other words he’s barely holding back.
“Bitty,” Kent amends, and there is a long, long pause that Bitty doesn’t want to fill. He wouldn’t know how to fill it. There are too many conversations racing through his brain, ones in which he demands to know why Kent is there, and ones in which he takes Kent to task for what he overheard. Ones in which he asks for the story that he has a feeling Kent wouldn’t tell him, even if he asked.
Ones that are far more dangerous than even those.
“Jack’s not here,” he finally says. “He doesn’t come back until Sunday night. I… don’t think I would’ve let you talk to him even if he were here, though.”
“He said something to you? About me?” Kent says, his voice careful. Not accusatory. Not nervous, like Bitty would be in his shoes.
“No,” Bitty admits. “But I heard the last part, I was-”
“The one who was on the ground outside his room. I remember,” Kent says. “Trust me, that entire conversation is seared into my brain. I actually swung by to apologize. It was a really, really bad night, and I said a lot of shit I shouldn’t have. But if he’s not here….”
“He’s not. It’s just me.”
The silence descends again, tempered only by the sound of the dry, sharp winter wind in Bitty’s ears. Kent’s eyes are fixed on Bitty, and even from this distance away, there’s an intensity in them that Bitty wouldn’t have expected. They aren’t the eyes of someone abashed or ashamed or chastised, and there’s a stark contrast between the way Kent’s teeth chattering echoes in the open air and the way Kent’s gaze is fixed and steady. Bitty doesn’t let his mind delve too deeply into that. Into the fact that it just being Bitty around isn’t seeming to send Kent into an aimless tailspin, isn’t sending him right back into his rental car and driving away.
Finally, Bitty can’t take it anymore. “I’m going to freeze if we do this much longer. Are you going to come in or not?”
“If you’d let me,” Kent says, like it wasn’t a foregone conclusion from the start. Bitty guesses that, really, it shouldn’t have been. A better person would’ve said goodbye to Kent right then and there, sent him packing and conferred with Shitty about whether to tell Jack about it or not.
“Come on in, then,” Bitty says with a sigh. He opens the door wide, and Kent eases up from where he was leaned against the car. When he gets closer, Bitty can see the way his nose and cheeks and ears are pinked up from the cold, the splotches of color masking the freckles that Bitty shouldn’t even know Kent has. “You’d think a New Yorker would know how to dress for winter better than this.”
“Not a New Yorker anymore,” Kent reminds him. When Bitty finally closes the door behind Kent and strips off the blanket he was huddled under, Kent raises an eyebrow and gives him a once-over. His eyes linger on Bitty’s thighs, and Bitty has that familiar feeling in his gut from the last time Kent was here. The same kind of nervous energy, the same tension in his chest, the same swooping of his stomach while his brain is cycling through what ifs. Because if this were anyone else, if this weren’t a famous NHL player and Jack’s former best friend, even Bitty would recognize that kind of focused attention as deliberate. Staring with Intent.
“And you’re one to talk, anyway,” Kent says. “Booty shorts in January.”
Bitty rolls his eyes and leads the way back to the kitchen. “Well, I wasn’t exactly expecting company tonight, and it’d be ruder to let you freeze than to wear perfectly decent shorts.”
“Oh, I’m not complaining about the shorts,” Kent says. “I wouldn’t mind even if the shorts weren’t decent.”
“I thought you were here to apologize to Jack, not to flirt with the gay Southern boys,” Bitty says. It’s a joke, but it’s really not. It’s a moment of foolishness as much as it is bravery. It’s challenging Kent about his intentions, sure. But it’s also giving in a little too much to the back and forth. It’s forcing Kent to show his cards, because Bitty is too tired after a month in Madison to play gay chicken with a straight boy. It’s risking finding out that there is no straight boy in this conversation.
The “And I can’t do both?” that leaves Kent’s mouth is that fear realized.
Bitty sits Kent down in the kitchen. Bitty checks on his pie through the oven door while Kent Parson looks eerily at home in this kitchen that isn’t his own. Bitty grabs milk from the fridge to start a batch of hot cocoa, because his hands are shaking a little bit, and it’s much, much easier to blame that on the cold.
Bitty tries to figure out how to frame this in his head. How to reconcile everything. Kent Parson at the kegster before talking to Jack and after talking to Jack. Kent Parson coming to apologize, but seeming awfully glib and flirty for someone who came so far out of his way to actually give that apology.
Kent Parson’s eyes on him, making Bitty feel like he’s someone worth watching in a positive way. Things are different here at Samwell than back home in Georgia, but even here, Bitty isn’t used to that kind of attention. He isn’t used to the flirting that isn’t just chirping, or the looking with Intent. He especially isn’t used to it from someone who makes his heart beat fast in his chest in a way he isn’t entirely sure is good, but that he is very, very sure is laced with some underpinning of attraction. He isn’t used to being the one whose palms get sweaty when he watches the steam from a mug of hot cocoa curling around a pinked-up face framed by flyaway cowlicks, the face of a boy who Bitty knows in his bones should be too complicated for him to touch.
Bitty knows that if his Mama knew he liked boys, then Kent Parson would be the kind of boy she would warn him about. Flashy watch and bedroom eyes would be all she’d need to know to tell him to stay away.
But Bitty also knows that when Kent Parson’s hand is on the small of his back, he wants to think that maybe he’s allowed this. One reckless night with a too-pretty boy who insists on helping wash the dishes and brushes elbows with Bitty the entire time, who seems to take every possible opportunity to get himself as firmly as he can in Bitty’s space. One chance for a boy who seems to know what he’s doing and what he wants, whose eyes keep drifting down to Bitty’s lips, to close that small height gap and press his mouth against Bitty’s. One night of being selfish, of Bitty letting himself be touched and kissed where no one else has touched and kissed him before.
Their conversation is easy, and when they aren’t doing this ambiguous mostly flirting thing, Kent seems softer than the last time Bitty saw him. He avoids talking about Jack, asking questions or making statements, but he asks Bitty about himself and listens like he cares about the answers. It almost feels too good. Too easy.
“It’s pretty late,” Bitty finally says, when the pie’s all put away and the dishes have been left to dry. “Do you have somewhere to stay?”
“That depends,” Kent says, and with a few words, everything is finally all laid out on the table. “Could you use some company tonight?”
It takes Bitty way, way less time than it should to respond. He should probably hedge an answer, panic run to the bathroom and consult someone who is better equipped to make these sorts of decisions. But Bitty is very, very tired of wanting. And if this man wants to make him feel good, then just for tonight, Bitty’s going to let him.
“I could,” he says, and Kent Parson smiles.
The consequences will be something for Future Bitty to deal with.