Dear Jack and Bitty,
I hope this letter finds you well. I have a rather unusual one-time offer to make you. I am ten weeks pregnant thanks to a contraception mishap. Would you like a baby?
As you know, I'm thirty-five and have no interest in raising children, but I don't mind incubating one for you, and God knows the firm owes me maternity leave if I want it.
The father is Marc. You met him at Bob and Alicia's in August: my hot summer fling who was scrambling to finish his post-doc and return to Germany before his visa expired. He's good people, willing to do his duty and all that, but I'm positive he doesn't want a transatlantic modern family any more than I do; the man doesn't have a romantic or sentimental bone in his body.
Point being, both of us are willing to sign whatever papers your lawyer draws up to give you full and irrevocable custody, though I would enjoy auntie privileges when you visit Montreal.
If you have no interest in a free French Canadian baby at this time, I'll put it up for adoption. Our genes, dear cousin, are just too pretty to waste. You will have to decide soon, for sundry bureaucratic and logistical reasons. Let me know if you're considering it, and please give me a yes or no by December.
P.S. NHL.com tells me the kid would drop just in time to poop in the Stanley Cup, supposing your rag-tag band of misfits and weirdos can win it.
Jack stood at the counter in his cool, quiet kitchen, one hand squeezing his phone and the other holding a knife full of homemade pesto in midair. He set his phone down, applied pesto to bread, sawed a thick slice of breast meat off last night's leftover roast chicken, and finished assembling his sandwich. Sawed off an extra bite for the collie mutt leaning hopefully against his leg. Sank into a kitchen chair, then immediately stood again and stumbled to the back porch to sit heavily on the steps overlooking the woods. Realized he'd left his sandwich on the counter. He flicked absently through the rest of the unread emails on his phone, then set it aside. Constance nuzzled up to him, trying to get at his face. Jack buried his hands in her silky fur and breathed.
The light through the trees was just beginning to turn gold. He needed to go down for his nap soon, or he'd be fucked at game time. Bittle was in Baltimore for the weekend, keynoting a foodways conference. He'd be prepping for the speech right now, pacing in his hotel room and gesturing to the mirror, deep in his version of pregame flow. Jack couldn't disturb him. He waffled over forwarding Anzi's message—sent only to Jack, though clearly addressed to both of them—torn between unwillingness to keep the information from Bittle, even for an afternoon, and wanting to see his face as he read it.
Jack walked over to the garden shed and pulled a shovel off the wall. They'd already hired someone to come spread mulch around the flowerbeds by the porch and deal with the dead branch on the maple, after admitting they weren't going to get to it themselves before the first frosts, not with Bitty's run of conferences and interviews and Jack's healed but still tender shoulder. Jack pulled the tarp off the mulch heap and dug in. Just for a minute. One flowerbed.
Four flowerbeds later, Jack had to put down the shovel because he was nauseated and a little dizzy. His chicken sandwich was still on the counter. He went inside and forced it down, drank some juice, and lurched off to bed, too tired from possibly disassociating his way through a panic attack to even take off his sweaty T-shirt. He shot a hopefully-not-garbled text to Bitty: Good luck with your speech. I love you. Call me after, and set his alarm, and the next thing he knew he was waking to its ruthless chimes.
Bitty had texted back: I spoke! I didn't faint! People clapped! Love you too, sweetheart, have a great game.
Jack did not have a great game. Nobody else did either, least of all Jeremy Dooley, third line winger, who got carried off the ice on a stretcher halfway through second period. The coaches had little to report by the time they were back in the locker room, but both of them looked pinched around the mouth. Jack rallied his team. "Laser focus, boys. Let's get this done." Diggs, at least, took it to heart, slamming the puck topshelf with seconds to spare, and then it was over, and they'd won, for values of winning involving to-be-determined damage to a twenty-four-year-old's vertebrae.
Jack and Diggs were the last players to leave. Both of them checked in with everyone, especially the rookies, slapping backs and doling out praise and reassurances. It was Diggs' second year with the A, and he wore it well.
Home again, Jack texted Bitty—Still awake?—and cut himself a slice of pie. He wasn't hopeful; if he knew his husband, he'd stayed up schmoozing until maybe a couple hours ago, when the post-speech adrenaline crash would have hit him hard. There was no reply by the time Jack's pie was eaten, so he put himself to bed.
In the morning, Jack washed his face and ate his eggs on autopilot, and eschewed his usual trail run for a jog around the neighbourhood with Connie so he could get to the rink early. A half mile from home, his phone buzzed in his pocket. He fished it out and found a selfie from Bitty in his own running gear with Baltimore's Inner Harbor behind him. Jack smiled and sent back a photo of Connie with her feet in a puddle. Morning, hon, the text followed. Saw the news about poor Jeremy. I'm stuck in panels all morning, but keep me posted. I'll be home by dinnertime.
At the rink, Coach Kelly delivered the verdict: Dools had got through his surgery just fine, and would be wearing a very stylish neck brace for the rest of the year. His locker was already clear. A kid from the Harriers was at that moment flinging things into a suitcase, called up to take his place, ready or not. He'd be with them in an hour.
The email Bitty had yet to see was an itch under Jack's skin, but there was nothing to be done. Jack had captaining to do.
Practice ran long, and Jack stayed on the ice when it was over to have a chat with Pfeiffer, who was twenty-one, nervous, and sleep deprived, but doing his damnedest to skate through it, which Jack gave him credit for. Jack had been watching rookies be rookies for nearly fifteen years, if you included his stint in the NCAA, which he did, but sometimes he still didn't know what to do with his face when he tried to welcome them. Especially in circumstances like this.
"Don't be scared of Cap, young Piffy; that's just his face," said Diggs, coming up and slapping both of them on the back. Jack gave Diggs his best scary glare and smacked him smartly on the ass as he hopped into the tunnel. When he turned back to Pfeiffer, the boy was wearing a startled, bemused grin instead of the twitchily awestruck look he'd had before.
He had a body type a lot like Jack's before his final growth spurt, and he carried himself sheepishly. On the ice, his speed was a surprise and an asset, and he had a nice, hard shot. If Jack could persuade him to keep his head up and take more chances on goal, he might actually get him into a game-day sweater by New Year's.
For now, Jack settled for asking his opinion on the drills they'd run today, and what he thought of his new linemates. When he started looking wide-eyed again on their way to the mess, Jack toned himself down and switched to chatting about his abrupt relocation to Providence. He apologized for not having a pie ready to welcome him, which made Pfeiffer venture a laugh, because everybody, NHL or farm team, from here to Seattle, knew all about Jack and pie.
Lunch tray loaded, Jack headed over to Diggs and Snowy, and smiled over his shoulder at Pfeiffer to let him know he was welcome to sit with the old farts if he wanted, but he wasn't surprised when the kid skittered off to join Muzzy and his age mates in the corner.
"Did I hear you mention rookie pie?" Snowy asked.
Jack snorted. "Not today; he's out of town. But I'll ask nicely when he's back."
And then it was endless afternoon meetings: a home and life insurance seminar for the youngsters, a private chat with the coaches in which he got to voice his opinion on their line adjustments, then a trip over to PR to nail down plans for supporting the women's team. And then Muzz caught him on the way out and wanted to quiz him about restaurants to take his parents to, and then Ravi the Zamboni driver had new pictures of his grandkids.
Leaving this place, even on normal evenings, seemed to get harder and harder every year.
At 4:30, Jack finally slammed the door of his truck and tapped out a message to Bittle before starting the ignition. Heading home now. Need any groceries?
Nope, I'm already here! Caught an earlier flight to make sure we got some quality time before your roadie.
The house smelt like roast beef and fresh bread when Jack opened the door, but there was no adoring husband launching himself into Jack's arms. No dog, either; Connie was probably out back, trying in vain to befriend the gopher. Jack found Bitty in his office, headphones on, twin computer monitors lit up, and Splendiferous Louise keeping a watchful eye on his productivity from the cardboard strawberry flat turned cat containment unit at his elbow. He was focused enough that it took him a moment to notice Jack propped in the doorway, but when he did his smile bloomed bright, and he slipped off his headphones. "Hey, darlin'. It's about time."
"Hi Bits. Hi Splendiferous Louise," said Jack, entering the room. Louise stepped gracefully across the desk and put her paws on Jack's stomach. Jack lifted her onto his shoulders, where she arranged herself like a sleek grey stole and licked his ear. "Sorry I'm so late. Didn't even get a nap today."
"Aw, hon," Bitty tsked. "D'you want one now, or an early dinner?" Behind them, Bitty's phone alarm chimed, signalling the end of a work sprint.
"Mm, dinner and bed."
"Come on, then." Bitty rose and circled the desk to cup Jack's face and pull him down for his not-terribly-perfunctory hello kiss, heedless of cat. Jack sagged in his arms. Bitty pulled back with a moue of concern, but Jack just kissed him again, and tugged him out of the office.
"What needs doing?" Jack asked, once they'd made it to the kitchen.
"Dinner's mostly in the slow cooker, but you can tear up some lettuce if you want a salad, or set the table?"
Jack fished a bag of greens and an avocado out of the crisper and rinsed them, then added a fistful of herbs from the window boxes while Bitty made dressing. Jack caught his hips and danced his emulsification dance with him with the Mason jar between them. Winced at Louise's claws on his butt as she descended in disgust.
Over dinner, Bitty rambled about his conference, the panels he'd heard, the connections he'd made. Jack loved listening to him, and knew that Bitty was noting the tension draining away from his body as he listened, and keeping up the ramble just for him. "I have something to tell you," Jack said once their plates were clear.
"I know, honey," Bitty said. "I can tell. You wanna tell me now?"
"Yeah. Can we make tea and move to the couch?"
"Oh, boy, tea and couch news, huh?" Bitty smiled and got up from the table. Jack sat and weighed his phone in his hand while Bitty filled the kettle.
They settled side by side, and Jack nodded toward Bitty's pocket. "I just forwarded you the email."
Bitty retrieved his phone and thumbed it open. He read for a few seconds, no more, then did something Jack had seen him do maybe twice in the whole course of their relationship: he flung it down. It bounced off the couch cushion and onto the rug.
He laughed, high and a little hysterical. "What. What the f-f-"
Jack flinched and grasped for Bitty's hand, fumbling until he had their fingers interlaced. "I should have found a different way to tell you. Told you sooner. Texted first, or something."
"No no, baby, I don't know how you could've, just. What the fuck?"
"Did you read the whole thing?"
Bitty laughed again.
Jack let go of him long enough to lean down and scoop up the phone. Instead of handing it back, he tucked it into Bitty's trouser pocket, then wrapped one arm around his back and the other under his knees and scooped his entire husband up, hitched him around and settled him between his legs, tucked sideways against his chest. Bitty squeaked and flailed predictably, then squinted up at him.
"Do you remember Anzi?" Jack asked. Of course Bitty did; Jack had never met anyone so good at names and faces. Jack explained the contents of his cousin's email.
Bitty was quiet. It was not a happy silence.
"What do you think?"
"I think nothing's changed."
An old conversation. Older than their marriage, older even than their relationship, if you went by Jack's measure, the day he'd stood in the kitchen in his first apartment and given Bitty the little toy version of himself in Falconer blue. A conversation they'd repeated over the years, a question returned to and worried over and tumbled like a stone in a brook.
"D'you want kids someday?" Bitty had asked, lit by the soft orange glow of the lamp in his childhood bedroom.
Jack had shrugged, shy, but holding eye contact as best he could over the blurry Skype connection. "It might be nice. You do, right?"
"I do," Bitty had breathed. "Not—not too soon, you know; I'd want to wait until I felt halfway like a grown-up. But oh Lord, I've always wanted that."
They'd talked so much that summer, clumsily and red-faced as often as not, but full of determination. Jack wanted to know everything about Bitty. More shockingly, and with a deep and novel ache he hardly understood, he'd wanted Bitty to know everything about himself. It hadn't always been easy; they'd both had learning curves to climb; but they'd never stopped talking.
The kid discussions, though, had rolled to a stop while Bitty was establishing his career in radio, living with Jack but commuting to Boston four days a week. Then Bitty's dream job had materialized, and Jack's no-move clause had kicked in, and they'd looked up and said, "Whoops, why aren't we married yet?" and fixed that and carried on.
Then the Foodways Alliance really took off, beyond Bitty's wildest imaginings. Jack was proud of him, and tried to support him. Their lives were full. People gravitated toward Bitty, always. He'd pulled together their social circle in college—the core of them who still talked to each other after all these years—without even noticing it. He had babies on his hip at every Falconers function, and his niblings and godchildren fought for his attention. Jack had let Bitty tell him it was enough.
"Don't. Don't tell Anzi no, yet," Bitty whispered, as they lay in the dark that night, panting in the aftermath of a fierce, almost frantic bout of sex.
"I won't," said Jack.
Up at dawn. Bitty programmed the coffee maker while Jack grabbed two homemade granola bars from a tin, and they were out the door, munching quietly as they walked down their long, shady drive. Jack finished his food first and broke into a gentle jog, but Bitty caught up quickly, and they were off, sneakers beating the pavement in practised sync until they veered off the road at the neighbourhood trailhead. Jack let Connie off leash, and she surged ahead of them, tail high, tongue like a windsock.
Eventually, Jack supposed, he'd have to let these extra cardio workouts go. They were hardly necessary, physically speaking, and only sustainable because Jack was good at holding weight, even during playoffs. But on some weeks, they were the most important part of his day. Out here with Bits, Jack breathed in the smoky-sweet scent of the woods in autumn, and timed his steps to the strong, sturdy beat of his heart.
On the opposite side of this same park, Jack had once sweated in front of Georgia Martin, balling his fists so they wouldn't shake, and told her what Eric Bittle meant to him. He'd been an unproven rookie, desperate to earn his keep and the respect of the woman who'd taken a chance on him. Even then, he'd known that Bitty was worth the risk—worth every possible consequence of that risk. Jack wouldn't call him family out loud for another year, but he'd known where he was headed. And he knew well enough how fraughtly entangled those concepts were for him—the ranking of family and hockey and risk and self-actualization—and how badly he wanted to work out a philosophy that was not his father's, or his manager's, or his therapist's, or even necessarily his boyfriend's, but his own.
Nearly a decade later, with packed earth under his feet and Bittle sprinting ahead to prevent his dog from rolling in God-knew-what mouldering squirrel carcass or bear scat, he thought maybe he'd succeeded. He loved his life. It was a well-defined life, roomy enough for two well-adjusted people with their well-adjusted pets (Connie's occasional deviance aside), buttressed by a well-adjusted system of routines, phone alarms, prescription medications and habits of mind. And now they were contemplating throwing a wrench in.
A couple miles into the park, the trail crossed a brook where Connie liked to stop and drink and splash for a minute before they hit the fork that would loop them back toward the entrance. Jack rested his forearms on the weathered wooden bridge railing and watched her antics. Bitty unhooked his water bottle from the small of his back, drank, then propped himself at Jack's side.
"I'll talk to HR today, at the station," said Bitty. "Just so we'll know our options there, as far as that goes."
Bitty drove Jack to work, clutching Jack's hand the whole way. It drove Jack a little nuts, but today he swallowed his complaints. Bitty was an excellent driver.
"Are you okay?" Jack asked, once they'd pulled up in front of the players' entrance.
"Nope," Bitty said immediately. "Fifteen minutes from now I'm going to pull into the church parking lot around the corner from the station and sob like a baby."
"I love you," Jack said helplessly. "Talk to HR. We'll hammer this out, okay? Whatever it takes." They kissed, and Jack swung his bag out of the truck.
Jack turned back at the muffled shout and saw Bitty scrambling to open the driver's side door and step onto the pavement. He met him halfway. Bitty held out Jack's red lunch bag full of sandwiches. "Oh. That would have been bad."
"Crisis averted," Bitty agreed. Jack pulled him in for one more tight embrace. "Be safe and have fun. I'll talk to you soon."
Jack didn't check his phone again until that afternoon, while he was standing around waiting for the TSA agent to pre-clear the team for their flight to New York and herd them all onto the bus.
Bitty had left him forty-seven messages.
Okay, I had a good cry like I said I would, and I feel better and I'm going to work now.
Big guest today! Gotta be focused!
That was not the best interview I've ever given.
I talked to HR.
It was still afternoon when Jack got to his hotel room. Normally, unless he wanted to check in with a teammate or was in an especially social mood, he spent the hours before dinner doing EdX coursework. It was something he'd figured out about himself only two years into his NHL career, and had been stupidly obvious in retrospect: Jack functioned better, as a hockey player and a human, when he wasn't thinking about hockey at all times, and Jack functioned best when he had an intellectual life as well as a social life. He'd thrived at Samwell for reasons that extended well beyond the Haus.
Today, though, his videotaped lecture would have to wait. He let Bitty know he'd landed, and waited for the call.
"Okay, so let's talk about the timeline," said Bitty when the line connected.
"Uh—?" said Jack, and set his tub of Tiger Balm back on the dresser with a clack.
Bitty laughed sheepishly. "Hi, honey. Did you have a good practice this morning? How's your shoulder?"
"Shoulder's fine. A little achy, but in a good way." Jack kicked off his shoes, climbed onto the bed and piled his pillows against the headboard. "Timeline, eh?"
Bitty sighed, soft and fond. "Jack." When Bitty baked certain things, mostly pancakes and quickbreads, he made a little well in the flour and sugar to pour his liquid ingredients into before he started mixing. Sometimes when he said Jack's name, it felt like that little well, a pause in the conversation, shaped like his cupped hands.
"I love you," Jack said, filling it. Bitty smiled.
"Maybe I'm stupid for not letting this go, but. Jack, I can't, I."
"Bits. So let's talk about timelines."
"Well. Okay. So, June, right? When she's due? So let's say you're playing right up through it. Then you'd get—you'd get the summer off, right away. So you could be there." Jack hummed. "And then you'd go back to work in fall. So what if I took fall off? I get thirteen weeks through the station, and that would get the baby to six months, which is a reasonable age to start daycare. Though I haven't talked to Kate yet and maybe there's a way to push some projects back, work part time. But there are two nice daycares close to us that have websites; I already called the one on Maple Street and their waiting list is two years, so we'd have to jump on that, but I'm sure the girls know of others, I left a voicemail with Fay. Or we could bring in a nanny, or—"
"Bits," Jack broke in, "you've always hated the idea of letting your child be raised by an au pair."
"Well I don't have much of a choice, do I!" Bitty's calmness fractured. "I can't stop working, Jack, not now, not this year or next, anyway; there's too much happening! The book and the campaigns.... There's gonna be compromises. We just have to find the best ones. The best."
"Yes," said Jack. "But you shouldn't have to—There's got to be—" His brain felt like a car engine failing to turn over. "Look, we've barely had the news for twenty-four hours. I still need time to process. If it comes down to it, you know I was raised by au pairs, whenever Mom was working. And I turned out...well. Hah, extenuating circumstances, I guess, but—"
"Fine," Bitty interjected softly. "You turned out just fine, sweetheart."
"I meant, we could ask my mom for advice about it, if we were considering—"
"Yeah. God, I'm sorry for pouncing on you with all this. Of course you need to process, and focus on your work in the meantime, and Lord knows I should take my own counsel and maybe just try and breathe for a minute before going haring off in all directions."
"It'll be easier in person, too," said Jack. "I'll be back before you know it."
They won the first game. Coach Kelly didn't give Jack a lot of minutes, content to let him coddle his shoulder and yammer advice to the rookies from the bench. Instead, he bumped up Diggs, and tested him with Hoss and Muzz. The Rangers didn't enjoy it.
On the plane south, Diggs plopped down in the seat beside him. "Where's your ten pound tome, old man? Please tell me you're using your tablet to surf ESPN and get into Twitter wars with Dan Johnston."
Jack, who was trying to compose a preliminary reply to his cousin, picked up the hardcover he'd wedged next to his thigh and smacked it down in Diggs' lap, generating an oof. "I stole this one from Bittle. One of his guests wrote it."
"Food/Empire," Diggs read aloud. "Modern Politics of Hunger. Forgive me for suggesting even for an instant that you are not a full-time, card-carrying, complete and utter nerd."
"We know this," said Jack. "You love nerds." Diggy's girlfriend was an art historian.
"Just finish your PhD already."
"I might have time if I didn't have to babysit your ass."
"Okaay, have fun studyin', Daddy." Diggs rose from his seat with an obnoxious wink and called, "Oi, Piff, you know how to play Hold'em?"
Jack put his tablet down in his lap and stared at nothing.
The second half of the trip was tougher. Jack considered his team as he warmed up in practice, a little detached in spite of his best intentions, watching other people's patterns more than focusing on his own. Part of him longed to bow out of lunch and take a bath, but a glance around the locker room told him to stay. He made the rounds, asked after girlfriends and pets and hobbies and anything that wasn't hockey, busted out his library of dad jokes as people finished up their meals and dispersed for afternoon naps and video game contests. Watched as Diggy, gregarious and long-armed, took Piffy under his literal wing, and was reminded again of himself, years back, adjusting to the phenomenon that was Tater. Caught Snowy shooting him a knowing smile.
They won again, and it was Jack who brought it in with an assist and a goal in overtime. He wasn't the fittest player on the ice anymore, but he was still the smartest. He smiled, did press, answered questions about Dooley. Even signed a handful of autographs for a gaggle of fans in enemy territory. One of the boys wore an old Falconers Pride jersey, raggedy around the cuffs.
The flight home was quiet. Most of the guys dimmed their lights, bunched up their pillows just so, and slept. Jack, with a row to himself near the front of the plane, dimmed his light too, and put away his book. Below, the continent glittered, velvet black with arteries of gold.
Jack thought. He didn't try to steer himself in any direction in particular, content to let the thoughts and feelings that had spent the weekend working quietly in the background rise up to the fore at their leisure. Suspended in the air, he hurtled homeward.
Bitty was asleep when Jack got in, curled up on his side in his usual stuffy little cocoon, facing away from the door. As always, he woke up just enough to register Jack crawling into bed and slide his foot along Jack's calf in welcome, then fall instantly back under.
Part of Jack was grateful Bitty wasn't stressed enough to wake up fully. Part of him wanted to talk to him immediately. He settled for spooning, even though he knew he'd overheat.
A blessed day off. Jack woke up and fed the clamouring beasts, then prowled back up the bed and lowered himself on top of Bitty. As Bitty grunted and began to stir, Jack planted a noisy raspberry next to his ear. Bitty turtled, then in spite of Jack's weight managed to execute some kind of mysterious compact rotation under the covers, and stuck his foot in Jack's face.
"Well," said Jack pragmatically, "this is not my favourite part of you to make love to, but I can make do."
Over breakfast, Bitty steered the conversation away from heavy things.
"Help me brainstorm a podcast about peanuts."
"P, B and J," said Jack.
Bitty rolled his eyes. "Okay. But why?"
Under the table, Jack found Bitty's shin with his toes. "Comfort, predictability. Nostalgia." His lips tipped up. "Love. Well, for me. That might be less universal."
"I don't know. I think packed lunches mean love for a lot of people."
"That's true. Spouses, parents and kids."
Bitty took a breath. Jack put his last strawberry on Bitty's plate. "Um," said Bitty. "Monocultures? Economics, Africa, colonialism."
"Circus food," said Bitty. "Peanut galleries. Charlie Brown."
"I knew a hockey player who named his dick 'peanut.'"
Bitty spluttered into his coffee. "Preemptive self-deprecation?"
"No, that was the funny part: he was hung like a damned draft horse."
In the afternoon, Jack sat on one end of the couch, cat around his neck, writing the first draft of a position paper on a yellow legal pad. Bitty and dog occupied the other end. Bitty had one hand on his tablet and the other playing with Connie's ears. Rain tapped gently against the window panes, but the windows let in enough muted, silvery light to keep the table lamps turned off.
Jack loved days like this. They reminded him of college, a little bit, sitting in someone's bedroom in the Haus in companionable studiousness. In the Haus, they'd have been interrupted three times by now, by a shouty wrestling match downstairs, by someone poking their head in to offer a plate of pizza bites hot from the oven, by an underclassman wanting dating advice or Lardo wanting a second opinion on a portfolio piece. He'd never minded those interruptions. He liked their rhythm.
Jack thought about the farmhouse he sat in now, with its strong, old bones and big, green yard, the woods beyond, and the one enormous beech that begged for a treehouse; its bright kitchen with the nook you could fence off like a playpen while you worked at the counter; the spare bedroom with the window well deep enough for a cushion and a little bookshelf. He thought about toys on the floor, and spelling homework spread out on the coffee table next to his reference books, and felt a lump rise in his throat.
He flipped the page over to a clean sheet of looseleaf.
Fifteen minutes later, Jack put down his pad and got up to fill the teakettle. When he returned with two steaming mugs and two cheese pastries on a tray, he nudged Bitty's knee and said, "Scooch if you're at a good stopping place." Bitty peered up at him, then set down his tablet and wiggled away from the end cushion so Jack could slip in behind him.
Jack nodded at his notepad and said, as Bitty retrieved it, "I made a list of baby options. It's no Oluransi Special, but it's a start, eh?"
"Oh, Lord." Bitty gave Jack's arm a squeeze. "Okay. I've got mine on my phone." He craned around and grabbed his phone off the end table, poked at it, and handed it to Jack.
Bitty's memo app didn't look like a list of options so much as a war plan. Interview for web content manager, Jack read. Hand middle schools project off to Kate. Cancel EU trip. Request grant deferral? And, Ask Carrie about nannies; First aid refresher; Get on daycare list!!
The paper Bitty was reading, meanwhile, was divided into pro and con columns labelled Bits quits job, Jack quits job, Bits scales back + hire nanny, Jack takes leave of absence, and Other?
Bitty stared. "Well," he said, "we might as well get rid of some of these. 'Jack quits hockey'?"
"Jack." Jack raised his eyebrows. "You can't quit hockey, you dummy. You love it."
"You love Foodways. Bittle, that is not less important." Bitty squirmed. Jack was extremely familiar with that squirm. "Look, let's look at facts. I've played for almost ten years. I'm officially old, in hockey years. No, I wasn't planning to retire for a while yet, and yes, I still love hockey, but not...not like I used to. It's been getting a little repetitive, eh? It might be time for a change."
"Oh," said Bitty. "Is this...is this new?"
Jack held him closer. "I think...yes and no. You know me, I don't think like that, it takes a crisis for me to get around to formulating anything. Always the last to find the words. And I guess it's been a while since we've talked about it, huh?"
"More than two years. After Fiona Robinson told us about her Samwell plans."
Jack cracked a smile. Fiona loved her hockey uncles. It had given them a jolt, realizing she was on her way to college, but not a big enough jolt: Bits had been in the middle of federal grant hell, and the Falcs struggling with a rebuild. "Not yet," they'd said, yet again. They'd daydreamed together about long term plans: adoption or fostering, maybe an older kid or a set of siblings. It had still been abstract, reiterating promises for the future.
Jack said: "You know what my favourite part of my day is, lately? Except for talking to you? School. Coming home, or finding a quiet corner on the road, and arguing with classmates on the internet about educational policy.
"And my favourite parts at the rink are the coaching parts. I've got my Cup rings; I know what kind of player I am. These days, the exciting stuff is watching my rookies make their first big plays. Watching Diggy grow into his A."
"You've always been such a good coach," Bitty murmured.
"Bitty." Jack took a deep breath and pressed his forehead against Bitty's temple. "I want this. You know I've always wanted this with you; it's just that I was building my career or you were, and we've talked about it and fretted about it and always made the decision, together, to wait. 'The timing,' we always said, 'the timing.' Well: I think the timing's different."
"Let's be really damned clear about what's different," said Bitty. "This time you want to raise a child—your cousin's child—more than you want to stay in the NHL."
Hearing it put so baldly made Jack gasp. "I want—" he said, and then got stuck. "Wow."
"Wow." Bitty giggled, and turned around to look at him properly. "I always thought you wanted it not quite as much as me. Lord, when we first started dating, I'd half expected to be a house husband with a baby on my hip by twenty-three. And now here I am agonizing over how to scale back a job I adore, and you just plunk yourself down and propose to wave goodbye to next year's contract, easy as pie. Wow, he says."
"It's actually good timing, on that front," Jack protested. "And it's not—it's not easy, Bits. More like fucking terrifying. But I think, maybe, in a good way. Maybe just the right way."
Bitty said nothing for a long moment. His mouth wobbled. Jack held back from kissing it and let his husband process. "I could still cut back my work a bit, so I could be there."
"You could coach that kids' camp you were sad about last year."
"Or finish the damned PhD."
Bitty initiated the kiss.
"Now don't you do anything hasty, Jack Laurent!" Bitty broke away with a gasp. "We should—we should sit on it for a week, at least! Let me talk to Kate at the studio. And you should talk to your poor agent."
"Alain will live. Though I guess I should brace for some sulking; contract negotiations are his favourite."
Bitty looked down at Jack's crumpled little grid of pros and cons. "Should we tell the fam yet? I feel like we missed an opportunity to call the troops in for a proper decision-making pageant. Ransom will be so sad."
Jack buried a chuckle in Bitty's shoulder. "We've got lots of decisions left. They can meddle to their hearts' content when we're designing treehouses and evaluating summer camps. This one was ours."
Jack got a text with a photo attachment after practice on Monday. It was a onesie in Samwell red with "scoot scoot" written across the bum. Oh no, Bitty had written.
Oh boy, Jack wrote back.
...I'll just put the rest on Pinterest, Bitty replied.
I read an article that said exposing babies to dog slobber is good for their immune systems, Jack texted Bitty. Though there are conflicting schools of thought on how young the baby should be.
Okay, sweetheart, said Bitty. You gonna print that out and read it to Constance?
Chirp, chirp, chirp, said Jack.
What if the baby's allergic to gluten?
We'll buy new cookbooks.
What if it wants to play lacrosse?
Well then we'll be the yellingest damned lacrosse parents in New England.
What if it's triplets?
Fancy stroller, bigger laundry basket.
On Wednesday after practice, Jack went to visit Dooley. Most of him was immobilized, but his grin upon spying Jack in the doorway of the hospital room was huge. "Finally!" Dools shouted. "O captain, my captain, my baked goods smuggler, tell me what you have brought to ease my sufferings!"
"An IOU," Jack said. "For when you can actually chew." Dools pouted. Jack sat in the hard little visitors' chair and patted Dools' knee. "So, euh, how're you feeling? Anything you and Angie need, besides marshmallow pie as soon as you're allowed?"
"Nah, man, they're takin' care of me. I mean, I'm bummed as hell, but my therapist is stopping by tomorrow, gonna make sure I don't start barking while I'm here."
"Good, that's good." Jack spared a moment to be grateful for the ease with which Dools mentioned counselling. The culture had changed. Jack could recognize his own part in that.
"How's my replacement? Peein' his pants at the chance to play with le Zimmboni?"
"Ha. He'll be fine. Got a good, hard shot on him."
"Sweet. I hope he's got the rest of what you need."
Jack frowned. "You know, I try not to think of it that way. The franchise can worry about picking the best talent. My job's always been about taking the guys they give me, supporting them, and turning them into Falconers. Less about what they've got to give, more about what we've got to offer, eh?"
Dools looked amused by Jack's earnestness, then thoughtful. "Heh. Yeah, I remember that." He hadn't come to the Falcs as a rookie, but he'd been a little wide-eyed all the same, and Jack had taken his usual awkward pains to ensure he settled in. "You're a regular old schoolmarm, Cap. But I guess the Cups don't lie." Jack held his fist out for a bump. "Send little Piffy over here, if you think he'll take it well. I'll give him my blessing an' shit."
They chatted for another few minutes before Jack rose to leave. As Jack made for the door, Dools finally came out with the part Jack had been half expecting all along. "Jack?" Jack turned back around and tried to make his face encouraging. "I'm...I'm sorry. I know you're gonna tell me it wasn't my fault, but it was a risky play and I judged it wrong and now.... I just, I really wanted to play with you again this year, and I feel like I let you down."
Jack sighed and leant against the foot of the bed. "Yeah. I've been there. Believe me. And it doesn't matter how long the parade of people telling you it's not your fault, and you did your best, and even if you did fuck up, it's okay; everybody does. You still feel like shit."
"Yeah," said Dools quietly.
"Dooley. You're a great player. Get serious about healing up, so you can get back out there with me." The voice did the trick. If Dools could have sat up straighter, he would have. As it was, the only change was around his eyes, but it was the change Jack was hoping for. "And Dooley? Still not your fault."
Tape review, a work out, a forty-minute practice and lunch with the boys, and then he was out. Past the giant airbrushed fresco of his own dumb face, glaring out from under his helmet. Ten years in, and Jack still found the damned thing vaguely embarrassing to look at.
He pushed open a heavy steel door and squinted into bright sunlight. The service lot was full of cars but empty of people, and over the background noise of the nearby boulevard he could hear birdsong—just sparrows, probably, bouncing and flitting among the brilliant red sugar maples on the far side of the asphalt.
Jack sat down on the loading dock, his old friend, where he'd had a panic attack the day they'd announced that Marty had been traded, and an even bigger one after Georgia had told him she'd accepted a hugely deserved general managership in Boston. He'd hugged her, congratulated her, taken her assurances that she'd stay in touch, she'd always be his friend. And two hours later, after a punishing workout, he'd staggered out here and fallen apart, cracking his phone on the pavement as he fumbled to pull up Bitty's number.
Now Jack weighed his phone in his hand, blew out a big, but calm breath, and dialed George.
She picked up on the second ring. "Jack! Hey kiddo, what's cookin'?"
Jack smiled. "Hi George. I'm—I'm good; how are you?"
"Uh-oh, what's up, baby?"
He'd never know how she did it. Everyone but his nearest and dearest still teased him about his inscrutable monotone. "Haha. Nothing, euh, bad. I'm thinking about retiring."
Something on the other end of the line clunked, and Georgia cleared her throat before asking, "Whoa. When?"
"End of the season. This season." A bouquet of profanity bloomed forth in the wake of this declaration, followed by the sound of Georgia's power heels clicking down a hallway. Jack found himself smiling down at his toes. "I received a competing offer, I guess you could say. Once in a lifetime sort of deal. Pretty compelling."
"You don't say. Alright, I'm out of earshot of the interns. Spill."
Jack explained himself. After he fell silent, Georgia was silent too.
"Do, uh, you think it's a good choice? Smart, I mean?"
"Oh, Jack," said Georgia. "You're thirty-what, now? You're in tremendous shape, you've got years left in you, and you're not mine anymore, so I'm free to say exactly what I think: I think it's a beautiful choice."
Jack's throat went a little funny. "Yeah?"
"Your poor GM is going to have kittens. Break it to him gently, eh?"
"Actually I wanted your advice on that. How to tell the team, and management. It wouldn't be right to hide it for too long, but I don't want it hanging over the season either."
"Of course you don't. I'd keep it from the press, though. Fucking hell, they're going to freak."
"That'll be novel," Jack deadpanned.
"I love you so much, you beautiful troublemaker. Listen, I'm getting into my car, but I'll text you with—how about lunch plans, if you can squash me in soonish. I can drive down, or, actually, if you don't mind Foxborough, there's a new biergarten near the Gilette Tammy's raving about..."
"Yes," said Jack. "That's perfect. Love you, too, George. Say hi to Selena and Em."
Lardo and her girlfriend, Frances, brought the triplets down for Sunday dinner. Shitty was driving from New York, but called to pledge he'd be there in time for Bitty's apple pudding cake with rum sauce if he had to ride the shoulder the whole way.
It was warm enough for grilling, so Bitty handed a heap of marinated steaks off to Jack and followed the kids plus dog onto the lawn, where a shrieky game of frisbee soon commenced. Lardo sat on the porch railing and kept Jack company while Frances put the finishing touches on her fancy cocktails inside.
"How's Aida?" Jack asked. Lardo built sets for the Boston Lyric Opera. She had one IRNE award and one Norton, the later of which she had earned while pregnant with triplets and blasting DIY punk from the mainstage's massive state-of-the-art sound system. Nobody questioned her methods.
"Weird," said Lardo. "The director's favourite movie is Mad Max."
Jack considered. "Huh. That sort of works."
"We'll see," said Lardo. "How're you?"
"We're thinking about adopting."
"Bro," said Lardo. She set down her drink.
Jack poked at his vegetables with his tongs, and started flipping the delicata squash. "We've got an opportunity. I'm pretty sure we're gonna go for it. A lot of details to work out, though."
"No shit. Bitty's schedule is even worse than yours. And he's got, like, strong feelings about au pairs and shit, right?"
"Yeah. So do I, really. I had one for a few years, while we were in Pittsburgh."
"What's the opportunity?"
Jack told her.
"Daaaamn. That's amazing, but, like, talk about now or never."
Frances joined them. She was the triplets' primary caregiver, though they were biologically Lardo's and Shitty's. She worked from home, painting exquisite watercolours and selling them online.
A particularly joyful shriek drew their attention to the kids and Bitty tearing around the yard. It was fun to watch. Bitty was more rough-and-tumble than one might have guessed, showing his athlete's genes as he stalked across the grass, lunged, and snatched the frisbee out of the air right in front of his indignant godchild, who slammed into his middle and sent them both to the grass. The other two piled on, whooping. But a minute later, when Iris was having trouble getting the toy airborne, he stooped behind her ever so gently, and helped her position her hands, and—
"Jackaroo," said Lardo softly, and slid off the railing and took the barbecue tongs from his hand. "Go take a video for Shits, and then I think we're ready to plate."
Shitty pulled in halfway through dessert, rumpled but bright-eyed, cursing the traffic and making grateful grabby-hands at the heaped plate Bitty brought him. He yelled about Jack's goal against the Leafs, and begged his children for a serenade of "Five Green and Speckled Frogs" and "Ooples and Banoonoos," which they had learnt that week in school. "This week was the worst," Shitty complained. "That motherheckin' G-W-G was my only consolation. Oh, and port. Otis brought me port from the Finger Lakes, in a jar. It is amazeballs. Fudge, I left it in the car." And then they all gave Shitty grief about saying "amazeballs" fifteen years after its natural expiry date, especially in reference to unlabelled, family reserve port given to him by the son of the attorney general.
Lardo and Frances packed up when the girls began to droop, and Bitty trotted out to the car with them, carrying leftovers. Shitty loitered in the kitchen and helped Jack load the dishwasher. Jack handed him the spoon from the rum sauce to lick, and told him what he'd told Lardo by the grill.
Shitty got a little teary.
"You tell your folks yet?" he asked, after he'd wrung Jack of all the rest of his information.
"No. We didn't want to dangle a promise of grandkids before we were sure. We'll tell them soon, now."
"Suzie's gonna go nuts. Oh my God, Bob's gonna go nuts."
"Haha, yeah. It's weird. I've been thinking about Dad a lot, and what it was like when he retired. What I want to do differently. I was afraid it might just feel like dredging up old shit, but it's good. It's like I'm finding sympathy for him all over again."
Shitty nodded, hip cocked against the counter. Best listening frown in place.
Jack said, "Dad didn't stop playing because he had a little boy he wanted to be there for. He stopped when he got concussed so badly it gave him permanent vertigo. That..." He paused, picking his words.
Shitty filled in: "Was fuckin' stupid." Jack snorted, and snapped Shitty with a dish towel. "Man, you know I love your dad. And you know I wouldn't love your dad if I weren't fucking sure he'd say the same thing, you feel? Dude made big mistakes. Dude's aware of them."
"I guess. It took me until...actually really recently...to see it like that. That it was a choice, it's always a choice, to play or not to play. I don't think it felt like that for him. I don't think it ever even occurred to him that the choice existed."
"One does not simply stop playing hockey," Shitty intoned.
"Hah. Right. Even when Bits and I were coming out, you know, I thought having a boyfriend might make it hard for a while, but I never truly thought it would bench me. I always knew an injury could, but that's different. Quitting on purpose, though? Mindfuck."
"I don't blame Dad, eh? And I don't want to bring it up and make him revisit all that stuff."
"Brah, Bad Bob is going to be full of feels whether you bring it up or not. Prepare thyself."
"We'll distract him with Bitty's Pinterest."
Shitty hooted, then reached over and punched Jack's shoulder. "So what are you gonna do with yourself? Mr. Retired-by-Forty. Once your sproglet's off at school."
Jack cuffed him back, trapped him in an idle headlock, then kept his arm around Shitty's shoulder and looked out the window at his neatly mulched flowerbeds. "Competitive horticulture?" Shitty threw back his head and laughed. "I don't know. We've talked about adopting more than one kid, maybe getting certified to foster. I'm interested in education and sports psych, and I love coaching. I'm—for once I'm happy not to have to figure everything out at once. I'm excited to just wait and see."
Jack let the dog out once more while Bitty put the last of the serving spoons away. "Hey, Bits?" he called from the doorway. "Come out here for a minute."
Bitty wiped his hands and followed Jack onto the porch, and then, at his beckoning, down onto the lawn. Connie was a black and white smudge nosing among the hostas. Jack slung an arm around Bitty's waist and pointed upward. "'S pretty." The sky was very clear, the stars brilliant. Jack spotted Cassiopeia overhead, and maybe Orion, just beginning to peek up over the trees. Bitty leaned into Jack's warmth, and Jack pulled Bitty in front of himself and wrapped him up, back to chest.
"I like you," Jack confided in Bitty's ear.
Bitty stroked Jack's fingers and tipped his head back. "I like you, too."
"Will you like me when I'm not playing hockey and I'm underfoot all the time?"
"Yeah. Pretty sure I'll keep liking you even then."
"Good. That's good then."
Bitty turned. His eyes were big and bright.
"I'm not renewing my contract. I'm calling Alain tomorrow. If we're still on the same page."
Bitty exhaled, long and slow, and brought his hands up to Jack's chest. "We are."
"Talking to our friends tonight just confirmed it for me. And watching you with Iris. I'm ready. It's our turn."
"Ready to be a stay-at-home dad, Mr. Zimmermann?"
Jack grinned, and then couldn't stop there and laughed out loud. Bitty laughed too. "Oh my God. Yes."
They stumbled back indoors, hands already roaming, stopping only so Jack could whistle for Constance and scoop up the frisbee lying by the steps.
A win at home. A shut-out, no less. Piffy's first point.
Jack looked around the room, at Diggs, with his Afro that stuck out under his helmet like some giant, sentient creature, terrorizing jackass sportscasters everywhere; at Hoss, who dyed his pale hair hot pink and painted his nails to match; at Snowy with his earbuds full of Russian symphonies and Muzzy with his backpack full of children's word search books and ballpoint pens; and at Pfeiffer and that crazy slapshot, who had come out of his shell enough to chirp his linemate in practice that morning, who reminded Jack so strongly of himself, who had just needed someone to send him up and give him a chance. Jack would get them to the Cup this year, hell or high water. And then he'd hand the keys to Diggs, and they'd be okay. They'd be spectacular.
Today, 3:42 PM
Came home early and found the loves of my life (yes, even the cat, don't tell anyone) sacked out in the hammock. Get a load of this dad. Love, Bitty