To be fair, the first month Josh Urben stayed with Jack and Bitty was really, really busy.
Coming in fresh from visiting his parents in Ohio, being met at the airport by Jack Fucking Zimmermann himself, it was all a blur. His boxes had already arrived from his billet family in Lincoln when he stumbled past the second floor and up the stairs.
”That’s my space in there, and that’s the master,” the small blond man had told him on the way up, before setting a slice of pie and a large glass of milk on the dresser in his new third-floor bedroom. It was only later that he really registered his host’s name.
Flopping face-first onto the bottom bunk of his new bed and falling asleep became a habit immediately.
They would go from early practice to media training to nutrition training to gym and back to the ice. The food was good, and his new, unexpected roommate seemed to be the source of a lot of it. He was also everywhere.
Zimmermann introduced him to the handful of new rookies as “Our social media guru and your best friend in the nutrition department, Eric Bittle. Call him Bitty.” By that time, Josh had already experienced late-night pie, early morning fried chicken and waffles, and mid-morning chocolate banana muffins, and was completely unsurprised by the fond look on Zimmermann’s face. That fried chicken was amazing.
Later in the second day, Zimmermann had gotten up front and center to explain the team’s and the league’s policy about homophobia, homophobic language, and inclusivity.
“We have a lot of people on staff in this organization,” Jack had said. “There are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people working for the Falcs. We have a moral duty to make everyone feel welcome, and to help people feel safe at work. Plus, it will cost you a lot of money if you use that kind of language out on the ice. If the NHL doesn’t fine you, we will. Read your contracts.”
Someone else had opened his mouth to argue the point, and Jack had come down hard. Josh kept his mouth shut. His billet mom, Margie, had talked for hours about “That gay team,” but hell, it was an NHL team, and he wanted to play. He didn’t believe half of what the other guys had talked about seeing online.
Anyone with eyes could see that Jack Zimmermann was as straight and narrow as they came. The man was a god among hockey players. He might not have beaten Parson’s first year stats, but he’d made up for his late start already.
Bitty, on the other hand… well, clearly he was one of the organization’s employees, and it didn’t take too much guessing to guess that that might be who Jack was talking about, but by the time Josh came to that conclusion he’d already added five more pieces of pie, an amazing turkey-and-spinach lasagne, the best goddamn omelet he’d ever eaten, and, well, it wasn’t any of Josh’s business what the guy did in his spare time.
Not that anyone seemed to have spare time.
“Today we’ll be shooting your ‘get to know you’ videos,” Bitty said over breakfast. “I’ll be pulling people from practice all day. Jack, sweetheart, do you have class tonight?”
Jack didn’t seem fazed at all by the endearment as he nodded around a bite of quiche, but Josh had already heard Bitty call Tater “Darlin’” and say “Bless your heart” to Snowy, and he’d grown accustomed to Margie calling everyone “Sugar” a long time ago, so if Jack didn’t care, Josh didn’t see why he should. Hell, Bitty had already “hon’ed” him twice.
“Class?” Josh asked.
“Jack takes a class over at Brown every term so he can check books out of their library,” Bitty said. “In another ten years he might actually get his doctorate.”
Josh blinked at that. He’d been incredibly grateful to scrape through high school with a diploma and get the hell out and into a profession that should set him for life, if he could just get through the training camp. The idea of doing what they were doing now, plus spending hours a week squinting at books… “What kind of class?”
Jack put down his fork and smiled. “Women and Gender in the Antebellum South.”
Josh stared for a moment, and then said, “Does taking a class like that get you a lot of chicks?”
Bitty spluttered around a bite of quiche, and Jack frowned. “Even if I wanted ‘a lot of chicks,’ it would be completely inappropriate to take a graduate level course with that as my goal, and I’d advise you stop thinking of women as ‘chicks’ and start thinking of them as people before you get yourself in serious legal trouble.”
“I didn’t mean…” Josh stared at his plate. “I wouldn’t…”
Bitty reached over and put a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, hon, you’re new. It’s probably not like this in Nebraska. It wasn’t in Madison, either. But the management does not look kindly on scandal, and in this day and age you really need to keep your wits about you and be very careful about what you say to people. You will not lack for dating opportunities in the off season, or on the road, for that matter, but you would do well to be very careful about what you say and what you do, and who you say it to and who you do it with.”
Josh stared at the hand on his arm and Bitty pulled it back. “I hear about players with chi… with gir… with women all the time.”
“Better,” Jack said. “Look, we can’t tell you what to do with your spare time, or in your personal life, but you will be happier in the long run if you don’t get in the news in the wrong way. They can be brutal, and they don’t let up.”
“I never believed what they said about you,” Josh said. “You’re an amazing player and anyone with eyes can see that.”
“Yeah, they usually get things really wrong,” Bitty said. “But it’s best not to give them anything to work with. Be nice to your fans and be a gentleman, and you’ll be a favorite in no time. Stand up for people who need a voice, and you’ll have fans willing to die for you. You have a chance to do some good in the world, simply by being a better human being than the guys on the other team.”
Josh nodded earnestly.
He’d applied himself, then, to training as hard as he could. The team was a lot like the other teams he’d played with over the years, but it took him a week to realize how different it was at the same time. The guys teased each other, sure. He’d even seen Bitty slap Jack on the ass at work, though Jack had scolded the guy and threatened to talk to HR. Bitty had just laughed, and Jack didn’t seem actually mad, so Josh hadn’t said anything. Tater was constantly touching everyone, and the chirping was endless. But where other teams had been full of guys bragging about their exploits and swaggering at any passing girls, here, that just didn’t happen. He finally asked Snowy about it, and Snowy had laughed.
“With Georgia around? She’s got more Olympic gold than anyone else on the team, and she could check you into the boards. Would, too, if she caught you pulling that shit. It’s 2019. You don’t want to be a meme. Not that way. Besides. You wanna get laid? Just wait until we’re on the road. Women will want to be with you, you just better fucking well make sure you ask them clearly if they want to be with you before you get with them. You ask at every stage, and you don’t fucking grab anyone without their express permission.”
Josh considered that, and then said, “So, what's with the eyeliner?”
Snowy stared at him for a moment, popped a piece of gum in his mouth and said, “Cuts the glare on the ice,” before he started to chew it.
“Huh,” Josh said, and forgot to ask about the ass-patting.
_x_ _x_ _x_
He slogged through two media training classes okay. Being in front of the camera was all right, and he’d always done okay face to face with fans. But the third session was about social media, and it was one thing to be staring up at the smartboard, and another thing entirely when they told everyone to pull out their phones.
He slowly pulled out his old phone and the room went silent.
“Shit, Benny, is that a keypad?” one of the other players said, peering over his shoulder.
“I thought we were going with Jurber?” another player said, and then, “Fuck, it is a keypad, what the hell, that phone must be older than I am.”
“Head over to tech services, Josh,” Bitty said. “They’ll set you up.”
“I don’t like social media,” Josh answered. “I would never use it.”
Everyone was staring at him, and he said, “I don’t like sitting still long enough to stare at that little screen. People call me if they want me bad enough.”
Bitty seemed more amused than was probably warranted. “Still. Talk to tech services. We’ll maybe assign you someone to manage your social media if you don’t want to. Maybe I’ll do it. I’ve been running Jack’s long enough.”
Josh and Jack bonded a little that night over their loathing of social media, though maybe not for the same reasons.
“I’ve got better things to do,” Jack said, looking at Josh over the book he was reading, when Josh asked him about having someone else manage his accounts.
“Exactly!” Josh agreed.
It was a week later that Bitty pulled Josh out of one of the endless ice sessions to work on his account. “I’d do it at home, but you’ve been crashing so early… it feels like we barely see you!”
“I’ve never been so tired in my life,” Josh said as he took off his skates. “What are we doing today? Another video?”
“We’ve got your accounts set up, and I wanted to show you,” Bitty said.
“I don’t really care all that much,” Josh said. “Just do whatever.”
“Bless your heart,” Bitty said. “This is your public face. I don’t want to get it wrong.”
Josh sighed, and said, “Fine. But does it have to be on the phone?”
“I thought you’d want to see how it worked…” Bitty said.
“I’m not going to be doing it, I don’t need to see how it works. Aren’t all those things on a computer, too?”
Bitty nodded. “Come on then.”
In the media office, Bitty brought up Josh’s new Facebook page, his Twitter profile, and his Instagram, and cast them over to the large screen at the end of the room.
“Everything is set to private right now,” Bitty said. “Pending your okay.”
Josh narrowed his eyes, looked each thing over. “Looks all right to me. All the dates are right and everything.”
“Now I know you don’t want to do a lot of updating from your phone,” Bitty said. “But you really should learn how to access these things in case of emergency.”
Josh pulled out his phone and looked at it. “I’m pretty comfortable with the phone I’ve got. I like the keypad. I’m used to it.”
“How is that thing still working?” Bitty asked, turning it over in his hands. “It’s what, from 2010?”
“I got it for Christmas when I was 11,” Josh said. “I just get it a new battery every now and then.”
Bitty gaped. “They still make that battery?”
“I guess? I just keep it plugged in whenever I’m not actually using it. Everyone knows I don’t text, so it doesn’t go off much.”
“Well, let me show you how these sites work on a computer, anyway,” Bitty said.
Josh kicked back and put his feet on the desk. “All right, but blow it up a little. I hate sitting close to the screen.”
Bitty glanced at him, frowned, and then did something to make the text bigger. “First, you need to know what your options are…”
_x_ _x_ _x_
Josh had been in Providence for a full month when he asked Tater why everyone called Bitty, Bitty.
“He Bitty Baker Boy,” Tater said. “Is hockey nickname. Real name Eric Bittle.”
“I knew that, but you all treat him like a player?” Josh said, adjusting his pads.
“Was player. College. Same line as Zimmboni.” Tater narrowed his eyes. “Still need to come up with name for you, Urben. What they call you in Juniors?”
“Urbsy,” Josh said.
“Hm.” Tater said. “Rubber?”
Josh shuddered. “Please, no. People will get the wrong idea. I’ll never live it down.”
“Poots say same thing. I think on it,” Tater said. “And Bitty is good cook. You stay there, no?”
“He cooks like that all the time,” Josh said. “I’ve already put on weight.”
“Good,” Tater said. “You need it.”
“So Bitty and Jack met at college?” Josh asked.
“They… what they call it? Housemates. On same line. Bitty fast on ice. Soft hands. Good partner for Jack. They good together.”
“They seem to get along really well,” Josh said.
Tater looked at him a little funny and said, “Hope so—they live together.”
_x_ _x_ _x_
Right before the season started for real, Bitty set up with a camera crew in the quaint old kitchen at their house, and he and Jack and Josh spent an entire evening cooking in front of the camera.
Dinner was first, with Bitty walking Josh through the basics of making rice in an Instant Pot. Bitty kept referring Josh to a recipe, and Josh just kept asking for instructions one at a time until it was made. While that was cooking, they grilled marinated chicken tenders on the double-wide gas stove, and chopped vegetables, which went into a pan.
“You can really do these vegetables any way you want,” Bitty said, “But we’ll go for fast, and with simple equipment here. The chicken could be in a flat pan, but I can’t resist this grill. Just make sure your pan is as hot as Jack’s ass and you should have no trouble.”
Josh coughed, and glanced at Jack, who just looked amused. The camera was rolling, so he didn’t want to ask about it.
Bitty had a series of pastes and sauces lined up, and was now explaining how to add flavor fast to basic chicken and vegetables.
“The Panang curry paste is my favorite,” Bitty said, pointing at a small bowl full of deep orange-red paste. “It's just the right level of spice. Just start with a little and build up. This is not curry powder, it’s hot and spicy and thick and a little goes a long way. You can add soy sauce or coconut aminos if you want, or salsa, or a combination. When Jack and I were in Thailand this summer, they would have a dozen little pots of flavor and draw from some or all of them depending on the dish. Fresh green onions, basil, cilantro, all of them can make your same-old-same-old taste completely new. You can even add nuts for some extra protein.”
And with that, he winked at Jack, who blushed and murmured, “Bits…”
Bitty grinned wide and said, “So that’s dinner. When we come back, we’ll be making pie for dessert.”
The cameras paused while they ate. Josh tried a tiny bit of the curry paste, and it blew his mind.
Bitty got up, got a glass of milk, and put it in front of him. “It’ll clear the heat if it’s too much. I’d give you beer, but you’re only 18.”
“I’d take it,” Josh said.
“You missed out on the underaged drinking when you didn’t go to college,” Jack muttered.
“Straight-laced guy like you did underaged drinking?” Josh said.
Jack looked at him really strangely. “Didn’t you read my Wikipedia article?”
“I don’t believe half of what I see online,” Josh said, and took another bite of rice with a little less curry paste.
“Well, that part was true,” Jack said. “Learn from my example. Don’t fuck up your life.”
“You’re a captain of an NHL team and scored more points than God last year. Seems like you’re doing okay,” Josh said.
Jack smiled at that, and Bitty said to Jack, “Okay, we can keep him.”
Jack snorted and said, “Congratulations, rookie, you’ve been adopted by our resident mother hen.”
Josh shrugged. “If the food is always as good as it’s been, I don’t mind.”
_x_ _x_ _x_
It was during the pie making that things got really weird. Jack was constantly in Bitty’s space, bumping into him.
“I told you no checking in my kitchen, sweetheart,” Bitty said as they set the lattice on a large, flat piece of silicone.
“I’m messing this up,” Josh said.
“It’s not that fussy,” Bitty said. “Even imperfect pie is still pie.”
Josh focused really hard on getting the lattice right, only glancing up when he heard a sudden burst of laughter behind him.
“Did I fuck it up?” Josh blinked and clapped a flour-covered hand over his mouth. “Oh shit, I forgot we were filming.”
Bitty, who was struggling to regain his composure, shook his head, and said, “It’s alright, hon, we can bleep it out in post. Along with Mister Zimmermann’s shenanigans.”
“Straight up guy like him?” Josh said.
Jack snorted. “Haven’t been called that in a couple years.”
Bitty handed Josh a damp cloth. “You have flour on your cheeks.
Jack patted Bitty on the ass and said, “So do you.”
Josh blinked owlishly, trying to figure out how to react to that, and Bitty returned to the counter and said, “So... now we’re going to roll this lattice onto the pie. The silicone makes it easy…”
_x_ _x_ _x_
Things came to a head a few days later, when Bitty pulled Josh aside and said, “I need to know, are you having trouble reading?”
Josh stiffened. “I can read.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Bitty said. “I’ve just been thinking and I realized that every single thing you’ve done that involved reading was up on a smartboard or a big computer screen.”
“I can see just fine,” Josh said. “I just don’t like little screens.”
Bitty nodded. “You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t see, but that doesn’t mean that you’re good at every distance. You won’t be in trouble if you do have a visual issue, but we really, really need to know about it if you do, so that we can make accommodations. You’ve already missed at least a dozen notes I’ve left for you in your lunches.”
“You leave notes in my lunches?” Josh asked. “I didn’t… Those little pieces of paper? I thought they were some decorative thing.”
“Nothing really critical,” Bitty said. “Just a few words of encouragement and some reminders to meet with staff at certain times. Did you not notice that most of the other guys weren’t pulled out by staff, but went out on their own?”
Josh sank down on the bench in the locker room and sighed. “My near vision is kinda blurry. I can get it if I squint, but now that I’m out of school, I haven’t been bothering. It gives me headaches. It didn’t matter once I didn’t have to read for school. I mean, I thought it didn’t matter.”
Bitty nodded. “You play very good hockey, but we really need to get your eyes checked. It’s probably fixable, and it might even make your hockey better. It will certainly give you more energy if you’re not straining to see.”
“But that would mean glasses?” Josh asked.
“I have no idea,” Bitty said. “There’s a lot of options. Half the guys on the team play with contacts.”
“I didn’t know,” Josh said.
“That’s why we put rookies with senior players,” Bitty said. “We want to catch things like this as early as we can.”
_x_ _x_ _x_
It was startling how much the world changed after the vision exam. He’d never had much problem with the high contrast puck at a distance, but suddenly he could see every line crisp and clear without straining. A minor astigmatism, they said, and a little farsighted. Neither alone would be a problem, but together, they made him prone to carsickness when he wasn't driving, and fine text in his near vision required a lot more work to see.
It took a day and a half to readjust to the new vision on the ice, but then he found himself noticing everything.
Including an article on a teammate’s cell phone.
“I hate it when they do that,” Josh said, looking over Zippy’s shoulder.
“Do what?” Zippareli asked.
“Call Jack gay. It’s rude.”
Zippy stared at him. “You’re joking, right?”
Nearby, Tater yelled, “That it! Joker!”
“Joker?” Snowy asked.
“Josh Urben,” Tater said. “Jo-ur. And he making funny. Joker.”
“Ha,” Snowy said. “You know ‘Joshing’ means to kid someone, right?”
“Is perfect!” Tater said. “Hey, everyone! New kid not Urbsy. New name! Joker!”
Across the room, Jack smiled and said, “Well, kid, I don’t think you’re getting out of this one.”
Once people were distracted again, Josh leaned over and whispered, “Why did you ask if I was joking?”
“You worship the guy. You live with him. And Bitty. How can you not know?”
“I mean, yeah, we’re all roommates,” Josh said, baffled.
“I saw the newest video,” Zippy said. “You were right there! They were practically feeling each other up!”
Josh blinked. “Bitty gets friendly, and yeah, I guess he’s probably gay, but I mean, Jack is just really open minded. And I mean, everyone on this team seems really physical. Hockey gets like that.”
“Dude, we’re taking bets on when they pick the wedding date,” Zippy said.
“Man, it’s none of my business,” Josh said and got up. “I need a break.”
Jack looked up, and Josh turned and walked into the locker room.
For the first time in his life, Josh really wished he had a computer handy.
_x_ _x_ _x_
An hour later, Bitty found Josh sitting in the media office, staring at the screen.
“I think I might want to learn how to use that phone thing now,” Josh said, without really looking at Bitty.
“How much of this is accurate?” Josh asked.
“I monitor all the players’ Wikipedia entries.” Bitty said. “It’s as accurate as I can make it without being accused of original research.”
“It feels… Margie would say tacky, I guess, to know so much about people so easily. I don’t know how to treat him now.”
“You were doing just fine,” Bitty said.
“We both are, yes,” Bitty said.
“Like, you two… together…”
“We were friends in college,” Bitty said. “And then we fell in love.”
“Everyone knows it?” Josh asked.
“Well, we thought so,” Bitty said.
“I just thought you were just two guys, you know. Making pies.”
“Never heard it called that before,” Jack said from the doorway. “You okay, kid?”
“I’ve never been around gay people before,” Josh said.
“Pretty sure you have.” Jack pulled up a chair and sat down in it backwards. “You just didn’t know it.”
“How did I not know it?”
“To be fair,” Bitty said, “We try to keep it professional at work, and you haven’t been home enough to see us at our most relaxed.”
“So, Thailand?” Josh asked.
“Best tropical gay resorts in the world,” Bitty said. “It was so nice. A fantastic honeymoon.”
“You’re married?” Josh’s mind whirled.
“To each other, even,” Jack said. “We haven’t told anyone but HR yet.”
“The guys are still taking bets on when you’re going to set the date,” Josh said.
Bitty laughed. “I know. That’s why we haven’t told yet. According to Jessa in HR, no one had the exact date of when we were going to set the date, or the date of the wedding.”
“You okay with this, kid?” Jack asked.
Josh tipped his head. “You’ve been gay all along?”
Bitty coughed. “That’s generally how it works.”
Josh thought for a moment and said, “I guess that explains why Margie was so upset. But you seem okay. I mean, I liked you before I knew, and you’re not different now, it’s just I know now. And you’re not going to hit on me, right?”
“Not my type,” Bitty and Jack both said in unison.
Josh frowned. “Why not?”
“I don’t go for straight guys,” Jack said, eyeing Bitty.
Bitty sat bolt upright. “Clearly I don’t either.”
A look passed between them.
Jack looked at Josh and said, “No one is going to hit on you, but think about that feeling the next time you meet a girl you like.”
Josh snorted. “Like I have time to date.”
“Fair,” Jack said. “If we didn’t share a bedroom, I don’t think Bits and I would spend more than ten private minutes with each other in a week.”
“Wait,” Josh said. “I thought Bitty had his own room? I know I saw a bed in there.”
“For babysitting,” Bitty said. “The kids conk out there if they need to nap. I sleep in the master bedroom. The other room is really just my office. When I need to do video editing at home, that’s where I usually do it.”
“I just assumed—” Josh said.
“You know what they say about assumptions,” Jack said, with way too much glee in his voice.
Josh looked up, confused.
“It makes an ass out of u and umption,” Jack finished.
“You’re gay, and you have a terrible sense of humor,” Josh said. “I didn’t know you at all. I just thought you were a nerd.”
“I mean, that’s fair,” Bitty said. “He’s definitely a nerd.”
“You got gay married in Thailand?” Josh asked.
“We usually just call it ‘married,’” Jack said. “But we got married in Finland. Thailand was the honeymoon.”
“Wait, that must have been…”
Bitty put a finger to his lips. “It was pretty spontaneous. We had to stay a couple weeks extra to make it work. Couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gotten knocked out of the playoffs.”
“It could have happened,” Jack said. “Just, probably somewhere else. But after the championship was done…”
Josh looked thoughtful. “I hate to cut you off, but I have a little reading to do. Who was it who was running that betting pool? Jessa?”
“If you win, you’re buying dinner,” Jack said. “But it’s good to see you developing that strategic spirit.”
Josh smiled a wide and mercenary smile. “They nicknamed me ‘Joker.’ I think that begs for some sort of revenge.”
Bitty laughed. “Welcome to the team, Joker.”