When Jack starts thinking seriously about the idea of coming out, Shitty is the first person he tells.
"You're gonna propose, aren't you?" says Shitty as soon as the call connects. Jack drops his Camelbak. When he grabs for it his hand knocks into the iPad and nearly sends it flying off the counter. He just manages to catch it and the bottle - he's not the NHL's top scorer for nothing - and puts the iPad back into its stand, glaring at the little camera and hoping his expression doesn't lose any menace to pixelation.
"I don't know what you're talking about,” he says, keeping his voice even. It’s his Captain Voice, and normally it’s very effective, but Shitty seems impervious to it for some reason. He beams at Jack and makes what Bitty would call manatee noises.
"You didn't go right to Bitty and tell him you want to come out. You came to me instead, which means you're planning something, you asshole." Shitty’s eyes get bigger and a little too bright. "Jacques. You delicate spiderweb of human emotion. I want to cradle you against my bosom and whisper lost secrets into your hair."
Jack groans. "Please tell me you're high."
"I am fuckin' elevated, my bro. El-e-va-tion."
"Thank God," Jack sighs in relief. Shitty sticks out his tongue. It's green.
"No judging me for expressing my devotion to your breathtaking countenance," he says. "I wrote a fucking sonnet about your legendary glutes our frog year, you may recall.”
Jack scrubs a hand over his face. "Despite all efforts to forget."
"How dare you, Zimmermann," says Shitty, scowling. "That was some good shit."
"You rhymed raven hair with raisin bear."
Jack laughs. "It was written on the back of a Friendly's napkin," he says. "In pink highlighter."
"Anyway." Shitty shoves three gummy worms in his mouth; that explains the tongue, thinks Jack. "Let's talk instead about how making an announcement about your relationship only enforces a societal myth that a celebrity's sex life somehow matters to any-fucking-one."
"I sense that you have strong feelings on the subject," Jack says, grinning at the screen. He loves stoned, righteous Shitty. "It's not like you to keep them to yourself."
Shitty flips him off. "You weren't such a sassy motherfucker at Samwell," he says, his voice appreciative. "What has that boy done to you?"
Jack smirks. "What hasn't he done?"
"Please tell me you chirp the fuck out of your team like this."
"No one will sit next to me on the plane anymore." It's an exaggeration, but Jack does get rows all to himself more often than not.
Shitty wipes away an actual tear. "Jack, my love, you are my greatest accomplishment," he says, with an inexplicable and dismal Russian accent that Tater would condemn.
"Uh," says Jack, raising an eyebrow. "Bitty would say fight me and he probably would fight you. And he fights dirty."
"Yeah he does." Shitty grins. "So what's the plan?"
Jack doesn't know how to answer that; he hasn't thought that far ahead. Last Christmas he'd ended up at a jewelry store with Snowy while he shopped for his wife. Jack had wandered off, aimlessly browsing the cases before landing right in front of the men's wedding rings. By chance. An accident, just like the little box he'd left with.
"I don't know," he says, breathing out long and slow, like his therapist tells him to. "I guess a statement. No press conference. I can't do that." Jack reaches for his tea and frowns because it's gone cold. He picks up the iPad and goes to the fridge to extract a seltzer. "Maybe Bitty could tweet something."
"It's an option," says Shitty, tugging on his mustache. "Or… maybe don't."
"What?" Jack pauses with the seltzer halfway to his mouth. "Huh?"
Shitty waves a hand around impatiently. "You know, just don't make a big deal out of it. Don't release a statement or give interviews or tweet - at least not right now. Do what you already do but do it out there where people can see you. Control your narrative by being an open book. See how long it takes for people to notice. A soft coming-out, if you will."
Jack taps his fingertips against the marble countertop. "Just stop hiding. Don't say anything, just. Stop."
"Be present and in the moment, you sublime, well-toned mallard," says Shitty. "Because it's not really that big of a scoop if you aren't hiding it anymore and everybody already knows. I mean, you'll still get some homophobic bullshit once the major outlets pick up on it, which they will of course and you can't really fire them all into the sun, but I bet it won't be as bad as it would be if you just dropped it on everyone like Beyoncé."
Jack smiles. "I guess everyone in the Haus got Beyoncé 101 when Bits showed up. I got a Powerpoint presentation?"
Shitty shakes his head. "Pie charts, without even a hint of irony." He suddenly disappears out of frame. "I'm going to take a nap now," he says from somewhere off-camera. Shitty's voice sounds sideways, like he’s lying on the floor. Jack rolls his eyes and smiles, because Shitty does not let working for the ACLU stop him from being Shitty. Jack appreciates it more than Shitty probably realizes.
"Talk to you later, Shits," he says. "And thanks."
(And if Jack doesn't hang up right away once Shitty starts snoring, it's no big deal. He barely hears it in the background while he makes dinner. It’s impressive, since Shitty snores like he's dying. It reminds Jack of the Haus. It's nice.)
"So, no statement?"
It's snowing outside, big fat flakes drifting past the windows. Jack and Bitty are curled together in bed under a heap of blankets, breathing each other's air, all lazy kisses and wandering hands. Jack arranges them so that he's wrapped around Bitty from behind, pressing his mouth against the spot behind Bitty's right ear that makes him wriggly.
"No statement," Jack says, against Bitty's skin. "No press conference or interviews or anything. Shitty said to control our narrative." He chuckles. "He was really stoned."
"But he still makes sense." Bitty sighs and stretches in Jack's arms. "Not hiding anymore and not making a big deal out of it sounds great to me."
Jack runs a hand through Bitty's hair, kisses the back of his neck. "Yeah."
He must not sound convincing because Bitty twists so that he can look at him. "Sweetpea, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. Even if that means staying in the closet for a little bit longer. It's really okay."
"No." Jack pulls Bitty closer. "All this time, even though we had reasons and even though we did it together- It's been so hard, Bits, on both of us. But now I think we should follow Shitty's advice. Just stop hiding it and see what happens. Do everything a straight couple would do in public without a second thought.
"I want this for us, Bits." Jack squeezes him, maybe a little too tight. "So much."
"Well then." Bitty pushes himself up and kisses him, eyes suspiciously bright. "I'd like to ask you out on a date, Mister Zimmermann. Would you be so inclined?"
Jack smiles against his mouth. "I would, Bittle."
Bitty lights up and produces his phone from nowhere. They make plans.
Their first experiment is dinner at their favorite restaurant. It's not that rare that they go out together; Jack isn't as dogged by paparazzi as much as people think he is, but he does have a significant fanbase in the city and while they are friendly enough they're a little too quick with their cameras for his comfort. Jack knows that the press are far less dangerous to him than an overzealous hockey fan and their Twitter account. Look what happened to Seguin last year.
For the last three years Jack and Bitty have cooked at home or gotten takeout, just to avoid unwanted attention. They go out to dinner together once a month, changing restaurants every time so that their standing date looks more (in Bitty's words) "a coupla dudes bein' guys" and less (also in Bitty's words) "a coupla dudes bein' gay".
They're seated at a table by the window. (Jack's fame does have perks and getting good tables without reservations is by far Bitty's favorite. Jack is happy to oblige.) As soon as the server bustles away with their drink orders Jack hooks his ankle around Bitty's and smiles at him.
"You okay?" he asks.
"Oh my lord, I am so not okay." Bitty looks a little wild in the eyes as he gives the room a quick glance. "This is weird, I keep thinking a reporter's going to jump out from that ficus. So let's just keep it to footsie, please. No Harry Met Sally moments, at least not the first time out."
Jack slides his foot up Bitty's calf, trying for suggestive but failing miserably because he can't keep it together at the sight of Bittle going full tomato-face. They look at each other and giggle.
"It's just..." Bitty fiddles with his napkin. "I mean, this is just a normal dinner out but it feels … bigger? I don't know, I can't explain it."
Jack reaches across the table and takes Bitty's hand before he even knows he's doing it. For a second he thinks about looking around to see if anyone's watching, but he's proud of himself that he manages to keep it together and keep his eyes on Bitty. He doesn't need to see anything but Bitty looking at their hands and then at Jack, the surprised joy in his eyes brighter than the candle on the table between them.
Their server returns with their drinks, and through their joined hands Jack can feel Bitty twitch as though he wants to pull away. Jack just tightens his grip and, when the server asks, calmly orders the duck. Bitty turns his hand over and clutches Jack's in a death grip and blurts out an order for mahi mahi. The server smiles at them and hustles off, and Jack can feel Bitty relax. The pulse beneath Jack's fingers slows to something approaching normal and Bitty doesn't look like he's going to bolt for the doors.
"You know," Jack says, "if we’re going to do this, you should probably tell your parents soon. Before people start noticing."
Bitty stares at his silverware. "Is it wrong that I kinda want to just not tell them and let them find out the same way as everybody else? I mean, when I imagine coming out to my parents I keep writing a speech in my head - really serious, like I'm preparing them for the worst news ever - why should I do that? Why should I have to protect their feelings? I don't know why I have to treat it like I'm announcing my own death sentence. I have a boyfriend, not terminal cancer."
Jack squeezes Bitty's hand. "You want to, though," he says softly. "You want to protect them."
"Yeah, I do." Bitty sighs, toying with his fork. "But I don't want to put on a performance art piece to cushion the blow-" he makes finger-quotes "-of having a gay child."
Jack nods. "Okay, so don't."
"Don't make a speech or anything. Just tell them you're seeing someone and about how happy you are. You know, be your usual enthusiastic self." Jack smiles. "Then talk about your loving boyfriend of three years. Like it's no big deal. Come out without coming out."
Bitty is quiet for a moment. "It's not a bad idea," he says. "Pretending it isn't a big deal."
"Not pretending," corrects Jack. "It's not a big deal, and you're not going to treat it like one. That's what they need to see. They need to see you happy." Jack is once again grateful for four years of pep talks from Shitty. "Control your narrative, Bits," he grins.
Bitty says nothing to that for a long moment, just sniffles and rubs tiny circles against Jack's knuckles with his thumb.
"You just want me to talk big about you to my Mama," he says finally, muttering into his wine.
"Yes, I do." Jack smiles and gives Bitty's hand a squeeze before leaning back. "But I also want to talk to them about you."
"Me? Lord, what on earth about?"
"I want to brag about you," Jack says. "I want to make it clear to them that you're the best thing about me. I want to dare them to find fault in that."
Bitty's eyes are huge. "What has gotten into you, Jack Zimmermann? I honestly thought it'd be another few years before this came up, but here you are, holdin' my hand in a nice restaurant, like a gentleman." He beams at him. "And you wanna talk me up to my own parents."
"Well," says Jack. "Mine are sick of hearing about you."
Bitty gasps in mock offense. "Mister Zimmerman, that is not true. Your parents find me and my wacky antics delightful."
"You bribe them with food," Jack says, as their dinners arrive. Bitty waits until the servers are gone - Jack knows he's forgotten that he doesn't have to - before he leans back into the conversation.
"It got me you, didn't it?" he says with a huff. "So don't complain!"
Jack smiles. "It wasn't just the pies," he says. "The little shorts helped."
Bitty's ears go red. He pokes at his fish. "Jerk."
"Yeah, but I'm your jerk," says Jack, smiling into his water glass. When he looks up Bitty is looking back, clearly - and lovingly - exasperated.
"I guess," he says, but his foot finds Jack's ankle under the table and he smiles.
Later, during dessert, Bitty reaches over and takes Jack's hand again. He doesn't say anything or even look at Jack, just continues to eat their shared crème brûlée and holds Jack's hand as though it is the most natural thing in the world, like it isn't shaking Jack to the core that this is going to be the new normal. That this is the first day of the rest of their lives.
Bitty looks up and grins at him.
Jack thinks the experiment is a success.
The next morning, Jack watches as Bitty scrolls through what seems like the entire internet. He's frowning.
"Nothing," he says, after a few minutes. "I checked Deadspin and your mentions and your tag on Insta and there's nothing. Either no one saw us, or-" He looks over at Jack, eyes bright. "No one cared."
Jack opens his arms to him. Bitty catapults himself back into bed, wrapping his limbs squid-like around Jack's body and pressing kisses all over his face. "Next time, I want to-" He hesitates.
"What do you want?" asks Jack, one hand palming the back of Bitty's neck. Jack presses his thumb against the soft hair there, stroking lightly. "Bits?"
"I want to walk around the neighborhood holding your hand." Bitty smiles a little shyly. "I really want to do that."
Jack pulls Bitty close and kisses him. "I've wanted to do it since graduation," he says. "So you won't get an argument from me."
"Since- Oh, Jack." Even after almost four years, Bitty always looks so astonished when Jack talks about how hard and fast he fell for Bitty once he'd figured it out (which is why Jack reminds him as often as possible).
"WaterFire starts this weekend," he says, hauling Bitty close and arranging them until he has his head pillowed against Bitty's chest and one hand spread over Bitty's bare stomach. "We could go."
"Isn't it awful soon, though?" Bitty says as he plays with Jack's hair. "I mean, we just went out last night and we don't wanna borrow trouble."
Jack traces designs on Bitty's belly with the tip of one finger. "Would you be worried about it if we were a straight couple?"
Bitty takes a moment to answer. "No," he says with a little sigh. "I wouldn't be."
"Then no, it's not too soon. My turn: go on a date with me, Bits."
"Well, aren't you awfully forward, Mister Zimmerman." Bitty grins at him in the dark. "Askin' me out and such. Next thing you know, you'll lay your jersey over a puddle for me, like somethin' out of an old movie. You big romantic." He rubs a foot against Jack's shin.
"Is that a yes, Bittle?"
"What else could it be?" Bitty kisses the top of Jack's head. "The answer is always yes, sweetpea."
Jack thinks about that little box he now has stashed in his car, hidden under the driver's seat where Bitty won't look for it. He thinks about the life they've built for themselves, individually and together, and all the patience and sacrifice. Jack had never thought he'd get here, that he'd get to have this. He'd never thought that he'd ever be ready for it.
He thinks about that little box and just drinks in the sight of Bitty, who gets an adorable, confused look on his face as Jack continues to stare at him.
"Jack? Jack." Bitty nudges him a little. "You look like you're thinkin' about the great mysteries of life."
"I love you," Jack says, sliding his arms around him. "I just want everyone to know that."
Bitty doesn't have a response to that. Not a verbal one, anyway.
They clasp hands as soon as they leave the apartment and hold on tight as they walk along the river, as they buy hot chocolate that they clutch in their free hands, as they duck into a heated ATM vestibule to warm up when the cold gets to be a bit too much. One of the only times they let go of each other is when a couple of fans ask Jack for selfies. Bitty offers to take the photos for them. The kids are polite and grateful, and if they'd seen Jack holding Bitty's hand they keep it to themselves. Jack is surprised to realize that he wouldn't mind if they say something, but a perpetually wary part of him that will probably never go away is a little relieved when they don't.
The outdoor rink is open so they rent some skates and take to the ice. Despite spending most of his professional life on the ice, Jack thinks it's fun to skate around in circles without purpose, without the urgency of a game or the repetition of practice. He especially likes it now that he’s holding Bitty's hand while they glide along with the crowd, seemingly unnoticed. Bitty looks tickled to death, though Jack occasionally catches a brief shadow of worry haunting Bitty's eyes.
"Hey," Jack says, nudging him a bit as they skate by a couple clinging to each other by the boards. "Bits."
Bitty looks over at him. "Mm?"
"What's the hardest figure skating move you can do?”
"What? What a question!" Bitty bites his lower lip in thought. Jack tracks the movement, he can't help it. "I suppose the Biellmann, but…"
"It's pretty hard, because you need to be crazy flexible. So it's almost always done by women. I can only think of a couple of male skaters who can do it, but they're both real small. And even they won't be able to do it forever, especially if Plisetsky ever hits puberty."
Jack doesn't know who that is, but he nods anyway. "Can you do it?" he asks. Bitty's expression makes him want to Google it on his phone. "Is it really that hard to do?"
Bitty laughs. "I used to be able to do it, once upon a time," he says. When I was thirteen and made out of taffy."
"You should try it now," says Jack. Jack loves watching Bitty skate. On more than one occasion they've gone to the Falconers' rink during off hours so that Bitty can put on the Hamilton soundtrack and do fancy tricks just for him. It invariably ends with shenanigans in the locker room; Bitty's always feisty when he gets to show off his moves. This, plus what Bitty calls "Jack's competency kink", means that Jack is a big fan of figure skating - at least while Bitty's doing it, anyway.
"I bet you can still do it," he says, elbowing Bitty gently. "You should get out there and try."
"Honey, even if I believed you - which I don't - I can't really do it in these skates. I'd have to go get actual figure skates and I'm pretty sure the only ones they have here are for women."
Jack grins and leans back against the boards, crossing his arms. "I'll wait," he chirps.
Bitty stares at him for a moment with an are you serious? expression, then sighs and throws up his hands and stomps - as much as someone can stomp while wearing knife-shoes - off to trade in his skates.
Jack hangs out at the boards, watching nervous little kids stagger past while slightly more advanced adults attempt to help them. He watches couples skating together, picking out two women who cannot stop laughing. They keep falling, and even though Jack knows how much it hurts every time one of them lands on her tailbone, they don't seem to care. They pick each other up and try again, and again, and again.
Jack shivers and not from the cold. Their unapologetic joy reminds him that allowing himself true happiness is still a bit alien to him, though he's learning to welcome it instead of feeling guilty about it. He has Bitty now, and Bitty embodies happiness. Jack knows better than to reject that or take it for granted.
By the time Bitty returns Jack has been recognized, which he'd expected to happen eventually. He's hanging out at an ice rink, after all. It's only a handful of fans and they aren't making a fuss, just asking for selfies and wondering what Tater is really like in person. Jack laughs at that question and tells the girl the potato story.
"He's going to kill you if you keep spreading that around," Bitty says once the fans are gone. "Do I have to remind you r the seagull story? How would you feel?"
"The potato story isn't as bad as the seagull story," says Jack. He puts his arm around Bitty's shoulders. "So, gonna show off for me?"
"Shut your face, this was your idea."
Jack kisses his forehead, the first time he's ever done so in public. They stand there for a minute grinning dopily at each other. People skate past them without a second glance.
"Okay," says Bitty. He takes a deep breath and lets it out in a rush. "I'll try my old free skate. Not the whole thing, just some of it. The Biellmann, since you are under the mistaken impression that I am still that bendy."
Jack grins. "I know from personal experience that you are."
"Jack." Bitty swats him. "There are children present."
"J'aime ta flexibilité."
Bitty rolls his eyes. "Just watch, okay? I'm only doing this for you."
Jack watches him skate out into center ice. Bitty doesn't bother with a starting position, just sweeps right into motion with a graceful flourish of limbs, moving to the music in his head. A few skaters pause to watch him twist himself up into a weird pretzel (that must be the Biellmann) but it's not until the combination jumps that the crowd gets really into it. When Bitty comes to a stop, his body arced in a way that looks as painful as it is beautiful, the crowd applauds and Bitty ducks his head, turning six shades of red. However he also looks entirely pleased with himself and takes a little bow before scurrying away toward where Jack is waiting for him by the boards.
"You always get me to do this," Bitty says later, when they're turning in their skates and retrieving their shoes. "You like showing me off."
"Yes, I do." Jack rests his hand at the small of Bitty's back as they leave the rink. "And now I can."
Bitty beams up at him. "Now you can," he says. He glances around, then leans in close. "I think I want to go home," he says, sotto voce.
"Are you tired? We could have left earlier if-"
"No, Jack." Bitty reaches up and presses his finger to Jack's lips. "I want to go home with you." He traces Jack's mouth before tapping him on the nose and sauntering toward the exit, leaving Jack to scramble after him.
Jack loves figure skating.
A couple of days later, Bitty tells him about a few tweets from some of the fans they met at at WaterFire. He reads the threads over takeout Thai after a win against the Devils. "This is so great," he says. "Zimms was with a really cute figure skater guy! I wonderrrrrrr… #ishipit - oh, my gosh. Bless."
Jack mutes Animal Planet. "I figured someone would say something after the spectacle you put on." An eggroll comes sailing at him and he dodges it handily. Bitty laughs at him.
"You pimped me out," Bitty says with a sniff. "You did it on purpose, for attention."
Jack grins. "It worked, didn't it?" He plucks the eggroll from the floor and inspects it for a moment before taking a bite. Bitty makes an offended sound. "That's the point, right?"
"Might be taking it a bit too f— I cannot believe you just ate that off the floor."
"Why? S'fine." Jack finishes off the eggroll and casts about for his napkin. "Anybody else tweet anything?"
Bitty makes his way through Jack's mentions. "A few. Lots of retweets. There's video of— oh, no. Of me." Jack immediately scoots closer.
"Where? Show me." He peers over Bitty's shoulder at his phone. "I want to see it."
"Would you hush? I'm doing it." He presses play and winces when he appears on screen. "God, this is awful. Did you see how sloppy that triple toe was? My form is terrible."
"I like your form." Jack slides a hand over Bitty's hip. "This is great. Can you send this to me?"
"Mmm. Play it again."
After a little more scouring of social media, Bitty takes the tweets, retweets, and video (and all 50,000 views) as a sign that it is definitely time to tell his parents.
"I decided," he says as they're cleaning up. "I don't really want them to find out from Twitter or Facebook or ESPN or whatever. I don't want them to hear it from someone else."
"No, I know you're gonna say that I sound like I'm planning my own funeral. It's not that, it's just… I'm their baby. I don't want to offend them by telling the world before telling them, and telling them about us is the best way to do it, I think. Mama loves you and you're the son Coach always wanted-"
Jack cuffs him gently. "C'mon, Bits."
Bitty ignores him. "You said you wanted to talk me up to my parents." He pokes him in the chest with a soapy, gloved finger. "Start by letting me talk about my wonderful long-term relationship with my best friend."
They decide to do it over FaceTime, because if it all goes south they can just hang up and Jack, who has a game tomorrow night and can't make a trip to Georgia on short notice, can also be present in case Bitty needs him. They set up in the living room, with Bitty on the couch in front of the laptop and Jack sitting just off-camera.
"Hi, Dicky!" Suzanne's voice ricochets off the ceiling until Bitty can get at the volume. "Is this comin' through okay? Cable was out all morning 'cause of the rain."
"You look fine, Mama. Where's Coach?"
There's a rustle from the speakers. "Right here, Junior."
"Okay. Hi, Daddy." Bitty suddenly goes very pale, and Jack starts to move closer, but Bitty gives him an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Jack stays where he is. "How're y'all?"
"We're just fine, Dicky," says Suzanne. "But what about you? You said you wanted to talk to both of us? Is everything okay?"
Remember, Jack had said to Bitty as they set up the laptop. You are not a tragedy. We are the happy ending. That's what they need to understand. Just tell them our story.
Jack wills Bitty all the courage he has in him. It's not much, but it can't hurt.
Bitty takes a deep breath. "I wanted you to meet- I've been-" He exhales. "I'm dating someone," he says, his calm betrayed by his hands that are white-knuckling the couch cushions. "For a while now, and I thought maybe it was time for you to meet. Them."
"Oh!" Suzanne makes a sound both startled and delighted. "Dicky, that's wonderful!" There's a thump and a hiss. "Richard, move over. Honey, tell us everything."
"Here, just-" Bitty looks at Jack and nods. Jack takes a deep breath before sliding in next to Bitty on the couch. He can see the screen now, and the look on Suzanne Bittle's face changes from excited to shock as she figures it out, if her wide eyes and open mouth are any indication.
Jack gives the camera a little wave. "Hi, Suzanne. Coach Bittle."
Silence. It's more uncertain than tense. Bitty, unsurprisingly, can't take it for more than thirty seconds. "We've been together for three years, can you believe it? Since Jack's graduation - he literally ran across campus to find me at the Haus and we, um, we figured some stuff out and we've been together ever since."
Suzanne's eyes are so big Jack thinks they must hurt. "Jack's your- You have a boyfriend, and it's Jack?" she squeaks. She's practically vibrating in place. "Really?"
"Yes!" Bitty glances at Jack, and he gives him what he hopes is an encouraging smile. "And things are great! Jack's gearing up for another Cup-"
"Don't jinx it." Jack elbows him. "You know better than that."
Bitty bats him away. "School is going really well, too! I'm taking Advanced Petits Gâteaux this semester - Mama, I have so much to teach you next time I see you."
Coach Bittle looks like he wants to say something, he keeps opening his mouth and then shutting it again, but Suzanne eventually beats him to it. "So you're, um?"
Bitty swallows audibly and nods. "Seems like it."
"You kept this secret for that long?" she says in a small voice. "Dicky, why didn't you tell us sooner?"
"Why didn't I tell my parents, who live in the South, that I'm g- that I'm gay?" The color completely drains from Bitty's face; Jack knows he'd never intended to actually say the words out loud because he'd figured introducing them to his boyfriend would be enough. Jack reaches over and puts his hand on Bitty's knee.
"I don't know, Mama," says Bitty, placing his hand over Jack's. His voice takes on a harder edge, born of years of being misunderstood and being made to feel wrong somehow. "Take a guess."
Suzanne winces. She looks impossibly sad. "Were you afraid to tell us?" she asks. Her voice is soft and a little wounded. Jack expects Bitty to shy away from it, lose some of his conviction; Jack's mother would use that voice on him right after the overdose. Jack knows how brutal it feels. But when Jack glances at Bitty he sees the same look in his eye that Bitty would get right before he'd skate though a check.
"Yes," says Bitty, without hesitation. The bitterness in his tone has been replaced with defiance. Jack's so proud of him. He gives Bitty's knee what he hopes is a supportive squeeze. Bitty drops his hand on top of Jack's and squeezes back.
"Dicky- Eric," Coach Bittle has found his voice. "I'm- I'm sorry you felt afraid. That's- No parent worth a damn would ever want their kids afraid of them." His shoulders slump. "We've done a pretty shitty job if that's how you feel."
"It's not- It's just..." Bitty's got tears coursing down his cheeks. "You coach small-town high school football in the South. Mama used to teach Sunday School. It was like a minefield. How was I supposed to know how you'd react? I'd rather never tell you than risk losing you."
There's another silence, punctuated by Suzanne's occasional sniffling. Jack decides to break this one, because Bitty's shaking a little next to him and Coach Bittle still looks pretty unsettled.
"I just want to say that Bits- Eric- he is the love of my life," he says quietly. "He's everything to me and has been supporting me and my career for as long as I've known him. I'm so lucky he picked me. I. I just want you both to know that, before the rest of the world knows. Because I am going to tell them."
Suzanne says something in response but Jack doesn't hear her over the white noise in his head. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Bitty staring at him, lips parted in surprise.
Jack's never called Bitty that before, the love of his life. Not out loud anyway.
It sounds, Jack thinks, like a marriage proposal.
"Excuse me," he says suddenly, making Bitty jump and Suzanne stop mid-sentence. Jack rises quickly from the couch, almost tripping over his discarded sneakers. "I'll be right back. Suzanne, Coach Bittle. It was good to see you. I hope we can- I mean. Um, thanks." He kisses the top of Bitty's head and flees before anyone can say anything, jogging out the door and down the stairs to the outside. It's snowing again, cold as anything, but Jack ignores it in favor of unlocking his car and throwing open the door.
The box is exactly where he'd left it, wrapped in a Samwell t-shirt and tucked under the driver's seat. He pulls it out and opens it, just to be sure. It's not a fancy ring. There are no bells or whistles, no jewels or engravings. It's not even custom-made. If Bitty wants any of that Jack will certainly get it for him but for now he figures that simple is really difficult to screw up. Even if it were just a plastic ring from a gachapon machine, the sentiment would be the same. And Bitty, Jack knows, would not even care.
Snow begins to gather in his eyelashes and Jack realizes he's been standing in the parking lot barefoot for the last five minutes. He's not even looking at the ring anymore.
Jack can't move. His brain feels like a beehive, buzzing and insistent. What is he doing? Why tonight? Why now?
Because he wanted to hold your hand in public.
Because he wants to do it again.
Because he's put your career first because you asked him to.
Because he's been waiting all this time.
Because he told his parents about you even though he was scared.
Because loves you so, so much.
The question, he realizes, isn't why now but what are you waiting for?
He's had this ring for over a year, and the entire time he's wondered what it would look like on Bitty's hand.
Jack closes the box and shoves it into his pocket. He heads inside.
"What got into you?" Bitty asks when he gets back. The laptop is closed and there are two mugs of tea on the coffee table. Eric is red-eyed but smiling. "You lit out of here like your tail was on fire."
"Had to get something out of the car. Are you okay?"
"Fine. Weirdly fine." Jack lifts an arm and Bitty ducks under it, leaning in close against Jack's side. "My mom cried some more but then she started making noises about grandkids, so I think she's probably fine. Coach said some stupid stuff, like was it something we did and was it the figure skating—I thought Mama was going to kill him. But I told them the seagull story and he laughed pretty hard, so there's that."
Jack thumps him gently on the top of his head. "Okay, would you stop telling that story?"
"I told you not to tell the potato story!"
Jack huffs. "I have embarrassing stories about you too, you know," he says.
"Oh yeah?" Bitty looks up at him, chin out, nose crinkled. "Name one."
Jack smirks. "The 8:10 showing of The Last Jedi on January 3rd, 2018."
Bitty squawks. "You would not."
"Tell the seagull story one more time and see."
Bitty shoves at him. "I'm divorcing you.”
"You have to marry me before you can divorce me." Sweat gathers on the back of Jack's neck and at his temples. Now now do it now.
"Minor detail!" Bitty waves his hands around until Jack captures the left one with both of his. "Oh- what?" Bitty looks at him, curious. "You okay?"
Jack suddenly drops to his knees and pulls Bitty close, wrapping his arms around his waist and resting his head against Bitty's stomach. After a long moment of just the sound of their breathing, Jack pulls back and looks up at Bitty and hopes that the pressure in his chest translates into something like adoration on his face.
"Marry me, Bits," he says. "Marry me, marry me, marry me."
Bitty's fingers curl against Jack's shoulders and he makes a funny, strangled sound.
"Yes, yes, yes," he says, laughing. One of Bitty's hands finds its way into Jack's hair. "You idiot, was this the whole reason?"
"Coming out. Now."
"Yes. No. Sort of? There wasn't any single thing. Now just happens to be when I’m ready. I don't need to 'prove myself' anymore, whatever the fuck that meant."
"Honey, I completely understood that your career-"
"That makes it worse. You were so patient with me, for so long, and I spent the majority of that time wondering when you'd get sick of it and call it off."
"And you don't resent me. How is that possible? I resent me."
"Of course I don't resent you. At all. Your career is so important to you, and that is okay. It is okay to not have been ready until now, Jack. It’s been hard on both of us to keep this secret, but Honey, it’s more than worth it. There's no deadline you have to beat."
Jack closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, smelling laundry detergent and deodorant and the faint traces of garlic from dinner earlier. The smells of home. He pulls the box out of his pocket, pops out the ring and slides it on Bitty's finger. It's a little loose - he guessed on the size - but Bitty doesn't seem to care at all. Jack ducks his head and kisses it; above him Bitty sucks in a breath that sounds suspiciously damp.
"I wanted to be ready for you," Jack mumbles, lips pressed to metal. "I honestly didn't care how I came out - I just wanted to be out, so that I could finally take you out, show you off. Marry you." He kisses Bitty's knuckles. "Sorry it took so long."
"Oh my God, honey, it's fine." Jack doesn't have to look up to know that Bitty is ugly-crying. "Just, come up here and let me kiss you-"
Later, when they're curled up in their bed, whispering and touching and breathing together, Jack will wonder how he ever thought winning the Stanley Cup was somehow better than this.
Almost three months later, after a home game against the Bruins, Jack gets caught by a reporter. She's the one he knows best from the ProJo so he's not surprised that she's figured out his usual escape route. He can't even be angry about it, he's too impressed, and she's friendly enough anyway. She never asks for more than a few soundbites about the game before leaving him alone, and Jack is grateful.
"Hey!" she says brightly. "Fancy meeting you here."
Jack laughs. "How do you always know what hallway I'm going to take?" he asks, hoisting his bag over his shoulder. "You're right every time."
"I was really good at Clue when I was a kid.” She holds up her phone. "Just a couple of the usual?"
He nods. "Sure." This is all so familiar that in a funny way it's comforting, something Jack's never thought he'd say about the press. "Ready when you are."
She presses RECORD and asks him a few banal questions about the game, to which he replies in true hockey-robot mode, recounting a couple of memorable plays and praising his teammates as well as the Bruins. The usual, as she'd promised.
Jack's hair keeps dripping into his eyes, he pushes it back with one hand and wishes for a towel.
"Ooh," she says suddenly. Jack stops talking in the middle of a sentence.
She points at the (matching, Bitty had insisted) ring on his finger. "That's new."
For a second Jack is filled with instinctive panic, and the urge to drop his hand out of sight is almost overwhelming. He'd expected that someone would notice eventually, but there's a big difference between knowing something's going to happen and it actually happening. He's not as prepared for it as he'd thought he'd be; admittedly, he still kind of wants to run for it.
Except she's the first to ask this question, she's not being pushy and there's no one else around to overhear and shove a mic in his face. It's a great opportunity to get this over with. He should take it.
"I'm engaged," he blurts out, and there's the decision made.
Her eyes widen. "Whoa, that's great! What's she like? What's her name, if you want to say?"
Here we go. "His name is Eric."
It's there, a tiny flicker of whoa in her eyes. He can see that she has questions, but to her credit all she does is smile at him.
"You must be so happy.” She holds up her phone to hit STOP but he covers her hand with his and shakes his head. She looks back and nods, bewildered and a little eager.
"I am happy," he says. "I am really, really happy." He smiles. "Let me tell you about him."
Thirty minutes later, he walks her out to her car and then heads home to where Bitty is waiting for him, cocooned under a pile of blankets and Kleenex. It'd been sad not having Bitty at a home game - he rarely misses them - but Jack had put his foot down and pointed out that last thing Bitty needed was several hours in a cold arena. Bitty had barely protested, which is how Jack knows that Bitty is really sick.
When he gets home Bitty has relocated from bed to couch, bringing the blankets and Kleenex with him. "Hi," says Jack, shutting the door and dropping his bag on the floor before making a beeline for the couch. "How do you feel?" he asks, kissing the top of Bitty's head.
Bitty reaches up and bats at him without looking away from the TV. "Could you not? Mary Berry is about to try this guy's crumble and he's clearly within an inch of a complete nervous breakdown."
Jack sits next to him and pulls him close. "Like you wouldn't be if Mary Berry tried your crumble?"
"Don't even joke about that," says Bitty. He starts to say something else but is interrupted by three sneezes in a row. "Doodlebug, please kill me."
Jack snorts. "Did you just call me Doodlebug?"
"I'm buzzed on cough medicine, shut up." Bitty rolls to the side and drops his head into Jack's lap. "Was that hat trick for me?"
Jack scratches Bitty behind the ear because it makes him squirm. "You ask me that every time and every time I tell you yes," he says. "I'm starting to get suspicious that you just like hearing it."
Bitty giggles and elbows him in the hip. "I am wrongly accused," he says. His laugh quickly turns into a cough. Jack rubs his back. "You're late getting home."
"Ran into Fiona outside the arena. She's on to my new route. I'm gonna have to get more creative."
Bitty snorts. "Or you could tell her to buzz off."
Jack shrugs. "S'fun," he says, by way of explanation. "Anyway, I told her that we're engaged."
Bitty sits straight up and knocks his head against Jack's chin. "Ouch! Argh, sorry- Jack!"
"Nng." Jack rubs his jaw and opens and closes his mouth a couple of times. "I swear, you have the hardest head-"
Bitty pokes him in the shoulder. "What did you say to her!"
Jack works his jaw a little more before answering. "Mostly talked about you. I couldn't shut up. She kept asking questions and I kept, like, answering?" He shrugs. "If I had to talk about it to the press for the first time," he says. "I could do a lot worse than her."
"What happened to not making an announcement?" asks Bitty, looking rightfully confused. "'Cause that sure seems like an announcement, Sweetpea."
"It's not," says Jack. "She asked about my ring and I decided not to lie." He leans in and noses at Bitty's slightly damp hair, tugging him closer. Bitty has the musty smell of the flu and it's not great, but Jack has smelled worse locker rooms. And it's Bitty, so. "I did exactly what I would have done if you were my girlfriend. It seemed fine?"
"This is gonna be in the paper tomorrow," says Bitty. "You ready for that?"
"Bitty, even Deadspin gave up making a big deal about us being seen all around town together," he says. "It only took about two months for them to get bored."
"Yes, but speculation is one thing - you can only go so far with it, especially when no one involved seems to care. Confirmation of a relationship, however, results in hashtags and appearances on Ellen."
"Deadspin gave us a boat name, you said." Shitty'd sent them t-shirts with the Tim Horton's logo modified to say Zimbits instead. Bitty'd worn his for two straight days.
Bitty groans. "Ship name, I swear, you do this on purpose-"
"Bits." Jack catches his hand, kisses his knuckles. "I'm sorry I didn't talk to you before I did it. I just thought- it was a good opportunity, is all."
"Oh, honey." Bitty pats his cheek. "I'm not mad. Just didn't think you'd ever willingly talk about something personal with a reporter."
"I like talking about you," says Jack. "I like that I can tell everybody about you." Jack knows that if Sports Illustrated called him tomorrow asking for a cover story, he feels giddy and magnanimous enough that he'd probably say yes. He might even offer to do it over the phone right then and there on the condition that he could only talk about Bitty for the next three hours.
Bitty groans and shoves at him. "All I ask is that I get to meet Ellen."
Jack grabs him and kisses him. "I'll see what I can do, bud."
"You have to dance."
"Oh. Then no."
Later, after Jack had coaxed Bitty into a shower and then into bed with another box of Kleenex, a mug of tea and Señor Bun, Jack sits next to him, watching tape on his laptop and poking through articles about the game. He’s pretending not to refresh the ProJo sports page every three seconds.
He finds himself obsessively checking their Twitter as well. As he scrolls past the NFL scores Shitty's words come back to him: Control your narrative.
"I think I should tweet something," he says out loud. He looks up to find Bitty staring at him. "What?"
"You never use your Twitter," says Bitty, suspicious. "Why now?"
Jack thinks for a moment. "I don't know," he says. "I feel like there's something I didn't say to Fiona when we were talking. Something I should have said."
"Well, you do have two hundred and fifty thousand followers," says Bitty. "Whatever you say will reach a lot of people really fast, faster than that article would anyway. What do you want to say?"
Jack slumps. "Haven't thought that far ahead."
Bitty laughs and pats his knee. "You'll get there," he says. "Just skate through it, Doodlebug."
"Do not make that a thing."
After Bitty goes to sleep in a haze of cold medicine, Jack spends an hour trying to think of what to tweet. He's told Bitty before that trying to come up with something to say to the internet aggravates Jack's anxiety; he’ll try to tweet something but then ends up endlessly tweaking it, deleting it and starting over, or just blankly staring at it for a long time while trying to decide if it's smart or clever enough to be immortalized online. Twitter is already full of witty and profound people. They don't need Jack fucking things up.
In the end, Jack's message is simple and well under 280 characters:
For Eric. Love, Jack.
It earns a thousand likes in two minutes, fifteen thousand by the time the ProJo article goes live a couple of hours later, but all Jack cares about is the breathless kiss it gets him the next morning.
Yes, he thinks, Bitty's mouth under his. Yes, this.
Shitty officiates. He cries the entire time.