Jack smiles from where he's stretched lazily across the bed, a warm buzz overtaking his entire body despite the fact that he hasn't had a single drink at his own Stanley Cup kegster. And as soon as he thinks that, reminds himself that he's a Stanley Cup champion, the buzz spikes again and, impossibly, his smile grows.
The game itself ended only a few hours ago but Jack's already sure that he hasn't smiled this much since before he and Bitty got together. Rolling from his back to his side in bed, Jack takes the opportunity to admire Bitty as he works and reminds himself that he's so proud that he can call himself Bitty's boyfriend. (Calling himself a Stanley Cup champion comes close. Almost.)
If Bitty can feel Jack's intense, lovestruck gaze, he doesn't acknowledge it at the moment. No, he's too busy adjusting the camera and its tripod, twisting around both to check the framing and murmuring under his breath about how the lighting is better in the guest room.
Jack has half a mind to protest because the fact that Bitty is thinking about the guest room (currently filled with assorted members of the Samwell Men's Hockey and Providence Falconers’ teams) while Jack has draped himself across the bed and it feels like they have all the time in the world. It's felt like that since center ice when Bitty's touch felt like electricity on Jack's skin even through his pads and the kiss.
Oh, the kiss simultaneously was the first time all over again and the thousands of kisses they've had since, no less magical for their frequency. It had been quick and sweet and Jack thought he heart was going to tear from his chest with the glorious weight of his love for Bitty. Then, Falconers were swarming him and Shitty whisked Bitty away to prepare the apartment for the party.
Now, the party outside has reached a lull and they snuck away hours before that and it seems absolutely criminal to Jack that they're not currently kissing over even touching. Bitty makes a dissatisfied sound and removes the shade from the lamp on Jack's dresser. Jack reaches up to shield his eyes with one hand because it's late and the light is bright. Bitty checks the camera's viewfinder again and, slowly, a grin spreads across his face that matches Jack's own. Lamps be damned - that smile and how Bitty's nose crinkles every-so-slightly in delight are radiant. Jack stretches his arms, limbs too tired and heavy for the gesture to be truly enticing. Bitty's smile grows though and he steps forward so he's just out of reach.
"You better get up, lazy bones," he chirps, "My adoring audience awaits."
Jack could argue that it's not laziness when he's skipped his usual post-game cooldown routine in favor of getting to the after-party and Bitty. He's most definitely going to be sore in some places tomorrow and, of course, it will be worth it but Jack isn't quite ready to think about tomorrow yet. He'd much rather be focused on tonight. Of course, explaining all that would take up even more precious energy.
Jack considers this for a moment and decides that his limited reserve of effort is better spent lunging forward so he can grab Bitty around his waist, using the element of surprise to pull him down onto the bed with Jack. Bitty laughs loudly and presses a kiss to his cheek, wrapping one hand loosely around Jack's shoulders. Their elbows and hips are misaligned to one another, far from the most comfortable position they've discovered for cuddling. Still, Jack holds on tightly so he can inhale the smell of Bitty's cologne from his neck. Bitty, unable to ever stay still for long, begins to trace large, looping lines between Jack's shoulder blades.
Then quietly, he says, "We don't need to film this tonight, sweetpea. Lord knows that I won't be posting anything we've finished celebrating you properly."
They discussed this once before - the idea of coming out to Bitty's vlog. In theory, his subscribers knew a lot of the big things already - it was just a few essential, identifying details that Bitty had kept to himself. Still, some folks have been watching and commenting on Bitty’s videos for years now - they're practically family. So, it's never been a question of whether or not they'd make a video together but simply when.
Jack tweaks his neck so he can press a kiss to the side of Bitty's mouth, trying to convey a sense of calmness through the gesture. His boyfriend makes an enthusiastic sound and Bitty shifts so he can deepen the kiss. They distract themselves for a good while until there’s the telltale sound of Lardo and Shitty’s synchronized beer pong victory cry from the other room.
Bitty’s face is flushed pink and he’s smiling brightly as he pulls back. At some point during the kissing, he’d wound up straddling Jack and, now, he’s resting with his legs on either side of Jack’s hips. The lighting he carefully set up early has his backlit now, the edges of his hair turned golden light. Jack thinks it should be illegal for someone to look this good.
“You are wicked , Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty says, picking up one of Jack’s hands so he can kiss the knuckles. “Absolutely wicked. If we make this video, I have halfa mind to tell folks exactly that.”
“It’s not an “if”, Bits,” Jack replies easily, “And you can tell them anything as long as you tell them that I’m yours.”
Bitty flushes more, his face turning a bright, seemingly-impossible shape of red. He huffs good-naturedly before rolling off Jack, straightening his shirt as much as someone can straighten a hockey jersey. For good measure, he repeats, “Wicked.”
Jack smiles again, still happy to remain rooted in the bed. In a little while, Bitty will tell him that they’re ready to film and he’ll get up. He’ll get up and sit next to the man he loves and open himself up to the community that Bitty has created. Until then, he’ll lounge on the bed and soak up the joy of it all.
It’s the tail end of the morning rush and the airport is packed, but Bitty is bored out of his mind.
In his rush to pack a bag for himself and Jack, Bitty completely forgot his phone. He didn’t realize until halfway through the post-Cup press conference. There was no time for them to head back to the apartment to grab it without having to book a later flight. Besides, there was a swarm of reporters and paparazzi that had the gall to follow Jack and Bitty not only to where their car was parked at the Falcolners’ arena but to the airport itself. As soon as they made it through the TSA line, the past twelve hours seemed to have caught up with Jack and he offered to get them both coffee to help fight their exhaustion.
Waiting in their gate for his boyfriend’s return, Bitty tugs at his shirt and wonders if he’ll be able to change before their flight takes off. He’s still wearing his jersey from the night before and, while much of Providence has been a sea of blue and gold today, Bitty is aware that several people at the gate are staring at him. He wonders if he has something on his face and goes to brush it off, but then Bitty remembers that he was a huge part of the post-Cup coverage. His face has been on ESPN - not even the subchannel that broadcasts NCAA games and things like bowling. Actual, cable package ESPN showed Eric Bittle kissing his boyfriend as the broadcasters debated what it all meant. The staring doesn’t stop even when Bitty makes eye contact, which makes him flush and pull up the hood under his jersey.
“Got something to warm you up,” Jack says quietly, dropping into the seat next to Bitty and passing him a mocha.
Bitty murmurs his thanks and takes it, taking a long slip and barely feeling it when it burns his mouth. The stares have increased and one guy has the gall to actually pull out his phone, probably to not-so-subtly snap a picture. Despite his fifteen minutes of ESPN fame, Bitty isn’t really someone people would recognize. Jack, on the other hand, is the face of a major sports franchise who won the Stanley Cup, not even a full day before. Still, wonderful man that he is, Jack rests his hand on the armrest between them with his palm up.
This boy , Bitty thinks, placing his hand on top of Jack’s and interlocking their fingers. The world melts away a little as Bitty remembers why all the stares and the cameras are absolutely worth it. Because while he could’ve never anticipated what it would feel like to see himself on television or have his phone blow up with everyone he played co-ed hockey with or watch Jack navigate questions about what it feels like to be the first out NHL player, Bitty already knew what it felt like to love Jack. And nothing could change his mind about that kiss, because loving Jack feels as natural as breathing - even if the whole world was incidentally watching.
They sit together in a comfortable silence, waiting for the other sections of their flight to begin boarding. In the grand scheme of things, flying out today was last minute and that’s why they’re sitting in the same section but different rows. Still, as soon as he was out of his post-game shower, Jack kissed Bitty again and said, “We have to see your parents, bud.”
With Jack’s credit card in hand, Bitty booked the flight as Jack helped Ransom and Holster bring kegs up for the after party. They’d slept maybe a few hours, went to the presser, and rushed to the airport. It all happened so fast that Bitty doesn’t register their section getting called. Jack squeezes his hand before letting go, shouldering their shared carry-on duffel.
“I forgot my phone at your house,” Bitty says as they make their way into line.
“No tweets for the whole three-hour flight? Will you survive?” Jack chirps, bumping his shoulder into Bitty’s.
They haven’t discussed what their new standard for PDA will be in light of the Cup, but Bitty knows Jack is trying to make him smile. His heart aches in the most beautiful way because of it, but even head over heels in love, Bitty won’t let that weak level of chirping slide. He hip-checks Jack right back, knowing full well that he’s not going to throw him off balance. The perils of dating a professional athlete who’s built like a brick wall.
“Laugh now,” Bitty says airily, “It won’t be funny when you’re trying to figure out Uber once we touch down in Atlanta.”
Jack makes a mock pained face and is about to say something else when someone clears their throw nervously behind them, leaning in to tap Jack on the elbow. They turn and Bitty immediately recognizes the guy who had been filming them. Now, he has the nerve to ask if he can get a picture with Jack, explaining that he’s a huge Falconers fan. Bitty would like to give him a piece of his mind, but Jack already has his PR-groomed smile ready to go. He is the face of the franchise, even after everything. Watching the stranger wrap his arm around Jack’s shoulders like their best friends, Bitty takes another long sip of his mocha as if the coffee’s sweetness will erode the bitter words on the tip of his tongue.
“Thanks,” the guy says once he’s got his picture, “And congratulations! On the Cup and, y’know, the other thing.”
The guy makes a vague hand gesture, waving his hand across the space separating Jack and Bitty. He seems sincere and, as annoyed as Bitty was about the gawking, he’s grateful that Jack’s first fan interaction post-Cup is positive. He plasters a smile on his face, gently laying his hand on Jack’s forearm for a moment. The touch is light and fleeting, but it’s enough. Jack flashes Bitty a smile - his real smile, the one that makes his eyes crinkle ever-so-slightly. They’ll chat idlely with the fan until they line picks up a little and then try not to miss each other too terribly from their separate seats on the plane. They’re still a team, Bitty thinks, they got this.
For the first time in weeks, Jack skips his morning run.
Even with all the cardio he gets from skating and the number of conditioning hours he logs, Jack loves to wake up and run. He prefers taking an actual run whenever possible - outside, where the thudding of his feet on the pavement is solid and the morning air is cool as it flows into his lungs. If that’s not possible, he’ll hit the treadmill either in the Falcs’ gym or in the tiny fitness center that’s an amenity in his apartment. He’s a creature of habit through and through - following the same sets of patterns and routines help keep his various anxieties at bay.
The morning after the Cup, Jack skips his run and decides to walk instead. Though he initially protested the early hour, Bitty came as well. They’re walking shoulder to shoulder, not quite touching as dawn breaks over the horizon.
Unsurprisingly, few people are at the park at five in the morning. Besides a few joggers scattered about and the birds beginning to sing, Jack and Bitty are alone as they walk. It’s peaceful and still - a stark but welcome to the party that only ended a few hours before. Out here, it's easy to forget the swarm of reporters they'd had to escape when they left the stadium last night, the near constant buzzing of both of their phones that followed into the early hours of the morning, and whatever is waiting for them next. Instead, it's the moment when they kissed on the ice - the entire world empty save for the two of them.
In this blissfully empty world, the only thing Jack thinks about is the shifting colors of the sky. Red and orange are starting to streak above the treeline, smudges of the morning coloring the clouds and dark sky. It's beautiful and exactly the type of thing Jack doesn't really notice on his solo runs, because that's the time he sets aside to sort through whatever's on his mind that day. He'll settle into a decent pace then turn the thoughts over and over like worry stone and doesn't notice the sky until his run is over and it's well past sunrise. Today, though, the relaxed, easy walk gives him time to admire the sky. Without giving it much thought, Jack pulls out his phone to take a picture.
Bitty walks on, not immediately aware that Jack has stopped. He gets two pictures: one of the morning sky and another with Bitty as a dark silhouette against the wash of color. With the critical eye from his photography class, Jack knows his composition could be better and that any actual camera would've captured the subtle color gradient better than his iPhone. But even if Lardo has reassured him a hundred times that artists are mandated to be their own worst critics, he instantly loves the second photo. Bitty is in profile, presumably turning in the instant where he realized Jack is no longer at his side. He's more shadow than anything else, dark slopes and edges against the bright color. But there's a glow around his hair, the light bouncing off the blonde and giving Bitty's head a hazy, soft glow.
Halo, halo, Jack thinks, smiling slowly.
Bitty's at his side again, clucking his tongue softly when he sees the picture.
"You could've warned a fella," he says. "I didn't even brush my hair before we left."
"You're gorgeous, bud. Always."
Bitty turns pink and ducks his head a little, still shy and pleased whenever Jack says something sweet. Jack hopes he never gets used to it. He hopes that they keep falling in love with each other in little moments like this for the rest of their lives. He hopes he gets to grow old with Bitty; until they're both stooped and grey but have love overflowing between them like a dam has been broken. He's not sure how to say that though, so instead Jack puts his phone back in his pocket and reaches out to cup a hand against Bitty's jaw. He traces a thumb along Bitty's bottom lip.
There's a thrill in this, knowing that he can reach out and touch Bitty whenever and wherever he pleases. It's not even been a full day, but Jack already doesn't know how he spent so long hiding how much in love he is. Bitty seems to be feeling the same way if the way he reaches up to place a hand on Jack's is any indication. Jack wishes he could step outside of himself for a moment to get a picture of this , to save this forever and return to.
"I can hear the gears turnin' in your head, hon," Bitty says, voice soft. "Penny for your thoughts?"
And Jack isn't sure what to say, because Bitty usually is better at this. Neither one of them are shy about showering the other with affectionate words, but Bitty always speaks like he's writing a love letter. More often than not, Jack feels like his tongue gets heavy and twisted with his own feelings. It's easier for Jack to figure out how he can show Bitty what he feels rather than tell. With this in mind, he leans in to kiss Bitty.
But he's interrupted by someone yelling, "On your left!"
A cyclist rushes past them and, while they jump out of the way, they don't spring apart. Jack lets go of Bitty's face but keeps hold of his hand and Bitty keeps hold, even giving him a sweet, reassuring squeeze. The cyclist is long gone but, if she could see them, it would be undeniable that they're together. It's another thrilling realization, the first person to see them out as a couple in the wake of the Cup and they’re still here. Jack relishes the feeling of Bitty’s hand in his, warm as always and a perfect fit.
Jack doesn’t have to lean in for a kiss then, because Bitty is doing it for him. Bitty’s mouth is also warm, a solid press that reassures him that this is real and he isn’t dreaming. Jack kisses his boyfriend back as dawn continues its way across the park, delighting in the very thought of it. After a little while, they pull apart from each other and walk on arm-in-arm.
Bitty takes his time with his laces, making sure they're tight and secure before he even gets up.
He's seen the Faber countless times in the early morning light but that doesn't mean he ever gets tired of it. The big overhead windows let the sunlight in, making the ice itself glow. It's the offseason and campus is closed, so the rink will be empty save for himself and Jack this morning. They got in only because of Bitty's set of keys, a privilege of his captaincy and an insurance to their privacy. Still on the bench, Bitty watches as Jack does laps around the rink, not sprinting but still too fast to be considered lazy. Even with his trademark laser focus, Jack has a sense of calm on the ice that rarely appears anywhere else. Bitty reckons they'll need to find more time to skate just for themselves in the next few weeks, but that isn't what he wants to focus on.
"I didn't realize we drove all the way out here for a checking clinic," Bitty chirps as he makes his way onto the ice.
Because the rink is empty, Jack can easily hear him from the other side of the rink. He rushes across to Bitty, stopping in such a way that a large spray of ice flies up. Bitty let out a little shriek and Jack had the audacity to laugh as he said, "Hockey robot programming dies hard, eh?"
He wraps himself around Bitty, pulling him into a tight hug and pressing his nose into Bitty's hair. They haven't been on the ice long but, already, Jack is a little sweat. Bitty himself is past the point of being horrified that he likes the way that Jack smells and, so, he breathes it in. Neither one of them had bothered with pads or uniforms and, instead, pulled sweatshirts over what they were wearing at the party before driving out. With Jack wearing one of his dozen Samwell hoodies, it nearly feels like one of their checking clinics. Of course, back then, Jack had never dropped his hands low to grip Bitty's hips.
This past year, the distance between Samwell and Providence had seemed impossible sometimes. But when they'd woken up this morning, it seemed like nothing. They hadn't really talked about it, just gotten into Jack's car and made their way to the Faber - its shadow was just beginning to loom over the empty parking lot when they arrived. As soon as he saw it, Bitty didn't even care that he'd left his phone at Jack's place. Now, standing on the ice with Jack, Bitty wonders why they haven't done this sooner.
He wraps a hand around the back of Jack's neck, pulling him in for a proper kiss. Their last kiss on the ice had been fast, blink and you would've missed it - save for the countless cameras. Now, Bitty takes his time, opening his mouth to pull Jack's bottom lip between his own. It's sweet and deep and Jack's hands grip tighter on Bitty's hips as he makes a small, but appreciative tone. They've kissed hundreds of times - thousands even, but Bitty still feels a fluttering breathlessness every time.
They pull apart slowly, trading the deep kiss for a few soft pecks. Then, they're not kissing at all and, instead, of pressing their foreheads together. Jack's breath comes in warm, slow puffs and Bitty loves feeling this close to him, sharing the same air and feeling the steady beat of Jack's pulse in his neck.
"I don't know how many times I daydreamed of kissin' you here," Bitty says.
It's true. Bitty has thought about kissing Jack at the Faber and at the farmer's market and countless other places that seemed impossible until now. There's no going back from what they did last night and, even if they could, Bitty wouldn't want to. They can live as themselves and love each other and the whole world may very well have its eyes on them. It should be frightening and, maybe, given a little more time, it will be. Instead, the freedom of it all makes Bitty lightheaded. He leans up to press another kiss on Jack's cheek for good measure.
Jack lets go of his hips and ruffles Bitty's hair in return. His cheeks are pink, either from the slight chill or from delighted embarrassment. Looking down at his skates, he says, "It almost beats kissing the ice senior year. Almost."
Bitty smiles and pushes Jack away good-naturedly. Biting back a chirp about playing second fiddle to Jack's true love of hockey, Bitty does a few lazy figure eights to warm himself up. Unlike Jack, he has little interest in quick laps on his day off. There will be plenty of time for speed runs when his training season really gets underway, for now, Bitty wants to enjoy himself and do nothing more challenging than a waltz jump. Maybe with a little coaxing, he could even convince Jack to try some of the easier spins that Bitty knows.
Bitty keeps working towards the inside of the rink, giving Jack room to return to his laps. Every now and then, they're close enough to each other to reach out and brush their fingertips against one another. This is another glorious, freeing realization in the wake of the Cup and their entire relationship seemingly becoming the speculation of every major sports outlet: now that there's no secret to keep, they don't have to cling to each other in any free moment they can spare.
Now, Bitty realizes, they have all the time in the world.
"Feeling nervous?" Jack asks, reaching out to squeeze Bitty's knee.
Next to him, Bitty's dressed in sweats and has a pair of dark sunglasses on. Jack is stuck in a suit and, even as he pulls his tie loose, it does nothing to help the oppressive heat. Bitty nods, casually reaching up to rub Jack's neck just above the collar. They're both hungover but Bitty is the only one who has the luxury of looking the part. Jack leans into the touch, even if he's probably going to sweat through his shirt at this point.
"If I was nervous, I wouldn't have suggested it," Bitty says, then turns to face Jack. "Are you nervous?"
It feels a bit like a trick question.
Of course, Jack wouldn't have gone through with the kiss if he wasn't absolutely sure about Bitty. They were a team - and better separately and together for it. And, if he's honest with himself, Jack knew Bitty was the one for him as he ran across the Quad over a year ago. He knew it when the kissed under fireworks in Georgia and the first time Bitty introduced him to Señor Bun. And, god, did he know it when he kissed Bitty on the ice and it felt like they were the only people in the whole world.
But now, they're sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowded waiting room - far from being the only people in the whole world. There will be interviews and tabloids and all that comes with it. Besides that, Bitty still has to graduate and Jack will still be playing hockey and he'd be lying if it said he didn't have a moment where he worried how things would change now.
Still, he loves Bitty and that's what counts. Jack isn't lying when he says, "I'm happy to be here with you."
They wait quietly together, Bitty flipping through a magazine and Jack squinting to make out the images on a tiny TV in the corner. It's playing some daytime talk show, the kind that his mom sometimes guest stars on when she has a new movie out. The clerk at the front desk calls names for what seems like hours, the people around them shuffling in and out with little fanfare. Jack leans his head onto Bitty's shoulder (because that's a luxury afforded to him now) and closes his eyes.
He pictures the next year, wondering what it will be like for them to be apart while Bitty finishes school. Now, they don't have to hide and Jack isn't sure if that will make it easier or harder when he's out on a roadie. But they'll have holidays and whatever other time they can manage around hockey and school and family. Then, next year, there won't be anything stopping Bitty from making his move to Providence official. There'll be time to put up Bitty's photos and get all of his cookware tucked away and for him to paint the bathroom like he's been talking about for ages. And after that, well, they can decide when they get there.
"Love you, Bits," Jack says, voice soft.
He hears the magazine be shut deftly. Bitty grabs Jack's hand and lifts it in order to press a kiss to his knuckles. It's a gesture of reverence and love, a gentle press of lips on dry skin. Later, he'll chirp Jack about neglecting the hand lotion that Bitty got him around Valentine's Day. Now, he sets Jack's hand down gently and echoes, "Love you, too."
The timing couldn't be more perfect because then the clerk finally calls: "Eric Bittle and Jack Zimmermann?"
They jump up in sync, both of them rushing the counter. Belatedly, Bitty has the sense to grab Jack's hand in some semblance of a romantic gesture. The clerk gives them both a tired smile and says, "Alright. I have your initial paperwork, so all I'll need are your identification documents and twenty-four dollars."
At this Bitty and Jack both look at each other. For the first time, a lack of forethought seems to be an issue. They've had luck with leaning into their instincts at this point, so it comes as a bit of a surprise. The clerk's tired smile falters a little bit and she adds, "Driver's licenses are standard but I can also accept any photo I.D. and then we'll need a proof of residency along with your birth certificates."
"Birth certificate?" Bitty says faintly. "Mine's in Georgia."
"Mine is in Montreal, which is," Jack makes a vague gesture with his free hand, "Y'know. Another country."
They are still staring at each other, dumbstruck. The clerk inhales deeply, trying her best to remind herself that her lunch break is only an hour away. With every ounce of patience she can muster, she says, "I'm sorry, gentlemen. You cannot obtain a marriage license without them. You can review the information on our website and try to come back after you can get those documents. We're only open until three though and both Georgia and Montreal are a ways away."
At that, Bitty lets out an ugly snort of laughter. Immediately, he drops Jack's hand in order to cover his face as it turns brick red. Jack begins to laugh at that , leading to Bitty elbowing him sharply in the ribs before thanking the clerk for her help. They hurry away from the counter and out of City Hall. The clerk watches them for a moment, then calls the next name.