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2017 

Bitty walks out of the worst day of his life, the worst fight of his life, and right into a bar. Half of him can’t believe he’s resorting to drinking his problems away, but what else can he do? None of his friends understand him. Even if he could tell his parents, they’d be upset at him or on his behalf or both. He just lost the one person he would want to talk to about this (used to want, he supposes).

He buys two shots of tequila and a beer to nurse. He chugs the beer faster than he probably should and orders another round of all three. He breathes a little easier as the alcohol starts to fuck with his head. Jack’s words keep swimming in his head.

How does it feel to ruin your own life on a weekly basis? How are you even functioning without your parents supporting you?

Bitty scrapes the beer label, chugging the rest in one go. He asks for a water because he’s not enough of a masochist to keep drinking. He’s no Kent Parson, after all. Ugh, Kent Parson. Just thinking of him makes the hairs on his neck stand and the bile in his throat rise.

But maybe that’s just the beer and tequila.

He pays his tab and gets an Uber to the nearest gay club. He knows he probably looks worse for wear, but it’s a Saturday night in Boston. He’s sure anyone who’s sober enough to look at him probably doesn’t know his name. That news died down months among the general population.

Bitty uses the credit card Jack gave him to open a tab there. He doesn’t think about it much. Jack says he can’t take care of himself, and maybe he’s right. But for now, fuck Jack. He loses his jacket at some point underneath a pile of coats with other people. His shirts gets half unbuttoned by a gym bunny around his height. They grind to a few songs until they’re making out senselessly. The gym bunny doesn’t ask for his name. Bitty doesn’t bother to ask either. It’s great.

At some point, a few hours and five kamikaze shots later, he and Gym Bunny end up in the bathroom. Bitty lets him fuck him with a condom someone handed them on the way in.

Thank fuck for good samaritans.

It’s not good sex, and he knows he’ll feel it in the morning worse than any of Katya’s training. But he doesn’t care. It’s messy, spur of the moment and wild. It’s self destructive but because Bitty wants it that way. He’s never been this careless. It’s liberating.

Gym Bunny asks if he wants to come to an after party and he says yes. Most of Gym Bunny’s friends are coming back from a rave. One person offers Bitty a hit. He doesn’t know what it is so he shrugs it off until someone says it’s hash. It’s been a hot minute since he’s had any. Probably the last time he smoked hash was the summer after frog year with some of his old hockey friends from Georgia. He hasn’t done anything deviant since he got feelings for Jack, he realizes.

He greens out that night. He’s fairly certain he ends up in a three way, eating someone’s ass as they fuck someone else. Someone blows him at some point. At one point, he moans Jack’s name and has to slap himself to stop from crying.  

Sadness is for the weak and mama didn’t raise no wimp.

He crashes on Gym Bunny’s futon with about five other people. He wakes up at noon the next morning with a raging headache and some people sharing eggs for breakfast. They offer him some. Bitty shrugs them off, saying he should really get home.

Once he’s outside the building, he feels the sudden urge to puke. Luckily he finds a trashcan just in time. Unfortunately, it’s January in Boston and he lost his fucking suit jacket. Because he’s still bitter and too hungover to worry about credit card fraud, he buys a cheap jacket from the nearest store and googles the closest train stop.

When he gets back to the Haus, Tango asks where’s Jack. Bitty shrugs and says something came up. Because it’s true. Jack’s had a horrible habit of cancelling fun plans as of late so Tango takes his answer at face value. He manages to get to the second floor bathroom before he starts puking again. He’s disgusted with everything—the NHL for making them their puppets, the public for eating them whole, Jack for not having the fucking balls to breakup with him when things were a little less hopeless, and most of all Kent.

He can’t be that mad at Kent because he gets it. He finally understands what it’s like to get sucked into Jack Zimmermann’s orbit and get shredded upon impact. He spends the rest of the day in bed, only sitting up long enough for eat a granola Dex shoves at him.

Bitty has to stop himself from screaming when he realizes Dex is mothering. Even his frogs think he can’t take care of himself. He does, however, spend a good two hours tearing his room apart, getting rid of everything that reminds him of Jack.

At the end, his room is in tatters with not much left on the walls. He sobs into his Falcs’ jersey, wondering when his life became all about Jack.

 

_/.\_

 

Bitty isn’t as bad of a student as Jack makes other people believe. Sure, he’s put off a few (hundred) assignments until the last minute. But they always get done well. He needs the pressure of a deadline to feel any bit challenged. For his last semester, he chose relatively easy special topics courses. He figured between his thesis, SMH, and the Falconers, he’d be too busy to get much school work done.

His team doesn’t make it to the playoffs, and his thesis is the only thing that distracts him enough from how much his life’s falling apart. Of course, the Falconers events are still an option, but he’s been able to stave off the last few at Jack’s petty suggestion.

Bitty runs out of things to do by the end of March. He hasn’t gone out much since January because he knows how hard he can go now. It occurs to him on a Wednesday night as Nursey and Louis head out to one of the bars just off campus that there’s nothing keeping him from going hard. No obligations, nothing to look forward to past graduation, and no one to give a fuck if and when he gets back home.

There’s nothing stopping him from going wild.

So Bitty asks to join them and gets more wasted than the last time. He goes out again and ends up in the basement of a sorority’s senior house, drunkenly getting his toenails painted as he smokes with them and talks about celebrities with the token lesbian couple among them. No one notices how close they’re sitting or that the more femme one has her arm protectively around the butch one. Or maybe no one cares because they’re used to it. Jealousy makes his skin crawl so he asks for another hit.

He goes out the next night and the night after that. He goes out unless there’s a kegsters where he beats everyone’s records for keg stands. He builds his tolerance up and learns how to play beer pong for real. Because there’s no Jack to distract or chirp him about losing to Lardo.

He drinks and parties because he’s fucking good at it. He dances with strangers because it makes him feel sexy and has sex with other strangers because they’re sexy. He lives more in the night time. He doesn’t know what he’ll be doing the next night, let alone after graduation. It doesn’t matter, though. Nothing really matters to him anymore. He wants to be selfish for once.

When Lardo, Ransom, and Holster come to visit over spring break, he beats Lardo in beer pong with his less dominant hand. Ransom and Holster look at him like he’s some kind of god. Lardo looks straight past him. Like she’s waiting for something to happen, a shoe to drop or Jack to coming walking through the door.

Holster asks once if Jack’s coming, Bitty shrugs. He doesn’t know or care, but he makes up a lie about his team getting in late from their roadie. He doesn’t mention he unlinked his calendar from Jack’s months ago. No one questions when the conversation dies down.

Lardo doesn’t stop watching him all night. She just...sits next to him, sipping her beer. A few times, she jabs his ribs lightly, trying to prompt him to say something.

He chugs three cups of jungle juice in front of her until she glares and walks away. Message received, loud and clear.

He can’t get very drunk anymore, not without smoking something to help him green out. It’s ok, he thinks. The come down is half the experience. Crying by himself when he’s drunk is cathartic, and more than he’d do while sober.

Lardo finds him in the second floor bathroom around one in the morning, the kegster’s still in full swing downstairs. She hands him water and tells him to drink. Her scowl is more concerned and tired than angry.

“You gonna talk about it or am I gonna have to wait?” she asks.

Bitty shakes his head. It’s secret. It’s all so fucking secret. There’s no way he can begin to explain to her the shit he’s been through.

Lardo sighs, sitting down with her back to the sink and she rubs Bitty’s back. He starts to vomit the little dinner he had.

“Take as much time as you need,” she says at some point. “But you’re gonna talk about this.”

He nods.

Really, he won’t. But what’s one more lie?

_/.\_

 

Two weeks later, Lardo comes down to visit again. She texts Bitty in advanced asking if it’s ok to crash with him and if he has time to hang out. She doesn’t come around the campus much at all anymore. Obviously it’s an excuse to keep an eye on him, and while he’s annoyed, he knows he has to let her or else she’ll ask more questions he isn’t ready to answer. Some of those questions he may never have answers for.

He tells her it’s fine and asks her not come until after he’s back from a Falcs’ event. He thinks he can get away with drinking because she’s in town and it’s a special occasion. He expects the event to be tight and awkward as usual. He doesn’t expect Jack to offer him room and board in his fucking boyfriend’s mom’s apartment like some useless deadbeat. Jack even goes as far as calling Bitty useless, the fucking bastard.

Which is how Bitty ends up half drenched walking back into the Haus after the world’s longest fight that he wasn’t prepared to have with his ex. He makes a beeline for the kitchen, grabbing as many utensils and ingredients from the kitchen as possible. He starts making pies. He doesn’t keep track of the time. He works on the dough and filling until his hands are screaming for him to stop. They hurt until they go numb. This always happens so he doesn’t think much of it.

Distantly, he thinks someone is talking to him. Someone’s getting progressively louder.

“You need to take a break,” Lardo’s voice finally comes through.

It’s so high pitched, desperate, and annoying. She doesn’t really care. No one does. They just see Bitty as a machine, only as good as his fucking pies.

“You don’t know a fucking thing about what I need,” he hears himself say. “You have no clue the utter shit my life’s been the last year.”

“Then tell me,” he hears her say.

His thoughts go fuzzy again, as they do when he’s elbow deep in baking. He thinks he says something. He must’ve said something because the next thing he knows, there’s a stinging sensation on his cheek and Lardo’s running out of the Haus. Faintly, he thinks she slapped him. He doesn’t think too hard about it. He just keeps baking.

Sometime later, when the twelfth pie is in the oven and the first nine are already cooling, he sighs, wiping the sweat off his forehead. He declares his progress good enough. He looks at the time on the oven, realizing it’s past two in the morning. He goes upstairs to check on Lardo, finding nothing.

He texts her, no reply. His fingers are getting some feeling back, aching like a bitch. He groans as he calls Lardo five or six times. He goes downstairs to start looking for her. Fortunately, Whiskey comes through the door with a drunk Tango, saying Lardo’s at Jerry’s and probably needs someone to walk her home.

Bitty thanks him and heads in that direction.

He’s surprised that Jerry’s is still open at this time of night. But then again, what would he know? He usually isn’t sober at this time of day.

Lardo’s easy to spot because she’s one of the last people in the bar. The bartender seems to be cleaning up as they indulgently listen to her ramblings.

“Why does he have to use everyone else's problems as a shield for not dealing with shit?” she practically yells.

Bitty winces as he approaches her.

“Ok I deserve that.” He takes a deep breath. “Lards, let's go home.”

She looks over her shoulder, glaring mercilessly at him. “Fuck off.”

Bitty scrubs his face. He doesn’t have the energy for this. “C’mon, please? it's been a long day.”

“You're a fucking ass, you know that?”

“I do, and I'm sorry. Can I please make it up to you?”

Lardo hops off the barstool. Even being six and a half inches shorter than him, she has the capacity to feel three times her height. Making anyone feel small when they’re on the wrong end of her wrath.

“How?”

“I have cobbler in the kitchen?” Bitty offers weakly.

“Fucking cobbler…” Lardo grumbles. “Fine.”

The night seems to get better. She allows Bitty to lightly pull her in the direction of the Haus. Once they get inside the Haus, Lardo makes a beeline for the kitchen. He sighs, a little tired and annoyed that he’ll have to stop her from burning her tongue. Instead, he finds her throwing away a perfectly good cobbler. Hours of work, a labor of fucking love that no one appreciates, straight into the garbage. It makes his blood boil.

“What the fuck are you doing!” Bitty shouts.

“It’s just food!” she screams.

“That you’re wasting,” he says just as loud.

His breathing is erratic. He feels like tearing his hair out. He wants her to get the fuck away from his food and go to sleep. He’s lost everything. He can’t lose baking too.

Lardo, however, isn’t finished. “How many fucking times has baking something come first? Why does everything have to be ‘solved’ with fucking food?!”

“Because the world doesn't make sense?!” he snaps. “Because it's cruel and evil but at least I can make it a little better? What’s so wrong about that!”

“It’s not making anything better if you’re self-harming all the fucking time,” Lardo says.

Bitty opens his mouth to argue. His brain stalls for a second. Self-harming?

“What,” he says outloud. His voice sounds as cracked and lost as he as. As he has been.

Lardo is decidedly less drunk than he realized. Her glare softens as her shoulders sag. She crosses her arms.

“You heard me,” she says quietly. “You know baking like this hurts you. It physically hurts you, Bits. You think hurting yourself is helping anyone? Do you...do you really think people will like you more if you fuck yourself up for them?”

Bitty glares at the floor. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She can’t possibly understand the shit he’s been through. He likes baking. He needs it—  

He has to reason with her. He doesn’t know why it’s so important, but he knows she has to understand how wrong she is. How simple and pure baking is when the rest of the world isn’t. He clenches his fists tightly.

“Is that why you were upset before? Because I was baking?”

Lardo freezes, raising her eyebrows.

“Oh my fuck—” she covers her mouth with both her hands, muffling a few screams. “You can’t see anything when you’re baking. You don’t care about what it does to you, or who it's fucking ‘helping’, or when it's too much.”

He bites his lip. Ok, so maybe she has a point—  

“Do you even remember what you said to me?” she asks.

Bitty shrugs hopelessly.

Lardo makes a face, half turning away from him.

“‘Why don’t you stop worrying about my problems and maybe fix your own pathetic life for once you useless fuck?’”

The only sound between them is the humming of refrigerator. Even with the kitchen lights on and the new HVAC system Jack bought them, it’s too cold. Everything’s too brittle and clipped. Bitty’s throat gets tight and hot. He was projecting. He realizes, shouting the words he thinks someone should just scream at him already. The things Jack probably thinks about him all the time.

“This isn't the first time you've put me down like that,” Lardo adds, hugging herself tighter.

“...It isn't?”

Lardo won’t look at him, she just shrugs.

“I love you,” she says. “But honestly? I don't like who you are when you're like this.”

Bitty thinks there’s a lot of people who don’t deserve to be hurt by him, and Lardo is at the top of that list.

“You aren’t ok,” she keeps talking. “I just...want you to be happy again. Whatever that means to you.”

He walks around the kitchen island. His face feels numb but his feet are moving. He throws his arms around Lardo’s shoulders, clutching her tightly. She doesn’t understand what hell his life has been the last year or so. But she’s done more by saying that than Jack ever has. She knew exactly what he needed to hear, because she cares.

Bitty feels himself trembling as he murmurs “I’m sorry,” over and over again. Lardo hugs him back.

“Talk to me,” she says at some point. “I’m here for you.”

So he does. He starts talking and doesn’t stop. He sobs through half of it as Lardo drags him to the couch. He lets her put him in her lap as he babbles about everything that went wrong. Every moment he wishes he could take back. Every mistake he’d buried under miles of dough and preserves. She holds him and tells him it’ll be ok.

“We’re gonna figure this out, ok? The two of us,” she murmurs into his neck.

Lardo’s never had a reason to lie to him so he’s inclined to believe her. They end up crashing on the couch that night. Bitty isn’t bothered by it when he realizes in the morning. Truth be told, he never hated that couch as much as he let on. If anything, he’ll miss it’s old familiar stench. Reminding him that some things are worth keeping around, worth cherishing even when they don’t make sense anymore.

_/.\_

 

Lardo holds his hand as he call his parents to tell them no he isn’t ok, and no he can’t move back home, but he needs help. So much help. Lardo helps him look for a therapist and gets him to talk to the team’s physical therapist for once about his hands. He definitely has carpal tunnel. He gets some exercises from the physical therapist to help, and Lardo shows him more stretches he can do. Lardo sits with him as he fucking cries because he doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life and he’s a month from graduating.

Lardo goes home at the end of the weekend, making him promise to not cut her out again. He tries opening up more, and texting more often. He talks to her about the things he can be honest about, and with his therapist about the things he can’t just yet. His therapist (really his third after he gets referred to a psychologist to test for the ADHD he’s been diagnosed with) is gentle in the way he wishes more people were.

She teaches him how to make chores and tasks easier so he can follow through, and how to not beat himself when his head isn’t quite there. They come up with a lot of “cheat codes,” as she calls them, for when his days are on a downswing or when his instinct is to hyper focus on something that won’t do him a lot of good. He tells Lardo about those and she grins softly when he asks if she could help hold him accountable.

He gets used to sleeping in wrist braces and makes schedules (and schedules for his schedules) so he’ll stick to things. He starts emailing Falcs PR again. He misses his channel. Even if he has to play by their rules, it’s something he was good at that he loved. He argues with them that he could reboot the channel and do a Falcs feature once a month to keep up the social media synergy. They surprisingly agree, offering to help with the ground work and brainstorming.

He texts Lardo a pie emoji every time things are hard and he wants to stuff his problems under miles of pastry puff. She texts back duck pictures and posts from instagram that Bitty might like. He always does because Lardo understands when he needs a distraction.

He doesn’t bake again until finals are over and Lardo comes down for graduation. His hands don’t ache as much because Lardo sits with him while he works, reminding him when to take it easy. He bakes chocolate pecan because it’s her favorite and she always pronounces pecan the way he likes.

They spend half the night eating that one pie and some ice cream while binge watching a show Holster recommended. It’s odd at first, only making enough for the two of them. But it’s also extremely gratifying. He doesn’t have to worry about anything else but how much he’s enjoying himself and Lardo’s company.

“You know where you’re going after graduation?” she asks at some point.

Bitty sighs. “Home for a while...I might take Jack up on Kent’s offer but...I don’t think I’m ready to just accept his help like that.”

Lardo hums as she takes another bite of ice cream.  There’s a quiet lull between them. It’s not awkward or anxious, not brimming with subtext that Bitty thinks he should understand but can’t. It’s just calm, pleasant. He feels at ease with Lardo.

“You should come live with me,” she says after a while.

Bitty starts to protest when she adds, “Rans and Holtzy are getting relocated to California for the year. Shits spends most of the time at his boyfriend’s now anyway. It’s just going to be me otherwise. Which would suck.”

Lardo swallows thickly. “So no pressure but this isn’t a pity thing, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Oh , he thinks. She needs him just as much as he needs her. The world is pretty fucking lonely right now, but they have each other. They could just keep hanging out and it would be like they’re still at school. Like not much has changed at all and they could be happy.

Bitty hugs her tightly. It isn’t just for him, and that’s a huge weight off his shoulders. They’re a team, he realizes. He wants to be part of this team really badly.

“I’d love to,” he says.

Her grin is worth all the gold in the world.    

_/.\_

 

Jack shows up for Bitty’s graduation because he has to. Because half the world still thinks they’re together and in love and they’re dying to get a peek into their secret private world. They have no idea what goes on behind closed curtains , Bitty thinks ruefully. He envies them to some extent. They get to leave this ceremony and go about their lives. Bitty leaves this ceremony and has to keep living a lie for indeterminate future. Part of him thinks he’ll eventually have to marry Jack, like it or not.

They kiss for a few photos and smile for some others. Bitty ignores the way Suzanne looks after him worriedly and how Coach tries not to yell at or punch Jack (as he’s threatened to over the phone several times now). They get it. Appearances are everything. Even if Bitty doesn’t have a choice. Even if he has to plaster an excited smile on his face while every inch of his body screams for him to take his truck, drive west, and never look back.

He knows that’s not a practical solution for any of his problems. Besides, he’d probably have to kidnap Lardo too and she wouldn’t like that at all. She’d probably be the voice of reason and make him come back after a week or two.

It takes all of Bitty’s will power not to scream when Shitty says off handedly how cute he and Jack look together. Bitty’s parents hug him longer than they probably should. Suzanne reminds him that he can come home whenever he wants. He doesn’t have the heart to explain to her why Georgia can’t be home. Why it’ll never be home again.

He may spend the rest of the afternoon disassociating as he goes with Jack to the annual alumni event. He only orders one drink, but sips it the entire time. He may or may not make small talk with people he can only vaguely remember. He may or may not cry into Lardo’s shoulder once he’s back at the house, ready to drive his shit up to Boston with her. He definitely spends the rest of the night spend the night at Lardo’s place getting drunk with her. He laughs through some sordid tears and bad hallmark films, trying to forget how much of his life is a lie.

 

_/.\_

Living with Bitty is...something, Lardo realizes. On the one hand, it’s being able to live with their best friend for the first time in over a year. It’s something they missed a whole fucking lot. On the other hand, Lardo forgot how different they can be. How much of theirself they stuffed down during college to make it easier to operate around a hockey team.

It was easier for Lardo to bite their tongue when it was Bitty saying something dumb in a room full of thirty other cis men. But college is over, and they’re living with only each other for the next twelve months.

“So, how long until you hand Bitty’s ass to him?” Ransom asks over the phone one day.

“If I knew, I’d tell you,” they say humorlessly.

Ransom hums thoughtfully. “Well, whenever it is, make sure you get pics. Nursey and I have a few bets going. Nursey thinks Bitty’s going to mansplain you racism and I have money going for how long it takes you to try to make him feel better.”

“Why am I friends with you jerks?”

“Because you love us. And we’re worried about you, alright? You have a big soft spot for Bits, and it’s not doing him or you any favors.”

Lardo groans, “I hate when you’re right.”

“Liar,” Ransom chirps.

He’s right of course. Lardo could never stay mad at Bitty for long. So she doesn’t say a whole lot when Bitty wrinkles his nose whenever it’s Lardo’s turn to cook dinner. And they don’t smack Bitty when he asks why do they have to have incense burning or why are they always putting rice in meals.

Really, Lardo thinks they can keep a tentative peace as long as Bitty doesn’t get too invasive or rude. Then again, Bitty’s really good at pushing Lardo’s buttons without realizing it.

So when Lardo’s binge watching The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo for the umpteenth time on a particularly hard day for them—and Bitty walks into their bedroom asking if Lardo wants to go do something, and Bitty condescendingly says “oh, that show”—Lardo is probably not in the headspace to talk about what Bitty actually wants.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s just...confusing,” Bitty says with that voice he uses to fake pleasantries. “And odd.”

“In what way?”

“In the way they need all those side characters and queerbaiting when the word gay is actually in the title,” he says tersely.

Lardo wants to throw something and maybe scream. “What queerbaiting, Bits?”

“That Len character—”

“Is questioning his sexuality,” Lardo argues.

“Then there’s Caleb’s friend who’s sleeping with his other friend—”

“They’re flawed characters and they work shit out,” they say.

“Then there’s Freckles, who I won’t pretend to understand—”

“Freckles is non-binary and brilliant!”

“The show is a mess,”  Bitty says.

“It’s realistic.”

“It’s gay men twisting themselves into things they’re not!”

“News flash, Bits, there’s more to the world than white gay cis men. Not every piece of queer media is for you,” Lardo snaps.

He blinks at them. “Sorry? You asked—”

“Ok, sorry I said anything,” Lardo huffs.

They turn back to their laptop, pressing play. They intentionally ignore Bitty since he won’t stop hovering. It takes maybe another fifteen minutes before Lardo pauses the show again, sighing. They glare tiredly at Bitty.

“What?”

“I...I don’t know,” Bitty says. “I think I’m supposed to apologize better than that.”

Lardo sighs. “You don’t even know what you’re apologizing for.”

Bitty swallows. He gestures at the bed, asking for permission to sit. Lardo reluctantly nods. Bitty carefully moves the laptop out of the way, sitting in front of them.

“I asked you to tell me when I fuck up, remember?” Bitty says as he takes their hands. “That means telling me when I hurt you too.”

“It doesn’t matter,” they say.

“Why not? You matter to me.”

“Because it’s hard telling you about this shit,” Lardo says. “It’s hard when I tell you ‘you hurt me’ and you say shit like ‘no I didn’t’ or ‘that wasn’t what I meant.’ I know you’re not trying to be a jerk ok?”

They watch him chew on his lip as he mulls it over. He doesn’t let go of their hands and they don’t tell him to. It’s nice when he needs to stim and starts squeezing their hands. It’s like a stim for them too.

“I’m sorry,” he says finally. “I guess I make it hard to talk to me, huh?”

“A little,” they admit.

“Can I...promise that I’ll work on listening more? Would that help?”

Lardo shrugs. “Probably. But I can’t be swayed by an empty promise, Bits. I need you to try, like really try. I can’t just call you out on racist bullshit and then spend three hours building your ego back up.”

Bitty blushes. “Has that ever happened?”

“That time you asked me if I was going to be Lucy Liu for Halloween,” they say. “That time you asked if my parents own a dry cleaners. Every fucking time I cook and you won’t even try fucking Vietnamese food? But I have to try instant mashed potatoes or fucking meatloaf drenched in ketchup right? It’s a big deal if I don’t try your mom’s food but you can’t even try mine?”

“Fuck,” he says softly. “Ok, I’m sorry.”

“You’ve said that already.”

“No but I mean it,” he insists. “You’re my best friend, Lards. I want you to know I care and appreciate you.”

“Then stop trying to get me to watch 90 day fiance with you. It’s gross and I don’t like it.”

“Noted,” he says. “Anything else I can do?”  

“Could you do your own fucking research about racism and queerphobia and transphobia? I want to talk to you about this shit but I feel like I have to teach you everything, then argue with you and make you feel better when we don’t agree.”

“Ok,” he says quietly. “I can do that.”

“I’m sorry ok?” Lardo says, because Bits being upset is the last thing they ever want to deal with. “But sometimes I want to be able to come home and let my guard down. I want to be able to watch some wholesome shit and cry my fucking eyes out because everyone else is a bag of dicks and it’s hard out there. It shouldn’t be that hard in here.”

Lardo clenches their jaw so tight it starts to hurt. There’s so much they want to be able to do when they get home. They want to relax and feel safe and—  

Bitty hugs them tightly. Lardo hugs back slowly, trembling when Bitty apologizes again.

“I don’t ever want to be the one that makes you cry,” he says. “You’re my best friend. If you need me to step it up, it’s the least I can do.”

Lardo hugs him tighter, nodding as something wet slips down their cheek. They can only hope Bitty keeps his word.

 

_/.\_

Bitty does keep his word. He does his homework and only asks questions when he wants a better understanding, not to argue and invalidate Lardo’s experiences. Bitty gets better at feigning interest in Lardo’s interests. At least, that’s how it feels at first. Then suddenly Bitty’s texting Lardo links to neat tattoos and articles on sacred geometry. He asks Lardo if they’re up for answering a few of his questions, but never pushes when Lardo says they’re having a bad day.

Sometimes he still fucks up. He still frowns when food doesn’t look like his mom’s or when Lardo’s parents come to visit and their accents aren’t what he’s used to. Lardo still has to say “Bits,” with a warning in their voice to get him to back off. They still have to have talks when Bitty doesn't get why he isn’t allowed to say something or when what he says rubs Lardo the wrong way. But it isn’t a one way, halted conversation. It’s Bitty talking through his thoughts and Lardo offering what they can. It’s Bitty readjusting to expand his world view, and Lardo nudging him whenever he starts to get off track. It’s Bitty saying something shitty one day, and coming back with sweet buns from Lardo’s favorite grocery store the next.

Bitty learns to apologize, or else backtrack when he’s caught himself doing something less than savory. He’s a little more self aware too. Maybe that’s the therapy and job stability he now has, but he’s kinder. He asks what Lardo wants and what they’re thinking. He offers to do things with them that they mention off handedly, because that’s what friends are for. He makes it a point to get to know Lardo’s other queer friends and to be respectful when they talk about how queerphobia, binarism, and homonormativity are hurtful to them.

Bitty isn’t perfect, but neither is Lardo. They’re just two friends stumbling through life, trying to figure out how to be.

 

_/.\_

 

Despite not binge drinking as he did a few months back, Bitty still goes out fairly regularly with Lardo and her friends. There’s a few bars they like to frequent, but each person has their favorite and Bitty’s is a gay club not too far from their apartment.

It’s better when Lardo suggests going out, because her plans tend to be more concrete and more likely to happen. Sometimes Bitty says going out would be nice and then ends up reading comic books with Lardo in her bed. When Lardo says they’re going out, more often than not they do.

Lardo’s closet is the best part about getting ready together. Lardo—through thrifting, ebay, and a few favors to a few fashion inclined friends—has amassed the ultimate wardrobe for going out. She has just about every piece of clothing Bitty has ever hoped to wear, and then some.

“How do you afford these?” he asks one day in late June when they’re getting ready.

“Tight budgeting, saving for-fucking-ever, and keeping tabs on shit that most people don’t pay attention to,” she says easily.

Bitty whistles. “Sounds like a lot.”

She shrugs. “It’s not easy, but it’s cheaper than it looks...cheaper than all the tats I want, anyway.”

“Right, that human garden you’re working on,” he says.

“Don’t make it sound dumb.”

“It’s not,” he says. “It just sounds...painful.”

“Eh, I’m ok with that,” Lardo says.

“Sure, you say that now—”

“Bits,” Lardo says with that tone Bitty knows means he’s overstepped his bounds.

He sighs, “you’re right, I’m just worried—”

“No, just look,” she says.

Bitty turns around. Lardo has her button down shirt pulled up to her bra (he thinks it’s a bra, at least). She already has a tattoo of a rose vine going down the entirety of her ribs. Bitty steps closer, half in awe. He has to stop himself from running his hands down her side, wanting to feel the texture of the hyper realistic roses.   

“Wow,” he says softly, “they’re beautiful.”

“And on the top five list of most painful spots to get a tattoo,”

“Of course you’d do that for your first tattoo,” he mutters. “Can’t do anything in halves, can you?”

“Gotta keep everyone on their toes, remember?”

“Who went with you? When you got this,” he asks.

“No one,” she says.

Bitty frowns. That can’t be right. Most people ask someone for moral support for their first time.

“Why not?” he asks.

Lardo shrugs. “Didn’t want anyone trying to talk me out of it, I guess.”

He nods. There’s something about the idea of Lardo, alone and glaring as someone cut up her skin, that bothers him. Not because she can’t handle pain, no. Bitty’s seen her crash into a tree and get stitches with no more than a single wimper. He knows she can handle physical pain. But he also knows she doesn’t expect much of people. Doesn’t ask for help because she thinks acting tough is the only way people will take her seriously enough. He doesn’t think it’s fair to her at all.

“Next time, can I go with you?” he offers.

“You sure?”

“Yea,” he says. “I like tattoos, and I want to be there for you.”

Lardo quirks her lip. “Ok, I’ll let you know next time.”

Bitty doesn’t know why, but it feels like a victory. Lardo breaking down her walls a little bit and letting him in. She isn’t doing it out of politeness or for some nebulous reason Bitty can’t wrap his mind around. She’s doing it because she cares about him, and he’s worked hard to earn her trust.

“You know,” she says, taking his jaw in her hand as she examines him closely. “You would look really good in eyeliner, you know that?”

Bitty snorts. “Sure I would.”

Lardo frowns. “Why not?”

“I’m not a girl,” he remind her.

“So? You’re queer. Isn’t that enough?”

“I’m not—” he stops himself from saying he isn’t queer. Because truth be told, the word doesn’t really bother him like he thinks it should.

He stares at Lardo with her arms crossed somewhat impatiently and thinks, what is wrong about a little eyeliner? They’re going to a gay club, decked out in glitter and bright colors, during the month of June. Is he worried people won’t think he’s gay? Of course not. Is he worried that someone will recognize him? Not at all. They live in Bruins territory. No one will spot him up here.

Bitty shrugs, “ok, why not?”

Lardo turns out to be surprisingly skilled and gentle at applying makeup. She asks him what he wants, and listens. He says something about not wanting to look twelve anymore, and she grabs something from her bag. Twenty minutes later, Lardo’s shoving him in front of the bathroom mirror. His features look sharper than they normally do. More mature and pronounced. He looks stylish and fierce. He looks...gorgeous, he thinks.   

“You like it?” she asks tentatively.

“I love it,” he says emphatically. “I just look so...I look like me but in a good way. Does that make sense?”

Lardo laughs. It sounds like half and half on a hot day.

“It does,” she says. “That’s how it should feel, all the time.”

He feels a weird twist in his stomach. He thinks there’s more to it, and how he feels. But he stuffs it down for another day when he isn’t ready to dance his grievances away.

They meet up with Lardo’s friends (who are slowly making themselves his friends) at the bar. The music is loud, boisterous, and energetic. It’s classics he grew up on and songs he can’t believe he never thought to claim for himself before. He gets compliments for his makeup and blushes every time. He makes out with a few people while lost in the heart of the crowd. He grinds with Lardo until last call when they take one more shot for the road, ending up in a 24 hour diner not much later. Mateo and Kelsey get into an debate about who was the most fuckable member of the Backstreet Boys. Benji yawns as he falls asleep on Mateo’s shoulder. Bitty thinks they’re cute together. He likes having queer friends who understand what he’s going through.

A few of their other friends trickle in from an after party they were at for a while. Lardo ends up in his lap to save space. He doesn’t mind at all. For once, he can have fun and be free without worrying about what other people are thinking—without feeling like he isn’t queer enough to call himself gay.

 

_/.\_    

 

Come August, they’ve found a rhythm to living together. There’s still arguments, compromises, and a few shout matches here and there when they’re both tired and upset. But for the most part, they have cohabitating down to an art. Lardo loves living with Bitty and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Except on days when their depression acts up and Bitty hasn’t gotten enough sleep the night before. They’re both trying to hold it together but very clearly can’t. Days like today when they both have to go to Jack’s birthday party and aren’t nearly emotionally prepared for it. When Lardo would rather go back to sleep and never wake up, let alone watch Bitty break himself for the sake of another PR stunt.

Since Bitty’s a worse driver when he’s tired, Lardo drives them down. It’s the longest hour of their life and Bitty shifts in his seat every few seconds, biting his nails incessantly. Lardo takes his left hand a few times, but after the third time he tells them to knock it off. So there’s nothing keeping Bitty from murdering his own cuticles. Lardo adds press on nails to the list of things to introduce Bitty to. He’s already been receptive to nail polish (especially black nail polish, surprisingly).

The party is loud and seemingly cheerful. Mostly, it’s Jack’s teammates eating and drinking him out of house and home. Shitty brings his boyfriend, Carter, to introduce to everyone. He and Lardo have already hung out a few times before. He’s nice. He even puts up with Bitty being snippy when he mentions he used to play in the WHL.    

Since Bitty is supposed to be living there with Jack, he has to be the first person in and the last person to leave at the end of the night. He looks more worn the longer the party goes on, the more he has to lie through his teeth about how post-grad life is going for him. Lardo would do anything to be able to drag him out of this apartment, and city, forever.

Eventually the crowd dies down. They help Jack clean up some before Lardo says they should get going. Jack gives Bitty an awkward wave goodbye before hugging Lardo. It feels weird, this place Jack and Bitty have stuck them in. But Jack was their friend long before Bitty, and he’d always be Lardo’s friend. Lardo’s spent so much time keeping the peace with Bitty. One hug should be fine. It shouldn’t be the end of the world.

Unfortunately, Bitty seems to think it is. He spends most of their drive back going at unreasonably fast speeds and muttering under his breath. Lardo wants to tell him to chill out, but is also mildly afraid for their life.

They get ten minutes before they should have if they were driving at the speed limit. Lardo has to stop theirself from kissing the ground when they get into their apartment. Bitty marches to the kitchen. Half of Lardo wants to get to bed already. But it’s three am and the only thing Bitty does in the kitchen at three am is bake.

“You can’t—” Lardo starts to say as they walk into the kitchen.

Bitty’s shoveling a spoon into a tub of ice cream they bought three days ago. It’s almost empty. They should really cut back on deserts. Then again, who the fuck cares what they eat or when. Lardo gestures for Bitty to follow them into the living room.

Bitty turns on the TV and switches it to the home and gardening network. He hasn’t watched Food Network in months. Whenever Shitty asks if he wants to, Bitty starts muttering about glorifying cultural appropriation and underpaid skilled workers. Lardo’s heart does a weird flip whenever he says something like that.

“Wanna talk about it?” they say after a while.

“I don’t...know,” Bitty admits. “I don’t think I know why I’m angry.”

“But you’re definitely angry?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Does it have to do with Jack?”

“Not exactly,” he says as he groans. “I think...I think I was all wrong about Kent.”

“In what way?”

“I don’t think he ever tried to steal Jack from me,” Bitty says. “I don’t think he’s who I thought he was. I guess I feel, bad?”

“That’s ok, you know better now.”

They try to coax him into relaxing, tentatively squeezing their hand.

He bites his lip, shrugging. “I feel bad because I think I said something really hurtful about him a few months ago. And, uh, apparently he never took it the way he could have. He forgives me,”

Lardo doesn’t entirely understand what Bitty’s saying. But they think that’s ok. That Bitty isn’t telling it to them straight because he knows they’d be hurt in some way.

“What’s wrong with that?” they say instead.

“I don’t think I deserve it,” Bitty says. “I said some unkind things. I thought some unkind things today when Jack told me—”

Lardo laces their fingers together. “Told you what?”

“It’s not really my secret to tell,” he says. “But I guess...for a second I thought ‘why did Jack ever leave him?’”

“Ok…”

“I don’t know,” he says, his breathing getting a bit erratic. “I was being an asshole, and it doesn’t matter who else thinks it. I know it’s true.”

“So you know better now,” Lardo argues.

“It’s not really that simple, is it?”

“Why not?”

“Because I was being transphobic, Lards,” he says bluntly. “And I feel awful. I don’t want to think like that. I don’t feel that way.”

There it is , Lardo thinks. They vaguely remember chirping Kent at Epikegster before he disappeared and thinking they could really be friends. Apparently they have more in common than Lardo originally thought. Regardless, Bitty’s trying. He feels genuinely bad. Maybe it’s not Lardo’s job to lift him back up, but they’re ok with telling him not to beat himself up too hard. They’re more than ok with that.

“Bits, intrusive thoughts happen. They suck, and you should still work through them and unlearn that shit. But it doesn't make you a bad person if you slip up and don't act on it.”

He bites his lip. Lardo knows that means he’s trying to process everything that. It’s cute when he doesn’t believe them but desperately wants to. It reminds them that Bitty’s still human, deserving of love and second chances.

“Ok, thank you,” he says finally. “Fuck, I didn’t mean to drag you into this.”

“I know,” they say.

He wraps an arm around them pulling them close to his chest. They can hear his heart beating a little faster than normal. Lardo put their hand over his chest.

“Thank you,” he says again, quieter this time. “For coming with me today. And for being there for me.”

Lardo ducks their head further, snuggling against his chest. They don’t want him to see them blushing. It’s not a big deal, really. They were just helping a friend out. Bitty deserves to have someone in his corner all the time.  

“Yea no problem,” they say. “Anything for my best bud.”

Bitty makes a sound between a laugh and a huff. Lardo ignores him, letting their eyes rest as he holds them. Maybe they fall asleep that way. Maybe it’s the best sleep either of them have gotten in a week. Maybe they wake up a few hours later and Lardo drags Bitty to the nearest bed. Maybe they spend the whole day in bed.
It’s fine. It’s just something friends do.

 

_/.\_

   

A few weeks later, Lardo’s pulling their binder out of their dresser drawer early one morning. They have a meeting with a potential client to do a mural. They need to be on their best game and they really can’t do that with their dysphoria acting up. Lardo hopes that their binder is enough. They’re planning on wearing a suit, but there’s not much else they can do to look masculine while still looking “professional” enough for the WASPs Shitty gave their business card to.

Bitty’s looking through Instagram on the bed. He has to film today but he prefers doing that at night when Lardo can keep him company. His shift at the cafe down the street doesn’t start for a few hours so he has nowhere to be regardless.

Lardo takes a deep breath. Their skin itches in a way it hasn’t in a while. And well, they’re feeling pretty crummy over all these days with how long their hair has gotten.

“What’s wrong?” Bitty says.

Lardo stares at him in the mirror, shrugging. “It’s complicated.”

He frowns, staring back at them for a moment. He shrugs. “I’m here if you want to talk, but it’s ok if you don’t.”

“Thanks,” Lardo murmurs.

They get ready at a glacial pace. They check every inch of their suit twice, thrice even. They fight with their hair a few times before trying to figure out what to do with their makeup. They have to put foundation and lipstick on, even if they’re repulsed by the idea of looking too feminine today.

They hear Bitty shift behind them. He takes the brush out of their hands gently.

“What are you trying to do?” he asks.

“Look hot for some gross white dudes,” they say mirthlessly.

“Is that what you want?”

“No, I’d rather look like me.”   

“You always look like you,” Bitty says.

Lardo groans. “That’s not what I mean. I want...I don’t know. I just...this isn’t me ok?”

Bitty twists his mouth before nodding. He pulls them over to the bed, making them sit down. He grabs their makeup bag and pulls out a few things. Lardo sits patiently, closing their eyes whenever Bitty instructs them to.

“Ok, now look,” he says after ten minutes.

Lardo looks past him at the mirror hanging on the door. He just did eyeliner, some contouring and lip gloss. The contouring makes their face look sharper, and older at least. It’s not as masculine as how Lardo likes to contour their face, but it’s perfect for going out in public when they’d rather not.

“Fuck, Bits this is—” they choke back a sob.

Bitty gives them a frantic look. “I’m sorry, I thought—”

Lardo shakes their head. “No, it’s perfect. I love it. I...you knew exactly what I needed.”

He shrugs, blushing slightly. “I was mostly winging it. I’ve been binge watching beauty gurus lately. I’m, uh...glad I could help.”

Lardo hugs him tightly. Bitty yelps.

“Be careful, I haven’t set your face yet,” he says.

Lardo chuckles as Bitty dousses them in setting spray. Bitty looks them over one more time before hugging them tightly.

“Knock ‘em,” he says quietly.

“I’ll try,” they say.

For better or worse, Bitty’s the most loyal person they know. Sometimes he gets like this, protective yet gentle. Lardo fights back the urge to say only they’re allowed to be like that. Because it’s not true. They have a good thing going, being mutually supportive. Lardo just isn’t used to having someone on their side. They don’t have to be alone anymore. It’s surreal.

Lardo could probably trust him with anything, with everything. Maybe...just maybe...

They bite their lip, not letting go when Bitty tries to pull away.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Lardo says.

“Ok,” Bitty says slowly. “Is something...right?”

Lardo giggles. “I think so. Uh, Bits.”

“Yes?”

“I’m non-binary,” they say.

Bitty hugs them tighter. “You’re my best friend and I love you so much. Thank you for letting me know all of you.”

Lardo laughs harder, thinking vaguely that they must be crying with how cracked their voice sounds and how wet their face feels. Good thing their makeup is waterproof.

A year ago, Lardo would’ve never thought to say that to Bitty’s face, or just at all. Old Bitty couldn’t handle things that were outside of his personal experiences or except things he didn’t understand. Bitty now, however, was a different person. He’s patient and level headed. He thinks with his brain before reacting with his words. He’s one of the best things in Lardo’s life.

“C’mon, you’ve got places to be,” he nudges them. “We can have all the waterworks we want later.”

They take the tissue Bitty hands them. “You’re including yourself in this sob fest?” they chirp.

“Look at me, Lards,” he says.

Lardo looks up, Bitty’s eyes are red rimmed and glassy.

“Of course I am,” he says. “I’m...we...I wouldn’t be half as happy as I am right now if you hadn’t been there for me. Hadn’t kicked me in the shins when I needed it. I’m happy, alright? I’m so happy you can trust me.”

Despite their tight schedule Lardo hugs Bitty again.

“Duh, Bits,” they say quietly. “You make me happy too, ok?”

Bitty nods. Lardo doesn’t want to let go. They never want to let go. It’s nice here, safe, warm, and something else they can’t put their finger on. Eventually, their warning alarm goes off and they really have to leave. They spend the entire metro ride with a smile on their face, Bitty’s word replaying over and over again in their head.

I wouldn’t be half as happy as I am right now if you hadn’t been there for me.

 

_/.\_

 

Bitty and Lardo still go out every week. Falls comes and wearing revealing clothing gets (slightly) out of style. Bitty keeps letting Lardo put makeup on him and he keeps smiling whenever he can let loose like this. Miles away from pressers, instagram posts, and dull pleasantries with people who can’t even remember his name. Bitty keeps forgetting how much press events rub him the wrong way. Because every time he comes home, Lardo knows exactly what to say to make him feel better.

They go out on weekends when the Falconers are out of town and Bitty isn’t expected at home games. Lardo sometimes wears dresses to go out, sometimes they wear flannel with a packer, and sometimes they wear cutoffs with tights and commando boots. Most of the time they put on their septum ring and let their tongue stud peak out from between their lips whenever they’re dancing with someone cute.

Bitty’s a little in awe of how they can just be theirself in front of the entire world. He has no idea how they do it day and and day out. He asks Lardo just as much one Saturday night.

“What do you mean?” they ask.

Bitty shrugs, suddenly feeling self conscious. “How do you...not worry about what other people think?”

“Of course I worry, Bits,” they say as they apply black lipstick.

“Oh, really? You always look so...confident, I guess,”

“It’s an act, babe,” they say. “I keep a tight lip and my eye straight forward so they know they can’t fuck with me.”

“But...they do fuck with you,” Bitty says.

“Yea but someday, they won’t,” Lardo  says. “It’s a process.”

Bitty hums, watching Lardo pick between a skater dress and a flannel shirt.

“What are you feeling today?” he asks.

“Everything,” they say tiredly.

“What does everything look like?”

“Like...not masculine or feminine just...soft? Does that make sense?”

“And soft has black lipstick?”

Lardo shrugs. “Why not?”

He hums thoughtfully, hoping off the bed and walking to the closet. He hasn’t used his room in months, so most of his clothes are taking up residency with Lardo’s. It makes it easier for them to borrow his things when they need to. He pulls out on of his puffer vests and a pair of pastel leggings.

“What about this with that flannel?” he asks.

“Lumberjack queer?”

“What, you think lumberjacks can’t be soft, Mx?” Bitty chirps.

Lardo rolls their eyes. “Ok, I’ll try it.”

They do, and they look...great. Not too masculine or feminine, just soft and fun. Just...like Lardo. Bitty’s face heats up. He thinks about the type of person Lardo will sweep off their feet tonight and how they’ll spend half the night getting numbers of people they might text a few times. Bitty thinks about the kind of person who’s dainty and kind enough for Lardo. Someone who can just be theirself in front of the whole fucking world and not be worried about how feminine they look or act. How bad they are at being a man—  

“Earth to Bits,” Lardo says, waving a hand in their face.

He blushes. “Yea?”

“You ok?”

“Uh, yea, I was just thinking…”

“About what?”

He shrugs as he looks away.

“Hey,” Lardo says quietly. “Whatever it is, you can tell me about it.”

I can’t, he thinks. There’s no way to explain the mental gymnastics he’s been going through lately. He stares at the green slip dress laying on the bed.

“Just...wondering if you need to be trans to fuck the gender binary, I guess,” he says.

“Of course not,” they say. “Here, I’ll show you.”

Just like that, Lardo’s dragging him into the closet, scouring for something only they know about. Lardo pulls something out of the very back, handing it to bitty. A short sleeve cotton dress, it’s a subtle shade of blue that reminds him of the Falconers’.

“Try it,” Lardo says.  

He expects to look awful in the it, too bulky and unsightly to work with awkward arms that cut off in the wrong spots. Like he used to when he was little and tried his cousins’ princess dresses until Coach asked him to stop. He tries to not think about the look of remorse on his dad’s face last Christmas when they couldn’t be at home for the holidays but he still apologized for ever making Bitty feel like he couldn’t be honest with them.

The dress looks good on his slim hips. The sleeves cut off at just the right place to accentuate his triceps without making them look too big. It all looks nice with his make-up. He looks beautiful, he thinks. He’s—  

“Really fucking queer,” Lardo says with a smirk.

Bitty laughs, “That bad huh?”

Lardo shakes their head. “It means you look fucking rad.”

Bitty nods, raking over his appearance in the mirror again. He doesn’t look perfectly feminine, but he’s glad. That isn’t him. He just looks...different. Somewhere in between or even completely outside of the binary.

“C’mere,” Lardo says, pulling him down to ruffle his hair.

They hum in distaste.

“What?”

“I miss your undercut,” Lardo admits.

“Well what a coincidence, I was going to say the same thing to you.”

Lardo has this glint in their eye. It’s energetic but a little hesitant. Bitty scrunches his nose.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” he asks.

“Maybe,” they say coyly.

There’s a beat of silence between them before Lardo says, “Get your electric razor. I’ll get the towels.”

Which is how they end up spending a half an hour trimming the sides of their hair back to the old Samwell chop. Fortunately, Lardo has the foresight to make him sit in the tub of the bathroom. Unfortunately, they still end up throwing hair at each other. They have to comb through half their bedroom to find the lint roller so they can head out. Lardo’s hair looks a lot like it did during his senior year of college.

Lardo catches him staring at them for too long. They blush.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he says. “Just, you look nice.”

Lardo blushes harder. “Thanks.”

They go out that night like they normally do. Bitty gets hit on by more people than he’s used to. But there’s a lot of good dancing involved, and some good make out sessions. He doesn’t ask the more gender non-conforming people about their genders. He doesn’t think it matters much.

They’re all queer and there to have a good time.

 

_/.\_

 

The days when Lardo’s depression acts up are rough. But fall in general is the hardest season for them overall. It’s seasonal depression on top of their typical Persistent Depressive Disorder. When both of them are acting up, it’s really easy for Lardo to slip into a social comatose. It’s so easy to stop talking to everyone and everyone when it takes all their energy to work on their commissions or go to their part time retail gig.

Bitty’s gotten good at telling when those days are. He gives them space in the morning, when it’s hard to get out of bed and do things out of anything other than absolute necessity. Come the evening, he pulls them into bed for a while to sleep. Until the world stops being so loud and awful. He lets them sleep against his chest while he decompresses and looks through his phone.

Bitty’s good about listening when Lardo says they need a minute before they get up in the morning or when they need to be told to go finish a piece they’ve been stalling on. Bitty’s also great at being there, about being present when Lardo knows they can’t be by theirself and could use the right company.

They take turns cooking and they spent months arguing about how messy they both are before they instituted their chore wheel. Everywhere in the apartment in spotless...minus their bedroom. Because they both need a little disaster in their lives. Because if everything is seemingly perfect, nothing feels right for them. Maybe it’s weird, but they’re on the same page about it.

The two of them are pretty in sync at this point. It took a lot of work, but the tired grin on Bitty’s face whenever they resolve something makes it feel worth it. Lardo reminds Bitty to stretch his hands in the morning, and Bitty nudges Lardo to take their pills when he takes his. He asks Lardo to put eyeliner on him most mornings, concealer when it’s been a long night. The nightmares are subsiding a bit with therapy, but the whole coming out business made him regress by years. It’s an uphill battle more often than not.

Lardo gets good morning hugs to wake up to because Bitty is a koala that needs physical comfort to coax him out into the cold harsh world. Neither of them mind much.

Bitty sings off key when he does bake now. It’s a slower process than it used to be. He tends to only bake something three times nowadays—once to test the recipe, once to make an adjustments, and once to film it for Youtube. He drags Lardo to some bakeries in Providence as his cameraperson.

“You know cinematography better than I do,” Lardo argues one time. “How much do you actually need me here?”

Bitty’s eyes lose a little luster as he bites his lip, shrugging.

“I need you for more than just camera work,” he says vaguely.

Lardo wants to reach out and touch, to tell him to say something if he has something on his mind. Instead, they just sigh.

“Besides, you’ll like this place,” he says.

The owners are Vietnamese and their Chè Bắp is to die for. Bitty tries it without making a face, except to smile broadly when he says he loves it. Lardo hides their face behind the camera, trying not to show that they’re smiling like an idiot.

Bitty takes them lots of places in Boston, and sometimes drags them to New York to try weird desserts. They never stay for too long in Providence. Lardo gets it...mostly. They know Bitty gets too much attention when he’s in town and every move he makes reflects on the Falcs’ PR. But they don’t get why they seem to be more tense when someone spots him and Lardo.

“You’re not...ashamed of me, are you?” they ask one afternoon in November.

“Of course not,” he says, sounding scandalized.

“So I’m just imagining how you hide me like some dirty mistress or something,” they say.

The bright flush of Bitty’s face makes the question almost worth misgendering theirself like that.

Bitty sighs. “Can we talk about this in the car?”

Part of Lardo wants to protest. But they can see by the look in Bitty’s eyes that this is serious shit. So they climb into the backseat, ignoring when Bitty says they can sit in the front. It doesn’t feel like that kind of conversation. Bitty drives them back to Boston slowly.

“It’s not that I’m ashamed of you or anything,” he says once they’re on the highway.

“So what it is? People won’t think you’re gay enough if you’re around me?”

“No.”

“Then level with me,” Lardo insists. “What’s wrong?”

Bitty sighs, gripping the steering wheel fiercely. “I don’t...Jack and I were fine until we came out. Then everyone knew and...it was too much. I just, don’t want to share you with the rest of the world alright?”

Something twists in Lardo’s gut listening to him talk like that. When he and Jack were together they were a toxic mess. They were too stuck in their own fantasy world where nothing could touch them, not even each other. Bitty shouldn’t be equating them to his relationship with Jack. They’re not together. They couldn’t be even if they wanted to. Bitty’s mind will always be on Jack.

“Well you don’t have to worry about that,” they say bitterly. “For one, you’re a goldstar gay remember?”

“That’s not—fuck,” he says. “That was one time, Lards.”

“And you think it didn’t hurt? You didn’t think being treated like a plague felt shitty,” Lardo says.

“It was two years ago— “

“And you’re still not apologizing.”

“I’m so—”

“No, don’t lie,” they say, hopping out of the car.

They’re not anything, Lardo reminds theirself. They can’t be.

“And don’t worry about sharing me,” they say. “I’m my own fucking person, Bits. If you thought you and Jack were perfect before you came out? You need to talk to your therapist more.”

 

_/.\_       

 

Bitty can’t deal with how Lardo overreacted. He can’t deal with making them feel better when he’s just trying to protect them from the bullshit he has to deal with on a regular basis. They deserve to have the nice normal life he signed away after the Cup. He needs a fucking drink and to cool down before trying to talk to them. He knows better at this point than to charge inside looking for a fight.

He goes out without them. He feels empty most of the night. He goes home with a person who rims him as he jerks off. He tries to let loose, have some fun.

It mostly works. At least he gets off and his bedmate seems to enjoy what he does for them.

He takes an Uber home, slipping in quietly at a quarter past two. He thinks briefly about going to his own fucking bed for once, but then decides against it. He finds Lardo lying on the far side of the bed, their bed to the door. He slips in behind them, wrapping himself around them.

“Hey,” they say quietly.

“Hi,” he says.

They turn around, buying their head in his chest.

“I'm sorry about earlier, that came out of nowhere,” Lardo says.

“I wasn’t expecting it, no. But, you're right. I shouldn't try to hide you just because I'm scared.”

“Scared of what?”

Losing you , he doesn't say. Instead he swallows thickly.

“Things changing for the worse,” he says instead. “I know it sounds silly, but the press is a lot and fans can be rude and ruthless. I'm already the fag that ruined Bad Bob’s son. I can't...I can't let any of them hurt you like they've hurt me.”

“You can’t control that,” they insist.

“I can try,” he says firmly.

Lardo shakes their head. “It’s sweet, but that’s not how things are supposed to be.”

He hums, agreeing as much as he can. His body relaxes the longer Lardo’s in his arms. They find a steady rhythm, breathing at the same pace. Their limbs tangle together and every inch of Bitty’s body feels like it’s on fire...in the best way possible. Lardo’s body is warm and sturdy yet gentle and comforting. Bitty thinks he could get lost in them. Just bury his head in the crook of their neck and never come back. Get permanently lost in the way his heart swoops and fingers tingle whenever he and Lardo are perfectly wrapped together; like they were made to fit together.

“I’m still sorry, I overreacted,” Lardo says again. “You’re just doing the best you can.”

“Thank you,” he says earnestly. “And I’ll forgive you if you forgive me.”

Lardo snuggles closer. “Always, Bits.”

Bitty knows Lardo can take care of theirself, but he wants to as well. He pulls the comforter higher over their heads as Lardo asks if he wants to see a video they found earlier. He doesn’t have to take care of them, but he desperately wants to try. They’re the best part of his life.

 

_/.\_

 

“How was it?” Lardo murmurs as Bitty gets in late one night.

His hair is mussed and he has that dumb grin on his face that tells Lardo he got some and is a bit proud of himself. Lardo holds back a grin. They’re proud of him too.

Bitty shrugs.

“No, c’mon that’s no fair,” they protest.

“You tell me first,” he says. “How was that person you left with?”

Lardo groans falling against their pillow. “She was such a pillow queen.”

“Weren’t you complaining this morning that you needed a good pussy to eat or something?”

“Yea but I thought I was going to get something out of it. She fucking fell asleep right after she came,” they explain.

Bitty flinches. “Well that’s not fair at all.”

“I know, but whatever. I came back here and jerked off myself.”

Bitty makes a noncommittal humming sound as he takes off his shirt and pants, scouring the floor for one of their sleeping shirts.

“So…”

“So?” Bitty says coyly.

“I just gave you the most embarrassingly disappointing story of the night. Where’s my reciprocity?”

Bitty chuckles as he slides into bed next to them. He sighs when his head hits the pillow.

“He was very nice, and he let me fuck him which was fun,” Bitty says with a smirk.

“I here a ‘but’ coming,” Lardo says.

He blushes as he bites his lip. “Well...he has some parts I wasn’t exactly used to…”

Lardo covers their mouth to hold back a laugh. “Oh fuck, don’t tell me. You tried to eat him out?”

“He was very polite about it! He didn’t seem to mind that I...was new to the territory.”

Lardo snorts. “Did he call it a cunt?”

“Yes?”

“Then you can say he had a cunt, it’s ok,” they say with a smirk.

He bristles. “My mama would be horrified if she heard me say that.”

Lardo chuckles, smiling indulgently at him. “Then you’re lucky she isn’t here.”

“Lards,” he whines. “This is serious.”

They stop laughing. Lardo cards a hand through the top of Bitty’s hair.

“Ok, wanna talk about what went wrong and what you can do next time? Assuming you’re gonna hook up with trans men and non-binary peeps in futurer?”

He nods. “Yea, I’d like that.”

“Which part?”

Bitty swallows thickly. “All of it. Is that ok? It feels weird to say out loud.”

They watch Bitty close his eyes, trying to get a grip. Something clenches in their chest. He’s expanding his horizons, and Lardo just wants to make it easier.

“It’s the farthest thing from weird,” they reassure him. “Sexuality is fluid. Things change, preferences change. Fuck, people change. I thought I was cis when I met you.”

Bitty scoots closer, hooking one of his legs between Lardo’s thighs. He nods as he takes a deep breath. He smells like the bar he loves and someone else’s cologne. Lardo closes their eyes, hoping he’ll go back to smelling like himself soon enough.

“Yea, funny how things work out like that,” he says.

There’s something hanging from the tip of Bitty’s tongue. In the moonlight, Lardo can see how nervous he looks. They lean forward, making their foreheads touch.

“Whatever it is, you don’t have to have it all figured out,” they say. “Not today, not next week, and not ever if you aren’t ready.”

“Really?” his voice is barely above a whisper.

“If it’s what you need, then yea,” Lardo says.

Lardo would wait the rest of their life for Bitty to know what he needs. As long as he’s trying and taking care of himself, they want to be there cheering him on.

 

_/.\_

 

The Falconers’ casino night is much better than Bitty had initially anticipated. It’s not as over crowded as last year, partially because they didn’t win the Cup this past season and partially because interest in Jack and Bitty has died down.

It’s fun overall, drinks and chatting with the people associated with the team that he actually likes. Lardo even did his makeup just subtle enough to make a difference but not go detected by anyone on the team. Except maybe Jack, whose attention is...nice. It’s not overbearing or intense. It’s just kind compliments and talk between two friends.

Friends, it’s a word that keeps echoing in Bitty’s mind. He really missed having Jack around in this capacity. At some point in the night, Jack excuses himself. It looks like his anxiety is acting up, but Bitty doesn’t follow. He’s learned what it looks like when Jack needs his help and when Jack wants to be left alone. Jack wants to work through it by himself.

About forty five minutes later, he does return and seems to be much better. It’s hard for Bitty not to reach out and ask if Jack wants to go home. Some habits die hard, and others...never really do.

Jack silently assuages him from worrying. It’s enough for Bitty. He trusts Jack to let him know what he needs.

Overall, it’s a fancy affair and almost perfect. Almost . He keeps thinking about the things Lardo would say if they were there and the suit they’d be wearing with a tie that would match Bitty’s. He tries not to think about how they’d braid their hair into a tight updo to make it look shorter than it already is. Because dressing up for Lardo includes looking a dapper as possible.

It gets to be midnight and Bitty feels a bit torn. On the one hand, Jack offered him a guest room for the night which would be great...if he could sleep.

He’s a creature of habit and knows that he can’t sleep if he doesn’t have his normal things—his pillow and SeñorBun and such.     

“Are you sure?” Jack asks. “I can get you a hotel room if—”

“No it’s nothing about you or anything like that,” Bitty says. “I am having fun. It’s just—”

I want Lardo , he doesn’t say. Bitty takes a deep breath, running a hand through the cowlicks standing on top of his head.  

“It’s been...a lot being around all these people tonight. I just want to get home and be able to relax. If that makes sense.”

Jack takes him at his word, which is heartwarming in a strange way. It’s surreal, how much better they are than a year ago. Time’s melted away so many old wounds. It’s not perfect, and the more Bitty thinks about it, the more he knows he owes Jack a few apologies for how things were between them. But it’s a lot closer to good than they’ve been in a while.

Bitty drives home to Boston, probably faster than he should. He almost forgets to lock his truck as he waits for the elevator. He doesn’t bother being quiet as he gets into the apartment. He knows Lardo is still awake. He doesn’t expect to find them in the living room watching TV, however.

“Hey, sweetpea,” he says as he sits down next to them.

“Hey,” they say with a soft smile.

Lardo lifts the blanket so they can share with Bitty. He groans as he wraps himself around them, resting his head against their shoulder.

“How was it?” Lardo asks.

“Fun, I think,” he says.

“You think?” they chirp.

He snorts. “I guess it was fun. Jack had some issues with his anxiety but he sorted it out himself. Came back looking genuinely fine.”

“That’s great,” they say. “Way to go Jack.”

Bitty hums. “Yea, that is great, isn’t it?”

They hum. “You tired?”

“Exhausted,” he says.

“Should we go to bed?”

“No that’s too much walking,” Bitty says.

“We’ll be sore as fuck if we fall asleep here.”

“Ugh, you and your logic.”

“You love my logic,” they say with a giggle.

Bitty smiles tiredly, nuzzling his head against theirs. “You know I do.”

Lardo nudges him gently away. “C’mon, sooner we get to bed, the better.”

“Why,” he whines.

“You’re helping me out tomorrow, remember?”

He yawns as they pull him up. Right, they’re painting on him tomorrow. He forgot about that.

“Good thing I left early,” he says as they get into bed.

Lardo glares lightly at him. Clearly they don’t buy his bullshit. But they know he doesn’t always remember to write down things when he first hears them and his ADHD makes it hard to keep track of everything. They let these things slide because they don’t happen as often as they did when they were both in school.

He laughs as they drag him into bed. They’re regular sleeping position is less of a habit, and more of an artform at this point. It’s knowing what the other person needs that night and communicating with they don’t. It’s making adjustments as necessary but still wanting skin to skin contact.

He remembers when he and Jack got sick of sleeping against each other. Part of him misses that, but a bigger part of him hopes that never happens with Lardo.

 

_/.\_

“Hey Eric, how are you holding up?” George asks at an event in December.

It’s a charity event for the Little Falcs’ Program that Thirdy and Marty spearheaded some years back. The arena is overrun with young kids, as well as their caretakers and siblings. It’s so loud and exciting. But at the same time, it’s overwhelming and there’s a limit to how much he can take at any given time.

Bitty opens his mouth to say ‘fine,’ but then shuts his mouth. His therapist has been working on making him be honest but kind. He’s working toward being assertive instead of aggressive when he feels like he’s corned.

“Actually,” he says instead. “I’m a lot better now. It’s easier since we’re old news now. Less people getting into our personal business or telling us how to live, you know?”

George nods sympathetically. “I can only imagine. You two have done a wonderful job of taking charge of the narrative. That takes a lot of character and mental stamina.”

Bitty laughs, it’s only a little bitter. “Don’t I know it. There were days when I didn’t know how I was supposed to get dressed and go out into the world.”

Jack next to him stiffens. Bitty can feel him giving some frantic or remorseful look. Without breaking eye contact with George, he squeezes Jack’s hand gently.

“But everything’s going well right now,” Bitty says. “2018 feels like our year.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” George says. “You both deserve it.”

“We sure do,” he says.

Someone calls George from across the way. She pats Bitty’s shoulder.

“Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help with your channel. That dog rescue idea was brilliant,” she says before walking away.

“Dog rescue?” Jack asks.

Bitty shrugs. “Making homemade peanut butter dog treats. A portion of the proceeds go to animal shelters all over Rhode Island.”

“Homemade? Bits, can you even bake that much—”

“Nope, I’ve been permanently banned from mass producing by my therapist, my mama, my physician, and L—my person,” he explains. “I’m just making the tester recipes so the Falcs’ manufacturer knows what to make and they’re still ‘Bitty Originals.’”      

“Smart,” Jack says.

“I try to be,” he says.

“You are, Bits.”

They stand there for a while, watching the kids play in amicable silence. Their shoulders bump against each other a few times. It doesn’t feel so bad, Bitty realizes. It’s nice.

“Listen...I’m sorry about dragging you into hockey politics,”Jack says. “This stuff was hard for me growing up. And it still is...but I had training. I had time to prepare for being—”

“A hockey icon? A hero to young queers everywhere?”

Jack smirks. “A big deal. But you didn't. You were thrown into this and it’s my fault—”

“No don’t you dare, Jack Laurent,” Bitty argues. “This was never your fault. You wanted to be careful and take our time. I...you can’t say it was your fault when I’m the one who pulled the trigger.”

“I think it takes two people to kiss, Bits,” he chirps.

“Fine, you can have half the blame if you’d like.”

Jack wraps an arm around his waist, kissing the top of Bitty’s head. “Thanks, that’s very kind of you,” Jack chirps.

Bitty rolls his eyes, trying to glare away his blush.

The rest of the day goes pretty well. Jack and Bitty even run a few drills with the mite players. Jack and Bitty even kiss without forcing it. Bitty swears he does a foot pop and someone snaps a picture of them. For once, he doesn’t have it in him to care.

He misses this, misses having a good time with Jack. They’re chirping each other the entire way back to their cars.

“It’s Pecan sir,” Bitty argues for the millionth time.

“I think you’re mistaken. It’s Pecan ,” Jack says.

“Says who?”

“Me, the entire English language.”

“English isn’t even you’re first language,” Bitty says.

“Like it’s yours? Y’all ain’t finer than a junebug in Mississippi.”

Bitty gapes. “Your accent’s gotten much better, but fuck you! That is not how I talk.”

Jack cocks a brow. In Jack speak that means, really? It infuriates Bitty whenever he does that. But in a good way that gets under his skin and warms every inch of his body. Bitty leans back against his truck, crosses his arms with a defiant glare. Jack leans in closer, smirking.

If they were still dating, this would be when they’d kiss. If they were still in love, this would be the moment when they’d say so. If only it could be so easy. Jack’s lips over his one second, making out in the back of his pickup truck the next.

Jack’s phone rings, breaking whatever sexual tension was flowing between them. Jack grins as he reads something, typing a response. He chuckles a second later.

“Kenny says hi,” Jack says quietly.

Bitty’s shoulders sag. He isn’t…jealous. He thinks he ought to be. But Kent isn’t a threat. Jack loves him, and Kent makes him happy. Kent can do a whole lot of things for Jack that Bitty can’t or isn’t interested in doing, not anymore. Bitty takes a deep breath. He’s still alive; he’s still breathing. Jack loves Kent, and that’s ok. Jack could love Bitty and Kent, and that would be more than ok.

The thought frightens him a little, but in the interest of not looking angry or constipated, Bitty nods.

“Tell him I say hi back,” he says.

Jack nods, the grin on his face is delightful.

Bitty decides to take a chance, “Y’all doing alright? You keeping him happy?”

“I try,” Jack says.

“Good, he seems really good for you,” he admits.

“Thanks, uh, I think so too.”

They hug and it’s not the most awkward thing ever. It’s comforting and lasts longer than Bitty expects it to. But that just makes the whole thing better.

“I’ll see you next week?” Jack says.

Bitty nods. “Of course, Jack.”

He drives back to Boston. All the way thinking how much he missed having his best friend by his side, the person who helped get through so much of college in one piece. Bitty thinks about calling him the next day.  

 

_/.\_

 

Some things in Madison have changed since he and Jack kisses on national television. After everyone’s initial shock and excitement died down, people began to move on with their lives. No one was swarming the Bittle’s house anymore to insist on getting pictures with Bitty or his parents. They can actually celebrate Christmas at home this year. Part of that is because Jack isn’t there. His parents think they’re not on great terms, but not officially broken up. They’re not wrong about the first part, but it’s all very murky in his mind. It isn’t a big elephant in the room, more like a subtle after thought that they’ve already discussed.

Bitty calls his mom a few weeks ago and asked if it was ok that Jack didn’t join them that year, citing his busy schedule and wanting to see his own parents.

“Oh!” Suzanne says. “Well, Dicky you know Jack’s always welcome here if you’re worried—”

“I’m not,” he said. “It’s just...a lot for him to be getting all of that attention down there and still trying to enjoy the holidays.”

Suzanne sighs. “I agree, honestly. We love Jack. We really do, Dicky. But couldn’t you have found a partner who’s a little less...famous?”

“I thought you liked being around NHL players,” he says.

“On their turf, sure,” Suzanne says. “Down here...we’ve thought about moving a few times, honey.”

“Mama—”

“No, I’m sorry. We don’t want you to feel bad or guilty about the whole thing. But Jude’s been looking for places to live out in Texas and we’ve been looking with her,”

“But you love Madison,” Bitty says.

“No, we liked Madison,” she argues. “We love you, Dicky. We want you to feel safe when you’re visiting us.”

He hears he sniffle. He imagines he dabbing her eyes with a paper towel because she always forgets to buy tissues but always needs them. He feels something get caught in his eye,

“Besides, how are we supposed to spoil our grandbabies someday if they can’t even come us?”

“That’s not happening any time soon, mother,” Bitty says.

“Right, of course,” she says, her tone getting cheery again. “But someday, right? Even if it’s twenty years from now?”

Bitty sighs. His mother is impossible. But he knows she means well. And he knows she knows him. He does want kids, or at least one, someday.

He ends up in a rental home outside of Austin for Christmas with his parents and Aunt Judy. Coach was hired by one of the local high schools while Judy’s looking for work with a new tattoo shop. Bitty can’t believe he didn’t realize she was queer until after he came out.

Suzanne found an accounting job in Austin with higher pay that her last job, like Bitty knew she would. Apparently since they moved, she’s gotten back into painting. Suzanne used to paint everything under the sun when he was little. She even did a few portraits of him back in the day.

Bitty spends a few afternoons just watching her work. She drags him and Coach to a nature reserve so she can do watercolors of the plant life.

When she’s finished, Suzanne wipes her brow sighing. “Well, what do you think?”

“They’re beautiful, Suze,” Coach says with a glint in his eye.

Suzanne frowns, staring at the one she did of some wild flowers. “Something’s missing…”

Bitty takes a peak over her shoulder. “You’re missing the shadows right here,” he says as he points to the bottom left corner of the painting. And maybe you could add a little more purple here for a richer palette?”

She purses her lips before grinning. “That’s it exactly. Thank you, Dicky.”

“Good call, Junior,” Coach adds. “How’d you get so knowledgeable about painting?”

He doesn’t say because Lardo paints the most beautiful scenes ever. That he’s wasted so many afternoons watching them build entire worlds out of oils and pigments. He can’t even admit to himself how his eyes wander from their brush to their hands to nape of their neck and the crease they get in their brows when they’re concentrating hard enough.

“A...friend of mine,” he says. “They paint professionally.”

He ignores the look his parents give each other. They always do this when they think he’s keeping something from them.

“Jack knows how to paint?” Suzanne asks.

“No,” Bitty says. “This is a different friend. They’re actually my friend.”

“They, huh,” Richard says. “Well, you ought to bring them around sometime.”

“Coach—”

“It’s ok, Dicky,” Richard says. “We’re hip. We know polyamory is all the rage with you kids.”

Bitty sputters. “Come again? You think I’m—no.”

Coach and Suzanne look at each other again, shrugging.

“Suit yourself,” Suzanne says. “But we’ve met enough of Judy’s friends over the years to know the difference between a friend and a friend .”

Bitty grumbles all the way back to their rental. Judy gives him a sympathetic hug when she hears what happened.

“They’re not wrong,” she says. “But are they right? You gotta friend , Dicky?”

Bitty sighs. “I...no, it’s complicated and I can’t think about it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a little schoolyard crush. I’ll be over it in no time,” he says. It’s more than he’s ever been able to admit outloud.

“If you say so, kiddo,” she says.

Bitty clenches his fists, taking a deep breath. “How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“That you weren’t...dammit Jude do I have to spell it out?”

Judy crosses her arms. “‘Fraid so, darling.”

“How’d you know you weren’t cis?”

She grins, looking over his head at the den. Judy shrugs.

“It’s not a simple answer,” she says. “I think it was a few years ago, and I felt...not wrong. Just not like I was totally one thing. Maybe I never was, but it got to a point where it was more than crossdressing and keeping my hair short.”

“What was it?” There’s a lit in his voice, excitement that he didn’t expect to find.

It makes him think of being seven when Jude was showing off her first tattoo to him. Judy was always there, reminding him to think harder and search deeper. She reminds him a lot of Lardo in that way.

“Learning how to live past that stuff,” Judy explains. “Gender’s fine for some people. Lord knows your mama needs it. But sometimes, it doesn’t make sense. And it’s ok to reject it.”

There’s more to life than gender, is what he hears. There’s more to people than their parts. Parts matter for some, but they don’t matter for everyone. It’s ok to not fit in the mold. It’s more than ok.

“Thanks,” he says.

She ruffles his hair. “No problem, Bits.”

 

_/.\_

 

Lardo slams the apartment door shut as they trudge inside, kicking their heels off. They took the time to shave everywhere and it amounted to nothing. They’re pissed to say the least. Bitty’s in the kitchen, editing some videos for next week. Lardo grumbles as they walk past him, grabbing the first edible thing they see in the fridge. Fortunately, it’s leftovers from last night when Bitty tried out a new mac n’ cheese recipe with quintuple cheese. They all but throw a plate of it into the microwave, slamming the door shut.

They groan, leaning against the oven. Bitty clicks a few keys on his laptop while Lardo waits for the timer to run out. When the microwave beeps, he gets up. Bitty grabs forks and two bottles of beer from the fridge.

“This is my dinner,” Lardo grumbles.

Bitty tsks. “There’s more in the fridge if you’re still hungry.”

He pulls them to the table they fall into one of the chairs with a loud thud, groaning as they lean against Bitty’s shoulder.

“That bad, huh?” Bitty says with an amused tone.

“It was fucking terrible,” they say.

“I thought Carter knew this guy?”

“No, this wasn’t the PhD buddy date, that’s next week,” Lardo tells him.

“Oh, so this was one of the Tinder guys?”

“Yep.”

“Which one?”

“Dickbutt guy,” Lardo mutters bitterly.

Bitty winces. “You’re still talking to that loser?”

“Not anymore, he couldn’t get through half a fucking dinner at a Wendy’s without being a total douche canoe,” they say.

“Wendy’s? In return for sex, he took you to Wendy’s?”

“Apparently,” Lardo says.

He bristles. “Well that’s just insulting. You’re worth at least a dinner at Applebee’s.”

Lardo chuckles, shoving him slightly. “Fuck off.”

“I wouldn’t want to make you jealous,” he chirps.

They pretend to be more offended than impressed. “You’re a jerk, but I love you.”

“I do.” Bitty laughs a little harder. “Ok, I’m sorry that sad excuse for a straight man was awful. You do deserve better from your hookups.”

“Right? How hard is it to order pizza and say ‘wanna Netflix and Chill?’”

“Is that what you wanted?” He says, wrinkling his nose.

Lardo shrugs. “A little? I just wanted someone to fuck me and make me laugh”

“That sounds like a date-mate, sweetpea,” he says.

“I guess…” their voice falters. “I don’t know.”

Bitty frowns. “What?”

“Do you believe in soulmates?”

“Can’t say I do, honestly,” he admits, leaning back in his chair. “I think if there is one perfect person out there for each of us, it would be damn near impossible to track them down. And then what? How would you even know they were the ‘one’ or whatever.”

“Ok what about people saying that someone is ‘the love of their life’,” Lardo rephrases.

“Sure, I can see that,” he says.

“What if I find the love of my life? Am I supposed to stop dating, exploring...fucking experiencing life?”

“Isn’t that the point of settling down? If someone is it for you—”

“They should know I’m not going anywhere,” they say. “But I need room to grow and learn and try new shit.”

Lardo really didn’t want to get into this. It’s hard to admit that they could have consistent romantic feelings for a person, let alone want to spend forever with someone. They like romo stuff...it’s fun. But...but it’s not something they’ve been allotted in the past. It’s something they grew up knowing could be optional. Because they weren’t white or straight, and then they found out they weren’t even cis or neurotypical and all hopes of finding someone who could deal with them seemed to vanish. They don’t know if it’s worth talking about polyamory when there isn’t anyone who wants to be with them long term.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to be in love with someone who gets you but still lets you hook up every now and then or date other people too?” Lardo adds.

“Ah, you’re talking about polyamory,” Bitty says, surprising the fuck out of them.

“Polyfidelity, more like it.”

Bitty gets tense. Lardo wants to shut up, take back the last ten minutes of their lives and pretend they never said anything. Some things are worth fighting for, but Lardo is tired and insecure. They could live without polyfidelity, without ever finding their person.

“I could see that,” he says finally. “People change and they can either grow together or apart. My Aunt Judy was married to a nice guy for a while until she realized she was queer.”

“What happened to the guy?”

“I don’t know,” he admits. “Judy moved in with us for a while and I never saw him again…I’d like to think he was as supportive as he could be, but it wasn’t enough.”

There’s a tremble to Bitty’s grin. It’s hesitant like the way he his reaches over to hold theirs. Lardo briefly wonders if he ever gets caught up in hypotheticals. If the thought of what if is more terrifying to him than what now? They wonder if Bitty’s ever wanted to take a chance on something that seems so out of reach. The way Lardo wants to take a chance on him every fucking day.

“Did she ever find someone?” they ask.

Bitty shrugs, stabbing his fork into the mac n’ cheese. “I hope so, otherwise I don’t know why she thought Texas was a good place to move.”

Lardo laughs. They hope she did find someone. They hope Bitty finds exactly what he needs. And that maybe someday, they will too.

 

_/.\_

 

Bitty said he was going to be back late that night, Lardo knew that logically. But it was half passed three and Bitty never made it home. Lardo texts him a few times—once around midnight, twice within the last hour—to see where he is. They tried calling him around one thirty to see where the fuck he is. No answer.

Lardo tries to think rationally. His phone is probably dead. He’s very busy or otherwise asleep somewhere safe. He would text back if he could. He would be home if he could. He should be fucking home—

They close their eyes, taking a shuddering breath. They’re sitting in the living room because they’re trying to save money on heating and the bedroom is a frozen nightmare without Bitty. Lardo should just turn up the radiator, hold Señor Bun tightly, and try to get some sleep. They have to work a shift at the bookstore tomorrow. They could call in sick, but they really shouldn’t.

It’s no big deal, Bitty’s probably fine.

Yet, Lardo can’t think too hard about any of it. About Bitty being hurt or lost or so drunk out of his mind that he falls into a river. Or the possibility that he’s finally found someone worth staying the night with. Someone better than Lardo—kinder, taller...more masculine.

They turn on the TV with low volume, flipping to the Food Network. They watch until their eyelids get too heavy to keep up. By that point the sun is starting to peek through the kitchen windows across the way.

Not long after, the front door slams shut. Lardo sits up immediately. They practically jump off the couch, running to the entreeway. Bitty’s putting his coat on the rack and kicking off his shoes. His hair is a mess, his dress is stained everywhere, and most of his makeup is faded or smudged. Lardo’s never seen anyone so fucking beautiful before in their entire life.       

They throw their arms around his waist, burying their head in his chest.

“Wow, hi honey,” he says as he hugs them back.

Lardo hears someone sob. They’re pretty sure it’s them.

“Fuck,” Bitty says. “Are you ok?”

“Am I ok? Are you ok?”

He sighs, hugging them tighter. “Why don’t I tell you over breakfast?”

“Bits, talk to me,” they beg.

He shakes his head. His smile crumbles as his eyes grow wet.  “It’s been a miserable fucking night.”

“Then screw breakfast, let’s go to bed.”

“You read my mind, sweetpea,” he whispers.

They all but stumble into bed. Lardo helps Bitty take off his clothes and wipes his make-up off for him. He’s fucking dead on his feet so Lardo isn’t interested in giving any sort of talk on texting back that he wouldn’t be home.

When he’s, mostly, cleaned up, Bitty grabs Lardo and pulls them down into bed with him. He starts talking.

He went to his co-worker Annette’s 23rd birthday party. He drank some because someone else was supposed to be the designated driver, until he found out that person never showed up. So since he was the least drunk person in their friend group, he spent the entire time corralling all of them. He made sure everyone got Ubers home from the bar at last call. But Annette was still drunk off her ass. So he walked her back to her place. They had to stop and grab food on the way because Annette insisted.

He had to drag Annette away from some strangers who wanted to invite them back to their place. Then once they got back to her apartment, she threw up half in the kitchen sink and half on herself. So of course he threw her into a shower while he cleaned up her kitchen, because Bitty is overly helpful like that but Lardo wouldn’t trade him for anything. Then, he made sure she was decent to sleep and had water with her. By the time everything was said and done, he was sober enough to drive but too tired to feasibly try. So he had to Uber but his phone had apparently been dead for hours.

He used Annette’s phone to get one and left her a note saying he’s Venmo her for the ride later.

“And, well, you know the rest,” he mutters tiredly.

“Thank fuck you’re ok,” Lardo says.

“I’m sorry I worried you,” he says. “I’ll try to remember the spare battery next time.”

Lardo shakes their head. “It’s ok. I’m sorry for freaking out—”

“Don’t you dare apologize,” he interrupts. “I want you to worry. Or, I guess I don’t want you to have to worry. But I like it. I would be worried too if you didn't’ show up one night. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”   

This is how Lardo realizes they’re in love with Bitty. Because they spent all this time worrying about whether he was alive and how soon he could be in their arms again. Because as much as it sucks to worry about someone, Lardo would move heaven and Earth to make sure Bitty is safe and happy—including throwing away pies at three in morning, including calling him out on shit even when they’d rather not, and definitely including worrying when they’re not home on time. They could spend the rest of their life in this bed if it meant getting to see Bitty smile.   

“Good thing you’re stuck with me,” they say quietly.

Bitty kisses their temple.

“‘M not stuck with you,” he says drowsily. “I get to be with you.”

Lardo buries their head in his chest, waiting until he’s asleep to quietly sob.

If only that were true.

 

_/.\_

 

Lardo covers Bitty in acrylic paint one afternoon in March. It’s not a new thing, but Lardo was in the mood for something soft and new. Bitty suggested flowers with a blush on his face that said he needed it just as much as Lardo.

They spend most of the afternoon sitting on the couch, Lardo’s favorite punk bands play in the background as Bitty reads a comic book. He never mentioned liking them in college, but once they moved into together, it was something else that bonded them. Bitty sits well. He keeps a good posture and doesn’t twitch much until his ADHD gets the better of him and he asks for a stretch break. He lets Lardo sit on him like the other guys on the team did. They have to make adjustments because Bitty isn’t as proportionally larger to Lardo as some of their friends. Lardo sits in the V of Bitty’s legs as he lies on his stomach.

Lardo knows every freckle on his back by heart. They know every mole and divot. They know what scars came from what, and where Bitty’s most ticklish. They trace over some unpainted areas with a wet brush because they know it relaxes Bitty. They paint a garden all over Bitty’s back—some of the flowers are familiar and some of them Lardo has to look up the significance of and appearance online. They make a bouquet on his back to represent strength, fortitude, femininity, and passion. Lardo thinks Bitty could’ve been an angel in a past life. He could’ve been the Colorado River carving through the Grand Canyon because he saw something in his way. He could’ve been a butterfly that never knew how beautiful he was.   

Bitty has the entire universe in his eyes. Lardo could stare at them for an eternity and never see everything there is to behold. Their mind does cartwheels as their stomach does backflips. Bitty isn’t perfect, but he is everything. Everything doesn’t have to be pure or singularly good. It just has to be, to exist in its own way.

Bitty nudges Lardo with his foot, signalling them to move over so he can get up. They scoot back, putting their brush in the paint water on the coffee table.  Bitty groans as he stands up, popping his shoulders and cracking his neck as he does.

“It’s coming along great,” Lardo says.

“I know, I wouldn’t expect anything less from you,” he says with a dumb grin that makes Lardo’s stomach do another flip.

“You wanna see how looks so far?”

He bites his lip, pausing for a moment before nodding. Lardo makes him turn around, snapping a few pictures of his back in different lighting. They hand him the phone when they’re picked one good enough to show off. Bitty gapes.

“What do you think?” Lardo asks hesitantly.

“It’s...beautiful,” he says.

“You’re beautiful,” Lardo says without thinking.

Bitty grins a little broader. “I...wow.”

He stares at the flowers for a long time. Lardo watches him sit back on the couch (carefully, so as not to smudge the still drying paint). His eyes glint a little brighter in the sunlight. He traces over more of every inch of that picture than is probably necessary. Lardo sits down next to him eventually, nudging him gently.

“Wanna talk about it?” they ask.

Bitty swallows thickly, not looking up from Lardo’s phone. “I guess, I just...haven’t felt right lately. Or in a while.”

“Ok,” Lardo says slowly.

“Not...not wrong, I guess?” He says, staring at them carefully. “But not...whole, I guess. Fuck, does that make any sense?”

“Yea, babe,” they say. “Wanna talk about it more or this enough for today?”

Bitty licks his lips. “Maybe I’ve never felt whole? I thought being a kid and wanting to bake and put on my cousins’ dresses and stealing my mama’s lipstick meant I was just...funny, or gay.”

“You don’t have to be gay to dress how you want,” Lardo says.

“I know, that now,” Bitty says with a chuckle. “But...I’m queer. And it’s ok if I’m just one easy label that never changes because that’s not how people are. Gender and sexuality are different things. They can go together or be mismatched. It’s just...human nature.”

“Exactly,” they say.

Bitty takes a deep breath. Lardo reaches out to squeeze his hand.

“I think I’m something else, Lards,” he says. “I don’t know what. But I was gay yesterday and today...I don’t know. The world’s my oyster.”

Lardo kisses his temple. “Whenever you figure it out, I’ll be right here for you.”

Bitty leans into them, similng contently.

“I know. Thanks, sweetpea.”

 

_/.\_

 

Bitty comes back from lunch with Jack a little disoriented. They talked. They apologized, worked things out, and essentially made up. They’re not back together, but they weren’t tip toeing around much. They still love each other, apparently. Which, makes sense when he thinks about it for long enough.

Jack is ok with polyamory. Jack would want to try things again. He could have a love life outside of Jack and still be queer, valid. He could keep his private life private and they could keep making the cameras happy, he thinks. Eventually, they could find a balance. Jack thinks Bitty looks happier.

Bring them around sometime, Jack said. Tell them I said to treat you right.

He doesn’t know who Jack thinks he’s talking about, maybe he just has a vague hunch that Bitty’s seeing someone. He’s not...wrong, Bitty supposes. He sees people, lots of people. He hooks up and goes on dates with people all the time. He makes all sorts of romantic, platonic, and sexual connections with people. He has plenty of experiences that have made him grown into his own person with his own set of aspirations outside of hockey and Jack.

He doesn’t need someone to define who he is, to make him happy. He just needs his own self confidence and care. He just needs to be his own best supporter and advocate. He doesn’t need love—  

“Bits, you in?” Lardo shouts from the kitchen.

“Yea, sweetpea, coming,” he calls back.

Lardo’s sitting on the kitchen island, working on a crossword puzzle book they found the other day while they were both looking through a used bookstore. Lardo’s wearing black leggings they stole (borrowed, they insist) and an ugly sweater they stole from Holster when he and Ransom visited the week before. (The fact that they had an extra bedroom for Ransom and Holster to sleep in but Bitty never once slept on the couch is a topic thankfully no one broached.)

Their hair is getting longer again. They’ve evened it out to a short bob and they’ve been thinking about asking one of their friends in beauty school to bleach and dye their hair something fun for the summer.

Lardo pats the space next to them on the island. Bitty complies, hopping up.

“Jack says hello,” Bitty says. “He says you ought to come around sometime.”

Lardo snorts. “That’s exactly what he said?”

“Yes, is that so hard to believe?”   

They shrug. “Guess not.”

Bitty leans into their side, sighing into their temple. Lardo scrunches their nose distastefully. They didn’t used to do that. Just like he didn’t used to slurp when eating noodles or take his shoes off automatically when getting home. He supposes that being around someone for long enough means assimilating to their habits, quirks, and customs.

Lardo leans against him slightly, turning so he can get a better view of the book. They work through the rest of the puzzle with relative ease and an overabundance of chirps. They’re a good team like that.

He thinks about what Jack said long into the night. Bitty lies awake staring at the window with his head nestled into the crook of Lardo’s arm. They have the world’s cutest snore. He grins as their chest slowly rises and falls.

Maybe he doesn’t need love to be happy. But it’s still ok to let love in when comes knocking.

 

_/.\_

 

Most days are good, Lardo knows that. But some days are just...off. They wake up and stumble out of bed. It isn’t an immediate realization. It’s as gradual as it is painful. It’s like starting a road trip with a third tank of gas and expecting to make it anywhere fast.

They get through exercising, showering, and making breakfast without saying a word. Bitty shuffles into the kitchen. Thankfully he isn’t a morning person and doesn’t push Lardo to talk. Even after breakfast, he’s in too much of a funk himself to anything besides look at his phone. Maybe it’s just one of those days. Maybe Lardo isn’t totally broken.

Bitty heads out for the coffee shop for a few hours. They have an inkling that Bitty doesn’t really need the second job anymore. But like them, he deserves an excuse to get out of the apartment by himself on a regular basis. Cabin fever is a bitch Lardo never wants to tangle with ever again. If it means working multiple jobs for the rest of their lives, so be it.

Lardo gets through sketching a new commission before Bitty returns. He says something about lunch from the kitchen. Lardo can’t say anything back. Technically, they could , but their voice is caught in their throat. It’s so much quieter for them if they don’t try to vocalize anything. It makes it feel like their depression is less severe. If they don’t have to speak, they can get through just about anything.

It’s a quiet day, plain and simple.  

“Sweetpea, what’s wrong?” Bitty asks from the doorway of the studio (which used to be Bitty room...forever ago).

Lardo pulls out their phone, texting Bitty.

It’s a nonverbal day.

It takes Bitty a second to receive the text. When he does, he nods almost immediately.   

“That’s ok,” he says softly, sitting down next to them on the floor.

Lardo texts are you sure? to him. It’s a dumb question, they think. But they know it’s weird to not have the energy to talk. They know it’s a lot to ask for Bitty to have to rely on text message all day—  

“It’s more than ok, Sweetpea,” Bitty says as he wraps his arms around their shoulders. “We can just take it easy today. Maybe pull up Ink Master and watch people fuck up Japanese day?”

Lardo tries not to cry from relief into Bitty’s chest as they hug him. Try being the operative word. But it’s been a shitty day at best, even with the space he’s given them. They really needed this level of support and patience. They really needed someone who could take the time to learn what they need when they can’t ask for it theirself.

All in all, they’re pretty thankful to have Bitty around.

_/.\_

 

“Agender,” Bitty says one morning in early April.

Lardo’s still waking up. They blink at him owlishly for a moment before snuggling further into his arms. The sunlight reflects perfectly off their hair. Bitty could stare at them forever. He might have to, it’s the only thing keeping him from losing his nerve.

“Yea?” they say softly. “What about agender?”

“I think that’s what I’ve settled on,” he says quietly. “I don’t think nonbinary works for me, personally.”

“That’s ok,” they say. “whatever works for you is valid as fuck, Bits.”

“Thanks, sweetpea,” he says. “It feels nice to get off my chest.”

Lardo hums, hugging him tighter. “What pronouns should I use for you?”

“Oh.” Bitty hasn’t thought too hard about that. “He/him is fine for now. I’ll let you know if that ever changes.”

“That’s all I ask for,” they say.

He could commit murder and Lardo would affirm everyone of his feelings while telling him to turn himself in. It’s just the way they are; the way they both work. Lardo means the world to him and they know that. They know when to be gentle. He doesn’t know what he’d do without them. He doesn’t know who he could really trust outside of them and his family. He needs them like he needs air. Like he needs to be loud, queer, and perfectly himself.

“I…” his voice falters.

Lardo’s head snaps up. “What’s wrong?”

“I guess I’m going to miss calling myself gay. But I don’t have a singular attraction to agender people?”

“You don’t have to stop calling yourself gay. You can call yourself whatever feels right. Even if it’s more like...for nostalgia than accuracy.”

Bitty swallows. There Lardo goes again, reaffirming everything he is and wants. Even when it would be so much easier if he were something else. If he could just call himself something different. But...Lardo’s giving him a lifeline. He shouldn’t brush it off so easily.

“You think so?”

“Yea, babe,” they say. “Identities are personal. It doesn’t matter what they are as long as they help you and make you feel great about yourself.”  

“Well, I’m more attracted to masculine leaning people. That has to count for something.”

“Of course it does, you’re queer and you’re gay. It might feel like you’re not enough sometimes, but I honest to god promise you, Bits, you are. You’re more than enough.”

He wishes they could see how much he needs this moment. How much their opinion of him matters. It’s really the only opinion of him that matters other than his own. Something about that is as thrilling as it is terrifying.

“Thanks, Lards,” he says.

They smile like they’ve seen something beautiful and worthwhile. It makes Bitty’s stomach drop. “Anything for you, Bits.”

 

_/.\_

 

Lardo loves a lot of things about Bitty. They love how he smells like the last thing he baked or ate. How some days he smells like raspberries and muffins but some days he smells like the inside of Lardo’s parents house. They love that he tries to put on cheap cologne but the scent fades fast. They love when he smells like dirt from trying to help their next door neighbors with their windowsill garden or coffee grounds when they first get back from work.

They love how he puts on their favorite perfume when they go out together. It tends to linger for a while. Lardo thinks maybe it’s the fact that they’re both wearing it that allows the scent to combine and last longer than it would otherwise.

They love how his hands feel on their shoulders when he’s giving them a massage. The way his hands curl, stiffly yet delicately, whenever he kneads dough or picks up a pen. How Bitty values his hands as much as Lardo does their own, and how he never considered himself an artist until Lardo showed him as much. He’s stubborn, but also humble to a fault.

Bitty’s eyes get warmer in the sun, more light and reflective. Like he was born for the summer, warm weather, and cool breezes. They love the way he complains about Boston being too dry in the winter when he doesn’t want to admit that he’s freezing. They love the freckles that get more vibrant as the sun does. They love the pout he gets when they remind him to put on sunscreen. Like he’s been caught in the act.

They love how low his voice dips first thing in the morning. How soft it gets when he’s around people who know he’s trans. They love how Bitty’s voice cracks a little when he’s startled by a loud crash. How he can say so much with a few gestures, yet say nothing new in an eight minute diatribe about disinfecting mason jars.

Bitty doesn’t grin with his teeth a lot, and almost never a full smile. But when he does, when Lardo can get him laughing hard enough, they can see his bottom set of teeth. They’re crooked, not as white, and one of the most beautiful sights Lardo has ever seen. Reminding them that Bitty isn’t perfect. He has his secrets and Lardo knows almost every one of them by heart.

They love the scraggly hair on his stomach how their jeans always look good as capris on him. The way he wears in heels easily because nothing is as bad as breaking in new figure skates while practicing jumps. The way their purple lipsticks look on him. That dopey face he makes when he convinces Lardo to sing along with him in the kitchen. He swears up and down they have a good voice.

Lardo loves every inch, cell, and atom of Eric Richard Bittle. They just wish they knew a way to tell him.

_/.\_

 

Bitty goes to the first postseason game mildly apprehensive. He’d rather not be on the jumbotron every time Jack scores a goal, even when he is genuinely excited for Jack’s points again. He has to stay around for interviews and photo ops with other SOAPs which makes the whole day drag on. One of the younger guys, Morry, has a “friend” who gravitates toward Bitty. They chat for a while and the kid seems nice enough. Apparently he and Morry met in juniors but only Morry got drafted.

Something about that wrenches Bitty’s heart a little bit. The more this kid talks about him and Morry quietly, with starry eyes, the more Bitty thinks of the look on Jack’s face whenever someone mentions Kenny. He realizes that first loves are hard to shake, especially when two people are on the same boat. Hockey’s like a battlefield in that respect, he thinks. It’s hard to get over what they felt when the world was crashing down on them. Maybe Kenny’s the only person who can ever get Jack. That’s more than ok, Bitty thinks.

“Y’all should talk,” Bitty says to the kid at one point, also very quietly. “You should talk about everything. Don’t assume anything and don’t think something is too small to bring up. If it bothers you it’s worth saying something, alright? At the end of the day, good communication is all you’ve got.”

“Ok,” he says slowly. “Is that what you and Jack do?”

Bitty smirks ruefully. “It’s what we had to learn after things went to shit. Things are better now, though. We’re happy again.”

He tells Jack as much when they’re walking back to their cars. Jack doesn’t disagree.

“We’re good at getting ahead of ourselves,” Jack says.

“We sure are,” Bitty says.

Jack swallows thickly, nodding.

“Oh no, what’s that look?”

“I was wondering...something hypothetically,” Jack says.

Bitty crosses his arms. “Alright, I’m listening.”

He sighs, leaning against the door of Bitty’s truck.

“Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, a married man asked you out on a date,” he says.

“Do I know he’s married?”

“Yes,” Jack says. “But he’s also polyamorous.”

“Well if his spouse is alright with it, and I get a free dinner out of it, I wouldn’t say no,” Bitty says.

“Who says there’s going to be dinner?”

“Who says they’re going to get married?” Bitty chirps.

Jack gapes slightly. “No one, yet.”

His face softens. Oh , he realizes. This is Jack telling him what he wants. This is Jack creating a plan and asking for Bitty’s input, his blessing even.

Bitty reaches over, squeezing Jack’s shoulder.

“Tell that man’s fiance that I’ll bake them whatever they want for life,” Bitty says.

“You wouldn’t have to do that,” Jack insists.

“No, I don’t,” he agrees. “But I want to offer. Besides, I’ve heard his fiance is bad at asking for things. So I won’t have to bake for them terribly often.”

Jack chuckles. It’s a soft rumble that makes Bitty’s shoulders tense less. They’re happy now. They could be something. They could really last under the right set of circumstances.

“If I had Kenny’s go ahead, I’d ask if I could kiss you right now,” Jack says quietly.

“Guess you’ll have to wait,” Bitty says.

“I can do that,” he says. “You should probably talk to…”

“Talk to who?”

Jack opens his mouth, laughing as he runs a hand through his hair. It’s starting to get long and shaggy again, just in time for the playoffs.

“I don’t know. You’ve never told me who you’re seeing.”

“I’m not seeing anyone, Jack,” he says stubbornly.

Jack looks at him in disbelief.

“What?”

“Bits, you’re in love with someone,” Jack says.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bitty says.

“The texting—”

“I’m allowed to—”

“The smiles when no one is talking—”

“I remember funny things at inopportune times!”    

“Bits, it’s ok to have someone else. I’m happy for you.”

Bitty glares lightly. “How can you be so sure?”

“Whenever you talk about going home, you get...this look. You know who’s waiting for you, and you want them badly.”

Jack’s right, Bitty realizes. It isn’t just a school yard crush. It isn’t gratitude or a passing feeling. Bitty’s been in love with Lardo forever, probably as long as they’ve known each other. Maybe it wasn’t always romantic, but it was there. Two people trying to get by with nothing but each other and their wits about them. Lardo is the first person he sees in the morning and the last thing he sees at night. He would trade the entire world to make every day of their life as amazing as they make it for him.

He’s in love with Lardo. Why did it take so long to admit that to himself.

“I have to get home,” Bitty says.

He gets on his tiptoes, kissing Jack on the cheek. “Thanks, we should hang out sometime. The four of us.”

Jack grins fondly. “That’d be nice.”

Home is an hour and a half away in Friday night traffic, but Bitty makes it back eventually. He’s kicking his shoes off the second he opens the door. He nearly forgets to lock it behind him. He all but runs to their bedroom. Lardo’s sitting on top of the covers, their weekly planner is open next to them and their laptop is playing Ink Masters Angels . Their hair is a mess and they’re wearing one of Bitty’s old Samwell shirts and a pair of spongebob squarepants boxer briefs.

They’re everything. The entire universe and everything beautiful about it incarnated into one person.  

Lardo presses pause to the show when they notice Bitty. They move things over so he can sit down. He rushes to the bed before he loses his nerve.

“Hey,” Lardo says. “Did you have fun?”

He bites his lips, nodding. “I think so.”

They lean forward, kissing his cheek. It melts all the tension out of his body. They makes life better. They make him so happy. Even when things are hard, even when they fight and snap, Lardo’s still there for him. He wants to be right next to them, for as long as they’ll let him.

He runs a hand through their hair, pulling them into his lap lap like he’s done a thousand times before.

“I love you,” he says quietly. “You know that?”

“I do,” Lardo says. “I love you too.”

Bitty shakes his head. “No, I mean it. I love you. I’m...I’m in love with you.”

“Sweet,” Lardo says, their lip twitches as their eyes get a little glassy. “I’m in love with you too.”

“Really?” he says tentatively.

Maybe this is a dream he’ll wake up from soon, or an elaborate prank. Things aren’t this easy for him. He doesn’t just get to love someone who wants him back. He isn’t—  

Lardo kisses him on the lips. His mind shuts up as he wraps his arms around their waist. He kisses them like no one he’s ever kissed before. He kisses every promise he wants to give them and every hope he has about them. He kisses them with every word he wishes he’d said sooner. Every I love you , I want you , I wish I had you . Every I wish you could see how beautiful you are to me . Every I missed you more than the sun misses the moon . Every why did it take so long for me to see you were the best part of my life?

Then he realizes he can start using his words more. Because he’s in love with someone who will always listen to him.

He breaks apart their kiss, resting their foreheads against each other. Lardo wraps their arms around his neck, humming contently. They sing better than any bird could ever hope to, and Bitty’s the lucky sap who gets to hear them every day. Who gets to feel them love him with every fiber of their being. Even when they’re cranky, angry, or depressed, they always remind Bitty that they still care.

“Where have you been all my life?” Bitty says out loud for the first time, but certainly not the last.

Lardo giggles, smiling with their teeth as they cry.

“What’s wrong?” he says

Lardo shakes their head. “I’m just happy. I just...really fucking love you. You’re the best part of me. I don’t know how to feel now that I can just have you.”

Bitty laughs, kissing them again and again. He hugs them tightly as they both settle into bed, thinking about how they made an entire life for themselves between four walls and a piece of furniture they got off Craigslist.  

“Guess that makes two of us, sweetpea.”