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Honestly? Jack doesn’t take trains often. Sure, they’re useful, for getting from A to B and he’ll admit to having more than a passing interest in the steam trains used as the principal modes of transport during World Wars 1 and 2, but here’s the thing: Jack simply doesn’t take trips on the railway line on a daily basis. He’s a spoiled brat in that regard, he’ll put his hands up to it, one who’s been chauffeured around his entire life by private cars and first-class suites and more recently, team buses.

It’s not that his parents are snobs, far from it; they definitely do not consider public transport beneath them and his Maman and Papa still both take the subway a lot, having achieved the art of disguise through caps and slouches. It’s just that being the son of a famous couple meant steps had to be taken and so those steps were to take more cloistered modes of transport to shield little Jack from the media – from the staring eyes and cruel comments – and to lend himself and his parents some degree of privacy.  It became more of a habit following his overdose; more noted, more marked.

In any case, it’s a quiet afternoon, the initial spring break rush having slowed to a lull after the busy weekend; it’s just Jack and a handful of other passengers at this time of the day, waiting on the platform to go wherever it is they’re going and so far, no-one has noticed Jack, or approached him and he’s feeling at ease enough to actually take his cap off, wipe his slightly sweating brow. It’s peaceful, calm, quiet.

Except: there’s a boy sitting alone on the bench at the end of the platform and he’s crying. Jack has only noticed because he’s been wandering up and down, bag slung over his back, unable to stay still, listening out for train announcements. That’s when he saw him: a solitary figure with a bag between his legs (wearing curiously high socks) blonde head bowed forward, wiping his eyes repeatedly with his bare arm. His shoulders are shaking and his sobs are quiet and soft, as though he’s trying desperately not to be heard.

Jack feels supremely awkward; can’t quite bring himself to turn around and pretend he never saw. The thing is, he can really understand sobbing to himself quietly, albeit in more private places – his bedroom, deserted locker rooms, the bathroom (right before he took one pill too many) – floundering in his own head, a tiny figure operating a huge, Jack-sized robot and no-one seeming to understand the scrabbling beneath the surface, the desperate need to maintain control.

He finds himself glancing around for someone who might be with him, but no-one else on the platform has noticed, or may be simply trying hard to ignore the boy’s distress, burying themselves in their newspapers and phones. The sobbing passenger is clutching his own in the hand that’s not hiding his face, earbuds wedged in firmly and Jack knows he should probably take it as a hint, perhaps even some pseudo-psychology on the boy’s part: I can’t hear them, so they can’t hear me.

And yet – Jack’s had enough to worry about in his lifetime; he really doesn’t want to spend his first night back at his parents’ house with his head still back on this Providence station platform, wondering if there was something he could have done to help.

This is when having anxiety actually comes in useful, he muses as he opens his bag and reaches into one of the side-pockets, pulls out the packet of tissues he carries around with him, in case – well, just in case. There are no mental imbalances without tears, after all and he slowly walks towards the boy, tense and poised as though he were stepping onto the ice for another game. The closer he gets, the louder the sniffling becomes.

Right then.

Carefully, slowly, he kneels and holds out the open packet of tissues out to the boy. Tears are running in rivulets down his cheeks and it takes him a moment to notice Jack; he glances over once and then again, swollen eyes suddenly widening in surprise and looking up towards the person whose hand is attached to the tissues.

‘Hello!’ he blurts out, an apparent reflex. It’s such a sudden, comedic change it almost makes Jack smile and he silently extends the packet just a little further.

‘Th-thankyou,’ the boy manages, pulling out his earbuds and reaching forwards to pluck a tissue out; wipes his eyes, blows his nose. There’s a Southern twang to his words, confirmed when the boy mutters, almost to himself, ‘Oh, goodness! Look at me.’

‘I’ve seen worse,’ Jack quips, mostly to cover his own lingering awkwardness, wondering if he should stay or go. The boy giggles, weakly so, but it’s something and Jack offers the packet again; pushes it towards him encouragingly.

‘Keep that. You obviously need it more than me.’

‘Oh, thankyou,’ the boy replies, looking overcome. ‘Oh, I’m really sorry – here you are waiting to go home and I’m just…’ He waves a hand around, desperately wiping his wet eyes as his voice starts to sink.

Jack shakes his head, uncomprehending. It’s not as if the crying is causing a train-delay, unless the tears wind up flooding the platform. ‘It’s okay. Um.’ He leaves it open, glancing towards the bench and the boy, blowing his nose, quickly gives a little wave.

‘Have at it. Can’t have the whole bench to myself.’ It’s a brave attempt to stay cheerful and Jack perches on the edge, keeping a respectable distance.

‘Rough day, eh?’ He’s sympathetic and the boy chuffs, looking resigned.

‘Could say that.’ He sniffs, raising his eyes to look at the not-terribly interesting far wall. Jack bites back a response, giving him time to talk. ‘It’s not even – just, my – my partner and I had a bit of a row.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Jack offers, noting the slight trip over the word partner; gets a slightly stiff shrug in return.

‘Yeah, not great. He, ah…’ He stops himself, glances sideways at Jack, something suddenly stiff in his shoulders, alert, poised. ‘But you don’t want to hear my sob story on a Sunday afternoon.’ He chuckles falsely, glazing over it quickly, a little too much casualness in his tone that communicates itself as fright, wipes his eyes with determination. Jack parses it, then decides to just take the ball by the horns.

‘Look,’ he glances down at the bag between those long-socked feet, spots the label, reads the name aloud in large, cheery letters, ‘Bittle?’ He raises his eyebrows – is that right? – and gets a cautious nod in response. ‘Okay, then, Bittle. You’re obviously not feeling great and I promise to go away if you want to be left alone. But I really just need to check that you’re not about to throw yourself onto the train track.’

‘Goodness me, no, honey!’ The endearment falls off the boy’s tongue so casually and Jack shrugs apologetically, recognising his own bluntness, smiling despite himself at the renewed vim and vigour in those Southern tones. ‘No, definitely not. I’m just going home for spring break.’

‘Me too,’ Jack pats his own bag by his feet, spots the slightly cynical look he’s being given. ‘Ah – they gave us a few days off at work as a lot of my coworkers have kids, and, well. They said a vacation wouldn’t kill me.’ There’s no sign on Bittle’s face that he recognises him and Jack feels relief at that. ‘So I’m heading out to visit my parents.’

‘Madison for me,’ Bittle shrugs and Jack raises his eyebrows; that is a long way. ‘We’re having a big family barbecue, and…’ He breaks off, coughs roughly, wipes his eyes with another tissue. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘No, it’s fine,’ Jack encourages. ‘Just… is there anything I can do to help? Besides supply tissues?’ he chances with a faint grin that Bittle returns. And yeah, maybe Jack is prying and he knows that technically it’s not his problem – but he can’t seem to help himself. He’s come this far, after all.

Bittle shakes his head at the offer, drawing his knees up; inhaling and exhaling in what Jack quickly recognises as breathing exercises that someone somewhere has obviously taught him.  

‘My – my boyfriend wanted to come with me,’ he says finally; his voice is hushed, distracted. ‘He wanted to meet my family. But I’m not out,’ he adds at the questioning expression on Jack’s face; his mouth open around an uncertain word, not sure how to respond. ‘They – my Mama and Coach – my Daddy. They don’t know.’

Oh. Jack feels his heart clench because he knows, he can relate so much, to how this kid is feeling right now. That was him, for the longest time; keeping secrets during his affair with Kent, sitting at the edges of beds and staring at his phone. Eyeing his parents across the table and wondering if he should say it, say the words he knew were true, that had been lodged down deep within him for years: Maman, Papa, I’m bi.

Tell us something we don’t know, had been the gentle, shrugged response and that had been that.

If only if it could be like that for everyone.

‘He can hardly blame you for that,’ he consoles Bittle now. ‘It’s tough. I mean,’ he clears his throat, his PR side coming to play; no-one outside his family and the Falconers know that particular fact about him and while this kid has shown no sign of recognition, well. Better safe than sorry, after all.

(This is the hard side of hockey. If the overdose wasn’t bad enough, the bad press following was enough to kill him where the pills hadn’t managed to do so. If he was just an average Joe – a gardener, a waiter, someone who worked in an office and just attended matches on the weekend, he could be open, be himself, be sympathetic. But he can’t, so).

‘It must be difficult,’ he amends carefully. ‘And if you’re not – if that’s not something you’re ready for, he needs to understand that.’

Bittle shakes his head, tears still free-flowing. ‘He wanted me to come and stay in Providence with him instead, but I wasn’t – I wanted to go home.’ Jack gives a one-shouldered shrug back; it’s understandable. ‘Then he asked me why my parents wouldn’t understand if I didn’t go. He knows how much I love going home and he still said it, like I could just…’ He waves his hands around, clenching at air, frustrated.

‘How long have you been together?’ Jack asks, as gently as he can, ‘if you don’t mind me asking.’

‘Um – six months?’ Bittle shrugs. ‘He was the year above me; a senior, if you can believe it.’ He smirks a little, a quirk of the mouth through the tears. ‘We got together at a party that he came back for – and well.’ He shrugs. ‘We didn’t get to see each other a lot because he moved here and I’ve been an hour away studying, but y’know, we managed. Until now.’

Jack nods, chewing his lip thoughtfully. He’s not really experienced long-distance relationships in his time, but some of the boys on the team have and from what he’s seen, he can imagine it must be difficult. Impressive, but difficult.

Bittle is clearly in need of someone to talk to, because he carries on into the silence. ‘Anyway, I, uh – I got a call from my Mama, telling me about some big family reunion we were having and how she and my Aunt Judy had reached an impasse over the jam feud and were friends again – yeah, I know,’ he laughs through his tears, a little hiccough of a thing, at the expression on Jack’s face; honestly, this is perhaps the most random conversation he’s had in, well, ever. ‘Miracles do happen. So I said I’d go home for that and Jasper – that’s, uh, that’s my boyfriend – wasn’t happy. I said we could still have this weekend together, but…’ He shrugs. ‘Wasn’t good enough.’

‘You did your best,’ Jack blinks. Inwardly he’s thinking: so wait, this asshole tried to make you choose between him and your family?

‘I don’t think I did,’ Bittle sighs, shaking his head, looking so forlorn that Jack is suddenly struck by the need to give him a huge hug like the ones Tater gives him when he senses, rightfully so, that Jack is having a bad day. ‘I told him weeks ago and he wouldn’t speak to me after that – said I made him feel like a back-up and I didn’t mean that, I didn’t mean to do that, but it just felt like – like I was being forced. I thought if I came down anyway we could talk about it and maybe sort things out, but – it was horrible, I hated it.’ He shakes his head and the word horrible lodges itself into Jack’s head because it’s distressing, somehow, coming from the lips of this stranger. ‘We just spent the whole day not talking. He brought some friends out without telling me; people I don’t even know. He just spoke to them all day. It was like I wasn’t even there.’

And oh, does Jack understand that. It was like that with Kent and the others in Junior Hockey; Kent was always the one who put everyone at ease, who made everyone laugh, whereas Jack was always just a bit…awkward, always watching, from a distance, the way everyone else’s happiness seemed to rub along together, while he was always a little too preoccupied with how he could make the next hockey-play work.

‘My ex was the same,’ he finds the words spilling off his tongue before he can stop himself and oh, the whole PR department for the Falconers are probably sobbing into their iPads right this minute. ‘At least, uh, a little. Just… pushing and being a bit too much.’

Even as he says it, his last memory of Kent rears up; a fumble of whispered words, a tantalising promise of Las Vegas on his lips – with the condition that Jack would abandon the prospect of joining the Falconers – that had been nothing short of insulting. Jack had pushed him away and then spent the whole night on his bedroom floor trying to ward off a panic attack.

‘Well…maybe I did the wrong thing?’ Bittle asks, ‘Maybe I – maybe he felt neglected? My mother’s my best friend and I guess I am a bit of a Mama’s boy, but – ‘

‘Hey.’ Jack is unable to stop himself, shocked at the self-deprecating attitude. ‘Did he say that to you?’ Bittle squeezes his eyes shut, a physical wince in the nod he gives and the sight of the boy’s shame makes something in Jack’s gut hot and very, very angry. He inhales once, in and out and when he speaks next, takes care to keep his voice calm.

‘He’s not being a good boyfriend to make you choose,’ he tells Bittle, as levelly as he can manage. ‘My – my Maman once told me that family is all we have in the end – I think she got it from a TV show or something, but it still stuck – and I know things are tough right now, but they’re obviously important to you. You got yourself down here, eh? Shouldn’t that be enough for him?’

Bittle nods, looking very tired. ‘I think we’ve broken up,’ he murmurs. ‘I – he wouldn’t even hug me goodbye or kiss me or anything, he just waved at me and then walked off with his friends. That was about half-an-hour ago.’

Oh, fuck. ‘Well, his loss,’ Jack frowns, unable to keep the vitriol out of his voice, ‘you gave him what time you could and if he demanded more, then he clearly doesn’t get it. I – I hope you can get things sorted out,’ which in Jack-speak, actually means I hope you dump him, ‘but… don’t blame yourself, eh? You did your best. You can’t control how he’ll react, Bittle,’ he adds as an afterthought, an adage left over from therapy that he’s been repeating to himself at the back of his mind for years.’

Bittle sniffles, quietly; his tears have dried, leaving only faint tracks and something in his face looks moved. ‘Thankyou,’ he says finally and Jack puts a hand, brief, on his shoulder, the same way he would when comforting a team-mate on the ice.

‘Where are you headed?’ he asks, sensing the need to step back a bit from such a personal conversation.

‘Back to Samwell,’ Bittle sighs, ‘going to pack tonight, then I can – I can fly home tomorrow.’

‘Samwell University?’ Jack blinks; gets a nod in response. ‘That’s my Maman’s alter mater; she studied there.’ Of course, he realises now, Bittle mentioned that he only studied an hour away, which is only as long as it takes to reach the campus. Jack has met Samwell graduates around the city before, wondered briefly if their enthusiasm when recounting their college experiences was the Universe’s way of chiding him for ultimately deciding against going there himself.

‘Oh,’ Bittle visibly perks up, momentarily distracted. ‘Good for her. I love it there. Did – did she like it?’

‘She did.’ Jack nods, smiling slightly. ‘She’s actually giving a speech at the campus graduation this year.’ He pauses, unsure if he should mention who exactly his mother is, if this will reveal his own identity – he belatedly realises that he doesn’t know if his Maman's even been announced yet – but Bittle’s face brightens further.

‘Oh! I might see her! I’m graduating,’ he rubs his neck, looking a bit sheepish. ‘I can’t believe it’s come around so quickly; just two more months and I’m done. I’ll be a proper grown-up!’ He gives a slightly nervous laugh that Jack echoes, sympathetic.

‘It’s not so bad,’ he offers, consoling and Bittle chuckles, appreciative.

‘I guess not. Still, I’ve had some practice, captaining and cooking for the hockey team, so if I can survive that…’ He grins and something in Jack trips up.

‘You.’ He swallows, tries to sound casual. ‘You play hockey?’

Bittle nods. ‘Just about. Sort of how I met Jasper – he played English rugby, so we… sort of had that in common, the whole athletics things?’ He shrugs and Jack tries to look calm and understanding. ‘He misses it, though. I asked if we could go to a hockey-game – the Falcons, I think they’re called? – but he wasn’t keen.’

The rumbling of an approaching train covers the sound of sirens going off in Jack’s head and with heroic effort he swallows his words down.

‘Anyway.’ Bittle shakes himself and with real determination, rises to his feet. ‘Here comes my ride, so you can finally be rid of me and my pathetic excuse for a love-life.’

‘Not at all.’ Jack stands with him, stares down into the face that’s a little lighter now, a little less careworn, than it was a few moments ago. ‘It was, um – well, not a pleasure, but –’

‘I get it,’ Bittle titters, the sound audible even as the train pulls in with a shriek against the rails that makes them both wince; then, rather shyly, he holds out his hand. ‘Um. My first name’s Eric, by the way.’

‘Eric.’ Jack throws caution to the wind and accepts the handshake, stooping down to collect his duffel and handing it over. ‘I’m Jack. Pleased to meet you, even if it was under these circumstances.’ He sounds like a hockey robot, but every word he says is true. ‘Make sure you get plenty of rest tonight, okay kid? Look after yourself.’

‘Sure, Jack,’ Eric beams, looking happier. ‘Thanks for – for talking to me. I can’t – I can’t talk about this with my parents.’ He looks pained for a second and Jack puts a hand to his shoulder comfortingly. I’ve got your back.

‘It’ll be okay,’ he tells him, ‘one day at a time, eh?’ he’s about to fall back on his old mantra of ‘one game at a time,’ but that’s sure to give his own game away. ‘Just – take care, alright? Go home, have something to eat – get yourself some protein,’ he orders, reverting to alternate captain mode. ‘It’ll help.’

‘I’ll certainly try.’ Eric nudges him a little. ‘You have a good spring break now, y’hear?’

‘I’ll try,’ Jack parrots, frankly amazed this boy is wishing him a good vacation after the clearly disastrous weekend he’s just had and wondering how this boyfriend of his could discard him so easily, accusing him of actions that were so clearly well-intended.

He steps back before he can betray himself; the door closes, separating them and Eric turns to wave vigorously through the window. Jack raises his arm in return and is rewarded with a smile even as the train starts to move, clattering out of the station and carrying Eric away.

*

Samwell is… well. It’s something else.

Jack has been here before, briefly, years ago when he accompanied his mother on another trip and was too young, then, to be thinking about college or anything else that wasn’t related to hockey. He’d considered it following the overdose, came so close to perhaps accepting a place, to simply studying and being a student for a while and building himself back up – but then other roads had made themselves known at the eleventh hour and his developing plans, his idea to maybe follow in his mother’s footsteps for a change rather than his father’s, to see if it made a difference, had come to a halt and he’d ended up in Montreal instead, coaching full-time for a little while and turning a cheek to those who branded him a failure. His health, he had realised belatedly, had to come first and that meant slowing down for a bit, looking somewhere outside his scope, putting his own ambitions on hold to help others with theirs.

Now, though, he feels an odd tinge of regret, wandering around the campus with his Maman. There’s something ‘fresh’ in the air here at Samwell; an openness, an-almost escape. It’s not just the rainbow colours, or the college’s ranking as the number one LGBT-friendly campus community. It’s feels like a hub, a little piece of the earth that shuts the rest of the world out; Jack feels stilled, quietened, as if he can breathe, stepping away from his mother’s side to take photo after photo of the clock-tower, the trees bristling softly around them, the buildings standing tall like friendly overlookers, the sun glinting off them with a twinkle.

‘It’s a shame you didn’t end up here,’ Alicia tells him softly, understanding nevertheless, watching Jack on one knee taking snaps of the river. ‘The magazines used to comment on me going to such a small school, but I was happy here and it certainly did me no harm.’

She reaches down to ruffle Jack’s hair and he smiles ruefully up at her, can’t bring himself to be annoyed. It’s refreshing to be unnoticed, to defer to her, to feel shorter and smaller than his mother once more, as if he were a child again and all it took was her presence to help him feel safe.

His mind strays once more to Eric Bittle and if Eric feels safe enough yet to share the secret part of himself with his own mother. Jack hopes so. He only spoke to him for a few moments, but he struck Jack as the kind of person who stands tall – despite his height – yet still feels the sting of the world’s ugliness, despite perseverance. Something about him had made Jack feel oddly proud.

Alicia is applauded and cheered when she steps up onto the stage for the graduation ceremony and her speech is lively, cheerful, making people laugh in all the right places. At a reserved seat in the front row, Jack chuffs, watching her and wishing he could have his mother’s easy manner when it comes to publicity, but it seems to have skipped a generation with him. His therapist has told him not to compare himself to others, but it’s difficult.

Still, it’s a warm ceremony under a cheerful sun and Jack enjoys watching the smiles and laughter of the graduating students, hopes they’re a little more sensible and a lot less tortured than he was at that age. His mother claps encouragingly along with everyone else and Jack finds himself taking more photos that he hopes to send to the University board, finding an anchor in the easy weight of the camera in his lap.

Suddenly, a name is called that strikes a gong and he lowers the camera when he sees who’s walking up: small, slightly shorter than his peers and a face grinning in shy embarrassment under the cap.

Eric Bittle.

Jack finds himself applauding hard as Eric is handed his degree. Someone is cheering loudly from the audience, hollering, ‘well done, Dicky!’ and straining his neck, Jack spots her; a woman standing up in her seat, clutching a camera, the absolute spit of Eric with short blonde hair and brown eyes – clearly his mother. He smiles and a few people in the audience are smirking, appreciative of the enthusiasm for her son’s achievement.

Jack looks back in time to see Eric waving to his mother, looking more pleased than embarrassed and quickly scuttles off-stage. As he’s coming down, he glances over to his left, to where Jack is sitting and feeling rather brave, Jack gives him a wink. Eric stops, dumbfounded, his eyes flitting over his face in recognition and then a sunny smile blooms out of nowhere as they stare at each other. Jack feels oddly flattered to be the recipient – even the cause? – of such an expression and gives him a thumbs-up.

‘Congratulations,’ he mouths and gives a nod of the head, indicating with some rather haphazard sign language that he’ll talk to him afterwards; another graduate is just stepping down from the stage. Bitty nods broadly, like a promise and carries on, glancing over his shoulder as he goes.

‘Who was that?’ Alicia asks beside him, sounding surprised and rightly so. Jack tries to answer, but another name is called and he manages to mutter a quick, ‘Just someone I know,’ before sitting quietly, not wanting to disrupt the ceremony but suddenly extremely keen for it to be over.

*

When the ceremony does end, Jack lingers; watches the families chat and laugh before they scatter in different directions, ready to start their summer holidays. He feels so separate from it all; thinks of the long hockey season ahead and himself, not a natural part of the crowd, his mother’s companion and chaperone for the day dressed in a suit and blue tie. It’s a lonely sort of feeling. His mother is comfortably chatting to awe-struck students and parents, many of whom have seen her work and have shyly approached to congratulate her on her speech. Jack had thought about steering his mother away with a few muttered words of thanks but she seems entirely at ease and happy to talk, so Jack settles for lingering and looking suitably protective, all the while keeping an eye out on the dispersing crowd.

‘Jack! Jack!’

The voice is familiar, higher, happier, but still recognisable in its timbre, this time without the rattling echo of the train station. Jack turns with a huge smile to see Eric hurtling towards him, hat off, robe flying out and before he knows it, Jack has opened his arms to greet him. They collide, Jack picking Eric up and spinning him around, spurred by something daring, not even knowing if Eric would appreciate it – but it makes him squeal with laughter and it feels like a reward.

‘Hello, Bittle,’ Jack grins, setting him down, mildly embarrassed at his lack of propriety; they’re near-strangers after all. His worries about things quickly turning awkward after this massively emotional greeting are cast aside, however, by Eric exclaiming and clutching his hair.

‘Oh, Jack, I’m so stupid!’ At the sudden, confused look on Jack’s face, he explains: ‘I’m sorry about what I said about your team, I didn’t know who you were! It was only when they announced your Mama that I realised. You were so kind and I just – oh Lord, I’m so sorry!’

‘Hey, hey, hey, it’s fine,’ Jack soothes, putting a hand to his shoulder, ‘you don’t have to apologise. Also, I’m not stalking you, I promise,’ he adds hurriedly, suddenly realising how this looks, but Eric only giggles, ‘only, my Dad couldn’t make it and I said I’d come along to, you know, chaperone. And you didn’t do anything wrong, bud – nothing at all, okay?’

He’s very aware, out of the corner of his eye, of Eric’s mother approaching, walking over the grass towards them, clutching Eric’s graduation cap and trailed by a broad, moustached man who could only be Eric’s father. He stands back as Eric is engulfed by his mother, who’s staring unabashed at Jack with eyes as wide as windows, gaze piercing and curious.

‘Hello,’ he says quickly, courteously; holds out his hand as she releases Eric. ‘Mrs Bittle?’

‘Suzanne,’ the lady manages, grasping the hand offered, her voice slightly breathless. Okay, then. ‘And – and my husband.’ She almost absent-mindedly pats the silent Mr. Bittle on the shoulder; he simply glances across at Jack with a slightly tilt of the eyebrow that manages to somehow write itself into an amused expression. ‘Dicky, honey, why didn’t you tell me you were friends with Jack Zimmermann?’

She eyes her son in disbelief, inquisitive. There’s something nice, though, about the way she asks the question; not grasping greedily for the connection to Bad Bob, just overly curious of her son’s socialisations and maybe a little starstruck.

‘Um,’ Eric looks caught and Jack realises the reason for his hesitance, jumps in.

‘I had the pleasure of meeting your son a couple of months ago when he was on his way home for spring break,’ he interjects smoothly, as vague as possible. ‘We, uh, had a really nice chat.’ He throws an apologetic glance Eric’s way – the conversation wasn’t “nice” not by any means, given Eric’s distress, but still.

‘What did you talk about?’ Eric’s father pipes up, gruffly. Jack and Eric exchange a look, Jack feeling a very strong awareness that he can’t simply reply to that with, ‘Eric’s asshole boyfriend.’

‘Hockey,’ he replies promptly; it’s not a lie, after all and Eric looks painfully grateful as Suzanne beams.

‘Dicky told you he played? He’s ever so good,’ and she starts chatting about Eric’s talent and his previous role as a figure-skater. Jack listens politely, eyes lingering on Eric, genuinely interested in the life of this person who he’s only managed to know for a few moments, every fact he learns somehow feeling like a bonus.

‘He managed the double-axel when he was ten, could you credit it – oh!’ Suzanne breaks off mid-sentence as Alicia appears at Jack’s shoulder, eyes going impossibly wider. Alicia smiles, offers her hand, shakes it firmly with practised ease.  

‘Congratulations,’ she turns to address Eric, who wears an expression almost identical to his mother’s and he nods frantically, accepting the handshake.

‘Thanks, Ali – I mean Mrs Zimmer – Mrs Jack’s Mom,’ he manages finally and Jack chokes while Alicia laughs.

‘Just call me Alicia. You must be so proud,’ she turns to his parents – Suzanne straight-up whimpers but Alicia engages them in conversation as if she’s known them her whole life, asking them about their plans to celebrate, generously accepting Suzanne’s eager compliments of her acting-work and shameless queries about Jack’s father. Jack and Eric exchange a glance and Alicia, clearly possessing some sixth-sense (Jack’s Dad always said she was the brains of their relationship) breaks off mid-flow to suggest that they stretch their legs.

‘Take a few moments to get re-acquainted,’ she encourages, nudging him. Jack raises an eyebrow at Eric – is that okay? – and is gratified by his eager nod; feeling like a kid who’s been given permission to go out and play, Jack gestures with his head and the two of them walk away, side-by-side, while Alicia returns her attention to the Bittles.

‘My Mama will have her talking for ages,’ Eric murmurs, glancing over his shoulder as they wander out of earshot, ‘I hope y’all don’t have any big plans.’

‘Maman’s fine,’ Jack assures him. ‘Mrs Jack’s Mom, huh? Nice touch,’ he grins teasingly as Eric groans and covers his face in embarrassment.

‘I can’t believe I just – ‘

‘Nah, don’t worry. She thought it was cute,’ Jack assures, privately enjoying the fact that they’re talking as if they’ve known each other a lot longer than ten minutes. ‘You’ve no idea how many fans just call her by her first name like they know her personally or something, chasing her down the street – she takes it in her stride, but it’s nice when people are polite.’ He smiles warmly at Eric, belatedly feeling as if he’s given too much away – Eric, though, looks relieved as they stroll down in the direction of the river, followed by the sound of the bells.

‘It’s, eh… nice here,’ Jack comments, not because the silence feels awkward but simply because he wants to start off the conversation lightly – he doesn’t want to immediately pick up from where they left off and start interrogating Eric about his rugby-playing boyfriend who made him cry. Besides, he genuinely wants to know more about Samwell and this life he seems to have missed out on to some degree.

‘It is. I’m going to miss it.’ Eric’s voice is quiet, a little gloomy. ‘It made me – made me feel I could be myself. Feels a bit scary, now.’

He smiles sadly up at Jack, who smiles back ruefully, understanding that feeling; the difficulty of keeping parts of yourself locked away and hating the fact that the boy in front of him feels he has to do the same. Then, unexpectedly, Eric lets out a sigh, taking a deep, deliberate breath as though preparing himself and raises his head to look Jack dead in the eye, a little bit pink around the ears.

‘Listen, Jack – I wanted to say: thankyou so much for that day at the station. You’ve no idea – it sounds silly, but oh my goodness, I thought you were a guardian angel or something, turning up when you did.’

‘Haha,’ Jack chuckles at the image of himself in white robes with a pair of wings, solemnly ordering people to eat more protein, even though he realises that’s not what Eric means. ‘It’s fine,’ he replies, sincerely. ‘I mean – I know it wasn’t fine for you, but– I was glad to help. And it was really nice to meet you.’

‘And you,’ Eric agrees; there’s something about the way he’s looking at Jack that lingers, but not harmfully – more like a soft blanket. ‘I, ah. I broke up with Jasper. Not long after I’d finished talking to you, actually. I felt bad about it, but he just wouldn’t…’ He shrugs, biting his lip.

‘That’s good,’ Jack says at once; Eric glances up. ‘Sorry. I mean – I won’t pretend to know the specifics of your relationship because I don’t really know you, but no-one should force you to choose anything you’re not ready for.’ Glancing back up the path, he considers his options and then decides to just come out with it. ‘They still don’t know, eh?’

Eric shakes his head, looking pained and Jack feels horrible for prying, feels he’s going to make him cry all over again and he really don’t want that. He doesn’t want to be the reason for sadness on such a sweet face – Bittle clearly cares for the feelings of those around him, otherwise he wouldn’t have been in such a state on the train platform that day. He would have been angry, defensive, making excuses if he were truly at fault; instead he was suffering, feeling torn, torturing himself.

‘That was the other thing I didn’t thank you for,’ Eric says then, over the sound of their shoes crunching over the path, ‘being – being discreet. You were a really quick thinker back there. Hockey,’ he chirps, but not maliciously and Jack chuffs, seeing the funny side.

‘You have my Hockey Robot mode to thank for that. Beep-boop.’ He wriggles his head around, raises his eyes skyward, feeling oddly silly and Eric howls with laughter, the sound like a reward.

‘I can’t believe that a leading NHL player knows all my little secrets,’ he giggles and Jack is suddenly struck with the thought that he’d like to know even more – that he’d like to get to know Eric Bittle. That the prospect of saying goodbye again very soon feels. Well. It feels wrong, somehow.

‘Well,’ he shrugs, ‘you can always come back and see me in Providence and I’ll tell you all about my gooey past as a cokehead, so we’re even.’ He bites his lip at the stricken look on Eric’s face – horrified at his own blasé nature and at his sudden boldness. ‘Not that that’s a secret, of course. It was all over the news, so.’ He coughs, suddenly feeling supremely awkward.

Eric cocks his head to the side. ‘You don’t seem like much of a cokehead to me,’ he says, his voice unbearably gentle and Jack finds himself growing unexpectedly warm.  

‘No,’ he agrees. ‘That’s – that’s why we have rehab – rehabilitation, eh?’ he swallows, cursing himself for the sudden stammer, something about the other boy’s gaze suddenly making him unaccountably nervous. On the heel of that, he feels guilty – he would far rather be a bisexual hockey captain than Bad Bob’s Zimmermann-lite, drug-addicted son any day and shame washes over him suddenly, as the full weight of what he just said catches up with him.

‘I’m sorry,’ he murmurs. ‘I... tend to be a bit careless about it sometimes and – well, something like that shouldn’t be equated with being gay, eh? I apologise for being offensive.’

Eric though, just chuffs, a sympathetic whisper of a thing and when he speaks next, it’s kind, gently chiding. ‘You didn’t offend me, you silly boy. I…’ he breaks off, hesitant. ‘I’d like to come back to Providence, actually. It seemed like a nice city.’ His tone is wistful and speaks of an opportunity squandered, that day two months ago with his boyfriend and boyfriend’s friends. ‘Good hockey,’ he adds belatedly, hastily and it’s Jack’s turn to laugh.

‘It’s a great city,’ he agrees. ‘You should come back and do it properly. I could always show you around, if you want,’ and he finds, much to his own surprise, he’s not trying to be polite or vague – he’s completely serious. He wants to make up for what was lost that weekend – wants to show this boy the true meaning of the city where he’s found his home, his team, where he feels settled in his own skin in a way few other places have given him. Not uncomfortable among a group of people who don’t really care if he’s there or not – but chatting and laughing, letting Providence fill him up from the inside.  

He doesn’t want to let Eric down.

‘Oh, Jack,’ Eric rubs the back of his neck, looking overwhelmed – more than that though, looking speculative, as if he genuinely wants to take him up on the offer. Or is Jack just projecting? ‘That’s – that’s really sweet of you.’

‘I could even get you tickets to a Falconer’s game, if you like,’ Jack adds; he’s really warming up now, but he also can’t forget that he has friend and family discounts piling up, free tickets with great seats to burn, but no-one apart from his parents to give them to. ‘You and some of your friends, maybe? Only if you’re interested –’

‘Ransom loves Mashkov,’ Eric blurts out with delight, before throwing his hands over his mouth. ‘Uh. I mean. My friend Ransom – I mean, Justin, he – he really admires him.’ He’s going red as a beetroot and Jack finds it so endearing he grins back.

‘He’s got good taste,’ he offers. Tater’s a definite favourite on the team – ferocious on the ice and friendly with the fans, often supporting Jack with that side of things when he finds the attention, the clamours for autographs and photos, too overwhelming. ‘I’ll tell him you said that. And hey, at least you know you wouldn’t run into your ex in the stadium – that is, unless he’s developed a taste for it?’ Or any taste at all, adds the uncensored voice at the back of his brain.

‘Oh, Jasper’s not there anymore,’ Eric shrugs. ‘Apparently, Providence wasn’t all he thought it would be, so he upped and moved to Seattle a few weeks ago. According to Facebook, anyway.’

Providence? Not living up to expectations? Jack feels insulted on the city’s behalf and then recognises the unfairness of that; everyone’s different after all. But it’s hard when he remembers how well Providence slipped over him like a second skin, welcoming him in, uncaring of his past so long as he did and continues to do his best in the present.

‘And he can stay there, as far as I’m concerned,’ Eric adds primly, a sudden firmness to his voice and Jack agrees – some idiot who left Eric crying all alone in a station is no great loss in his book. ‘The more I think about it, the more I realise we weren’t terribly suited; it’s a fair way from Georgia to here, I realise that, but he’s just moved himself all the way across the country from his family. No wonder he didn’t understand things with mine. I don’t – I mean, I hope Seattle makes him happy, but I really can’t say I’m in a rush to see him again, thankyou.’

Overwhelmingly proud of this kid and how far he’s come in just a few months, Jack extends a fist; Eric smiles and bumps it with his own.

‘Besides,’ he adds, ‘I think I quite like Massachusetts. I missed my Mama, but…’ He glances around – at the trees, the river and the path beyond. ‘I don’t think I really want to be a stranger – all my friends have settled around the area and I’d hate to leave them.’

‘I think they’d hate to leave you,’ Jack murmurs, meaning it. Eric throws a smile his way, appreciative.

‘So – I think I might come back,’ he says, sounding like he’s thinking about it even as he says it, ‘I’ve got a few things to take care of at home, but. Yeah, I like it here.’ His gaze meets Jack’s, his teeth biting his lower-lip, eyes chocolate-brown and contemplative. ‘I really do.’

Jack finds his voice. ‘Do you – sorry, I realise it’s none of my business, but do you know what you want to do?’ he shrugs, apologetic at asking a question that’s probably been asked half-a-dozen times already and that he’s been bombarded with before from all his well-meaning honorary Uncles. Eric grimaces, confirming it.

‘I like to bake?’ he shrugs. ‘I mean, a lot. And, well. I captained the hockey team, as you know. I run a vlog. But,’ he chuffs, rubbing his neck, embarrassed. ‘Well. Not much, is it?’

Actually, to Jack, it speaks of culinary skills and creativity, the ability to run and organise, a fearless productivity about putting yourself out into the world – a fearlessness he himself has sometimes lacked.

‘There are some great bakeries in Providence,’ he blurts out, not quite sure where he’s going with this, realising he’s steering the conversation around again without meaning to. But he also wants to tell Eric about the best places where he’s taken a coffee with Georgia after a morning run or laughed and groaned with Snowy at the sight of Tater shoving whole pastries in his mouth, moaning in ecstasy, on the rare occasions they’ve managed to sneak away from Nate and his diet plan.

‘I saw,’ Eric nods, looking wistful. ‘I looked all of them up on TripAdvisor before I went,’ he admits with a giggle, so endearing that Jack can’t help but smile – right before it fades with a shrug of the shoulder. ‘But Jasper took us to Dunkin’ Donuts instead.’

The hell? Jack is so glad these guys broke up.

‘I really wanted to try the Seven Stars though,’ Eric adds with a little more cheer. ‘It looked yummy.’

‘No, you need LaSalle,’ Jack holds an index finger up. ‘Best bakery in Providence, hands-down. I spend more time there than I should. Also, they, eh, they let people bring their dogs in,’ he confesses; always had a thing for dogs and very aware he’s showing it. ‘I took my dad there once and his allergies broke out within a minute.’

‘Oh Lord, the poor man!’ Eric puts a hand to his mouth to quell his laughter, sympathetic all the same. ‘But challenge accepted, Mr. Zimmermann. Maybe we should try both and see who wins.’

‘You think so?’ Jack folds his arms, never one to back away from a challenge; he’s been playing hockey since he could crawl, his competitive streak knows no bounds and he’ll defend his beloved LaSalle to the death. Eric mimics him, grinning and it feels like something shared.

‘I do, Mr. Zimmermann!’ he chirrups back, voice high and happy and Jack smiles, feeling mischievous, already beguiled by the thought of spending more time with this boy. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, his Uncle Wayne always says, and he digs out his phone.

‘Well then. Can I have your number?’

*

‘Oh, here they are!’ Suzanne flutters as Jack and Eric make their way back up the path, both a little red-faced – they’re wearing suits after all, and Eric has graduation robes on top of that – but smiling, unmistakeably happy. Jack’s sure the look his mother is giving him is knowing, the blue eyes that mirror his own sparkling with mischief.

Then she tips him a wink and Jack rather wants to die.

‘Did you boys have a nice catch-up?’ Suzanne asks, coming over to kiss Eric’s cheek; it’s endearing, the way he nods through his mother’s grasp, positively beaming.

‘Jack’s… invited me to come and visit him this summer,’ he says it slowly, glancing a cautious look in his direction, as though unsure if he’s allowed to say this out loud, but Jack simply feels a thrill at the prospect of this becoming a reality, ‘maybe for a weekend, when he’s not playing.’

‘If that’s okay,’ Jack adds quickly, noting the slight surprise in the Bittles’ faces, ‘I’d be glad to have him over and show him the sights. It doesn’t just have to be a weekend, either,’ he adds for Eric’s benefit, not missing the way his eyebrows raise and his mouth quirks up, looking touched at the offer. ‘But I’ll text you, okay?’ He nods at Eric meaningfully. ‘I’ll text you.’

His mother, coming around to wind an arm through his, pats his arm meaningfully and he spares her a look, remembering being nine-years-old and shy all over again, staring at the other kids and wondering how best to approach, how to make friends without talking about hockey – except this time, someone has come to him with outstretched arms and the sunniest smile and met him halfway.

‘We should go,’ she offers, looking apologetic and he nods; their schedules are tight, after all, mother and son alike. ‘Let the Bittles make their dinner reservation.’ She comes forward and kisses a startled Eric on both cheeks. ‘It was lovely to meet you, sweetheart. Congratulations again. I hope I see you again soon.’ There is unmistakeable meaning in her tone, in the way she smiles kindly at him and then glances at Jack with a little too much understanding. 

‘Th-thanks, Mrs Zimmermann,’ Eric stammers and Jack makes a mental note never to introduce him to his Dad; immediately quashes a voice in his head that tells him that could happen a lot sooner than he thinks.  

He’s hugged and kissed by Suzanne, shakes hands with Eric’s silent father, wonders if the man can see something in the amount of time he and Eric spent away, if he knows that Jack is finding a very real comfort in the warmth of his son’s eyes, the lavish kindness of his mouth. But then Mr. Bittle simply claps his hand roughly and wishes him a good season, eyeing him speculatively.

‘Good for Junior to have a few more athletically-minded buddies,’ he tells him and it takes Jack a few seconds to figure out that Junior means Eric, ‘maybe you could teach him how to take a hit on the ice.’

It’s not an unkind tone, just matter-of-fact - but it’s revealing all the same, saying a lot about the relationship between father and son and Jack feels a pang of sympathy, glancing sideways at Eric and the sudden shadow that’s fallen across his face.

‘You don’t get through college hockey without learning a thing or two,’ he says neutrally, making a mental note to have a conversation about this with Eric, if he’s willing. ‘I’m sure he was an asset to the team.’

He winks at Eric, who looks painfully grateful; holds out his arms for him to step into and they share a brief hug, an echo of the one they shared by the lake just moments ago after swapping numbers, a lovely, lingering thing, Jack’s chin resting on top of Eric’s, unafraid and unable to let go in a hurry. Feeling less like near-strangers and more like… something else.

‘I’ll see you soon, Jack,’ Eric tells him, stepping back and it sounds like a promise, his rich eyes hiding nothing. Jack nods, squeezes his hand in a parody of a handshake and then lets him go, watches him walk away over the lawn with his parents, arm-in-arm with his mother.

‘Lovely boy,’ Alicia comments, running a hand soothingly over his back and Jack smiles a little, pulls out his phone and sends off a text, a single word to a new number, punctuated with a cake emoji:

Hi.

Barely a moment later, his phone vibrates just as he and his mother are wending their way towards an alumni lunch and Jack reads a message that makes him grin widely: Bonjour, Mr. Zimmermann! complete with an adorable smiling emoji. Jack’s about to respond when another text comes through.

Also, you should know – my friends call me Bitty.

Bitty. Sweet and strong like the boy himself; it suits him. Jack grins; keeps his phone on all through lunch – an anchor against making uncomfortable conversation with people he doesn’t know – and on a whim sends over a photo of the creamy cheesecake served for dessert, hiding his grin in his coffee when he gets a salivating emoji in response with an envious order to enjoy that, you lucky thing!

Honestly? Jack has no idea how this is going to go – but for once in his life, he’s really looking forward to finding out.

*