The first time Jack Zimmermann thinks about proposing to Eric Bittle, it’s too soon by anybody’s standards.
They’re sitting in the back of a borrowed pickup truck, watching fireworks (a little) and making out (a lot) in a field in rural Georgia, and it’s surreal and familiar all at once. Back at Samwell they spent many nights together on the Haus roof, talking under the stars until the air got chilly and they could barely keep their eyes open. But those nights together were never like this. They're sitting under the same sky, the same stars, but somehow they look different. Jack never used to believe his mother when she told him love changes everything, but maybe it does. Everything about Jack has felt different since he kissed Bitty in his old room.
Jack leans back and gazes up at the sky as a particularly large explosion kicks off the grand finale. He wonders if he could photograph the way Bitty looks right now, the bright colors from the fireworks lighting his face and hair in reds and blues. He wonders if Lardo could paint it. As the last firework fades from the sky, Bitty sighs against him, and somehow Jack knows, without a doubt, that he’s going to spend every Fourth of July just like this.
This realization should probably scare him, considering they haven’t even discussed what this is. Jack knows what he wants it to be, but it’s not the sort of conversation he wants to have via Skype, and whatever time they’ve been able to steal away from Bitty’s (nice, but always there) parents this week has been spent engaged in other, more physical, activities. There will be time later. Maybe when Bitty comes to visit him in Providence before school starts.
After the last firework fades away, Bitty shifts in Jack’s arms until he can see his face. “What’d you think of your first Georgia Fourth of July?” he asks.
“I loved it,” Jack says, because right now it feels safer than "I love you" or "Marry me." Even if that’s what he means.
There’s a simple platinum band hidden in a box of new running shoes in the back of Jack’s closet.
He bought it after the first time they said “I love you.” At the end of that weekend, he’d dropped Bitty off at Samwell and, still riding the high from saying (and hearing) those words and not quite sure what to do with all of his pent up energy, he’d impulsively stopped at a jewelry store on the way home. It was a small family-owned shop, currently being run by the fourth generation, and if the enthusiastic middle-aged woman who helped him recognized him, she didn’t say anything.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” she asked as Jack studied a display of wedding bands. Too late, he realized the (unintentional) trap he’d almost walked into.
“Euh … just looking at wedding bands,” Jack said.
The woman smiled and walked around to the other side of the case. “Lucky girl, marrying a man who already has something in mind. When is the date?”
“Oh. It’s not … There is no date,” Jack managed to get out. “We’re not even …”
“Just want to be prepared, huh? Can I ask, have you proposed? Often — but not always — couples choose wedding rings to complement an engagement ring.”
“Oh,” Jack repeated. “I didn’t realize.” Should he have realized? Once, when he was a little boy, Bob took him to Tiffany and helped him pick out a necklace to give Alicia for her birthday, but that was the first and last time he picked out jewelry for anybody.
“Well,” the woman said, still intent on making a sale, “the least we can do is size you. That way you can be ready when you come back. And, I might suggest taking a look at some of our engagement rings. Even if you’re not ready to propose right now, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.” She led Jack over to a different case filled with engagement settings. “Do you at least know what style she likes? That’ll help narrow it down.”
“It’s not … he’s not a she,” Jack finally said. It was a relief to finally be able to say the words to somebody. It might as well be this woman, who seemed unlikely to call the press with her report that Jack Zimmermann had been in her store to buy engagement jewelry for another man.
“Oh,” her face softened in understanding. “Please forgive me, I shouldn’t have assumed. In that case, the rings you were looking at earlier would be more appropriate. Do you know what style he likes?”
In the end, Jack left with a plain band in what he thought was probably Bitty’s size. The saleswoman had assured him they can come back to have it inscribed and re-sized, if necessary. He’s not going to give it to Bitty anytime soon, but it makes him feel better knowing it’s there.
By some small miracle their schedules have aligned perfectly for the first time in weeks, and Bitty has a three-day weekend beginning when the Falconers are in New York. The plan is for Bitty to take the train into the city after his last class on Friday and check into the hotel room Jack booked in his name. Jack will be playing when Bitty’s train arrives, but after that he’s free for the rest of the weekend.
There is some risk, in being out and about as a couple in a big city, but it’s more likely they’ll remain anonymous in New York City than in Providence, and there’s always plausible deniability. They can just be two college buddies enjoying a long weekend in the city. Jack is already looking forward to dinner in a quiet restaurant where they can (maybe) hold hands under the table without worrying about fans interrupting with selfie requests.
“Oh my lord, honey, I’ve never been in a hotel this nice,” Bitty says as Jack changes out of his suit. He’s sitting in the giant bed with the covers up to his neck and propped up by about five pillows. “When I was figure skating, it was nothing but cheap motels. Sometimes we’d stay at an Embassy Suites if we were in a big city. We used to have elevator races, did y’all ever do that in Juniors? This is …”
Jack almost feels embarrassed because this isn’t even the nicest hotel he’s stayed in. He tries to see it through Bitty’s eyes: the pillow-laden king size bed, the separate living room, the large Jacuzzi tub and walk-in shower in the bathroom. It’s a lot.
“…so I was looking at Instagram, trying to plan our day tomorrow, and there’s this bakery that has rainbow bagels. If we get there early the line shouldn’t be too bad.” Bitty hands his phone to Jack as he climbs into bed next to him. It’s lit up with a picture of what looks like an entire tub of pink cream cheese and sprinkles sandwiched in between the two halves of a psychedelic-hued bagel.
“That looks, um …”
“It looks awful,” Bitty laughs. “But Jack, we’re in New York City, we are gonna try this abomination just for the Instagram likes. Later we can go to that bakery your mama recommended and get the macarons. Maybe afterward we can stop at Lush and get some bath bombs to use in that big tub?” He raises an eyebrow suggestively and falls back into his pillow mountain. “And MOMA has this Degas exhibit going on, we studied him in my art history class last semester —” he yawns. “I wish we could go skating at Rockefeller Center, I’ve always wanted to do that, but it’s probably not the best idea.”
“Too public,” Jack agrees, because he might go unrecognized in an art museum, but ice skating at a major tourist attraction would be pushing it. “Maybe someday.”
“Maybe during the holidays sometime. I’ve always wanted to skate on that rink when it’s all lit up at night.”
Jack is actually thinking more long term, maybe with a couple of kids in tow, but he’s not going to voice that particular wish right now. Instead he rolls over onto his side to face Bitty. “We should avoid the rink, but maybe a jog in Central Park before breakfast?”
“Already mapped out a route, Sweetpea.” Bitty switches from Instagram to a different app and shows him the route he’s considering. “There’s a duck pond there, you might be able to get some good pictures.” He yawns again.
“All right,” Jack says, twisting back toward his nightstand to turn off the light. “Time for bed. We’ve both had a long day.”
“Mmm,” Bitty murmurs. “You played such a good game. I caught the very end of it when I got in.”
“Did you have a good day? How was practice?” Jack likes this. He wants to spend every night like this, talking about their day as they drift off, together. The sobering reality is that, for the foreseeable future, these nights won’t happen as often as they'd both like.
“Oh yeah, Rans came up with this new play …” And Bitty’s off again, pausing his story every so often to yawn. “The boys didn’t chirp you too much when you told them you were staying here with me for the rest of the weekend, did they?”
“Only a little,” Jack admits. “The old married guys understand.”
Jack feels Bitty hum against him as he snuggles closer, and he wonders if that word — married — also fills Bitty’s belly with heat and makes him feel a little lightheaded. “Marry me,” he almost blurts out, and only just remembers all the reasons why he shouldn’t ask this question now: They haven’t even been together a year. Bitty is still in school. Bitty isn’t out to his parents. Jack himself is only out to his parents, his boss, and a few close friends and co-workers.
Still. Someday, when Jack thinks it, the timing will be finally right to say it.
Jack is the first to his feet when Samwell Men’s Hockey wins the NCAA championship. First to his feet and one of the first on the ice, closely followed by his parents and the Bittles and several other parents and significant others. It’s a bit surreal, he thinks, to be on the other side of this. Bitty is in the middle of celebrating with his team but when he sees Jack his face lights up and the next thing Jack knows, he’s skating toward him at full speed.
“Jack!” he yells right before he crashes into him. “We did it!”
“You did it,” Jack laughs. “I’m so proud of you.” He thought it would be a bittersweet thing, seeing his former team achieve this victory without him, but all he feels is pure elation that Bitty got to be the man who led it to victory. The Bittles are standing just behind Jack, waiting to congratulate their son, and there’s a reporter who probably wants to talk to him as well. Jack knows he needs to share. But first: “Kiss me,” he says, because this time he gets to say it.
He thinks about saying the other thing, but the timing still isn’t quite right. Tonight belongs to Bitty, and his team, and he doesn’t want to overshadow their victory with a very public proposal. The fact that he’s here at all is probably a distraction, at least as far as the press is concerned. Anyway, as romantic as it would be to propose on the ice, he wants it to be a private thing.
Bitty kisses him — the angle is a bit different, since he’s in skates and Jack isn’t — but it’s just as sweet as that first on-ice post-victory kiss.
“I can’t wait to really celebrate with you,” Jack says when they pull apart, “but it looks like your fans are waiting for you. I’m going to go congratulate Chowder.”
“You do that,” Bitty says, patting Jack on the arm. “I know it means a lot to the frogs that you’re here. It means a lot to all the boys.”
“They might be happy to see me,” Jack says, “but they won’t forget which captain got them here.” He pulls Bitty in for one more quick kiss before he feels a hand on his shoulder: his father, gently separating them so Bitty can greet his parents.
“Two champions in the family,” Bob says when Jack turns toward him. “Not many people get to say that.” Jack’s face must betray him because Bob laughs and lowers his voice. “Oh, come on. You can’t tell me that after that win you aren’t thinking about when you can make it legal,” he says in French. Bob probably knows Jack better than he knows himself, knows that for Jack, the only thing better than Bitty and hockey is Bitty-And-Hockey.
“It’s not the right time.”
“No, not now,” Bob agrees. “Let him enjoy tonight with his team.” He waits a beat. “You are going to do it, aren’t you?”
“I bought a ring over a year ago.”
“I figured.” Bob not-so-subtly looks from Jack to the Bittles and back again. “Soon?”
“I hope,” Jack says.
The next time Jack is struck with the urge to propose, they’re lying on the couch, half watching whatever late night show is on and half falling asleep. “We really should go to bed,” Jack says, stretching out a little. “Or we’ll regret it in the morning.”
“Speak for yourself, Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty mumbles from the spot where he’s burrowed, between the back of the couch and Jack's left side. “I’m comfy just like this.”
“My knees,” Jack whines. “My back.”
Bitty lifts his head. “What are you, ancient?”
“Twenty-eight in regular human years is like 36 in hockey years,” Jack says, deadpan.
“That’s hardly old,” Bitty retorts. “The 30 steps to our bedroom might as well be 30 miles at this hour. You gonna carry me to bed?”
On the TV, some country singer is singing a bombastic anthem about an epic love affair.
“Up!” Jack commands, snaking an arm around Bitty’s waist and rolling them off the couch and onto the floor. A faint squeak escapes from Bitty just before they hit the ground. They lie there, tangled up in each other, while the singer on TV implores her lover to kiss her.
“Floor isn’t as comfortable as the couch, is it now?”
Bitty’s the first to recover. Jack is bigger but — despite Bitty’s insistence otherwise — he may also be more tired, because Bitty effortlessly executes a maneuver that ends with Jack on his back and Bitty on top.
“You’re pretty comfortable, though.”
“Bed,” Jack growls. He licks Bitty’s cheek. In retaliation, Bitty applies just enough pressure to his ribs to make him jump away. “Tickles,” he says through laughter.
“Yeah? You like that?” Bitty grins and looks down at him and that’s when it hits Jack, again, that he wants to spend the rest of his life doing this.
Well, maybe not exactly this. They're probably going to have bruises from wrestling on the wood floor. But this in the greater sense. “Bittle,” he begins, words escaping before his brain has a chance to catch up. “Will you —”
“Fine, I’m gettin’ up,” Bitty grumbles. “You win. But we’re sleeping in tomorrow. No getting up before the sun to run.”
It’s probably better this way anyway. Jack is too tired to actually get up and get the ring.
In the end, the moment is perfect.
It’s their first holiday season in the new house, and the first time both of their families are coming to visit. Bitty took the two days before Christmas off from work and has been cooking up a storm. “It’s for the neighbors, too,” he told Jack when he got in last night to find every available kitchen surface covered in snowflake-shaped sugar cookies. “What kind of neighbors would we be if we didn’t bake for everyone?”
This evening, they’re making pies. Of course they’re making pies. In the end, it always comes down to pie. They’ve been measuring and mixing and rolling out dough for the past hour, humming along to the Christmas playlist Bitty made and picking at the Edible Arrangement Bitty’s boss sent.
When “White Christmas” comes on, Jack sets his rolling pin on the counter and pulls Bitty in to dance.
“You think it’ll be a white Christmas this year?” Bitty asks as they sway together.
“The forecast says maybe,” Jack says. “But in this kitchen, definitely.” He smirks and nods at the counter, covered in flour. Jack is covered in flour too.
Bitty looks from the counter to Jack, brushes off some of the flour that has inexplicably settled on Jack’s shoulders, and gets the strangest look on his face before he goes down.
“Bits?” Jack asks, joining him on the floor because he still isn’t quite sure what’s happening. “Did you drop something?”
“Oh, you! Get up! I want to do this the right way.”
Jack does as he’s told, still confused, when he realizes Bitty isn’t on the floor because he’s looking for something. Bitty is actually on one knee and oh god, Jack is about to be proposed to.
“Honey, I was going to wait until Christmas morning to do this, but being here like this made me remember baking together in the Haus kitchen. That’s really when I fell in love with you, even though it took me forever to be able to say it.”
“We were in the kitchen when we both said it for the first time,” Jack remembers.
“And here we are now,” Bitty says. His eyes are a little wet. “Jack Zimmermann, can I put a ring on it?”
“Yes,” Jack says through his laughter. “Of course.” He helps Bitty to his feet and pulls him close until they're pressed against each other, forehead to forehead.
“Why are you laughing?
“Because I’ve been trying to work out a way to propose to you for years, and you went and did it like it’s nothing.”
“Kind of like I won a NCAA championship, huh?”
“Oh, you’ve got a Stanley Cup ring.” Bitty’s eyes grow wide and he pulls away, wringing his hands. “The ring! Jack, I don’t have your ring, I’m not picking it up until tomorrow. I just got so caught up in the moment and —”
“It’s okay,” Jack reassures him. “Don’t worry.” He steals a scrap of dough from the counter and wraps it around his ring finger. “Look.”
Bitty's resulting giggle is infectious. “Oh my lord, you are ridiculous."
“Do you want one?" Jack asks through his own giddy laughter. "We can match.” He quickly rolls out another dough ring and gently places it on Bitty’s finger. “I, uh, actually have your real ring in our room if you’d rather.”
Bitty pretends to admire his ring. “Honey, you know it’s gonna kill me, but I think I’d rather wait and exchange our real rings together. Tomorrow, before everyone gets here?”
“Tomorrow,” Jack agrees. “What time does the store open?”
“Ten.” Bitty turns back toward the in-progress pies. “We really need to get back to these pies if we’re going to finish them tonight. Just how out of practice are you with your lattice work?”
“Good thing you’re cute. I guess I’ll keep you.”
“You have to keep me. You just said you want to put a ring on it.”
After the last of the pies are out of the oven and cooling on the counter, after they’ve cleaned the kitchen, after they’ve showered and fallen into bed, Bitty finally asks: “When you said you’d been waiting years to propose, how long, exactly, are you talking about?”
“God, Bits, so many.” Under the covers, he grabs Bitty's hand and threads their fingers together. Holding Bitty's hand like this makes him feel a little dizzy, just like the first time. They've been together for years, have lived together permanently for over a year, and even own a home together now, yet everything feels different. This is, finally, forever.
“Yeah? When was the first time you thought about it?”
Jack chuckles. “Remember that first Fourth we spent together...”