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in the mouths of all my friends

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August 2018

“No, no— absolutely not!” Bitty insists. He glares at Nelly while he takes a swig of his beer, but Nelly just grins back.

He probably thinks that face is charming.

(It is, but Bitty wouldn't admit that under threat of death.)

“C'mon, babe, why not?” Nelly sets his beer back down and rests his elbows on the hot tub deck. “How do you say it in Southern—get back on the horse?”

Bitty corrects flatly, “In the saddle.”

“The saddle's on a horse, isn't it?” Benji asks.

Bitty lifts his hand out of the water, wincing at the temperature difference, and rubs at his face. “You are correct, Corey.”

Soup helpfully offers, “That could be your bio. 'Looking for a horse for my saddle.’”

“Nice,” says Nelly. He leans across the tub to give him a high five.

“I'm not making a Grindr!” Bitty repeats, flailing a hand for emphasis. “Get off it, Travis.”

Fuck. Nelly grins at him so wide. “Aww, babe! You're gonna get me off?”

“You're impossible.” Bitty huffs.

“I'm actually really easy,” Nelly points out, still grinning. “Like, couple strokes, a little dirty talk—”

Bitty slides down the bench so he can grab another beer from the cooler without getting out of the water. He has to fumble with cap even though it's a twist-off. “Why am I friends with you?”

Nelly says, “Face it, babe. We're your people.”

Bitty closes his eyes and gives a long-suffering sigh. They are, is the thing ( a thing, on the list of things that Bitty will never admit). He's not sure how he ended up on probably the objectively queerest NHL team in the league by chance and the desire for a physical barrier of minimum 1,000 miles between himself and his ex-boyfriend, who he's totally fine being around by the way, except that maybe there's a God and it isn't his mother's.

“Well,” he allows, “truth be told, I s'ppose y'all aren't terrible.”

Nelly snaps his fingers. “That's a great idea!”

“What,” Bitty asks.

“Truth or Truth!” Nelly says, which explains nothing.

“Travis, make some sense.” Bitty finally gets the cap off his beer and takes a drink.

Nelly sits up a little straighter. “Catholic school tradition, babe. It's like Truth or Dare without the property damage.”

“Oh,” Bitty asks dryly, “then what's the point?”

“Just play,” Nelly begs.

Bitty sighs. “Fine, but I have a feelin’ I'll regret this.”

Nelly asks, “Are you over Zimmermann?”

“Excuse me?” Bitty squawks.

“Fine.” Nelly grins. “Alternate truth—what's your most fucked-up sex fantasy?”

Bitty sinks lower into the water. His beer bottle dips in, the tips of his fingers threatening to prune. “Yes, I'm over him. I'm just also...not.”

“Explain,” says Nelly.

“No,” Bitty says, but then he does. The words come out without his permission and there's something in his chest that hurts in a way that he doesn't care for at all. “It's just—he'll always be my first love, you know? I was raised on fairy tales and abstinence-only sex education, what do you want from me?”

“Is that your question?” Nelly asks.

Bitty says, “No,” again, and puts his beer on the deck so he can sink down to his chin. It's maybe a mistake, because the heat is making him feel a little mean. “Why're you in love with Parse?”

Nelly laughs uncomfortably and looks around, but Benji and Soup just shrug at him. “You can't put that shit into words.”

“Try,” Bitty suggests lightly.

Nelly drains the rest of his beer and his whole demeanor changes so subtly that if Bitty'd looked away, he'd have missed it and wondered what happened. It's in the shoulders, maybe, like he's dropping his gloves.

Nelly looks right at Bitty and says, “I wanted to meet my hero, and I got a person instead. But he's better.”

Bitty looks away.

Nelly asks, “Why'd you move to Seattle?”

The rain is letting up a little, but it doesn't really matter; the deck is covered.

Bitty says, “I couldn't stand driving past his apartment every day.”

There's a drawn-out pause. Benji points out, “You could've gone somewhere else in the city.”

Bitty laughs and grabs at his beer. Fuck, he's so drunk. “But that's quittin’, sweetheart.” He gestures broadly at Nelly's house and the lush backyard none of them can really see in the dark and hopes it covers the way his voice cracks. “This is an adventure.”

They don't know how to answer him, which is fine. They'll all sober up and none of this will matter.

Nelly says, “I'm glad you picked here.”

Bitty blinks at him. Swallows even though he didn't take a drink, and asks, “Why haven't you made my life hell like you did for all the other—other, fuck, you know.”

The rain picks up again, or maybe Bitty's just desperate to hear something in the sudden rush of quiet. There's been pauses of conversation, but Travis's entire body is loud, except that now it isn't.

“I didn't change anything,” he says softly, bewildered. “I'm—I'm just being myself.”

Bitty stares at him, the endless freckles and carefully trimmed beard and the severe buzz of his undercut. His collarbones are above water and Bitty waits for them to shake with a laugh, but they don't, and that's the secret, Bitty realizes in a rush—nothing's a joke to Travis.

“Oh,” says Bitty.

Nelly tells him, “Sorry if it makes your job harder.”

“Honey,” Bitty answers. He swallows again and pushes halfway out of the water so he can breathe in more than steam. “My job is hard. You're my friend.”

“Cool.” Nelly tries to laugh, then, a little like he's been strangled. “Can I tell you something?”

Bitty glances over at Benji and Soup, but they're both watching with unreadable expressions. “Sure.”

Nelly shifts, the water sloshing around him as he presses a palm against a jet and lets it slip off. He stares at Bitty's beer and says, “I've got, uh, this, uh—this thing. Dyslexia. It's like when I can't, uh—”

“I know what it is,” Bitty cuts in softly. And, fuck, he should have noticed—it explains so much. How he's always using that obnoxious text-to-speech on his phone or making Siri do things it'd be faster to just type himself, and how he's always dodgy when someone asks him to read.

Bitty's always handing Nelly papers and watching them get thrown away, and he never even considered that he could be the problem.

“So, like, if you need something for work,” Nelly continues. “I just need extra time, or you can tell me in person or send it in something my phone can read to me?”

“Of course,” Bitty says. He closes his eyes and takes a breath. “Oh my God, I'm so sorry.”

Nelly asks, “Why?”

Bitty opens his eyes. His entire body feels hot with guilt and something else, something about this—this crackling energy between them that he's done his level best to ignore and Nelly keeps poking at with a stick and a stupid fucking grin.

Nelly's not smiling right now, but he could be. Bitty can picture it, a little hazy with the heat, and he's certain somehow that Nelly never looked at anyone else and said dyslexia out loud like that, and Bitty fled to Seattle like people do in the movies he swore his life would never be like again.

“Everything,” Bitty tells him. He slides off the bench and plants his feet on the bottom of the pool. “This.”

Nelly laughs. “What?”

He'll always wonder, is the thing. He can't fucking look at Nelly without thinking about it—stumbling and trying to catch himself with one hand and going straight through the floor into some other life.

Bitty climbs into Nelly's lap, bracketing thighs with knees and bracing hands behind shoulders. “I don't fuck hockey players,” he reminds him. The only way he can do this without regretting it.

Nelly brings his hands up slowly, letting them tremble a little, and steadies Bitty by the hips. He smiles lopsidedly and asks, “Even me?”

Bitty kisses the, “Yes,” into his mouth. Even you.

One of the Benjamins whistles, but Bitty can't tell who. He's too busy shivering in the sudden cold and from the way Nelly shifts underneath him to change the angle, urging their hips together.

It's a warm, wet kiss. Nelly's mouth tastes like the same beer that got Bitty into this situation, and his beard keeps scraping against Bitty's bottom lip when he tries to use his teeth.

It hurts, a little bit, but he finds he doesn't mind.

Bitty gasps for air and thinks, That's enough, it has to be enough, and Nelly laughs into his mouth and Bitty sinks down into the water to feel the warmth and more of Nelly's skin.

They kiss again. Of course they do. But it's not the start of something, even when Bitty cups Nelly's jaw and presses a thumb into the edge of the bone. It's a containment—the way people raze grassland to keep the wildfires from spreading.

So Bitty sinks down, and he can feel Nelly against him now, and—Lord, he really is as easy as he says, if he's getting hard just from this, and, oh. Those weren't rumors either.

Nelly laughs and murmurs, “You into it, babe?”

There's no concise way to say, I want to tie someone down and tell you exactly how to make them take it, and Bitty's head is too fuzzy and it isn't the point. Nothing's the point. He hasn't stopped wanting.

“Stop talking,” he whispers, or begs, and Nelly goes back into another kiss just as easy as everything else.

Bitty pulls away when his mouth goes numb. Nelly is panting under him, jaw slack, fingers still digging into Bitty's hip bones. They stare at each other for one full second, everything tipping, until Bitty throws himself to the side and sits down bodily with a thud.

“Fuck,” he sighs. Their thighs are pressed together, the farthest he could push himself away. He lolls his head to the side and stares at his drink barely out of reach. “Get me my beer?”

Nelly actually does it. He sits all the way up and stretches for it, the bottleneck dangling between his fingers as he sits back and and hands it over.

Their eyes meet again, Nelly's some brand of stormy gray, and suddenly Bitty bursts into giggles.

Nelly starts laughing too, leaning against the back of the hot tub and his whole body shaking with it just like Bitty's is.

“Oh my God,” Bitty says when he can manage the breath. “Stop. It ain't—it's not funny.”

Nelly does manage to quit wheezing eventually, but not because Bitty asked. He looks over with a fond smile and holds out his beer for a toast. “Happy adventure, babe.”