Chapter 1: Seattle
It's raining. For the third day in a row.
That's why Jack is finishing up his cardio on the treadmill in his weight room at the back of his condo instead of going for a run—it's colder today than the last two days, and for some reason his shoulder is fine with rain and fine with cold but you put them together for more than a few minutes at a time and it starts complaining.
At least it's supposed to clear up tomorrow. It hasn't been a particularly wet May, really, and headed into summer the weather should just keep getting nicer. Sometimes Seattle is as rainy as he'd always heard, but the summer is usually quite nice. Not overly hot, only a few summer storms here and there.
When Georgia Martin came scouting him at Samwell a little over five years ago, he'd been hesitant. He wasn't going to choose a team based solely on where his friends were, but Seattle was so far away. From everyone he knew. In the end, though, he couldn't say no—the Schooners, in large part thanks to George, have what is possibly the most supportive, inclusive, least toxic team culture in the NHL. While other teams, teams closer to Samwell like the Falconers or Rangers, had offered him more money, they'd also come with warnings and contract stipulations. They didn't care that he'd been so well-behaved for four years at Samwell. They didn't care when he assured them that his overdose had been on Xanax, not cocaine or anything else illegal. Well, they cared, but not in a good way—they let him know subtly, in ways that skirted around anything that could get them sued under ADA, that it was his responsibility to make sure his anxiety disorder didn't become their problem. That if a player couldn't keep something like that under control it would be bad for the whole team, and they had to look out for the whole team.
The Schooners were different. George never shied away from talking about his mental health, and she wasn't trying to skirt any laws. She was upfront about the fact that they would expect him to stay in therapy as much as they'd expect him to treat any other health problem, but that they had a top sports psychologist on staff and if she wasn't a good fit she'd help him find someone who was. She framed it as figuring out how the team could help him take care of himself, not how he needed to make sure the team never had to think about his problems. Both their roster and staff were diverse, and pride night didn't seem to just be something they did one day a year for PR's sake. Jack talked to Marty, official Team Dad(tm) several times while he was deciding, so he knew that Marty's brother is gay and is friends with a lot of the team.
There's only one reason he's ever regretted signing with the Schooners, and it's not the weather.
When he's done on the treadmill, Jack chugs some Gatorade and takes a shower. He's not sure what he's going to do with his day; they didn't make it very far in the playoffs (no surprise there, with as many injuries as they had in the last half of the season) and he hasn't quite figured out a plan to keep himself busy this summer. Tater insists he needs to make a list of 30 things he wants to do before he turns 30 in August, but Jack's been dragging his feet on it.
He's just settling into his armchair to read a book on the history of segregation in the US when his phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out and grins when he sees who it is.
"Hey, Bittle, how's it going?"
He's surprised, since they just talked on the phone on Bittle's birthday a couple weeks ago. They text regularly, at least one or two real conversations a week plus other random bits, but rarely talk on the phone other than things like birthdays—or if one of them (usually Jack, for obvious reasons) is going to be passing through the other's city. Jack definitely hopes this call is that sort, as he hasn't seen Bittle in person in over a year, not since Shitty and Lardo's wedding. The handful of times Jack has been in Boston long enough to see any of the Samwell crew, Bittle's been out of town or already busy.
"Hey, Jack! I was just calling 'cause, uh. Well, I've got some news."
Bittle sounds happy, maybe even excited, but nervous. Jack's stomach sinks as his brain immediately jumps to the only piece of news Jack can imagine Bittle calling him about—getting married. Bittle and Chris have never seemed that serious, but Jack has really only seen them together a couple of times, and it's not like their few text conversations a week are usually about deep topics like how Bittle's relationship is doing. And they've been dating for at least, what, a year and a half? They'd been together for a few months already by the time Jack saw them at the wedding.
"Oh yeah?" Jack refuses to let his dismay show in his voice. There's no reason for him to be anything other than happy for his friend—if that even is Bittle's news.
"Yeah, uh, well. Y'know how my firm has an office in Seattle?"
Jack pauses. The first reason that comes to mind for Bittle to have "news" involving his firm's Seattle office has got to be too good to be true. "Yeah?"
"Well, um… guess who they're transferring there?"
Jack is speechless for a moment.
"Are you serious?" he finally asks, and he absolutely lets his excitement show.
"Yeah! Looks like I'm moving to Seattle! Can you believe that?" Bittle says with a slightly hysterical giggle.
"Oh my God, Bits, that's amazing!"
"I mean, I know you're busy and all, so it's not like I'm expecting you to hang out with me every weekend or anything, but maybe you can at least show me around town?"
"Are you kidding me?" Anyone else, and Jack might think they were trying to hint that they didn't want to hang out with him that much, but he knows Bittle's self-deprecating tone when he hears it. "Bits, I don't know if you follow hockey, but we kinda got kicked out of the playoffs last week." Bitty knows this, of course; he texted Jack after the game. "My season is over. I have nothing but time." He hesitates. "I mean, I'm obviously not saying we have to hang out constantly or anything, but, y'know, don't worry about me being busy."
Bitty giggles again. "In case you didn't realize this, you are literally the only person I know in the state of Washington, so if I don't hang out constantly with you, who will I hang out with?"
Jack pauses, because there's an obvious answer to that question. "Is… Chris coming with you?"
"Oh," Bittle says. Jack can almost hear the smile drop form his face. "No. I mean, it was never the follow-someone-across-the-country type of relationship, y'know? And it wasn't the kind that's gonna survive that kind of distance, either. We broke it off last night, actually. We figured it was better to go out on a high note, all that jazz."
"I'm sorry," Jack says. And he is, because Bittle doesn't exactly sound happy they broke up.
"Oh, it was for the best," Bittle says on a sigh. "Honestly, I think for months now it's just been easier to stay together than to break up, you know what I mean? We've been together—or, well, we were together—for over a year and a half, and neither of us was thinking about moving in together or anything like that, so that's gotta say something. There was nothing wrong with it, we weren't fighting or anything; I'm not even sure I'd say I was bored in the relationship. It was just… there, and it was easier to leave it there than not to. Which isn't a great place to be in the long run, obviously."
"Sure," Jack says. "But it still kinda sucks."
"Yeah," Bittle says with another sigh. "It does, a little. But it feels right, too. Like, I'm about to move across the whole entire country and start a new life, y'know? And Chris was never the guy that I'd choose to take with me from one life into another. So it feels cleaner this way, like he'd just be baggage holding me down otherwise. I'm just glad he agreed so it's not like anyone was breaking anybody's heart or anything. We both knew it was time to move on."
"That's good, at least," Jack says, then changes the subject. "Otherwise, though, you seem pretty okay with this? That's a big move."
"Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm terrified," Bitty says, perking back up. "But yeah, it's good, too. I've been in Massachusetts for seven years, and don't get me wrong, I love it here, but I guess I'm kinda curious to try someplace new. And you like Seattle, right?"
"Mostly," Jack says, and doesn't say that he'll like it better with Bittle here. "The weather can be kinda dreary sometimes, but overall it's a nice place to live. Close to Canada." Bittle snorts. "I don't have any plans to leave unless I get traded, and that's out of my control. So when do you need to be here by?"
"I have two weeks," Bittle says. "One more week of work here, then a week to move before I have to start there."
"Wow. Not as fast as a trade, but that's pretty fast."
"Yeah. They're paying my moving costs, of course, and setting me up with an apartment for the first few months, until I can find a place for myself."
"Let me know when your flight is," Jack says, trying to sound helpful without spilling over into overly-eager. "I can pick you up at the airport."
"Oh, I'm actually gonna be driving—work'll pay for mileage that way, but they won't pay for me to ship my truck. And a few nights of motels is a lot cheaper."
"I'll come with you," Jack blurts out before he can stop himself.
"What?" Bitty sounds more amused than anything, so Jack doesn't completely backtrack.
"I mean—if you want," he stammers. "I could fly out and come with you. So you don't have to drive that whole way alone."
"Oh, Jack, that's so sweet of you, and honestly I'd love that, but I don't want to take up all your time like that. It's a five day drive, at least, maybe six! You don't have to do that."
The truth is, he wants Bittle to take up all his time.
"Like I said, it's the off-season, Bits. Trust me, it'd be way more fun than anything else I was gonna do." There's a slight pause, and suddenly Jack worries that maybe he really has overstepped. "I mean—sorry. This is too much, isn't it? I'm being too much."
Bittle laughs. "Jack Zimmermann, you are physically incapable of being too much."
Jack snorts. "Not everyone would agree with that," he mutters. "I'm sorry, Bittle, don't feel like you have to humor me here."
"I'm not humoring anything, and who says you're too much?"
"Tori," he says without thinking. "I mean—sometimes. She thought I was… a little over the top."
Now it's Bitty's turn to snort. "Well, we already knew she didn't know how to properly appreciate what she had. Jack, I would love it if you came with me, but that's an awful lot to ask of you, so only if you really want to."
"I really want to," Jack insists.
"Well, okay, then. I guess we're gonna have ourselves a little road trip!" Bittle sounds genuinely happy about it, and Jack finally relaxes a bit.
They talk about a few of the details, and by the time they're off the phone Jack has bought a plane ticket to Boston for the following Saturday. "So you're stuck with me now," he tells Bitty.
"Gosh, when was the last time I got to see you every day for a week?" Bitty asks. "I guess not since you graduated."
"I think so," Jack says."It'll be just like in the Haus… except, y'know, in a car…"
"I'm sure sitting in seats next to each other will be just like living across the hall," Bittle says fondly. Then he says, "I can't wait," and it's earnest and warm and Jack doesn't think he's imagining that he hears his own longing reflected in it.
"Me neither," he says. "I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too," Bitty says quietly. There's a slight pause, then he takes a breath. "Gosh, I have so much to do! And only a week to do it in! I should probably go schedule my electricity getting turned off or submit a change of address form or one of the other dozens of things I need to do on top of packing!"
"You do that," Jack says. "I'll take a look at our route, start booking hotels maybe. I'll talk to you later."
Once they're off the phone, Jack looks around his condo. It's slowly grown a bit of a personality over the past five years, but it's always been a little bland. He's never really been sure what to do with it, how to make it more of a home.
No. That's a lie. He's always known what's really missing.
It's a dumb tradition, admittedly, but it was one of the things that made Jack finally feel at home in Seattle. Every weekend they're both in town during the off-season, he goes to Tater's place or Tater comes over to his, and they spend their Friday night playing video games and eating terrible junk food. It started off with the same kind of stuff he used to play with the guys at Samwell—MarioKart, Smash Bros, and of course the most current NHL game so they could make teams with each other and their friends, or their least-favorite opponents (and make those ones lose horribly). Last summer, though, they got on a retro gaming kick, both buying mini versions of various consoles from the '80s and '90s that were hacked to have every game ever released on them, and they're still playing their way through those hundreds of games, good and bad.
"Okay, Gamefaqs says it not matter what you say," Tater says, squinting at the screen of Jack's laptop. They're playing Earthbound Beginnings, one of the extra games on the NES Classic Jack bought off eBay last summer. They played the "original" Earthbound on the SNES Classic last summer, and only later learned that it was actually the sequel to this NES game that was translated to English but never actually released outside of Japan.
"Uh, I guess I'll be nice," Jack says, and takes the menu choice to tell the girl he loves her. "Isn't this kid like eight years old? This is a weird game for a romance subplot."
"I had crush for girl when I was eight," Tater says as Jack scrolls through the rest of the dialogue. He sighs. "Ah, Oksana. Very silky hair."
"Yeah, but did you slow dance with her and tell her you loved her?" Jack says, but is quickly distracted by something attacking in the game. "Ah, shit."
"Oh, ha ha," Tater says as Jack desperately tries to fight off the robot. "Gamefaqs says it not matter what you do, robot will kill whole party."
"Great," Jack grumbles as he steadily loses the battle. "Will any choice I make in this game ever matter again?"
"Ummmmm… Yeah, after this it tells lots of stuff to make sure you have in inventory."
"Okay, well after I'm done dying here, tell me what it says to get and then close that, I don't need to be walked through the whole game. I just wanted to know what I should tell her in case it mattered. Oh, good, the other kid is going to save us."
Once they get through that bit, they decide to go back to a two-player game and settle on Rampage. Jack gets up to get them new drinks as Tater navigates to the right game.
"Oh yeah," Jack says as he sits back down. He thinks he manages to sound like he just remembered this piece of information, as though he hasn't been wondering exactly what and how much to say about it for days. "No game night next week."
"What?" Tater looks at him in dismay. "Oh no! Why?"
"Don't look at me like that, you're going to be gone for most of July. One of my college friends, Bittle, he's moving to Seattle, and I'm keeping him company on his road trip here. I fly to Boston tomorrow, and then it'll take us six days to drive back."
Tater's face lights up. "Wait, Bittle? Little blonde baker boy?"
Jack laughs. "Yeah, that's the one."
"With pies and jam? Pies and jam will move here?"
"Well, Bittle's moving here, and I'm sure he'll make pies and jam once he's here. And I bet he'll be more likely to give you a steady supply of them if you treat him like a person and not just a pie-and-jam machine." Jack knows for a fact that Bittle is perfectly happy to be seen as a pie-and-jam machine, but still.
"Ooh, ooh!" Tater bounces up and down in his seat. "Can I come? To road trip?"
"Uh…" Jack's face falls. Under other circumstances, he's sure Bittle and Tater would actually enjoy road tripping together, but… "Maybe next time. I'm leaving tomorrow, man."
"So? You say drive takes six days, but you're not back Friday night, so you not start drive until, what, Monday? So even if I can't find ticket tomorrow, I fly to Boston Sunday. Will be fine!"
Jack winces and looks down at his Dr. Pepper, tapping the side of the can with one fingernail. The truth is, he's been considering coming out to Tater for a long time now—before he and Tori got together, even. Just to test the waters, see how it would feel to have one person who knows. If things go his way, he's going to be diving into this coming out thing headfirst, so he figures he'd better get used to it.
"Look, Tates," he says. "Normally, I'd be all for it. I know you've only met Bitty once or twice, but I think the three of us would have a blast together, honestly. But, um…" He glances at Tater. "Okay, first, you know he's gay, right?"
Tater looks affronted. "Zimmboni! You not think I not like him because of he's gay!"
"No!" Jack says quickly, holding a placating hand up. "No, Tater, that's not what I mean. I was just checking if you knew that." He looks down at his can of soda again, wishing he were brave enough to look Tater in the face for this. At least he can be brave enough to say it. "The thing is, with him moving here and all, I'm kind of hoping… And I mean, I have no idea what's going to happen, so maybe this is all for nothing, but… I'm kind of hoping that by the time we get to Seattle, he and I won't… just be friends."
Tater is quiet for a moment. Finally, Jack can't take it and glances up to find him squinting at him.
"I need make sure I understand," Tater says slowly. "Because maybe it very embarrassing if I say wrong thing later. You want… being… boyfriend with him?"
"Yes," Jack says with a short, tense nod. "Yeah. I'm hoping to be his boyfriend, not just his friend."
Tater's face breaks out in a huge grin. "Zimmboni, that's great! No wonder you not date since Tori, you—what is word Snowy use for tease me about Vanessa before she date me? Was tree, I think."
"Pine?" Jack laughs. "I haven't been pining for Bittle since Tori and I broke up. I mean, no more than I was pining for him the four years before that, and I dated people then. Including Tori."
Tater's eyebrows shoot up, and he lets out a low whistle. "So you are always in love with him? Whole time? And you never tell it to him?"
"Yeah, kinda," Jack admits. "I mean, I didn't realize it until I was about to move here, and 3,000 miles is a hell of a lot for a long-distance relationship. You know how exhausting it is to fly to Boston. And he still had two years of school left, and we'd both have crazy schedules during the season—it just wouldn't have worked. It couldn't have. I figured I'd get over him, y'know? And then I just… never really did."
"So… he's moving here for you? But you say you hope not just friends."
"He's moving here because his company is transferring him here. I haven't talked to him about it yet," Jack explains. "About us. Dating. I'm pretty damn sure he used to feel the same way, but I don't know if he still does. Or if maybe he won't want to for some other reason—maybe he doesn't want to date anyone right now, with trying to get settled in in Seattle and everything. So maybe nothing will happen. I really don't know."
"Nahhh," Tater says. He gives Jack's shoulder a shove before turning back to the game and hitting the start button. "He can't resist big, handsome hockey player. No way."
Jack just snorts and focuses on the game. Having even just one person who knows—about him, about potentially him and Bittle—is more of a relief than he expected. His best friend in Seattle knows he likes guys, knows he might have a boyfriend soon (if he's lucky), and is happy for him. It makes him think maybe this will work out.
They destroy a few cities before Tater brings it up again. "So," he says, not taking his eyes off the game. "You and baker are friends for long time then, yeah?"
"Uh, yeah," Jack says. "He was a couple years below me at Samwell, so we've known each other for like… almost seven years now? We didn't get along at first, but that was completely my fault. I was an asshole to him."
"Ah, Zimmboni, I'm sure you were not—"
"No." Jack cuts him off before he say how Jack couldn't possibly have been that bad. "Ask Shitty. You know he wouldn't say anything bad about me that isn't one hundred percent true. I was an asshole. I looked at Bitty and saw someone I thought didn't belong on any hockey team, let alone one playing at our level. And he had some problems, but I finally sucked it up and helped him, and he worked so fucking hard and it turned out he was a great player. Anyhow, point is, we were friends by the end of the year, even if it didn't start out that way. And by the time I graduated, he was one of my best friends. So yeah, we've been friends for a long time now."
"One of best friends," Tater repeats. "Still?"
"We're not as close as we were at Samwell," Jack admits. "I mean, it's hard to be as close to any of those guys, living here. Even Shitty. But we still talk all the time, even though I haven't seen him in person in over a year. After Shitty and Lardo, he's definitely the person from Samwell I talk to the most."
"So sound like," Tater says, "if you date him, is gonna be pretty serious, yeah? Like, you and Tori, you date a long time, but even before she turn out to be backstabbing bitch you not planning for move in together or nothing."
"We were starting to talk about it," Jack mutters. "Kind of. But yeah, nothing solid. Like, maybe it woulda happened after the season was over? But maybe not. Who knows."
"This guy, though," Tater continues. "You gonna marry this guy, aren't you?"
That startles a laugh out of Jack, although by now he should expect both Tater's directness and his ability to see right through Jack's attempts at downplaying. Shitty probably still knows him better, but sometimes Tater sees things where Shitty has glaring blind spots. "Jesus, Tater, don't jinx me. I have to find out if he wants to kiss me first, then we can work our way up."
"Pfft. Of course he want kiss. You gonna marry him."
"I'm not sure it's gonna be that simple," Jack says slowly, "but yeah, okay. I wouldn't mind if it is. And… yeah. If we do start dating, that's… that's probably what's gonna happen eventually."
He swallows. Saying it out loud feels very different from fantasizing about it. He hadn't been prepared to get this deep with Tater about Bittle, and it's freaking him out a little. Because of course that's what he wants. Which makes this entire thing that much scarier, because there's so much more at stake if Bittle says no.
And scarier than that is the fact that Jack has to keep reminding himself of that, reminding himself that Bittle might say no—because the plain fact is that deep down, he doesn't believe that's what's going to happen.
No, deep down, he's utterly sure that he's going to marry Bitty. And that, that is what's really terrifying, because he can remind himself and Tater and everyone else all he wants that Bittle might not be interested anymore, and that even if he is, there are a dozen different reasons he might not think it's a good idea—but if it actually happens, it's going to be devastating in a way that Victoria cheating on him could never have been.
I just got my kid a hacked NES Classic for his birthday with like 600 NES games, and I am now seriously regretting that when I bought my SNES Classic I did not get a hacked one. Also, in my head they definitely have things like these so that their giant hands don't cramp up holding the tiny controllers. (I haven't gotten as far as they have in Earthbound Beginnings yet, so I was literally relying on the Gamefaqs walkthrough to write that part...)
Also, I spent way too much time researching grammar mistakes that English language learners whose first language is Russian make for this one little throwaway scene. If Tater's dialogue is still not quite right, I apologize.
Chapter 3: Boston
The first thing Jack does when he steps off the jet bridge is move out of the flow of traffic, put his bag down, and stretch. Even in first class, a five-hour flight is a five-hour flight (and that, Jack reminds himself, is one reason you didn't start something with Bittle five years ago), and a 6'1" professional athlete is a 6'1" professional athlete.
He texts Bittle to let him know he's off the plane, and Bittle replies that he parked his car and is waiting by the baggage claim. Jack smiles in spite of himself. He'd told Bittle if he just wanted to go to the cell phone lot and wait it was fine; it's nice to think that Bittle is as eager as he is.
Fifteen minutes later, he's riding an escalator down to the baggage claim, annoyed that he can't really see most of the area until he gets lower. Finally, he spots Bittle leaning on a post. Bittle sees him a second later and his face splits into a grin that still makes Jack's heart jump.
Neither of them takes their eyes off each other as Jack makes his way over. He managed to pack everything he needs for the week in a large duffle bag, which he pulls off of his shoulder on his way so that the moment he's within reach of Bitty he can drop it and scoop Bitty into a huge hug.
Bitty gasps, startled, but then he's laughing and squeezing Jack just as hard.
"I've missed you," Jack murmurs into his hair. He still has it shaved on the sides, but he's let the top grow out so it's a few inches long now. Whatever product he uses in it smells like citrus. Jack's eyes fall closed as Bitty's finger slide through the back of his own hair.
"Me too." Jack feels the reply against his skin as much as he hears it.
They stay in the embrace for far longer than can really be written off as two college buddies who haven't seen each other in a while, but no one they know is there to notice. Jack has already decided that he doesn't give a shit what anyone he doesn't know sees. The longer they stand there, the more settled Jack feels. This is right. They belong together.
Finally, Jack loosens his grip and Bitty follows suit.
"I think you've grown since I last saw you," Jack says as they pull apart. It has the desired result, which is Bitty squawking indignantly and smacking Jack's arms away from him (okay, that part wasn't all that desired, but it works).
"I cannot believe—"
"Calm down, Bittle," Jack says, ruffling his hair. "I know you're just as short as ever. Taller hair can't fool me."
Bitty ducks away from his hand, grumbling. He tries to comb his hair back into place with his fingers as Jack picks his bag back up.
"It looks fine," Jack says. When Bittle shoots him a glare, he lets his eyes flicker down over Bittle's body. Not so obviously as to be lewd, but not subtly, either. "You look great," he says, more sincerely.
Bitty rolls his eyes and turns away, but he's blushing. "Come on, you."
Jack only takes a second to admire the view before following. Bittle really does look great, but Jack has all week to stare at him.
Bitty's last two days in Boston are a whirlwind, and Jack is swept along in all of it. The movers arrive right on schedule, soon after Bittle picks him up from the airport, and by that afternoon only the bare essentials are left in Bittle's studio apartment.
"Can't wait to get to a hotel with a real bed," Bitty says, kicking the air mattress he'll be sleeping on his last two nights.
"You sure you don't want to stay at Shitty and Lardo's? I can sleep on that," Jack says. Bitty just rolls his eyes.
"Yeah, I'm gonna make the professional athlete sleep on an air mattress," he says. "I don't wanna get sued by the Schooners if you throw out your back."
"It's two nights."
"And you are nearly thirty and have spent the past five years pushing your body to its limits," Bitty says. He fixes Jack with a stern look. "If you won't take care of yourself, you better believe I will, so if you're planning to spend this whole trip trying to be a polite Canadian, you better find ways to do it that aren't just patently bad ideas."
That's when Jack realizes how hard it's going to be to not just kiss him. Like, all the time. But just to be on the safe side, in case the very worst happens, he needs to not get rejected until the end of this trip.
So he just sighs. "Fine. Thank you for at least letting me book us decent hotels for the trip."
The little smile Bitty gives him is equal parts affectionate and amused. "Also so that you don't throw your back out."
"Bittle, I'm turning thirty, not fifty!" Jack says with an exasperated laugh. "You realize Tater and I went camping last summer? In sleeping bags, on the ground!"
"Oh, and we all know Tater is a paragon of good decision-making," Bittle replies, bumping Jack with his shoulder. He stays there, leaning into Jack a little. "Honey, you know you've had to talk that boy down from some doozies."
"Okay, true," Jack says grudgingly. He looks down at Bittle and doesn't kiss him. "Now that your furniture's gone, we should head over there."
Shitty and Lardo are hosting a going-away party for Bitty. Officially it doesn't start until seven, but of course Jack and Bitty are coming early so the four of them can hang out for a bit before the others get there.
It's not much different from any other time they've hung out together, not until people Jack doesn't know start showing up. Mostly people Bitty works with, from what he's heard, plus a few other friends. Jack doesn't recognize most of them, and it's a forceful reminder that he hasn't been a real, daily part of his friends' lives in five years. He doesn't know all the details of Bittle's day-to-day life. He doesn't know what might have changed that isn't obvious over texts and once-every-year-or-so get-togethers.
It's just starting to make his anxiety spiral when Lardo appears beside him. "So, uh, you know Bitty and Chris broke up?"
"Yeah," Jack says. "He says it was never the kind of relationship you move across the country for. Didn't seem that upset about it, really."
"Nah," Lardo says. "In completely and totally unrelated news, he's super psyched to get to see you all the time again."
Jack doesn't quite want to assume she's saying what he thinks she's saying.
"I mean, it sucks he has to leave all his other friends behind," he says, erring on the safe side, "but yeah, at least he knows someone there. I'm really excited he's coming."
"You remember Bitty's graduation party?"
Jack swallows. "Yeah, of course."
"You said… if you were dating the right person, right?"
Jack could pretend not to remember what she's talking about. But he doesn't. "Yeah. It's still true."
"Just to be clear," Lardo says, which is excellent because she hasn't been terribly clear so far, "I haven't talked to him about anything. I don't know exactly how he's feeling or what he's thinking. But I do know you're the reason he took the transfer." Jack's head snaps up from where he'd been contemplating his nearly-empty cup. Lardo raises her hands. "I mean, okay, he hasn't outright said that, okay? But it's super obvious. He has no reason to want to live in Seattle. He loves Boston, he has tons of friends here, he had a boyfriend here. He'll be farther from his family. But he's really excited about this move. And Jack—bro, you're the only thing there for him to be excited about."
"The transfer does come with a raise for him," Jack points out. "And maybe he just wants a change of scenery. He said he wants to try something new. Live on a different coast. Seattle's a nice city."
"He'd get the raise within a few months either way," Lardo says with a dismissive shrug. They're quiet for a minute, just watching people mingle. "You know he had a crush on you in college, right? Like, that much he has said, straight out."
“He did?” Jack blurts out before he can stop himself. It’s too late not to say it, so he clarifies: “I mean, he actually said that?”
“Yeah. Last year, sometime in the runup to the wedding. And you know what Chris said?”
“He said it in front of Chris?”
“Yep. And Chris was like, what do you mean had? You still do! He didn’t sound jealous or anything; he thought it was funny. And Bitty did a shit job denying it, too.”
Jack sighs. He lets his eyes wander over to where Bitty is tearfully hugging a girl with electric blue hair Jack's never seen before. "Having a crush on someone doesn't mean you want to date a professional athlete. In or out of the closet, either one has its own set of problems."
"True," Lardo says, following his gaze. "Just promise me you guys will actually talk about it instead of both of you assuming the other one doesn't want it."
"Yeah," Jack says. He nudges her so he can look her in the eye. "Believe me, I'm going to. But remember that we're stuck in a car together for six days no matter what happens, so unless I'm really sure of the answer I'm going to get, I'm not gonna bring it up until the end of the trip."
"I could do a little intelligence-gathering for you if you wanted, y'know," she offers.
"Lardo, no. We're adults. We will talk about it. I appreciate that you want us to be happy, but we need to figure this out between the two of us."
Lardo nods. "Just don't wait too long, okay?"
"I've been waiting five years," he says. "Trust me, I don't want to drag this out any longer than I have to. But I do want to enjoy this trip, even if it doesn't end the way I want it to. Besides, we have Holster with us the whole first day. At the very least, we won't be dealing with it then."
"Fair enough," she says, then punches him on the arm. "For the record, though, I've got ten bucks on you guys boning before you hit the Washington state line."
"Who's betting against us?" Jack asks, eyes narrowed.
"Bro, get this." They'd already been talking pretty quietly, but Lardo lowers her voice even more, and Jack has to lean down to hear her. "I'm like 90% sure Shitty doesn't remember you coming out to us. He was too fuckin' schwasty that night. Obviously I couldn't outright ask him if he remembers, but he thinks I'm joking and it sure as hell seems like it's because he's assuming you're straight."
"I'd tell you to up it to fifty, but I'm not quite that confident," Jack mutters. "Twenty, maybe."
"Hell yeah," Lardo says, and gives him a fist bump. "Get it, bro."
It was at a kegster thrown at Haus 2.0 to celebrate Bitty's graduation. Bitty was dating Ian, but Ian had gone home early because his parents were picking him up at 6am to go do something or other. Jack was still in playoffs, but they'd swept their last round, giving him a couple extra days to play with. He still had to fly back the next day, but he was trying not to think about that and just enjoy a party with his friends for the first time in a long time.
Bitty got pretty drunk at first, but he switched to water when Ian left and as the night wore on, he progressed back from pretty wasted to kinda drunk to tipsy. The rest of their friends, not so much. Bitty mostly stuck by Jack's side, and it reminded him of the epikegster his senior year—the part of it before Kent showed up.
Eventually the only people still there and conscious were the two of them, Shitty, Lardo, Ransom, and Dex. They were playing Never Have I Ever, and while Jack and Bitty started off with weak beer, they'd already both switched to Coke.
"Never have I ever… made out with a girl." Bitty grinned like he'd just said something terribly clever, but everyone else groaned as they took their drinks.
"You always use that one," Ransom whined.
"Y'all's sexuality is not my problem," Bitty retorted.
Dex was next, on Bittle's other side. "Fine. Never have I ever made out with a guy."
Jack glanced around. These were all people he trusted. He took a drink with everyone else.
"I saw that, Zimmermann!" Shitty crowed from across the circle, falling over onto Lardo as he pointed wildly at Jack. Jack shrugged and rolled his eyes. Ransom and Dex were goggling at him, but neither Bitty nor Lardo looked the least bit surprised.
"You definitely did NOT drink to that when we played this that one time your senior year," Ransom said, pointing an accusing finger at him. "So this was recent!"
Jack scoffed. "Rans, I hardly knew half the people in the room that time. I have to be a little discreet. Here, I'll take an extra drink to make up for that one." He does, not that it matters since he's drinking soda. He doubts Ransom realizes that, anyhow.
"So, dude, are we getting names or what?" Dex asked, reaching a foot over to kick Jack's foot.
Jack raised an eyebrow. "No. You don't need a name and I think you all know why," he said pointedly. "And if anyone tries to get it out of me by saying 'Never have I ever made out with blah blah blah' I'll just lie and not take a drink, so don't bother."
"Lay off, Dex," Bitty said. He wasn't drunk enough for his words to slur, but they stretched out in a way that meant he was definitely still tipsy. "You can't ask him to out someone else, you know that's not cool."
"Moving on," Lardo announced, raising her drink. "Never have I ever considered myself to be below a 3 on the Kinsey scale."
"Wait, which one is six and which one is zero?" Rans asked.
"Zero is super straight, six is super gay," Shitty supplied, and then took a gulp of his drink while Rans thought it over.
"Probably like a one," he finally decided, and drank. Only Jack and Bitty did not. Jack knew Bitty was watching him not drink.
"Wait wait," Ransom said after taking his drink. "Did Jack drink? I need to know for science."
"If it's for science, maybe you should be taking better observations instead of making other people collect your data," Jack said, and reached out to poke him in the side.
"I don't think he did," Dex said, frowning at him. "But I wasn't watching that carefully." He turned to Bitty. "Did he?"
"Again, y'all's sexuality is not my problem" Bitty said. "I'm not the sexuality secretary. That's real hard to say. Sexuality secretary."
Eventually Dex and Ransom got tired of the game and went to bed. Shitty was already dozing, head in Lardo's lap. Jack couldn't think of a single place he'd rather be than sitting there at 3AM, talking to Bittle and Lardo (and occasionally Shitty when he floated into consciousness for a minute here and there) about nothing at all.
"Think you'll ever come out?" Lardo eventually asked. She had one of Jack's feet between her own and was kind of kicking it back and forth. "I mean, like, after you're retired or whatever."
Jack swallowed. He looked at his hands and tried very hard to ignore the way Bittle froze where he was slumping against Jack's arm.
"Yeah. I mean, yeah, once I'm retired, who cares, right? But if I were dating the right person, I wouldn't even wait that long."
"Seriously?" Lardo asked. Bittle was quiet. "Bro, that'd be awesome. But like, I guess how are you gonna find a guy to date when you're not out, right? Wait, you're not secretly dating a teammate, are you?"
Jack laughed. "No. Definitely, definitely not. But yeah, I guess it'd be hard to find someone right now. Like this."
Lardo had change the subject after that, but Bitty stayed quiet. After just a few more minutes, he got up and stretched.
"Oh man, I better get to sleep before I fall asleep on you, Jack. Don't stay up too much later, you two!" He very deliberately didn't look at Jack at all as he said it, or as he left to go crash in Holster's room.
Jack hadn't been sure what to think then. He didn't know how serious things were between Bittle and Ian. He didn't know if he'd made Bittle uncomfortable, if Bittle knew Jack was thinking of him, or if maybe Bittle wished Jack were thinking of him or wished he weren't dating Ian.
All he knows now is that they've never talked about Jack's sexuality since then.
The two of them have spent five years doing a really, really good job of not talking about any of this. Somehow it feels like Bittle knows more than Jack's ever said, and Jack thinks he knows more than Bittle has ever said, but he can't really be sure of either of those things until they actually say some of it out loud.
They've split their trip into six legs: Boston to Buffalo to Chicago to Fargo to Billings to Missoula to Seattle. They'd debated a little over trying to do it in five days—in fact, technically, if they wanted to drive 12 hours every day, they could make it in four. But they agreed that there's no fun in taking a road trip together if they can't stop now and then to enjoy it. This way, the longest leg is Chicago to Fargo at nine and a half hours; Billings to Missoula is only five, and they're hoping they can maybe fit a hike in that day.
Since they're stopping in Buffalo, they agreed to give Holster a ride, and they're staying with his family that night. Jack isn't super excited about that, and he's not sure Bitty is either, but they didn't have an excuse to turn him down. It seems a bit immature to say no because "you and Jack do better together in small doses," true as it may be—it's only one day. They're adults. They'll manage.
Bitty's parents bought him a pickup truck for his graduation three years ago, a Ford F-150 that was technically used but only a couple of years old. Owning a car in Boston is often more trouble than it's worth, but he says it reminds him of home—that when he feels like maybe he's getting a little too "Yankeefied" he can go for a drive and feel like a "real Southern boy."
"I thought you wanted out of the south," Jack had asked.
"Well, yeah," Bitty had replied, "but whether or not I ever live there again, it's where I'm from. You have a job that involves going out on the ice every day to remind you of Montreal; the rest of us have to find other ways to connect to our roots."
As they load the last of Bitty's stuff into the back of the truck and secure tarps over it (there's not much, just enough for the two days since the movers came and the day or two at his new place before they arrive), Jack realizes he's never seen Bitty behind the wheel.
It turns out, he wasn't prepared. Bittle has no problems handling the huge truck, even in Boston traffic with Boston drivers (he's clearly learned the special unwritten rules that govern these terrifying roads). Once they get on the highway and headed out of town, he's relaxed and happy, chatting with Holster behind him, one hand on the wheel, sunglasses on, his other hand drifting down sometimes to tap his fingers on the cup holder or console in time to whatever music is playing, then back up to the wheel for a bit.
Apparently, Jack has a Hot Guy Behind the Wheel of a Truck thing. Or maybe—more likely—a Bittle Behind the Wheel of a Truck thing. He swallows and tries not to stare too much. Not while Holster is in the back seat.
After lunch, Holster takes the second driving shift, since Jack and Bitty will be driving for the next five days straight. Jack volunteers to sit in the back seat, because he really doesn't want to see Holster behind the wheel of the truck every time he looks over. And anyhow, Bitty and Holster are carrying 90% of the conversation (shocking!), so it makes sense for them to both sit up front. Jack tries to read a book he brought along.
Unfortunately, even though he'd have more legroom sitting behind Bitty, he's sitting behind Holster so he doesn't have to look at him.
Which means he still has a perfectly good view of Bitty.
Who is not driving, but still has his sunglasses on and is still his bright, effusive self, chattering away and using hands that are no longer on the wheel to gesticulate wildly.
Okay, well. Maybe Jack just has a Bittle Thing. That's less interesting. Old news. He still doesn't get much reading done, though.
They make it to Buffalo in plenty of time to have dinner with Holster's family. Jack's met them all before, but hasn't seen any of them since Samwell: Kathy, Holster's mom; Stan, his stepdad; Jessica, his older sister; and Lorelai, his younger sister. It's his first time meeting Jessica's husband, Josh, or their two-year-old daughter, Ava.
Ava immediately loves Bittle. Jack knew Bittle used to babysit a lot in high school and worked with kids as young as five at camp every summer in college, but seeing him with a kid is something else. Within minutes, he's carrying Ava around, treating her like the expert on her grandparents' house that she is.
"Which room is this?"
"Ohhhh, the kitchen, I see. And is that where your Nana and Poppy sleep?"
"NO!" She dissolves into giggles.
"Well, what on earth do they do there, then?"
"Um… um… make cookies."
"Oooooh, that makes that my favorite room! Now, what is this right here?"
"Really! Well, I never did see a lamp quite like that." It's a very ordinary lamp with a very ordinary white lampshade. "Now, what would happen if I messed with that little thing right there?"
"You don't know? Really? Well, should we try it, then?" She squeals delightedly when he flicks the tiny switch on its side, as though she's never seen a lamp turn off in her life.
Jack could follow them around all evening, transfixed, trying and failing not to let his brain skip ten steps ahead to what it would be like for Bittle to carry their daughter around the house, but unfortunately he gets roped into a conversation with Josh, who's a huge hockey fan, and Lorelai, who also played in college. Normally, he would never find it unfortunate to talk about hockey, except that a) he'd rather watch Bittle and b) it quickly becomes clear that Lorelai is trying to flirt with him.
Luckily, dinner is ready before Lorelai can make Jack too uncomfortable. Unluckily, she sits directly across from him and clearly isn't finished with him yet. She takes every opportunity to pass him things, letting their hands brush. She laughs too much at anything Jack says that's remotely funny. She tries to latch onto anything they might possibly have in common beyond hockey.
"You majored in history? That's so cool. I wasn't a history major, but I took a couple of history classes for my gen eds, I thought they were so fascinating. I always wanted to learn more about it."
Jack tries not to laugh when Holster's voice booms from two seats down, "You're a fucking liar, Lori, you couldn't stop complaining about that American history class."
"I hated the professor, not the subject," Lorelai insists.
"Yeah, right. Lore-liar."
"What are you, twelve?"
Jack glances at Bittle next to him and they both manage not to laugh. Barely.
Unfortunately, every time her flirting becomes too obvious, it flusters Jack—which she apparently takes as bashfulness, not embarrassment. It only encourages her. As the meal is ending, he feels a foot sliding along his calf, and one glance at her expression makes it clear that it's definitely her and definitely on purpose. Jack swallows and moves his leg away, but there's not room to move far. She just winks at him.
After the meal, Jessica and Josh get ready to go home. Bittle is distracted saying goodbye to Ava, while Holster is distracted saying goodbye to his sister and brother-in-law. Lorelai takes the opportunity to sidle up to Jack.
"So both of you are staying here tonight?" she asks, trying and failing to sound innocent.
"Yep," he says. "We're leaving early tomorrow, gotta make it to Chicago before dinner."
"So wait." She taps her chin with one finger. "If Adam is sleeping in his old bedroom, and one of you is sleeping in the guest room, where's the other sleeping?"
"Oh, uh, the couch in the den downstairs, apparently?" Jack says, confused as to why she cares.
"Well that's no good at all," she says, and Jack suddenly realizes where this is going. "Look at you, that hockey physique, you'd never fit on that couch. Why don't you come stay at my place instead? I can bring you back bright and early."
Jack stares at her for a second. "It's fine. I'll take the guest room. Bittle's small, he'll fit on the couch."
"But my bed would be so much more comfortable," she says, apparently thinking he just doesn't get what she's asking. He gets it. "I'll make sure you're nice and relaxed so you get a good night's sleep before that long drive tomorrow."
He should really be better at deflecting come-ons by now; they're thrown at him almost every time he's near a certain type of young female fan. Or just a certain type of young woman who finds out he's a rich, famous athlete, for that matter. But his usual M.O. of deflecting with the offer of a selfie and/or autograph isn't going to work here.
"Uh. No thanks," is all he can say. "I'm fine here."
Somehow, she manages to ignore any and all evidence that he's uncomfortable with her offer. Maybe she thinks he's a dumb jock who doesn't get what she's trying to offer him? She puts a hand on his arm and leans close, so that her breasts are pressed against him and he can basically see right down her shirt, and lowers her voice conspiratorially.
"Look," she says, "you're only here for one night, why not make it a fun one? Come have a glass of wine, we can see where things go…"
"I'm not going to sleep with you," Jack blurts out. Quietly, thank God, so this girl's parents and siblings don't hear. "Sorry."
She rears back a little at such an abrupt rejection. He apologizes again, but really, what choice did he have? She clearly wasn't going to let up unless he spelled it out for her.
"Okay, fine," she says. It's a little passive-aggressive, but not necessarily angry. She's probably just embarrassed.
"Sorry," he says for a third time, shoving his hands in his pockets. He realizes he's hunching down a little, unconsciously trying to rein in his hockey bulk and look smaller.
The door has barely closed behind Jessica and Josh, but Lorelai suddenly announces that she, too, has to get home. Holster tries to get her to stay a little longer, but she insists she has an early day tomorrow. She says a quick, falsely-cheerful goodbye to Jack from across the room. He just nods.
As soon as she's out the door, his entire body relaxes. Holster's parents settle in to watch a TV show, but Holster drags Jack and Bitty downstairs to play video games.
As soon as they're down there, Holster turns on him. "Bro. Was Lorelai hitting on you?"
"Uh…" Jack looks at Holster warily, not sure if some older brother instinct is about to get him punched.
"Yes," Bittle answers for him. He looks distinctly amused. "Do you even have to ask? She couldn't take her eyes off Jack all night, and did you see her hanging on him right at the end there? You poor thing!"
"Hey," Holster says, pointing a finger at Bitty. "That's my little sister you're talking about. If she was flirting with Jack, he's not a poor thing. He has been blessed."
Even Jack has to snort at that, despite the possibility of further offending Holster.
"Okay, Holster," Bitty says patronizingly. "We'll just pretend like Jack didn't look like he wanted the floor to swallow him right up while she was trying to stick her boobs in his face."
"She was doing no such thing!" Holster exclaims.
"She kind of was," Jack finally says. "I mean, I'm too tall for her to get them in my face, but she uh… was trying to get me back to her place so she could fix that."
"So what, you're too good to sleep with my sister?" Holster demands.
Jack can only look at him, baffled. Luckily, Bittle is ready to defend him since he's incapable of defending himself.
"If he did go home with her, you'd be pissed about that, too," Bitty points out. "You'd probably say he was taking advantage of her or defiling her innocence or some bullshit."
"Look, I'm well-aware that my sister is far from innocent," Holster says. "But of course I'd be pissed if he went home with her."
"This is all moot," Jack manages to say. "I didn't want to sleep with her. I don't wanna sleep with her. I didn't go home with her. I'm not gonna sleep with her, now or ever. If you're gonna hate me for that, Birkholtz, go the fuck ahead."
Holster grumbles a bit more, but finally gets the video game console turned on.
"You weren't even a little tempted?" he says as they settle in with their controllers.
"Not even a little," Jack says. "She's not my type."
"You've seen every girl he's dated," Bittle says. His eyes are on the TV screen, but Jack can see a hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth. "She's not short enough or blonde enough."
"Both definitely true," Jack says. He does not look at Bitty to see his reaction.
"Fine, whatever, I'll kick your ass right off the Rainbow Road for her," Holster grumbles. Thankfully, that's the last Jack has to hear about Lorelai for the night.
IDK if this is really the best way to divide up such a road trip, but it's the best I was able to come up with before I needed to just settle on it and keep writing.
The chapters start getting longer from here so IDK if I'll be able to keep up editing/posting 2/day while I'm still writing the last couple. But there's probably five more (maybe six?) so as long as I can get two up one of the next few days I should still get it all up by Tuesday.
Thank you for all the comments so far! I'm surprised at the reaction this has gotten, I was really not expecting much!
When they were originally planning this trip, Jack had suggested that they should try to get out by 8AM every morning, especially leaving Buffalo. In general it seemed better to leave early than to get in late, but in particular Chicago was somewhere where they might actually want to do things.
Bitty, of course, had laughed so hard he dropped his phone. Which Jack knows he should have expected. He'd just thought that maybe a few years of having to be up for a 9-5 job had changed Bitty's sleep habits a bit.
They do manage to get on the road by ten, at least, which means they should get to Chicago in plenty of time to get dinner there.
The trip has a different feel to it immediately. Jack is more relaxed without Holster's booming voice grating on his nerves. Bittle seems more relaxed, too. And now Jack has his full attention, and Jack can give him his full attention, and he thinks Bittle has wanted that just as much as he has.
The t-shirt Bittle is wearing is just a little tight around his arms and shoulders, and the way the fabric pulls has Jack staring again. Bittle may not be in playing-hockey-daily kind of shape anymore, but he clearly takes good care of himself and he must lift weights to keep his biceps and triceps looking like that. An image of Bittle, sweaty and flushed, doing pushups floats into Jack's mind, quickly replaced by one of Bittle holding himself up the same way, but over Jack. He looks away quickly, out the window, and scrambles for something to talk about that isn't Bittle's body.
"So why do they need you to move to Seattle to tweet at people?" he asks, knowing this isn't what Bitty's job entails. "Isn't that on the internet? You can do that on your phone anywhere." For all that he and Bittle text each other regularly, he really hasn't heard much in the way of details about Bittle's job.
"You think you're hilarious, don't you?" Bitty says, giving him a withering look.
"Not really," he says. "But I do think annoying you is hilarious." Bitty glares at him again, and he just gives him a shit-eating grin. "But seriously. I know they gave you a promotion a while back, but you've never really said much since then. What are they sending you to the new office to do?"
"Okay, so." Jack can tell Bitty is settling in to talk for a while. His whole body shifts somehow, into a "let me tell you all about this" sort of posture. "I work for a social media marketing strategy firm, and yeah, when they first hired me outta college, it was mostly to run various companies' Twitter or Facebook accounts and stuff like that. And I mean, getting paid to Tweet? Dream job! But I didn't come up with all the content myself, or not exactly. We have a team of people whose job is to do research and come up with, like, a roadmap for the campaigns. So they'd tell me okay, you should tweet this often for this restaurant, and it should just be straightforward messages about the daily specials, but for this other restaurant you should tweet this often and work in pop culture references and humor and stuff. Sometimes more specific than that, sometimes not."
"So I enjoyed the job well enough, but I was immediately curious about what these research guys did. I mean, I knew I didn't want to just be tweeting for other people forever. So I started learning more about it. My job was easy enough that I had plenty of time to get to know the research people and pick their brains. And eventually, I put in for a transfer to the research team. Technically, I wasn't really qualified, because you're supposed to have some coursework or experience with qualitative research methods or stats, either one; a couple people even have master's degrees. They get paid more'n me. But I'd spent so much time with the team learning about what they did, for like a year—I'd even read a couple research methods books they recommended—well, I tried to read 'em, I didn't read every page of either of them but enough that I definitely learned some. But anyhow, one of the team leads who'd been helping me learn all this stuff supported me, and I got the promotion."
"Wow," Jack says. "Holy shit. You never told me all that. That's awesome, Bits."
Bittle looks far more surprised and pleased than he should at a simple compliment when he basically picked up enough research methods informally in a year to compete with people with master's degrees. Jack can't even formulate a sentence to express how impressed he is.
"Thanks," he says, then launches back into his story. "So anyhow, that was not quite two years ago. So now I'm on the research team, and basically when we get a new client we do a needs assessment. We do all sorts of stuff like surveys, focus groups, going and actually observing their customers, checking out the feeds of the people who follow them or who've left them reviews in places like Yelp, all that good stuff. It varies a lot, some clients on a budget just want the basics but others want a real deep dive. Plus the quant guys—if Ransom worked for my company he'd be one'a those—in addition to the stats on that stuff, they look at the financials and what the client's goals are for growth and all that good stuff. And then we come up with a plan for their social media for the next six months to a year, based on what we think will appeal to their customer base or bring in new customers or whatever they're looking for."
"And the plans work?"
Bitty shrugs. "Mostly. I mean, it's not an exact science, y'know? There's always a bit of trial and error involved. We also go in every six months and assess how it's been working and adjust as necessary. But there's been a ton of marketing research done on most social media platforms by now—Jack, can you believe I read scientific journals now? All these psychology and sociology journals that publish research on marketing and stuff. I mean, I don't read most of it, but we've got this one girl who one of her main jobs is to keep on top of all of this and give us all summaries of the current research, plus individual articles that she thinks are especially relevant, so I wind up reading one or two articles a month. I only understand about half of it, since I still don't know much about statistics, but I understand enough to have a vague idea what they're talking about."
Jack is just sitting there gaping at him. "Holy shit," is all he can think to say again. He shakes his head. "I mean, on the one hand, I shouldn't be surprised, I know you're smart. You have to be smart to keep your GPA high enough for athletics with the bare minimum of studying you did. I mean, I studied a lot, and you spent all the time that I spent studying, baking instead, and you still never failed a class. I guess I'm just surprised you found something so… academic-y that you're interested in enough to put in the time on it. Instead of. Y'know. Baking more."
Bitty laughs, a bright sound that never fails to remind Jack how much he's missed it. "I think the main difference is that I'm stuck at the office eight hours a day without an oven in sight," he says. "If I could procrastibake I'm sure I would've done it and I never would've gotten the promotion and I wouldn't be moving to Seattle right now. But if I'm gonna be there all day every day, I might as well be doing something interesting. And this is way more interesting than just queuing up a bunch of posts."
"I guess that makes sense," Jack says, though he's still wrapping his head around the same Eric Bittle who wrote papers at 7AM when they were due at 9 even wanting this job. "So why do they want you to do all this in Seattle?"
"Well, the company's actually based in Seattle," Bitty explains. "That's why I've gotten to visit you a couple times on business trips there. The Boston and L.A. offices are a lot smaller. Someone from the Seattle research team quit a bit ago, and they like to fill gaps from within the company whenever they can—that's partially why they let me move to research in the first place. So this isn't quite a promotion, technically. I'll have the same job title. But the Seattle research team is kind of considered a step up from the other two, since it's bigger and the Director of Research works there and stuff. And the Seattle office works with some professors at UW sometimes on like actual, publishable research. The Boston office is just too small to do that on top of everything else. When they lose a team lead at one of the other offices—we're broken up into little teams of like three or four—they usually promote someone from the Seattle research team. So it's not really a promotion, but it is a pay raise, and I'd be in a better position for a real promotion down the line if decide I want to be in charge of other people. Which I'm not sure I do right now, but who knows."
"Wow," Jack says, processing all this. "So did they just come up to you one day and say, 'Congrats, you're moving,' or what?"
Bittle laughs. "Oh, no. I had to apply. Honestly, I was kinda shocked they picked me, but then, I don't know who all I was up against. I don't think anyone else in the Boston office applied. Obviously, sometimes it's hard to find people who're willing to move that far. I kind of applied on a whim, but when I got it I realized I couldn't find a reason to turn it down." He looks over at Jack for a second, his smile turning shy. "I suppose if I didn't know anyone there, it woulda been a harder decision. But I thought… I'm twenty-five. Nothing's tying me to Boston right now, but I won't always be able to up and move so easily. Seems like a good time for a new beginning."
"Yeah," is all Jack can say. The words don't have anything to do with him, save for being someone Bitty knows. But Bitty's face, his tone of voice… it feels like he means a new beginning for them.
Jack is quiet for a few minutes. Bitty lets him be, just hums along with some song.
He can't believe he had no idea Bitty was doing all this. He's mentioned once or twice that his work involves research, and he's told a funny story now and then that involved interviewing someone or running a focus group or something, but somehow Jack never found out what it is he does all day. He knew going into this that he might find that one or both of them has changed enough that it just wouldn't work anymore—and this absolutely in no way indicates that, but it's big enough that Jack is, for the first time, legitimately nervous about what else he doesn't know.
He texts Lardo.
Jack: I had no idea Bitty is doing research. That some people with his job have Master's degrees. In, like, statistics. And he has the same job as them.
Jack: I mean, I kind of knew he was doing research, but not that it's his main job and he's like analyzing data and he's really, really good at it.
Lardo: Yep. He's been doing that for a while now.
Jack: So anyhow now I'm freaking out because if I didn't know something huge like what he *actually does at his job everyday* even though I talk to him regularly what else have I missed?
Lardo: You're driving across the country all week, good chance to catch up. Isn't that what you want?
Jack: Yeah but why would he still be interested in me? After all this time, when apparently I haven't even been a good enough friend to know basic shit like that??
Lardo: What does he usually talk to you about?
Jack: Baking. Hockey. TV and movies and books and stuff. What he had for lunch for some reason. That became a thing like a year ago, I'm not sure how, but we send each other pictures of our lunch now. Even if mine is a protein shake. He sent me a picture of his sandwich while sitting across from me at Subway yesterday.
Lardo: Did you reciprocate?
Jack: Of course, I'm not an animal.
Lardo: Look, you know all the shit I'm gonna say already but I'll say it anyhow just so you can tell your anxiety brain to fuck off because I agree with the rest of your brain.
Lardo: I know more details of Bitty's job than you do because I live in the same city he does. I hang out with him in person a couple times a month, minimum. I've hung out with his friends from work, so I've heard about it from them, too.
Lardo: I know stuff about your job because you're a public figure, because I already know hockey, and because your job never really changes much, not because you tell me all that much about it. If you lived in Seattle but had a job like Bitty's or Shitty's or mine, I'd know about as much about it as you do about Bitty's. Doesn't mean we're not close.
Lardo: And okay, you didn't know much about that but you know more about his lunch than literally anyone else on earth except like whoever he eats it with at work. But they don't know about his weekend lunch, and you know ALL the lunch.
Lardo: And before you say "but that's just his lunch" allow me to suggest that "that's just his job."
Lardo: I realize that your job is a huge part of your identity but I think you can accept that you are a special case here and that most things that make it such a major part of your identity don't apply to most people and their jobs, including Bitty. He is not, even you are not, none of us are just our jobs. It's one part of a person's life, or should be, at least.
Lardo: You don't know every detail of his life. You used to, because he spent 90% of it within twenty feet of you. It's okay that you don't anymore. You still know *him*.
Lardo: Whatever he texts you about, that's what he thinks is most important to share with you. That's what he wants your friendship to be based on.
Lardo: And bro, five years from now he might be working for a different company or have a whole different career, but he'll be eating lunch every day for the rest of his life.
Jack: I think you may be reading too much into the lunch thing, but I take your point in general. Thanks.
Lardo: I assume Bitty is driving, so tell him hi for me.
"Lardo says hi," Jack says out loud. He takes a couple of deep breaths. He does feel a lot better now. She was right, he could come up with all these perfectly logical arguments himself. But his anxiety brain wouldn't listen to him, only to other people. He might just be saying those things to lie to himself, but he knows Lardo wouldn't lie to him about this.
"Oh, are you texting her? Say hi for me!"
Jack takes a photo of him and sends it to Lardo.
Jack: Bittle says hi.
Jack is driving when they get to Chicago, just in time to be thankful they're headed into the city, because the rush hour traffic going the other direction seems to be backed up for miles. Even going inbound, things are slow, but moving steadily at least.
They've decided to get Chicago-style pizza for dinner. As they approach the city, Jack starts to explain the different options—which pizza chains have cornbread crust versus a more bread-like wheat crust, stuffed vs regular deep dish. He mentions how even though Chicago pizza was originated at Pizzeria Uno, for some reason they make it wrong at a lot of their non-Chicago locations.
"So wait, when went to Uno's that one time in college, that was Chicago-style pizza, but it wasn't?"
"They put the cheese on top there, like a Pizza Hut pan pizza," Jack explains.
Bitty looks at him dubiously. "…Where does the cheese go, then?"
"Under the sauce." He grins at the skeptical look on Bitty's face. "The regular deep dish is crust on the bottom, then cheese, then toppings, then sauce on top," he explains. "Then the stuffed pizza is basically the same, but a thicker layer of cheese and a second layer of crust between the toppings and the sauce."
"Why are you such an expert on Chicago pizza, anyhow?" Bitty asks. It's a fair question, if one Jack isn't excited to answer.
"Uh, Tori's from Chicago," he says. "Well, the suburbs. She came along sometimes when we played here." At least those roadies, Jack knows she wasn't sleeping with anyone else.
"Ah," is all Bitty says, having apparently picked up on Jack's "I don't want to talk about my ex" vibes. There's a slightly awkward silence, the first time anything has felt awkward between them since Jack got to Boston.
"It's fine," Jack finally says. "It's been over a year. It was a nasty breakup, but I'm over it. She's not, like, a forbidden topic or anything. I mean, she's not my favorite topic, but you don't have to look at me like I might fly into a rage because her name came up."
"I know that, I just—well, I guess I don't really know how you react to it. I didn't mean to bring her up, obviously."
"I know," Jack says. "So don't worry about it. I'm not annoyed at you for asking a question just because she was the answer. I wouldn't even be annoyed with you if you did ask about her. Feel free to, actually—but, uh, not right now, I think that's our exit. Can you get me to the hotel?"
Bitty nods and pulls out his phone to act as navigator, guiding Jack to their hotel. He seems alarmed when Jack pulls up to the valet station.
"Jack, we're not using the valet! How much does that even cost?"
"It's a bit extra," Jack admits, "but I looked into it and we're not dragging our luggage the two blocks from the nearest parking garage. And even that would be expensive enough that I'm not telling you how much it is."
Bittle opens his mouth to argue further, but Jack is already climbing out of the truck. Bitty doesn't continue arguing in front of the valet himself, but as soon as they're inside he stops, taking in the opulent lobby.
"When I let you pay for the hotels, I don't know why I thought you would book normal places like Hiltons or Marriotts," he finally says, shaking his head.
"Technically, I think Hilton owns this place now," Jack says. "If it makes you feel any better, I don't think I could've booked a place that cost this much in Fargo if I tried. It balances out."
"And I assume they don't have valet parking?" Bitty says, giving him a look like valet parking might as well be dead puppies.
"No, they have parking lots you don't have to pay for, which no hotels in this city have." He sighs and starts for the front desk. "Honestly, Bittle, you live in Boston. You know how cities like this work."
"I suppose," Bitty grumbles as he follows Jack to the desk.
They get up to their room. Jack isn't sure why he has a pang of regret when he sees the two double beds—he booked the room, he knew that was what he was getting, he chose it on purpose. If things go well, he'll get plenty of chances to sleep in the same bed as Bitty. If they don't, he'll be glad he wasn't presumptuous enough to book a room with only one bed. And yeah, it is going well so far, but not well enough for that. Not just yet.
They wind up getting stuffed pizza at Giordano's. While they're waiting for their pizza, a girl comes up to ask for Jack's autograph, and Bitty offers to take a picture of the two of them together. It's become something of an in-joke among the Samwell crew, offering to take photos of Jack with fans. Jack doesn't mind when fans ask, but he doesn't love it and never offers himself. His friends, however, have made a game of it: anytime a fan approaches Jack when any of them are present, they immediately offer (once or twice when two or three of them scrambled to be the first to offer, they've actually succeeded in scaring the fan away), and then see who can find the resulting photo on the internet first.
"Hasn't that game gotten old yet?" Jack asks once the fan has gone back to her table.
"Nope," says Bitty, popping the P in a way Jack knows he means to be obnoxious but Jack secretly finds adorable. He's on his phone already, and a moment later Jack's phone vibrates. He doesn't have to check it to know what it is: the one rule of the game is that whoever is present when the photo is taken must alert the others to the existence of the photo via the group chat immediately. If the photographer finds the photo without alerting the others, the whole thing doesn't count; if one of the others finds it before the photographer has announced its existence, not only does the finder gain a point, the photographer loses a point.
And yes, they do keep score. Ransom, of course, keeps it all on a spreadsheet—date, location, photographer name, who was present, who finds the photo and gets the point.
"Who's winning?" Jack asks cautiously. He's never asked before. He's not sure he should now.
Bitty looks up from his phone slowly, eyes wide. "I'm sorry, but I'm gonna need you to repeat that," he says.
"I asked who's winning your weird photo game," Jack says, confused. Bitty inexplicably grins and turns back to his phone.
Jack's phone buzzes again, and this time he looks—and discovers that Bitty has sent an audio file of what he just said to the group chat.
"I am," Bitty says triumphantly, wiggling in his seat like a happy puppy. "Because the goal of the game stopped being to find the photos first years ago!"
Jack groans. "Was the new goal of the game to see who can get me to ask who's winning the game?"
He gets his response in the group chat, which immediately fills up with exclamations from their friends, some congratulatory and some made up entirely of strings of swear words.
"What's the prize?" Jack asks.
"We've all been putting in $10 a year for… four years now?" Bitty says, smirking. "I'd have to double-check who all's playing still, but I think it should be a few hundred dollars by now."
Jack grins. "Well, great, I guess dinner's on you, then!"
Holster: No fair, you have six days alone with him. Nobody else ever gets that.
Bitty: But it's only been two of those days and YOU WERE WITH US FOR THE FIRST DAY, HOLSTER. This is fair and square.
Dex: Shitty and Lardo visited Jack for a week last summer, they didn't manage it.
Holster: How do we know you didn't tell him to say that?
Jack: As if I would participate in this willingly.
Ransom: So wait, what happens now? Do we go back to the old game?
Shitty: Brah, we can't decide on a new game while Jack is here. Take it to the game chat.
Jack: There's a group chat just for you all to talk about this stupid game without me?
Lardo: Don't pretend you're surprised.
"I guess I'm not," Jack admits out loud.
After dinner, they decide to see the city a bit before they head to bed. They walk down through Millennium Park, stopping to take photos with the Bean. They stop again at Buckingham Fountain before going through the rose garden.
It's perfectly romantic, and Jack regrets that he can't do anything with that fact. Even if he were ready to fuck the rest of the trip up if he's wrong, the girl at the restaurant reminded him that Chicago is a hockey town—as much as any city is in the U.S.—and he knows she's not the only one who's recognized him. For Bitty, he'd come out without hesitation, but this isn't the way to do it. Not when they haven't even talked about this properly yet. So he manages not to take Bitty's hand or put an arm around him, but he knows he touches Bitty's arm and back more than he'd be able to explain away. Bitty seems to be trying to ignore it at first; Jack sees him glance around once or twice, like he's nervous that people might see, too. But as the night wears on he must realize that Jack isn't pushing anything far enough that it would make anyone notice, and he relaxes. He leans into Jack's casual touches, and his hand brushes Jack's skin now and then.
Their hotel is on Wabash, a block or two away from the lake, so they cut over there to walk back through the heart of the city. Bitty chatters away, oohing and ahhing and pointing out how different Chicago is from Boston. Jack just listens, only taking his eyes off of Bitty as often as he needs to to keep from running into anything.
By the time they get to their hotel, Jack is getting tired. Bitty ribs him for being an old man because it's only 10pm, but Jack points out that they really do have to get up early the next morning. Chicago to Fargo is the longest leg of their trip, with nearly ten hours of driving ahead of them. They've planned their one sightseeing activity—the Chicago Botanic Garden—around this, it being a bit north of the city so they can stop on their way out of town, but if they spend two hours there that still means a good twelve hours of traveling, plus meals. Bitty pouts and complains but gets ready for bed as soon as Jack gets out of the bathroom.
Jack somewhat reluctantly gets into a bed that is not the same one Bitty is getting into. They turn out the lights, then face each other anyhow, both on the side of their bed closest to the other, and talk quietly across the three-foot gap until Jack falls asleep in the middle of Bittle's story about something that happened to his mother last summer.
I have no idea how social media marketing companies work, this is my extrapolation from how I would probably use my social science training to do similar consulting (which I've considered but not done). I also had to rewrite that whole thing because the first time I had him working there for five years and then I remembered that Jack is the one who graduated five years ago, not Bitty. *sigh* So it might not quite make sense but eh close enough.
I guess?? Pizzeria Uno has real Chicago pizza in some places?? Like maybe in Chicago? But they were my introduction to "Chicago-style deep dish" when I lived in Boston and let me tell you they lied to me about what Chicago pizza is. I never trusted them enough to eat there when I actually lived in Chicago. I was thrilled to discover that it's actually more like my favorite Boston pizza place (now closed, I believe), Sicilia's.
Chapter 6: Seattle, 2015
The stars had aligned—or rather, Samwell's fall reading days, Jack's travel schedule, and SMH's pre-season had aligned—just right for a few of the team to come visit Jack one weekend the fall after he graduated. Shitty couldn't get away from law school, but Bitty, Lardo, Chowder, and Dex had all managed to fly out for a couple of days.
When Bitty had first suggested it, Jack had thought for a second he'd meant to fly out by himself. Jack had panicked internally, because as much as that was exactly what he wanted, he also knew he'd never be able to resist that kind of temptation. And who knew where that could lead—them trying a secret cross-country long-distance relationship until it either crashed and burned or made one of them crash and burn, taking their friendship with it either way? One weekend of romance and/or sex that would leave them awkward with each other? Thankfully, Bitty had quickly moved on to say that Lardo was in, too, and Jack had breathed a sigh of relief.
He had visited Samwell briefly before school began. Seeing Bittle again had hurt more than he'd expected. Now, understanding how he felt, he could see clearly that Bitty felt the same way—and that he was just as crushed that they couldn't do anything about it. It hurt a little every time they talked, but it would hurt a hell of a lot more to not be friends at all.
The he found out that Bitty's Friday morning lecture had cancelled, and so he was flying out a day earlier than everyone else.
"Are you sure?" Jack had asked, panicking again. "It's gonna be a long, boring plane ride with no one else there."
"Of course I'm sure," Bitty had said, a little too brightly. Jack wasn't sure what he was trying to cover for. If he didn't think they should be alone together either, surely the solution would be to fly in on Friday like everyone else. "I—" He'd suddenly stopped and taken a shaky breath, and Jack realized he'd been overly-cheerful to keep himself from crying. "I just miss you so much," he said quietly, like an admission he hadn't wanted to make.
"Yeah," Jack had said. He pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed deeply, telling himself that it was okay, they could have one night alone and not wind up in bed or make any other friendship-ending mistakes. "I miss you too, Bits. I can't wait to see you."
As it turned out, falling into bed together hadn't been a problem. By the time Bitty's flight came in around 9pm, he barely managed to stay awake long enough to get dinner on the way back to Jack's condo. He got ready for bed as soon as they got there. There'd been one moment, saying good night in the hallway outside Jack's guest room. They stood just a little too close and every instinct inside of Jack was screaming to kiss him. And he might have, but just in time Bitty had closed his eyes and turned his head away. He reached out and squeezed Jack's hand and said "Good night, Jack," without opening his eyes. And Jack had squeezed his hand back, took one step away, and said good night as well.
Bitty seemed normal the next morning. He was showered and dressed before Jack saw him, and insisted on making omelets for breakfast. Jack had had to go to practice, and when he got home his condo smelled like baked goods and it hit him in the chest, how in another world he could have had this every day, or at least once or twice a week. But he'd breathed through it and thought he did a pretty good job of pretending to be fine when he found Bitty in the kitchen and helped him with his last pie. After that, it had been time to go pick up their friends, and it was all a hell of a lot easier from there.
The one time things got rough again was Saturday night, when the two of them were the last two awake. Lardo was sleeping in Jack's bed with him (Shitty had instructed her to give him extra cuddles from him, but instead he had gotten a stern lecture about how he was a fucking furnace and she hated being hot when she slept so he better damn well keep to his side of the bed), and the other three had taken turns sleeping two in the guest room and one on the couch. It was Bitty's night on the couch, and Jack had told himself he would get to bed first so that he wasn't tempted to stay up all night in the living room with Bitty, but his resolve had crumbled long before Lardo had been the first to head to bed.
They were sitting on opposite ends of the couch, legs bent, Bitty's feet under Jack's because he agreed that Jack was a furnace and his feet were cold.
"Your teammates seem nice," Bitty said. They'd come to his game that evening and met the team afterward. "You can tell they really like you already."
Jack nodded, and he meant to say something about one of them, maybe about Tater trying to get him to say more than three words on camera for the videos for their website or it being nice to be able to speak French with Marty and a few of the other guys sometimes, but instead what came out was, "I shouldn't be here. I should've signed somewhere closer."
Bitty froze. Jack closed his eyes and clenched his jaw and crossed his arms tightly in front of himself, knowing that if he let his guard down he'd say something else he shouldn't and they'd both only wind up in more pain. He could hear Bitty taking the same deep breaths he was taking.
Finally, Bitty's feet slipped out from under his, and then they were on top, toes gently massaging.
"Jack," Bitty said, his voice low and soothing but serious. "First off, has anything happened here, with the team? Has anyone done, or said anything to hurt you or make you uncomfortable or—"
"No." Jack's voice was a hoarse whisper. "No, Bits, they're great. The team's great. It's just… so far. Too far."
"Okay, good." Bitty's voice relaxed just a little bit, and Jack felt terrible for worrying him like that. "You chose this team for a reason, sweetheart. Distance was pretty much the only thing they had going against them, wasn't it?"
"I should've realized sooner," he said, but didn't say what he should've realized. "I could've signed with Providence, or Boston, or, or New York—"
"Jack." Bitty's voice was stern now, and he poked Jack's foot with one toe. "Look at me." Jack did. There was a fire in Bittle's eyes, the kind of determination Jack had seen sometimes at six in the morning after a few checks—but also tears shining in them. "Do you really, honestly think for one second that you would've been happy on those teams? Not happy staying near Samwell, happy playing for those teams? Could you have really been yourself? Or would you have felt like not just idiots on ESPN but your own God damn teammates were watching you, waiting for you to slip up?"
"I—I know," Jack said. "You're right. I just—" He sighed. "It seems like there must have been something I could've done. Some better option."
Bitty pressed his lips together and looked away. Jack knew he was trying not to cry. "Sometimes life doesn't work like that," he finally said. "Sometimes there are no good options, and you just have to go with the least bad."
"I guess so," Jack said.
Bitty had taken a deep breath, sighed it out, and stood up, stretching. "It's late, and we've gotta head to the airport early tomorrow. I'm gonna go get my teeth brushed, and by the time I get back out here you better be on your way to bed, too, mister."
Jack nodded, but as Bitty walked past, he'd reached out and caught his hand. Bitty had stopped, and they'd stayed there for a moment, looking at each other.
"I'm sorry," Jack said.
"Me too," Bitty said softly. "But life goes on, as they say."
"I guess so," Jack had said, and let go. "Good night, Bits."
"Good night, Jack."
Chapter 7: Chicago to Fargo
I didn't realize until later that the Chicago Botanic Gardens aren't really quite on their way. I lived on the north end of the city and it would not have occurred to me for one second to take 90 instead of 94 to get to Wisconsin. But apparently, especially if you're coming from downtown instead of West Rogers Park, it's like ten minutes faster to take 90 until it joins back up with 94 in Madison. But by the time I realized this, I'd already written this chapter. And anyhow, I may be wrong about this but I think 90 would have worse outbound traffic in the morning with people trying to get to the airport.
Bitty groans when Jack's alarm goes off, which just makes Jack chuckle.
"Bittle, it's eight. Nine in Boston, and your body's still set for Eastern time. Aren't you usually at work by now?"
Bitty rolls over and shoves his face into his pillow. "Changed my mind." Jack can just make out what he's saying through the pillow. "Not movin' to Seattle. I live here now. Never gettin' up again."
Jack snorts and stands up. "You've got ten more minutes to live here while I shower, then it's your turn."
"'Syour fault for getting this fancy hotel with these fancy pillows," Bittle calls out as Jack heads to the bathroom.
It does only take about ten minutes for Jack to shower, shave, brush his teeth, and get dressed, so he's surprised when he comes out of the bathroom to find that Bitty has already managed to fall back to sleep.
"Bittle." He shakes Bitty's shoulder. "Bits, c'mon. We really do gotta get going."
Bitty opens his eyes with another groan and glares up at Jack, blocking the light coming from the nightstand with one hand. His nose is slightly scrunched and his hair is a disaster.
"I forgot how adorable you are when you're pissed off at me for waking you up early," Jack says as he sits down on his bed to put his socks and shoes on.
"'m not adorable," Bitty grumbles as he shoves the covers off and hauls himself up to a sitting position.
"So cute," Jack says. "Look at you."
Bitty makes a noise that somehow manages to fall somewhere between a sigh and a growl. Then, casting one last glare in Jack's direction, he finally manages to stand up and make his way to the bathroom.
Luckily, once again they're driving in the opposite direction of the worst of rush hour traffic, though it seems to matter less in the morning than it did last night. It's still a lot better than the other direction looks, but it takes a while to make it to the Botanic Garden. Jack is glad they picked somewhere on the way; they would have had to deal with traffic either way, but now they can stop after only a half hour or so of it and take a break.
"What could you possibly need here?" Bitty asks. They're parked, and Jack is rummaging in his duffel bag in the back seat.
"The main reason I suggested this place," Jack says, and holds up the camera he just pulled from its bag beneath his underwear. "I got a new macro lens just for the trip."
"What's a macro lens?" Bitty asks, locking the truck up as Jack closes the door.
"Super close up," he explains as they walk toward the entrance. "For taking pictures of, like, bugs and flowers and things."
"Oh, neat!" Bitty watches as Jack attaches the lens. Then Jack reconsiders, takes the lens back off, and sticks it in his pocket. "What are you—" He realizes what Jack's doing just in time, and manages to stick his tongue out as Jack snaps a picture of him.
"Perfect," Jack says. "I like my photos to be an accurate representation of the subject." Bitty pokes him in the side.
Walking around the gardens, Jack feels a lot like he did the previous night—like this is too romantic to be wasted on the two of them just being friends. He leaves the lens off for a bit so he can take more photos of Bitty, his hair gleaming in the sun as he bends over to smell a flower or leans in to read a sign. Just like the night before, Jack can't resist touching more than he should, and Bitty touches back now and then.
Jack eventually reattaches the macro lens, and Bitty is almost as interested as he is in the results. As Jack photographs one flower, Bitty is already looking for another interesting-looking one to be the next subject, though he makes Jack show him the previous shots before letting him at the next one.
At one point, they pass by a family with a teenaged son, who seems extremely put out at being dragged to look at "a bunch of lame-ass plants all morning." Unlike Jack, who was the kind of sulky teenager who just went silent when he was grumpy, this kid won't shut up about how much he hates it here. Jack is getting a shot of a bee that happens to land on a nearby rose when he hears the boy's father sigh loudly.
"Jayden, I've heard just about enough about how 'lame' this place is." Jayden's dad's voice isn't raised at all, but it's one of those parental voices that sounds all the more dangerous for being quiet. "You know, you're so busy complaining that you didn't even notice we passed by Jack Zimmermann a few minutes ago. It looks like the plants are interesting enough for him."
Jack concentrates on not laughing so he doesn't make the camera shake. Next to him, he hears Bitty snort and turn away.
"Wait, what?" Jayden asks. "No fucking way."
"Right there—oh, no, don't think you're going and bothering that man for an autograph. Unlike you, he is trying to enjoy his time here."
The bee flies away as Jayden says "Whatever, that's not Jack Zimmermann."
Since he's done with the bee anyhow, Jack straightens up and looks over at them. He puts on a media smile and waves. "Yeah, I am."
Jayden's face goes slack as his parents crack up.
"Jack Laurent Zimmermann!" Bitty squawks through laughter. He grabs Jacks arm and starts pulling him away. "You let that poor child live!"
"Hey, now he'll never forget this trip," Jack snickers as he lets Bitty pull him to the next display. "Or at least, his parents will never let him." Bitty's hands are warm on Jack's arm, and gone far too soon.
Once they're back on the road, they make fairly good time. It's still going to be a long drive, but even stopping for meals they should make it to their hotel in Fargo by 10:30 so they can get a good night's sleep.
They pass the morning quietly. Or, well, they pass the morning without much talking. Jack is reading a book and Bittle has hooked up his phone to the stereo system and is seat-dancing and occasionally singing along to a playlist that seems like a completely random mishmash of artists and genres united only by the fact that the songs are all upbeat. Jack still watches Bitty nearly as much as he reads, but the novelty has worn off enough that he does manage to read some. As much as he wants the chance to catch up on Bitty's life, it's nice to just quietly exist together for a while, too.
Jack takes over driving after lunch. He doesn't have much music on his phone, but he always likes listening to the local radio stations on a car trip anyhow. Sure, anymore they're all owned by the same two companies and play the same few dozen songs, but sometimes you happen upon a DJ with an interesting personality or a college station that's playing something offbeat.
Bitty is, unsurprisingly, much more easily bored than Jack. He plays some game on his phone, then tries to read for a while but it's not long before he's done as much of that as he has the patience for.
"Tell me about Seattle," he finally says. "I mean, I've been there a couple times, but that's different from living there."
"Hm." Jack thinks for a minute. "What do you want to know?"
"I don't know," Bitty says. "Do you think I'll like it there?"
"I think so, but I guess I don't know for sure," Jack admits. "What do you like about living in Boston?"
"Um… it's not Madison?"
"Okay, you're doing well so far," Jack says. "Seattle's got you covered there."
Completely incapable of sitting in one position for more than five minutes, now Bitty braces one foot against the dashboard and crosses his arms to think. "Hm. I like all my friends in Boston, but obviously Seattle doesn't have that. I mean, I'll have you, and I'm not discounting that at all, believe me, but—"
"But you need more than one friend," Jack finishes for him.
"Yeah," Bitty says. Jack frowns. He sounds worried.
"Are you really worried about that?" he asks. "You?"
"Yeah? Why not me?"
"I don't know, you're just… you're you." Jack waves a hand vaguely in his direction. "I can't imagine you having trouble making friends."
"Well all my friends in Boston I met at Samwell, and you know how easy it is to find friends in college, especially on a team like ours."
Jack gives him a funny look. "Bits, I was at your going away party like four days ago. You had plenty of friends there who weren't from Samwell."
"A lot of those were friends from work," Bitty insists. "Those don't count."
"If friends from work don't count, I have literally no friends in Seattle," Jack says. "And besides, there were a few people there who weren't from your work."
"I guess a few," Bitty admits grudgingly.
"So where did you meet them?"
Bitty sighs. "Let's see. Who all was at that party who wasn't from work… Well, Jacob and Matt, I met because Jacob was friends with this guy I went on like two dates with. The second date was a double date with Jacob and Matt, and I liked them better than the guy I was there with."
"That seems awkward," Jack says. He imagines if he and Bitty broke up (which wouldn't happen, but it's just a thought experiment) but Bitty stayed friends with Tater or someone.
"Eh, I never saw the guy again, and I don't think they were like close friends, really. Like a year later Matt was like, 'oh I heard Jason moved to New York' so I'm not sure Jason even told him that himself, he had to hear it through some grapevine or other. Anyhow, who else… Brielle, how did I meet Brielle? Oh right, her and Angel were from the same place. I joined this group on Meetup.com that was like, LGBTQ Millennials Movie Watching Meetup or something. And we went to go see Venom, and then some of us got dinner afterward, and I dunno, I just sat by both of them and we hit it off. Then the next movie meetup they were there again, and I stopped going to the meetups and just got together with them."
"So is that website just for Boston? Or is it in Seattle, too?"
"No, it's all over," Bitty says. "I haven't really done anything with it in a couple years now, but I guess yeah, that's an option."
"Was Brielle the girl with the blue hair?" Jack asks.
"No, no, that was Emily," Bitty says. "I think you met Brielle, though, she was the black girl with the super, super long hair?"
"Oh yeah," Jack says, remembering. "I thought she was from Samwell. Wasn't she there with someone from Samwell?"
Bitty laughs. "Yeah, she's roommates with Shruti now. They dated for a hot second, but it didn't really go anywhere. But they stayed friends and when Shruti's old roommate moved in with her boyfriend last fall Brielle moved in. Just between you and me, I think they've still got a little bit of a with-benefits thing going on when neither of them is dating anyone else, but I can't prove it."
"I'm assuming she met Shruti through you," Jack says. He's met Shruti once or twice; once Bitty was made captain of the hockey team they'd become close friends quickly. "So not only do you not have trouble making friends, you're the one connecting other random people to their new friends."
"Just that one time," Bitty says. "Well, I guess John hangs out with Ransom and Holster all the time now. He's from work. Oh, and I think Emily and Farmer hang out a lot, too. Weird."
"Bits." Jack grins at Bitty, who looks mystified. "Why are you surprised? Look at how quickly you became the heart of our team."
"But I didn't make any friends who weren't on the team 'til I was a senior," he points out in response. "Like, I dated a couple guys but not very seriously and mostly Ransom and Holster set me up with them."
"But you were basically the entire reason that the frogs—your frogs—got integrated into the team so quickly. And from what I can tell, you did the same with the tadpoles and waffles. And, uh, I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm not even really your only friend in Seattle. You've met a bunch of my friends. Tater's the only one I've talked to since we set this trip up, since it was so last-minute, but he's psyched you're coming."
"Psyched I'm coming, or psyched that my blueberry jam is coming?" Bitty asks, squinting at Jack suspiciously.
"Please," Jack says, "like that's not literally the only way you actually know how to make friends. All those people you listed—Jacob and Brielle and whoever—how quickly did you start giving them food?"
"Okay, I will allow that," Bitty says. "I guess just because he likes my food doesn't mean he's not my friend. Or won't be. But I can't rely on you for all my friends."
"You won't." Jack reaches over and gives his knee a squeeze. It's not quite crossing a line, as long as he pulls his hand back fairly soon. Which he does. Though when he glances over, Bitty is watching his hand move away, with what seems like (at a quick glance) a disappointed look on his face. "Trust me, everyone who meets you adores you."
Bitty snorts. "You sure didn't. Not when you first met me."
"Yeah, but I was an idiot back then," Jack says. "I got over it. And now I do."
He looks over again. Now Bitty is looking down, picking at the corner of his phone case. His lips are pressed together like he's trying not to let a smile out, and he's blushing. It hits Jack all over again, how stupidly in love he is, and he's suddenly pretty sure he's not going to have to wait until the end of the trip. He's suddenly not sure he'll be able to.
They stop for dinner outside of Minneapolis, timing it to get off the highway for a little while at the height of rush hour. Jack can't take his eyes off Bitty. Every time Bitty notices Jack staring he blushes and smiles shyly, ducking his head and looking away but never pausing in his chatter.
It's Bitty's turn to drive again after dinner. He must have used up all of his singing-along-with-his-playlist energy this morning, because although he puts music on, he keeps it at a background volume. But it seems that he got enough talking out of his system at dinner; now he seems determined to keep Jack talking. He asks about Jack's teammates, about how Jack likes his neighborhood, how his parents are doing.
Eventually he gets Jack talking about his injury two years ago. It wasn't anything terrible—a shoulder dislocation, but he hadn't needed surgery and had only been out for about a month. It could've been a hell of a lot worse; at a bare minimum it could've ended his season, instead of getting back on the ice not too far into playoffs.
"The guys are all really great when someone's injured," he tells Bitty. "They set up a schedule to bring you food or just check in on you, their wives and girlfriends pitch in when the team is out of town. Everyone knows how much it sucks when you're not allowed on the ice, can't travel with the team, all that. We try and keep each other's morale up. I mean, when Thirdy tore that ligament he was out for half the season and there was no way Carrie could have dealt with him by herself, haha. I get sulky when I can't play but he was something else."
"Aw, that's great," Bitty says. "What'd y'all do for him?"
"A lot of it was taking turns babysitting so Carrie only had one child to deal with," Jack says with a smirk.
Jack feels like he should probably be offended by how high Bitty's eyebrows are.
"Well, Tater and I usually did it together, we'd take them somewhere like the zoo or a movie or something. Something that would keep them busy so we didn't have to do too much. Although there was the time we took them to get ice cream before a Star Wars movie, and Mason threw up during one of the like space-action-flying scenes. After that we only did food after movies."
"Aw, poor kid!" Bitty says. "Poor movie theater employees, too, for that matter."
"Haha, yeah. We slipped the kid who had to clean it up some cash to make up for it. Unfortunately, half of it wound up on Tater's shirt, and it was starting to smell by the time we got the kids home."
"Ew," Bitty says. "So what'd they do for you? You didn't need babysitting services or anything."
"No. They brought food over a lot. It kind of pissed Tori off, she thought they were implying that she couldn't cook."
Bitty looks at him funny. "That seems like a silly thing to think. They were just being nice."
"Yeah, and it's not like we even lived together. I mean, she was over more than usual to help me out around the house, but not every day. And it was, actually, really hard to make anything myself with my shoulder messed up. But she always seemed to think everything the other wives and girlfriends did was trying to one-up her in some way, even when it had nothing to do with her. She was friendly with them, but she always seemed convinced that if one of them was dressed nicer than her it was to make her look bad, or if we were invited over to someone's house and they happened to have something new—a new car or TV or whatever—they were just trying to show it off. Even though, like… it's an NHL team. Everyone buys new shit all the time, and nobody really cares because we can all afford the same stuff."
"The more I find out about this woman, the less I like her," Bittle says with surprising acid in his tone.
"I mean, she's not exactly my favorite person either," Jack says. "Not anymore, obviously. At the time, that part of her was an annoyance but not enough to make me break up with her. I always figured she'd mellow out about it eventually, she just wasn't used to being around rich people, but she never really did."
"You never really said what happened," Bitty says hesitantly. He glances at Jack, worried. "Just that she cheated, but it always felt like there was more to the story."
Jack sighs and runs a hand over his face. "Yeah, there's a bit more. It's still kind of embarrassing. At the time I felt humiliated even though none of it was my fault."
Bitty reaches over and lays a hand on Jack's arm, stroking it gently with his thumb, and Jack just barely stops himself from taking the hand in his. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, but you know I would never judge you for anything she did."
Jack lets out another heavy sigh and Bitty moves his hand back to the steering wheel.
"So, the team tests us regularly, every couple of months, for STIs. And the first embarrassing thing was when I discovered that I had chlamydia."
"What?" Bittle looks at him incredulously. "She gave you chlamydia?"
"At first I was like, wait, is this one of those things like HPV or herpes where you might have it for a long time and not know it, and you can only transmit it when there's a flareup of some kind? So maybe she got it before we met? But no. Apparently chlamydia does not work like that."
"No, it definitely doesn't," Bitty says.
“So obviously then I was pissed. She was actually at my place for the weekend when I got the test results, and when I got home I tried to stay calm and told her about it. And I figured obviously she was caught, so there was no way she’d try and pretend she wasn’t. But she didn’t freak out or anything, she was just like, oh shit I better call the doctor on Monday. And I was like, that’s it? That’s all you’ve got to say? And she was like ‘look, if I gave it to you, I’m sorry, but isn’t it just as likely that you gave it to me?’”
“Oh my God, are you kidding me?" Bitty turns to gape at him for a moment before hastily turning back to the road. "What the fresh hell?”
“Right? And I’m like, uh, well, you’re the only person I’ve slept with in nearly two years, so unless a bunch of tests in a row missed it I’m not sure how that could happen. And she like... she froze, and all the color drained from her face. And at first I thought she was just finally freaking out about getting caught? A delayed reaction or something? But she didn’t look like that. She looked... I don’t know, like she was gonna be sick. And guess what she said next?”
“Oh dear God, was she pregnant?” Bitty asks warily.
“No!" Jack manages a small laugh at that, thankful that things hadn't gone in that direction. "Thank God, we did not have to deal with that on top of everything else. No, she said, quote, ‘What do you mean, the only person you’ve slept with?’”
Bitty gasps in a gratifyingly horrified way. “What the fuck does that even mean?”
“The conversation got a little bit confusing at that point, because I had no idea what she meant, either. But basically, it turns out that she’d been hooking up with random guys the entire time we were together, and had assumed that I was sleeping with random women when I was on the road and that we were both fine with this arrangement.”
“WHAT?” Bitty seemed torn between staring at Jack in horror and keeping his eyes on the road. “I... how... how? You’d never discussed this? And she assumed? For nearly two years?”
“So this friend of hers dated a guy on a farm team for a while right after college, and this friend had apparently informed her that this was what ‘all the guys did’ and it was just an open secret and if you want to date a hockey player you just have to be cool with it.”
“And she never like... asked you about it. I’m sorry, this sounds like a bullshit excuse to me.”
Jack shakes his head. “No, she was really upset. Like, in a ‘oh my god I just flushed my relationship down the toilet’ way, not an ‘I got caught cheating’ way. I guess at first she thought that if she asked about it, I'd think she was jealous or something, and then eventually she just figured if we hadn't talked about it by then, there wasn't really any reason to. I guess a couple times she said something about puck bunnies, or me probably having a woman in every city, but I don't even remember these things. I must have just thought she was joking and jokingly agreed with her and didn't think anything of it. Once I understood all that, at first I felt a little bad, like, she wasn't really trying to cheat on me, or deceive me, so maybe now that she knows it's not okay we should try and put it behind us."
"I'm sorry, but fuck that," Bitty cuts in.
"Yeah, eventually I realized that there was just never any way I'd be able to trust her again. I mean, if she didn't think that was worth talking about, if she would just assume that was okay without asking, what else would there be? I didn't want to spend the rest of my life getting one nasty surprise after another. Like, what if I mention that yeah maybe we should think about kids and she takes that to mean she should immediately stop her birth control? Or who knows what else. Then it hit me that she thought we were both sleeping with other people and yet was fine with it when we'd stopped using condoms. That's when I got pissed. I mean, I'm lucky chlamydia is all she gave me."
"Wait, was she at least using protection with these random guys?" Bittle asks.
"She claims she was, but obviously that's not a hundred percent. And you know what the stupidest part of the whole thing is?"
Jack snorts. "Well. Okay. But I was gonna say, if that was really what she wanted, and she'd brought it up right at the start and been totally honest with me, maybe I woulda been okay with it."
"Okay with her cheating on you?" Bitty's face twists in confusion.
"Well, if I agreed to it, it wouldn't be cheating. It'd just be an open relationship, or… polyamory or something."
Bitty looked at him curiously. "And you'd really be okay with that," he said skeptically.
"Like I said, maybe. I don't really know. I'm not all that into casual sex, honestly, so it's not like it's something I'd ask for, but I'm also not really the jealous type. If she were totally open and honest about it, and we could talk about boundaries and stuff, I'd at least be okay with trying it. Maybe the first time she actually slept with someone else I'd be like, nope, never mind, not happening again. Or maybe not, and maybe it would've been a way for her to deal with me being gone all the time."
"I assume she knows how to masturbate," Bitty says drily.
"That doesn't take care of loneliness, though," Jack points out. "Anyhow, I'll never know if I would've been okay with it, because she didn't talk to me about it. And that was the end of that."
"So wait," Bitty says. "She assumed you were out there sleeping with all these other women, and yet she complained when you did nice things for her that you were 'too much'?"
Jack pauses. He'd never thought of it like that before. "I can be a little… much."
"Honey, I think you dodged a bullet," Bitty says gently. "This cheating thing clearly wasn't the only problem in your relationship. I don't know much about it, and she seemed nice the couple of times I met her, but it kinda seems like she did a number on your self-esteem in some ways."
"I guess so," Jack says quietly. "I hadn't really thought about it. The cheating just kind of overshadowed anything else that might have been wrong. I mean, she wasn't like emotionally abusive or anything, but there were a few things she criticized me for pretty regularly. But I figured, nothing's perfect, right?"
"No, nothing's perfect, but I've never dated a guy who criticized me so much I felt like I needed to apologize for being my sweet, wonderful self," Bitty points out. "Were you really happy otherwise?"
"I wasn't unhappy," Jack says, and immediately knows how bad that sounds. "I loved her. Not in some big, earth-shattering way. Maybe not even in all that romantic of a way, honestly. But I did. I was thinking of asking her to move in with me that summer. I was starting to think that maybe, if we managed to stay together for a couple more years, I could see myself marrying her. She wasn't the love of my life, but not everyone gets that. A lot of people just have to find someone they can be happy enough with. I figured, there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe I'm just one of those people."
Bitty's quiet for a moment. "Do you still think that?" he finally asks.
Jack swallows. "That I won't get to marry the love of my life, and I'll have to settle for someone I can be 'happy enough' with?"
"Yeah," Bitty says softly.
Jack looks at him for a moment, while he keeps his eyes on the road. Jack knows what he wants to say, but also knows that he doesn't want to say it in the car. "No," he finally says. "It wasn't her, but I'm not with her anymore. I'm starting to think maybe I will get that now."
Bittle chews his lip for a moment, glances at Jack. "I hope you do," he says, looking straight ahead again.
Unfortunately, any hope Jack had of romantic declarations once they've stopped for the night are dashed twenty minutes later when they find themselves in a several-mile-long traffic jam.
"We're in the middle of nowhere!" Bittle smacks the steering wheel. "How can there be this much traffic at 10:30pm in the middle of—where are we? Are we still in Minnesota?"
"Yeah," Jack says. "Fargo is basically on the North Dakota state line."
"There are not supposed to be traffic jams in the middle of Minnesota! We left Minneapolis two hours ago!"
They're at a complete standstill, which suggests this isn't just traffic. "Here," Jack says, unplugging his phone that had been playing music and turning it to AM radio. "See if you can find a local traffic report. I'll see if I can find any information online. Did you notice any exit numbers or mile markers or anything?"
They eventually piece together that a semi overturned and is blocking the entire northbound side of the highway. There's nothing to do but wait.
Jack wonders if maybe it's a sign. Maybe he should confess his feelings in the car, after all. But Bittle is cranky—which Jack doesn't blame him for, he's a little cranky, too, and he's not even driving—and overall it's just not quite the romantic atmosphere he'd been imagining.
They'd only been an hour or so out from Fargo when they stopped, but they're at a dead standstill for over half an hour and then crawling along at 10-15mph until they finally pass the semi five miles later. All told, it's nearly one in the morning by the time they find their hotel in Fargo. They find a parking spot at the very back of the crowded parking lot and drag themselves to the desk, both of them half-asleep.
"Oh, shoot," the woman working says as she taps at her computer. "We've got this darn convention in town, don'tcha know, and we're booked totally full—"
"But I made a reservation," Jack says blearily.
"Oh, you betcha, we've got a room for ya, sir," she says. "It's just that I know you booked a double and all, but all we've got left are singles. It's a king-sized, though, so—"
"That's fine," Jack says. "Whatever's fine."
Bittle, who is leaning against him heavily and, he thinks, actually dozing off, mumbles something vaguely like "'Sfine."
"We might have a roll-out bed if you'd like," she says. Jack just waves her off.
"It's fine. At this point I think we'd both sleep on the floor of the lobby if you told us that's what you've got."
Once Jack has the room keys, he wraps an arm around Bittle's shoulders and shakes him a little. "Bittle, c'mon. We've gotta get to the elevators, go up to the fourth floor, and then we can get to bed, okay?"
"Uh-huh," Bittle says, lifting his head off Jack's shoulder (where it had at some point fallen) and blinking. Jack keeps an arm around him while he guides him to the elevator. While they're waiting for it, Bittle snuggles close to him and lets his head drop back down onto his shoulder.
"Hey," Jack says. Honestly, he likes Bittle right where he is, but at this rate he's going to have to carry him to the room and come back down for their luggage afterwards. So he gives Bittle a little nudge to wake him, while tightening the arm around him so as not to actually dislodge him from his shoulder. "You're not allowed to sleep yet. Almost, Bits. Look, elevator! Into the elevator."
Bitty lifts his head and grumbles as Jack shepherds him into the elevator. His head immediately falls back down against Jack when they stop walking, and he even wraps his arms around Jack's waist and pulls him closer. As Jack chuckles and kisses the top of his head, a sense of contentment spreads deep inside of him.
He only pushes Bittle off completely once they're in their room. "Pajamas. Brush teeth. C'mon, the faster you get it done, the faster you can get to sleep for real."
"Yes, mom," Bitty grumbles, but he pulls his pajamas and toiletries out of his bag and stumbles into the bathroom. Jack changes while he's in there, and soon Jack is the one coming out of the bathroom with minty fresh teeth and an empty bladder.
The only light that's on is the one on the empty side of the bed. Bittle is little more than a tuft of hair at the top of a lump of blanket.
Jack turns the light out as he sits down on the bed. He picks his phone up from where he's already plugged it in on the nightstand.
"I'm turning off my alarm for tomorrow morning," he says as he does so.
"Mmmph," says the tuft of hair.
Jack climbs into bed. He lies there on his side for a minute, looking at the dark lump he knows to be Bitty. He finally reaches out a hand and finds Bitty's waist. It's warm and firm under the soft, worn cotton of his t-shirt.
He only has a second to wonder if he should move closer before Bitty is making the decision for him, scooting in while sliding his own arm under Jack's and around Jack's waist. Bitty presses his face into Jack's chest as Jack holds him close and breathes in the faded scent of his shampoo.
Jack wakes up with one arm draped over Bittle, who's on his side, facing away. There are only a few inches between them. Jack, in his half-awake state, scoots closer and pulls Bittle more tightly against him, nuzzling the hair at the nape of Bitty's neck with a grunt.
He doesn't think he woke Bittle up, and begins to doze back off himself. He's about halfway back to sleep when Bittle finally makes a waking-up sort of noise and squirms a little under his arm. He doesn't seem to be trying to get away, just getting comfortable. In fact, after he reaches up and rubs his eyes, he lets his hand fall on top of Jack's. Jack smiles into his hair, warm and content, his love radiating out of him like it can't possibly be contained within one body.
He dozes off again for a bit, and is woken up by Bittle moving around again. This time, he's turning in Jack's arms, and Jack blinks down at him.
Bittle looks up at him, hands on Jack's chest. He just looks, not smiling or frowning, his eyes a little curious but mostly still sleepy. He blinks a few times and the sleepiness fades. He cocks his head a little on the pillow, and now he's contemplating Jack. Jack lets him, though he wishes he knew what it is Bittle is looking for, what exactly he wants to know. Jack has answers; he just needs to know what sort of question he's dealing with.
Finally Bittle looks him in the eye. "What are we doing here, Jack?" he asks, his tone simple and straightforward.
Jack swallows and hopes his voice doesn't come out too rough from sleep.
"The day I graduated, I realized that I'd fallen in love with you," he starts. Bittle's face softens. He doesn't look surprised, not that Jack expected him to be. "And I almost… I almost went after you. I almost ran back to the Haus to see if you were still there, to tell you… well, I wasn't even sure what I would say, but to say something. And then, y'know. I remembered that in two days I was moving three thousand miles away. And I still almost went. I… I told my dad there was something I needed to do, and I went for a walk. I set off in the general direction of the Haus, but I didn't make it all the way there. At first, I thought, sure, the distance would be hard, but we could deal with it. But I couldn't be out yet. And if I'd signed with Boston or Providence, or even New York or Philly, or hell, even D.C., we probably could have figured it out. Hiding would have hurt, but we could've managed. Eventually, our friends and family could know. But Seattle? Trying to have a secret relationship while we were three time zones and a five to six hour plane ride away from each other?" He shakes his head, remembering how hopeless he'd felt at the time.
"It would've destroyed us," Bittle says. "You were right, Jack. And if we had tried—and dear Lord, if you'd come and found me at the Haus and asked me there's no possible way I could've said no—if we'd tried, we would've tried so hard. It would've worn us both down and we still wouldn't have let go. Until it broke one or both of us."
"And it wouldn't have been something we could come back from," Jack agrees. "There wouldn't be any staying friends, no getting back together once you graduated." Tears sting his eyes as he remembers how it felt to let that go, and he swallows down a lump in his throat. "I loved you enough that I didn't want to see us become a pile of charred remains just because I couldn't let go of you. So I didn't go back to the Haus, and I didn't talk to you about it, and we stayed friends and it hurt so much for a while—"
"But eventually it hurt less," Bitty finishes for him. "And I did get over you, in some ways. I wasn't always thinking about you, I could talk to you without constantly wishing things were different, I could date other boys and not compare them to you. It became… some secret little thing that I could wrap up and put in storage, and just take it out every now and then to look at it and mourn what might have been, hope that maybe, someday… It was never, ever gone, I just didn't have to look at it every day."
Jack nods. "I did love Tori, you know? Or, I mean, I guess I loved who I thought she was. If that hadn't gone down in flames, then maybe I could have married her. And maybe I could've been reasonably happy with her for the rest of my life. And she would never have known that she was my second choice. That she would always be sharing my heart with someone else, even if eventually it was only a small piece of it."
Bitty bites his lip and studies Jack again, brow knit. "But that's all in the past," he finally says as his expression smooths out. "What do you want now, Jack?"
"Now?" Jack smiles, and it feels gentle, a new smile he's never made before. "I want to wake up like this every morning. I want to take you places and buy you things. Make up for five years of lost time. I want to introduce you to my teammates as my partner, not just a friend from college. I want to show you the house I grew up in and see where you grew up. I want to buy a house with you, make our own home. Maybe get a cat or a dog. And eventually, I want to marry you, and raise a family with you, and grow old with you."
Bitty's face goes from carefully neutral to an ever-growing smile as Jack speaks, and his eyes are shining by the time Jack is done. "Me, too, sweetpea," he says, nodding as he holds back tears. "I want all that, too. Every last bit of it."
Jack leans in until their foreheads are touching, until his nose is nudging Bitty's. "That's all that matters," he says.
Their first kiss isn't what it would have been five years ago. If the world had been different, if Jack's life had been different in some way and he'd made it all the way to the Haus, it would have been tender, yes. Loving. But there would have been a desperation to it, from both of them. A jolt of surprise—not just from Bittle, who wouldn't have expected to see Jack there, but probably from Jack himself, who would still have been reeling from his revelation and acting on impulse.
Instead, it's soft, but it's firm. There's no surprise and no hesitation; they've both had five years to become absolutely sure of this. Some part of both of them hasn't just been waiting for this, but expecting it. So they pull each other close with the confidence of two people who knew they would find their way eventually, then melt together, relaxing in relief that the wait is over.
Eventually the kisses fade into nuzzling and grinning and gazing.
"It was the day we made those pies for our final projects," Bitty eventually says.
Jack raises an eyebrow. "What was?"
"The day I realized I'd fallen in love with you," Bitty replies. His smile is a little wistful, his eyes losing focus a bit as he looks not at Jack, but back in time. "Of course, at the time I thought you were straight, so I was pretty angsty about the realization myself. Then that stuff with Kent happened, and I realized maybe you weren't as straight as I thought, and my goodness. That spring was so confusing. I spent the whole semester trying to figure out what was going on between us, you know that? I wasn't sure if you felt the same way I did and you just weren't saying anything because you couldn't date a boy, or if I was imagining the whole thing."
"And you didn't even consider the possibility that I was just too stupid to figure it out."
"Not stupid," Bitty says, considering. "Just very focused on other things." He bites his lip and looks at Jack thoughtfully for a moment. "If you'd asked me the day you graduated, yeah, I woulda thrown myself at you. But I figured out eventually that it wouldn't have been a good thing. You remember that weekend? When I came to Seattle before everyone else?"
"Of course," Jack says.
"When you came back to Samwell before classes started," Bitty explains, "you were different. Toward me. You kept looking at me, so sad and almost guilty? Like there was so much you wanted to say and you knew you couldn't say it. Believe it or not, I realized then what had happened. I didn't know graduation was the tipping point, but suddenly things made sense. I hadn't been imagining things. You did feel the same. I'm not sure I'd say that I knew you hadn't known before that, I more thought that you'd known but been ignoring it. I figured maybe you missed me more than you expected to that summer, like I did. Whatever it was, something had changed. I knew you felt the same way I did, and you hated that we couldn't be together as much as I did."
"I did," Jack says quietly.
"So when we made plans to visit you, and then I realized I could fly in a day early," Bitty continues, "Lord, Jack, I built up all these romantic fantasies in my head. I thought, this was it, there would be heartfelt confessions and kisses and plans made. We'd figure out how to make this work despite the distance and the NHL and everything else. Love conquers all."
Jack winces. "I'm sorry. I was worried you might want that, and I was worried I wouldn't be able to say no. But I couldn't say no to you coming, either. God, I missed you so much already."
"Me, too," Bitty says. "And it turns out you didn't have much to worry about. I'm glad I visited you that weekend, Jack, because it drove home the same things for me that you'd figured out back at graduation. I got there after a six hour flight, the longest stretch I'd ever spent on an airplane by far, exhausted from the flight and because it was midnight in Samwell but feeling like I couldn't go to bed yet because it was only nine in Seattle. I thought, no, we're supposed to have our romantic heart-to-heart tonight! I'm supposed to sleep in your bed, and wake up in your arms, and go back to Boston knowing that you're mine and next time I'll come alone and we'll spend a whole weekend cocooned in your bed, ignoring the rest of the world!"
Jack grins at the image. "It's not too late for that," he says.
"I'm sure we'll get there," Bitty says fondly. "Of course, that night, instead of any of that I barely managed to eat dinner before I collapsed in your guest room, no romantic declarations having been made whatsoever. And I woke up the next morning and realized—this is what it would be. Every single time. A long and exhausting trip, too tired to even enjoy my time with you the first night, then most weekends we'd get one day and one night together and then leave for the airport at 9am on Sunday! And with both our seasons starting, when would I even be able to do that? And you'd have even less time to come to Samwell. And if I did manage to come visit you a few times, it wouldn't take long for people to get suspicious. And I laid there and I cried, because now I understood why you'd been so sad. It wasn't just you couldn't date a boy, or just that we were so far apart, it was everything all at once and like I said, it would destroy us if we tried."
"I didn't know you were crying that morning," Jack says with a frown.
"Of course not, I made sure I looked all fresh-faced and bright-eyed by the time I saw you," Bitty says. "And I tried to enjoy the weekend as much as I could, and I tried not to look at you as sadly as you looked at me but I know I failed. By the time we sort of talked around it on Saturday night, I think if you'd suggested we try, I would've said no. Because I understood by then that it truly would have been terrible."
"But that's the past," Jack says quietly. "And now we're here. And I'm yours for as long as you'll have me."
"I think this was worth the wait," Bitty says, grinning until Jack kisses it off him.
They make out some more, and when Bitty pushes Jack onto his back he goes easily. He likes the weight of Bitty's compact, muscular body on top of his. After another moment, though, Bitty pushes up onto his forearms, breaking their kiss.
"Ugh, we have to get all the way to Billings today, huh?"
Jack groans. "Let's pretend we don't," he whines, holding Bitty firmly lest he try to be responsible and get up.
Bitty just laughs and kisses his forehead. "You know we'll regret that later. Wouldn't you rather have some energy left when we get there?" There's a glint in his eye that makes Jack think he'd much rather use up their energy now, but Bitty continues to pull away. "Besides, I need to pee. You mind if I go ahead and shower while I'm in there, or do you need to use the bathroom first?"
Jack sighs his most put-upon sigh as he pushes Bitty back. "Fine, go, I'll just lay here." As soon as Bitty sits up, he reaches down and pulls his t-shirt up over his head. "Shirtless."
"Oh my God." Bitty gives his most exaggerated eyeroll as he stands up, laughing again. "Shameless, more like. Sadly for you, Mr. Zimmermann, I spent two years naked in locker rooms with you and I am immune to your, admittedly considerable, charms."
Jack props himself up on his elbows, definitely not flexing a little as he does. "Two years in locker rooms in college, Bittle. You do realize I've put on at least twenty pounds since then?"
Bittle has just finished fishing some clothing out of his suitcase, and Jack can't help but smirk as he stops on his way to the bathroom and lets his eyes travel over Jack's chest. "Believe me, I am well aware," he murmurs, and for a second Jack thinks he has him. But then Bittle turns up his nose dismissively and walks away. "Good thing I've got the rest of my life to enjoy it," he calls over his shoulder as he shuts the bathroom door.
Jack flops back onto the bed with a groan. He can't be too disappointed, though—in fact, he can't stop smiling. Because Bitty has the rest of his life to enjoy Jack's naked body.
"So it's really just this easy, huh?"
Jack glances over at the passenger seat to see Bitty staring thoughtfully at their joined hands.
"We just say we want to be together," Bitty continues, "and then we're together, and that's that."
"Yeah?" It would be nice if he could watch Bitty's face right now, but Jack has to keep his eyes on the road. "Should it not be? Was there something you wanted to talk about that we skipped?"
"No!" Bitty says, and Jack can hear his smile even if he can't look at him right now. "I'm glad it went this way. I just… I expected more angsting, I guess."
Jack squeezes his hand. Bitty doesn't sound upset, but Jack is still nervous. "Is there something specific you think we should be angsting about? We didn't really talk about all the possible problems, and we can if you want."
"No, no, sweetpea." Bitty kisses his hand and Jack relaxes. "I know we have a lot to talk about, but we've got all the time in the world for that and none of it's gonna be a dealbreaker for me. I just… I was hoping this would happen, y'know, but I also imagined it involving a lot of us moaning about 'Oh, should we do this? What about our friendship? Is it the right time?' before we finally got it settled. I think that's all completely unnecessary, but it's also exactly the kind of thing we would do."
"It is," Jack acknowledges. "But we've had five years to angst about it. I think we deserve a little bit of easy."
"Damn right we do," Bitty says.
"Especially this part," Jack continues. He lifts their hands and runs his thumb over Bitty's. "Just… saying that we're in love and we want to be together. There are going to be complications and hard parts and angst eventually, but this is easy."
"The hard part was not saying it for five years," Bitty says.
"No kidding." Jack pauses. "Especially when you graduated."
"I thought about it," he continues. "Asking you to move here, to be with me. I would have, but before I could you started dating… Ian?"
"Ian," Bitty sighs. "Man. I think if I've ever loved another boy, it was him. But neither of us could ever be what the other needed, romantically. I wish we'd figured that out sooner, if us breaking up would've made you make a move."
"You were happy with him when you graduated though, right? There was no way for you to know if you'd be happier with me."
"Pffft!" Bitty laughs. "Of course I would've been happier with you! Although, I… If you had said something… Right then, I wouldn't have been willing to dump him for you. I wasn't over you, obviously, not by a long shot, but I couldn't have hurt him like that. Which would still hardly be fair to him, to keep dating him knowing I'd rather be with you. But he was a good friend, and he'd been there for me when I needed him. Did I tell you he's basically the whole reason I got diagnosed with ADHD?"
"Really?" Jack knew Bitty had started taking Adderall his senior year, and that it had helped him get through his thesis, but not much else. "How so?"
"He has it too, and his brother and sister and mom all have it, plus he was a psych major so he knew all about it. When he saw the kinds of problems I was having, he was like look, this is all very familiar, I think you should get it checked out. I learned so much about it from him, and you have no idea what a relief it was! Not just to know that there's a reason I'm like this, I'm not just flaky, but also to have someone to commiserate with about it. He was really helpful and supportive. So whether or not we worked all that well romantically, he was just… so important to me at that particular time, y'know? And I'll always be glad that I had that, even if I don't want it anymore. Even if it probably should've ended months sooner than it did. If my love for you was this bright, burning thing that I had to keep locked away in a box, but that I took out and looked at now and then and hoped someday it wouldn't be locked up anymore, what I had with Ian is… frozen in amber. It's beautiful, and I cherish it and look at it fondly, but it's never coming out, and I wouldn't want it to."
Jack is quiet for a moment, contemplating that image. He wishes he had Bitty's way with words.
"So anyhow," Bitty continues, "Even though I loved him but I also knew I wasn't in love with him, not like I wanted to be, I felt like… like it was my responsibility to see the relationship through, y'know? I wouldn't exactly say I owed it to him, but he deserved for me to do my best to make it work."
"If you ever feel that way with me, tell me," Jack says. "I mean, I'm not saying we should break up immediately over something like that, but… if you're more with me because you think I deserve you than because you want to be with me, then clearly there's something wrong and we need to figure it out and fix it."
"I can't even imagine feeling that way with you," Bitty says. "But yeah. God, Jack, I… you know how bad I am at confrontation and conflict. Bringing up problems in a relationship is just about the hardest thing in the world. But I want this to work more than anything—I honestly think more than anything I've ever wanted in my life, and I promise I'll try my hardest to get past that and talk about stuff if something's wrong."
"Me, too," Jack says quietly. "I was serious, when I listed all those things I want. And I think the only way to get there is to be honest, even about the bad things."
Bittle pulls his hand out of Jack's, but only so that he can play with Jack's fingers one by one. "I don't know why I'm surprised in the least that you'd bring up getting married and growing old together while asking me out," he says fondly. "That's the most Jack Zimmermann thing possible. And I love it."
"Look," Jack says. "If you asked me to, I would take the first interstate going south and go straight to Las Vegas and marry you tomorrow. That would be a really bad idea, for like ten different reasons, so please don't ask me to, because I would."
Bitty's laughing so much by the time he's done that he can't respond for a moment. "You would, wouldn't you?" he finally says. "And if you did, I'd absolutely marry you tomorrow, sweetpea. But you're right, that's a bad idea, so I am hereby officially not asking you to drive us to Vegas to elope, okay? Not yet, at least."
"Good," Jack says, giving a solid, definitive nod. "That's settled."
"However," Bittle muses. "I maybe wouldn't mind getting started on some of the rest."
Jack gives him a questioning look. "What do you mean? Do you want to go to Madison and Montreal this summer? We can do that. Not right now, but maybe next month?"
Bitty hums thoughtfully. "Not a bad idea, but I need to check my vacation time situation with this new office and the time off for moving and all. I actually meant buying a house."
Jack's eyebrows fly up. "Yeah?" He can't control his grin. "Really? You'd wanna do that? Like, soon?"
"Well, my company set me up with a three-month lease in some building near the office," Bitty explains. "I seriously doubt I'll want to stay there, so I gotta find somewhere to live by the end of the summer anyhow. And I really like the idea of us finding a place that's ours, instead of me just moving in with you. We've got a little time to look, figure out what we want, all that good stuff. But why put it off any longer than that?"
"I mean, if you want you can live with me for the summer, too," Jack says. "Obviously yes, I'd love to look for houses, but we don't necessarily have to wait for that."
Bitty wrinkles his nose adorably. "Eh. I'm sure I'll wind up spending at least half my time there anyhow, but why bother with trying to figure out how to fit two apartments full of stuff into one place if we're just gonna move it all again? This way we've got time to decide, say, whose couch we're keeping or whatever. Well, okay, we're keeping your couch, mine came from a thrift store, but you get my point."
"Sounds good," Jack says. "This is exciting. We're gonna buy a house, Bits!"
Bitty giggles and pulls Jack's hand over into his lap. "We are! That's crazy! Oh my God, this whole thing, this whole move. It feels so different now."
"Yeah. I mean, I didn't not wanna move. I accepted the transfer, after all, and I didn't have to. I coulda stayed. But it'll be good for my career, and to be honest I was feelin' a little bit like I was still relying on Samwell too much, y'know? I graduated and then stayed in the same city, with the same friends, working at a job that I got because Ransom knew a guy. Yes, I did meet a few new people, but most of my social life revolved around our college friends. I mean, after that first disaster roommate I found on Craigslist I lived with Chowder for two years! I'm not sure I needed to move all the way to Seattle, but I kinda needed to move on, just a little. And of course I was hoping something would happen between us, but when I took the job I had no idea if there was any chance of that or not. Even if it didn't happen, I was excited to live close to you, just 'cause I've missed you so much Jack. So much."
"I've missed you, too," Jack can't help replying. Bitty squeezes his hand, then kisses it before continuing.
"I know that kinda contradicts my needing to move on from Samwell, but I think it's totally different having one college friend in a city versus like almost all your college friends in a city. So like, this was a good thing, but I was still apprehensive, y'know? What if I can't make any other friends in Seattle, and you don't have time to hang out with me during the season, and I'm just some pathetic loser with a crush on his one friend who he only sees like once every couple months? Or what if the job doesn't go well? What if I don't get along with anyone in the new office? What if my boss there hates me? What if I lose my job, and then I have to choose between desperately looking for a new job in a new city where I don't know anyone before my meager savings account is empty, or tucking my tail between my legs and moving back to Boston and admitting it was stupid of me to ever leave?"
"Are you still worried about those things?" Jack asks. Bittle sounds worried, but he also tends to get into his stories so that talking about feeling something in the past sounds a lot like talking about feeling it now.
"I mean, some of it, a little. Like, my new boss or my new coworkers or whoever might still hate me. It might still be hard for me to find new friends. But… it's not the same. Suddenly, all that is stuff I'm kinda worried about, but it's not scary. 'Cause no matter what happens with any of that, I know you'll be there, and I know you'll help me. If it takes me a while to find friends, I won't be lonely. If I lose my job, well, for one thing I'll still have somewhere to live, but more importantly I know you'll support me every step of the way while I look for a new one. And… and we're starting our life together, Jack. This whole move is just something completely different from what it was a week ago. It… means something different."
Jack glances over, and although Bittle is looking up at the roof of the car Jack can see tears shining in his eyes. It's Jack's turn to squeeze his hand, then bring it over so he can kiss it.
"I get it," he says. "It really does feel like we're starting a new life, doesn't it? I'm not even moving across the country or changing jobs or anything, but this is… My life is about to change. A lot. And I'm really glad you're the one I get to share those changes with. Like you said, it's not my life that's changing. It's our life now."
They sit quietly for a moment, letting it all sink in.
"You know," Jack says eventually, "I don't think you're going to lose your job, and I don't think anyone there is going to hate you because that's impossible. But I'm here for you no matter what. Like, if you decide this office isn't a good fit even though you get along with people, or if you decide five years from now that you want to quit and change careers entirely, or whatever. If you want to… start your YouTube channel up again and do it full-time, or try to write a cookbook, or anything."
"Sweetheart, when I say you'd support me I don't mean the money—"
"I know!" Jack says. "I know what you meant. But I do mean the money. Bits, I make ten million dollars a year. Like, I don't have ten million dollars in the bank, they give me that every single year. I manage to give a lot of it away through my parents' foundation, but I still have more money than I know what to do with. And if we're going to get married, that's going to be yours, too. I'm not saying you should quit your job or you should let me financially support you, but I'm just pointing out that you have that freedom if you ever decide you want it. Now or anytime in the future."
Bitty sits with that for a minute, chewing his lip.
"Part of me wants to keep saying no, no, I could never let you do that," he finally says. "But… I guess I need to deal with the fact that I am marrying a very rich man and that is going to make me very rich. That's just part of the deal if I want to be with you."
"And you don't like that?"
Bitty shakes his head. "It's not that I like it or don't like it, sweetpea. It's just gonna take some getting used to. Like… like buying a house. I was thinking hm, I wonder how much real estate is in Seattle, and that got me thinking hm, I wonder how much of a mortgage we should budget for, but… we're not getting a mortgage, are we?"
"Not unless you want to look at houses in the tens of millions of dollars range. Which, I mean, it's not like houses are cheap in Seattle, we totally could look at those houses, but I'm guessing we can find what we want for, I don't know, Thirdy's new house cost five million, and it's as nice as anything I could imagine buying. And I have that in the bank."
Bitty lets out a weak laugh. "See? And this part of me is saying oh I can't let you buy the whole house! But if we got a five million dollar house, the few thousand I have in savings will buy, like, what, a window?"
Bitty doesn't sound upset about this, exactly, but the conversation is still making Jack's stomach tighten. "Bits, I don't want you to feel like—I don't know, like you're not contributing—"
"No, no! Really!" Bitty tucks his legs up onto the seat and turns to face Jack. "I know I'll contribute something. Even if my measly $50K a year is a drop in the bucket compared to your ten million, it's not nothing, and I know there's a lot more to it than just financial contributions anyhow. And if for some reason I do decide to change careers or whatever and I don't have an income for a while, I'm not gonna resent you for it or anything. It's just… gonna take some getting used to, is all."
Jack nods as his stomach unclenches. "I mean, this is all going to be a lot of changes for both of us. There's a lot that'll take some getting used to."
Jack squirms as Bittle uses their joined hands to poke him in the side. "If nothing else I can tell myself I'm keeping you a hell of a lot better-fed than you keep yourself."
"Hey, I can cook!" Jack protests. "I mean, yes, you're completely right, but I can cook. I feed myself okay. When the team's not feeding me."
"Yes, you can cook, sweetpea," Bittle says in a placating tone. "But only about five different meals and you know that's the God's honest truth, don't you dare try to argue with me."
Jack shoots him a glare, but doesn't argue, because he's right.
They settle into a comfortable silence for a while, broken only by Bittle complaining about rural radio when he can't find a Top 40 station and humming along when he can. Jack lets his imagination wander, wondering what their house will look like. How big will the yard be? If they get a dog they might want a big one, though a cat would stay indoors. How many bedrooms do they want? Is that going to depend on how many kids they want? He mentioned raising a family earlier, and Bittle said he wanted all the same things, so he assumes that includes having kids, but that's something they probably should talk about sooner rather than later, even if they don't want to have them for a few years yet. Jack may be turning thirty, but Bittle is barely twenty-five, he's probably not ready for kids yet. But if they want three kids someday, that requires a totally different house than one kid—and they were both only children, Jack wouldn't mind having just one, but he thinks maybe he'd like more. Maybe they should start with one, though, and see how that goes. They can always get a different house if their family gets too big for what they buy now.
At some point, Bittle takes his hand from Jack's to start tapping away on his phone. After a bit, he looks up.
"Is it too late for you to cancel our hotel room in Billings?"
Jack frowns. "I guess not. But there's no way we're getting all the way to Missoula tonight."
"I understand that, Mr. Zimmermann, thank you," Bitty says dryly. "I was just thinking, since it's our first night really together and all, it might be nice to stay somewhere a little more special than whatever Holiday Inn or whatever they've got there. I found a nice B&B with a vacancy."
"That sounds great," Jack says, grinning. "I can cancel the hotel when we stop for lunch."
"I'll go ahead and book it, then!"
Jack reached for his wallet, which he put in the center console for the long drives. "Here, if you want to use my credit card—"
Bittle put a hand over his, stopping him. "I understand you're a gazillionaire, honey, but I can afford one night in a $200 B&B."
"Okay, fair enough," Jack says, retracting his hand. He doesn't want to push the money thing too hard just yet. Hopefully Bittle will agree to get a joint account for most of their money to go into, so that they can just pay for things without keeping track of whose money gets used for what. "But once we're home, you have to let me take you to the fanciest restaurant in Seattle."
"You drive a hard bargain," Bitty replies, smirking down at his phone as he (Jack assumes) makes the reservation. "Tell you what, you can buy me dinner anywhere you want, anytime. Somehow I am just fine with being spoiled with frivolous things, so feel free."
"You sure you want to give me a blank check on that, Bittle?" Jack reaches over and squeezes his knee. They haven't been touching for, like… minutes now. Maybe dozens of minutes. Gotta fix that.
Bitty eyes him for a moment. "I don't know how you're gonna make me regret that, but I feel like you are. We can revisit this agreement later if needed."
He taps on his phone for another few minutes, his left hand drifting down to caress Jack's now and then. "How is that gonna work, anyhow?" he eventually asks. Jack isn't sure what he's talking about at first. "I mean, this is a big topic, I know we're not gonna hash it all out right now. But you did say you want your teammates to know about me. And when we do get married, whenever that is, it'll be public record. For now, though—if we go out to a fancy dinner, as long as we're not like overtly touching each other or anything nobody'll probably even notice. But it'd be good to know what our limits are and all that."
"Tater knows," is the first thing Jack thinks of to say.
"That you're not straight?" Bittle asks.
"Euh, yeah. And, ah, about you. I mean." He takes a deep breath. "When he found out about this trip, he asked to come along, because Tater is actually three labrador retrievers in a trenchcoat, and I had to tell him I'd rather he didn't because I was kind of hoping something would happen between us by the end of the trip."
"Why Mr. Zimmermann," Bitty drawls, "did you offer to drive all this way with me just so you could seduce me?"
Jack knows he's joking, but it flusters him anyhow. "I said hoping, Bittle, not planning. Until… I guess until I got to Boston, I really had no clue where we stood as far as that's concerned. And obviously I would've been perfectly happy to take a trip with you as a friend."
"I'm just teasing you," Bitty says, squeezing his hand. "Until you got to Boston, huh? I was that obvious?"
"I mean, wasn't I?" Jack glances at him skeptically. "I still wasn't totally sure, which was why I didn't want to bring it up right at the start, but uh… I was definitely feeling more confident by the time we set out than I was when I was playing Nintendo games with Tater the night before I left Seattle."
"Same, I guess," Bitty admits. "I was actually terrified when I first called you to tell you I was moving. I mean, what if you were just like, oh that's cool, text me once you're settled in and we'll get lunch sometime? Sure, I was hoping for a lot more, but I was kind of banking on you at least being happy I was coming and wanting to hang out with me on a semi-regular basis. When you were so excited I just about cried with relief, because thank God, even if nothing else ever happened at least I'd have one friend. Anyhow, we are so off topic. So Tater knows?"
"Yeah. Nobody else on my team, but… I think it'll be okay? Like, they're all good guys. The whole reason I signed here instead of somewhere closer to Samwell was because of the team culture. They're really good with mental health stuff, and the one time I heard something homophobic in the locker room, it was some kid who'd just been called up and multiple guys shut him down, and everyone else was glaring at him. Obviously, I'm nervous about it, but I have an anxiety disorder, there's no way I wouldn't be. I'm like 90% sure that nothing bad will actually happen if I come out to my team."
"Well, that's good!" Bitty says. "That's great, that you've got a team like that. I wish more of the NHL were like that."
"No kidding. Because, y'know. The rest of the NHL will probably be the bigger problem."
"I hope you're not expecting me to have a plan or anything," Jack admits, "because I don't. I know I don't want to actively hide. I've wanted this for too long—Bits, I've spent five years not holding your hand and not kissing you, the last thing I want to do is to keep not doing those things."
"Well, obviously that's fine with me," Bitty says. "Although we might want to be careful until you've told your team, at least—it's probably better they hear it from you than some gossip site."
"True," Jack says reluctantly. He pauses. "Or at least until I've told George. I might not be patient enough to be careful until the whole team knows."
Bittle giggles and Jack looks over at him. He didn't put as much product in his hair today as he normally does, so instead of sticking up it's flopping over to one side, and he has to keep brushing it out of his eyes when it falls in front of them. With the styled hair he looks sophisticated and stylish. Like this he looks boyish—not young, just playful and charming. He's beautiful either way.
"I'm gonna need you to take a driving shift soon," Jack says as he pulls his eyes away.
"That's fine," Bitty says. "You tired? I've been taking most of the first morning shifts, maybe changing that up was a mistake."
"No, I just can't stare at you when I have to keep looking at the road."
"Why Mr. Zimmermann, who knew you could be such a charmer," Bittle says, and though his tone sounds like he's trying to play it off, when Jack sneaks a glance at him he's blushing.
Jack gets his wish soon enough. It's hard, when they stop to eat, to not touch Bitty as much as he wants to. He still touches him more than he probably should—his shoulder, the small of his back, small things here and there Bitty leans into every time—but manages to keep himself from actually taking his hand.
Bitty is openly flirtatious, which Jack loves and can't help but respond to. It's not like anyone is paying close enough attention to their conversation to know how much of it is flirting.
Back in the car, he settles into a position where he's pretty much facing Bitty. When Bitty realizes this, he giggles and takes Jack's hand, then keeps looking over and giggling every time he sees Jack still staring. They talk for a while about nothing very important, certainly not future plans—they've maybe had enough of such heavy (if thrilling) topics for now—and now and then Bitty stops, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, to sing and wiggle along with some song he likes. Jack keeps ahold of his hand as much as he can without impairing Bitty's driving, kissing and nuzzling it.
Eventually, the kissing gives way to dragging his teeth down each finger, running his tongue over them, sucking them lightly. He can see the effect it's having on Bitty, and despite the fact that they're going 75 down the highway, that only encourages him.
Bitty can only take so much of this, though, and when Jack lets a tiny moan escape while sucking on one of his fingers he finally pulls his hand back. "Good Lord, sweetpea, if you want me to keep driving in a straight line with my eyes open you need to cut that out. Plenty of time for that when we stop for the night." He glances over at Jack with undisguised desire in his eyes. "Speaking of, we should probably find somewhere to buy condoms and such when we get to a decent-sized town."
Jack grins. "Don't worry, I brought some," he says. "And lube."
Bitty gasps, the hand Jack was recently violating now held delicately to his chest. "So you did come here just to seduce me!"
"Like I said, hopeful," Jack says, then he snorts. "Besides, I'm pretty sure seduction takes effort. I think the only effort either of us put in is not throwing ourselves at each other the moment we got back to your place from the airport."
"Can you imagine if we hadn't managed that, and then had to deal with Holster the whole first day of the trip?" Bittle says with a laugh. "Oh good Lord, and then his sister hitting on you? I wasn't jealous or anything, 'cause I could tell you had no interest, but if I'd actually been able to claim you as my boyfriend it woulda been a struggle not to lay claim to you in front of his whole family just to get her to back off."
"I wouldn't have stopped you," Jack says. "But yeah, better we waited until Holster was gone."
"But God, back in Chicago." Bitty gives Jack a dark, hungry look. "When you woke me up still all wet from the shower, smelling so good and wearing that t-shirt that you must know is a little too tight? Half the reason I didn't want to get out of bed was because I wasn't sure I could keep myself from just tearing it right off of you. Or maybe just kneeling down where you were putting on your God damned socks, opening up those cargo shorts, and getting my mouth on you right then and there."
Jack groans a little, his dick twitching under those same cargo shorts. He knows this is payback for sucking on Bittle's fingers, and he deserves it.
"I should probably warn you," he says after a moment. "I haven't given a blowjob in… Jesus, over a decade? I might need a little practice to get back up to speed."
"I'm sure we can arrange that," Bitty purrs. "Although, I gotta say, latex tastes kinda nasty, so maybe not just yet. I just got tested a month ago, but I only broke up with Chris a couple weeks ago, and I'm sure that's not something you really want to take risks on."
"I trust you," Jack says, "but yeah, I don't know Chris well enough to trust him, even for those two weeks."
"Understandable," Bitty says. "Though honestly I think if Chris ever wanted to sleep with anyone else, he woulda just told me. Or invited me to join in. He's such a homebody, though, and super lazy, I'm pretty sure he likes being in a relationship mostly because he never has to go out and find someone to sleep with or go places with. Why would he bother doing any of that when he knew I'd show up at his place a couple nights a week with no effort on his part?"
"So what I'm hearing," Jack says with a smirk, "is that the bar is really low here. In terms of being a good boyfriend."
Bitty opens his mouth. Closes it again. Glares at Jack. Then deflates. "I have no good argument against that."
"I mean, I'm not one to talk," Jack says. "Right now if you don't cheat on me and give me an STD you're doing great. And like, maybe talk to me occasionally about what you want out of our relationship or something?"
Bitty glances at him sadly. "God, you deserve so much better than that, sweetpea."
"Now I've got you," Jack says simply.
"Well, at the very least I can guarantee you all the pie you deserve," Bitty says. "I dunno about bein' as good a boyfriend as you deserve, since it kinda went both ways with me & Chris so I've also spent the past year and a half having to do basically less than the bare minimum to keep a guy happy so I might need to take a refresher course, but pie I can definitely do."
"I'll take what I can get," Jack says. "Oh… just so you know, the last time I got tested was the last time the team doctor did it, so a couple months ago, but I haven't actually slept with anyone since I got the chlamydia cleared up, so…"
"Really?" Bitty's eyebrows shoot up behind his sunglasses. "In over a year?"
Jack kind of half-shrugs, with a half-grimace. "Haven't been on any dates, either. Tori just… kind of soured me on the whole thing for a while. Especially going to Shitty and Lardo's wedding right after, and you being there with Chris—do not apologize," he says when he sees Bitty open his mouth. "What were you supposed to do, not bring your boyfriend to the wedding because your friend got cheated on? That would make no sense. But anyhow, yeah, I wasn't interested in a relationship or really dating at all, and random hookups were really not an option—I've never been that into those anyhow, and even with protection it just suddenly seemed like a stupid, unnecessary risk." He settles back against the seat in his previous position, staring at Bitty. "Anyhow, it worked out well, because what if I'd been dating someone right now? I mean, I can almost guarantee I'd dump anyone for you, but, I doubt I would've suggested coming on this trip. And I would've felt all guilty about it, and probably not jump right to dating you, and you would probably get a boyfriend by the time I got up the nerve to talk about it…"
Bitty shakes his head. "If you'd been dating someone, I don't know if I would've accepted the transfer," he admits. "It'd be one thing to move here while you're single and find out for sure you're not interested and just have to deal with that and finally get over it all and be friends. But like I said, I probably wouldn't have broken up with Ian for you, even though I wanted to be with you so much more than with him. So if you'd been dating someone, and I moved here, I would've hung onto some stupid hope that you actually did have feelings for me still and when that relationship ran its course you'd finally be mine, and that's not terribly healthy. So I guess I've got enough self-awareness to keep myself from getting into that situation by not moving, but not enough to, y'know, not be in the situation if you were dating someone and I did move."
"Well, thank God I haven't dated anyone for over a year, then," Jack says. He plucks Bitty's hand off the steering wheel to bring it back to his mouth. "Let's not talk about all the ways this might have never happened," he says in between kisses to Bitty's knuckles. "All that matters is that we made it."
They make good time, and pull up to the B&B around seven o'clock.
As they're nearing it, Bitty says, "I should probably go check in by myself. There's no hiding that we've got a room with one bed, when there were a couple rooms with two beds available. Luckily, at this place if you want they'll bring breakfast to your room and leave it at the door so you don't have to go mingle with the owners and the other guests if you don't want to."
But when they get to the top of the long driveway and pull into a parking spot, Jack raises his eyebrows and nods toward the pride flags hung near the door. The regular one with black and brown added, a trans pride flag, and a couple he can't identify.
"Not sure they'd care if we've got one bed," he says.
Bitty bites his lip. "It's up to you, sweetpea. I can go in by myself still if you want."
Maybe it's a little reckless, but Jack smiles and opens the door to get out of the truck. "I'm kind of curious what happens," he says. "Maybe they won't have any idea who I am and it won't even matter."
He follows Bitty into the front door of the large house. The foyer has had a window cut into one wall to make a front counter, and Bitty rings the bell there.
"One minute!" someone calls from another room. They wait, and soon a middle-aged woman appears behind the counter, carting a laundry basket full of towels that she sets on a nearby chair as she approaches. She has long, slightly frizzy brown hair with grey streaks, parted down the middle, and large glasses with multicolored frames. "Hi there, I'm Cassie. Checking in?"
"Yes, Eric Bittle," Bitty says, leaning his elbows on the counter while Jack hangs back. Cassie's eyebrows quirk upward at his name, just for a second. "Sorry, I just made the reservation a few hours ago, I hope that wasn't too last minute?"
"We wouldn't let the system take the reservation if it was," she says with a smile as she peers over her glasses at the computer screen on one side of the desk. "Here we are… Bittle."
Something in the way she says Bittle's name and then looks at him pings something in the back of Jack's mind, but her gaze shifts to Jack before he can think too hard about it. He gives her a small, hesitant smile, and from the way she blinks at him for just a second too long he knows she recognizes him. She doesn't say anything, though, just turns back to her computer and taps a few keys.
She pauses, peers closely at the screen, taps a few more keys. She glances at them each again, then leans back from the screen without taking her eyes off it.
"It looks like we have you booked in the Rosewater Suite," she says, her voice slow and maybe a little cautious despite her smile, "with one king bed. Does that sound right?" She looks up at Bitty for confirmation.
"Yes, ma'am," Bitty says with a bright smile. "That's the one with the cute little rabbit pillows on the bed, right?"
Jack stifles a laugh as Cassie confirms that yes, that's the right room, but Bittle hears him and shoots him a playful glare, and then Jack can't help but laugh out loud. He steps up next to Bittle, slips an arm around his waist, and kisses him on the temple. He can feel Cassie's eyes on them, but it doesn't bother him.
"Was Senor Bun getting lonely?" he murmurs, and gets jabbed in the ribs for it. He tightens his arm, though, and after a second Bitty relaxes into his grip, leaning into him a little.
When he looks up, he can't quite decipher the look on Cassie's face. It's soft, but her warm smile seems to be warring with something else that makes it falter, makes her jaw clench a little. After just a second of eye contact with Jack, she turns back to the computer, and Jack realizes she's trying not to cry.
She swallows as she hits a few more keys, and as the printer starts to spit something out, she takes a breath. "Of course, all our records are kept completely confidential for all of our guests," she says carefully, eyes on the computer.
"Of course," Bitty says, but it's like a key turns a lock inside of Jack as he looks down at him.
He hadn't been lying before, when he said he's tired of waiting. When he said he doesn't want to hide. Even so, standing here with an arm finally wrapped around the man he's been in love with for so long, where anyone might walk in the front door and see him—it solidifies everything in a way that surprises Jack. He knows he was also not lying when he said he should tell at least George before anything leaks onto the internet, but now he wonders if he shouldn't text her tonight instead of waiting to talk to her in person in a few days.
"It won't need to be for long," he says out loud. Bitty's eyes turn up to his, though not in surprise—he has a little pleased grin on his face that's just bordering on smug.
When Jack looks up, Cassie is openly staring. There's something vulnerable about the look on her face, but beyond that, Jack can't interpret it.
She gives her head a quick shake, pulling herself out of wherever her mind had gone. "I'm sorry," she says, but her breath hitches at the end of it. She tries to get back to what she was doing, looking first at the computer, then at the paper sitting on the printer, then back at the computer, but she's clearly lost the thread. Her chin trembles, and finally she pushes her glasses up into her hair and wipes at her eyes.
"I'm sorry, this is so unprofessional of me," she says. "But—but I know who both of you are—" Bittle stands up a little straighter under Jack's arm, startled. That's what it was, what seemed familiar about the way she responded to Bitty—she recognized his name. "—and I just… My son wrote to you," she says to Bitty, "a few years ago. I don't expect you to remember, I'm sure you got letters from quite a few kids and you were just trying to live your life and be a normal college student. But—" She takes a shuddering breath.
Jack and Bitty both wait quietly. A few years ago, he did an interview for Sports Illustrated that went into his mental health history, and since then Jack's gotten used to fans who want to tell him their story. When it comes to mental health, often those stories are hard to listen to, but he feels honored that they trust him with them. He hopes that coming out stories will have more happy—or at least hopeful—endings. Most of the letters Bittle got when he was captain were hopeful.
"You know, it's not too bad here, mostly," Cassie continues. "Montana votes deep red, but for the most part people mind their own business. Very live and let live. Nobody said anything when Amy and I opened this place up. Our kids didn't even get that much flak in school for having two moms. But Ryan got into hockey early on, and, well. By middle school the team he was on wasn't just kids from his little school. Here he was, realizing that he's gay just like his parents and right at the same time, that he might actually be good enough at hockey to play in college, maybe even try for a scholarship, and he just…" She has to stop for a second again, tearing up.
"Oh, honey," Bitty murmurs. Cassie smiles sadly.
"We thought about moving. We both grew up in Montana, all our family's within a couple of hours of here, but we thought maybe it's time to suck it up and move somewhere more liberal. It's one thing to have gay parents, but he didn't know how the kids at school or on his team would be if it was him and not just us. But the problem is, hockey is hockey, wherever you go, y'know? Moving to Chicago or Portland or wherever isn't gonna change that, not completely. And from what I could tell, it would only get worse for him in college, and what was he supposed to do, stay in the closet? In college? So anyhow, to make a very long story ever so slightly shorter, when we found a story about you his freshman year of high school, he cried. And when your team won the championship, he came out to his team. And it hasn't been all smiles and sunshine, but he's headed to St. Cloud State in the fall on a scholarship when I don't think he'd still be playing if it weren't for you." By the end, she has to wipe a few more tears from her eyes before she puts her glasses back in place.
"That's so wonderful," Bitty says, hand to his heart, his own eyes looking a little misty. Jack gazes down at him, proud all over again. "I hope his college teammates are as great as mine were, I really couldn't have asked for a better, more supportive team. I could never have made captain without all of them behind me—heck, I woulda been kicked off the team if this one hadn't worked with me until I stopped fainting every time someone tried to check me."
"Well, it's not Samwell," Cassie says with a wry smile. "Not that he didn't want to go there, but he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell with his grades. I'm sure he'll run into some problems, but I think he'll also have people on his side. And…" She's been directing all of this at Bitty, but now she looks up at Jack. "I'm not saying this is something that's likely or unlikely to happen, or that anyone should do anything they're not comfortable with, but… if one of the top players in the NHL did ever happen to come out publicly, I can't imagine—" She has to stop for a second and take a breath, eyes cast toward the ceiling, so she doesn't cry again. "I can't imagine what kind of an impact that would have. There will always, always be assholes, and unfortunately there will probably also always be toxic masculinity, at least in my lifetime. But it sure would take the wind out of a few assholes' sails."
Jack can't help but chuckle at that. "Just so you know," he says quietly, "it's when. Not if. I don't quite know when, but… soon."
She nods, then suddenly turns toward the printer. "Oh, goodness, I've kept you two here long enough by now. I just need you to sign this, Mr. Bittle, and I'll grab your key and you can make your escape."
Another woman appears in the doorway behind Cassie as she's talking. She looks about the same age, but a bit shorter with close-cropped grey hair and round wireframe classes. When she first pokes her head around the doorframe, she looks like she's about to say something, but her mouth closes when Cassie says Bitty's name, and she looks at Bitty in surprise, blinking, as he signs the contract. Then she notices Jack and her eyes widen. That's when Cassie notices her there.
"Oh no," Cassie says, waving her hands at her wife in a "do not enter" sort of gesture. "These two lovely gentlemen have already had one old lesbian cry all over them, they don't need two."
Amy gives her a look of probably-faux annoyance. "I'm not going to cry on anyone. I'm the only member of this family who is actually capable of not crying over hockey players." She looks back to them. "I'll also do you two a favor and not tell our son you're here, or you'll never have any peace." She turns back to Cassie as Bitty giggles. "Cass, I just wanted to let you know the guy just delivered the mulch. I'm gonna go get a start on the landscaping before it gets dark." Then she gives Jack and Bitty a nod and a small salute before disappearing again.
"I guess we'd better get used to that, eh?" Jack says once they're shut in their room—or suite, as the name suggests, as it has a smaller room off to one side with a loveseat and television, and a bathroom as large as that room with a jacuzzi tub.
"It's been a while since anyone recognized my name," Bitty says, shaking his head. "Even in the LGBT community, it's not like most people cared for longer than it took to read an article about me. It really is only the LGBT hockey community that paid more attention than that, and you know how big that community is."
Jack wraps his arms around him. "Unfortunately, even though your story wasn't big enough to get you too much negative attention, our story will be," he says, leaning down to touch his forehead to Bitty's. "I hope the positive attention outweighs it, though."
"We'll deal with it, either way," Bitty says softly, gazing up into Jack's eyes. "All that really matters is that you're mine now, and no homophobic assholes can take that away from me."
He pulls Jack down into a kiss that starts off warm and sweet but quickly turns hot and demanding. Bitty pushes Jack back until his legs hit the bed, and as soon as he sits down Bitty is climbing into his lap, straddling him, pushing his fingers into Jack's hair. Jack moans as he digs his fingers into the hard muscle of Bittle's ass and pulls him close, overwhelmed by the need to finally, finally feel their bodies pressed together.
He slides one hand up the back of Bitty's shirt, savoring the smooth expanse of warm skin, and Bitty immediately reaches down to pull his shirt right off. Jack pulls back just enough to watch his muscles flex and stretch as he does it. If he thought those arms were tempting under a tight shirt, he wasn't prepared for them like this. Bitty isn't even done throwing the shirt aside before Jack's mouth is on him, tasting the dip of his collarbone before working its way up to his shoulder, teeth scraping the skin and making Bitty whimper.
Jack sucks a mark into his shoulder, then kisses his way up to Bitty's throat. "Fuck, Bits," he mutters as he goes, "do you have any idea how long I've wanted you?"
"I'm gonna guess five years," Bitty says with a breathy laugh. He's moving against Jack now, a slow roll of his hips that's going to drive Jack crazy very quickly.
"Closer to six," Jack admits. Bitty ducks down to lick and nip at his throat now, and he lets his head fall back. "I spent my whole senior year trying to ignore it. Ignore your stupid perfect little ass hanging out of your stupid tiny shorts, ignore you doing squats in the living room where anyone can see, like you had no idea the effect it could have."
Bitty giggles. "I definitely had no idea," he says. He raises his head and takes Jack's face in his hands, his lips hovering close enough that Jack can feel the breath ghosting across his own. "God, Jack, part of me wants to just sit here and make out with you for hours, make up for all that lost time. But the rest of me has never been this turned on in my God damn life, so I'm not sure that's gonna work out."
Jack laughs, but Bitty quiets him with a kiss. After another minute or two of kissing, Jack pulls back to take his own shirt off. He wishes he could take a photo of the way Bitty is looking him when he's done.
They do make out for quite a while, but neither of them can go hours before their pants start getting uncomfortably tight. That's when they finally lie down, helping each other out of those pants on their way.
Eventually, Jack is kneeling between Bitty's knees, and the way his boyfriend is splayed out before him is undeniably the single hottest thing he's ever seen.
"Just so you know," he murmurs as he works one finger in, "I've never actually done this with someone with a prostate. Definitely let me know if I need to change an angle or anything?"
Bitty's forehead wrinkles, and adorably confused expression that's completely at odds with the way he's flushed and panting.
"Really? You and Kent never…?"
Jack snorts, then kisses Bittle's knee, because it's there and he can. "Kent and I were horny teenagers whose top priorities were 1) not getting caught and 2) not doing anything that could possibly interfere with our hockey. Good sex was a very, very distant third."
Bittle smirks at him, and that expression looks much more at home in this environment. "So I guess that means you've never tried bottoming."
Jack gives him his own smirk. "Not with a real dick."
Bittle's eyebrows fly up and he laughs, but only for a second before cutting off with a gasp because Jack has very long fingers, and he may not have done this with another guy before but he does have his own prostate and isn't clueless.
When Jack finally pushes in, Bitty's ankles around his shoulders and a string of dirty talk he wouldn't have guessed Bitty capable of in his ear, it's so much better than anything he imagined late at night in his bed at the Haus, trying not to fantasize about a teammate and failing miserably. Back then he thought he only wanted Bittle, and he was a little ashamed that he would even imagine hooking up with a teammate. It had never occurred to him that this was what he really wanted, not just incredible sex but incredible sex with a man he loves more than anything, who he'll do anything for.
Afterwards, when they're wrapped around each other and dozing lightly, he realizes he really would do anything. Back then, he would have done a lot, but he wasn't in a place where he could throw his career away, not even for Bitty. Walking out on the contract he'd already signed would have only led to resentment on his end and Bitty forever feeling like it was his fault. Now, he's ready and willing to risk that career by making their relationship public—and if it came down to it, he'd quit if he had to. He doesn't want to, and Bitty wouldn't want him to, but he's proven himself. He's no longer in the shadow of either his dad or his own mistakes. If he had to, he wouldn't hesitate to choose Bitty over a few more years in the NHL, nor would he regret it for a moment.
And that's all I've got written! Tune in tomorrow to see if I can finish this thing on schedule!
(Honestly, I'm sort of at a point where I'm not sure I'd notice if their conversation looped around to the same topics multiple times or if they contradict themselves at different points - so I apologize if this chapter is not as tightly edited as it really should be.)
Chapter 9: Billings to Missoula to Seattle
It's late, so this is not getting as thorough an editing as usual - I'll fix any minor errors in the morning. :)
Next morning: *waves a hand over fic* You didn't see all those places where things were in the wrong tense...
The only thing better than waking up with Bittle, Jack decides, is waking up naked with him. After dozing for a while the night before, they'd gotten up, showered, and ordered dessert from a place that delivered cookies and ice cream. They'd tried to watch a movie while eating, but sharing the various flavors led to feeding each other, which led to making out, which led to the TV being turned off because that particular movie didn't make good background noise for sex on the couch.
Now, he wakes up on his side, one arm and leg thrown over Bitty, who is asleep on his back with one arm under Jack and the other thrown over his head on the pillow. Jack glances at the clock and sees that their breakfast won't come for another hour, so he kisses his way across Bitty's chest and up his throat. Before he can make it to his ear, the skin below his lips and tongue vibrates with a low groan.
As slow as Bittle usually is to wake up, Jack is taken by surprise when suddenly there's a leg wrapped around him and a hand on his dick. He moans and reaches down to reciprocate. Neither of them is entirely awake, so it's a bit fumbling, definitely not their best effort, but somehow Jack likes that. He wants to have all kinds of sex with Bittle, hell he even wants to have bad sex with Bittle that they can laugh about afterwards (or even during); half-awake fumbling sex is definitely on the list.
They're showered and dressed by the time there's a knock at the door letting them know that breakfast is there. Bitty brings in the tray left in the hallway, laden with freshly-made eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, muffins, and a carafe of orange juice, while Jack gets the small coffee maker started. They sit down at the small breakfast table in the corner and talk about their plans for the day while they eat. It's cozy and domestic, and occasionally they'll forget they're eating and talking and just stare at each other for a minute before laughing about what lovestruck fools they both are.
On the way out, Bitty stops at the front counter to chat with Cassie again. Jack takes their bags out to the truck, then comes back inside to wait patiently, flipping through a rack of pamphlets for local tourist stops (there aren't many). They're in no big rush today.
"Oh, no," Cassie is saying, "I appreciate the thought, but there is absolutely no way we would've woken a guest up early just to talk to Ryan before school."
"Well, we'll have to send him a letter or something once we get to Seattle," Bittle says, but Jack breaks in.
"What time does he get off school?" he asks.
"Not until 2:30," Cassie says. "I certainly can't ask you to hang around here that long, it sounds like you're in the middle of quite the trek—"
"But we're only going to Missoula today," Jack points out. "We were planning to stop around Bozeman to hike, but if we hike somewhere closer instead, we can say hi to him after school and still get to Missoula in plenty of time to get a good night's sleep, right?"
Cassie seems too flustered to respond.
"That's true," Bitty says. "It's only what, a five hour drive? If we get out of here by 3:30 we'll still be fine." He turns from Jack back to Cassie. "This is the shortest leg of our trip, it really wouldn't be a problem. There must be hiking trails around here."
Cassie finally finds her voice. "There are a few nice ones," she says, "but it's nowhere near as scenic as once you get into the mountains. I'm sure you'd rather hike out there."
Bitty gives her a smile that's as genuine as it is charming. Jack can't believe he thinks he might have trouble making friends. "Don't be silly, we're both city boys, it doesn't take much to impress us. And I'm sure we'll find our way out here again, when we'll have more time to explore."
"Do you have any rooms open tonight?" Jack asks. "We can't actually stay, but it'd be nice to have somewhere to shower and rest after we hike, so I'd gladly pay for another night even if we're only going to use it for a few hours."
Cassie eventually accepts that she won't talk them out of this, and books them for another night.
Jack moves their bags back out of the truck, and they poke around online a bit and pick a trail that's not too far away.
He's sure that Cassie is right, there probably are even more scenic areas in the mountains, but the trail they wind up on is very nice and has some beautiful views. He's glad that he and Bittle got things worked out already, because there's no way he'd be able to keep his hands to himself out here, with nobody around.
"Hmmmm." They're standing at the overlook at the peak of the trail. Jack took a few pictures, but now his arms are around Bitty as they gaze out at the view. Bitty looks up at him, leaning his head back on Jack's shoulder, a small playful smile on his lips. "I suppose I'm glad things went the way they did, because I'm glad we stayed at this B&B and met Cassie and now we'll get to meet Ryan. But maybe I shoulda held out for just another day or two. Just imagine, confessing our undying love for each other in some beautiful mountain pass with a view like this."
Jack kisses him on the temple, then the cheek, then Bitty turns a bit so he can reach his mouth. "That doesn't have to be a one-time thing, y'know," he says. "I'm perfectly happy to confess my undying love for you every single day if you'd like."
"That's sweet, but I think it only counts as a confession the one time," Bitty says, laughing.
"That sounds like a challenge," Jack says very seriously. Bitty's eyes go wide.
"What have I done?" He turns around in Jacks arms and links his hands behind Jack's neck. "Fine, then. Go on, confess."
Jack thinks for a second. "I don't think you met her, but at the start of your senior year I dated a woman named Anna for a few months. One night she said she loved me, and I stared at her blankly for a minute, and then blurted out, 'I'm sorry, I'm still in love with someone I can't be with and who I might never be able to be with but I'm starting to think I'm just not ever going to get over him and that's really not fair to you'."
"Oh, sweetheart, you didn't!" Bitty looks torn between affection and dismay.
"The first thing she said was 'You never said you like guys,' because I knew she was bi but I'd never come out to her. So then I felt bad for that, too, but she said 'apologize all you want for breaking my heart, but don't apologize for that.' Which was nice of her, given the circumstances."
"That poor thing," Bitty says.
"We talked about it for a while. She was hurt, obviously, but she said it didn't sting quite as badly if I wasn't in love with her because I was in love with someone else, and not because of anything about her. She wanted me to tell her about you. At first I wasn't sure that was a good idea, like it seemed like it would just be pouring salt in the wound and I didn't want that, but she insisted, so I did. And after a while she said that it helped, because she could see that I really was desperately in love with you. I wasn't just saying it as an excuse or something. She'd just happened to wander into my life at the wrong time, when I wasn't ready or able to love anyone else like that."
"Wow," Bitty says. "That's very mature of her. She sounds like a good egg."
"She's always very philosophical about things like that. We still keep in touch now and then. She's getting married this fall. She'll be happy to hear that you and I finally managed to work this out." Jack leans his forehead down to touch Bitty's. "So anyhow, there's a confession for you—I'm so in love with you that I accidentally broke someone's heart, but also so much that it didn't hurt her as much as it could have because it was just so obvious how I felt about you."
"Too bad you didn't manage to chase off Tori the same way before she could break your heart," Bitty says with a sad smile.
Jack nods a little, but not enough for them to stop touching. "I met her almost a year after Anna and I broke up. By then, you'd graduated, you were definitely not moving to Seattle, and you were dating Ian and seemed happy with him. I'd figured out a little better how to put it in a box, like you said, so that at a bare minimum I could manage not to blurt it out. And it was around then that I started thinking like I told you before—that maybe I would never be with you, but lots of people don't get that. There's a reason people talk about 'the one that got away'. So I was a little more ready to… settle. For good enough. Which, of course, she turned out not to be anyhow."
He leans down to kiss Bitty, the love of his life, the one he was always supposed to be with. They stay there, leaning against the informational sign explaining the types of trees one could see from the lookout point, kissing and touching languidly until they hear another group of hikers coming up the trail behind them and slip away to continue down the trail.
When they get back to the B&B, they go to shower, where "shower" really winds up meaning "have sex in the jacuzzi tub."
"I'm getting old, y'know," Jack jokes as they dry off. "I won't be able to keep up this twice-a-day thing for long."
Bitty gives him a look that would make him eat those words right then and there if it had been more than ten minutes since he came. "It's only twice because we have so much to do," he says, voice low and husky. "Just you wait until I get you all to myself for a lazy weekend with nowhere to be."
They manage to get dressed without pouncing on each other, and by 2:40 they've put their stuff back into the truck and are waiting in the common room of the B&B—it's clearly supposed to be a living room, but they put out little tables in the morning for guests coming down for breakfast. It has a little station set up in the corner with coffee and iced tea all day, along with plates of cookies or brownies whenever Cassie happens to have a moment to make some. Bitty had talked to her that morning about his vlog for a while, which apparently they'd watched several episodes of back when he was in the news.
Cassie and Amy and their kids don't live in the B&B itself. They also own the much smaller house next door, and have arranged it so that the two properties are connected in one beautifully landscaped garden that Jack and Bitty had taken a walk through that morning before heading out on their hike. So they know that Ryan and his little sister Katie, who he drives home from school, will go there and text their moms to let them know they're home. Then Cassie will tell him that she has some guests for him to meet.
So they're sitting on an antique sofa, drinking iced tea and talking quietly about what they might want in a house, when they hear someone enter the front office from the same door they'd seen Amy come in the night before. They know now that the family entrance is back there. They look up to see a boy with a large, athletic build but floppy hair and skinny jeans standing in the doorway.
"I got your text, ma, who am I supposed to—" Jack and Bitty have already stood up and are on their way into the front hall from the common room, and when he glances at them he freezes.
Ryan's eyes cut to Cassie and then back to Jack. He clearly doesn't recognize Bitty on sight, which isn't surprising since it's probably been three years since he saw a photo or video of him, but he definitely knows who Jack is.
"Hi," Jack says as he leans his elbows on the counter. "You're Ryan?"
"You—" Ryan looks at his mom again, who just sits there, smiling. "Are you Jack Zimmermann?"
"Yeah," Jack says with an easy smile. He puts a hand on Bitty's back. "This is my boyfriend, Eric Bittle."
Bitty smiles and waves, and this is apparently too much for Ryan. He takes a few gulping breaths, wide eyes moving from one of them to the other and back again, then finally leans back on the door frame and slides down to sit on the floor, face in his hands.
Jack grimaces, and Bitty gives Cassie an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, I think we broke your son," he says. But when a large sob comes out from behind Ryan's hands, Bitty suddenly looks more panicky than anything else. He looks frantically around the hall until he sees the door a few feet away. "I'm sorry, can I—" he looks at Cassie, motioning to the door. She nods and Jack watches him race into the office and sit right down on the floor next to Ryan.
Jack isn't exactly good at helping crying people, not like Bitty is, so he just watches as his boyfriend talks quietly to Ryan, a few tears slipping down his own face as he pulls Ryan's hands down. Bitty grabs a box of tissues off a nearby table and shares it with him, even though Bitty really hasn't cried enough to need them.
Jack waits patiently. He can't quite hear what they're saying, but Bitty at least has Ryan smiling and nodding. His face is still a little red and blotchy, but he's not actively crying anymore. Cassie is doing something on the computer, clearly trying to give him some semblance of privacy but glancing over now and then to check on him.
Finally, Bitty helps Ryan up. "Now come meet my boyfriend," he says, grinning, and pulls Ryan over.
Jack is pretty awkward with fans still, but he's better with kids, even kids who aren't quite kids anymore. He remembers how vulnerable he still was at 18 and 19, how not at all ready to enter an adult world, let alone one in the spotlight. Ryan is definitely still a kid in his eyes. It also helps that Bitty comes back around the front desk to stand next to him, wrapping his hands around Jack's arm and leaning into him, facilitating the conversation whenever Jack and Ryan (who reminds him of himself in both good and bad ways) fumble it.
"I—" Ryan runs a hand through his hair, looking down at the floor as he leans back on the desk behind him. "When Eric, y'know, came out and was in the news and stuff, I remember finding out you guys had been teammates. I saw you get asked about him a few times. I always thought it was really cool of you to be supportive like you were, and like, it seemed like you guys were actually friends and you weren't just giving the soundbite some PR person told you to. And then you actually went all the way across the country for Samwell's last game when they won, and I was like wow, he really means it. I remember thinking that, y'know, if more guys like you in the NHL made it clear you were okay with it, maybe that would help things. I didn't really think—it didn't seem too likely there'd ever be more than that, y'know?"
"I mean, not all teams are as good about that stuff as the Schooners," Jack says. "A lot of the time, it really is just lip service because the PR guys tell them they need to use pride tape or whatever. But not all the time. I have friends on a lot of teams who are genuinely supportive. And it's not like I'm the only queer guy in the NHL. I doubt most of them are going to go public anytime soon, but they're there."
"So… you are?" Ryan looks at them from behind the bangs he pushes out of his face, a little wary and a little disbelieving. "You're gonna tell people?"
"Yeah," Jack says. He pulls his arm out of Bitty's hands just so he can put it around his waist and hold him close. "I don't know when, exactly, and obviously we'd appreciate it if you don't tell anyone until then. But I'm guessing by the time the season starts, the whole world will know."
"Oh, yeah, I won't tell anyone," Ryan assures them. "I know how it works."
"Actually…" Bitty looks at Ryan thoughtfully, then gets a mischievous little grin on his face. "Give me your phone number, and you can impress all your friends by accurately predicting that Jack Zimmermann is gonna come out a day before it happens."
Ryan laughs, but when Bitty makes it clear that he's serious he takes Bitty's phone to put his number in. By then it's nearly 3:30, so Jack and Bitty have to wrap things up and say their goodbyes so that they can get to Missoula at a decent hour.
While Bitty drives, Jack gets out his phone and calls George.
"What's up, Jack?" She sounds downright suspicious when she answers the phone.
"Why do you sound like that?" he asks. "You sound like a parent whose kid just ran into the room and swore they had nothing to do with it."
"Because you're supposed to be in the middle of nowhere somewhere, driving across the country, not calling your boss, and I've been in charge of a whole hockey team's worth of men who don't always make good life choices for over a decade. Call it instinct."
Jack sighs. "If it makes you feel any better, I am in the middle of nowhere, in Montana somewhere."
"And why are you calling me from the middle of nowhere, in Montana somewhere?"
"I didn't do anything wrong!" He's not sure why he feels the need to defend himself from accusations she hasn't actually made. "I'm not in trouble, or in jail or anything! Jeez, George."
"Okay. So why are you calling me? You've never called me while you were on vacation before. Something is clearly up, Zimmermann."
"Okay, yes, something is up, but it's not anything like that. It's not anything bad at all, just… something I figured I should give you a heads up about."
"Did you play shinny with some teenagers and get overcompetitive again?"
"That was one time like four years ago," Jack says indignantly. "And there were teenagers on my team, too, I wanted them to win, not me! They were posting perfectly nice things about me on social media, it's not my fault the other kids were sore losers."
"Oh dear Lord, this is a story I'm gonna have to hear," Bitty murmurs. Jack shoots him a glare and he just laughs.
"Seriously, Jack," George says. She sounds more relaxed finally, but still somber. "What's up?"
Jack sighs again, running a hand down his face. He'd been all ready with what he wanted to say, but then George got them off on this tangent and now he's all worked up and he can't remember any of the carefully-chosen words he'd repeated to himself three times before calling.
"You just need to know I'm dating a guy, and I don't think anyone's gotten pictures of us or anything but it might leak out between now and whenever I make a statement or whatever."
George is quiet for a moment. "Okay," she finally says. "Okay. You're right, this isn't bad. But Jack, if nobody's gotten any pictures yet, why couldn't you wait until you're back in Seattle to tell me?"
"Because I'm not being very careful, and I don't really plan to be," he says. "We stayed in a lovely B&B last night run by lesbians with a gay teenage son who's going to play hockey for St Cloud, and I don't think any of those three would tell but I can't promise nobody overheard our conversations with them. Just like I don't think anyone saw us making out on a hiking trail earlier today but again, I can't promise it."
"Saw you what?"
Jack ignores the question and presses on. "And when we stop for dinner tonight, if I feel like holding his hand or putting an arm around him or even giving him a quick kiss, I'm just gonna do it. Not like any heavy PDA or anything—"
"Not like making out on a hiking trail," George breaks in.
"—but it's possible that it could be enough that someone who recognizes me might notice. So, there you go. I have officially given you a heads up."
"So wait, I assume the guy you're dating is Bittle? From Samwell, the guy you're helping move?"
"Yeah. I didn't just find a random guy in Chicago and drag him along on the trip."
That gets a laugh out of George. "I'm just pointing out that, y'know, this isn't like if you were dating another NHL player but he is a tiny bit… I don't know if I would even say famous, but he's a known quantity. The fact that you're dating the first out NCAA ice hockey captain who you've been friends with forever is going to lead to a lot of questions about the past few years."
"I'll worry about what questions people ask when they ask them," Jack says.
"Not a great plan, kiddo," George says apologetically. "When you're back in town we should sit down, maybe Bittle too, and talk about things that might come up and how you want to handle them. Does anyone on the team know yet?"
"Just Tater," Jack says. "But obviously I'm gonna tell the rest of the team before I say anything publicly."
"Unless a photo of you canoodling with this guy in some restaurant in the middle of nowhere, Montana pops up on someone's Twitter tomorrow," George says with a slight sigh.
"I don't canoodle," Jack says, and Bitty, who can only hear his half of the conversation, bursts out laughing. "There will be no canoodling."
"Sure," she says. "Do you want me to pass on this heads-up to anyone? Just in case you do happen to canoodle?"
"Stop using that word, that's a weird, weird word," Jack complains. "I guess someone in PR might want to know?"
"I'll talk to Nina, but I'll tell her to keep it to herself for now unless something happens. I'll leave telling your teammates up to you unless I hear otherwise."
"Well, I have a meeting to get to," George says. "Who schedules a meeting for 4pm on a Friday? Ugh. Anyhow, thanks for the warning. And congrats, kiddo. You're happy?"
"Definitely," Jack says, looking over at his boyfriend behind the wheel. "Really happy."
"That's all that matters, then," George says.
They get into Missoula around nine and grab a pizza on their way to the hotel. The room they booked has two beds, but there's no real point in changing it—they just don't use one of the beds. Though they're glad it's there when, despite the towels they put down, they manage to get a bit of a mess on one of the pillows and steal one from the other bed to sleep on.
"Home stretch!" Bitty exclaims as they toss their bags into the truck for the last time.
"Literally," Jack replies with a grin. "By tonight you'll be in your new home, Bits. Exciting, huh?"
"With you," Bitty says. He leans over the console to give Jack a quick kiss before they both fasten their seatbelts. "My new home with you." He starts the truck then pauses. "Well, my home city anyhow. I assume I can crash at your place for a couple days until there's enough furniture to make my apartment actually livable?"
Jack gives him a look. "You know full well the only problem I have with that is the part where you leave for this 'other apartment' where you have all this 'furniture' and stuff," he says, using air quotes.
Bitty just grins at him as he pulls out of the parking space. "We've been over this. And you're welcome to come with me to my place, you know. Nobody ever said it just has to be me staying over at yours half the time until we find a house."
Jack's phone vibrates as they get on the highway.
Tater: You're coming back today, right? How are things? With baker?
Jack: Yes, and good.
Jack grins as he gets no response, knowing that Tater is waiting to see if he says more.
Tater: What is "good"? You kiss? You get married?
Jack: Yes, there has been plenty of kissing. No, I made it very clear that we are not getting married on this trip.
Tater: Zimmboni!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That is wonderful!!!!!!!! When is wedding then?????
Jack: Someday. We're not worrying about that right now.
Tater: Okay so when do I meet?
Jack: You've met him. A couple times. Right?
Tater: But that was meet your friend from college, now I need meet your boyfriend!!!!!!!
"Tater wants to meet you as my boyfriend," he reports to Bitty. "Should I tell him you'll be at our video game night next week?"
"Oh, honey, that's you and Tater's special thing, isn't it? I don't wanna intrude. We can get lunch with him sometime maybe?"
Jack rolls his eyes. "You're not intruding."
"From what you've said, the women you've dated have never been invited to this little ritual of yours," Bitty points out.
"Yeah, well, I wasn't moving in with any of them by the end of the summer," Jack counters. "Once we live together, what are you gonna do, go sit in a late-night coffee shop every Friday night? Bits, seriously, I'm happy to have you there and so is he. None of the women I've dated have ever…" He trails off as he thinks about the possible ways to end that sentence. Bitty looks at him expectantly. "I've never been such good friends with any of the women I've dated," he finally says. "Which is not great, now that I say it out loud, especially if I actually was thinking about moving in with Tori sometime in the next few months."
"I mean, me neither, with any of the guys I've dated," Bitty says. "The closest was Ian, and like I said, I think he was a better friend than boyfriend, so that's not quite the same." He reaches over and squeezes Jack's knee. "I'm glad we have that, though. I know we didn't get to see each other often the past few years, and sometimes it's seemed like our conversations would be kind of superficial when one of us got real busy, so we weren't as close as we were at Samwell. But it's always been the kind of thing where as soon as we could actually get together, or have time for a real phone call, it's like no time has passed, y'know? I never once felt like we'd really grown apart, not in the ways that matter. Even if sometimes I didn't know every detail of your life."
Jack smiles as he remembers his text conversation with Lardo a few days earlier. "So can I tell him you'll be there?"
Bittle sighs, sounding more put-upon than is really reasonable for agreeing to play video games. "I suppose."
Jack: He'll be there on Friday, ok?
Tater: OH MY GOD
Tater: THIS MEANS WE GET PIE AT VIDEO GAME NIGHT NOW
They're about an hour from Seattle, Jack driving, when Bitty's phone rings. "It's Lardo," he reports. "I guess we better tell them, huh?"
"Guess so," Jack says as he answers.
"Hey Lards, how's it going? …Yeah, I think I have a good connection here, Facetime's probably fine. …Yes, yes, of course Jack is driving, dear Lord woman what do you take me for? Hang on, I'll call you back on there." He ends the call. "Lardo and Shitty want to Facetime with us for some reason," he says.
"Even if you're the one with the phone, that's gonna be kind of awkward with me driving," Jack says. "I mean, as long as they're fine with me not really looking over at them much, then whatever I guess."
Bitty shrugs and calls Lardo back.
After greetings ranging from short so he can get back to driving (Jack) to long and protracted and more than is really necessary given that it's been less than a week since they were all together (Shitty), Bitty asks. "Okay, so what's all the fuss? You can't tell me you were missing my pretty face this quickly."
He's turned in his seat so Jack is mostly behind him, holding the phone up so it catches them both. When Jack glances over, he can see Lardo grimace.
"So, this is kind of awkward," she says, and Jack's first nonsensical thought is that Lardo and Shitty called to break up with them. "Because it's the kind of thing I really wish we could've told you guys in person, and I'm really sorry we didn't, but we didn't find out until a couple days after you left. And we weren't a hundred percent sure what we were gonna do about it at first, but at this point we figured you guys should be the first to know."
Jack is a little worried because it sort of sounds like something bad, but Shitty is grinning maniacally behind Lardo so it can't be that bad…
It is a really good thing that they're on a pretty empty stretch of highway, because Jack comes very close to hitting the brakes. As it is, he still swerves a tiny bit as he can't seem to not look at the phone instead of the road.
"We're gonna have a baby!" Shitty yells, and okay, good, they're definitely happy about this.
"Oh my God!" Bitty says, a hand over his mouth. "Larissa Duan, as this baby's godparents I cannot believe we couldn't find out in person. I can't believe I'm leaving you right now!"
"I mean, I knew my period was late," Lardo says, "but it's pretty unreliable anyhow so I don't get too worried until it's two weeks late, and it was only like a week. But then starting on Tuesday I was barfing my guts up every morning, so I got a test and…" Jack sees her shrug out of the corner of his eye. "It's not exactly planned, but I realized that like, if I got pregnant in college? I would've been at the abortion clinic, like, that afternoon. I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But we kinda sat with it for a day and I realized… I wasn't freaking out. Like, at all."
"I was freaking out," Shitty adds, "but not in a 'oh my God we have to get rid of this' kind of way, just in a 'oh my God what are we gonna do do we keep it or not' kind of way. And when she pointed out that the idea of keeping it didn't seem as scary as she expected I was like… holy fucking shit, you're right!"
There are tears on Bitty's face by this point. "Oh my God, you two have to move to Seattle now, you have to because Jack's not getting traded anytime soon so y'all're gonna have to bring that baby to us."
"Hmmmmm," Lardo says. "Funny how where Jack lives now apparently determines where you're gonna live…"
"Oh." Bitty says, glancing at Jack. "Right."
"Shitty owes you twenty bucks," Jack says simply.
"What?" Bitty asks while Lardo fist-pumps and Shitty gapes.
"Shitty forgot that I came out to you guys at your graduation party," Jack explains, "so when Lardo bet him that you and I would be together by the time we made it to Seattle, he took the bet like an idiot because he thought she was joking."
"Well, specifically the bet was that you two would be boning by the time you crossed the Washington state line," Lardo points out.
Bitty snorts. "Yeah, don't worry, he owes you the twenty bucks."
"I'm sorry, you did what at Bitty's graduation party??" Shitty asks.
"I'll tell you the whole story later, babe," Lardo says.
They talk for a while longer, both couples excited about the others' news. Bitty cries again that he's leaving Boston just in time to miss this, then cries again when he realizes that he and Jack will soon be buying the house that someday their kids will live in.
By the time they pull up to Jack's building, Bitty finally seems to have worn himself out with excited baby talk.
Jack can't stop smiling as he brings Bitty into his condo, into his bedroom, as Bitty puts his things away in Jack's bedroom and Jack's bathroom instead of in the guest room and the guest bathroom. They stay up late into the night, tangled together naked under the covers, talking quietly in the darkened room, making plans for a future together that neither of them can quite believe is finally theirs.
August 3, 2020
Jack wakes up the morning of his thirtieth birthday to the feel of his boyfriend's mouth on his bare skin, working its way down his body. He rubs his eyes blearily and looks down at Bitty, who is nudging his legs apart so he can situate himself between them.
"Good morning," Jack mumbles.
Bitty grins like a cat with a canary. "Happy birthday, sweetpea," he says. After that, he doesn't say anything for quite a while.
It's still a little disorienting, waking up in their new house. When they go to shower, Jack keeps trying to use the controls like the ones on his old shower until Bitty steps in to remind him that they actually work like the controls on the showers back at the Haus did.
They'd jumped right into househunting as soon as they got back to Seattle. Bittle had to go back to work, of course, but Jack had plenty of time to talk to realtors during the day, then show Bitty everything they'd gone over in the evening. It didn't take long for them to narrow down the neighborhoods and price range they wanted—at first Jack had suggested looking near where Thirdy lives, but Bitty balked at sending his future kids to a school where basically everyone has a five million dollar house.
"I know they're gonna grow up rich like you did," he said, "but I don't want them to, I don't know, get the idea that that's normal or something."
Jack was pretty sure they could make sure their kids understand that most people don't have as much money as they do, but it didn't seem worth fighting over, so they found a couple of school districts that were a bit more economically diverse.
It was surprisingly easy to agree on what they wanted in a house. They didn't necessarily have the same priorities, but most of the things that one of them was adamant about—among other things: kitchen details for Bitty, a fenced yard and wood floors for Jack—were things the other didn't have strong opinions on. Within a month of Bitty arriving in Seattle, they had a house they wanted to make an offer on. Since they were paying with cash, it only took a couple of weeks to get the inspection done and a few minor issues fixed and close on it—and suddenly they had a house that wasn't Jack's or Bitty's, but instead had both of their names on the deed.
They've been fully moved in for a week now, though they're definitely not done unpacking. The kitchen, of course, is done, and they've made the living room and back yard a priority to accommodate the birthday/housewarming party they're having this evening. Their hockey memorabilia, on the other hand, is still in boxes in the spare room, and the second living room that Bitty has taken to calling the "family room" is just a mess of things they don't yet have a place for.
Jack isn't exactly shocked that Bitty got up early to make a special breakfast for him, but expecting it doesn't make him appreciate it any less. He eats a high-protein breakfast with eggs and meat most mornings, but today Bitty has whipped up some very fancy omelets, along with baked French toast and Jack's favorite cranberry-orange muffins.
Bitty has taken the day off work, partially to prepare for the party later and partially so they can go pick out Jack's present. It's important that he be there, not so much because they've decided this is his "present" to Jack despite the fact that it's really something they're getting together, but because this is a decision he needs to have as much input into as Jack does.
They pull up to the animal shelter around 11am.
"Remember, it's okay if we don't meet anyone we want to take home today," Jack says. "Don't feel like if we go home empty-handed you've somehow failed me on my birthday. It's way more important we find the right pet."
"I know, sweetpea," Bitty says, as though he hadn't fretted about that very thing when Jack suggested this. "Although I don't really know how we're gonna know if a cat or dog is the 'right pet' for us."
"At the very least, I think we'll know if they're the wrong pet," Jack says. "And we can always think about it and come back another day."
The entire conversation turns out to be moot. They look at the cats first. They're all very cute and happy to have someone pet them, but none of them really sticks out from the others. Then they walk through the dog side of the shelter, noting a few likely candidates.
The third dog they take out to the play yard is the last dog Jack would ever have expected to own. She's a pug/chihuahua mix, and possibly the ugliest little thing Jack has ever seen. All black, with bulging eyes and crooked teeth sticking up out of her mouth. A stocky little body on incongruently skinny little legs. She'd been found as a stray, nursing two puppies who have already been adopted.
"Look at her," Bitty says when Jack isn't sure they should bother with her. "I bet nobody ever picks her to take out, ugly little girl."
She's incredibly friendly, though, so happy to cuddle with either or both of them. When Bitty sits down in the play yard, she trots over from where she was sniffing at a toy and just climbs right into his lap and flops down like it's her personal bed.
And then, when they do convince her to play instead of cuddle, it turns out she loves to play tug. And when she does, the sounds that come out of her tiny little body make Bitty drop the toy at first.
"She sounds like somebody dropped a spoon down a garbage disposal," Bitty says in an awed voice while she tugs on the toy that's now in Jack's hand. "Jack, we've found the perfect dog."
"I think you mean we've found the weirdest dog," Jack says, but he's grinning as he slowly pulls the toy up until he's almost lifted the little dog off the ground with it. He doesn't quite, though, because he's not sure that would be safe if she did let go. Not that there's much chance of her letting go—even up on her tiptoes, she's thrashing around with a tight grip on the toy, making terrible, terrible noises. "You really think she's the one? I guess I kind of pictured getting something bigger, more along the lines of a husky or a lab or whatever."
"Jack!" Bitty grabs the dog, who lets go of the toy to happily jump back into his lap. "How dare you judge her on her size! Don't ever speak to me or my tiny, ugly, garbage disposal daughter again!"
Jack can only laugh and sit down next to him to scratch the little mutt behind her half-floppy, half-pointed ears. "I guess I always thought little dogs were just hyper and yappy all the time. She doesn't seem to be either. I do like her."
And so, a couple of hours later, they're following this ugly, weird little dog around their backyard as she checks everything out.
"What should we name her?" Bitty asks. The shelter had been calling her Missy, which doesn't seem to fit her at all.
"She's tiny and black like a puck…" Jack says, but Bitty cuts him off with a look.
"We're not naming our dog Puck," Bitty says. "We can have one thing in our life that's not about hockey. Or baking, for that matter."
"Can we name one of our kids Puck then?" Jack asks, and Bitty throws the tennis ball he'd been carrying at him. The dog notices the motion and looks over, but makes no move to get the ball. She's too engrossed in sniffing at one particular corner of the yard.
"Moche?" Jack suggests. "It means ugly."
Bitty wrinkles his nose. "I'm not opposed to naming her something that means ugly, but I'm not calling our dog mush."
"Not mush, moche," Jack says, knowing full well Bitty can hardly hear the difference, if at all.
They throw a few more names back and forth as they catch the dog's interest with a game of tug, but nothing seems right.
Finally, Bitty sits down and when she jumps into his lap exclaims, "You are just a little gremlin, is what you are! Look at you!" He looks up at Jack. "Ooh! She's a gremlin, we could name her Gizmo!"
Jack squints at him. They'd watched the Gremlins movies at the Haus around Halloween once, but he hadn't been paying much attention. "Isn't the whole point of those movies that Gizmo is the only one who doesn't turn into a gremlin?"
"Close enough," Bitty says with an eyeroll. "She's still furry, right? So she hasn't quite gone full gremlin yet."
Jack sits down next to him and laughs when she immediately climbs over into his lap to flop down. "Okay. Gizmo sounds cute. I guess we shouldn't feed her after midnight."
Gizmo seems to be worn out from exploring and playing, so they take her inside and introduce her to the very plush doggie bed they bought on the way home from the shelter. She immediately falls asleep. On her back. With her legs splayed out and gravity dragging her upper lip down, which in this position means up in relationship to the rest of her face.
"She's so, so ugly," Bitty whispers reverently, before heading to the kitchen to start his baking marathon for the party. Jack snaps a quick picture to put on his Instagram.
At first Bitty insists that Jack shouldn't help, it's his birthday party after all, but Jack points out that it's also their housewarming party. When he throws in a little bit of pouting about how he spent five years not getting to bake with Bitty, Bitty relents.
"We're both gonna be using that one on each other for a long time, aren't we?" he says as he directs Jack to a pile of apples to peel.
"At least the next five years," Jack agrees with a grin.
Peeling apples is a familiar chore by now, something he can do on autopilot while he listens to Bitty bop around to his music and lets his mind wander.
Most of the people coming over tonight have met Bitty, though not all. They all know about him, though. Jack started talking to teammates as soon as they got back to Seattle, and he and Bittle sat down with George and Nina from PR to talk about how to handle various issues that might come up. Jack has no problem with telling the public the truth, if anyone asks—Bitty was one of his best friends in college, they fell in love, but Jack moving to Seattle meant they couldn't be together. So no, they haven't been in a secret relationship for the past five years, and no, none of the women he's dated have been beards.
He and Bitty have been to Thirdy's house, and Marty's (even though Marty retired this year), and have hung out with Snowy and Tater in various settings. Bitty met a lot of the rest of the team at Snowy's birthday party last month. Reactions have ranged from mild surprise but immediate acceptance, to confusion but eventual acceptance. Everyone, of course, loves Bitty.
They have continued to not be particularly careful about anything. They bought a house together, after all—the realtor and any owners of houses they looked at have seen them together, and their new neighbors all seem to know by now that Jack Zimmermann has moved onto the block and brought with him with a very nice man who gives everyone baked goods. None of these people has posted anything on social media or gone to any tabloids about it, as far as Jack knows. Some are probably just adults capable of discretion, but some probably because they haven't actually gone up to any of them and said "yes, we are romantically involved," and so instead of jumping to conclusions, heteronormativity is telling them that it can't be what it looks like.
They've even both posted photos of their new house on social media—but they're not the same photos, and neither of them are in the photos, and they have little overlap in followers, so nobody's noticed that they're both posting photos of the same house.
They managed to eke out enough time for a short trip down to Madison, where the Bittles were thrilled to greet Jack as their future son-in-law. They haven't made it to Montreal yet, but Jack's parents are coming to visit in a few days. Bitty is nervous about it, of course, but Jack knows his parents are thrilled. When he told his mother their story, she cried and immediately ordered expensive baking pans as a gift for Bitty.
By the time people start arriving, there are two pies, a small but gorgeous cake, several types of appetizers spread around the living room and back patio on trays, and a pile of hamburger patties, bratwurst, and vegetables on skewers to put on the grill.
When the doorbell rings to announce the Robinsons' arrival, Jack and Bitty realize that having a dog is going to mean making a few changes.
Such as paying closer attention to where the tray of mini-quiches gets set down, and not setting it on the low coffee table that Gizmo can reach on her hind legs.
Because just as Thirdy, Carrie, and their oldest daughter Hannah come in (Carrie's mother is staying with the younger kids so they don't have to be home by 8pm), there's a crash from the living room. They all rush in to find a very happy, ugly little doggie scarfing up mini-quiches as quick as her little mouth can go.
After that, they make sure to keep the people food elevated.
Within twenty minutes, a dozen or so of Jack's friends are scattered around, drinking beers or sodas, munching on appetizers, and playing with the dog. A few of them brought housewarming gifts despite being told not to—simple things, thankfully, like a bottle of wine or a potted plant. Tater, having seen Gizmo on Jack's instagram, arrives with a bag full of dog toys and treats, insisting that it's her housewarming, too, after all.
Jack starts up the grill, but he's chased away from it by teammates who insist that he doesn't have to make his own food on his birthday. So instead he has a seat on the patio bench and relaxes. Within a few minutes, Bitty joins him, and Jack just looks around. A few short months ago, he hadn't thought much of the idea turning thirty. He wasn't dating anyone, didn't particularly want to date anyone, and so it wasn't like it was "time to settle down" or anything. He'd been pretty settled as it was, if partnerless. He'd expected his thirtieth birthday to come and go much like his twenty-ninth; in the same condo, with the same friends, talking to Bitty and his other Samwell friends on the phone as usual.
Instead, he has the love of his life in his arms, sitting in their back yard of their house. The friends are the same, but the kids in attendance are running around the back yard with their dog. Nobody probably would have bothered to bring their kids to an evening get-together in Jack's condo; there wouldn't be much for them to do. Now he and Bitty have a house that was chosen specifically with children in mind—their children, someday. That's still a few years off, for them at least. They talked to Lardo and Shitty earlier, and her pregnancy is going well. She's over the morning sickness and is now into the weird cravings. Bitty promised to experiment a little and see what he can do about dill pickle flavored cookies.
Jack is thirty, and he isn't any different, but his life has changed completely in the past two and a half months. He's never been this happy, this content. Having Bitty there every day, just there, to talk to and do dishes with and buy groceries with, fills a gaping hole that's been in his life for five years. A hole that he tried to fill with other people, but none of them quite fit, because it's Eric Bittle-shaped. He hasn't been unhappy—far from it, aside from a few bumps in the road like his shoulder and Tori. He knows he doesn't need Bitty in order to be happy. But he's pretty sure that the happiness he has with Bitty is a specific flavor that he would never find anywhere else.
Jack is thirty, and his life is just beginning.
*whew* Made it! Thank you for hanging on through this slightly bumpy ride - there is a reason I don't usually post stories this way.
Gizmo is based on a dog my aunt had, who basically matches this description exactly. She was an excellent dog. If you think I've overused the word "ugly" when describing Gizmo, well, you never met this dog.