When Jack was five, his father gave an interview for a documentary on the height of the Pittsburgh Penguins, i.e., their Stanley Cups of 1991 and 1992. It was filmed in their house, and Jack made an unintentional appearance. He doesn't remember it, and it didn't make the cut for the documentary itself, but it had surfaced on YouTube when everyone thought he would be selected first overall at the next NHL draft pick.
On a grainy video, he's wearing a replica of his father's Habs jersey even though Bob had been traded to the Penguins before Jack was even born. The interviewer smirks when he sees Jack and asks Bob, “Shouldn't he be wearing a Pens jersey, now?” The camera is on Bob, but before he can answer, Jack's voice in the background pipes up, sounding way too indignant for a five-year-old, “I don't want a Penguins shirt. I want to play for the Canadiens when I grow up.”
Twenty years later, Jack has been contacted by five teams so far, three of which he isn't seriously considering because of their consistently poor rankings, location, or both. He's not telling anyone yes or no yet, though, because he wants to know all his options before he starts thinking about anything too final.
“Don't postpone anything because you're waiting for the Habs to call you,” his father tells him when Jack shares his reasons for not having officially answered to any teams yet.
“I'm not,” Jack lies. And to prove it, he contacts the Leafs, the Hawks and the Sharks the next day to thank them for their interest but no thanks. He adds “BRUINS & PENS” on a post-it on his bedroom wall.
He's more interested in the Bruins for many reasons, even though he has a nagging feeling that he can't play for the Bruins: he's from Montréal. He's seriously considering the Penguins, too, but Mario contacted him on his personal cellphone to tell him the Pens wanted him, and he doesn't want to start an NHL career with people bitching that he's only playing because of daddy's contacts. It's going to be bad enough already.
He'd really enjoy playing with Malkin and Crosby though, like, damn. But it's not about what he wants; it's about what he needs and where he's most likely to grow and prove himself. He doesn't tell anyone when he arranges meetings with both the management of the Bruins and of the Pens for November, after the Samwell hockey season has started.
Trevor Timmins, the director of amateur scouting for the Habs, calls him three days later.
He doesn't stop to think before he's got a meeting with the Canadiens scheduled two weeks after the meeting in Pittsburgh. It's harder not to just do what he wants when it's about his childhood dream.
Jack is getting used to Bitty tweeting about him sometimes. It's not as if Bitty's trying to publish gossip for fame, after all. He tweets about their other teammates just as much as he does about Jack. Only, Jack realises too late, Bitty does consider him like any other teammate. This means he doesn't think twice before posting things that would be okay for anyone else, but aren't okay for Jack.
“Did you just tweet my email address?”
“Uhm,” Bitty says, eyes wide.
“Why did you think that was a good idea, exactly?”
“I... I don't really have that many followers?” Bitty answers, looking like he does when they have checking practices.
Jack sighs and doesn't even try to explain how much he does not care. “Delete it.”
“Yes. Sorry.” He pulls out his phone and presses keys for a while. “Some retweets have comments,” he says, and Jack gets from his tone that that is supposed to mean something.
“They won't... get deleted when I delete mine.”
Jack purses his lips and thinks for a few seconds. If someone realises that the initial tweet is gone, it might turn into a story. It's not his personal email address, and he's not going to use it anymore next year.
“All right, leave it. But don't tweet any of my personal information again.”
“Sorry,” Bitty repeats, sheepish.
Jack nods and leaves to go work out.
“Are you pissed at Bitty?” Shitty asks him during practice. It's practice, not time for chitchat, so Jack glares at him.
Shitty rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, Captain Stick-Up-Your-Ass. Bitty keeps glancing at you, though, and he's actually doing better at practice today, so go make up, okay?” He skates away and joins into the drill.
Jack pays attention to Bitty after that, even though he's now annoyed at Shitty. Bitty's eyes meet his a few times, but Bitty always looks away sadly when it happens and nearly trips on his skates once. Jack is forced to acknowledge that Shitty is right. He didn't yell at Bitty, but Bitty acts as if Jack had. Knowing Bitty, Jack can tell he's going to have to talk to him first if he wants to fix this.
After practice, once he's changed, Jack waits for Bitty outside the dressing room.
“Hey,” he says.
Bitty jumps but doesn't drop his bag. “Oh! Hey. Sorry about practice today; I know it –”
“Practice was fine,” Jack says quickly. “Do you want to go get... pumpkin coffee?”
Bitty stares. “What?”
“It has a longer name,” Jack mutters, shrugging.
“A... a Pumpkin Spice Latte?”
“I thought –” Bitty starts. “Okay!” He smiles, and Jack feels the corner of his mouth stretch. It's ridiculous that managing a smile out of Bitty makes him happy because, for one, Bitty is extremely easy to please.
They walk to the nearest Starbucks, and Jack sits and crosses his arms while waiting for Bitty to order his oversweet pumpkin sludge that he likes to pretend involves actual coffee. He sees Bitty with his phone out while he's waiting for the barista, probably tweeting, and he rolls his eyes.
“What did you tweet?” he asks when Bitty sits down.
“I tweeted,” Bitty says in a semi-dramatic fashion, “about how excellent this Pumpkin Spice Latte is going to be.”
“Hmm,” Jack says and figures that's enough small talk. “You need checking training again.”
Bitty's face falls, and it really shouldn't make Jack feel bad. As Bitty stands, he is going to get cut from his line, maybe even from the team. Jack needs to win this year; he needs to play his best and to be stable all year long. And the coaches were right: he's a better player when he's with Bitty. Except Bitty faints every time someone grazes him.
“You're bouncing back, but you're not good enough right now.”
“I know.” Bitty is staring at his untouched cup of sugar and caffeine, miserable. “I'm going to get cut; you won't have to worry about it.”
Jack is taken aback. “What?”
“Coach Hall and Coach Murray told me.”
“They did? Don't you have an athletic scholarship?” He realises too late that he's taking this discussion in a direction that is very far from the comforting/friendly chat he had initially aimed for.
“Uhm. If this conversation is done, I'd like to go, now,” Bitty says, pushing his chair back to get up.
“No! No, wait.” Jack doesn't know what else to say, but at least Bitty listens and stays seated. “You can't get cut.”
“You– well, I mean– the coaches–”
“I need you on my line. There's no way you're getting cut. We can fix this. Did the coaches say they had someone you could talk to?”
Bitty grinds his chair forward again and takes a sip of his latte, so Jack figures he said something right.
The meeting with the Bruins goes incredibly well until it doesn't. They ask all the standard questions about hockey, and all the questions he was expecting about his anxiety. They tell him that they could have a psychologist and a psychiatrist for the team and are generally so understanding that Jack finds it unsettling. He thought he would have to fight his way into convincing every team that he wasn't a liability or a risk they were taking. It makes sense, though, that the teams wanting to meet with him came to the conclusion he wasn't too much of a liability by themselves.
Jack thinks the meeting is over and is ready to start shaking hands and thanking everyone when a PR person who hasn't said anything so far chips in. “There's one last thing,” she says. “You will have to go through the team's PR before publishing certain types of personal information. We will give you a detailed list when the time comes, but we felt we needed to tell you right now so as to correct recent mishaps.”
Jack frowns and looks at her for a while. She's looking back like she's waiting for a specific answer, like she just said something obvious, but Jack isn't sure he understands. “Recent mishaps?” he repeats.
“Yes,” she says, exaggeratedly patient. “From your friend, Eric Bittle.”
Jack has to stop himself from groaning out loud. He'd never considered that Bitty's tweets could possibly end up being a topic he'd have to discuss at a meeting with an NHL team. “Don't worry,” he says, seriously. “I talked to him a few weeks ago when he tweeted my email. It won't happen again.”
The PR woman does not look any happier, and the man next to her has that look like he's somewhat uncomfortable, but making sure he doesn't inadvertently lower his eyes. “I am talking about the accounts of several dates you've had, the last one two days ago.”
Jack is too startled to answer for a second, and so the woman keeps on going. “Everything he's said so far is within the realms of deniability, which is good, but we do not want to be in a position in which denials would be needed. It would be much better for him to stop posting about your dates altogether.”
“We're not dating,” Jack says, finally.
The woman smiles like he's a child, and Jack suddenly hates her. “Mr Zimmermann, the organisation here in Boston does not care who you are dating as long as nothing is illegal,” she says blandly, “but it would be a lot simpler for you and us if you were honest and followed our advice. After all, it wasn't difficult for us to confirm that Eric Bittle is gay, so you can't imagine that it would be any harder for, say, Deadspin.”
Jack was ready for so many lines of questioning, but this wasn't one. That should only have come when he'd be thinking about relationships, and he's not; hockey is his number one priority. Being told how to handle Bitty just grates on him. He finds himself saying, “Right, of course,” coldly, and he sees the PR woman relax. He shouldn't say anything else. “So what if I have coffee with women?”
The PR woman is clearly caught off guard and immediately plasters on a fake grin. “What do you mean?"
“What if the exact same tweets are sent by a woman while we're having coffee? You don't care who I date, right? It's all the same?”
“Well, no. Of course not. But you know that. Different situations require different responses. We're not telling you to stop having a social life.”
“No. You think you're telling me to make sure I stay in the closet, and what you're really telling me is to avoid having gay friends where other people can see.” Jack stands up, and nods once, sharply. “Thank you for your time.”
He leaves and walks to his car, quick and decisive, and he's grateful that he only starts seeing stars and having a hard time breathing once he's sitting down in it.
Tabarnac. What did he just do. What was he thinking?
He just walked out on a team he wants to play for, and he doesn't even know why. She wasn't telling him anything he didn't know already. He's not dating Bitty, and he really never plans to ever come out. It should have been a non-issue, and instead he just blew it. He blew one of his best shots into the NHL.
He leans forward until his forehead is against the steering wheel, and he tries taking a deep breath in. It doesn't work, and it's getting worse and worse until he feels dizzy and sick. His chest hurts, and he's shaking, and even though he should be used to this, he still tries to fight it. He feels like this is the time it won't stop, he's going to go crazy, and everyone who said he wouldn't amount to anything will be proven right.
When he has calmed down enough that he's not dizzy anymore, he wipes his cheeks, soaked with the tears that often stream non-stop when he has panic attacks.
When he has calmed down enough to drive, he's been sitting in his car for nearly half an hour. For the first time in years, he wishes he could take a couple of extra pills and then is glad that he doesn't have his meds with him right now.
Jack's glad he didn't tell anyone he was meeting with the Bruins management because it means no one asks him how it went. He's sometimes been skipping his weekly visits to his therapist in the last year, but this week, he makes sure to go. It helps, even though his therapist can't give him career advice specifically about how to deal with the NHL.
It doesn't help that his insomnia is back, and that weekend, he doesn't so much wake up on Sunday morning to resume checking practice with Bitty as he just never went to sleep.
They go slowly, and Jack doesn't tell Bitty to stop talking, although he doesn't answer much. He's not sure it's a good idea but he goes at it kind of as though Bitty had PTSD (he might, for all they know) and using grounding techniques Jack learned for himself. It somehow succeeds in calming Bitty, and Jack thinks some level of progress was made.
He sleeps well that night, then it sucks for two nights, and then he sees Bitty again on Wednesday and sleeps well again. Two instances don't make a pattern, but he thinks helping Bitty through his... whatever Bitty has, helps him with his own anxiety. He can't explain it, but his therapist is very interested to hear about it at their next appointment and encourages the development.
So Jack sees Bitty twice a week, and does feel less anxious about... everything. Bitty's definitely improving now, too. He doesn't play as much as he did last year and isn't on Jack's line when he does, but Jack thinks he's not in danger of being cut as much as he was a few weeks back.
“Sunday again?” Bitty asks after a training session. It's the first time Bitty's the one to bring up checking practice. That is a clear sign of improvement in a different way from just seeing results.
“No. I'll be out of town.” Boston was half an hour away, but he can't drive to Pittsburgh. “We could look at the schedule, maybe if there's something early enough on Saturday, before I leave.”
He sleeps like shit again, and he knows that part of it is because Bitty made him think about his meeting with the Penguins. It's in three days, and he's starting to freak out. He had been calm and ready for the one in Boston, and look where that had landed him.
He stares at his phone for an hour Thursday evening and only manages to dial the entirety of Mario's phone number the third time he tries. Mario's an ex-player, a friend, and the owner of the Pens. Jack can't think of anyone else he knows better suited to answer his questions. He just wishes he knew an ex-player who owned a team he didn't want to play for.
“Hey Mario, it's Jack.”
“Jack! I saw you're going to come and meet my people? I get that you didn't want to go through me to schedule it all, but you could have still called me.”
“Yeah, sorry.” He pauses, and when Mario doesn't say anything he gets into the reason he called. “I have a couple of questions, but I don't want to ask the Pens' owner. I want to talk to that guy I know who played in the NHL and now owns a team.”
“Okay. I understand.” Mario is a lot more serious now, and Jack is glad.
“So that's fine? It won't change the process with the Penguins at all?”
“Well, if you want to ask me how being a murderer is going to influence the game, I'm gonna have to tell my team.”
“Go ahead, it'll be confidential,” Mario assures him. “Whatever we talk about will stay between us. I won't be at your meeting anyway; I have a GM and coaches for that.”
“Right.” He pauses. “I have a friend at Samwell. He's gay.”
Mario clears his throat. “A friend?”
“Yes. I'm not doing the friend-but-really-me thing. He's called Bitty. Dad met him.”
“He has a Twitter, and he posts stuff about me sometimes. About the entire team.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Whenever we go out for coffee or to a movie. He tweeted my email once but that won't happen again.”
“So do you go out with the whole team or are we talking just you two, here?”
“Sometimes it's just us two.”
Mario thinks for a moment, silent on the line. “That's the kind of thing that shouldn't matter but, honestly, some asshole reporters can totally decide it means they get to ask questions about your relationship with this friend. If they're part of the group covering your team, they might get kicked out for asking, but they might not. Either way, damage will be done, it'd probably get on Deadspin, and you'll have to ignore it or start on the denials. People are currently waiting for an NHL player to come out.” Mario pauses. “It'd be extra stress, and you have an anxiety disorder, Jack. I'd try to limit extra stress.”
“If these tweets really sound too much like you two are dating,” Mario continues, his tone a lot less serious, “it's the kind of thing a PR team might pick up before shit goes wrong. And then they might want to bring it up during a meeting to talk about the possibility of joining their training camp. To be sure you're not going to out yourself by accident.”
“Ugh,” Jack says, letting himself fall back on his bed. Mario totally knew about Bitty already, and the Pens are also going to talk to him about it. This is fucking great. “Bitty and I are not dating.”
“And I'm not gay.”
“Don't tell Dad you think I'm gay.”
“I wouldn't do that, Jack.”
“Because I'm not gay.”
“Yes, you said. But, I'm just gonna say– if you know someone who is and wants to play in the NHL, you should tell them that Mario Lemieux advises him to wait until he's established in the league before considering coming out –if he considers it at all. And if I were his friend, I'd also suggest coming out to his parents before they learn it some other way. Especially if he has a boyfriend.”
“I am not dating Bitty!”
He has checking training with Bitty Saturday morning, and he feels amazing at the end of it, which is definitely weird because he is getting on a plane to Pittsburgh at one.
“Do you mind not tweeting when we do anything one-on-one anymore?” he asks Bitty without preamble as he's untying his skates. “If we're with the rest of the team it's fine.”
“Okay?” Bitty says. He looks kind of hurt.
“It's a PR thing for the NHL.”
This statement doesn't help Bitty's expression. “It's fine; I'll stop,” he says, sounding like it's the opposite of fine.
“I'm not mad at you; it's just PR.”
“I said it's fine,” Bitty repeats, still not sounding like it is. He leaves the changing room quickly. Jack doesn't ask, figuring Bitty will talk to him when and if he wants to.
His talk with Mario helped prepare him for the meeting with the Penguins organisation. He sees the questions coming, and he can tell the Penguins' PR staff that Bitty is just a friend, but he understands how his tweets could be misleading, and he has talked to Bitty about them. He doesn't want to make any trouble where there is none and to distract himself and his team from hockey.
“We're definitely very interested in having you at the development and training camps after the current season. Keep playing the way you are at Samwell and we'll contact you again in January,” Heinbuck, the co-director of amateur scouting, tells him. “And if another team offers you a contract to sign before us, call. We'll make a higher bid.”
He gives Jack his card, and they all shake hands before he leaves. It's clearly a success, at least compared to the Bruins. He falls asleep on the plane back.
The Bruins call him the very next day to apologise for the behaviour of their PR personnel and ask him if he'd still be interested, and maybe they could have another meeting?
Jack's instincts scream at him to apologise back, say it was his fault, but he has the higher ground –even though he has no idea how this happened at all– and he wants to keep it. So he thanks them and says that he understands, he won't be holding a grudge against anyone, and yes, he's willing to give Boston a second chance.
It turns out that someone in Pittsburgh posted some pictures of him on Twitter, and someone else put two and two together and guessed he was meeting with the Penguins to talk business. There are a few short articles on small sport websites. The Bruins probably got scared he'd be snatched away. Jack's week is starting out beautifully, and he is smiling when he goes to the rink for their evening game.
A few guys are already there, hanging out outside the arena. When Ransom sees Jack, he hides his eyes behind his hands, screaming, “Aaaaaa, what is this? What is this on your face? What happened to you?”
“Shut up, idiot,” Jack says, his smile gone.
“It's okay, he's back to normal,” Holster tells Ransom.
Ransom peeks between his fingers and then exhales loudly in relief, his hand on his chest. “Good. I was so scared for a moment.”
Jack slaps him behind the head. “Stop loitering. Get in and change for the game. All of you.”
They all shuffle inside, but most of them are wearing smirks and making faces at each other that include a great deal of waggling eyebrows.
Jack finds the coaches before they get to the dressing room to talk about the night's strategy and to tell them about the lineups they have planned for the game.
Coach Murray sees him first. “Hey Jack!” he says. “We heard you went to Pittsburgh this weekend. How did it go?”
“It went well; it was fine.”
“Good, good. Can we do anything for you?”
“Yeah. I was wondering who're my wingers tonight.”
Coach Hall takes a small note pad from his vest pocket. “Hardy and Butcher.”
The coaches look at each other.
“He's been doing well with contact. He never reacts badly anymore in practices,” Jack presses. “I have a good feeling, I think he should play tonight.” Bitty is not a third or fourth-liner, and their second line's cohesiveness is amazing this year. Jack knows he's pretty much asking them to bench Butcher or to screw up their current second line.
“We'll consider your judgement on the matter,” Coach Hall says, “and we are seeing Bitty's improvement, which is why he is on the roster and has ice time whenever we're missing a player or when we need to shake things up. However, we don't feel comfortable giving him a spot on the starting line-up right now.”
Jack feels some of his energy leave him, and he doesn't want to fight. The coaches make the decisions. “Okay.”
Bitty is thrown a few times, for a total time on ice of 3:49. Jack hits the post four times –a frustrating personal record– and they lose 2-1.
When Jack realises Bitty is avoiding him, he initially thinks Bitty is feeling bad or guilty about his tweets, like he had about the one with Jack's email. It's stupid, because Jack had made sure to clarify that he wasn't mad this time, that it's just PR, but it doesn't look like it helped clear Bitty's conscience.
He tries talking to Bitty a few times but can't get a sincere smile out of him. Bitty is pissed at him, which is... disconcerting. His mood kind of spreads in the Haus, and soon the frogs and Lardo are also avoiding talking to him unless needed, and he's sure he's seen Chowder glare at him. Chowder glared at him, off the ice. That is just crazy; the kid can hardly ask Jack simple questions without stammering.
“What did you do?” Shitty asks Jack one afternoon when they're magically the only two in the Haus's living room with everyone else currently in class. “Lardo wants me to stop talking to you. You know I really like Lardo. I'm going to have to listen to her if you don't fix things.”
“You heard me. Whatever it is, fix it.”
“I didn't do anything. Why are you assuming this is my fault?”
Shitty stares at him. “It's either you or Bitty, and I know you both. You spend your days glaring at people and breathing hockey; Bitty makes pies appear.” He moves his hands in a way that clearly means, 'Need I say more?', and raises his eyebrows. “And everyone agrees: they're all siding with him.” Shitty's eyes shift. “It's going to, you know, affect the team soon enough.”
Jack isn't an idiot; he can tell when Shitty uses keywords on him to get specific reactions. Knowing that doesn't mean the strategy doesn't work on him perfectly.
Bitty shows up the next day at checking practice. It's good because it means Jack gets him alone, and he's not leaving until this has been fixed. He's not letting this affect hockey.
“I know I should apologise,” Jack says. “I just don't know why.”
Bitty starts back, probably at the surprise of having Jack initiating a conversation that could very well get somehow personal, and then he sighs and looks down. “You could try again when you know.”
“But, in the meantime, you're turning the team against me on the year I really can't afford any mistakes,” Jack says, keeping his tone calm. It makes him sound unintentionally dangerous.
“I didn't ask any of them to turn against you; they did that on their own!” Bitty says loudly. It's Bitty, so he can't snarl, but his tone startles Jack anyway. There's an angry edge to it. It's the first time he's heard Bitty sound even the slightest bit angry at anyone.
Jack takes a deep breath and does not cross his arms over his chest. “You're clearly mad at me, and I never wanted that. So could you please tell me why? And why part of the team currently feels like they have to side with you?”
Bitty purses his lips. “While you were out of town, I wanted to unload, so I told Lardo about... about how I can't tweet about you anymore. It kind of spread from there,” he admits.
Jack's instincts had been good at least about the root of the problem. The issue is that he still can't tell why it's a problem.
“You can tweet about me, just not about what we're doing alone. It's PR; it's nothing personal.”
“It's everything personal. Do you think I can't tell what's happening? I'm from the South! I've been discriminated against before. What's going on is that some hockey people don't want you to have a gay friend.”
Jack presses his lips together. “They– We just want to avoid that line of questioning from the press.”
“You can't really believe that. What 'line of questioning'? 'Mr Zimmerman, we heard about you sometimes having coffee with a friend at Samwell; do you have any comment about that?' 'I don't dislike coffee and there are also some people I don't dislike, so sometimes I take five-minute breaks from hockey and get a coffee.' 'But! We heard that this one friend is, gasp!, gaaaaaaaaay.' 'Oh, you caught me; I have one gay friend. I hoped you'd never find out.'”
Jack has no idea how to answer to that because he knows Bitty isn't completely wrong. He did walk out that Bruins meeting. He agrees for the most part, but he doesn't want any distractions right now. And even if any question about his relationship with Bitty would be stupid, he'd suddenly need to be so careful about everything else he ever says or does, and he doesn't want to deal with that. Mario was right: it would be extra stress.
“Listen, I understand,” Bitty lets out. “The NHL is that thing you have to do, and if they told you you had to smile 24/7 and learn to sew to get in, you'd smile and learn to sew. I'm not even that mad at you, I'm angry and disappointed and hurt that we're in 2014, and you were told to hide your gay friend to get a job.”
“They think we're together,” Jack blurts out.
“The teams' PR people, they all think we're together. Your tweets sound like dates, and they think they're advising me about how to stay in the closet.”
Bitty's cheeks are reddening. “But we're not together and you're straight, so why does it matter?”
And just like that, it hits Jack that it matters because he's bisexual, sure, but also because he thinks Bitty would make a good boyfriend. Their non-dates are the closest things to dates Jack has had recently, and he enjoys them. That's... weird.
“I agree with you,” he avoids answering. “When the Bruins... suggested I tell you to stop tweeting about me, I walked out. And then I had my first full-fledged panic attack in years.”
“Oh,” Bitty whispers.
“I can't let anything like this happen again. I can't be weak again.”
“It's not... it's not weakness,” Bitty says sadly.
“Yeah, it is.”
They avoid looking at each other in silence until Bitty says, “Do you want to run me into the boards?”
Jack nods, “Let's do it.”
It's better after that, but Jack wouldn't say it's back to the way it was. He thinks it might be better than the way it was, like him and Bitty are a bit closer now. He thinks Bitty maybe wasn't completely comfortable around Jack before, and that now he might be.
“They're not a bad team, they're fast, but their overall cardio is probably the worst in the league. We won't beat them at being first on the puck more often than not, so pressure, pressure, pressure. We're playing a passing game, make them skate around, be sure they're too exhausted to keep up by third. All right? Okay, here's our starting line up: we've got Chow starting in the net, Oluransi right D, Bikholtz left D, Zimmermann centre, Einhardt right wing and Bittle left wing.”
Jack raises his head before even Bitty does. Coach Murray feels the stares, and although he usually wouldn't say anything or explain himself, he looks right back at Bitty.
“We need fast skaters out tonight, and you're our fastest,” he tells Bitty. “Think you can handle it?”
“Yes, coach,” Bitty says quickly.
“Good. See you all on the ice.”
Coach Hall catches Jack's eyes from nearer the door, and Jack nods to him. He nods back.
“All right, Bitty!” yell both Ransom and Holster, half throwing themselves on him.
“We have a game to play,” Jack says loudly, standing up. “You can talk after we win. And I saw that eye-rolling, Holster.”
Bitty gets checked once in first –something small for anyone else, but nothing is small for Bitty, especially not now– and he comes back to the bench shaken. He's good to keep on playing, though, and Jack is insanely proud of him.
Jack plays his best game of the year so far. They win 6-3. He racks up four points, a hat trick, and the game's first star. Bitty has an assist and a secondary assist on two of Jack's goals, so it's also Bitty's best game of the year so far. Jack knew he himself could perform. He's happy about his game, but it's not a huge deal. He's a lot happier and relieved that Bitty did well; it's a much bigger deal to him.
He stays longer than usual to talk to the guys at the rink's pro shop. They're in charge of sharpening their skates and have been putting up with him giving them extremely specific instructions. He'd just planned to tell them they were doing a good job and to thank them, but one of them asks if he can get an autograph, and it snowballs from there.
When he leaves, he thinks everyone else is gone already until he sees the coaches talking to Bitty in the corridor leading to the dressing rooms. Bitty's grinning, so it's probably all good and Jack doesn't have a reason to go see them, so he leaves to go back to the Haus.
When he arrives, the party is already in full swing.
“Man of the houuuuuuuur!” Holster shouts when he walks in, raising his glass in Jack's general direction, beer sloshing on the floor.
Jack stays just long enough that everyone can congratulate him, refuses all offers of drinks, and eventually goes to his room to work on an essay due after Thanksgiving. He needs it done before the holiday, since he'll be in Montréal for the long weekend.
He can tell when Bitty's back because Holster yells, “Man of the houuuuuuuur!” again, and then, twenty seconds later, “It's a different hour! Stop questioning me!”, clearly because someone remarked –not loud enough for Jack to hear– on how he'd already given that title to Jack.
When the party calms down, Jack goes to the kitchen to get a glass of water and finds Bitty wearing an apron. He's cleaning up the dishes he just used, and the oven is on.
“Pies?” Jack guesses, opening the fridge.
“The frogs are staying here for the long weekend,” Bitty starts explaining as if he ever needs to explain why he's making pies. “I thought making them pumpkin pies would help them feel better about not being with their family for Thanksgiving.”
“It's not as if they'll be alone. Half the team is staying.” He fills himself a glass of water, puts the pitcher back in the fridge, and leans on the counter.
“But they're so young,” Bitty is practically cooing, even though he's only a year older than they are. “Chowder is already feeling down about not spending the holiday with his family,” he adds, lowering his voice.
“Hmm.” He empties his glass in a few seconds and leaves it next to sink by the rest of the dishes Bitty is currently cleaning. He grabs a dish towel and settles on Bitty's right, grabbing one of the plate he's already cleaned.
“You don't have to do that!” Bitty says quickly.
“Yeah, I know,” he says and keeps on rubbing plates dry. “I don't think anyone else is going to come and help right now.” The party is still happening one room over, even if Holster isn't screaming his lungs out at everything and everyone anymore.
“You had a good game tonight,” Jack tells Bitty.
“Oh! Y–yes, the coaches told me. It's really a huge relief.”
“It is,” Jack agrees.
“They also said–” He cuts himself off. Jack looks down at him and he can see his face is red. Bitty still hasn't continued his sentence after a few seconds, and Jack isn't the kind to press for people to talk to him, so he lets it go and concentrates on his task.
Two plates later, Bitty mutters something that Jack can't quite catch.
Bitty's looking down at the pot in the sink, gripping tightly on it.
“They said you asked for me to be on your line again,” Bitty repeats. He sounds like someone is forcing the words out of his mouth, like he wants to keep them in.
Jack shrugs. “I had to. I'm the captain, I have to help make this team better. I knew things about your condition they didn't know.”
Bitty lets the pot fall in the dishwater and looks up at Jack. He appears surprised and grateful and like he's about to move forward and kiss Jack. Maybe Jack is wrong about that last one, and he'll never know because he leans down and kisses Bitty first. It's not a good kiss. Or, maybe it is, but Bitty tastes like a mix of beer, rum, and pumpkin pie filling, and it's disgusting. He pulls away grimacing.
“Christ, but you need to brush your teeth.”
Bitty looks at him eyes wide, like a deer in headlights. He's still just as red as he was before, and something hits Jack. “Are you drunk, or just blushing?”
“Uhm. Both. Just... Both. Yeah.”
“Right, sorry. I hadn't realised.” Jack turns to grab something to dry, but there's nothing left. “You looked like you wanted – I'm not going to do anything.”
“I wanted! Please do things.”
Jack laughs and rubs his eyes. “All right, sure.”
“When you're not drunk.”
“I'm not that drunk,” Bitty says, trying to sound sure of himself.
“You have pies in the oven,” Jack states, rolling his eyes.
“Oh! Right.” Bitty catches Jack's eyes and adds quickly, “That's your effect, not the alcohol's.”
“When you're not drunk,” Jack repeats. “I have to work on school stuff.”
“The pies will be done in fifteen minutes,” Bitty tells him. “You could stay. I was going to cut up one of them right away and make chocolatinis.”
Jack is partly horrified, partly incredibly impressed that, in the three months Bitty has been living in the Haus, it has become somewhere people can gather to eat pumpkin pies while drinking chocolatinis.
“No, but thanks.”
Thirty minutes later, Bitty kicks on his door by way of knocking. He is expertly balancing in his hands two slices of pumpkin pie on small plates and two chocolatinis.
“Hi?” he asks, smiling awkwardly. Jack shows some compassion and helps him put everything down on his desk.
“I thought you'd like some. It's energy, so you can work better.”
Jack stares at both the slices of pie and the ridiculous chocolate martinis, before saying flatly, “Yes. Thanks.”
Bitty sits on Jack's bed, moving a plate and a martini glass over to the side of the desk, so they're closer to him. There's no way Jack can work while being gawked at, so he grabs a plate and takes a bite of the pumpkin pie.
“Huh,” he says, surprised. “I don't hate it.”
“Thanks!” Bitty exclaims like it's the best compliment he's ever received. He grabs the second plate and starts digging in. “You also wouldn't hate it while drinking a chocolatini.”
“I'm good.” Jack says, eating another bite. This really is a good pie. Not nearly as full of sugar as what Jack is used to.
“I know you probably only drink manly drinks for real men, but you are forbidden to get a Guinness with my pies.”
“I don't drink,” Jack says, taken aback.
Bitty laughs, like Jack just said the funniest thing. He has no idea how he's supposed to respond to this so he looks right at Bitty and, with the dullest tone he can muster, says, “Hi, my name is Jack, and I'm an addict.”
Bitty stops laughing point-blank and stands up so fast that he nearly drops his plate on the floor. “Oh my goodness! I'm so sorry, I– I'll–”
He extends his hands to grab the drinks, remembers that he has a plate in one hand, and starts fumbling to figure out what to do with it. Jack stands up and takes the plate from Bitty's hands before he drops it. Maybe he should have said he's on meds, instead. It wouldn't have been a lie.
“Relax. I'm not gonna relapse because there's a drink at arm's length. I live with half the Samwell hockey team; it's not the first time it's happened.” Because Bitty still looks like he wants to die, he adds, “It's kinda nice.”
“Nice?” Bitty squeaks.
“Yeah, you know. Everyone... they see me and they think about drugs first. Or the fact I'm crazy, I guess. It's nice that you forgot about it.”
Bitty instantly goes from looking like he wants to hide under Jack's bed to righteously angry. “Who said you're crazy?”
Jack smiles. “You gonna go beat them up?” he asks, amused.
Bitty's mood deflates a bit. “They're idiots,” he mumbles.
Jack knew that already; everyone has been telling him to ignore whatever people say about him in the media for years, but they mostly did it to comfort him. Bitty says it because he genuinely hates that anyone would say that about Jack.
“Thanks,” Jack says, smiling softly.
“I'll get us milk,” Bitty says, and he grabs the two martini glasses and leaves Jack's bedroom as fast as he can without spilling their content everywhere.
The next morning, Bitty isn't hungover. Jack guesses this means they should talk about their kiss, but he also expects Bitty to be the one to bring it up first. Counting on Jack to start any kind of conversation isn't the most productive way to go about anything, after all. Bitty has to know that.
Bitty doesn't take the initiative to talk to Jack in the morning, though, so Jack is soon in class. He comes back to the Haus to change in the afternoon, goes for a run, trains in the university gym, is back to the Haus, and still hasn't run into Bitty. He takes a shower and changes again. It's getting late; he still hasn't eaten and is really not feeling up to cooking anything, so he figures he'll go look at the take-out menus they keep in the kitchen.
When he opens the door of his room, Bitty is on the other side, arm raised to knock. He takes a step back in surprise and says, “Hi!”, his voice higher than usual.
They stare at each other for a few seconds before Bitty lets out, “Do we have checking practice tomorrow?”
“Yeah, sure,” Jack answers. They have a regular schedule for them, now, Wednesday and Saturday. “Did you want to cancel?”
“No. No, I was just... making sure?”
“We could stop if you want,” Jack says, and instantly feels stricken at the idea of not seeing Bitty twice a week anymore. It's ridiculous, though, because he sees Bitty nearly every day; it won't really change anything. “You're probably okay, now.”
“No, really, I think it's better if I keep on going.”
Jack nods. Bitty doesn't move.
“Do you–” Jack starts, as Bitty asks, “Were you going somewhere?”
“I haven't eaten yet; I was gonna find something to order,” Jack answers.
“Oh, okay. What– what were you going to say?”
Jack shrugs and says, “Nothing.”
Bitty mumbles something and finishes it by saying, “See you later,” before walking away.
Jack doesn't stop Bitty or ask him to repeat what he just missed.
They usually talk during part of their checking practices, and they're very much alone in the rink at 6AM, so Jack figures they are going to talk about their kiss then. Of course, Bitty does everything he can to avoid any discussion whatsoever. Jack has to acknowledge that he will have to be the one to bring it up if he doesn't want to get on a plane to Canada tomorrow morning without resolving this.
He doesn't while they're on the ice, or when they're done and removing their skates in the dressing rooms, or any time before they have to split and go to class. It's not that he's shy; he just doesn't really know what to say, or how, or when.
It's now annoying him, and he's distracted all day, trying to imagine how to bring it up tonight, but he's not a great conversationalist and nothing decent comes to mind. He's thinking about kissing Bitty again a whole lot, though, and Bitty did say he wants Jack to do things, which has to encompass kissing. Doing things is always so much easier than saying things. Plus, it would have the same effect of talking to Bitty about it, minus the mandatory awkwardness resulting from those kinds of conversations.
Jack really wants to kiss Bitty again.
Bitty is in the kitchen, pulling more pumpkin pies out of the oven when Jack is back, which is insane but not much of a surprise at all. The Thanksgiving break starts tomorrow, so it's Bitty's last chance to bake, so he can leave behind the maximum amount of pies for the guys staying at Samwell over the break.
Bitty puts the last pie down on the counter, removes his apron, and washes his hands before turning around and noticing Jack.
“God!” he yelps. “Have you been there long?”
“Not really,” Jack answers.
“You should say something when you walk into a room where there's already someone there. It's the non-creepy thing to do.”
Jack moves forward to stand next to Bitty. They're right in front of the sink, exactly where they were two days ago when they kissed. Bitty clearly remembers because he stares at Jack's lips and then shifts his eyes away guiltily.
“So, huh, Monday night...”
And Bitty brought it up finally, so they could talk about it. But it doesn't change the fact that it would most likely be a lot easier to just kiss him again.
So Jack kisses Bitty. It's more aggressive than it was Monday, and Bitty only tastes of pumpkin pie filling, which is a nice taste by itself. Bitty gets on tiptoes to press into the kiss harder. He moves his arms around Jack's neck to pull him down, even if this would be more likely to result in Bitty being lifted off the floor. It's a good kiss.
They're in the Haus kitchen, however, which is not ideal.
“Do you want to move to your room?” Jack suggests because sometimes Shitty drops in on him without knocking, so his own room is not the best option.
Bitty blinks a few times, his arms still firmly locked over Jack's shoulders. “I don't put out on first date,” he says and looks like he didn't know he was going to say that before it was too late.
“This isn't first date,” Jack points out. “We haven't had a date.” He considers this. “Or maybe we've had twenty,” he adds because a lot of people did think they were dating because of Bitty's tweets, so clearly they might be considered dates.
“I think a date requires... intent?”
“Yeah, I guess.” He looks around quickly. “We don't have to do anything, but we should still move to your room if we're going to make out more.”
They make out a lot more, and it's pretty great. Eventually, Jack starts hearing the familiar noises of people coming back from classes and shuffling around the Haus. Maybe, it means they should stop and get out of Bitty's room.
Eventually, they stop kissing, and Bitty settles his head on Jack's chest, and they do nothing for a while, which is surprisingly nice.
“Is this going to make things worse?” Bitty asks, his voice low.
Bitty shuffles up and sits next to Jack, legs crossed on the bed.
“This.” He waves his hand between them.
“Why would it make anything worse?”
“Uhm. The teams... I know the teams have been asking about us a bit. What if anyone else asks?”
“They won't. No one is going to search through all of my acquaintances' social media everything to find out I had coffee a few times with you. It might have been interesting if you'd kept posting about it regularly, but nothing's going to come of it now.”
Bitty bites his lips. “But, you know, what if someone brings it up anyway? Won't it be harder and more stressful to deny you're gay if this–” Another hand wave. “–is happening.”
“I'm not gay,” Jack answers, nearly reflexively.
It makes Bitty chuckle. “You don't have to practise on me.”
“No. I'm not gay,” Jack repeats.
Bitty frowns, stares at him, and frowns some more. “Uuuuh. I don't think... I don't date guys who think they're straight.” Bitty looks mortified for some reason.
“Of course, I'm not straight, you idiot.” Jack rolls his eyes. “I'm bi.”
“Oh! Sorry, I didn't mean–”
Jack reaches out for Bitty's arm and pulls him down. “Just lie back on my chest.”
Bitty does, and Jack closes his eyes.
“Wait!” Bitty says, too loudly, a minute later. “You didn't answer my question. Is it going to add anxiety on top of everything else?”
The long answer is: maybe, eventually. But if their relationship really doesn't mix with hockey again, Jack doesn't think so. And Bitty's presence has helped to ground him this year; he doesn't know why, but he thinks that even if they might have to deny this thing between them eventually, it won't cause as much stress as Bitty has alleviated so far.
“No,” he says because it's the short answer.
Bitty obviously waits for him to say more. “No?” he prompts when that doesn't happen.
“Yeah, it'll be fine.”
Jack thinks he hears Bitty exhale the world's softest exasperated sigh.
“Because all your stress has to be saved up for hockey?”
That's not a completely false statement. “Yeah.”
“No, not 'yeah'! That was a joke!”
“Are you serious?”
“Hmm,” Jack says and tightens his grip around Bitty. “You said you couldn't date a straight guy,” Jack says, changing the topic. Bitty looks like he's going to start freaking out about something, so Jack continues right away, “Are you okay with dating me?”
Bitty opens his mouth to talk, closes it, opens it again. “Are you asking me if I'm one of the horrible people who won't date bisexuals?” he asks, mostly sad but also slightly affronted.
Jack doesn't usually tell people that he's bisexual. No one asks. The fact that some people refuse to date bi people is news to him.
“No. I meant, are you okay with dating someone in the closet?” he clarifies.
“Oh, yes, that's fine,” Bitty answers right away.
Jack presses his lips into a line. “You didn't even think about it.”
“I've dated guys in the closet in the past! Well... one guy in the closet.”
“No! You would know if I had dated someone, Jack,” Bitty says, playful. Jack is pretty sure that Bitty is wrong and he would have missed it; he still isn't sure if Shitty and Lardo are dating or not. It's also far from reassuring that, apparently, Bitty expects Jack to have known that he had dated someone in the closet. The point is that their relationship will have to stay secret.
“In high school, then?” Jack asks.
“Were you both in the closet?”
“Oh. Uhm. Yes, but it doesn't mean it would be different now.”
Jack doesn't want to start a game of, 'yes, it does' and, 'no, it doesn't', so instead, he says, “When someone asks you if you have a boyfriend, you'll have to say no. Not 'yes, but it's on the down low,' no. Every time.”
“I know, and it's fine.”
It's the answer Jack was hoping for, but part of him still wants to argue. He can't really say anything that wouldn't come off the wrong way, though.
“We need to go eat,” Jack says, accepting Bitty's answer.
Bitty pushes himself up. “So do we have to, uh, be subtle? Should we walk out a few minutes apart?”
Jack raises an eyebrow. “We've spent time together in your room in the past. It'll be fine; just act normal.”
It turns out to be easier said than done. Bitty probably thinks that those smitten glances he keeps throwing at Jack are subtle. Maybe no one else will notice; they're all hockey players after all.
He meets with the Habs management and coaches on Thursday less than six hours after he lands.
The Canadiens organisation talks to him a lot about his anxiety and doesn't bring Bitty up at all. They don't even have anyone from their PR division there. After the way his meetings with the Bruins and the Penguins had gone, it seems odd to him. On the other hand, it's exactly what he had thought those meetings would be like and what he had prepared for.
The Habs are talking to him about plans past the training camp with the certainty that he's not going to get cut at the camp. It's not new; both the Bruins and the Pens did that, and Jack is confident that he's good enough for it, too. The difference here is that the Pens and the Bruins had both talked about proving himself in their AHL team and what he could expect about how and when he'd get moved up. The Habs are talking full-time NHL roster.
“Sorry if I'm a bit blunt,” Jack says when Daigneault, one of the assistant coaches, finishes talking. “But you can't really be promising me a spot on the team.”
“No, of course not. The first year would still be a two-way entry level contract and we'll be judging the situation at the training camp. But we think you're good enough to make it from what we've seen.”
Jack knows that he's good enough to make the roster of pretty much any NHL team, and he's not the type to overestimate his abilities. It's obviously something the Canadiens scouting staff noticed. Jack also knows he's got a very good handle on his anxiety that he didn't have six years ago, and that is not something anyone could have noticed.
“We've just talked for about half an hour about my mental health.”
“And it looks like you have it under control,” Therrien cuts in. “We're not psychologists, but we know hockey players. I always say, you can play with a bad knee, but you can't play with a bad attitude, and I think you've got the attitude. Your bad knee is just a bit unusual. We've all met and talked about you already, and we agree that it would be a waste to start you with the Bulldogs. Maybe, we're wrong; maybe, you'll crumble somewhere on the way. Even if you do, assigning you to the NHL with an two-way entry-level contract isn't that big of a risk. If you're good enough for the roster, you'll be on it, and you'll likely be starting in Montréal next October.”
Jack nods. He agrees with everything the head coach just said, but since there's no way to convince anyone about it, he'd accepted that he'd initially be assigned to an AHL team as a try-out. They'd bring him up sometimes during the season –and for sure during play-offs to put him in the most stressful situation possible to see how he'll react. The following year, he'd be with the NHL proper.
They sound sincere, too, not as though they're lying to lure him to Montréal with false promises. If they'd wanted to do that, they would have brought up the possibility of a one-way NHL contract. Not to mention that Jack doesn't need to be lured to Montréal.
The Habs organisation is also the first to offer for him to look over a contract. They have one ready for him, and if everything looks good to him, he could sign right now.
“Could I leave with a copy, so I can take my time to look over it?”
“Yes, of course.” They hand him a copy readily. Jack thinks they were expecting him to say that.
“Should I call you when I have an answer for you?”
“No,” Bergevin answers. “You're in Montréal until Sunday, right? We'll call you Sunday morning, so you can sign before leaving.”
He won't have had his second meeting with the Bruins before then, and he's promised the Penguins to call them before accepting anyone else's offer. Jack shakes his head.
“I won't have decided by Sunday.”
“We'll call you Sunday morning,” he repeats, smiling. “If you haven't made up your mind, tell us then and we'll figure something out on the phone.”
It sounds like they're not planning on taking 'no' for an answer. It's good for Jack's self-esteem, but doesn't change his mind about saying yes or no. He'll read the contract and wait until he has contacted both the Bruins and the Pens before deciding anything.
His mom walks in on him reading over the contract.
“They offered you to sign right away?” she exclaims, surprised.
“Yeah,” Jack mumbles, not looking up.
“Have you told your father? He'll be so pleased!”
Jack hasn't. His father picked him up after the meeting and asked him how it went, but Jack could only answer vaguely, unwilling to tell him everything. He's not sure why he didn't tell him. It's probably just a consequence of the fact that things between him, his father, and hockey have always been less than perfect. They've even been generally dreadful since his overdose.
He thinks his father blames himself for what happened, and maybe, it would be better if Jack told him that he didn't blame him. When Jack made amends with his father, he was never able to tell him that because he does blame his father. Not entirely, but somehow he doesn't think saying 'I only partly blame you for my addiction' would help. He knows it's unfair, but he can't help it.
“I might not sign,” he answers. “I'll tell him when I sign for a team.”
“All right, baby.” She leans over the back of his chair and hugs him from behind, kissing his hair. “I'm proud of you.”
“Tell your father before you sign, though,” she chides.
Jack shrugs. “Someone else will tell him if I don't.” His father doesn't have friends in the current Habs organisation like he does for the Penguins, but some acquaintance would still tell him soon enough.
“Yes, someone will, and that is exactly why you should tell him sooner rather than later. Don't let him find out any other way.”
Jack has a flashback to the conversation he had with Mario a few weeks ago. I'd also suggest coming out to his parents before they learn it some other way. Especially if he has a boyfriend.
Now would be a good time to do that if he wants to tell them in person. He could tell them the day before going back to Samwell, so he'd be out if it goes badly. He could also call them in four days, once he's back at Samwell. It would be the perfect way to do it while avoiding their reactions; he wouldn't see them again for about a month. They'd be able to think about it and process it during that time.
Just like that, he has three days to decide if he wants to play for the Habs and if he wants to come out to his parents.
He doesn't sign with the Habs and doesn't come out to his parents. His father knows the Canadiens offered him a contract, but didn't comment on it other than to say, “Read anything you intend to sign in detail.” On the plane, he thinks about his plan to call them once he's back to Samwell and admits to himself that it probably won't work: it will be harder to dial their number than it would have been to just blurt it out at some point during the weekend.
Maybe he could write an email.
“You could not write them an email!” Bitty nearly yells at him in outrage when Jack shares his idea during checking practice Tuesday morning. The schedule has temporarily changed because they have games the next two Wednesdays.
“Okay,” Jack sighs. “How did you come out to your parents?”
“I... I've never.”
“Oh. Did they walk in on you with a guy?”
“No!” Bitty yelps, clearly horrified at the idea.
“So they kinda just knew already?” Jack tries again.
“They don't know I'm gay.”
Jack stares at him for a long time, not sure he heard him right and trying to figure out what else Bitty might have said. “What? How?”
“I'm not out to people outside of the team. I only came out to three people in the team, even, but I guess it spread,” Bitty clarifies. Except that it doesn't clarify anything for Jack. That is completely incoherent with the way NHL teams have been talking about Bitty so far.
“Who told you, by the way?” Bitty adds.
“No one,” Jack answers. “You're at Samwell, and... well, you fit many stereotypes.” He knows this is a pretty terrible argument –if he can even call it one– and he kind of feels like an asshole saying it. Although, to be fair, it's not as though he had been wrong in the end. “I guess I just assumed. There was that time Ransom and Holster were trying to set you up with a guy. And then the Bruins confirmed it.”
“The NHL Boston team,” Jack explains, used to Bitty not knowing much at all about professional hockey.
“I know who the Bruins are; they're the local team,” Bitty replies, not insulted or anything. “I meant, why would the Bruins confirm that I'm gay?”
“It was part of the discussion around your tweets,” Jack says. “They said they'd verified you were gay easily, so gossip rags would also be able to.”
The color slowly drains from Bitty's face. “How did they do that?”
“I don't know. I thought it was on your Twitter, or your videos, or something. I didn't ask.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, it's– I never thought people in real life would–” He opens his eyes wide. “Do you think my parents read my Twitter?”
“I... don't know. Parents don't, usually.” Although Bitty's mom seemed like the kind of parent who would be on Twitter. “I think they might know already,” he adds to try and calm Bitty down.
It is a spectacular failure, and Bitty completely freaks out. Jack is baffled by the reaction. “It's on the internet,” he points out. “It can't be that bad if people have seen it?”
“You are a terrible boyfriend, and you are not helping. The internet is supposed to be split in two! The part with Facebook and real people and the part with YouTube and Twitter and Instagram. They're not supposed to mix!”
Jack abruptly understands what happened, and it feels like he just did the ice bucket challenge. “It's because you talked about me. People in the real world are interested in me, so they found you.”
Bitty doesn't answer and doesn't look at Jack. Jack wonders if he's finally getting that dating Jack won't be as easy as he thought it would be. Jack has to deal with constant media attention, and he's not even in the NHL yet. If Bitty wanted to keep a low profile on the internet, he ruined that by getting mixed up with Jack. Bitty could probably fade back into obscurity, though, if he stopped talking about anything that has to do with him.
For Bitty's sake, Jack will have to come out to whoever's in charge of the media relations in his NHL team. That way, they'll be able to sit down with Bitty and explain to him how to deal with all of this.
If he's still with Bitty when he joins a team... It's not as if it's a certainty or anything.
“Let's practise,” Bitty says.
It's a short and intense practice, probably because they both suddenly have too much on their minds. When they get to the dressing room, Jack closes the door and grabs Bitty to push him against the wall and press their lips together. Their mouths are cold and rough from the temperature on the ice, which only makes it more logical to get a lot of tongue into this. It's hard and fast, and Bitty responds in the same way. He moans in Jack's mouth and holds onto Jack's shoulders and neck, trying to pull him down so as to avoid standing on tiptoe.
Instead, Jack takes a hold of Bitty's thighs and ass from behind to lift him. Bitty gets with the program straight away, encircling Jack's hips with his legs and keeping himself there solidly enough that Jack can support him with one arm only. He moves his free hand between them, under the hem of Bitty's shirt.
Bitty gasps and pulls his head back, banging it against the wall hard enough that Jack freezes.
“You okay?” he says and is surprised to hear that his voice is a bit hoarse after maybe a minute of kissing.
“Uh, yes, I–”
Jack waits for more, which doesn't happen, and he would resume the heavy make-outs if Bitty looked like he wanted him to. Bitty's still got his head back against the wall and is avoiding Jack's eyes and generally does not look at all like he's comfortable with continuing anything right now.
“Okay,” Jack says, pecks him on the corner of the mouth, and slowly puts him back down on the floor. He thinks he knows what happened. “So what counts as a date? Do we need to leave campus? Or is hanging out in the Haus okay?”
“The Haus definitely doesn't count,” Bitty answers, clearly confused by Jack's question.
Jack takes a few steps back and picks up his jacket from the hook where he left it. “Come on,” Jack says, his tone as neutral as usual, “let's find something that counts as a date.”
“Yes, on our way to class. Let's talk about it.”
“That was the least romantic way to ask someone on a date; you have to work on that,” Bitty says, grabbing his coat, himself. He's clearly more comfortable now.
“You're the one who said you needed two dates to put out. We should start on this soon.”
Bitty makes a disgruntled sound. “I stand corrected. That was the least romantic way to ask someone on a date.”
Jack smiles at him, showing just the smallest hint of teeth, and it makes Bitty blush and scramble to get his coat on.
He calls the Penguins, and they have a long conversation that really amounts to the fact that the chances Jack will be assigned to the NHL team next season are very low.
He drives to Boston Thursday evening and leaves with a contract to read and familiarise himself with. It's very similar to the one from the Habs.
The Pens are probably out of the race for Jack. They're Mario's team and can't offer him the same thing as the Bruins and Habs because they don't need a player with Jack's playing style. The Habs and the Bruins do.
He needs to start working on a pro-con list.
His first date with Bitty is kind of a disaster. Bitty's nervous for some reason, even though they're not doing anything they haven't done before, and Jack has no idea how to make him relax.
They're back early, and although they end up horizontal on Jack's bed, Bitty's too tense for the make-out session to really get going.
“We went on that date mostly because I thought you'd like it,” Jack tells him.
Bitty laughs. “No, you didn't,” he answers. “It was because you thought I was serious about wanting two dates before having sex with someone.”
“That, too,” Jack admits. “So, if you hate dating, you don't have to force yourself.”
“I love dating!”
Jack stares at him. “Well. All right. I'm not sure what just happened if you love dating.”
Bitty rolls on his stomach and hide his face in his pillow and says something too muffled to understand.
“What if someone sees us?” Bitty repeats, freeing his mouth just enough.
“What if someone sees us?”
“No one can know we're dating!” Bitty hisses.
“Yeah.” Jack pauses. “They won't. We were just at a restaurant together. We weren't frenching on the table.”
There's a short silence, and then Bitty suddenly bursts out laughing in the pillow. “Do you use 'to french' in Canada?” he asks between giggles.
Jack sighs. “Probably not.”
“Oh my goodness! Is it a Jack Zimmermann thing? That's amazing!”
“I think it's a Québécois thing,” Jack deadpans, and when Bitty just keeps on laughing, he flips him on his back easily and pins him to the bed, pressing their lips hard together.
Bitty immediately grabs onto Jack and opens his mouth, but he's still snorting like an idiot at irregular intervals.
“Can you stop laughing?” Jack manages when it becomes detrimental to their making out session.
“I don't think so,” Bitty answers, but he does stop soon after.
Jack is careful about where he puts his hands, and how he moves his hips, because Bitty said he didn't want to do anything past making out and he respects that. He's surprised when Bitty starts pulling on Jack's shirt, but being half-naked doesn't necessarily lead to anything. He helps Bitty with his shirt, and then when Bitty starts removing his own shirt, Jack helps with that, too.
He has clearly missed something because Bitty keeps on going after that, reaching between them rub to at Jack's dick through his pants. Jack isn't going to complain, but this wasn't part of the plan.
“So activity below the belt over pants is okay?”
“I'm hoping we're going to get naked at some point,” Bitty answers.
“Even though we've only had one date,” Jack states, making sure.
“Can you stop holding me responsible for something I said once in the heat of the moment?”
“I don't want to do anything you wouldn't be comfortable with,” Jack says calmly. Sex has never stressed him out –which is fortunate, because he has enough stress in his life already– so he doesn't really mind either way.
“In that case, my pants are getting really uncomfortable, so we should work to fix that,” Bitty says and grins like he's really proud of his joke.
They eventually get naked and make out a lot more. They switch positions a couple of times until Bitty is straddling Jack and rubbing their erections together while making some really interesting sounds that have the advantage of not being loud.
Jack supposes it's a good time to absently reach in his nightstand to find his lube and, a bit farther back, a condom. He thinks he's done it without breaking the flow, but Bitty stops moving and tenses up.
“I haven't been... I didn't mean we should do everything,” Bitty says.
“Oh. That's okay,” Jack says sincerely. He's aware that he's usually not very good at reading people, so he's always fine with listening to them. “What do you want to do?”
“You don't need to put the lube back–” Bitty turns beat red and stops, too shy to continue. Jack wouldn't have thought that it was possible for Bitty to be too shy to talk, but here they are. That is fine with Jack, who has never been uncomfortable with talking during sex when necessary; he simply rarely does it because, usually, his partners don't want him to talk. Amélie had told him two years ago, “No! Enough! You sound like a Canadian hockey-playing robot even in bed!” Jack thinks he knows what she meant, but he doesn't know how to sound any different.
“Do you want to finger me?”
Bitty stares and blinks. “Sorry, what?”
“If you don't want to fuck me, you could finger me,” Jack repeats.
Bitty's face is completely blank. “You... uh... sorry, words...”
Jack lets his fingers roam on Bitty's chest, waiting for him to order his thoughts.
“You wanted me to fuck you?” Bitty asks in disbelief.
“That was the goal here, yes."
“Because I like it, obviously.” He doesn't want Bitty to do things just because Jack likes them, so he adds, “But there's really no pressure.”
“I thought you'd want it the other way.”
Possibly, they should have talked about this before being naked in bed together, but it's good that they're at least talking about it now. “I like bottoming more.”
Bitty opens his mouth to talk, closes it, opens it again.
“Do you also like it more that way?” Jack asks. He doesn't hate topping or anything. He'd still enjoy sex a lot if he had to top. Or without anal penetration. Whatever's good.
“I've never topped,” Bitty says slowly, stretching the syllables.
“Do you want to try?” Jack suggests. He means it in a 'maybe at some point in the future' way, but Bitty's eyes light up and the erection he was losing because of all the serious talk is partly back.
“Yes, let's do that.”
The making out becomes making out while being fingered, and later, making out while being fucked. It's all great.
Bitty is really confident for someone who has never topped, except that every time he looks at Jack's face, he asks, “Is everything okay for you?”, like there's something wrong with Jack's face. Jack answers yes the first few times and then tells Bitty that he'll tell him if everything is not okay, but Bitty can't stop himself from asking a few more times, still.
“I like topping more,” Bitty says afterwards, half-lying over Jack, his head on Jack's chest.
“Génial,” Jack mumbles.
In the following few minutes, Jack learns that sex makes Bitty more energetic, which makes no sense and is horrible news.
Jack sits down to work on his pro-con list one December morning when he, amazingly, has nothing else to do. He still has a while to give his answers to the teams he's considering, but he never does anything last minute anymore.
He starts listing whatever comes to mind in a hand-drawn table, just to get things going. He knows he's in trouble when he writes 'Bitty' under the Bruins' pros without thinking about it. His whole family lives in Montréal, where Jack himself has lived most of his life, and that didn't make the Habs' pros; meanwhile, he's been dating Bitty for less than a month and here he is, writing his name down without thinking about it.
It's insane and stupid, so he crosses it out.
Now he's thinking about it, though, and he's not even sure that being half an hour away from his boyfriend would even be a pro. It would, most likely, be a distraction, and he really can't afford being distracted by a boyfriend during his first year playing professionally. He writes Bitty's name on the list again, this time under the Bruins' cons.
But even considering Bitty's influence on Jack's hockey, that seems like an over-simplification of the situation. After all, Jack's career's biggest threat is his anxiety, and Bitty is actively helping with that, even if he doesn't know he is. Having Bitty close by to ground him could be good. He strikes Bitty's name again and writes it once more under the pros.
No, wait, he's an idiot. He can't depend on a person to ground him. If this turns sour, it could have some seriously bad repercussions.
He'd thought the main problem with having a relationship with Bitty would be the danger of being outed. He had been so wrong. He rips the sheet with the pro-con list out of his notebook, crumples it, and starts over on another page without writing Bitty's name anywhere.
Jack knows in an abstract way that he could change the default ringtone and alarm on his cellphone if he wanted to. He doesn't understand why anyone would do that, though, as pop music or video game noises do not make him think about receiving a call or having to get up.
When he'd started falling asleep the previous night in Bitty's bed, he'd quickly analysed the situation and decided that he would allow himself not to go back to his room. He had not, however, thought about the fact that Bitty would be exactly the kind of person to change his phone ringtone and alarm.
“My anaconda don't! My anaconda don't! My anaconda don't want none unless you got buns, hun!”, wails Bitty's phone in lieu of a decent alarm song. Jack lets out a pained groan and hides his head under his arms.
Bitty is up nearly immediately and half dancing because he is the most morning person of all morning people. Not that Jack isn't a morning person himself –you have to be when you train most mornings– but this is not how anyone should wake up.
“What is this?” Jack grumbles.
“It's Nicki!” Bitty exclaims, insulted.
The name rings a bell. Bitty probably sings her songs in the shower sometimes. At least, Jack can tell it didn't sound like Beyoncé.
“Right.” He stretches and gets up, looking for his clothes and dressing quickly. “Can you check the corridor, so I can go to my room?”
“Sure,” Bitty says. He opens his door, takes a quick glance and signals to Jack that he can go.
As luck would have it, Shitty walks out of his bedroom as Jack is opening the door to his own room. Shitty is never up that early. That was a miscalculation. They stare at each other for a few seconds until Shitty breaks into a huge shit-eating grin.
“Is that a walk of shame?” Shitty asks, immensely pleased.
He can still save this, Jack thinks. He's wearing yesterday's clothes, so Shitty has to know that he didn't sleep in his own bed, but he doesn't know that he was in the room right across. He'd prefer not to lie to Shitty if he doesn't have to, so he puts on his game face and lets Shitty assume what he wants.
“You are the funniest,” Shitty says when Jack doesn't answer. “So are you and Bitty a thing now?”
Letting Shitty assume whatever he wanted was also a miscalculation. Great.
Jack sighs, annoyed. “Yeah, we are.”
“Huh. Cool. I didn't know you played for the other team.”
“Are you trying to make sports jokes?” Jack groans out.
“Oh!” Shitty continues, ignoring him. “Actually wait, my gaydar is pinging more at something in between. Are you playing for both teams?”
“Your what?” says Jack, refusing to acknowledge Shitty's attempts at making puns anymore.
“Of course, you wouldn't know what a gaydar is.”
Because this conversation has gotten way out of hand way too fast, Jack decides to drop it. “Are you going to tell anyone about it?” he asks, his priorities in order.
Shitty makes a 'pffft' sound and replies, “D'you not know me?”, which is good enough.
A few minutes later, Shitty pops his head inside Jack's room and says, “I'm glad you found someone, though. It's cool.”
“Yeah, I think so, too,” Jack answers.
They don't talk about it again.
Jack still has a while to decide who to sign with, but even so, he'd wanted to make a choice before the end of term and the holiday break. It might have been an optimistic assessment.
“I'm going to sign an NHL contract soon,” he tells Bitty during their last checking practice of the term. Bitty doesn't need them anymore, and their last game till January was the day before, so they're not really practising much at all but instead skating broad eights around the ice.
Bitty looks up at him and does a mediocre job at hiding his interest and enthusiasm. “Oh?” he says, his voice higher than usual. “Not that I didn't know. Everyone knows, really. You just don't talk about it, and I didn't want to ask because it seems like a touchy topic. So, anyway, yes? NHL contract?”
“I'm considering three teams, yeah.”
Bitty looks ready to explode and says quickly, “Which ones?” He then adds slowly, “If you... wanna tell me.”
“You can't post it on Twitter,” Jack says, his tone serious, because making Bitty squirm is just too easy right now.
“I knoooow,” Bitty whines. “I won't,” he promises, his expression the facial equivalent of grabby hands.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins,” he says, and gets no reaction from it, but then again, everyone knows about that one. “The Montreal Canadiens,” he continues –it's always weird to say the name of the team entirely in English– and Bitty looks somehow more enthusiastic about this one. “And the Boston Bruins,” he finishes.
“Oh, that's only half an hour away! We would be able to see each other. And the team at Samwell could organise something so that–” Bitty suddenly stops talking and skating, letting himself slide on the ice slower and slower. “I... I mean. Clearly you shouldn't choose a team based on its proximity to Samwell. Don't listen to me; it's stupid.”
Jack pivots and breaks, so he can look at Bitty. “Yeah, sure, but do you mean that?”
Bitty presses his lips together. “Well... I...” He looks panicked and takes a deep breath. “Montreal is your hometown, and it's in Canada. Canada's pretty great. They have national gay marriage.”
Jack makes a face.
“Not that– I didn't mean anything by that; it's just the first thing that came to mind about Canada. They have a lot of snow, too, right? Probably enough to have outdoor rinks.”
“Yes,” Jack answers, still not sure what's going on in Bitty's head.
“So, that's good. And Pittsburgh–” Bitty thinks for a few seconds. “I don't really have anything to say about Pittsburgh, but I'm sure it's also a good place. Oh! The cost of living is pretty low compared to other major cities.”
“Sure, but I don't know where you're going with that.”
“I don't know either,” Bitty admits. “I think I just wanted to say that anywhere's good. And, uh,” he blushes deeply, “I'd move?”
“You can't move. You're in college.”
“After college,” Bitty clarifies.
“That's two years with me possibly in Canada.” Jack realises, as he says this, that he does have a preference about which team he wants to join. He wants to sign with Montréal. It's just easier to admit now that Bitty doesn't seem to be freaking out about the possibility.
“Yes. You'll have to teach me French! Except I guess you'll be very busy, so I'll have to start on that by myself. I could take French next semester, while you're still here to help out. In the spirit of learning a new language, you'll have to show me how to swear in French. I always found that French swears sounded so nice –like in the Matrix.”
Jack can't answer to most of that, so he goes with what he's sure about. “I don't swear in French; I swear in Québécois.”
Bitty waves Jack's words away. “I'm sure it sounds the same.”
“No,” Jack states, “it doesn't.”
“No, no, I'm sure it's nice. Go ahead and try it.”
Jack surrenders and says, bored, “Câliss d'ostie de criss de tabarnac.”
Bitty wrinkles his nose. “Um, maybe you were right, after all.”
“We're doing the long-distance thing, then?” Jack asks, pulling them back to what they had been talking about. He very rarely brings a conversation back on topic when it goes astray, but this is kind of important.
Bitty's face falls. “Did you... not want to?” he asks with a small voice.
Jack nearly shrugs, but stops himself; he often shrugs when he shouldn't, and he really shouldn't right now. “I didn't want to assume. This–” He waves his hand between them. “–is new.”
“It doesn't feel that new,” Bitty says, and it makes no sense but Jack gets what he means.
“Okay,” Jack says.
“Okay!” Bitty grins. “Did we just basically decide that we'd have a two-year long-distance relationship, even though we've been dating for three weeks?”
“Yup,” Jack says. Even worse, he feels good about this decision.
“Isn't that completely crazy?”
“It's okay; we can change our mind if we want to,” Jack says.
Bitty rolls his eyes. They make out in the dressing room, and it becomes steamy enough that Jack locks the door. It's a good move because they end up sacrificing their backs to lie down on the wooden benches and give each other handjobs before going to class.
“How am I supposed to change here several times a week without thinking about this now?” Bitty grumbles afterwards.
Jack smirks and thinks that he'll have to stare intensely at Bitty while they're getting dressed for the next game.
That evening, he calls the Habs first, so the Bruins and Penguins can't change his mind, to tell them he'll sign when he's over for the holidays. Then he calls the Bruins, the Pens, and Mario personally, and ends up being on the phone for over an hour.
He calls home last.
The ringtone seems loud in his ear, and suddenly, Jack feels like he can do anything. He's about to tell his father he's signing with the Habs; nothing can go wrong. And he's happy in a way that could be long-term.
“Hello?” his father's voice interrupts his thoughts.
Jack opens with, “Hey Dad. Bitty and I are dating.”