To the untrained eye, one would probably say that Bitty is currently walking down the sidewalk. But that’s not entirely accurate.
Bitty is floating.
Because he’s walking down the sidewalk with Jack.
Hand-in-hand with Jack.
Gone are the several casual inches of space they usually kept between them, the distance needed to keep people from seeing what’s really there. Sometimes it would almost make Bitty want to cackle with glee at how easily fooled people were by those few inches; sometimes it would make him want to scream.
The urge to either cackle or scream isn’t completely gone, but for completely different reasons now.
Their fingers are interlaced and their arms are twined and they keep shooting each other these soft little smiles that they used to only give behind other people’s backs and closed doors.
It’s a good thing Jack’s got Bitty tethered to him, or he might float away entirely.
There was a thought that burrowed deep into Bitty’s brain sometime early on in his relationship with Jack, so deep that it wasn’t even a conscious thought, just something . . . there. Felt more than thought. And it was a terrible thought to think, even if Bitty wasn’t really thinking it. But for a long time, Bitty felt the certainty that this would never happen. He’d never get to walk down the sidewalk hand-in-hand with Jack. Jack would never casually rest a hand on Bitty’s hip while they studied pasta options in the grocery store. Bitty would never get to unthinkingly kiss Jack’s cheek when he got up for another pumpkin spice latte at the cafe.
It was a belief completely at odds with the reality. There was never a moment that Jack made Bitty think he didn’t want this for them. He never once implied that all the secrecy and sneaking around was anything but temporary. The question of Jack coming out was always a when, never an if.
And they’d talked about it. The after. The future. Their future. Not extensively, but in the sort of casual allusions where it felt like they didn’t really need to talk about it at all; it was always so clear that they were always on the same page.
Moving in together after Bitty graduates. Marriage. All the steps between and after. Jack and Bitty, forever.
Bitty wants forever with Jack. He wants white picket fences and kids and hosting Sunday brunch at their house and arguing over what to set the thermostat to and Jack chirping him for every miserable sniffle because Bitty gets a cold every winter and Jack’s never been sick before in his life. He wants it all. He knows Jack wants it too.
And yet, inexplicably, some stubborn part of his mind insisted it could only ever be a fantasy and he’d better get used to only dreaming about it. What he had with Jack could only exist in the secrets they kept, in the private spaces they carved out for them, in closets and hidden corners and inside Bitty’s head. Their relationship was a liminal space. It could never exist outside of it.
And then Jack kissed him on national television and hauled their relationship out of liminality and right onto center ice.
Bitty’s been feeling lightheaded for days. It didn’t help matters at all when Jack came up to him with a small but warm smile as he asked Bitty if they could please finally go on their first real date.
Not that Bitty’s complaining, but seriously, Jack might need to tie a rope through his belt loop or something.
They’re walking down the sidewalk hand-in-hand, passing other couples walking by hand-in-hand, passing by a mother pushing a stroller and a businessman laughing into his cellphone and a young woman walking her dog and a jogger weaving around them, and they all can see Jack holding Bitty’s hand.
Jack nudges Bitty. “You okay, bud?”
“Of course,” Bitty says. He tilts a grin up at Jack. “I’m going on a date with Jack Zimmermann.”
Jack huffs out a laugh. “Oh, him?”
“Yeah, you know him?” Bitty says.
Jack hums and says, “Might’ve heard of him. You think he’s . . . dateable?”
Bitty knows he’s being ridiculous, but he’s too charmed and delighted by Jack playing along. “He’s a real catch. Named captain of the Providence Falconers less than a year after signing with them, latest feature in the ESPN Body Issue, graduate with honors from Samwell University, pilot of the largest butt in the known universe.”
Another breath of a laugh escapes from Jack. “Alternate captain.”
Bitty’s grin feels bigger than his entire head. “That’s the point you want to comment on?”
“Everything else was factual enough,” Jack deadpans.
Bitty is so in love.
When they reach the restaurant, Jack holds the door open for Bitty and follows after with a hand on the small of Bitty’s back. Bitty’s sure he’s beaming as he takes it all in. It’s a restaurant he’s been wanting to try since he first visited Jack in Providence, but it wasn’t exactly a safe option while they were maintaining the “Just Bros” pretense. Bros don’t typically go out for dinner at places lit with candlelight and decked out in roses and staffed by waiters that are almost more dressed up than the patrons. But boyfriends do.
It’s all so cliche and over-the-top and Bitty wants to die but he totally, completely, unabashedly loves it.
Bitty proudly strides up to the host. “Hello,” he says brightly. “Table for two.”
“Do you have a reservation?” the host asks.
“Yes,” Jack says with a look at Bitty that says Jack’s clearly laughing at him for being so eager that he forgot to mention it. “It’s under ‘Jack.’”
“Excellent,” the host says, marking something off on his desk. He picks up two menus and smiles politely at them. “Follow me.”
Bitty’s floating again as he follows the host into something that looks right out of a movie: gleaming dark wood tables, rich red carpeting, a grand piano with an actual pianist playing live music. It’s beautiful and fancy and horribly romantic, and Bitty just wants to go back in time to hug a young, closeted Bitty who’d dreamed of something exactly like this but never, ever thought he’d actually get to experience it.
The host comes to a stop at a small, round table in a dreamily lit corner. As Bitty and Jack slide into their seats, the host places their menus down and asks, “Have you dined with us before?”
“Nope,” Bitty says cheerfully. He reaches over and squeezes Jack’s arm. “But I’ve been dying to bring my husband here.”
It takes a moment for it to register, but once Bitty hears what just came out of his mouth, the mental blue screen is abrupt and total.
The host is saying something but Bitty can’t hear a word of it. His brain is struggling to come up for air as wave after humiliating wave of “my husband” churns around inside his skull.
Well, they had a good run, but Bitty’s going to have to destroy his phone, delete his social media accounts, move to a remote island, and never see or speak to Jack ever again.
“Hey. Bits. Bitty. Earth to Bits. Come on back.”
Bitty blinks at Jack, only vaguely registering Jack’s hand on his shoulder. His soul is still dissociating from his body, but that warm weight squeezes his shoulder and pulls him back.
The host is gone, and Jack is staring at him, and Bitty feels his face flush hotly before he buries it in his hands. “Oh my god,” he moans pathetically.
“Bitty, it’s okay,” Jack says, rubbing Bitty’s back. “He didn’t recognize me, so it’s not like we have to worry about any rumors or anything. It’s fine.”
“Oh my god,” Bitty gasps, his hands falling away. “I didn’t even think about that. What if he did though? Jack. Jack. Oh my god.”
“Bits, calm down,” Jack says, and that’s when Bitty notices the smile Jack’s been trying to bite back. He’s amused. He finds this amusing. He is entertained by Bitty’s complete and utter mortification.
Bitty crosses his arms and glares, mostly just so at least he doesn’t have to look as mortified as he feels. “How are you so calm? I could’ve just created a PR nightmare for you.”
“You didn’t,” Jack shrugs, picking up the wine list. It’s too casual a move, like they were just having small talk that can easily segue into, Would you like the Malbec, or perhaps you’d prefer a nice Bordeaux?
“Well, wild elopement rumors aside,” Bitty says, feeling his face heat up again, “I still—I said—I said—“
“Bitty.” The smile on Jack’s face is a thing of unbearable softness. “It’s not a big deal, eh? No need to freak out.”
Bitty huffs, preparing to argue with Jack about how it absolutely is a big deal, he wouldn’t feel nearly so embarrassed if it wasn’t, and it’s not like Jack isn’t sure they won’t wake up tomorrow to headlines on every sport and gossip magazine speculating about when and where they got married, and how does it not just feel weird and awkward to have Bitty call him that when they’re not—
The fight abruptly leaves Bitty.
It’s really not a big deal, is it? They’ve talked about it before. They’re on the same page.
Someday, Bitty really will get to call him that.
Bitty bites his lip, trying to contain the smile that threatens to leave him looking unhinged.
“Okay,” he says simply.
“Okay,” Jack echoes. He returns to the wine list, and Bitty starts looking through the menu.
“Oh, can we get appetizers?” Bitty says, brightening. “The stuffed mushrooms are supposed to be divine.”
“I don’t actually care much for mushrooms,” Jack says. He looks up at Bitty, eyebrows raised pointedly. “Isn’t that something you should know about your husband?”
It doesn’t matter which wine Jack gets. Bitty’s going to dump it over his head.
“Hey, Bits?” Jack says.
Bitty looks up to see Jack’s head poking out of the bathroom, only half his face shaved. “Yeah?”
“Do you think I should wear that other blue tie? You know the one.”
Bitty places the shirt he just folded on the stack of other clean shirts. He plucks another from the laundry basket and shakes it out. “I already laid it out for you and picked out a matching pocket square.”
“Oh,” Jack says. Bitty glances up to catch his brief smile. “Thanks.”
Jack disappears back into the bathroom, and Bitty starts hunting for matching socks in the laundry basket.
“Hey, Bits?” Jack calls out again a minute later. There’s still untouched shaving cream on his chin.
“Yes, honey?” Bitty replies, smoothing out a crease in the shorts he just folded.
“Should I even bring a speech? Isn’t that . . . presumptuous?”
“You don’t have to,” Bitty says, moving the pile of shorts out of the way to start folding underwear. (He didn’t used to bother folding underwear, but Jack’s chirps about the different states of their underwear drawers have made him accept this lesser evil.) “You’re good at speaking off the cuff. I always liked your speeches at Samwell, anyway. But it might be good to have it just in case, you know?” He looks up at Jack with eyes narrowed in a glare. “And would you call Beyoncé presumptuous?”
Jack holds his hands up in surrender. “Nope, never. Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Then there’s nothing wrong with having a prepared speech,” Bitty says firmly.
“Okay,” Jack says. “Do you know where I—“
“I already put it in your jacket,” Bitty says, frowning at the spare sock he finds balled up in his underwear. “Inside left pocket.”
“Oh,” Jack says. “Thanks, Bits.”
“No problem, honey,” Bitty says.
The NHL Awards Ceremony is tonight, and Jack is largely presumed a shoe-in for the Calder and also rumored to be presented with the namesake award from Mark Messier himself, which means Jack has been weird all day. He started off scatterbrained, having to ask Bitty where his coffee was every time he put his mug down, then moving right into antsy as he continuously paced around the apartment looking hunted. He spent the afternoon in stoic silence. Now that it’s finally time to actually get dressed and ready for the show, he’s apparently moved into a “second-guess everything” phase.
Jack finally enters the bedroom without a trace of shaving cream on his face. He stops beside the bed, staring down at his suit with a frown. “Maybe I shouldn’t even—it’s not like I—“
“Sweetheart, before you finish that sentence,” Bitty interrupts, picking up his stack of folded underwear and carrying it to the dresser, “go have a protein shake.”
Jack’s frown deepens. “I don’t think—“
“You didn’t eat enough today,” Bitty says, sliding the drawer shut and opening one for his t-shirts. “And now you’re all moody. So maybe before you go plummeting into total doom-and-gloom, get some calories and protein into you and see if that doesn’t just shift your whole perspective.”
Jack snorts, but he starts moving towards the bedroom door. “Yeah, yeah, all right.”
“I bought avocados this morning,” Bitty says. “But I didn’t realize we’re out of fresh spinach. There should be some frozen though.”
“That’s fine,” Jack says. Bitty’s hanging a shirt up in the closet when Jack calls out, “Hey, Bits?”
Bitty steps back to look around the closet door to where Jack is standing in his underwear, leaning against the doorframe with a shit-eating grin on his face. “You’re pretty good to your husband, eh?”
And he turns and walks away.
Bitty stands gaping at the empty doorway until the sound of his alarm sends him plunging back into the closet for his suit jacket and bowtie.
“—So Farmer invited us all to come too, and Chowder had that look on his face and you know I can’t deny my sweet baby frog anything, so that’s where we’re all headed to tonight.”
“Bitty”—He can hear the frown—“you said you were going to finish your thesis draft this weekend.”
“It’s only Saturday,” Bitty says. “I have all day Sunday.”
“It’s fine, Jack, I have plenty of time to finish my thesis.”
“The thing about using that excuse,” Jack says, “is that eventually, it’s going to stop being true.”
“Well, it’s still true right now.”
“Maybe. But you don’t want to wait until it’s not, do you?’
“I won’t! I’ll work on it tomorrow, all right? Promise.”
“Uh huh. Can’t wait to hear tomorrow’s excuse.”
“Jack Laurent Zimmermann—“
“Okay, okay, sorry. You’ll work on it tomorrow.”
“Because you wouldn’t break a promise to your husband, right?”
Bitty hangs up on him.
Jack: Did you buy new sheets while I was gone?
Bitty: Sweetheart, you were using the kind of sheets broke college kids like me use. I think it’s the same fabric they make graphic tees out of.
Bitty: You deserve better. WE deserve better.
Jack: Having sex on cheap sheets makes more sense than ruining fancy sheets.
Bitty: IT’S NOT ABOUT SEX, JACK ZIMMERMANN.
Bitty: Not only about sex anyway
Bitty: Our sex definitely does not deserve cotton t-shirt sheets, Jack.
Jack: But isn’t buying new sheets the kind of thing you should do with your husband?
Bitty: STOP I BEG YOU
When Jack tells Bitty that he got permission for them to skate at Faber one last time, Bitty tears up. He can’t think of any more fitting way to close the Samwell chapter of his life.
They sit side-by-side in the locker room, lacing up their skates. Jack stands, and when Bitty doesn’t immediately follow, Jack puts a hand on his shoulder and tells him he’ll wait for him on the ice. “Take all the time you need,” Jack says, and heads out.
Bitty stares at the S on the floor, thinking about fist bumps and group chat and 4 A.M. checking practices, all the cellys and the tears, everything that made up the best four years of his life.
He pushes off the bench and hurries out of the locker room to join Jack. Samwell gave him the best years of his life so far, but he knows even better years are still to come, and they’ll come with this man giving him the softest smile as he takes Bitty’s hand and leads him onto the ice.
They skate lazy laps around the rink, some passed in silence, some filled with chirps and reminiscence. Jack gets Bitty to show off some figure skating moves, and Bitty coaxes Jack into trying out a few simple pairs tricks with him. After a race that Bitty wins maybe a bit too easily, Jack takes his hand again and leads them into another slow loop of the ice they’ve each thought of as home.
Jack suddenly twists in front of Bitty, taking his hands and pulling them to a halt at center ice.
“Bits,” Jack says, looking intense. “I need to ask you something.”
Bitty’s heart ricochets in his ribcage. “Okay.”
“Remember how you called me your husband on our first date?”
“Oh my god,” Bitty groans loudly, dropping Jack’s hands as he pushes backwards.
“That’s not my question,” Jack says as he easily recaptures Bitty in his arms.
Bitty glares up at him, waiting for the punchline.
“Do you know how hard it was to not just pull this out of the dill pickle chips bag and give it to you that night?”
And Jack slips away from Bitty so abruptly that Bitty takes a moment to register what’s happening. Surely he’s not seeing what he thinks he’s seeing. Because what he thinks he’s seeing is this: Jack on one knee, holding up an open ring box with a gold ring gleaming inside of it.
The ricocheting in his ribcage stops. Everything stops. Bitty just stares at the glint beaming off the gold ring.
“The dill pickle chips bag?” he hears himself say in abject disbelief.
Jack chuckles, sounding a little nervous. “It was the only place I knew you’d never look.”
Bitty blinks, but that doesn’t dim the gleam at all. He can’t stop staring at it. “Jack,” Bitty says, helplessly.
“I wanted to do this right,” Jack says. “Wait until we had time to be together. Really together. Do the normal couple things. And I had to wait for you to graduate. I couldn’t give you any more reasons to procrastinate on your thesis.”
Bitty suffers a short but intense fit of hysterics, not even able to be really embarrassed by whatever that squawking, laugh-like sound was that came out of his mouth because his brain is short-circuiting.
“But you called me your husband and . . . god, Bits. I’ve never wanted anything more than to hear you say it again.” Jack’s smile is so nervous and awkward, and unbearably, achingly sweet. “Do you want to say it again? And have it actually be. You know. Real?”
Bitty stares at Jack’s unbearably, achingly sweet smile.
And then he laughs.
A genuine, belly laugh this time, folding in on himself with the force of it.
“Jack,” Bitty wheezes. “Oh my god, Jack.” He puts his hands on both sides of Jack’s face, leaning in close. “Yes,” he says, hoping his smile beams as brightly as the ring. “Of course I do. I want to call you my husband again.”
The alarm abruptly leaves Jack’s face, replaced with a wide, dopey grin that Bitty’s completely besotted with. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. For real next time.”
“Actually, really real.”
Bitty laughs again, cutting himself off as he presses his lips to Jack’s.
When they finally manage to break apart, Jack catches Bitty’s hand and slides the ring onto his finger.
“I’m going to be your husband,” Jack says wonderingly, staring at the ring.
Bitty cups Jack’s jaw, tilting his face up to look him right in the eyes. “And I’m gonna be yours,” he says fiercely.
Jack surges up on his feet to kiss Bitty again, and again, and again.
“Oh,” Bitty pulls away with a gasp as the reality of the situation begins to settle in, “but it’s going to have to be a long engagement though, do you know how much planning needs to go into a wedding? There’s. Oh. There’s so much to discuss. Where would we even—I never considered I’d have to pick which country I want to get married in—and then venue tours and—oh, honey, it’s going to be a while before I call you ‘husband’ again—“
“Breathe, Bits,” Jack says with a smile, rubbing his hands up and down Bitty’s arms. “So we’ll have a long engagement.”
“Are you sure? I can try to rein in the groomzilla.”
“I think I know better than to ask that of you, bud,” Jack says, shaking his head. “Seriously. It’s fine. We’ll take our time and make sure this wedding’s everything we want it to be.”
Bitty melts against Jack, trying to put every ounce of you are so ridiculous and perfect and I love you so much I am so lucky how’d I get so lucky to love such a silly and wonderful man that he feels into his kiss.
“It’s good, actually,” Jack says when they break apart. “A long engagement. ‘Fiancé’ sounds really good too.”
“Fiancé,” Bitty sighs happily. “I love that word.”
“Of course you do,” Jack says. The grin that breaks out on his face is already enough of a chirp itself, but he adds, “It rhymes with Beyoncé.”
Bitty rolls his eyes heavenward. “I signed up for this. I literally just signed up for this. Chirps for life. I’ll never have another moment of peace.”
“I mean, I’ll have to be on roadies sometimes.”
Bitty huffs, but it’s more laugh than anything. “Got it all planned out, huh?”
“Not quite,” Jack says, leaning in until their foreheads touch. “But we’ll figure it out together, eh?”
“Yeah,” Bitty says, smiling as his eyes drift closed. He wraps his arms around Jack, right hand brushing over the ring that’s already warm and familiar on his finger. “Together.”