The kitchen is too full with all six of them, somehow. It doesn’t matter that usually, with everyone in the Haus plus the frogs piled on top of that, the kitchen never seems too small, that it’s always just exactly right. With Coach looming awkwardly in the doorway and Alicia Zimmermann trying gamely to string together some small talk with Mama, his kitchen is now cramped and somehow not enough. There’s no Beyonce lyric in the world that could calm Bitty down right this second.
There’s a light pressure on the small of his back, Jack’s hand warm through the light fabric of his t-shirt, and Bitty leans back into it, grateful. A-plus boyfriending, Zimmermann.
This had seemed like a great idea a month ago, back when all Bitty could think about was how his father couldn’t even talk to him anymore. Not since he went and came out at the dinner table at his cousin’s wedding reception like an idiot, all because he was feeling lonely and isolated and drunk on too much white wine like every worst kind of cliche.
Coach was always asking about Jack, before. He was showing interest in hockey, even, real interest that meant that he took time out of his day to sit down at the computer and read up on stats and research history, and hell, what could be better than talking hockey over pie with Bad Bob Zimmermann?
So, the plan was this: stick his parents and Jack’s parents all in one room and maybe after a while, something would click, some puzzle piece would fall into place and Coach would stop seeing this as weird, stop seeing it as some kind of mistake. Maybe he’d finally see that nothing has changed, not really.
Maybe he’d finally see that this is always who Bitty was, that his son could be gay and that nothing was lost in the process, except that now Bitty wouldn’t have to live with that worn down heartache that comes from so many years of lying.
Even Mama had agreed that it might just work.
The plan had seemed Flawless, with a Capital-F, right up until Coach’s car pulled up to the Haus.
Now, his kitchen has been overrun with an awkward tension so thick you could cut it with a knife.
“I could’ve sworn my son mentioned something about blueberry cobbler,” Alicia says, breaking the silence, and Bitty mentally updates his assessment of her from “fabulous” to “fabulous life-saver.”
“Goodness, yes, of course. The farmer’s market only just started up again and I couldn’t resist,” Bitty starts, and he can hear himself babbling as he busies himself getting out the cobbler and separating it out into bowls, but right now, he’s just thankful for something to do with his hands that’s not twisting them around each other until his knuckles turn white.
Beside him, Jack moves to pull out the forks and the napkins, but not before sliding his hand down and tugging lightly at the back belt loop of Bitty’s jeans because Jack still hasn’t entirely mastered the difference between chirping and teasing, and actual comforting boyfriend behavior. Bitty shakes his head, fighting a smile. Honestly, this boy.
Bob accepts his cobbler with an easy smile, and Bitty knows, he does, he understands that Bob and Jack have their problems, but with this, Bob has never been anything but open and accepting and it makes envy bloom in Bitty’s chest, heavy and unwanted.
Bob picks up his fork to take a bite. A beat or two later, he sets his fork down with a clatter, turns toward Jack and says, after tossing Bitty a quick, conspiratorial wink, “Jack, please marry him.”
The look on Coach’s face is something that Bitty will cherish for years to come.
“It’s too bad Kent Parson couldn’t make it to your graduation, that would’ve been fuckin’ awesome -- ” Dex says, with a mouthful of mashed potatoes and a red wine flush high in his cheeks.
With the whole restaurant busting at the seams full of graduating seniors with their families, no one’s checking IDs too closely and the frogs have opted to take full advantage of it. Poor innocent Chowder, who is already listing slightly to the side into Nursey’s shoulder, will have to be shuffled back to the Haus after dinner. He’ll only wind up passing out on that godawful toxic couch, too, and Bitty shudders at the thought of it.
“Yeah,” Jack agrees, and it’s a testament to how well they’ve come to understand each other that Bitty can pick out the careful tone, the put-upon ease that Jack is so good at pretending comes naturally. “He’s been too busy with the Aces. I guess that’s just how things go sometimes, eh?”
Bitty turns away so no one can see his grimace and maybe if he stabs the last remaining cherry tomato on his plate a little extra hard, well, they were pretty delicious, so who can really blame him?
Except in the process of turning away, Bitty comes face-to-face with Bob, who is sitting right next to him, wearing an equally unimpressed frown.
Later, after the bill is paid and they’re all shrugging on their jackets because apparently Boston can’t even do spring properly this year, Bob corners Bitty in the foyer of the restaurant.
He waits until Jack is just out of earshot, caught up in an argument with Shitty and Lardo about historiography, before leaning in and clapping a hand to Bitty’s shoulder.
“Eric, son….I don’t know if I’ve said this yet,” Bob starts, and he’s looking a little off kilter but determined as hell to power through it anyways, so it’s easy to see where Jack gets that from. “But I’m really glad that he has you. I just wanted you to know that.”
Bitty ducks his head, knowing full well that the tips of his ears will be traitorously flushing red right about now.
“Thanks, Bob. I, uh -- I’m glad too.”
Bitty throws a red marker at the white board glaring ominously at him from across his bedroom, kicking his feet up on his bed and letting out a long groan. He could’ve baked at least four pies in the time it’s been taking him to work through how next season’s lineup is going to look, and with the fruit Mama’s been buying from the market lately, that’s definitely four pies too many.
He’d felt like his heart was fit to burst with warmth when Coach Hall and Coach Murray had announced that he was voted the new captain -- unanimously, at that -- but two and a half weeks later, in the middle of a sweltering Georgia summer, that warmth is starting to feel like it’s a little bit too much.
Bitty picks up his phone and swipes it open, taking a second to read through the Snapchat story that Lardo sent him (Shitty, in varying stages of asleep and drooling) before shifting to his contacts, staring at the contact marked only as “The Boy.” He and Jack, they’ve texted constantly and they’ve Skyped a few times and it’s only -- it’s only been a few weeks, which is barely anything, really, except when he remembers how the distance between them was once little more than a few feet, if that.
Jack’s got a scant few weeks at home in Montreal before he’s headed off to the Falconers training camp and maybe Bitty feels a little silly about interrupting him, about intruding into that time alone with his parents, but then he’s pressing the call button before he can second guess himself some more.
The phone rings and rings and rings, and Bitty can just see Jack’s battered, old iPhone 4 going off in some forgotten corner somewhere because Jack’s the kind of person who only uses his phone to text and routinely leaves it behind, but then it picks up and a deep voice crackles through, “Hello? Eric?”
“Uh, yeah? Hiya-- wait. Bob?”
“Yep,” Bob says, and then there’s a muffling sound like he’s shifting the phone under his ear. “Jack just went for a run, he forgot his phone on the kitchen table.”
Bitty drops his head to his knees, propping the phone up with one hand. “Of course he did.”
Bob laughs. “Sorry, son. I wouldn’t have answered, only I’m not too sure how long he’ll be out for.” He pauses. “Everything okay?”
There are a lot of answers to that question and most of them end with, and I miss your son so much that I’d welcome his dumb chirping and his weird Canadian folk music and his awful morning breath. Bitty may be a talker and Lord knows he doesn’t always think things through all the way before he opens his mouth, but he’s still got enough sense to know that he shouldn’t lead with that.
“Just trying to figure out some stuff for next season, you know. Uh, now that I’m captain and all,” Bitty says, at last.
“Well, while you’ve got me on the phone calling long distance, you want to run some of it by me?” Bob offers.
Bitty resists the urge to let out a hysterical laugh because apparently this is just his life now. He tries to call his boyfriend and winds up getting hockey advice from a living legend.
“Sure,” Bitty says. “Why not?”
Bitty slumps deeper into the pillows on his bed, thumbing the volume on his headphones so that Adele comes through at high volume. He’s not at the pie making stage of mourning just yet, which -- apparently there’s a level of mourning where he’s not ready for pies, who knew? No, he’s at the listen to Adele for at least four hours on repeat and mope alone in your room stage of the mourning process. Chowder’s already tried to check in on him at least three or four times, before turning away with a look of helplessness on his sweet face that Bitty’s really gonna regret later.
It’s not like he thought they’d win it all his first year as captain -- although maybe he did, a little -- maybe once or twice, he’d entertained a fantasy about snatching a miraculous victory out of the jaws of defeat because really, who wouldn’t?
It would’ve been nice to at least make it to the Frozen Four, but he couldn’t even manage that. He’s got this strange, sinking feeling that he’s let everyone down and he hopes to God that this isn’t how Jack feels all of the time because boy, does it suck.
Bitty’s phone buzzes again, tucked away as it is in the pocket of his sweatshirt. He pulls it out, peering at the screen. He’s got exactly eleven missed calls from Jack, a cheer up text from Ransom told entirely through emoji, and right at the top of the lock screen, a text from Bob that just says this: Congratulations, Eric. You had a great season!
Bitty shakes his head, but turns down the Adele a couple of notches anyways.
They’re in the middle of a New Year’s Eve dinner that’s fancier than anything Bitty’s ever seen in his life, probably, which is why he thinks he can be forgiven for the shock that leads to him almost upending his water glass when Bob turns to him and says, “So, I think I want to get a Vine account.”
“You -- what?”
“A Vine account,” Bob repeats. “It looks like fun. Should I just download it to my phone, or what?”
“How would you download a plant to your phone?” Jack asks, and it’s only the slightest twitch at the corner of his mouth that gives him away, but Bitty leans over and kicks him lightly in the shin anyways.
“You think you’re so funny, Jack Zimmermann,” Bitty says archly. “But I still have a record of the time you accidentally tweeted ‘how to use twitter’ on my phone.”
“Maybe that was on purpose to throw you off, eh?” Jack says.
Bitty just leans back in his chair and crosses both arms over his chest, fixing Jack with an incredulous stare, before turning his head to address Bob. “What century did you get him from again?”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart, I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about either,” Alicia says, leaning over to ruffle Jack’s hair, and Bitty doesn’t even try to fight the smile at Jack’s indignant squawking.
“These two,” Bob says, gesturing grandly with his fork between Jack and Alicia. “All you have to do is mention Fleetwood Mac and they’re set for the rest of the evening while we get to talk about things that are still relevant.”
“Stevie Nicks is the greatest musician of the twentieth century,” Alicia says, “and I won’t hear a single word against her.”
Bob raises both eyebrows meaningfully. “See what I mean. But really, about the Vines -- “
“Oh yeah,” Bitty says, digging his phone out of his pocket. “It’s really easy, you just download the app first -- ”
A month later, a Vine of Bob Zimmermann shaking his head in front of a broadcast of a Stephen Harper speech goes viral and two months later, Bob makes a Buzzfeed list of Top Ten Celebrity Vine Accounts.
A good fifty percent of Bob’s Vines are just him reacting uproariously to all of Jack’s best plays but a fair amount of them were mined from videos taken over the holiday break, and all of those are of Jack: Jack asleep with his head propped up on the dining room table, Jack singing in the kitchen with Alicia, Jack covered in flour trying to recreate a recipe that Bitty sent him.
When Bitty’s alone in his room at the Haus, trying desperately to stave off stress over finals and playoffs and graduation, he watches all of them ten times over, and laughs at something new each time until the stress starts to recede and he finally feels like he can keep moving forward.
Jack coughs self-consciously, stuffing both hands inside of his jean pockets. Bitty and his mother have only been out of the room for a minute or so but it already feels like a minute too long. Bitty’s dad is standing on the opposite side of the kitchen from him, looking similarly at a loss.
They’ve put this off for as long as they possibly could. Whenever there was an opportunity to come together for a holiday or a break, they always just went to Montreal. This thing with him and Bitty, though -- it’s been a couple of years, now, and Jack’s finally starting to let himself believe that this could be something permanent, that it could last and last. He already gets along with Mama Bittle, who keeps sending him care packages to Providence and regularly calls him up to make sure that he’s eating enough, but Coach Bittle is still a bit of an enigma, the eternally unaccounted for figure. And there’s an element of anger in that, sure, because Jack knows that Bitty’s father has hurt him in ways that Jack’s never really going to understand, but Bitty loves his father, anyways, and Jack won’t half-ass playing for keeps.
Even if it means an awkward staring contest in the middle of the kitchen, while the hot Georgia sun beats down on the back of his neck through the open window.
“So,” Coach starts. “Do you like football?”
“Yeah,” Jack says. “I don’t know much about the college game but I’ve followed the NFL for years, now.”
The expression on Coach’s face can only really be described as overwhelmingly relieved and Jack eases back against the countertop, grateful that they finally managed to snag onto something, to find some common ground to talk around until Bitty and his mother get back from the store.
Maybe this won’t be so bad.
“You’re not a Pats fan, are you?”