i: down to the good bones
It hits him on a Tuesday afternoon, when he’s tucked into an alcove in the History building with a smoothie and his Cold War seminar readings: He doesn’t want it to be over.
Jack’s dream, since he can remember, has been to play for the NHL.
He’s worked really hard to get to where he is.
There’s so much he hasn’t finished.
“How’s your thesis going?” Shitty asks Jack, leaning against the door jamb.
Jack has flour all over his face, and Bittle is laughing low in his chest and Jack feels warm all over, despite the February chill.
“Good, I’m basically done,” he says, flashing Shitty the quickest smile before turning back to the lattice he’s trying to help Bitty with.
Shitty throws himself into a chair at the table, and says, “What the fuck, how?”
“I… I do a little bit every day?”
Shitty slams his head down on the table, and groans. “That’s not--that’s not real.”
Jack laughs and Shitty groans again. Bittle is typing into his phone, and Jack lets him send the text before swiping the phone from his hands. When Bittle makes a small sound of protest, Jack says, “Nope. We’re doing this now, and then we’re doing research for our term papers.”
“You are such a square,” Shitty says, face still smashed into the table top.
“Then I’ll buy us Italian for dinner,” Jack says to Bittle. He points over his shoulder, and without looking in Shitty’s direction, says, “He’s not invited.”
Ransom finds him sitting on the porch, his tea placed off to the side, stream rising into the cold evening air.
“Sup man?” he says, and sits next to Jack.
“Nothing,” he says, and waves in front of him, not knowing quite what he means by it. “Trying to soak it all in.”
Rans nods and says, “I get that,” like the good dude that Jack’s always known him to be. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Jack says. “I just--it sounds stupid, but I don’t want to forget anything.”
“Must be strange,” Ransom says. “That this shit show is the most normal thing that’s ever happened to you.”
“Hmm,” Jack says. “I never thought of it that way.” He gets Ransom into a headlock and nuggies him. “You weirdos never made a single moment feel normal.”
Ransom hits the side of Jack’s head, and breaks free from Jack’s arm.
The thing is, his time at Samwell is the most normal thing he’s ever experienced.
His entire life had, up until he overdosed, always been about hockey.
He never went to a normal high school, never went to prom.
His friends, growing up, were either just kids of other Habs’ players or kids that lived a few houses down. Even then, he outgrew playdates fairly early. When he started playing hockey, most of the kids on the team made friends with the other players, but Jack had been on four different teams per season by the time he was eleven.
It was always going to be hockey, for him.
He knows he’s more like his father than he likes to admit, but his time at Samwell...it’s not something he thought he would ever be able to have.
When Bittle was in his freshman year, Jack knew Bitty was too good for him.
Bitty, who is still the kindest person Jack has ever met; who wants to help everyone as much as he is able; who will empty himself over and over until he has nothing left to give anyone if it means the people he cares about will be okay. Bittle is funny, and he smells like cinnamon and butter and everything that reminds Jack of home, for all that his mom was never that much of a baker. Bittle, who is the fastest skater Jack has maybe ever seen; who has a protective streak a mile wide; who always does the dishes and offers to wash Jack’s laundry with his own to save water.
Jack thinks about all the small ways that Bittle has woven his life into Jack’s, a complicated lattice crust of nearly two years spent in a run down frat house that honestly used to smell a lot worse.
He knows what this is, what’s going on between them. He can feel his cheeks turn pink and his lips turn upward any time Bitty is anywhere near him. Bitty’s gentle hands and big smile and soft southern lilt have nestled their way into the warmest part of Jack’s heart, and Jack will never deserve him.
Jack, for all that he knows it’s bad for him, has always deserved someone more like Parse. Logically, he knows that that part of his life is over, that he’ll never be in a spot where it would be a good idea. He’s worked hard to get a handle on his anxiety, and it isn’t always easy, but it’s always easier without Kent around.
He knows what that means.
Still, Kent has seen all the roughest edges of Jack. He was able to meet Jack, palms grazed and knees bloody, every gritty step of the way.
And maybe that says more about Jack and his relationship with Normal than anything else: that the only person who could get under his skin is the person that stops anyone else from getting in anywhere--that the only kind of person Jack will ever deserve is someone who can look him in the eye, and meet him at the gates of Hell, blood in their teeth and fire on their breath.
Shitty wakes Jack up at 3 in the morning to tell him he finished his thesis by kissing Jack on the cheek, sloppy and warm and, frankly, a little bit disgusting.
He knocks Shitty off of him, and says, “Are you drunk?” He clears his throat and wipes at his eyes.
“A bit,” Shitty says. “Bits wouldn’t shotgun beers with me, so I came to find you instead. I finished my thesis.”
“Good for you,” Jack says, meaning it even as he rolls over to persuade Shitty to get the fuck out of his bed.
“Jack, c’mon bro. It’s time for the good stuff now.”
“You’re very much awake, my sweet Canadian son. You’re even having a conversation.”
“I’m older than you,” Jack says, eyes still closed.
“And yet, I somehow have so much to teach you.”
“Dude,” Jack says, and it nearly sounds like a whine. “Please. Tomorrow. I’ll do whatever you want tomorrow.”
“We only have so many of those left,” Shitty says, suddenly quiet. “Fine. Sleep, recharge your robot batteries or whatever.”
Shitty is almost at the door when Jack says, “Software updates,” before he falls back asleep to the sound of Shitty’s retreating laughter.
They’re between playoff rounds, and Jack’s honestly exhausted, tired in his bones in a way he can’t remember ever feeling. They’re going to be fine, he knows. They’ve all worked hard, the season has been amazing, and Jack’s been proud to play with the boys in this last stretch.
It’s getting late, the sun still in the sky, but only barely. He rinses off his dinner plate and leaves it drying in the rack on the counter, and gets a six-pack from the fridge before making his way to his room, and sliding open the window to climb out onto the roof.
He pulls the comforter off his bed, and pulls that out onto the roof too, and it takes him an embarrassing amount of time to settle, lean back against the peeling side of the Haus, and notice Bittle sitting ten feet away. He’s got his legs pulled in close, his chin resting on his knee, and he’s turned towards Jack, a fond smile on his face.
“You were in your own little world there, huh?” Bittle asks, and Jack feels his smile spread wide.
“Guess so,” he says. “To be fair, you are very small and very quiet.”
Bitty rolls his eyes. “I’m a normal size. Just because you’re a giant does not mean--”
“Come over here,” Jack says, and he lifts his comforter up to gesture for Bitty to join him. “Be careful.”
Bitty shuffles across the shingles until he’s next to Jack, settles before Jack drops the comforter back over their legs. They sit in silence for a few minutes, and Jack gets caught up in the way the sun starts to set, the way he can hear laughter from a few blocks over. Bitty’s leg is pressed all along Jack’s thigh, and when Bittle flexes his ankles, Jack feels the left one pop softly next to his.
“I brought beer up, if you want.”
“We’ve got a busy weekend though,” Bittle says, almost shy.
Jack shrugs a bit, says, “It’s not like I brought a keg up here, Bittle.”
Jack feels Bitty huff a breath more than he hears it, and then Bitty says, “Yeah okay, sure.”
Jack pops the can out of the plastic ring, and hands it over. He watches Bittle tap the top of it a few times, then pull the tab. He raises it up in front of him a bit, and turns to look at Jack. “Well?” he says, and Jack shakes his head, gets with the program and opens one for himself. He knocks his can to Bitty’s, and Bitty says, “Cheers,” before tilting his head back to take a long pull.
They sit leaning back against the Haus until the sun goes down; it’s a nice night with clear sky and plenty of stars. There’s a bit of a breeze, but it’s still warmer than it’s been all year, and Jack has a bit of a buzz going.
They’re sharing the last beer of the six-pack, have been passing it back and forth since Bittle convinced Jack that they ought to share, seeing as Jack needs a bit more drink to feel it in his blood, and he’d kicked the first one back faster than Bitty anyway. Bitty has pulled Jack’s comforter up so that it’s up around his shoulders instead of folded over in his lap.
Jack is holding the beer in his left hand, and he should pass it to Bitty, fair is fair, but his right hand somehow found its way under the blanket and is pressed in between their legs. Bitty is leaning into his shoulder, but not enough for Jack to be sure that it’s anything. Bitty touches everyone all the time, is nice to everyone all the time. And, besides, Jack wouldn’t--
He didn’t bring beer up here with any intentions other than relaxing.
But still, his pinky is pressed into the outer seam of Bittle’s jeans, and it would be so easy.
Bitty’s been talking about how he still hasn’t started writing his term paper for his American Studies class, even though he knows he really needs to get a move on, and soon.
“I know I need to do it, and I mean to. I come home instead of hanging with the frogs or whatever, and I mean to work on it, really, but then I just...don’t.”
Jack nods, because he knows what it feels like. Just because he was on top of getting his thesis done doesn’t mean that he’s always been that way. “It’s hard. When you’re stressed sometimes it’s easier to do none of the things that are stressing you out, even if you know it’ll make it worse.”
“Exactly!” Bitty says, and he sighs a bit, and Jack feels his ribs expand and retract with the deep breath. “I’m just worried about playing Yale again, I think.”
And--Oh. That makes sense to Jack, a hell of a lot of sense, when he takes two seconds to think about it. That’s probably what Bitty had been thinking about when Jack first crashed his roof session.
“That’s fair,” Jack says. As much as he doesn’t know the root of Bitty’s checking issue, he knows that he’s improved so much over the season, that he’s been playing amazing hockey. Bittle’s soft hands and quick feet aren’t the only things that make him valuable out on the ice, but Jack knows that those are the first things to disappear from Bitty’s game when he gets too trapped in his head about being smoked into the boards.
“When I was in my frosh year,” Jack says, “Shitty lived across the hall from me.” He smiles, closing his eyes and leaning his head back until it hits the wall behind him. “You should’ve seen him. I know everyone swoons over him now, but he was a total tool.”
“Anyway,” Jack says. “He walked across the hall, and knocked on my open door. And he made some joke, y’know, about how I should help him unpack all his shit, because he didn’t have professional athletes helping him move boxes. And I was scared, ‘cause it meant that he knew who I was, recognized my dad. It was--” Jack clears his throat softly, and he can feel Bittle looking at him, but he can’t bring himself to open his eyes. “It was a nice surprise. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had. But the first time I met him, I was horrified.”
“I thought--” Bitty starts, and Jack feels him shift his weight a bit, but he doesn’t pull away from where he’s pressed into Jack’s side, and Jack finally reaches his arm across his lap to pass Bitty their shared can of beer. “I remember thinking, when I first met y’all, that I wouldn’t survive. I thought about quitting.”
Jack drags his pinky along the outer seam of Bitty’s jeans just barely. “But you didn’t, and you’re good now, right?”
Bitty knocks his head against Jack’s shoulder, rests against him, and says, “Can’t imagine where I’d be if I had. It’s been--” Bitty clears his throat a bit and finishes the beer. “I’m good.”
“And you’re gonna be good against Yale, too.” Jack, in his daring, squeezes Bitty’s leg once under the comforter and says, “You know I’ve got your back.”
Once hockey is done, the semester flies by.
Spring semester, Jack has always found, is its own special brand of torture. They don’t win playoffs, but it’s a close thing. They fight for it, work themselves down to the bare bones. In the end, Jack doesn’t even care that they lose, because it’s amazing hockey, and it’s fun, and he’s there with so many people that he’s never going to play with again.
ii: a high point we leave behind
Some days, Jack’s hands still shake.
Eric’s oven stops working.
iii: when we go on our going away
Bittle doesn’t even notice the new oven for an entire two minutes. Jack signed a very impressive contract with the Falconers not two weeks ago, but the moment that he sees Bitty see the new oven, the moment Bitty’s eye go wide before glazing over, the moment between that and the next one, when he slides his eyes to meet Jack’s gaze--the moment fills Jack with more joy and more pride than he’s ever felt.
And Jack knows: happiness isn’t something that stays. Minutes and hours pass into days, and the desire to hold onto any cherished timestamp is foolish at best. But it’s a lesson that was hard for Jack to learn.
Jack is very talented, and he’s worked damn hard. As much as he’s had more than enough handed to him in his life, he knows how to fight tooth and nail for what he wants. And he knows that sometimes you can fight your hardest, try your best, and still lose.
He knows that happiness--the real, light, valuable brand of happy that he’s always chased--is hard to come by and quick to leave.
It slithers its way into the small, vulnerable spaces in Jack’s life and makes him hopeful.
Bitty says, “How did y’all...where did y’all…” and Jack can barely breathe for all the emotion that has worked its way into his chest. Bittle covers his face with his hands, and Jack thinks he’s crying. He snaps a picture, the sound of the shutter nothing compared to the pounding in his ears; even if he doesn’t get to hold onto this lightness, doesn’t get to bottle up how happy he feels and keep it forever, he can take a picture, which is about as close as he knows how to get.
The Haus fills up quickly, people pressing into Jack from all sides, laughing and smiling. Jack sometimes doesn’t like parties, sometimes feels suffocated, like all the nerve endings under his skin are on fire. But everywhere he looks, people seem happy: Lardo is leaning up to whisper into Shitty’s ear where they’re standing beside the fridge in the kitchen; Farmer is smiling at Chowder, all fondness and affection.
Jack can handle the noise of a stadium, can handle being thrown into the boards by guys taller and wider than he is. He can handle the glare of ice. What Jack has a hard time stomaching is loud music and louder people, other people’s alcohol, spilling sticky onto his skin as he turns the corner.
When Bittle’s soft hand circles his wrist, Jack has to turn around to see him.
Jack has a red solo cup filled with water, but no one needs to know that. Bittle is drunk. But he’s smiling, and he doesn’t drop Jack’s wrist when they’re fully facing each other. Jack smiles and says, “You know I didn’t actually forget your birthday, right?”
Bitty nods, barely a tilt of his head, and says, “I got there eventually.”
Jack smiles, and leans his shoulder into the wall beside him. “Are you having a nice time?”
Bitty nods, and says softly, “Yes.” He closes his eyes and gives his head a quick shake and says, “But I’m very drunk.”
“Here,” Jack says, and presses his cup of water into Bittle’s hands. “Do you need to get something to eat? I keep telling you, more--”
“More protein, yes Jack, I’ve read all the articles you’ve emailed me. Clif bar might be good, though.”
Jack drapes his arm over Bittle’s shoulders and leads him towards the pantry. “Chocolate chip or peanut butter?”
“Peanut butter,” Bitty says, leaning his head into Jack’s shoulder. Bittle’s hair has grown out, and it tickles the soft skin on the inside of Jack’s arm. Jack unwraps the Clif bar, and then turns to lean his back against the counter. Bittle takes a determined bite, then hands it out to Jack, eyebrows raised. Jack smiles, takes a bite, then almost chokes when Bittle says, “You’re a growing boy.”
“Got my meal plan from the trainers last week,” Jack says. “No more pies for me.”
“But now I have a fancy oven. You’ll have to try something.”
Jack smiles down at Bittle, and says, “I’m sure you’ll be able to convince me when the time comes.”
“I won’t even need to, honest to goodness. If I make that maple-apple crumble, you’ll come runnin’.”
They get roped into a game of beer pong where Bittle agrees to drink all the beer Jack should be downing, and even though Bittle gets less and less steady on his feet, Jack has amazing aim, and Bittle is sufficiently distracting for everyone involved that they still win three in a row. When Bittle has to lean into Jack to stay standing, Jack bows out on their behalf, letting Chowder and Farmer sub in for them against Ransom and Holster, Reigning Beer Pong Haus Champions.
Jack doesn’t know what time it is, but the sun’s falling in the sky when Shitty jumps onto the coffee table and yells, “Announcement time, kidlets!”
For a reason Jack doesn’t understand, most of the room falls silent quickly, turning to face him. “Rans, turn down the music,” Lardo says, and then gestures back to Shitty.
“Normally,” Shitty starts, and runs his fingers over his moustache. “Normally this sort of thing gets discussed a bit later in the year, but today is very special. To all the randos that’re here to enjoy our ‘swasome party in honor of Bits’ b-day, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“But, I digress. Special day, year’s end, good season, yadda yadda.” Shitty gesticulates whenever he talks, but standing on the coffee table, solo cup in hand, Jack can actually imagine him in a courtroom, eyes turned on him with as much rapt attention as he’s captured now, even in a room of drunk college kids. “As some of you may know, Jack Zimmermann over there,” Shitty points at him, and Jack works to keep the blush off his cheeks, and raises his cup of water in salute, “has been the captain of the Samwell men’s hockey team three years runnin’, now. Last year, he was elected unanimously, which was unprecedented in Samwell history.”
Jack can feel his blush, then, and he hears Holster give a “whoop whoop” from across the room, with Dex shouting, “Jacky-boy!”
“Not the point,” Shitty laughs. “Jack’s ego doesn’t need any help with inflation.” Jack tunes out Shitty’s rambling a bit, after that. He scans the room until he meets Bittle’s eyes, and Bittle smiles.
Jack knows what Shitty planned to say, had taken a seat dutifully at Shitty’s desk chair while he’d ran the speech by him last week after Lardo and the coaches had collected votes. Jack smiles back at Bittle, and he feels something settle in him, like a million little pieces are finally in their proper place. “So I’d like to bring up new captain of Samwell Men’s Hockey team for the 2015-16 season, elected by unanimous vote, who holds a special place in all our hearts, birthday boy Eric Bittle.” Bittle’s eyes go wide, and his smile falters, and Jack feels his own smile get wider, and nods softly, and then Bitty is smiling again.
A lot happens at once, with lots of noise and cheering and the boys somehow all manage to pile on top of Bittle in the middle of the living room. Jack watches fondly as Chowder squares his shoulders and says, “It’ll be my honor to play with you, Captain,” as Bittle responds, dragging out the words, “Chowder! Stop! Oh my goodness!”
People start to file out of the Haus just after midnight. Early, considering their kegsters usually get shut down by campus security around two a.m., but they’d gotten an early start, and no one complains when most people seem to be calling it quits. Jack sneaks into the backyard to avoid the possibility of clean up duty, even if it’s more likely to happen in the morning. He’d originally tried to escape to his bedroom, but had detoured when he caught sight of Lardo, on her tip toes, smiling and nodding and whispering, “Yes, god, of course, alwa--” before Shitty had ducked down to press his lips to hers, softer than anything Jack had ever seen. He’d looked away quickly, knowing that while it was an important moment, it wasn’t his to see, wasn’t his to interrupt.
The backyard was a good second to his bed, really. A lot of his stuff in his bedroom has already found its way into boxes, haphazardly packed with no particular system for when he’ll unpack them in a few weeks time in Providence.
Jack knows he can get lost in his own headspace, but it still surprises him when Bittle takes a seat beside him on the back step.
“Hiding?” Bitty asks, after a few moments of comfortable silence.
“Nah,” Jack says. “Just winding down, y’know?”
“Yeah,” Bitty nods. “I’m so keyed up, don’t think I’ll be gettin’ to bed for ages.”
“You had a big day.” Jack knocks his shoulder into Bittle’s, leaves his arm pressed along Bittle’s arm.
“Big shoes to fill,” Bittle says, and he sounds worried, nervous, and Jack thinks it’s the worst sound he’s ever heard.
Jack shakes his head. “You getting the C isn’t about me, Bittle. You earned it all on your own.”
“I’ve never felt--” He stops, and Jack cringes as Bitty presses the heel of his hands into his eyes. “I’m not good enough.”
“You earned your spot on this team the same way anyone else did,” Jack says, and settles his hand on Bittle’s back.
“I really like playing hockey,” Bittle says. “But I have no plans to keep playing hockey after I graduate. Maybe a beer league if I have the time, but--”
“Having domestic plans doesn’t mean you can’t lead these boys the way they need you to.” Bittle leans into Jack’s shoulder, and Jack stretches his arm across Bittle’s back, squeezes his arm lightly. “You’re gonna be fine,” Jack says. Bittle hums in the back of his throat, and says, “If you say so.”
They sit outside for nearly an hour, until Bittle starts to shiver, and then Jack hoists him up and they head inside. Bitty makes them stop in the kitchen for glasses of water, and even though Jack hasn’t had a drink all night, he humours him.
They walk up the stairs with Jack’s hand on the small of Bittle’s back, and when Bittle tries to duck into his room, Jack says, “Brush your teeth, c’mon.”
“Yes sir,” Bittle says, and salutes Jack as he walks backwards into his room, grabs his pajamas off his bed.
Jack changes into his own pajamas while Bittle’s in the washroom, and leans against the wall across the hall until he hears the tap turn off, and Bittle swings the door open a bit too forcefully. He smiles when he sees Jack waiting, genuine and sweet, and the softness of him doesn’t escape Jack.
“All yours,” Bittle says, and Jack says, “Sleep tight,” before slipping into the washroom to get ready for bed.
When Jack makes it downstairs the next morning, Lardo and Shitty have already collected all the empty bottles and cans into big black garbage bags, and are making eyes at each other from across the table while Bittle makes breakfast.
“Everyone else still asleep?” Jack asks, and Bittle nods without looking up from the eggs he’s frying.
“Over-medium?” He asks, and Jack says, “Please,” as he pours himself a cup of coffee. He takes the milk from the fridge and says, “Top up?” as he reaches for the mug Bittle has on the counter beside a stack of plates.
“Thank you,” Bittle says, and Jack stirs a teaspoon of sugar into Bitty’s mug.
“Nice new stove,” Jack says, and grins as Bitty’s eyes light up.
“It’s amazing,” Bittle says, just as Lardo says, “He hasn’t named it yet.”
“Do you want me to make you breakfast or what?”
“Sorry,” Shitty says. “Our hungover asses are grateful and we love you.”
“That’s what I thought,” Bitty says.
Lardo slaps Shitty’s ass on their way out the front door, and Bittle laughs.
Jack looks up from where he’s reading at the table to Bittle, where he’s laying baking ingredients out on the counter beside his Kitchen Aid. “What?”
“Nothing,” Bittle says. “It’s nice that they--I don’t know. It’s just nice.”
“About time,” Jack says.
“Hm,” Bitty hums. “I think it’s brave to try to be happy.”
iv: masked desire to lose it all
Jack is a lot of things--he let his emotions get in between him and the NHL before--and for all that he’s hard-working and tenacious, Jack has never been brave.
The team goes for a final team meal the morning before graduation; it’s something they’ve done every year that Jack’s been at Samwell. They all wake up at the crack of dawn, and the whole roster shows up at Faber for one last skate.
They scrimmage and Bitty spends half an hour teaching Ransom and Holster how to do spins while in mid-air. Shitty makes Jack hold his hand as they skate laps, and then they file back off the ice, and head to commons for breakfast.
Ransom and Holster spend the rest of the morning helping Shitty pack the rest of his boxes into his Volvo, and Bitty spends a few hours filling tupperware containers with baking for everyone to take home with them.
Bittle is singing to himself softly under his breath when Jack leans against the threshold between the living room and the kitchen. Jack recognizes the lyrics, but can’t place it, and he spends a too-long moment being overly fond of Bittle before he crosses his arms over his chest and says, “Bittle.”
Bittle jumps at his name. “What in Sam Hill are you tryin’ do to me, Jack, honestly,” Bitty says, holding his hand over his heart. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“Obviously not,” Jack says, deadpan, and Bittle smiles. “Haven’t you done enough baking for everyone? Come sit outside.”
“I’ve gotta--” Bittle says, and waves his hand at the kitchen. “I’ll have to clean up, and...I wanted to make sure everyone had something to take with them.”
“I’ll help you clean up later.”
“But your parents--”
“Are staying at a hotel. We’re not leaving until Wednesday, anyway.”
“Aren’t you doing dinner after the ceremony?”
Jack shrugs. “I said I didn’t really care, that I’d rather go out when we get to Rhode Island.”
“Oh,” Bittle says, looking at the floor.
Silence stretches out between them like nothing has since Bittle’s freshman year. Jack’s hands feel sweaty, his face warm.
“Listen Bitt--” Jack says just as Bittle says, “Jack I--”
Bittle’s eyes go wide, and he sighs, says, “Go ahead.”
“I--” Jack starts, his hands clenched, nails digging crescent moons into his palm. “I’m not a brave person,” he says, and Bittle’s brow furrows. “I wish I could--If I lived a different life, had different plans, maybe I would be.”
“I don’t--Jack, what--”
“I wish I could be with you,” Jack says. “I’ve wanted that for a long time.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack says, and runs his hands through his hair.
“Why?” Bitty asks, hands twisting in the dishtowel he’s pulled off the counter.
“That’s not something that I--we can’t.”
Bittle shakes his head. “That’s stupid. Jack. It could be worth it.”
“It’s too much,” Jack says, and he has to squeeze his hands into even tighter fists to stop them from shaking. “I am sorry. If I couldn’t have hockey, then I’d want to have--”
“Jack,” Bitty says, and then he’s prying Jack’s hands apart. “Jack, it’s okay.”
“Sorry,” Jack whispers, and Bittle presses his hand into Jack’s.
“You’re going to be great,” Bittle says, stepping in closer to Jack. “You’re going to be better than anyone, and you’re going to make your dad so proud, and we’re all going to miss you. You’re gonna be fine.”
Jacks nods, and Bitty hugs him, steps right into his space and presses into him. “I just--I have to prove that I can do it.”
“So do it,” Bittle says into Jack’s collarbone. “Go be a star. You know where I’ll be in the meantime.”
Jack spends the entirety of his commencement ceremony thinking about he doesn’t think he’ll be able to carry the weight of Bittle waiting for him.
Jack already has so many things that live inside him that can crumble at any moment. He already spends every day fighting a battle with himself, and the added of baggage of knowing that he’d be in any given city across North America while Bittle was at Samwell, holding a candle for him--he hates it.
He hugs his mom tighter than he has in years, and when he fists the fabric of her sun dress in his hands, she says, “Jack, baby, it’s--”
So he says, “I love you,” into her hair, and feels just a bit lighter.
If life were fair, it would happen like this:
Jack unpacks his Samwell jersey from a box that says clothes, unpack first on the side, and closes the box again, pressing along the packing tape in hopes of re-sealing his early attempt at packing up the last four years of his life into a collection of boxes and gear bags.
He pads across the hall, and steps into Bitty’s room. Bitty’s in the shower; Jack can hear him singing through the walls, and he does his best to remember the sound, remember the feeling, save as much of this moment as he can. There is a warmth that he’s found at Samwell that he knows he will never be able to recreate again, and Bittle is undoubtedly a part of that.
He places his folded jersey on Bittle’s bed, and sighs.
“Hey,” Bittle says from behind him, and Jack jumps. He’s got a towel around his waist, skin flushed from the heat of the shower. And Jack has seen Bitty post shower more times than he can count, but the soft intimacy of this hits Jack, and he has to swallow hard before saying, “Hi.”
“What’s goin’ on?”
“I uh--nothing,” he says, suddenly embarrassed.
“Nothin’ made you venture ‘cross the hall at quarter past midnight?”
Jack makes to move around him in the doorway, but Bittle steps in front of Jack. And Bittle isn’t intimidating, not in any real way, but Jack can feel his heartbeat pick up, his breath stop and sputter and start again. Jack means to reach up to move Bittle out of his way, but when his right hand wraps around Bittle’s shoulder, Bittle reaches out for Jack’s waist.
“I--” Bittle starts, and then he squeezes Jack’s hips gently. “I’d rather know,” he says, and Jack says, “Thank fuck,” and then presses his mouth, hard, against Bittle’s.
“Mhm,” Bittle hums, and steps forward, forcing Jack to step back into the middle of the room. Bittle kicks his bedroom door closed with his foot, his left hand tightening around Jack’s waist, and his right letting go of the knot of his towel to reach for the back of Jack’s ribs.
Bitty’s lips are soft, but the force behind them propels Jack backwards. The back of his knees hit Bittle’s bed, and he sits, pulls Bittle in between his spread legs.
Bittle pulls away from Jack’s mouth to kiss at Jack’s jaw, across his cheekbones. When Bittle cups Jack’s face in both his hands, Jack lets out an unsteady breath, and opens his eyes.
Jack blinks softly as Bittle runs his thumbs over Jack’s eyebrows, and when he finally presses his mouth to Jack’s again, it’s hungrier, more teeth and tongue than before. Jack groans into it, moves his hands from Bittle’s hips to his ass, and pulls their lips together.
They stay pressed together for a few minutes, their hands roaming. Jack feels overwhelmed in the best way he can remember; even though he hasn’t been with anyone in a long time, it only feels urgent in its enormity, in how important he knows this is to him, how the press of Bittle’s soft hands on Jack’s shoulders will be a phantom pressure that Jack will be half able to feel the entire drive from Samwell to his condo in Providence. When Bittle pushes at Jack’s chest, Jack stops kissing him, blinks his eyes open slowly.
“Sit back for real,” Bittle says, and then reaches for the hem of Jack’s shirt. Jack lets him pull it over his head while he scoots back on Bittle’s extra-long twin bed, his hands still urging Bitty forward. When Jack’s shirt is thrown across the room, Bitty’s eyes look over Jack’s chest before his gaze reaches Jack’s crotch. He looks back up at Jack, hands hover at Jack’s pajama pants, and asks, “Can I?”
“Only seems fair,” Jack says, as he undoes the soft fold that’s still miraculously holding Bittle’s towel up around his waist.
It isn’t fair, though--life never has been, not for Jack or anyone else, and so it doesn’t happen this.
It doesn’t happen this way because Jack has never been brave.
There is a sadness inside of Bittle that has as much to do with Jack as it has to do with everything else.
Jack remembers being twenty; remembers being on the losing end of rehab treatment, and having nothing. Jack remembers what it’s like to be sad and to know that your best friend is somewhere else, not thinking of you.
Jack remembers knowing that his parents love him, that his dad has always been proud of him no matter what; that his dad’s guilt and pride plague him more than anything that Jack has ever done. He remembers that his mother misses him whenever they’re apart. Jack remembers missing her--Jack still misses her. He misses her fingers in his hair and her voice in his ear, softer than anything.
Jack remembers white gowns, white slippers, white walls, starchy bed sheets.
Jack remembers winning.
More than anything, Jack remembers what it’s like to be twenty and think that no one will ever love you back.
And because Jack is not brave, Jack says nothing.
And because Bittle is sad in a way that Jack cannot reach--a type of sad that lives inside him somewhere so deep that his parents cannot get there anymore, and that leaves him so alone that even if Jack were brave--it still wouldn’t be fair.
v: in front of a closed box which cannot be opened
What happens is this:
Bittle’s in the shower; Jack can hear him singing. Jack unpacks his box that has clothes, unpack first written down the side, and he softly pads across the hall to Bittle’s bedroom. He opens the door, places the folded jersey in the back of Bittle’s dresser.
Jack closes Bittle’s bedroom door, and goes back to his room.
The next morning, his mom picks him up from the Haus at 7:45. Bittle’s already awake. In the kitchen, there’s coffee sitting in the pot, travel mug set aside for Jack with just enough milk and a little bit of sugar.
Bittle says, “I made scones, if you want.”
And Jack nods, and says, “My mom’ll like that.”
Bittle nods, and they look at each other for a moment too long, and then Bitty smiles softly, the corners of his mouth barely lifting to a grin. Jack says, “I am sorry.”
Bittle says, “So am I.”
Jack says, “I’ll text you, I promise,” and Bittle says, “Can’t wait.”