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“I cannot believe you, Jack! You were fixing to hide away in your room!? During what could very well be the last ridiculous kegster of your Samwell career!”

Bitty gets a lump in his throat at the thought of the seniors graduating, as usual, but his beer-and-a-half buzz and the strange, otherworldly possibility of hanging out with Jack Zimmermann at a Haus party pushes it down. Jack even has a drink in his hand, and he doesn’t look miserable. He’s sort of smiling and God, does that look nice in the coloured lights Rans and Holster strung up earlier, now casting long blue and green shadows over everything. Especially Jack’s cheekbones.

“Well, you know, something always goes wrong during these parties.” Jack looks around as a girl jostles them to get down the hallway, and Bitty presses himself to the wall to make room. “And I think Ransom and Holster invited half the colleges in Boston. Make sure you lock your door, Bittle. Last time we had one of these, Shitty had a guy get sick in his room. Oh, boy—”

And then Jack tells his story about the football team, and if Bitty has to lean in to hear him over the music and all the shouting, he can’t be blamed for that, that’s just being polite. And if he happens to intentionally smell Jack’s deodorant or cologne, or whatever it is that he wears, it’s because the Haus already smells sharp and sour like sweat and spilled cheap beer, and he needs something good in his life. Jack talks with his hands and he’s more animated than Bitty’s seen him in a while, and it’s nice and weird and he wonders what it means.

Bitty says, “Good lord, I’m tweeting that,” and Jack chuckles. Bitty squints at him. “I’m surprised you’re not chirping me for having my nose buried in my phone.”

“Well, if it’s out, we should take a ... selfie or something. Together.”

“There it is.”

Bitty tries not to take note of Jack’s pause before the together. He really, really does.

“I’m serious! You know, like, ‘Bitty’s first big kegster.’” Jack shuffles forward, letting his back slip down the wall so he isn’t much taller than Bitty. “You could put it on your blog. I mean, I don’t get selfies, but you’ve tweeted about me enough that maybe people want to put a face to the name.”

Bitty laughs, embarrassed that Jack knows that he tweets about him, but at the same time, finding it impossible to be embarrassed around someone who said blog and selfie and tweet so awkwardly that you could hear how new the words were in his mouth.

“I’m sure all my followers know who you are.” Bitty rolls his eyes. “I mean, they could google it. I’ve used your last name. You’re you.

“Sounds like you don’t want to take a selfie with me.”

“Of course I do!” Bitty tosses his head back and downs his beer, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “I can’t win with you, can I? Come here.”

Jack smirks at him and slips down the wall until his head his level with Bitty’s and moves in so their shoulders are pressed together. Bitty feels like he’s in high school again, the way something as simple as his arm is on my arm makes his head spin. He holds his phone at arm’s length, the other raising his solo cup, and snaps a picture in which Jack looks pleased but puzzled, and it’s beautiful. As if Jack could ever look bad in any photo.

“That’s a keeper,” Bitty says, and Jack shakes his head.

“You’re welcome.”

Bitty steps back so Jack can’t see what he tweets along with it. A selfie with Jack Zimmermann, as, miraculously, requested by Jack Zimmermann. He says “hi,” y’all. If Jack sees it later and chirps him for putting words in his mouth, so be it; he was basically saying “hi” to Bitty’s followers, with the thing about putting a face to the name.

Now that he’s done his beer, he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Jack drinks and looks down at him.

“Are you planning on sticking around?” Bitty asks him. “Are you drinking drinking?”

Jack looks into his cup. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Have you ever participated in an entire kegster here?” Bitty leans on the wall. “Mister ‘I Genuinely Enjoy Reading Books Alone in my Room’ Zimmermann.”

“I don’t remember. I think once, I did.” He pauses. “Wait, what’s wrong with reading?”

“Nothing, but it’s reading while there’s the party of the century goin’ on downstairs! I don’t ... I guess I don’t really like crowds either, but there’s something so ...” He gestures with his hands and almost smacks someone; Jack snorts. “... so energizing about being around so many drunk college students, don’t you think? The wild abandon, the beer pong, the poor choices being made, the sexual tension.”

“I think that’s the most romantic thing anyone has said about epiKegster.”

“Well!” After the fact, Bitty remembers to be embarrassed. “I’m not sayin’ I love this, but I mean, it’s your last one. It might be fun.” Jack almost looks convinced, and Bitty searches desperately for anything he could say to spend tonight with Jack, drinking and people-watching and chirping each other into oblivion. Beyond the closeness that would obviously entail, he’s really, really liked talking to Jack lately. It’s been different. It’s fun and silly, all roughhousing and Jack’s stupid little self-satisfied smirks, and it’s not flirting but damn if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, and even if it weren’t, he likes it. Not that Jack would have any idea if it was flirting; seeing Jack dance was jarring enough, but the idea that he would know how to flirt and want to seems beyond the realm of possibility. “We’ll be party buddies, you know?” he tries. “I—I know when I’m at something like this, I’m always worried I’ll get, y’know, left behind or lost? But if you’ve got someone to hang out with all night it’s—fun,” he finishes lamely. “Maybe y’all don’t do that, I don’t—”

“No, no,” Jack cuts him off, “yeah, sure.” While Bitty’s stuttering, surprised, Jack takes his empty cup and shakes it. “I’ll get beer.” And he disappears into the kitchen, too big to avoid bumping everyone he comes into contact with.

Bitty shakes his head in disbelief, leans into the wall and opens Twitter. His tweet about Jack has twenty favourites and a couple replies; one says who is that beautiful man is that your boyfriend??? and another, Tell Jack I say hi!!!! Bitty taps out another tweet: I can’t believe I am about to get drunk with Jack. I’ll keep you posted. Lord, pinch me.

Jack comes back holding, to Bitty’s surprise, two solo cups above his head. Bitty wasn’t sure if he misunderstood what Jack staying downstairs would mean, but here he is, with his own beer. Bitty accepts his cup and drinks, looks up at Jack.

“You don’t have to drink, y’know,” he offers. “You can be at one of these things without getting—”

“No, no, I want to.”

“Honest?”

“Yeah.” As if demonstrating, Jack takes a swig of beer.

He looks like he’s going to say something else but he doesn’t, so Bitty says, “You don’t drink much,” and hopes it doesn’t sound like prying. He’s heard about Jack’s history, and been on his Wikipedia page, which he hopes isn’t weird, but he doesn’t know if liquor is something Jack has a problem with, if it falls under the banner of substance abuse or something else for him, and how long ago that was. He doesn’t expect Jack to give him much of an answer, and feels bad for asking.

“No,” Jack admits. “It just, uh. Makes everything too easy. You know?”

It’s an anxiety thing, Bitty thinks, which suddenly makes sense. Bitty knows exactly what Jack means—after a couple drinks everything is simple, and everyone is cool and beautiful and you don’t worry about what you’re saying or who you’re saying it to, because it’s fun and you don’t have to think about anything. He wasn’t sure that Jack would be affected by something like that, being six feet tall and the best looking person in most rooms, but anxiety doesn’t care what you look like.

“I know exactly what you mean,” Bitty says solemnly and Jack shrugs, embarrassed.

“Right.”

Bitty wants to ask, so why now? but that’s none of his business. He’s just happy that Jack is here, and not being sad, alone and annoyed in his room. He got a selfie out of him, for Christ’s sake, and the night is young. Bitty’s going to make sure Jack has fun if it kills him.

“C’mon.” He nods towards the living room. “Let’s go watch beer pong.”

 

As it turns out, Jack Zimmermann is capable of having something that resembles fun. They watch Ransom and Holster attempt once more, valiantly, to beat Lardo and Shitty at beer pong. Jack and Bitty team up with Ransom and Holster for trick shots; Bitty downs his and Jack does not, to the surprise of anyone who doesn’t know him. Lardo and Shitty win. The Haus gets so full it’s shoulder-to-shoulder in most rooms and they perch on the back of the couch together and Jack talks to Dex about hockey and Bitty talks to Nursey about Chowder, and Bitty’s arm is pressed against Jack’s but who’s paying attention to that?

 

Then they’re in the kitchen and Bitty’s explaining to some linebacker why there are so many empty pie tins on the counter, because he obviously got here too late to enjoy perfect apple pie and obviously when there’s a party you have something for people to eat, we aren’t savages, and when the guy laughs at him, Jack, who hasn’t said anything the whole time, manages the meanest single-syllable laugh that anyone has ever mustered, and Bitty beams up at him for a good ten seconds and gets him another beer.

 

Then they’re in the living room nook by the front door and Jack has a flush across his nose but that could be from the heat, and Bitty’s grinning a lot but he’s just having fun and hearing music so loud it rattles his bones is inherently exciting for him. Jack’s hair is messed up at the back from where Shitty came by and gave him a noogie but Bitty isn’t about to tell him, or worse, fix it for him.

Bitty hears himself saying, “Everyone told me you weren’t funny,” and he knows he can’t be half as drunk as he feels but this is not what he expected out of tonight and it’s making him giddy. Having Jack’s attention on him for as long as it has been makes him feel so strange.

“Everyone, eh?”

“Well, like. I don’t know, I’d heard.”

“You heard rumours about how unfunny I am.”

“No! Well! I don’t know! A little bit.” Bitty rubs his neck, and if Jack didn’t look so terribly amused, he would have been nervous. “I heard you were really serious. And I mean, you are, but you’re um. Well, you can do this.”

“Right.”

“And I think you’re funny most of the time.” Bitty presses the edge of his cup to his mouth. “Mostly when you’re not trying to be. Not that you’re ever really trying to be funny, but, you know what I—”

“You’re funny when you’re babbling.”

“Uh, rude!” Bitty snaps, and Jack actually laughs, and it stuns him for a moment before he starts laughing too. "God, this is so—”

Lemme hear you say hey Ms. Carter!

Bitty perks up instantly, like a small animal who’s heard a threatening noise.

Say heeeeyyyyy, Ms. Carter!

He presses by Jack’s shoulder and yells, “Holster!” and looks up at Jack, flustered, then pushes his cup into his hands and struggles out of his hoodie. “Can you hold these?”

“Ye—”

Holster, in his toga and laurel wreath, bursts out of the dance floor that has been made of their living room by the stereo, and screams, “Bitty!” 

Bitty makes an excited noise and runs towards him and Holster all but throws him into the dance crowd, and Jack swears the crowd is so dense that they float Bitty for a moment. Then the bass hits and Jack can feel it in his face, and he holds Bitty’s bright blue hoodie and beer and leans dumbly against the wall and watches him dance with Holster.

See me up in the club with fifty-leven girls, posted in the back diamond fangs in my grill

It’s—sort of dancing. It’s nothing Jack would ever do. It’s the way people dance on TV, like they know how, and there’s too many people for him to see Bitty and Holster the whole time but they’re going at it and he can tell that much from here.

Circulate the image every time I come around—G’s up, tell me how I’m lookin’, baaaabe

Jack looks away. He looks back, sees glints of two-toned blonde through the crowd. He’s struck by how Bitty’s moving because he’s never seen him so confident, but mostly it’s his smile and how unabashedly, silly happy he looks, fringe flipping into his face as he whips his head.

Boy—this—all—for you, just walk my waaay, just tell me how it’s lookin’ babe

That kid can move. He’s wearing nice jeans and a v-neck and sweat glints on his collarbone and in the pit of his throat. Jack has noticed that Bitty dresses down for parties, and he wonders what that means—but he also knows exactly what it means, that Bitty’s trying to be straight for them. No cute, patterned shirts with buttons, no fitted sweatshirts, no shiny shoes. Sneakers, jeans, a cotton shirt. Damp with sweat. The same way Jack tries to bro out his accent, Bitty bros out his gay. As Bitty twerks to Yoncé and Jack’s had enough beer to have to translate his words in his head before they come out, he realizes how bad they both are at it.

High like treble, puffin’ on the mids, ya man ain’t evah seen a booty like this

Jack can hear Holster laugh from where he is. Bitty’s snaked up against him, as much as someone of Bitty’s height can exist comfortably anywhere near someone as tall as Holster, and Jack looks away. He looks back, he drinks. He thinks of how obviously put-on their fun dance is, how he’s seen Ransom and Holster dance the same way, with the abandon and the silliness that comes with dancing like that with someone you’re not with, and he wonders what that must be like. Then Holster puts his hands on Bitty’s hips and Jack looks away again.

Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor—Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor, like like liquor like like like liquor

Then after a few more bars the beat fades away to what sounds like camera shutters coming through the speakers and Jack jumps, twitches, and then the song changes. He peers around for Bitty and as sure as Holster finds Ransom, Bitty finds him. 

“Oh—my gosh,” Bitty breathes, pushing his hair off his forehead before accepting his hoodie and beer again. “That was ... stupid.”

“You like dancing,” Jack says, as if Bitty were looking for an explanation.

“Yeah.” He’s still out of it as he ties his hoodie around his waist like it’s 1990. “Yeah, I do.”

“Is that a figure skating thing or a Bittle thing?”

Bitty downs his entire beer before coming up for air. “Bittle thing,” he says, decidedly, still a little breathless. “You’d be surprised at how many straight guys do figure skating.”

Jack barks a laugh that surprises both of them.

 

They stand with Lardo and Shitty on the porch as they smoke a joint, and they don’t partake but they feel the contact high anyways. Bitty talks to Lardo about film and Jack talks to Shitty about God only knows what, and they’ve switched sides and Bitty misses the warmth of Jack’s arm against his; being in a crowd was an easy excuse for that. They watch people flop spread eagle onto the browning grass of their front lawn and have life-changing moments with one another, probably. Bitty spots Chowder leaving with Farmer. He watches Dex leave with Nursey ten minutes later and him and Lardo have a talk about heteronormativity that Shitty keeps butting in on. Then Jack meets Bitty’s eyes over Lardo’s head and their coordination is as perfect as it is on-ice as Bitty says, “I’ll be right back,” and Jack slips away with him without Shitty saying anything.

 

The crowd has thinned out in the last hour, which isn’t saying much, but it’s easier to breathe. They park in the hallway near the crux of the kitchen and the stairs and Jack presses one shoulder to the wall.

“How you holding up?” Bitty asks. He’s usually the one at parties to be throwing bottles of water around, but with Jack here, he’s had better things to do. Part of him knows that him and Jack are friends now, but the other part of him feels like keeping his attention is some tricky balancing act he needs to perform perfectly, or else risk losing him to his cool, quiet bedroom and the War of 1812, like it’s some spell he’s accidentally saying the incantation for.

“Good,” Jack nods. “Yeah, fine.” He runs a hand through his hair and Bitty tracks the movement more obviously than he would have an hour ago. “You’re right, it’s ... easier with someone here, I guess.”

“Told ya!”

“Yeah. I mean, you know Shits, he’s—he’s everyone’s best friend, he’s in a bunch of places at once. He’d leave and someone’d see me alone and start talking about ...” He stops, looks put off.

“Puck bunnies?” Bitty leers, and Jack whaps him in the arm.

“Don’t even.”

Bitty laughs and slips closer. If they’ve been pressed together all night, it shouldn’t be hard now, and whatever cautionary part of his brain that speaks in his mother’s voice and says Eric Richard Bittle, you stop that this instant! has been shut off for the night.

“I hope I didn’t rope you into this, by the way,” he says, as softly as the din of the music will let him. “I know you were fixin’ to stay away, I feel kinda bad.”

Jack shakes his head. “Really, Bittle, it’s fine.” He laughs. “This, uh, sounds kind of stupid, but—doesn’t this remind you of high school parties?”

Bitty snorts. “It reminds me of the high school parties I saw on TV.”

“Exactly!” Jack says, with so much force that Bitty jumps. “Exactly. I don’t know about you but, I mean, I never really went to many parties when I was a kid.”

“Really,” Bitty says dryly, and Jack’s smile is a silent and affectionate shut up.

“I was always so focused on hockey—ha ha, I know—because I hadn’t really proved myself yet, you know? So there wasn’t any time. Not to mention I was a weird looking kid.”

“You?”

“Shitty’s seen photos. Not exactly ... party material.”

Bitty laughs. “Well, me neither. Imagine me, at sixteen, in the deep south. I was about this big—” Bitty holds his beer at shoulder height, “—and it just was a lot of bad fashion, and figure skating, and bullying, and bad haircuts and oh, lord, you don’t even know.”

“So you know what I mean,” Jack ventures. Bitty tips his head. “I don’t know, it sounds lame, but I never got to do anything really stupid, you know? The things you see people at these get up to. The, uh, what did you say? The abandon or whatever.”

Bitty’s spine tingles. The wild abandon, the poor choices being made, he’d said. The sexual tension. He can think of a few things that if he’d had a cup or two more tub juice, he might have suggested Jack trying. He blinks hard, stops himself, comes up.

“You must be drunk,” he teases. “You’re losing your ‘th’s. De tings. Speakin’ like a real Québecer.”

Jack doesn’t miss a beat. “Sorry? I can’t hear you over your vowels.”

Bitty smacks him in the arm and prides himself on not lingering.

“Oh, whatever, I’m always like this,” Bitty gripes, and glows when Jack laughs. “Anyways, I think I like Québec French much more than European French, fer what it’s worth. I hear that other stuff in songs or on TV, sometimes, and it’s like—it sounds so prissy, you know what I mean? It’s all s sounds and lips and I don’t know, I think Québecois sounds different, right? Sort of nasal, crass. Way more like the south, I guess. Much better.”

He looks at his hands when he talks and doesn’t notice Jack staring at him with raised eyebrows until he looks up. His eyes are big, interested. Without looking away, he lifts Bitty’s cup out of his hands.

“Can I get you another beer?” he asks slowly, and it’s all Bitty can do to grin and blush and nod. Jack ducks into the kitchen to harvest whatever’s left of the keg.

He takes his phone out for the first time in a while, to a plethora of Twitter notifications. He taps out, #BittysFirstKegster and after, #BittysBestKegster and #WishYrBoyLuck. The last one gets a fave before he even closes the app.

He’s resisting the urge to slip off to the bathroom and take a selfie when Shitty swings around the corner. He’s with Lardo and a couple of her friends that Bitty doesn’t recognize, but as he comes by Bitty his eyes go bright and he snags him in a headlock at the last second. His moustache is wet against Bitty’s cheek with beer or maybe tub juice as he says, “You’re totally gonna fuckin’ smash tonight, Bits.” 

Bitty shrieks, half joy and half embarrassment, and shoves him away. He’s two beers too far gone for modesty, so he grabs the collar of Shitty’s denim vest and hisses, “Don’t you dare jinx me,” and Shitty howls with laughter. He slaps Bitty on the back so hard he almost drops his phone before heading upstairs, likely for the roof.

Jack comes back a moment later, staring bemused at Shitty’s retreating back.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, nothing. Thanks,” Bitty says, gratefully accepting his beer, even if he feels like this might be the one that pushes him into the territory of the good and thoroughly drunk. He starts making exit plans, let’s sit outside, let’s go for a walk, let’s chill in my room, the simple things that mesh a party into a soft, intimate wind-down. He’s been keeping up to Jack one-for-one on beer, which means Jack shouldn’t be half as drunk as he is, with his size—but he remembers Jack doesn’t drink much anymore, so it’s all up in the air. He can never tell when Jack is drunk. Has he ever seen Jack drunk?

“Are you okay?” Jack asks, after Bitty spends a few seconds staring furrow-browed at his beer, trying and failing to snip together memories of drunk Jack.

“Yes! Great, fine, good.” Bitty drinks. He knows it’s half hormones and thirst brought on by such close proximity to Jack that’s making him feel so loopy because his head is still clear, no doubled vision and no trembling hands, just a thundering heart because is it just him or did Jack just shift closer? He didn’t say something to Shitty, did he? He’s got his one shoulder against the wall, turned towards Bitty.

“Good,” Jack says simply, and nothing else. Bitty stares at his reflection in the framed roster from 2010 on the wall across from them and tries to breathe, tries not to get ahead of himself, tries not to spill his beer or think about how easy it would be to spin towards Jack and press into him, because Jack’s chest is already almost touching his shoulder and he’s right there—but he gets the sobering thought that, depending on where Jack signs, their friendship won’t end at Jack’s graduation, and if it doesn’t then Bitty is only nineteen right now and he has, theoretically, an entire life in which to coax something meaningful out of the stoic facade that is Jack Zimmermann, and he doesn’t have to shove it all into one sloppy December evening.

But it would be easy, at first, anyways. Jack's so close, and prettier than he has any goddamn right to be, and he's leaning against the wall so he isn't so tall, and Bitty knows he could reach his chin, if not his lips, and kiss him, and his lips would be soft and yielding and surprised, and—the hard part would come afterwards, when Bitty would have to stutter out an explanation that circled around alcohol and whatever else he could come up with, and then harder, after that, when he had to look at Jack the next day, and the day after that, and see him get a thousand times more awkward than he is now, which is to say, surprisingly, not awkward at all. Not tonight, anyways.

He looks at Jack’s reflection in the glass of the frame as he raises his cup to his mouth and drinks and then lowers it, all while watching him. He takes a deep breath and turns towards Jack, leaning his same shoulder into the wall, absentmindedly rolling the lip of his cup across his chin. Without thinking, he bites his bottom lip into his mouth, then lets it go.

Jack’s pupils dilate.

“Jesus,” Bitty whispers, and almost crushes his cup in his hand.

“What?”

“Nothing, I—”

“No, what?”

Bitty groans and runs his hand down his face.

“It’s—okay, but don’t get mad.” He doesn’t give Jack a chance to agree, words bubbling out of him in something that feels so freshman that he would’ve been mad in any other circumstance. “Your eyes are so light that I can really see when your pupils dilate and it’s—ugh, don’t get mad, but it’s hot, and you can’t get mad! Because that’s pretty near a biological response, to think that’s hot, and I am sure that if you took a show of hands everyone in this house would think the exact same thing, so don’t you even try to get, um ...”

Jack stoops and sets his beer on the floor. When he straightens up, he braces his forearm on the wall next to Bitty’s head and turns in towards him, and all the air knocks out of Bitty’s lungs. Jack’s face hangs above him and the hall light behind him means Bitty can’t see him well, but he’s so close Bitty can feel his breath and he thinks, or anyways he’s pretty sure, that’s he’s smiling.

“What are you doing?” Bitty breathes.

Jack is definitely smiling.

He touches his thumb to Bitty’s jaw, then cups the side of his face. He leans down.

“Something really, really—”

“Jack—”

Bitty swears he can feel it from the crown of his head to the tips of his toes when Jack catches his mouth mid-word and kisses him. He shudders. It’s a wonder he doesn’t drop his beer. Jack’s thumb pets his cheek, his lips move in a slow slide, and he moves back.

“Stupid,” he finishes with a whisper.

Bitty can still feel him on his lips. His hand is still on his face and the intimacy of that alone is so mind-numbing that he’s speechless, scrambling, trying to understand how it’s Jack’s face inches from his, looking down, his dark lashes on winter-pale cheeks and that familiar boyish smell he’s been drowning in all night and one big, callused palm.

“Oh my gosh,” Bitty whispers, frozen, “I’m dead. I died of alcohol poisoning and God is giving me one last fantasy before he throws me in purgatory with the other queers.”

Jack slowly smiles. “Fantasy?”

That snaps Bitty out of it.

“Oh my God, this is real. This is—have you ever smiled with your teeth before? Oh my God, you look terrifying!” He laughs and Jack kisses him again and it’s actually real, but the first thing he thinks is he can’t believe that he’s still holding his beer and he has his sweater tied around his waist like a twelve-year-old.

He feels Jack slip his cup from his hands and break away from his mouth to place it responsibly on the floor, and when he comes back up Bitty grabs fistfuls of his shirt and hauls him into a kiss he knows he isn’t prepared for but is ready to conquer anyways.

Jack kisses like a dream. The one hand on Bitty’s face becomes two and he tips his face up to meet him, makes a soft noise in his throat, presses him back into the wall. Bitty can feel the scrape of his barely-there stubble against his chin and chest hair through the t-shirt he’s pressing his knuckles to, his fists twisted in the fabric. Bitty hasn’t kissed many good kissers and tries to keep up; Jack kisses slow but deep, lips moving in slow pulls, tongue testing at first and then there, soft and wet and velvet against his own.

And Bitty’s freaking out, of course he’s freaking out. He has a thousand questions—how long have you liked me? Do you like me? If you don’t like me, what are you doing? What did I do to make you want this and how can I keep doing it forever? And Christ, there are people here! He hears people going by the hallway behind them through the rush of blood in his ears even though Jack’s shoulders block his view, and he knows Jack hears them too, and the kitchen and living room are both full of people and God, what is he doing?

Bitty thinks of stopping.

But then he runs his faintly trembling hands up Jack’s chest to his neck and curls them around his nape, sticky with party sweat, and Jack tips his head and kisses him harder and every thought he had drips out of his mind. He knows it’s irresponsible to do this without talking about it because he doesn’t know how drunk Jack is, if he is, but he seems okay, right? He must know what he’s doing, and who is Bitty to question that?

Okay, Bitty admits, I’m being selfish.

But this is Jack. Just spending time with him has been this insane, heady experience, and now this, and he doesn’t want to scare him off because if there are two things that Jack’s bad at, it’s talking and expressing emotions, and this would definitely involve both. If he’d wanted to talk, he would have, and it’s been so long and Bitty likes Jack so, so much, and maybe it’s wrong but he’ll take what he can get. So he stops thinking. He winds his arms around Jack’s neck and pushes up higher on his toes, and Jack stoops down to accommodate him, digging his hands into his hair.

It’s a minute before Jack moves his hands across his shoulders, down his arms and up his sides to clutch his waist, just above where his sweater is tied, and he pulls Bitty’s bottom lip through his teeth as he moves off.

Bitty is unbelievably hard and he hopes it’s hidden by his hoodie sleeves.

He stares up at Jack, breathless, searching for anything that would tell him don’t do this—glassy eyes, confusion, anxiousness—but Jack’s just looking back, so intense he almost wants to shrink away, and very, very present.

Bitty doesn’t know what to say. Jack’s hands feel like they’re on fire, pressed to his sides. He can feel him breathe through his nose. He loosens his arms from around Jack’s neck, but doesn’t drop them. He wants to wave his hand in front of his face and say do you know who you’re with? because he can't believe there's no catch to this, but he can’t make himself speak.

“Um.”

“Do you want to go upstairs?” Jack asks. His voice is low but even and normal, no slur, nothing. Is he even drunk? He’s so focused. Bitty’s head explodes. He looks for any reason to say no, besides the obvious, but he feels okay and he knows where he is and God knows he would do this sober, too.

He just nods.

Jack lets him go and he isn’t sure he can stand without him, knees weak like a damsel. He’s careful not to knock over their abandoned solo cups and heads for the stairs ahead of Jack, whose hand briefly brushes his sweaty lower back and makes him shiver. Near the top, he realizes Jack’s fallen a few steps behind and he turns, sees him looking back over his shoulder. In a moment of boldness, he steps down and snags Jack’s hand in his.

“C’mon,” he says softly, and the way Jack beams up at him feels like winning the lottery.

With all their rooms locked, it’s quiet upstairs save for muffled speaking from Shitty’s room. Bitty pulls his hoodie from around his waist and fumbles in the pockets for his room key, flustered as Jack waits patiently, silently next to him; they don’t discuss whose room to go to, not with Jack’s room connected to Shitty’s.

Bitty finds his key and gets it into the lock and his room is blissfully cold, the window thrown wide open before he left it. He can’t remember the last time Jack was in his room—has he ever been further than the doorway? By the way he’s looking around, maybe not.

Bitty shoves Señor Bun under a pillow while Jack looks for a few long seconds at his Beyoncé poster. Having him turn his attention back on him is thrilling and absolutely, positively terrifying, and he manages to suck in one last half-panicked breath before Jack comes towards him and kisses him again, so hard their teeth almost hit. He drops his sweater on the floor and digs his hands into his shoulders as Jack wraps his arms around him and all but lifts him up, and feeling his strength makes Bitty dizzy, lightheaded, hard.

He thought maybe they’d talk when they were alone, but they aren’t. It’s not the end of the world but he’s so confused, part of him still so sure he’s dreaming, but in between kisses he pulls back to look and it keeps being Jack. He gets that Jack isn’t a talker, and it isn’t bugging him anymore. He started trusting Jack a long time ago, and this isn’t really any different.

Jack lifts him with an arm under his ass and puts him on the bed and Bitty’s whole body is tingling as he reaches up for him and pulls him down, and he breathes Jack and Jack makes this sound and Bitty doesn’t know how much of this he can stand.

Jack says, “Tell me if you want me to stop,” against his mouth and his no comes out embarrassingly high and thin before Jack all but devours him, thumbs on his cheeks pushing his mouth wider, big arms flexing to hold himself up.

Now that it’s happening, Bitty isn’t sure what he expected his first time to be like. At self-deprecating worst, he imagined getting jerked off in some club or bathroom by someone he didn’t really know, but even at best he never imagined being in his own bed with a sweet, blue-eyed hockey player who lives across the hall, and getting to hear him say, “Can I blow you?” against his ear.

Bitty actually gasps; he thinks Jack laughs at him.

He looks up at Jack and nods mutely, and Jack grins at him again and he’s so embarrassed he buries his face in his neck so he can’t look at him. He tugs on Jack’s shirt and says, “Off,” the most expressive thing he’s said since they were downstairs, and Jack laughs again. He sits back, thighs bracketing Bitty’s, and pulls his shirt over his head. Bitty mutters, “Lord, look at you,” before he thinks better of it and Jack blushes down his throat, which is one of the nicest things Bitty’s ever seen. He digs his hands into Jack’s thighs and they’re like granite, all muscle.

Jack pulls him into a kiss and he’s reached a peak of flustered embarrassment where he can’t even care that his dick’s pressing into the inside of Jack’s thigh; he’s floating, dreaming, kissing messily and running his hands down Jack’s abs like he’s thought about doing all year. Jack pushes his shirt up under his arms and kisses down his chest and stomach and Bitty tries so hard not to squirm. Jack sinks to his knees on the floor and drags Bitty by his hips closer to the edge of his bed. He fumbles with his fly and says, “Up,” and Bitty lifts his butt so he can pull his jeans off the ends of his feet. He even takes his sneakers off for him.

Bitty can’t look at him, so he stares up at the ceiling and thanks whatever higher power made him vain enough to wear nice briefs tonight, as if he ever thought he’d be getting laid, because now Jack fucking Zimmermann is looking at his hard-on in them and he really hopes it looks good. He’d never forgive himself for wearing laundry day boxers.

He feels Jack run his thumbs under the waistband and kiss below his navel, his hipbone, the inside of his thigh, and he gasps and regrets it. Jack’s teasing him. He doesn’t know why he expected anything else from him. He breathes over his cloth covered cock, intentionally, and he can feel the heat and wetness of it.

“Jack,” Bitty tries, and feels Jack smile against his leg after he kisses it, all teeth.

Jack starts, “Have you ...” and Bitty violently shakes his head and thinks, he’d better not look surprised. As far as Bitty’s concerned, his virginity has been painfully, glaringly obvious, and if Jack’s surprised or put off by that then he hasn’t been paying attention. But he supposes it would be flattering if he were surprised.

“Okay,” Jack says quietly, dipping his fingers past the waistband again, and Bitty sighs and lifts his hips and Jack takes the opportunity to slip his briefs down his legs.

Bitty slaps his hands over his eyes. Jack doesn’t tease anymore.

He wraps a hand around him, sucks him into his mouth, and Bitty stifles this high pitched sound behind his hands and tries not to come instantly because this is nothing like anything that has ever happened to him, so wet and hot and God, a lot less awkward than he thought Jack would be. Jack takes him in until his nose touches trimmed blond curls and Bitty all but sobs, and Jack has to hold his hips down with one hand.

“You’re good at this,” Bitty chirps, breathless but accusatory, and Jack pinches in the inside of his thigh. “Sorry, sorry!”

He sucks slowly because Bitty’s already shaking, his hands off his face now, one clawing at Jack’s shoulder and the other twisting in his quilt as Jack licks up the underside of his dick with the wet flat of his tongue. If he opened his eyes he’d see Jack taking in his arched back and straining shoulders and the play of emotions over his face so euphoric it borders on painful, but his eyes are screwed shut and his mouth trembles around every swear he knows, thinking, heaven above, I don't know what I did to deserve this.

His only warning is, “Oh fuck, Jack—” before he comes suddenly, hard, loud enough to be heard in the hall, but he’s past caring because Jack swallows around him and sucks him through every last wave of pleasure and doesn’t even bat at the hand fisted in his hair.

Bitty collapses boneless on the bed and listens to Jack breathing hard between his legs, his hands petting his thighs, and he has the sense, after the fact, to be embarrassed at how quick that was. The floorboards creak as Jack stands and he sits up on his elbows and finally looks at him, just in time to see him wiping his chin with the back of his hand. His pupils are blown and his mouth is red and Bitty can see his dick hard through his jeans, and there are a thousand things he wants to say all at once but he settles on, “God, come here,” and that seems to work.

Jack tackles him to the bed and kisses him and Bitty tastes himself sharply on his tongue and loves it, loves the idea that Jack might also love it. He pulls his shirt off the rest of the way with Jack’s help, then tugs on the belt loops of Jack’s jeans and manages, “Wait, these. Also off.”

Jack gets up and kicks his shoes off and Bitty scoots to sit properly on the bed to watch him undress, his mouth dry. He knows Jack doesn’t take compliments well but he wants to say I think you are the best looking person I have ever seen in real life, but then Jack pulls his boxers down and he’s stunned into silence by the reality of Jack Zimmermann naked in his room, all muscle and pale skin and dark, wiry hair, his cock flushed and thick, a little curved and already slick-looking. He wonders, how many people have been lucky enough to see this? How many people want to? It's vain, but he thinks about how many people must see Jack daily on campus and in sports magazines and will see him later, on TV, in the NHL, and are going to think about being where Bitty is now, wet with his spit, gathered up in his big hands.

He sits on the bed with his back against the wall and Bitty climbs into his lap and loves the way he shudders when he wraps his hand around him, tugging experimentally; the idea of someone as closed-off as Jack getting unhinged by something he’s doing is mind-blowing. He grips Bitty’s hips and grinds up into him, making a low, long noise against his mouth, and they move against each other as Bitty jerks him off and braces himself on his chest, his thighs flexing over his.

Jack breaks their kiss with a word Bitty doesn’t know and presses his face to his throat, then after a moment he looks down at them, and if there’s anything as hot as Jack watching him jerk him off, he doesn’t know what it is.

Until Jack whispers, “Harder,” and Bitty stands corrected.

Precum beads and they both sweat, gasping, breathless. Jack’s hands slip from Bitty’s hips to grab his ass, hard, and in a quiet, wrecked voice he says, “God, don’t stop, I'm—fuck,” and Bitty whimpers into his hair and he comes with his face buried in Bitty’s shoulder, pulsing in his fist. His come drips over Bitty’s knuckles and wrist and there’s a lot of it and Bitty wonders how rarely he does this. He already came but his pent-up mind is whirring with future possibilities, reeling in the thought that this might happen again; Jack could fuck him, come on him, do things Bitty probably hasn't heard of.

Jack shudders and lets go of his ass, runs his hands up his spine and down again, down his thighs to his knees and back up, breathing hard. “Christ, Bitty.”

Bitty laughs, squirms at the nickname. “Oh my God.”

Neither one moves; Bitty can feel his thighs trembling and he’s so sure Jack’s going to chirp him about working out, but he doesn’t. He rests his forehead against Bitty’s clavicle and works his thumbs over his hipbones. His hair is sweaty against Bitty’s cheek.

“Let me lie down,” Bitty says eventually, brushing his hair back, and Jack lets him go. He lies down with his head at the wrong end of the bed, forearm over his eyes.

Jack looks down at his stomach and asks, “Do you have any, uh ...”

“Kleenex in the top drawer of my desk,” Bitty says from behind his arm, and hears Jack scoff. “Oh, shush. I’m a teenage boy, what do you want from me.”

Jack gets stuck on teenage but pushes it down, finds the Kleenex and cleans up. He tosses one at Bitty, who makes a sound that is sort of like “thanks,” but won’t look at him. He scoots towards the wall and Jack takes the cue and lies down next to him.

Bitty has no idea what is said after something like this. He wouldn’t be surprised if Jack could hear his heart beating. Neither one speaks or moves for a good minute, but it’s Bitty who breaks the silence.

“Are you still drunk?”

“A little.” Jack shifts. “Are you?”

“A little,” Bitty parrots. He still has his arm over his face and moves the fingers of that hand and accidentally brushes Jack’s hair. He does it again, intentionally, then moves the arm and looks at him. “So.”

“Yeah.”

To his relief, Jack looks back at him, and the post-coital flush across his cheekbones suits him like nothing else. After some visible deliberation, he touches the back of his hand to Bitty’s and Bitty instinctually jerks away. Jack laughs and Bitty shakes his head.

“Ugh, what’s wrong with me. If we can do that and I can’t—come here.” He tugs Jack’s arm and Jack rolls on his side to face him, and Bitty scoots up against his chest, breathes against his throat. Jack’s hand comes down on his hip. “There. God.”

Jack chuckles. “Better.”

“Yes.” Bitty closes his eyes and tries to string sentences together in his head. What on earth was that? What’s going on? Do you like me? Are we doing this again?

To his surprise, Jack clears his throat.

“This ... is a weird thing to talk about.”

“Very.” Bitty laughs nervously. “I have no idea what to ... yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“I never thought that you ...”

“I’m no good at this stuff,” Jack admits. “I mean, you know that. I guess this was ... kind of intense.”

“Most people start with dinner. Or drinks.”

“We had drinks.” Jack’s fingers move idly against his side. Bitty can’t imagine him saying these things to his face but somehow, so intimate but not looking at each other, it’s easier. “All night you were so close, and I thought—then the hot thing, and I figured ...”

“You figured right,” Bitty says softly. “I thought I was imagining it. I never, ever thought you would ... this, I mean, you’re—you.” He presses his face to Jack’s chest and blurts out, “I like you,” and, as expected, Jack laughs at him. But he also puts his arm around him, and rests his chin on top of his head.

“I like you too, Bittle.”

Bitty knows he’s chirping him for saying ‘like’ because he says the word as if there’s quotation marks around it, but he still wants to scream. He scrabbles his fingers against Jack's side and hears him chuckle.

But then Jack says, “Was that not obvious?” and there’s doubt in his voice, the subtle Zimmermann brand of are you mad at me? that Shitty always chides him for.

“Yes,” Bitty says quickly. “Well, no. I don’t know. You didn’t say anything downstairs and I guess with anyone else I would’ve ... I thought maybe you were just drunk, or—”

“I knew what I was doing.”

Bitty sighs and lets his hand drop to the bed. Only Jack would think his deadpan flirting and/or teasing had been obvious. There’s a breeze coming in the window and it’s getting cold, and he’s so elated he’s in disbelief but he’s also that bone-weary kind of exhausted that comes post-alcohol and post-orgasm and everything’s getting wobbly. It's like it's not real yet; he'll believe when he wakes up in the morning and Jack's still here.

“Sorry,” he says, “I shouldn’t grill you. Whatever. We don’t need to do this right now.”

“Okay.” After a moment Jack’s arm comes up and he brushes knuckles against the back of Bitty’s head. “I like how your hair feels, by the way. The shaved bits. All fuzzy.”

“Do you want to sleep here?” Bitty says quickly, and Jack leans back a bit to look down at him. “I mean, I know you live 'cross the hall and it’s nice to sleep in your own bed after drinking and everything, but if you don’t mind sharing—”

“Yeah,” Jack breathes, and leans in and kisses him, his lips soft and raw and warm. “I was going to ask.”

Bitty presses his lips together to keep from smiling. “Great.”

“Yeah.”

Bitty turns the light off and they squirm under the covers, trying to find a way to fit them both, and Jack finds Señor Bun and chirps Bitty about it until they fall asleep, with Bitty’s back tucked snugly against Jack’s front and Jack's heavy arm in the dip of his waist. He doesn’t have any dreams.

 

. . .

 

Jack wakes up in the morning under Bitty’s left arm with sun streaming in the blinds. He knows it must be late for the sun to be so high, but he doesn’t have class until the evening. Even if he did have class earlier, he’d skip it.

He carefully turns his head and looks at Bitty lying next to him, fast asleep, his hair sticking up at the back, one arm curled over Jack’s chest, and he sighs. I took a risk and didn’t fuck it up.

He had been terrified last night, but he did it. He read the signals, he took a chance, and it worked out. God, did it ever work out. Bitty likes him too. He wasn’t creepy, he didn’t push him too far, or no farther than he wanted to go, and they even talked about it and it was all okay. The world didn’t fold in on itself and now, whatever else happens, he has this—waking up next to Bitty, who is snoring quietly, half-lying on his stuffed rabbit.

His feelings for Bitty had been a slow build. After their rocky start in first year, where more than a little of his hatred was fueled by self-loathing, things had gone well. Their chemistry on the ice was impossible to ignore, and then he’d gotten his hair cut and started working out more and they got to know each other and things sort of changed. He was always cute, but it was different. He didn’t want to assume Bitty liked him, because Bitty is so friendly to everyone, but it was hard not to draw conclusions. He’s so, so glad he didn’t stay in his room last night. Sex makes him anxious—am I doing this right, is this what you want, am I taking too long—but last night was effortless. Bitty looked at him like he’d never seen anything so wonderful, and he believed him.

He drifts in and out of sleep for a while, turns his head and lets his hand ghost over Bitty’s hip. He has, honestly, no idea what happens next. Maybe he didn’t think that far. Bitty’s sweet but he’s not stupid, and Jack feels bad that this isn’t going to be the out-n-proud affair he deserves, but he’ll understand that. It can’t be now, anyways, when even the thought of coming out makes Jack’s chest tight, but it’ll work. Or it won’t. But after graduation, depending on where Jack signs, he can fly Bitty out to see him and he’ll get his own apartment somewhere and—it’ll work. If that’s what Bitty wants.

Jack slowly extracts himself from under Bitty’s arm and stands, cracking his back. His hangover only hits him once he’s standing and he leans for a moment on the edge of Bitty’s desk, grimacing through a head rush. He pulls last night’s clothes on and creeps to the door, presses his ear to it to listen for sounds in the hallway; he half expects Shitty to be waiting knowingly in his bedroom doorway, expecting deets. Shitty knowing wouldn’t be the end of the world. He’ll probably find out soon enough.

He opens the door a crack and makes it across the hall. He showers and thinks about Bitty. He gets dressed and thinks about Bitty. He sticks his head into Bitty’s room and it’s after noon but Bitty’s still sleeping, so he lets him be; he doesn’t know how late they were up last night, but it must have been late. He can’t find his phone so it must be downstairs, and he fully expects Ransom and/or Holster to have re-recorded his voicemail message in a poor imitation of his accent. Again.

He doesn’t hear anyone downstairs and there are still cups and cans in the stairwell without Bitty up to clean them yet. Everything is eerily quiet—no strangers lying in the hallway, no vomit sounds from the downstairs bathroom. Everyone is gone. It is noon, so Shitty has probably ushered them out, although he didn’t hear his air horn from upstairs. Where is everyone?

He turns into the kitchen and standing at the sink, of all people, is Lardo. Doing dishes.

“Hey,” he laughs, scratching his wet hair, and she jumps. “Why are you—”

He notices the kitchen table.

It’s stacked corner to corner in piles of what look like magazines, each pile at least twenty or fifty high. They’re the same magazine, all face down, showing the same ad for one of the bars on campus on its back cover. There must be hundreds of them.

“What are these?”

Lardo comes towards him, face knitted with worry in a way he has never, ever seen on her before. “Jack, don’t.”

“What are you talking about?” He takes a few big strides to the table and picks one up before Lardo can stop him. “Are these the—”

The Swallow.

He turns one over.

There are three grainy, low light cellphone photos on the cover.

The first one is his own back, his red Samwell t-shirt. He's got a forearm braced on the wall, his other hand holding the face of someone small and blond, mostly blocked from view, who has his hands on Jack's chest and a blue hoodie tied around his waist.

The second one is similar, except his shoulder has dropped and he has both hands on the blond's face, and he can see himself smiling against his mouth, pressing him back into the wall, and there are small, tanned fingers curling against the back of his neck.

The third one is composed like a fucking Renaissance painting. Taken from the doorway at the foot of the stairs—part of the door jamb cutting into the frame—it shows Bitty, unmistakable from the other photos with his blue hoodie, at the top of the stairs, his arm outstretched, holding onto Jack's right hand, and Jack is looking up at him with a look no one else in the world was supposed to see.

Emblazoned across the bottom of the cover are the words IS JACK ZIMMERMANN GAY?

"No fuckin' idea how they got them out so fast." He can hardly hear Lardo over the static of blood rushing in his ears; it sounds like she's underwater. "Shits is at their office screaming at them, and Rans and Holtzy are collecting every one they can."

Jack crushes the magazine in his hand and drops it. He turns another one over, then another one, his hands shaking, and each one is the same, him and Bitty, his own fucking incriminating smile. Is Jack Zimmermann gay? Is Jack Zimmermann gay?

"Is—who's—we can't let anyone see this, I can't—"

He can't breathe. Lardo gingerly puts her hand on his back and looks up at him and, in a hushed, apologetic, heartbroken voice he's never heard from her before, she says, "They’re already online." And then, "I'm so, so sorry Jack.”

He sits so hard he hears the kitchen chair creak under him and he can't get a full breath in because these photos are online and they aren't coming back and his dad is going to see him kissing Bitty, and his mother and his all grandparents and cousins will see, and his agent and Georgia and every GM he ever speaks to for the rest of his life and every player he's ever on a line with and everyone he ever faces off against, they'll look at him and remember these tabloid photos of Jack making out with some blond kid. They'll know. Everyone's going to know. What if no one wants to sign him? What if he never gets to play?

He hangs his head and tries to get a breath in but it feels like someone's sitting on his chest and the kitchen smells like sugar and booze and cologne and vomit and he wants to throw up, he wants to go back in time, he wants to die.

"Shits," he hears Lardo on the phone from miles away, "Jack's up, you've gotta come home."

 

He's sitting on the floor of his room having a panic attack. Shitty is next to him with his chin on his drawn up knees saying all the things he's supposed to but it feels like this is never going to end, because he found his beer-sticky phone in the kitchen and he has four voicemails from his dad and two from his agent and ten other missed calls and he hasn’t listened to any of them. Bitty must be up by now but he hasn't heard from him and he couldn't look at him, couldn't look at anyone, can't even breathe. He wishes he had pills for emergencies but he didn't think he needed them anymore and couldn't stand having them at arms length, which he now regrets because he can't calm himself down. 

Shitty rubs his back and it's embarrassing but it helps; it's not the first time he's had a panic attack since they moved in together and Shitty has always known what to do. You're gonna be okay, you're not dying, this won't last forever. Breathe, dude, come on.

But then he asks, "Do you want to see Bitty?" and it's the first time he's brought him up and Jack says no and puts his head on his knees. He tries thinking about being in Bitty's room last night—how easy it was to make him come, then lying with him afterwards, breathing into his hair, and how small he felt tucked against him all night, and his little waist and his bare feet brushing against Jack's calves—but all he can think about is how at that exact same time, across campus, the staff of The Swallow were probably pulling an all-nighter to publish an entire issue dedicated to outing him to the world. He hasn't read it yet. In any case, he's not mad at Bitty, he's mad at himself, but that doesn't make it any easier.

He calms down somewhat. He looks at his phone and the notifications he hasn't even swiped away, and Shitty says something that helps.

"You can't go back, bro. What's done is fucking done. All that's left now is how you handle it."

It doesn't feel that way right now. It feels like if Jack tries hard enough, if he really wants it, he can go back in time and fix this, he can be smart, he can say “let's go upstairs” five minutes before he did and not make out at a kegster like the dumb, drunk college student that, for a second, he let himself be. And look where it's gotten him.

He wants to go back to this morning, when he was dozing in Bitty's bed and actually believed that he could have something nice for himself without ruining it, and his entire life in the process.

His phone starts buzzing against the floor. It's his dad again. He rubs his eyes hard enough to see spots and then says, "I've gotta take this."

 

. . . 

 

Bitty woke up to literally thousands of Twitter notifications and ran downstairs about thirty minutes after Jack had locked himself in his room. He said, "What happened, people keep asking me about—" and then saw the stacks and stacks of magazines and had his own mini panic attack, which was mostly clutching Lardo and trying not to cry.

He asked if Jack was okay and Lardo shook her head really hard.

"He's in his room," she told him. "I wouldn't go in there."

 

Bitty tries not to cry and fails spectacularly. Ransom and Holster come home with bags full of magazines and they look almost as miserable as he feels.

“We pulled them off every rack on campus.”

"There are news people on the front lawn. Do you know where Shitty keeps his air horn?"

"Let's fucking hose them down. We need a fire hose."

"What do they want?" Bitty says quietly, and everyone stops. "How is this news? I mean, what else do they need?"

"Jack's always news."

“The Daily doesn’t come out ‘til tomorrow, but Shitty’s gonna try to lawyer them into not printing the story.”

Bitty is curled up on the couch with a blanket between him and its germs, and Ransom and Holster drop the magazines on the floor and flop next to him.

"Bunch of savages in this town," Holster says, and Ransom elbows him.

"I'm scared," Bitty admits. He looks up at the two of them, and Lardo sitting on the coffee table. "Did ... did you read it?"

They all look at each other. Ransom is the first to say, "Yeah."

"Is it bad?"

There's a long pause and the ache in Bitty's chest and behind his eyes gets tighter and tighter.

"Yeah."

Bitty's jaw trembles and Holster goes Bits, c'mere and puts an arm around him. Bitty sticks his hand out.

"Give me one."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," Bitty says, impatient. "Ain't gonna go away if I don't read it. If everyone else has ..."

Ransom leans forward and snags one off a teetering pile. "You're in it, too," he says warily. "Just to, like ... prepare you."

Bitty winces. "I figured." He cranes his head and looks towards the stairs, and he wants to say something about Jack, but it's so surreal to be sitting in a room full of people who know they hooked up, who are pointedly not discussing that part of this, and he doesn't want to look clingy. Well, the crying isn't about Jack, not like that, it's about the situation. Crying for Jack. And he wasn't crying that much.

Ransom hands him the magazine and he looks at the cover photos with a detached kind of ... something. A profound, disgusting cocktail of emotions. Jack's smile in two of the photos makes his stomach flip. Seeing himself pressed back against the wall, his hands on Jack's chest—if a friend of theirs had taken these, he'd cherish them. In this context, they make him feel a little sick.

The "story"—the unnecessary and violating look at Jack Zimmermann's personal life—takes up the better part of the thin tabloid mag, and is full of photos of Jack. The first photo of the two of them, with Bitty's face hidden, is blown up to full page at the start of the article. Bitty wants to cover it with his hand as he reads.

It starts with a mini-biography of Jack for anyone who doesn't know, a recap on his life: Bad Bob's son, hockey star, heartthrob, Samwell student. Then it talks about someone named Kent Parson, and rumours of his relationship with Jack, and it's the first Bitty is hearing of this—he squints at a small, old photo of the two of them; Jack must be even younger than Bitty there, and his hair is longer—then it goes into Jack's overdose and his time at rehab and start at Samwell. And then—

And, last night, the infamous Samwell Men's Hockey Team had one of their equally infamous kegsters at their run-down house on frat row—an event that, as anyone who's been can attest to, is consistently a sloppy but exhilarating affair. The #epiKegster hashtag was trending in the Massachusetts region for approximately one hour, and our sources say over a thousand individuals from colleges across the county were on the premises last night—including anti-socialite Jack Zimmermann, which was an extremely rare occurrence, save last year's incident with the Samwell Men's Football team (see Swallow issues 248 and 249).

But, anyways, you're here for the goods. To make a long story short, everyone’s favourite Canadian heartthrob was spotted at two in the morning playing tonsil hockey with one of his teammates: nineteen-year-old (yikes!) Samwell sophomore Eric Bittle.

Bitty sighs angrily. Holster leans over his shoulder. "Did you get to the tonsil hockey part yet?"

"Dude, shut up," Ransom hisses.

"I'm just saying, that's some low hanging fruit as far as puns go. Fuckin' gross."

Bitty turns the page and is startled by one of his own selfies. They picked a nice one, at least. His hair is freshly cut.

Eric moved to Samwell from Madison, Georgia last year, fresh out of high school (and we're not here to police what “too young” is, but for twenty-four-year-old Jack Zimmermann, this may border on exactly that), and he doesn't look it, but we swear he's on the hockey team.

Bitty glares down at the page.

He’s a former figure skating champion and minor YouTube celebrity: he runs a monthly vlog where he talks about his passions—baking (is anyone else completely unsurprised?), hockey and, of course, his captain. 

And, Eric is gay. He says as much in an early vlog entry from last winter, when his Samwell teammates Justin Oluransi and Adam Birkholtz tried to get him female dates to Winter Screw, much to his chagrin.

"They use your real names," Bitty murmurs, and Ransom goes, "I know right? Inappropriate."

And even with that aside, c'mon—between the kid's sweet southern drawl, his impeccable fashion sense and his gay boy undercut, he's not exactly hiding it. As early as his second semester at Samwell, Eric's fans flooded his YouTube and Twitter with questions about his relationship with Jack, which he politely and consistently fielded (media training from his NHL-bound boyfriend, maybe?) leaving the truth about their frequent coffee dates up for speculation. Until now.

The second photo comes up again, with his hands stroking Jack’s neck, and it feels like a punch in the gut. Bitty thinks, not for the first time, about how his mother is going to see this. He hasn't spoken to her yet—he left his phone in his room after the hundredth 'does jack zimerman have a big dick' message—but even if this article stays at Samwell, the photos haven’t, and there will be other articles. She must already know. Coach must know, too. Bitty shoves his nervous tears down.

The two ended the night by heading to the second floor (photo left), where both their bedrooms are. We didn't follow them up the stairs. I'm sure that we didn't have to.

So this, of course, begs the question: is Jack Zimmermann gay? Has every straight female in the Samwell student body been barking up the wrong tree? In The Swallow's opinion, all signs point to yes. For the past two years, the only woman Jack has been seen with was junior tennis star Camilla Collins (left), his date to the past two Winter Screws (and if he dates off-campus, he's certainly been coy about it), but the two have never been seen being intimate. The most common argument that has drunkenly taken place in bars and clubs across campus, championed by the straight women who want him and the straight men who want to be him, is that Jack must be too busy with hockey for women. If he's not playing for Samwell, he's at a training camp for any number of prospective NHL teams, and he's been seen across the city in meetings with industry execs for the past year, to say nothing of his college graduation drawing near. The guy is busy.

So, does that explain his apparent interest in Eric Bittle? Housemate, teammate: you can't say it's not convenient. It makes sense. The documentation of this one homosexual act does point things in a very obvious direction (a one-way ticket to gaytown—sorry, ladies, and whoever made that ridiculous Twitter account dedicated to his ass), but a one night stand does not a gay boy make. But you know what does? Look at that smile (right).

There's another copy of the photo of them on the stairs.

Girls, if you've made Jack Zimmermann smile like that, shoot us a tweet at @SamwellSwallow, but seriously, we're not holding our breath, and we’re not ready to believe you.

In any case, if you've been watching the news, you know Jack's going to sign with a team after graduation, and if you've seen him play, you know why. If he makes it into the NHL (fingers crossed!) he'll be the first "out" player to hit the ice. We salute you, Jack Zimmermann! It'll be tough, but if anyone can do it, it's you.

Bitty snaps the tabloid shut, tears it in half with his bare hands, and throws the fluttering pieces on the floor.

"We salute you?!" he screams. "He's out because they outed him! They out a professional athlete with an anxiety disorder and make it sound like they're doing him a fucking favour?” He buries his face in his hands and keeps yelling. "And, wh—convenient?! Who do they think he is? And I'm nineteen, not twelve, oh my God!"

"The fuckin' 'fingers crossed' thing made me wanna set their office on fire, I swear to God," Lardo says through her teeth. "That and the 'gay boy undercut,' like, fuck you."

Holster rubs Bitty's head. "If I knew who took those photos, bro, I'd wring their neck."

"I don't even know where I was at two in the morning," Ransom adds.

"It's okay," Bitty says miserably, "it's not your fault, I shouldn't need a keeper ..."

Lardo sits up. "You know this isn't your fault, right?"

Bitty looks at his lap.

“Oh my fuck, Bitty, come on.” She puts her hands on his knees. “It’s not your fault people are fuckin’ vultures, you were drunk and you did something that like, virtually every drunk person ever has done.”

“It’s not like you pushed him,” Ransom says. “Well, I mean, I wasn’t there. But it looks like—”

“Bro, shh.”

“No, he ...” Bitty trails off, rubs his neck. He realizes for the first time that they don’t know exactly what happened, and he wonders if they’re curious. Because it’s everyone else’s news, it’s been taken away from them as their news; no chirping, no deets, no wolf whistles. “He started it.” Kissed me, he wants to say, but he feels weird. Not that started it, as if they’re kids fighting in the back seat of a car, makes him feel any less weird.

“Yeah,” Lardo says, “See, man, not your fault at all. It wasn’t your fault before, either, but. You were both drunk and he did something, uh, ill-advised, and it’s not your job to protect him.”

“Orrrr, any of ours.”

“No matter how much it feels like it.”

“I feel awful,” Bitty says to his knees. “He wanted to stay in his room and I made him come downstairs in the first place, if I’d just ...”

“I don’t think anyone can make Jack do anything he doesn’t want to do. How many times have you seen him literally fight Shitty over not wanting to go to Superberry?”

“I suppose.”

“Don’t blame yourself.”

“Okay.”

Bitty stares at the pattern in the blanket, trying very hard not to cry.

“You’re blaming yourself, aren’t you.”

“Yes,” Bitty says quietly. He stands up and Lardo moves out of the way. “I’ll be in my room. I’m not in the mood to bake but y’all lemme know if you want pie and I’ll go buy one or something.”

As he goes up the stairs he hears Holster whisper, “That is the single saddest thing I have ever heard.”

 

Bitty lies in bed and tortures himself by refusing to read any of the articles about Jack that are online. He knows they’re there, because when he types “Jack Zimmermann” into Google, it completes with “gay,” and it didn’t used to do that. He certainly didn’t search it. Their coaches send a mass email to the whole team that says they aren’t to talk to the media about Jack Zimmermann or Eric Bittle without the explicit consent of both Jack and Bitty, which is to say, not at all. They sign off with “keep your heads in the game,” which sounds vaguely disapproving.

It’s hours before Bitty calls his mother and when he does she’s crying because he didn’t return her texts, and she babbles I was so sure you’d done something stupid I was so worried about you don’t scare me like that you’ve got no right until Bitty cuts her off.

“Mama, are you mad?” He psyched himself up for the phone call but he’s already crying a little. He can’t stand confrontation.

“Mad? Dicky, I couldn’t be mad, I love you!”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t be mad at all mama, that means you can be even more mad—”

“Baby, shh, listen. You’re talking about those photos, right?”

“Mama—”

“Are you doing alright? Is Jack doin’ alright? God, that poor boy, I didn’t realize he was so ...”

Bitty sucks a breath in. “No.”

“What do you mean no?”

“I mean, Jack is ... very not okay. I think he’s having a panic attack in his room, he has pretty bad—I shouldn’t be talking about this! I don’t know, I haven’t seen him,” he babbles, “I don’t know what I’m doing and oh my God, mama, say something!”

“Dicky, we knew you’re gay.”

His mouth is frozen open. “What?”

“Sweetie, I ... I don’t mean to be rude, you know I love you and you are a sweet, smart, complex young man, but ... the baking? The figure skating, the cute little bowties? The Pinterest?”

“Oh, lord.”

“I just mean—I mean, I didn’t think anything of it, you’re just my boy, but see, friends of ours started askin’ all the time, and it made me realize maybe you ... are.” She pauses. Waits.

“Yeah,” Bitty says, rubbing at his eyes. “Yeah, I am.”

He hears her make a stifled happy noise on the other end of the line, which helps. He wipes tears off his phone.

“And what else are you?” she asks.

“What?”

“You’re my baby boy, that’s what. And you’re my best friend, Dicky, and you gotta tell me stuff like this, you gotta come to me when stuff like this happens, because you might be doin’ all these big things without me up north but I’m your mother—”

“I’m really sorry, mama,” Bitty cries, “I thought you’d be mad and I didn’t know what to say, lord, I—this is a mess, mama, I’m so scared.”

“Scared?”

“Jack didn’t want to come out, I—I think he’s terrified of it. What if he can’t play in the NHL anymore? What if I ruined his life? Are people talking about it online? What are people saying? I’ve been too scared to look, you gotta tell me if it’s bad, is he gonna be okay?”

She sighs. “It’s ... you know people, Dicky, there’s the good and the bad. There’s ... you know, the acceptance, then there’s the ... baby, I didn’t know about his time in rehab ...”

“Mama, don’t,” Bitty says softly. “I don’t ... I can’t talk about that, that ain’t mine to talk about.” He sits up and pulls his knees into his arms. “It’s the twenty-first century. He’ll be okay, right?”

“Well, he’s got you. And if he’s got you, he’s got us, and that’s gotta mean something.”

It’s almost as if she can see him flinch. There’s a silence.

“Dicky, are you and Jack dating? You talk about him all the time, I just thought ...”

“I don’t know, mama. No. Not really. I thought, maybe, but now ... I don’t know, I’m tryin’ not to think about it.” He grinds his forehead into his knees. “Um. Mama?”

“Sweetie?”

“How’s Coach taking it?”

“Oh, Eric, don’t you worry about him. You know him, he’s—”

There’s a knock at Bitty’s door and he leaps up.

“Someone’s here, mama! I gotta go, talk to you later!”

He throws his phone on the bed and bounds to the door. When he throws it open, he expects Jack and gets Shitty.

“Oh.”

“Hey, Bits.” He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans, which is more upsetting than Bitty thought it would be. “Can I come chill?”

“Yeah, sure, c’mon in.”

He rubs his eyes because he knows he looks like he’s been crying and he feels stupid. He sits on the edge of his bed and Shitty kicks his door shut behind them and sits in his desk chair. The sun’s already set, early evening in the dead of winter.

“It got too cold out for the reporters on the lawn, if that makes you feel any better,” Shitty tells him. “How you holding up?”

“Um. Bad. Real bad.” Bitty plays with his hands. “I have almost twelve thousand Twitter followers. Everyone keeps asking me real disgusting things about Jack, or else getting mad I ‘turned him gay.’”

“Aw, man, I’m so sorry.”

“They’ll unfollow me soon enough, I figure.” He looks up. “Thank you for going to the magazine and stuff, Shitty, that means a lot to me.”

Shitty shakes his head. “Jesus fuck, I thought I was gonna kill someone. They wouldn’t even tell me who wrote it or took the pics, can you fuckin’ believe that? It wouldn’t change anything, but it’s so fucked, because it means they know how wrong it was to write all that shit. The Daily agreed not to talk about it though, thank fuck. Pulled the ‘Zimmermann millionaire lawsuit’ card.”

“Well, thank you.” Bitty runs his hands through his hair and laughs shakily. “I just, uh, came out to my mom, on the phone like, right before you came in.”

“Fuck, bro, that’s great!” Shitty smiles, but it’s not his usual celebration. “Good for you.”

“Yeah, well, she saw the photos. Everyone has, I suppose.” He shakes his head. “I feel so damn stupid, I should’ve told her so long ago, not like this. Seems disrespectful.”

“Life fuckin’ sucks. I’m sure she doesn’t mind.”

“Didn’t sound like it. She asked about Jack.”

Shitty sighs so hard it blows a piece of paper off Bitty’s desk. He doesn’t say anything, which is terrifying. Bitty knows that if Jack has a best friend it is undoubtedly Shitty, and he wonders how much he knows about what happened. Does Jack talk about him? What have they been talking about in his bedroom all day, if anything? Does he have a message from Jack, at least? Anything?

“How is Jack?” Bitty asks, looking down at his own socked feet. “I—I know it’s not my place to ask, really, but ...”

He looks up and Shitty’s eyes are so, so wide.

“He didn’t come in here?”

“Excuse me?”

“Bits, he left for Montréal two hours ago. Holtzy meat-shielded him into a taxi out back.”

 

Any hope Bitty had that this was going to be anything resembling okay shatters into a thousand pieces as he thinks about Jack sneaking out of the house to avoid seeing him, not even sending a text.

 

Blood rushes angrily in his ears as Shitty says, “That absolute fucker, I swore to fuck he came in here, Jesus fucking Christ.” He gets up and sits on the bed and puts a hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “I’m so fucking sorry Bits, I didn’t think he was gonna—”

“Shitty.” Bitty puts his hands over his mouth. “Is it okay if I cry?”

“Yeah, bud, bring it in.” And Shitty turns towards him and Bitty fists his hands in his shirt and cries into it, and it makes him feel a little better, but not much.

 

. . .

 

The flight to Montréal is only an hour, but by the time Jack gets through the gate on the other side he feels like he’s been traveling all day. He has a ball cap pulled down low over his eyes and he hopes no one recognizes him; he doesn’t know if the news has been dying down throughout the day or getting worse, but he has a hunch. He storms through the airport and no one says anything to him, but he sees a couple heads turn.

Bob is leaning on his car in the arrivals lane, smoking a cigarette and waiting for him. Jack isn’t sure he’s ever felt so supremely awkward as he does in the first second that their eyes meet and Jack has to stave off another breath-shallowing loop of he knows he knows he knows he knows. It's worse because this wasn't a photo of some faceless guy his dad has never met, it was Bittle, whom his dad shook hands with after their game against Yale and clapped his hand down on his shoulder and gave him permission to call him Bob, whom Jack knows he talks about too often on the phone in completely transparent ways. It's embarrassing.

He gets pulled into a fierce hug, which helps. He remembers what Bob said on the phone: it doesn’t matter. Be safe and we will talk when you get here. Jack had contacted his professors and asked for the week off and in light of the circumstances, they all agreed, provided he made up the work. He hadn’t contacted Bitty, unless you count standing outside his door for two full minutes trying to get the courage to go in, and then leaving, which he certainly doesn’t count. Guilt sits hard in the pit of his stomach and makes him want to get drunk, get high, anything to make it go away, and he doesn’t like that.

“Come on,” Bob says, shaking his shoulder. “Your mother is waiting.”

As usual, hearing and speaking French again feels like settling into a warm bath. The radio helps. It’s strange not to talk on the drive home but Bob makes no move to, so Jack doesn’t, figuring they’re waiting for his mom and begging to whatever God will listen that he’s not about to walk into some family-wide “pray the gay away” intervention. It didn’t sound like that over the phone, anyways.

There are no cars in the driveway except his mother’s, which is a good sign. They get inside and there’s soft music playing from somewhere, and the smell of post-dinner garlic. Being in his parents’ house is always a strange kind of duality, the comfort of home alongside the sharp, painful memories of some of the worst years of his life, and it makes him jam his hands into the pockets of his jacket to stop them from shaking.

He hears his mother coming down the hall and his dad quietly asks, “Are you alright?” and Jack nods once, curtly, and toes his shoes off. Before he can put his bag down, Alicia is there and hugging him, her cheek resting on his chest. Her head tucks under his chin and he idly thinks, Bitty’s shorter than she is, and then the guilt comes back.

He tunes back in and she’s saying, “Thank you for coming home,” and, “We were so worried.” He wishes his parents didn’t always have to worry about him—he really, really does—but he figures he deserves this. No one's fault but his own.

He looks around. “Is anyone else here?”

“What? No.” She moves back, tucks her hair behind her ear. She’s wearing one of Bob’s old sweatshirts and some bitter part of Jack thinks, that must be easy for you, but he stops himself. He smiles at her, or tries to. "Who did you think would be here?” she says. “Your Auntie Marie? God? Stephen Harper?"

"I don't know, I ... it's been a long day."

"We know. Come in, put your things in the room, and we'll sit. You must be starving."

Jack shakes his head and she rolls her eyes at him. "Go. Upstairs. Then come back down."

At Jack's request, his parents didn't keep his childhood room, and the bed he throws his duffle bag on is in one of their guest rooms. He had too many memories in his old room, the sharp ones and the Parse ones, and he used to keep trophies in his room but he doesn't anymore, and didn't like looking at them. His old room had a plaid bedspread and a desk he got too tall for and a Tragically Hip poster. This one is very white and peach, nice, but not his. Which is better.

The bed is a double. If he brought Bitty here, his parents wouldn't make them sleep in different rooms, they're not like that. Bitty would gush over their gigantic house and the kitchen built for three tall people that he would look ridiculously small in, and he'd be able to talk fashion and food with his mom and hockey and football with his dad, and he'd insist on helping with dinner and would end up cooking half of it by himself. He'd have to borrow one of Jack's sweatshirts because he'd underestimate the cold. Alicia would smirk at Jack when she noticed his eyes tracking Bitty around the room.

Jack shakes his head. He washes his face in the bathroom and tries to stop thinking about Bitty and what he might be doing right now. Has he talked to his parents? Did he read the article? Jack still doesn't know why he didn't say goodbye, because it's not like he's mad at Bitty. He's just. Something else. It would have been easy. Bitty would have understood "I can't talk about this now, but we will," and a quick kiss, wouldn't he? Literally anything would have been better than nothing.

Bitty's given him no reason to be afraid of him, but he is—this morning, lying in his bed, he thought he could do it, but after this he isn't sure anymore. Bitty deserves everything and there's so much Jack doesn't think he can give him, and the thought of letting him down, of not being good enough, is almost worse than not trying at all. If he doesn't go for it, he can't fail. He can't let Bitty down if he doesn't even try not to.

He feels sick. He opens their last text conversation on his phone, from last night: Where are you??? It's so busy down here! im in my room.

He goes downstairs and finds his parents in the living room, each with a glass of wine. They don't offer him one and he's grateful for it. Alicia is in the armchair and Bob is at one end of the couch, so Jack sits at the other, feeling like a kid who got detention and is about to be lectured, which he's sure can't be far from the truth.

Bob starts. 

"This was maybe the worst way that you could have done this. Short of being caught at, I don't know, a bathhouse."

Jack rubs the bridge of his nose. "I know, papa."

"Good. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that, I just—"

"I know what you meant."

"Boys," Alicia snaps. "Please, what's done is done." She puts her hand on Jack's knee. "How have you been? Is everything okay?"

Jack shakes his head, then after a beat says, "Panic attack, this morning. Long one."

"Oh, Jack," she says sadly. "I'm glad you came home."

He nods mutely and keeps looking at the knees of his jeans, embarrassed beyond belief. He shouldn't be this fragile thing his mother needs to look out for, and he hates that he is. He'd been doing well lately, too, but no one makes headlines out of Is Jack Zimmermann handling his anxiety better?

"Did you get whoever took the photos?" Bob asks.

"No. One of the guys went to their offices, they wouldn't say anything. What's done is done." He thinks about Shitty: all that's left now is how you handle it.

"Right."

Alicia sits back and Bob sits forward, and Jack feels like this is veering into hockey territory.

"This isn't going to affect your negotiations. You're going to play."

Jack wants to say “I know,” but he doesn't.

"I'm not naming names,” Bob goes on, “but I know for a goddamn fact that you will not be the first NHL player to ..."

He trails off. As Jack suspected, he can't even say it. Jack isn't sure he can, either. He thinks about the write-up in The Swallow, which he made himself read online before he left the Haus so he knew what he was up against, and it pointed out Bitty's age again and again, which Jack feels guilty for not even considering. He wonders if his parents are thinking the same thing. He's always been a fuck-up and it's so fucking depressing that this isn't even the worst thing he's done.

Bob clears his throat.

"This ... can't be like before."

Jack's shoulders stiffen because, instinctively, he knows he's talking about Parse. Of course his parents knew, he was stupid for thinking they'd hid it, as two dumb teenage boys. There were too many we'll just be in my room with the door shut, too many hickies and scratches that everyone saw in the locker room and only Parse was good at playing off. They would have heard the rumours like anyone else. Jack was a different person then and he wasn't in the headspace to handle something so weird and intense, and whatever this thing with Bitty is going to be, or could be, it's different, because Jack is different.

Jack knows his ears are red. "It's not like that. At all."

"Good." Bob sets his wine on the end table. "Good. Now, what to do about it. That is ... a matter of you."

Jack shifts uncomfortably.

"We're not mad at you," Alicia says from behind her wine glass, "if that's what you're wondering."

Bob shakes his head and for a second Jack thinks he's contradicting her, but he's not. "I ... even if I don't understand it, what kind of father would I be to tell you it's wrong?"

That's good enough, Jack figures. He nods, too jerky to be casual, flooded with a relief he didn't expect to be there. "Thank you," he says politely, and Bob laughs.

"I don't know which one of us you got that politeness from."

"Not me," Alicia chirps, indignant, and Jack manages a smile. That was—infinitely less painful than he'd expected. He’s mad that this was one of the thousand things he hyped up in his head for so long as this awful, earth-shattering idea, and now that it’s happening, it’s ... it’s over. They know.

"The question," Bob says, "is entirely what you want to do. If this is you know, not serious. Everyone experiments in college.” Jack winces at the thought of that, coming from his dad. “Then, maybe we don’t say anything, and it blows over. But ... if it is something else, maybe we do. Publicly.”

Jack looks at his hands and thinks about Parse, who he wanted so badly that it felt like he was going crazy. He thinks about Bitty, who makes him feel ten feet tall and unbelievably stupid and brave. Neither one was an accident. He doesn’t mind women, no, but no one has made him feel like that yet.

“If you’re asking me if this is going to happen again, it, uh. Might.”

“Jack,” Bob says, exasperated, and puts his hand on his shoulder. “I know you’re not going to believe me, but I’m asking what is going to make you happy.”

Jack looks up at him, startled, and tries to swallow the painful lump in his throat.

He thinks about giving up, brushing this off, then watching Bitty grow up and date other guys who can give him more than he can, and whether they're good for him or bad for him, they won't be Jack, and they won't be afraid like he is. He thinks about seeing Bitty five years from now at a party and not being able to look him in the eye. If this doesn’t happen now, then when? If he lets this blow over, what happens next? He turns thirty, then thirty-five, dates women he doesn’t love, cheats on them with men he does love, or could love, or wants to. Would he have the courage to come out without something like this happening? Did he need this?

“Let’s say something.”

 

. . . 

 

It’s Tuesday and Bitty hasn’t heard from Jack and he’s fucking miserable. He’s lying on the floor in the living room watching two sports analysts on TV argue about Jack—”If it were just this, fine, everyone gets one, you know what I mean? But the kid’s a walking media circus. He’s a disaster! First you-know-who, then rehab, then this? He’s a liability to any team who signs him.” “So? Hockey players play hockey. That’s their job. He could fuck the queen of England for all I care, ‘cause when he hits the ice, he does what he’s gotta do.”—when Shitty and Lardo come home.

“Aw, Bits,” Shitty says, tipping his head to look down at him. “You alright?”

“Sure.”

“Haven’t heard from him yet?”

“No. Have you?”

“No.”

Shitty and Lardo look at each other and Lardo elbows him. He crouches down next to Bitty.

“You wanna smoke a joint with us?”

Bitty rolls his head on the floor and looks up at him.

“Yes.”

So they bundle up and go out to the reading room and pass a joint around. Bitty takes two puffs, which is more than enough for him, and lies upside down on the lip of the roof and goes quiet and listens to Shitty talk about personal agency, and then they all go quiet. Lardo brushes his fringe off his forehead then smooths it back again and again. He feels better, kind of. He doesn’t smoke often, but doesn’t mind it when he does. It’s comfortable and slows his inner monologue to a manageable drip.

“So, Bitty. I forgot to ask.”

Bitty slowly turns his head to look at Shitty, sprawled on the lawn chair. “Yes?”

“How was he?”

Lardo laughs and laughs and Bitty covers his face to hide his blush.

“Yeah, c’mon, Bits, give us the goods.”

He sighs happily and runs his hands through his hair. He remembers running his hands through Jack’s hair, being lifted up in his arms, watching him between his legs, and he gets dreamy and dizzy. And sad.

“Hm," he hums, stoned enough to answer without inhibition. "Shitty, you know what being on the ice with him is like? That, y'know. Buzzing sort of ... terrifying intensity, where you're like, this is too much and I almost don't want to be here, but also, this is the most amazing thing?"

"Yeeah?" Shitty says through his teeth, grinning.

"It's like that, 'cept he's touching your dick."

Shitty and Lardo's earsplitting cackles are cut short by Shitty's phone ringing, and all three of them jump.

“Whoops,” he says, pulling himself to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”

 

As soon as he’s through the window, he picks up.

“You stupid motherfucker.

“Hi, Shits.”

“You can be a fucking asshole sometimes, you know that?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, just don’t be an asshole.”

“I’m working on it.”

“That remains to be seen.” Shitty kicks the door to his room open. “Why the fuck haven’t you called Bitty? How the fuck can you be mad at him for this?”

“I’m not mad at him! God. I don’t know.” There’s shuffling on the other end. “How is he?”

“Fucking miserable, what do you think? He thinks fucking him ruined your life so bad you left the country and you’re never coming back.”

“We didn’t—ugh. Is he really miserable?”

“Yeah, brother. It’s fuckin’ heartbreaking. The fuck are you doing up there? You coming back?”

“Soon, yeah. Can you do me a favour?”

“I fucking shouldn’t, but yeah, shoot.”

“Can you make sure Bittle is home at six tonight?”

 

. . .

 

Bitty is in the kitchen trying to force himself to bake something and half-heartedly helping Chowder with an essay he’s working on at the table when Holster shouts from the living room.

“Yo, Jack’s on the Canada channel!”

“What?”

“CBC!”

Bitty sprints into the living room so fast he almost pitches over the back of the couch. Ransom and Holster are half out of their seats and Dex and Nursey sit up and Shitty thunders down from upstairs, and on the screen is—Jack.

“Oh my God,” Chowder gushes, “he’s got his professional hair on.”

Jack sits in what looks like a brightly lit studio on one side of a desk, wearing a crisp, white shirt, and his hair is slicked back in that way that makes his cheekbones looked like they’re carved from marble. He’s looking out a window at snowy Montréal rooftops and trying to smile, and he would look relaxed if you didn’t know him. The scene is set to look casual, as if they were meeting over coffee and not in a television studio.

“Get a load of that beautiful motherfucker,” Shitty hisses.

“What’s he doing?”

“Where is he?”

Bitty’s too overwhelmed to speak. A young male newscaster enters the frame across the desk from him and the two shake hands; Jack’s half a head taller than him. If there was an intro to the segment, they missed it, because they just start talking. Jack’s name shows up at the bottom of the screen.

Ransom snorts. “His title is just hockey player. Sounds about right.”

“Shitty,” Bitty says quietly. “Did you know about this?”

“I had a hunch. He called earlier.” He bumps his shoulder into Bitty’s. “Says he’s sorry, bro.”

There’s a loud chorus of awws and Bitty goes red. “Oh.”

“Is this gonna be about Bitty?”

“Dude, why would he talk about Bitty on TV.”

“Shh! It’s starting!”

“Joining me here at CBC Montréal is Jack Zimmermann, former star of the Québec Major Junior Hockey League and current next-in-line star of the NHL, or so we hear.”

Jack laughs softly and Chowder straight up gasps.

“Thank you. That would be nice.” 

Holster claps his hands together. “Oh fuck yes, we get to hear ESL Jack! I love this!”

“Eh, ouais, tank you, tank you,” Ransom mimics.

“No, thank you for agreeing to quickly speak with us,” the newscaster says. “I think it’s a great opportunity. The Zimmermanns are notorious for guarding their private lives, and we’re really excited to have you on the show.”

“Well, you know. The CBC is an important Canadian institution. If anyone gets an interview ...”

“How is he so awkward and so charming at the same time?” Shitty gestures wildly at the screen. “It’s completely fucked. It’s just ‘cause he’s beautiful. Listen to that goofy fucking accent.”

“Yeah,” Bitty sighs dreamily, and Shitty smacks him on the back.

“Really, a great opportunity.” The newscaster shuffles papers. “So, the gossip rocking the world of professional hockey this week came about after a house party held by your current team at Samwell College.”

“‘House party’ really doesn’t capture the magic.”

“Shh!”

“Photos surfaced of you with one of your male teammates, and it’s all anyone can talk about.”

“Yes. It’s been ... difficult. I think that it was extremely inappropriate for guests to come into my home and release details about my personal life, but, I guess that’s what I get for being at a kegster.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not an invasion of privacy.”

“No, you’re right. Being forced out of the closet by a college tabloid wasn’t how I wanted to start this conversation, but someone has to do it.”

“And there it is.”

“Holy shit, he said it.”

Bitty holds his breath.

“As I’m sure you’re well aware, there are currently no openly gay professional hockey players, and for years there’s been speculation as to why that is, when both the NFL and NBA have had players come out. What are your thoughts on that?”

“I think the NHL, and professional sports as a whole, has a big problem talking about things like sexuality and mental health and substance abuse.”

“Jesus fuck, he’s going for broke.”

“This is unbelievable.”

Jack says, “The NHL needs to put more emphasis on the health and well-being of its players if they want to keep producing good players. It’s a big barrier to young athletes who struggle with these issues, because if they know the league won’t accept them, they’ll be too afraid to try. Or spend their lives in fear. Not to be dramatic.”

“And you’re speaking from experience.”

“Yes. I’ve struggled most of my life with mental health and substance abuse, and the media’s reaction and the stigma surrounding it never helped. Sexuality is the same way—you’re making people choose between who they are and what they love to do, and no one should have to do that.”

“Damn, how is he being so smooth? He’s not even doing that nervous eye thing.”

“He’s been talking to Bob.”

“So, that’s what you’re trying to avoid.”

“Yes. In my own life, and maybe, by starting this conversation, in other players’ lives, too. Someone has to go first and it gets easier after that, I think.”

“So what do you want to see the NHL do differently?”

“I want to be able to play in an environment where guys like me aren’t afraid. If I’m negotiating with GMs, I don’t want to have to consider what I’ve heard about their team’s ‘tolerance levels.’ Hockey should be about the sport. I want to know the organization has my back. I don’t want to be resented or hidden.”

Bitty’s throat get tight as he watches. A lock of Jack’s hair slips loose and curls against his forehead.

“Tolerance isn’t the same as real acceptance, you know? And at the end of the day, sexuality has no bearing on sport. I’ll be the same player whether I have a girlfriend or a boyfriend.”

The newscaster cracks a smile. “So, should the hockey world prepare itself to see Jack Zimmermann out and about with a boyfriend on his arm?”

Jack smiles down at his folded hands, dark eyelashes on his cheeks.

“We’ll see.”

Everyone in the room turns to look at Bitty, who slaps his hands over his mouth.

“I think he just asked you out on international television, Bits.”

“I think I’m having a heart attack,” Bitty says from behind his hands.

“I want to thank you again for chatting with us, Jack. Are you planning on continuing this discussion in the future? Being the poster boy?”

“I don’t think I’ll have a choice,” Jack laughs. “Things like this need a figurehead, I guess. If anyone has any questions, I’ll be here. If anyone’s got a problem with it, I’ll be here, too.”

“Did Jack just challenge like, every homophobic sports bro to a fight?”

“He totally did.”

“Dude’s got stones.”

“Where’d this come from?”

“I can’t believe this is happening.”

“I like that attitude,” the newscaster says. “I think a lot of people will, too.”

“Whatever gets things to change.”

“Agreed.” They stand and shake hands again and Jack is smiling, really smiling, and it takes Bitty’s breath away. His heart is so full and he feels radiant, transcendent, ready to tweet until his thumbs fall off. “Thanks again for coming in, Jack. You’re doing some really important things here, the NHL is going to be better for having you.”

“Here’s hoping.”

And then it cuts to another segment, the swooshing CBC logo cutting across the screen, and Shitty almost throws himself into a handstand on the back of the couch.

“Fuckin‘ Jacky-boy!” He yells.I don’t fucking believe that shit, we should have recorded it!”

“It’ll be online,” Bitty says, staring at his phone as he tweets about the interview. Extremely proud of Jack’s interview on #CBC! Conversations about being LGBT in the #NHL need to happen NOW. “Oh my God, I need to call mama.”

“Oh, no you don’t, bro!” Holster puts him in a head lock and pulls him over the couch as he screams in terror and joy. Ransom and Holster pull him into a conjoined bear hug and noogie him. “Now that the world isn’t fuckin‘ ending we can finally chirp you proper on doing the dirty with Jay-Z.”

“No you can not!” Bitty struggles to get out of their arms, laughing and laughing. “I am a—a southern gentleman, and I am not going to—”

“Bro, the entire world has seen you guys making out, what do you have to hide?”

Bitty hisses, “Plenty,” and everyone cackles.

And then his phone starts going off.

“Oh my God, it’s Jack!”

Everyone hoots louder.

“Let me go! Rans! He’s—calling—me! Ugh!” He breaks free of their arms and runs out of the room and away from everyone’s booming laugher, clutching his phone. Jack’s face stares up at him from the screen, the photo they took together at Hallowe’en. He answers out of breath. “Hello?”

“Hi, Bitty.”

He wants to scream.

“Did you—"

“Jack, oh my God, I—”

“Sorry, you go first.”

“I just—I saw you on CBC, I had no idea you were going to talk about it, that’s so, so brave! I can’t believe you!”

Jack laughs, and it’s the prettiest thing he’s ever heard. “Thanks. It was terrifying. I said I’d only do it if they kept it short.”

“You looked good. You looked amazing, oh my God, you were such a grown up!” He pauses. “Shitty told me you called him.”

“Yeah, I—I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

“That’s alright,” Bitty says softly. “Me neither.”

“My flight leaves in an hour, so I’ll be there soon if you want to, you know. Talk.”

“I’d like that.” He can’t stop smiling, twisting his fingers in the hem of his shirt—then he sees Ransom, Holster, Shitty and Chowder huddled sniggering in the doorway listening to him, and he stops. “Um. The boys saw it, too. If I’m not here when you get home, it’s because they’ve ... thrown me in the pond as some sort of insane, congratulatory bonding ceremony.”

“I’ll hurry, then.”

“Please do.” His voice is getting unbearably heartfelt and he knows it. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Yeah.”

“Bye, Jack.”

“Bye, Bittle.”

As soon as he hangs up, Ransom picks him up and throws him over his shoulder and everyone starts chanting Bi-tty! Bi-tty! Ja-cky! Ja-cky! and he’s carried for two laps around the Haus screaming and laughing and pounding on his back.

 

Bitty showers and makes Jack a “congratulations on coming out” pie and hovers nervously in the kitchen in a big Samwell t-shirt and little gym shorts waiting to hear the front door. He babbles on the phone to his mom and sends her a link to the interview on CBC’s website. The guys hang with him for a bit, drinking and making half-hearted attempts at chirps and trying to get deets, and they eventually settle back in the living room to marathon Parks & Rec.

Shitty comes into the kitchen for a beer, looks Bitty up and down and says, “Nice shorts, bro. Tryina look cute for your new man?”

“He ain’t my man.” Bitty prickles happily. “He’s still just ... Jack.”

“Yeah, but now he’s Jack who you’ve boned. Jack who just came out on live TV.”

“And he’s also Jack who always butt-texts us, and who can talk about the Battle of Vimy Ridge for near on twenty minutes.”

Shitty cracks his beer and points the can at Bitty. “Point taken.”

Bitty’s pulling a pie out of the oven when he hears the front door creak, and then Shitty’s booming voice, “Well, if it isn’t the man of the motherfucking hour!”

“Hey Sh—ow, ow, come on, Shits—”

“You are the bravest fucking dude I know, you fucking hug me back right now.”

Bitty throws the pie on the cooling rack, struggles out of his oven mitts and slides into the hallway on his socked feet in time to see Jack struggling out of Shitty’s arms. His hair is still pushed back but it’s coming down now, curling at his temples, and he has his duffle bag slung over his shoulders. He sees Bitty and grins, and it’s self-conscious and crooked but it is the best thing that Bitty has ever seen.

Jack drops his bag on the floor.

“Hi, Bittle.”

And nothing can sum up I’m so proud of you I want to scream and I like you so much it’s scary and you’re beautiful and I want you and how dare you not text me, so he says Jack and runs down the hall and throws himself into his arms, and Jack hugs him so hard it knocks the air out of his lungs and lifts him off the floor. He smells like airport and sweat and cologne and hair gel and Bitty presses his face to his neck and says, “I can’t believe you,” and everyone is hooting and whistling at them, and then Jack turns his head and kisses him hard in front of everyone. Their shouts rise to a crescendo of cackling and cheering and beer can pull tabs hissing, and Bitty tightens his arms around Jack’s neck and kisses him back, and it feels like the end of a movie he has always wanted to be in.

 

Chapter Text

“On a scale of one to ten, how terrified am I going to be at this thing?”

“What does ten feel like?”

Bitty watches Jack shave through the sliding glass door to the immaculately tiled hotel bathroom and thinks about it.

“Ten feels like the first time I saw your dad after we started dating, and he said ‘Hi Mister Jack’s Boyfriend’ in front of all your relatives, and then told them that story.”

Jack laughs and almost cuts himself with his razor.

“That was great. I thought you were going to pass out.”

“Now I know where you get your quality chirps from. Y’all are ruthless.”

“He probably planned that one in advance. He’s not very good.”

Jack tries to stop smiling and goes back to shaving. Bitty props up on his elbows on the stiff king-sized bed, pushing rumpled white sheets out of his way. He has to stop himself from looking out the window every ten seconds; they’re on the sixteenth floor of the Soho Grand Hotel in Manhattan and Jack seems totally unfazed but Bitty can hardly sit still because the hotel room is probably worth more than any space he has ever been in in his life. His flight landed at LaGuardia a couple hours ago. Jack played a game against the Rangers the other day and he had the hotel room already, and all Bitty had to do was show up for this black-tie benefit reception, or whatever it was. Jack had described it as, “rich people who donate to charity on behalf of the NHL want to rub elbows with famous athletes to feel like they’ve gotten something out of it. I think I’m here because I’m the only not-straight guy. You know, diversity and stuff. I think every not-white guy in the league is here, too.”

He hadn’t seen Jack in three weeks and Jack all but carried him to their room when he showed up in the lobby. He kicked their door shut so hard the hallway shook and he chucked him onto the bed, and Bitty managed to call him an animal at least once and he meant it in a bad way, but he wasn’t sure Jack cared, or heard him. He rode him until they were both sweating and shaking and Jack left scratch marks on hips and ass; afterwards he said you are a professional athlete how on earth do you not trim your nails and Jack shrugged and said well, we wear gloves.

“It’ll probably be like a five, then,” Jack says from the bathroom. “Six or seven, max.”

“That’s a little low, ain’t it? You’re not worried? You’re s’posed the one who worries.”

“It’s an NHL event. I can do those.”

“But. I’m gonna be at this one.”

“Yeah? Everyone already knows. Most people in that room must have seen those photos of us. These are, I don’t know, fancy rich people. I’m more worried about making it to my car after a game.” He puts his razor on the lip of the sink and rinses his face, smooths on aftershave, and Bitty watches him like a hawk. He comes over to kiss Bitty where he perches on the edge of the giant bronze-framed bed. “If you’re the awkward one now, do I have to start being the cute one? I don’t think any of your clothes will fit me.”

Bitty smacks him and Jack laughs and kisses him again, and Bitty tries to squirm away. “No—don’t, I just—showered, you’re gonna make me—sweaty, Jack! Oh my God.” He rolls out from under him and Jack flips onto his back on the bed and grins. “If you want me to stop worrying I gotta look good and I gotta blow-dry my hair before it air dries or I’ll be all ... flat. Also, you’re always going to be the awkward one. You have a history degree.”

“Right.” Jack stretches on the bed like a contented cat and every muscle in his naked arms and chest and stomach pull, and Bitty stops and stares. Jack’s still grinning. “Bittle? Your hair?”

Bitty rips his towel off and throws it at his face. He smiles into his hand. “Lord, you’re such a brat after you win a game.”

“Maybe I’m just happy to see you.”

Ugh, shut up and get dressed or we’re gonna miss it.”

 

Thirty minutes later, Bitty is lying on his back on their smoothed-out bed with his phone on his chest, singing along to “Flawless” because he needs pump-up music if he’s going to interact with a room full of rich benefactors and big, rich athletes and their hot, rich girlfriends, when he is none of those things. He’s wearing a black suit he bought exactly for this occasion and a deep blue dress shirt that has delicate white star constellations all over it, which is easily the nicest thing he owns, and his hair is coiffed perfectly, he thinks, but he’s probably making the back stick up by lying down.

“You wake up, flawless.”

“Bittle?”

“Post up, flawless.”

“Bittle.”

“Ridin’ round in it, flawless.”

“Bitty!”

Bitty sits up. “I need to psych myself up!”

“You’ll be fine!” Jack’s leaning on the bathroom door, half dressed, his hair half dry. He buttons his shirt. “Can you tie my tie?”

“Why on earth would you need me to tie your tie? You always wear ties.”

Jack looks awkwardly out the window at the night sky and says, “They look better when you do it,” and Bitty’s anxiousness bleeds away.

“Bless your heart.” He rolls off the bed and pads over on his socked feet to where Jack stands, and grabs both ends of his black tie. “You’re so silly.”

“You’ve got little hands. Good at small tasks.”

“I hate you so much.” He loops the tie back and around, intentionally brushing Jack’s chest and his impossibly white shirt. “If you chirp me in front of all these hot strangers I am never going to forgive you.”

From the bed, Beyoncé sings I woke up like thiiis, we flawless, ladies, tell 'em.

“You’ll feel better when we’re there. They’re all pretty normal guys. You’re used to talking to bros.”

“I somehow doubt NHL stars are anything like Ransom and Holster.”

“You’d be surprised.”

Bitty sighs, tightens the knot at Jack’s throat. “I’m just. I don’t know. Don’t athletes always date models and actresses? I’m ... I mean, I’m not ugly, but I’m no supermodel, and I don’t ... I’m gonna be the shortest one in the room by like half a foot, and everyone’s gonna be like, one of y’all lost your little brother, and—”

Jack kisses him mid-word, gentler than his earlier manhandling, cupping his face in both hands. He bumps their foreheads together.

“If I can be the only one in the room who brought a boyfriend, you can be the only one under five-foot-ten,” he says softly. “We’ve got this.”

Bitty closes his eyes. “Sure.”

“Aw, c’mon. I bet none of them are internet celebrities.”

“Jack.”

“I bet none of them have—how many subscribers? Five hundred thousand something, you said?”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Yes it does, it’s cool. That’s more than the population of Samwell.” Jack straightens up, curls his hand behind his ear. “I’d rather date you than a model, anyways. What would we talk about?”

“I’m still in college and I have a YouTube baking channel,” Bitty says, exasperated, “what do we talk about?”

Jack turns away and lifts his suit pants off the back of a chair.

“The time you called my dad ‘Mister Jack’s Dad.’”

Bitty kicks him behind the knees.

 

They wait at the curb outside the Soho Grand and it’s dark out but everything is so brightly lit you can hardly tell, and everyone who passes them is dressed to the nines and looks like they have somewhere to be.

“I can’t believe they make you take a hired car,” Bitty says, wrapping his arms around himself, looking around and trying to drink in as much of the luxury of New York as possible. “Seems excessive.”

“Honestly, I think it’s to avoid drunk driving lawsuits.”

“For you specifically?”

“For everyone. Rude.”

A shiny black car pulls up to the curb in front of them and Bitty’s shoulders stiffen. An older man steps out and says, “Mr. Zimmermann?” and Jack nods, but puts his hand up as the guy goes to open the back door for him. Jack opens it and motions for Bitty to get in, and Bitty snorts at him.

“Well, aren’t you a gentleman.”

“Get in the car, Bittle.”

 

They’re stopped at a red light and Bitty looks over at Jack and his slicked back hair and the sharply cut black suit Bitty helped him pick; it’s tailored and fits him like a dream and Bitty can’t stop looking at him, can’t stop thinking about how this is his life now. Him and Jack Laurent Zimmermann, in the back of a shiny, waxed car with a chauffeur, on their way to a private professional hockey event where they’re going to be boyfriends in front of everyone.

“Are they going to let me drink?”

Jack looks over. “Eh?”

“I’m not twenty-one for another two months. It’s a cocktail thing right? Oh Jesus Christ, are they going to make me drink apple juice?”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s not a bar. They’re not gonna ID their starting forward’s boyfriend.” Jack shifts his feet on the floor of the car. “I can’t believe the drinking age is twenty-one here. It’s bizarre.”

“Is it lower in Canada?”

“It’s eighteen in Québec.”

“Lord.”

Jack laughs. “Well, it’s the lowest in the country. It’s nineteen other places.”

“Eighteen is a bit excessive.” After a moment of deliberation, Bitty reaches across the seat and bumps his hand against Jack’s. “Are you going to drink?”

“A little. The guys who drink a lot at these things, oh boy. PR doesn’t like that. I mean, Christmas parties or whatever, sure, they go wild, but these fancy things. Different.”

“I’d imagine.”

Jack looks over at him. “Uh. That’s why this is the first thing I’ve, you know, that you’re here.”

“Sorry?”

“Just that—we’ve had other events, the team, but they weren’t things I could really bring you to without it being really, uh, awkward, do you know what I mean? Like, no one brought their girlfriends, except for the ones who really knew everyone, so I didn’t—”

“Do you think I feel bad?”

“I don’t know. You never said.”

“I don’t.” The car is so big that Bitty has to unbuckle his seatbelt to lean across the middle and kiss Jack, who mumbles something about road safety and tastes like spearmint. Bitty settles back, and Jack looks less sad. “I want this to be as easy as possible for you, Jack, honest. I am in no hurry to make a fool of myself in front of a bunch of guys big enough to toss me like a football, whose wrist watches cost more than my life.”

“Shh,” Jack says, and covers his hand with his own again. “A couple of the boys from Providence’ll be there. You saw Alex last month, we went for beer, and maybe Tommy, I think.”

“Okay.” Bitty mostly remembers them. They were tall and Tommy had a beard so dense and dark no light could escape it, and they laughed at some of his jokes and didn’t make him feel stupid, so that was enough.

Jack works his thumb over the pad of his palm and Bitty fights the urge to tweet to calm his nerves. He’s curbed his tweeting about Jack since Jack signed with the Falconers, not that he was explicitly told to, but the difference between tweeting at a couple thousand people and thirty thousand people was palpable.

He reminds himself: he’s flawless. His suit fits, his shoes make him an inch taller than normal and he got the cowlick at the back of his head to stay down, and his fringe is swooping back in that perfect way he can never get it to do. He’s going to get there and everything will be fine.

Jack chuckles at something.

“What?”

“You, uh. I don’t know if two guys have ever gone to one of these things together. You’re like the gay First Lady of the NHL.”

Bitty laughs. “Does that make you the gay President?”

“I guess so. More like, gay founder. Or—gay pioneer?”

“If another guy comes out, please tell me you’re going to start a very awkward club with him.”

They snigger at their own dumb jokes until the car pulls up at another curb, and everything feels easier.

 

The reception is being held in the ballroom of some other hotel, about as nice as the insanely nice one they’re staying at. Jack gets out of the car and Bitty thinks he’s going to explode if he offers him his hand, but he doesn’t.

“Are we late?” Bitty asks.

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh God, everyone is dressed so nice.”

“You’re dressed nice.”

“Yes, but—”

“Where’d you get this shirt?” Jack cuts him off and reaches out to take the collar between his thumb and forefinger. “It’s new.”

Bitty beams. “Internet.”

“It’s nice.” And just like that, Jack slips his hand into Bitty’s, as casual as if they were walking to the grocery store near Jack’s apartment on a sunny afternoon, and they head for the lobby. Bitty’s heart beats so hard he can feel it in his throat.

As they pass through the doors and a neat script-lettered sign directs them to the right ballroom, Bitty whispers, “Please tell me you’re still going to like me if I say something stupid.”

Jack leans down so he can hear. “Bittle. If anyone’s going to make an ass of himself, I think we both know it’s me.”

“Stop me if I drink too much.”

“Stop me if I drink too much.”

“Oh my God, we’re going to die.”

Jack pushes the giant teak door to the reception hall open and Bitty clutches his hand like a lost child in a mall.

The room is softly lit, sparsely decorated but beyond opulent, with dark wood and big plants, everything shining and twinkling, and all the men have giant shoulders and wear dark suits and all the women are tall and slim.

“This seems kind of, um, romantic a venue for a bunch of hockey bros.”

“It’s fancy,” Jack says, for the millionth time, and Bitty laughs. “It’s not for the players, it’s for the benefactors.”

“Right. Fancy.”

“Right.” Jack moves his fingers between Bitty’s, brushing his knuckles. “We’ve got this,” he says quietly. “If you feel yourself freaking out remember to breathe.”

“Yes. Breathe. Oh my God that guy is looking at us do you know him.”

“Oh, that’s Mark. He got traded to Anaheim last year, used to play for Providence.”

Mark is even taller than Jack, and the girl next to him is taller than Bitty, and Bitty hisses, “Why is everyone you know so tall?” and then he and Jack are walking over there and they’re still holding hands and Bitty can feel his palm sweat. Mark has dark red hair and a few freckles and a big chin, and he grins as he walks up.

“Zimmermann! Long time no see!”

“Hey, McCluskey.”

Jack lets go of Bitty’s hand to do one of those quick bro-hugs and Bitty and Mark’s girlfriend smile at each other awkwardly; she’s about Bitty’s height and has long, straight hair and bright eyes.

“This is Natasha,” Mark says. 

Her and Bitty say hi and exchange pleasantries. He expects Jack to introduce him in turn, but Mark tips his head and sticks his hand out first.

“And you’re Eric Bittle.”

Bitty has to will himself not to ignite in embarrassed flames. His nice to meet you comes out an octave too high but he remembers to give a firm handshake. And, to Bitty’s complete and utter shock, as soon as he’s done shaking Mark’s hand, he feels Jack’s slip right back into his. He sees Natasha’s eyes flick down to them and then back up, Mark’s too.

Mark shoves Jack’s shoulder. “I never thought I’d see you at one of these things, man. What gives?”

Jack shrugs and says, “Diversity quotient,” and Mark’s laugh makes everyone look at them.

He looks down at Bitty and jabs a thumb at Jack. “What the fuck. Did you know could be funny?”

“He has his moments,” Bitty chirps, and Jack elbows him, looking pleased.

“We’re gonna grab drinks,” Jack says by way of excusing them, and steps off towards the big, glittering bar at the back of the room. As soon as they’re out of earshot, Jack sighs. “Good that he let us leave. Guy’s got a one track mind, I didn’t want to get stuck talking about defensive plays all night.”

“Heaven above, who are you and what have you done with Jack Zimmermann?”

Jack laughs. “I know. But, I talk about hockey all the time. We’re in Manhattan. And you’re here.” He bumps his shoulder against Bitty’s. “It’s almost like a date, eh?”

“A date in a big room with a hundred people, some of whom have basically paid money to talk to you.”

“Yeah. With free drinks.”

Bitty moves his fingers over Jack’s. “There are worse things.”

“Way worse.” Jack leans down again as they near the bar. “And tonight we’ve got our own hotel room, with a big, clean bed, and—” The couple in front of them steps away with drinks and the very dapper bartender clears his throat; Jack straightens up and Bitty shivers, lost in thoughts of what they could do on a bed they don't have to worry about cleaning in the morning. “What do you want?” Jack asks.

“Um. An Old Fashioned?”

The bartender hears. Jack adds, “And an Alexander Keith’s.”

Bitty snorts. “If you think I’m not gonna chirp you for getting a Canadian beer ...”

“They’re better.”

“I bet.” Bitty looks behind Jack to where Mark and Natasha are talking to someone else. “How did Mark know who I am?” He looks up and Jack’s looking away. “Jack. Did you talk about me?”

“Maybe he was a hockey player with ears and eyes during December 2014.”

“Not every article mentioned me by name. I was just your scandalously young university teammate.”

“You’re not—

“Oh my God, you totally talked about me, you big dork.” He presses his face to Jack’s arm. “I forgive you.”

The bartender sets their drinks down and they pick them up and turn to survey the room.

“I’m allowed talk about you,” Jack mumbles, grumpy, and Bitty glows. He sips his drink and it’s sharp, bitter and strong.

“Well. Time to mingle, I guess.”

 

They move around the room and to Bitty’s relief, enough people want to talk to Jack that they don’t have to awkwardly sidle into any conversations. Most of the benefactors are men and women in their fifties or older, impeccably dressed and very polite, and most of them seem to have a genuine interest in hockey, so that’s what they talk about, and Bitty gets introduced as this is Eric. He shakes hands and talks when he has something to say, sips his drink when he doesn’t. Hearing Jack call him “Eric” so often is almost otherworldly, as if they left whoever “Bittle” is back at the hotel, and it’s strange to hear Jack be so polite and normal and not even a little awkward. A couple people ask Bitty what he does and he explains college and his YouTube channel and depending on the age of the listener they are either impressed or politely confused. Some people ask how they met and when they say they played together at Samwell, some eyebrows rise in remembrance.

At one point, someone asks Jack who he wants to play for after his contract with the Falconers is up, and he chuckles and says, “It might be nice to move back to Canada after Eric graduates,” and Bitty’s ears ring so loudly because he doesn’t think Jack has ever said anything so blatantly future-talk like that before and he wants to pull his phone out and text his mama so, so badly. He wishes they weren’t in public because he wants to kiss his stupid face off.

Later, Alex, who plays for Providence, spots them across the room after they’ve gotten fresh drinks and comes over. He’s about Jack’s height, and so is the girl he’s with, who has short, curly dark hair and a dress that looks like it’s made of sunlight itself. Alex is blonde and has a few days’ beard, and as he comes up he slaps Jack on the back and says, “Lookin’ fine, pretty boy.”

Bitty sniggers. “Pretty boy?”

Alex looks down at him grinning from ear to ear. “Yeah, all the guys call him pretty boy. Look at that fuckin’ mug, am I right?” He pinches Jack’s cheek and Jack bats his hand away. “He makes the rest of us look bad. What are you even doing playing hockey, Zimmermann, go model underwear or some shit.”

Bitty bumps his arm against Jack’s. “It’s his curse.”

Jack bumps him back, less than nice, and Alex laughs and sticks his hand out to Bitty.

“Nice to see ya, kid, how’s it going?”

“Good, good.” Bittle shakes his hand with the one that isn’t holding his drink. “I have never been in a room with so much wealth in my life, oh my gosh. I’m feeling poorer and uglier by the minute.”

“That’s why you’re with this rich, beautiful motherfucker.”

“Oh my God, West, shut up.”

“C’mon, if I can’t make fun of you when you’re all dolled up, when can I?” He peers around Jack’s back, looks him up and down. “That’s a nice suit, by the way. Your boy dress you?”

If Jack’s glares could kill, Alex would be dead three times over. But Bitty smiles, then looks Alex up and down the same way.

“Did your girl dress you? Last time I saw you, you were wearing plaid cargo shorts.”

Alex’s face drops. He takes a swig of beer then goes, “Alright, alright, I get it, well played. Where you guys staying, anyways?”

Bitty looks puzzled. “Aren’t you at the Grand? Why wouldn’t they have y’all in the same hotel?”

Alex grins and Jack tries to shut him up with his eyes alone, but it doesn’t work.

“We were, but buddy here insisted on booking up in the nicest digs in Manhattan to impress someone.”

Bitty actually gasps. “Jack, tell me you did not pay for that hotel room!”

Jack shrugs, embarrassed. “Well, the other hotel wasn’t as nice. And uh, I hear celebrities go to the one we’re at. You like famous people.”

Bitty sputters and tries to say something about spoiling him when the girl next to Alex laughs prettily and says, “I think it’s sweet.”

Alex looks at her. “Oh fuck, sorry guys, this is Robyn.” She shoots him a look.

Jack’s met her before and gives a little wave. Bitty shakes her hand and beams up at her.

“Hi, I’m Eric, nice to meet you.”

She raises her eyebrows. “Not ... Eric Bittle?”

Jack fights the urge to roll his eyes, thinking about those articles again and trying to remember which of the big news outlets mentioned Bitty by name.

“Yes?”

“Oh my God,” Robyn gushes, “I’ve been standing here this whole time trying to figure out if it’s you.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I watch your videos every week!”

Bitty goes red. “Oh lord, you’re joking.”

“No! I totally subscribe to your channel, I love it! Last week you made that—that sachertorte? I cannot believe how many eggs that had in it, what in God’s name is up with that?”

“I know! It’s absolutely ridiculous, I think I ate, like, one piece, it must be near on a thousand calories.”

“I thought the same thing! Oh my God, it’s so cool that you’re here, I totally forgot you’re dating Jack. What a small world! You were at VidCon last year, right?”

“Yes!” Bitty yelps.

“My sister said she saw all your panels, you were so good!”

“Oh my God,” Bitty laughs, “this is so embarrassing, thank you!”

Alex glares over the top of his head at Jack. “Feel free to stop looking so fucking smug any time now, Zimmermann. Like, whenever you’re ready.”

“Nah, I think I’m good.” He laces fingers with Bitty and looks down at him and how he’s almost literally glowing with pride, his smile lighting up his face, the flush from a couple drinks across his nose. Bitty squeezes his hand and looks up at him with a grin that says I’m trying not to squeal with joy.

“God, look at you two lovebirds. Makes me sick,” Alex laughs, good-natured as anything. “Fuckin’ gay power couple of the NHL over here.”

“I think if you’re the only gay couple you’re pretty much a power couple by default.”

“Debatable.”

“Oh, Eric, sorry, but—” Robyn reaches out and touches the collar of his shirt. “Oh my God, that is the softest thing I have ever felt, where on earth did you get this shirt? It’s beautiful.”

Bitty feels like a million dollars. “Internet.”

 

After another drink and a lot more slow, polite hockey conversation, it’s late enough that people start to leave, and they do too. Some of the NHL head honchos thank Jack for coming, and his stock response about it being good for the league sounds sincere. It’s late and it’s cold out as they wait at the curb for another car, and Jack drops his arm across Bitty’s shoulders. Bitty’s hand comes up to hold his.

“That was kind of lovely,” Bitty admits. “I got to hold your hand all night and a beautiful woman told me she watches my channel and likes my shirt.” He sighs happily. “Thanks for bringing me.”

“Thanks for coming and not making me look like the only single guy in the room.”

“Thanks for coming out on national television so I could come with you.”

“I’m glad it worked out.” He pauses. “Hey.” When Bitty looks up, he stoops down and kisses him, so soft and slow it makes his toes curl. He touches Jack’s smooth, freshly shaved jaw and rolls onto the balls of his feet to press closer. He feels his tongue against the inside of his lip and nips him, stops, moves back. Jack adds, “I’m uh, proud of you, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Bitty says, a little breathless. It’s been over a year and he doesn’t think he’s ever going to get used to the dizzy thrill of kissing Jack. Even though their relationship has evolved, some small part of Bitty is still stuck in his freshman year when Jack was his terrifying, untouchable team captain, and he can't believe they ever kiss. He can't believe they do other stuff. He leans back into the arm still around his shoulders.

Jack says, “I mean it, Bitty.”

“I know you do. I’m proud of you, too.”

“Thanks.”

“Yeah.” Bitty runs his fingers over his lips and smiles down at the concrete, then looks up at the glowing lights of a restaurant across the street and all the cars whizzing past. “So, um. Maybe I misheard, but, what’s this about moving to Canada?”

He looks up when Jack doesn’t say anything, and Jack is looking down the street. His ears are blushing. 

“Jack?”

“We can talk about it later.”

“Oh, so it’s okay to casually drop that bomb in front of strangers but when I try to—”

“We can talk at the hotel.”

“Oh you are not going to pull that one on me, Zimmermann, you and I both know we’re not fixin’a talk when we get back to that hotel room.”

Jack smiles. “Later, then.”

“I’m not gonna forget! Mark my words!”

Jack turns and kisses the crown of his head. “I didn’t think you would.”