Chapter 1: Chapter One
Jack resents the notion of nepotism.
He’s worked hard for his whole life to get to where he is. He doesn’t play the the same kind of game his dad did, would actually rather avoid beating the shit out of people whenever possible.
Just because he wants Bittle to apply for a media job with the Falcs doesn’t mean he’s trying to leverage Bittle into a position he doesn’t deserve. Jack wouldn’t mention it if he didn’t think Bittle deserved it. Jack’s never been that way.
Which is what they’re fighting about, Jack thinks, but he doesn’t understand how him leaving his empty coffee cups in his car means that the week-long non-argument they’ve been having turned into this.
They only moved Bittle into the apartment three weeks ago. Shitty said the honeymoon wouldn’t last forever, but Jack thought--He doesn’t know what he thought. He doesn’t get why this is something they’re even talking about. It’s not like Jack’s personally responsible for hiring Bittle. He just thinks he should apply.
Bittle is lacing up his sneakers by the door, and Jack says, “I don’t understand why you--”
“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t,” Bittle says without looking up at him. He whistles, and Marguerite comes running to the foyer. Her tail is wagging, her whole body moving with excitement at the idea of going outside. Normally, Bittle talks to her like she’s a little person, asking if she’s got her shoes on before they leave. He just grabs her leash, stuffs a handful of doggy bags into the pocket of his shorts before grabbing his keys. He stands and hits the side of his hip. She yips, then follows him out the door, down the hall to the stairs. Jack slams the apartment door.
He stews in his frustration for a good ten minutes before he starts to panic. He finds his phone, plugged in by their bed, sends Bittle a please come back. When he doesn’t get a response, he sends i want to understand. please.
He doesn’t get a response to that either, sits on the edge of their bed and bounces his knees until he can’t anymore. He goes into the kitchen. They were going to make lunch, pack a dinner to go down to Waterfire. He’s pacing when he spots Bittle’s phone on the counter, and Jack’s throat feels tight. He’s never seen Bittle go anywhere without his phone.
The thing is, Jack really does think Bittle would be good at it. He had ended up finishing his degree with a double major, stressed like crazy in his last three semesters to turn his Communications minor into a joint major with his previously declared American Studies focus. He wrote a brilliant thesis combining social media analysis and American foodie culture that Jack read approximately one thousand times. Jack knows that Bittle knows about sports culture, knows that he has a legitimate and comprehensive grasp on social media markets. They could work together, Bittle could travel with the Falcs. They wouldn’t be allowed to room together, but, still. It would be amazing, Jack thinks, having Bittle make his own little home in the franchise.
When they first talk about Bittle moving to Providence after graduation, it’s awkward and uncomfortable and it scares Jack more than not. The first conversation they have about it is over Skype, Bittle at Samwell and Jack in Colorado. Jack knows Bittle’s parents are going to Samwell, of course, and he’s had the date saved in his phone since September. But he’s not sure about anything else.
“If we’re in the playoffs, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to the ceremony. Obviously if it’s an off day, I’ll be there. But you could come meet me, after, if I’m not able to come there.”
Bittle is looking at something past his laptop camera. “My parents probably want me to go home. They’ll want to get the extendeds together. It’s always a big deal, when one of the kids graduates.”
“Oh,” Jack says. “Well, yeah, okay.”
“I’d invite you to come, but you’ll be playing, and it’s honestly not that fun.”
And I don’t want you to be in the same room as my dad, Bittle doesn’t say, which Jack hears anyway.
“No, yeah, of course.”
“But after--” Bittle starts, blushes. “I don’t really have any plans, for, uh. For after. I mean, I’ll have to pay my student loan off somehow, but. I mean. I could. I could reasonably do that anywhere.”
Jack wants to say, “You could let me pay it,” but they’ve had that argument before, and Jack doesn’t want to fight over Skype. He’s going to pay it through Suzanne when Bittle graduates anyway, probably. Suzanne likes him, sends him text messages after every game; she’d be on board to erase her only son’s student debt.
Instead, with his heart pounding, he says, “I’m serious about you,” even though he’s never given Bittle a reason to believe otherwise. “I want--” Jack says, his fingernails cutting crescents into his palms. “You could come here for that, right?”
Bittle blinks at him through the computer screen. “And…” he says, blushing a bit. “And live...live with you?”
Jack lifts his shoulders, like this isn’t one of the scarier things he’s done in his life. “I mean. Yeah. Where else would you live?”
The first time Bittle tells Jack he loves him, it’s when Jack calls him after losing in Pittsburgh.
Playing against them is always rougher than it ought to be, playing against teams that his dad’s name is associated with always makes Jack’s blood itch under his skin. He’d been thrown in the box on a tripping penalty that was well deserved, even if Jack hadn’t meant to do it.
He’d left them short handed and it took all of a minute and a half for Crosby to score not once, but twice. The last thirty seconds of his time in the box had Jack’s knee bouncing, his gloved hands tight on his stick. When the penalty time ran out, he couldn’t get control of the play, and then when Bennett scored, the Falcs morale basically bottomed out part way through the third period.
When Bittle answers on the second ring, Jack doesn’t say anything after a whispered, “Hi.”
“Hey,” Bittle says, soft. “Sorry,” he says.
Jack whispers, “Yeah,” but it barely makes it out of his mouth. He doesn’t know how to explain; he’s looking up at the ceiling of his non-descript hotel room and all he can imagine is how the 20,000 people that fit into the Consol hate him, how they love his dad and how they think he’s a fucking asshole comparatively. His dad brought Pittsburgh a cup, and it was a long time ago, but hockey fans don’t forget.
He wants to tuck his nose into Bittle’s neck, wants to feel Bittle’s hand in his hair, wants to press their skin together and just breathe the same air as him.
Minutes pass, and Jack’s chest still feels tight, but he feels less antsy, less like his insides are trying to shake their way out of his skin. He still misses Bittle more than he ever thought he would, misses his dimples and the smell of his shampoo and how he drools in his sleep. Bittle doesn’t say anything, and Jack can’t hear him doing anything on the other end of the phone, can just barely hear his quiet breathing.
“Jack,” he whispers, and it’s not a question; he knows Jack’s still there. After a minute, he says, less raspy. “I love you.”
Jack closes his eyes, squeezes them tight. He exhales. Inhales again. “I know,” he says, throat tight, and the words feel like they’re stuck in the back of his throat. “I love you too,” Jack says, and knows that if he opens his eyes, they’ll well up with tears. “I just--I fucking miss you,” he says. “And I fucking hate playing here.”
“I know,” Bittle says. Jack rolls onto his side, his phone caught between his pillow and his ear. “You gonna be okay?”
“Gotta be,” Jack says, and Bittle’s breathing doesn’t change, but Jack knows he’s tense about it anyway. “It’s late. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay? Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Bittle says. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Okay,” Jack says, feeling a small smile tug at his lips.
“I meant it,” Bittle says.
“Me too,” Jack says. “Don’t stay up too late.”
Jack drives his car full of stuff from Samwell while Bittle takes Jack’s truck, drives it from Providence to Georgia and back, packs up the stuff he needs and moves out of his parents’ house for real. Jack had insured both cars under both their names last week, had Bittle’s name added to the lease on the condo.
Bittle’s mom comes up the next day, stays for four days. Jack doesn’t know much about her marriage to Bittle’s dad, but he knows that Suzanne loves Bittle with her whole heart, genuinely doesn’t care about his relationship with Jack outside of the context of Bittle’s happiness. Jack’s parents fly in on the Saturday, and they eat dinner up on the roof of the building, and Jack is nervous about it in an easy way.
The Falcs fell out of the playoffs in the second round, but it was an easier loss than last season, and Jack has enough going on in his life now that he’s managed to make sure hockey isn’t everything, tries to balance his sense of worth across different things. They had a great season, he’d formed stronger friendships with people on the team other than Sharpy.
The anxiety he feels about his parents and Bittle’s mom sitting on patio chairs, eating dinner with their plates in their laps, laughing over too many bottles of wine--it’s less like shaky limbs and more like butterflies in his stomach. They all know that Bittle and him share a bed, that they do their laundry together. They all know something intrinsic to Jack’s daily experience, to Jack’s happiness, and they’re not going to expose him, they’re not going to do anything, really, other than love him and be happy for him and try to help him in his slow and slightly embarrassing attempt to merge their families.
And Jack’s not embarrassed to love Bittle, but he sometimes feels like Bittle doesn’t understand how massive a thing it is to Jack. That Bittle takes up as much space in Jack’s chest as hockey does, that he wants their clothes to smell like the same laundry detergent for their entire lives, that sometimes Jack wakes up and can’t breathe because he’s so fucking lucky, and he doesn’t want any of that to change. Jack’s heart feels like it’s beating out of his chest on a regular basis, the enormity of his affection for Bittle blindsiding him. He’s so used to his own mental version of crisis management that it’s hard to deal with how happy he feels, how full and loved and whole he feels. It’s embarrassing only because he thinks it’s really, really obvious that he loves Bittle more than anything else, and he doesn’t question Bittle’s returned affection. But Jack stutters around it--feels flushed and too warm with it--whereas Bittle is good at knocking his shoulder into Jack when they’re in the grocery store, teases Jack and kisses Jack like the weight of it isn’t all-encompassing, and Jack doesn’t think it’ll ever be that way for him.
Bittle’s it for Jack, is the point, and so when Bittle leaves without his phone, takes the dog and doesn’t say anything, Jack panics.
When Bittle comes back an hour later, Jack loosens his grip on the kitchen counter, says, “Bittle?” Marguerite comes into the kitchen, laps at her water bowl. Jack is about to repeat himself when Bittle comes into the room, leans against the entryway. “You left your phone,” Jack says, because he doesn’t know what else to say, doesn’t want to make it worse.
“I know,” Bittle says. He meets Jack’s eyes, crosses his arms over his chest. He doesn’t look as angry now, but he doesn’t look happy either.
“I--” Jack says. He rubs his hands over his face before tugging at his hair. “I didn’t know if you’d come back.” Bittle’s hands fall to his side, and the colour drains from his face.
“Jack,” he says, pushing himself off the archway and into the kitchen towards Jack. He pulls Jack’s hands out of his hair softly, pushes himself into Jack’s space. “Jack, I’ll always come back.”
Jack nods, closes his eyes. “I’m sorry,” Jack says. “I didn’t mean--I’m sorry that you have to explain it to me. I hate that I can’t be--”
“Stop,” Bittle says. “Come on. Look, okay.” He sighs, and Jack thinks he’s going to step away from him, (put space between them, leave space between them, let the space get bigger and bigger until none of Bittle’s things are left in Jack’s apartment and he lives in a different state) but he doesn’t. “ It’s not--It’s nice that you want me to do it, okay? That you think I can. I know you’re not trying, to, like, undermine me or anything. I just--I need something that’s mine, y’know? You already pay for pretty much everything. You won’t let me pay any part of the rent, you bought both our cars, it’s a fucking fight when we go grocery shopping. I just. I need to do something that’s just mine.”
“Oh,” Jack says dumbly, mumbling into the top of Bittle’s head. That’s something Jack gets, actually. Jack spent all his time in Rimouski trying to convince the media that he wasn’t simply the second coming of Bad Bob Zimmermann. Jack only pays for stuff because it makes sense, he’s a millionaire, he’s never thought about money in a stressful sense a day in his life, and if that’s one thing that he can give Bittle out of the hundreds of things that Bittle does for him--it costs Jack nothing, really, not in any way that matters.
“I understand,” Jack says, and Bittle runs his fingers along Jack’s spine. Jack relaxes into him, lets Bittle keep them pressed into the counter. “I’m sorry,” Jack says.
“Me too,” Bittle says. “I still want you to stop leaving your half finished coffees in the car, though. God damn.” Bittle’s voice is light, though, fraught with laughter even as he talks into Jack’s chest.
“I love you,” Jack whispers, leaning back to kiss Bittle’s forehead.
Bittle stands up on his tiptoes, kisses Jack’s eyelids, his nose. When Jack finally ducks a bit, presses their lips together, Bittle hums into Jack’s mouth. “Love you too,” he says, before kissing Jack. It’s slow, but kind of dirty, and Bittle takes Jack’s bottom lip between his teeth, bites just this side of too-hard before chasing the sting with his tongue.
Jack moves his hands from Bittle’s ribs down to his hips, around his back until he can get them on Bittle’s ass, until he can hoist him up. Bittle wraps his legs around Jack’s waist. Jack groans into Bittle’s mouth, walks blindly towards their bedroom. It takes longer than it should, but Jack is sufficiently distracted by Bittle sucking a bruise behind Jack’s ear. They make it, though, and when Jack’s knees hit their mattress, he leans forward, gets Bittle laying back across the bed. He crawls over him, and Bittle pulls at the bottom of Jack’s shirt.
Jack leans back to pull his shirt over his head, and Bittle sits up too. Jack turns to toss his shirt towards the hamper, and when he turns back, Bittle is shirtless and reaching for Jack’s ribs. When Jack leans down to kiss him again, it’s less desperate, soft and open-mouthed, and Jack thinks he could die kissing Bittle like this. Bittle gets his hands in Jack’s hair, runs his fingers along Jack’s scalp, around the shell of his ears, at the soft skin at the back of his neck. Jack loves him, wants to keep their skin pressed together until time stops.
Bittle twists his hips gently, then pushes at Jack’s shoulder, and Jack rolls onto his back. Bittle straddles his hips, his hands on Jack’s shoulders. He leans down and kisses Jack, just the corners of their lips pressed together, and Jack sighs into it, runs his hands up Bittle’s sides. He presses his fingers to Bittle’s ribs, wraps them to run his hands along Bittle’s back, along his spine and back up and around. Bittle kisses Jack’s forehead, and Jack’s eyes fall closed. Bittle kisses his eyelids, and down the bridge of Jack’s nose.
Bittle moves down Jack’s body, kisses at Jack’s jaw, Jack’s neck, Jack’s clavicle. Jack spread his legs, and Bittle settles between them. He kisses down Jack’s chest, runs his tongue along Jack’s right nipple, then the left. Jack gasps, his hands falling to Bittle’s shoulders.
Bittle traces Jack’s skin with his mouth slowly, kisses his way down Jack’s abs. Jack lifts his hips and Bittle gets his shorts and underwear down in a single motion, mouths where Jack’s hip and thigh meet as Jack kicks his bottoms off his feet. Bittle’s hands move softly from Jack’s hip down towards his knee and back, and Jack is shaking by the time Bittle kisses the inside of Jack’s thigh.
“Take a deep breath,” Bittle says, his voice soft and breathy, and Jack nods, his eyes tightly shut.
Jack takes a deep breath, opens his eyes to look down at Bittle. Bittle holds his gaze while Jack exhales slowly, inhales again.
His breath catches when Bittle’s licks up the shaft of his cock. One of his hands lands in Bittle’s hair, not pulling or pushing, just gently resting, and Bittle wraps his lips around the head. He takes his time, and Jack tries to keep his breathing as even as possible, but Bittle’s really good at this, has graduated from sloppy and enthusiastic to skilled and careful and a fucking menace, and Jack--
“I’m going to come if you don’t stop,” he says, quick and all in a single breath. Bittle pulls off him, rubs his hands along Jack’s thighs again. When Jack looks down at him, his hair is a mess, his lips dark.
“Take your pants off,” Jack says, and Bittle laughs, even if his voice is coarse, and clears his throat.
The pre-season starts well. Jack’s put on more weight and more muscle mass than he’s ever managed before.
The Falconers win their home opener in a sold-out Brown stadium. Jack gets a comfortable three points, scores of Tribby’s rebound, and then assists on Sharpy’s goal when he’s fresh out of the penalty box. It’s a fun game.
Bittle sits in the box with the other players’ families. Bittle and Sharpy’s wife get along better than Jack would have expected. They’d met when Bittle was in his senior year, and they’ve been trading recipes and talking about The Good Wife ever since.
Jack does a few minutes of media, answers questions about the new guys on the roster, how he’s feeling about the start of the season. A beat reporter makes a quips about Jack’s penalty minutes, and Jack sees Sharpy smile. When Jack’s finished, he crosses to Sharpy’s stall and says, “What’re you so happy about?”
“Nothing, Cracker Jack,” Sharpy says. “Just thinkin’ about how you’ve been spending more time in the box than in the closet.”
Jack tries to punch Sharpy in the arm, but he gets his arm around Jack’s shoulders, messes up Jack’s hair. “Ugh, fuck off old man,” Jack says, but he can’t hold any weight to it, is laughing through it even as Sharpy tries to press Jack’s face into his sweaty pads.
Jack finds Bittle leaning up against their car. He’s doing something on his phone, but he looks up at Jack crossing the parkade, and smiles. “Lardo says ‘good game’,” Bittle says. Bittle opens the driver’s side door, and Jack throws his stuff in the back seat before opening his own door, buckling himself in.
“Only Lardo?” Jack asks. Bittle shoulder checks and pulls out of their reserved spot, and when he turns his neck back around, he’s smiling.
“I also say ‘good game,’” he laughs. Jack smiles, reaches across the space between them to rest his hand at Bittle’s nape.
“Thank you,” Jack says.
“Three points. That’s a pretty good start.”
Jack’s alarm goes off at quarter to nine, but he leaves it beeping for a moment, presses his nose into Bittle’s shoulder. He wants to stay for just a few more minutes.
“Just turn it off,” Bittle groans, he turns over and shuffles in closer to Jack. Which Jack hadn’t really thought was possible. But, Jack figures, impossible things happen all the time. “I know you don’t have practice,” Bittle says, his voice still soft with sleep.
“Routine,” Jack says, the words half caught in his throat, voice raspy. Jack turns off the alarm.
Bittle huffs, but he lets Jack run his hands up and down Bittle’s back, and he presses his mouth into Jack’s throat, not quite a kiss. Jack lets his eyes fall closed again, and Bittle sighs into Jack’s skin.
They have a stretch of home games that mark the start of their regular season. They win against Montreal, win against Carolina. They lose to Toronto in a shootout. They fly to Ottawa, beat the Sens, and fly home. Bittle sends snapchats of him and the dog, sends snapchats of him at the Sharp’s house, with Maddy and Sadie and Abby. Shooter is pretty calm in his age, whereas Marguerite is still as excitable as Jack remembers her being when he brought her home. But Shooter takes her company with grace, and when Sharpy tweets the photos of the dogs that Bittle sends them both, they go viral.
Buzzfeed wrote an article about your dogs Webs writes in the Falcs group chat.
fuck yea they did Sharpy responds.
Shitty drives up from Cambridge and drags Jack and Bittle to the new Star Trek film.
He makes Jack pay for all the popcorn, and Jack rolls his eyes over it, because he would’ve done it anyway. After the first few minutes of the movie, Jack leans to whisper into Bittle’s ear.
“Why’re his eyebrows like that?”
Bittle snaps his head around to look at Jack. “You gotta be kidding me,” he says, and Jack shakes his head softly, shrugs. Bittle is quiet for a moment before he whispers, “Have you never seen these before? There’re, like, three of them.”
Jack shrugs again, and Bittle smiles, shakes his head. It’s dark in the theatre, and Jack lets his knee press into Bittle’s, lets his hand fall from their shared armrest to take hold of Bittle’s. The movie is meant to be exciting. No one’s paying attention to them.
Tribby skates up to Jack during warm up. “Hey,” he says. “Would you be free to practice handoffs with me after?” Jack knows Triber has been feeling nervous about being moved to Jack’s line. He deserves it, though. He’s small, but he’s fast and he might be a better playmaker than Jack is himself. Jack likes him.
“Sure,” Jack says.
They set up cones around the ice, practice passing back and forth as fast as they can. Jack makes Triber do more spins than he normally would, because it’s fun, and Triber has better feet than he thinks he does.
“I’m dizzy,” Tribby says. “Your boyfriend’s a bad influence on you.”
Jack smiles, because it’s the opposite of true, and they both know it.
He shrugs, and Tribby rolls his eyes.
“Hey Zimmy,” he says, quieter than Jack’s ever heard him. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
It’s part of being captain, Jack understands. It’s a big part of why he wanted to come out the guys before Bittle had graduated; it’s easier for him to try to help his team, to be approachable and relatable if they know something about him.
“Yeah,” Jack says. “Yeah, Caleb, of course.”
Tribby shuffles on his skates a bit. “How’d you know you wanted to live with Eric?”
“Oh,” Jack says.”Um, I mean, I lived with him when we were at Samwell together.”
“But you weren’t, uh.” He waves his gloved hand in front of his face vaguely. “Before. Right?”
“We weren’t together, no.” Triber still looks at odds, so Jack sighs. “It’s like,” he pauses, because he wants to get the words right. “I liked him a lot when I was there, but I didn’t realize how much until I wasn’t around him anymore. I spent a long time thinking there was something wrong with me, that if I worked at it hard enough, I wouldn’t miss him anymore. Once we got over our shit, I knew that I didn’t really want to be away from him ever.”
Sometimes, when Jack’s skin is clammy, when Bittle is inside him, when Jack’s skin feels like it’s shaking from his bones, he still misses Bittle. Jack thinks they could be fused together and they still wouldn’t be close enough. “I think,” Jack says, smiling, “that when something is right, and when it matters, decisions like that are easy. They don’t even feel like decisions.”
To Jack’s surprise, Triber smiles. “I think,” he starts, and he sounds a bit embarrassed. “I think I already decided what I want, I think I just wanted you to confirm it out loud.”
Jack laughs. “Look, it’s not always easy. It’s great a lot of the time, but sometimes you’re screaming about, like, dirty socks on the floor and you can’t understand why.”
“Thanks, Zimmy,” Triber says. “Wanna skate some suicides before we pack it in?”
“Jesus,” Jack says, laughing. “You’re ruthless.”
“You afraid I’m faster than your fat ass?”
“I know you’re faster,” Jack laughs.
Bittle is skyping with his mom when Jack walks in the door. He tosses his keys on the counter and grabs a banana from the counter before perching his chin over the back of the couch behind Bittle. He leans down to say, “Hi Suzanne,” before pecking Bittle on the cheek.
Bittle blushes, and Jack smiles, and Suzanne just says, “Hi honey, how’re you doing?”
“Good,” Jack says. He takes a bite of his banana, swallows. “How’ve you been? Eric made that steak-stir fry recipe you sent last week. It was amazing.”
“I’ve been doin’ real well,” she says. “I’m glad y’liked it.”
Bittle goes back to talking about whatever they were talking about when Jack interrupted, and Jack zones out a bit while listening to them. Bittle’s accent is always a bit thicker when he talks to his parents. Jack’s not sure if it’s on purpose, or if it’s just instinct. He wonders if Bittle even knows that he does it.
“I love you too, mama,” Bittle says.
“Bye Dicky. It was good to see you, Jack. For the given value of ‘see.’”
Jack snaps back into the conversation, smiles at her through the computer screen. “Likewise.”
“Bye,” Bittle says, and he waves, then waits for the call to end on his mom’s end before shutting his laptop. He leans back on the couch, tilts his head back so that he’s looking up at Jack, nearly upside down. Jack leans in to kiss him, his nose pressing into Bittle’s chin. “How was practice?” he asks, mumbling against Jack’s mouth.
“Hmm,” Jack hums against Bittle’s lips. “It was,” he says between kisses, “pretty good.” He nips at Bittle’s lip with his teeth. “Ran drills with Triber after. Talked.”
Bittle pulls back, straightens his neck before turning around to face Jack properly, knees pressed into the back of the couch. “Good talk?” Bittle asks as he runs his fingers softly along the side of Jack’s cheek, around the shell of his ears, down to cup at the sides of his neck.
Jack lets his own hands call over the couch, traces Bittle’s shoulder blades mindlessly. “Yeah,” he says, nods, runs his nose along Bittle’s. “I think he wants to ask Webs to live with him.”
“Does anyone other than you know?”
Jack lifts his shoulders. “Not sure,” he says. “They must, right?”
“I mean if they haven’t said anything,” Bittle says, and he trails off. Jack kisses the corner of his mouth softly.
“Lay back,” Jack says, and Bittle moves back and Jack throws his body weight over the back of the couch, falls onto Bittle.
Bittle’s breath falls out of him in a huff, but he starts laughing, his chest shaking against Jack’s, his face pressed into Jack’s neck. “Goodness,” he says, half-choked with laughter.
“I think they’re happy,” Jack says when Bittle’s laughter slows. “Makes it seem obvious to me.”
“But you didn’t know before they told you,” Bittle says. “Do you think the rest of the guys’ll assume?” He pulls his arms out from under where Jack had trapped them between their bodies, splays them across the middle of Jack’s back.
“Maybe,” Jack says, then pauses. “Probably not, actually. They’ll just think it’s, you know, buddies.”
“Buddies,” Bittle says, then he’s laughing again. “Oooh, Zach, I love you so much, I love sucking your dick so much, I’m so glad we’re buddies.” Bittle’s Canadian accent needs work, but Jack laughs anyway.
“Ooh, Caleb, stick it in my ass like buddies do.” To be fair, Jack’s American accent isn’t much better.
Bittle laughs, then kisses Jack’s neck softly, close lipped and sweet. “I’m glad we never did that,” he says.
Jack wedges his arm between Bittle’s side and the back of the couch, props himself up to look Bittle in the eye. “Me too,” he says, and smiles down at Bittle. “I’m glad I get to love you properly,” he says, which would be embarrassing if it weren’t so honest.
Bittle leans up to kiss Jack, his lips still closed but pressing against Jack with force anyway. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing you say that,” he says when he pulls away. Bittle has always been quick to blush, but Jack can’t get enough of how his cheek’s still colour when Jack whispers the words into his skin. “I love you,” Bittle says. “So fucking much, it’s stupid.”
“If you’re stupid then I’m a lost cause,” Jack says.
“I feel like my heart’s going to explode,” Bittle says, and it comes out breathy, like he can’t believe it, and he laughs a bit. “Isn’t that crazy?”
“I missed you today,” Jack says. “If you’re crazy, it’s a good thing I’m certified nutso.”
Bittle rearranges them on the couch so that they’re curled into each other on their sides. “Still love the pants offa you,” Bittle says once they’re settled again.
Jack wiggles his hips against Bittle jokingly, not really wanting to start anything--not wanting to do anything other than catalogue Bittle’s freckles from so close that he goes cross-eyed trying to count them.
There’s not really room on the couch for the two of them, but Jack feels settled and calm in a way that’s hard for him to reach, hard for him to hold onto. He doesn’t want to shatter it by suggesting they move their non-nap to their bed.
Marguerite walks up to the couch and yips once, then jumps up onto where their feet are tangled, squishes her way into the space between their legs and the side of the couch. “She’s pushy,” Bittle says, like it’s surprising, like he hasn’t been living with her for months.
“Wonder where she got that from,” Jack says. Bittle pinches his side, and Jack licks a line up the side of Bittle cheek.
“You’re disgusting,” Bittle says, laughing. “Maybe you take after her, actually.”
“Whatever,” Jack says, his fingers dragging gently at Bittle’s hip. “You love me.”
They do a stint in New York, where they lose to Jersey in an embarrassing 5-1, and then lose to the Rangers two days later. That’s less horrible, they lose 4-2, but Jack scores, and he knows he can’t do everything, knows he’s just one of a whole roster of guys out there on their team’s behalf.
Dan claps him on the back when they head down the tunnel. He doesn’t say anything, and Jack’s grateful. Dan’s a damn good coach, would be no matter what Jack thought of him, but that doesn’t negate that Jack’s undeniably fond of him, looks up to him more than he has to anyone in years. He’s a good guy, puts Jack in his place when necessary, knows when Jack does and doesn’t want to hear a spiel.
The next night, Jack gets knocked into the boards when they’re playing the Islanders; he doesn’t see who does it, and he doesn’t see anything but stars for a few seconds too long afterwards. He blinks down at the ice, and he knows he should get up, should push with his hands so that he can stand on his skates, try to get back into the play. But he blinks and blinks and there are spots of red and spots of black swimming in his vision, and he tries to will his mind to move his body, but it doesn’t work.
Distantly, he hears the linesman blow a whistle. He thinks he can hear Dartmen talking to him, and, yeah, there are skates, white socks, in the corner of his vision. He turns his head to the side, and Dartmen says, “Hey, Jazzy, you okay?” It sounds foggy to Jack, like he’s talking through speaker phone, and Jack means to shake his head, no, but when he tries, everything blurs again.
There’s a trainer kneeling beside him, his name is Pete. Jack likes him. He’s got a daughter who wants to be a firefighter, who held Jack’s hand at family skate. He touches Jack’s arm, and says, “Jack, we gotta get you up on your feet, okay? You want a stretcher?”
Jack shakes his head, no, and his stomach lurches. “Shit,” he says.
“Eric’s on his way. We gotta take you to get a CT done, okay?”
sorry this took about 1 million years to update. i know this chapter is pretty short, but it's honestly more a segue than anything. updates should be more regular moving forward.
(you should all listen to 'life crisis' by river whyless, because that's what i listened to while i was writing this, and i think it fits nicely.)
cw for head injury and related issues.
Jack’s not sure if things are happening very quickly or very slowly.
He knows they get him off the ice without a stretcher, but he’s not sure how long it takes. He’s not sure how, but he manages not to vomit until Pete gets him into the tunnel. He manages to say, “Wait, I--” before bending in half and throwing up on his skates.
There’s a first time for everything, Jack knows.
There are doctors, and trainer Pete, and it doesn’t take long before George comes into whatever room they’re in, slipping her phone into her pocket. Someone shines a light into Jack’s eyes. They ask him questions about his birthday, about what day it is. Jack can feel George’s hands on his knees before she bends to look him in the eye, before he hears her voice. She’s talking to him. He blinks and says, “Sorry, what?”
“Eric’s on his way. We gotta take you to get a CT done, okay?”
“Okay,” Jack says. He knows what the words mean individually, but he can’t string her words together in any way that makes sense.
Eric. CT. Okay?
There’s a nurse at the hospital that reminds him of his mom. She has soft hands and she pats his knee when she’s done trying to talk to him.
Then there’s a doctor. She says a bunch of stuff to Pete, and Pete says a bunch of stuff back. Jack just tries to focus his vision without wanting to vomit again. His eyelids feel like sandpaper. Pete grabs his elbow and helps him down from the hospital bed they must have helped him into. They make him sit in a wheelchair. His head feels heavy.
They go into an elevator, and when Pete says, “Jack, you okay?” Jack tries to concentrate on anything other than the pounding in his head.
“Hurts,” he says.
Pete and the doctor wheel Jack down the hall. The doctor enters a keycode. Jack tries to watch but he can’t remember the numbers or the order they should be in.
Jack feels his heart rate pick up. They wouldn’t be doing a CT scan unless it was bad. Unless they weren’t sure. Jack knows this. Knows that the only good thing in his favour is that they didn’t go directly to a MRI.
His panic picks up during the scan, and he does his best to concentrate on his breathing. Everything else hurts. It hurts to be so scared. The machine is loud and he hates it.
They help him back into the wheelchair and take him back down the elevator. A nurse helps him into the bed. He’s really tired. Pete says, “Just try to sit tight for a minute,” as if Jack has any other options. He realizes that he doesn’t have any of his stuff.
Jack throws up again, and Pete gives him a glass of water. He takes a slow sip, and then the door to the room opens quietly and Bittle’s head pops around the corner. Jack swallows the water in his mouth, and when he puts the styrofoam cup down, his hand is shaking.
“Hey honey,” Bittle says, and Jack’s vision blurs again. He wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand, and Bittle comes to sit by his hip on the bed. He’s in sweatpants and a Samwell hoodie. He must’ve been in bed when Jack was hit. “Why’re you crying? Jack, honey, hey--”
Jack tries to shake his head, but it hurts, and he abandons the movement halfway through, reaches for Bittle because he doesn’t know what else to do. He hadn’t notice Pete leave, but he’s gone. Jack can’t see him. “It fucking hurts,” Jack says. It comes out soft, catches in his throat. Bittle leans forward and into Jack, and Jack’s grateful. He’s grateful that Bittle is kind of a crazy driver, made the three hour trip much faster than he rightfully should have. Jack’s not sure how long it’s been.
Bittle runs his hand up Jack arm, wipes his fingers under Jack’s eyes. His touch is the most gentle thing Jack’s ever felt. Like Jack would pull away from it if it weren’t. Jack’s whole head hurts, but it’s not as if Jack isn’t used to being tortured by his brain.
An important part of concussion recovery, the doctor tells him, is cognitive rest.
“Try not to think about anything too much,” the doctor says. She smiles and then writes something in what Jack assumes is his chart.
“He has a history of mental illness,” Bittle says, as if it’s not something that haunts Jack’s life still.
The doctor hums. “It’s important that he’s not put in an environment where paying attention is critical. He’ll need to be on physical rest for at least three days, but it could be much longer.”
Jack looks from the smudge on the door to the doctor and then to Bittle. Bittle looks upset, but Jack can’t track it. The doctor sighs, and she says, “The brain is still something we don’t understand very well. I know it’s frustrating, but it’s delicate. He doesn’t have much of a history of head injury for an athlete his age, so hopefully his recovery with be smooth and swift, but no one can say for sure.”
Jack zones out again, and Bittle and Pete talk about transferring the information to Jack’s doctor in Providence. Pete mentions the team’s med staff, and then something about referrals. Jack concentrates on the movement of Bittle’s thumb over Jack’s knuckles, tries to keep his neck as straight as he can.
Bittle touches him and it feels easier. It’s always been like that: whether it’s been because of faulty brain chemistry or because of swollen brain tissue, having Bittle there makes it seem manageable, like it’ll pass.
It doesn’t pass.
Jack spends five days in bed. Jack keeps vomiting. He doesn’t want to eat. Bittle sits with him in bed, makes him eat broth, makes him drink water. He showers with Jack, washes his hair for him slowly.
He fills the bath and sits on its edge while Jack floats until the water turns cold. He rinses shampoo from Jack’s hair, keeps it out of his eyes. Jack clutches at him because he doesn’t know what else to do. They keep all the lights off.
Jack’s skin starts itching. Bittle drives them to some doctor’s office. They tell Jack that he needs to keep resting.
On day eight, Jack is vomit-free. He get back to eating real meals, bland as they are. Pasta and chicken. It’s not like he hasn’t lived off it before. Bittle curls around Jack’s back, and all Jack can think is that he doesn’t deserve it.
Bittle is kind, touches Jack reverently. He does everything for Jack; all Jack is good at is playing hockey, and he’s not even doing that. Jack loves Bittle, loves him more than he thought possible, but Jack’s not sure what he has to give him.
Jack’s been battling with his own brain for long enough to know a spiral when he’s in one, but that doesn’t mean he can stop it.
By the tenth day of bed rest, Jack has given himself a rash on the inside of his elbow from scratching at the too soft skin. He’s antsy. He wants to jerk off, for Bittle to jerk him off, but Bittle keeps frowning, his brows knit together. “Doctor said no sexual activity,” he says. He runs his fingers through the hair at Jack’s temple.
Jack groans, and it hurts his head. He lays on his side and stares at the blinds. It’s stuffy, and if he thought he hated this apartment his first year living here, it’s nothing compared to how he hates it now.
Jack presses his face into the soft centre of Bittle’s stomach when he joins him in bed. Bittle carts his fingers through Jack’s hair, and Jack exhales into Bittle’s t-shirt. It feels humid, his breath caught between Bittle’s clothing and Jack’s skin. Jack pushes his nose into Bittle harder, and Bittle tugs lightly at Jack’s hair in response.
“What’re you thinking about?” Bittle asks.
Jack’s thinking about how he has nothing to give Bittle other than a bank account with lots of zeros and cold feet with poor circulation. Jack is thinking about what would happen if he never recovered from this concussion. Jack is thinking that he doesn’t want to coach a team, doesn’t want to manage. He’s thinking that he would rather Bittle leave him now than leave him later once he figured out that Jack was good for nothing. Easier that way, Jack thinks. Like a bandaid.
“Bandaids,” Jack says, because there are some things he knows not to say out loud.
Bittle runs his fingers softly along the shell of Jack’s ear before he softly sings, “I’m stuck on bandaid brand ‘cause bandaid’s stuck on me.”
Jack moves his hand from where it was stiff and motionless at his side and flattens his palms against the outsides of Bittle’s thighs. “You’re the bandaid.”
“I don’t know,” Bittle says. “You’re clingier than you think.” Jack thinks they’re having two different conversations, are on two entirely different pages until Bittle continues, “But I am stuck, or--I’m sticking. I don’t want to go, and I don’t want you to make me.”
Jack sighs, because he hadn’t known that he needed to hear it until Bittle said it out loud. “Even if I’m good for nothing and have to retire because of a concussion?”
“Even if,” Bittle says. Jack finally lifts his head from Bittle’s stomach, shifts and then rearranges them both so that they can curl into each other, heads on pillows and feet tangled.
“You’re going to get better,” Bittle says. “I know it feels like it’s been a long time, but I promise it’ll be over before you know it. One day you won’t even remember what it felt like.”
When Jack wakes up in the morning, he feels the same way he’s felt for days. He stays curled on his side until Bittle blinks awake.
Bittle kisses Jack’s hair before slipping out of bed, but he comes back a few minutes later with a glass of water and a glass of orange juice. Jack takes the water and sips it, and then Bittle climbs back under the covers.
“I know you’re feeling frustrated,” Bittle says, his voice still scratchy with sleep. “But I know that it helps when you can focus on something. The doctor said no mental exertion, but I have an idea, if you want to hear it?”
Jack says, “Shoot,” and it comes out nearly like a whisper, heavy with sleep and dark with the mood he’s been in for days.
“I’ve been thinking about how you said you feel better after I’ve washed you hair.”
Jack turns to look at the side of Bittle’s face. He’s scrolling through his phone, and Jack becomes aware of how unembarrassed Bittle is saying it. They’ve changed so much since they’ve known each other, since Jack desperately told Bittle that he wanted a life. But it’s clear to Jack that they’ve grown together, into each other. Together they’ve started to plant these small but precious roots around their shared life. And it doesn’t surprise Jack, really, because Bittle is all roots. He’s homey and warm and gentle. He’s the safest thing Jack’s ever been able to come home to. Jack knows what the means, knows how much it matters, how safe he needs to keep it.
“And?” Jack asks.
Bittle puts his phone down at that, reaches to slide it gently onto the bedside table, and puts his glass of orange juice there too. “And I guess, I don’t know, I kind of just miss you. I know you’re dealing with this the best way you know how. But I want to be there with you,” he says. Jack drains his own glass and puts it on his own bedside table, and then reaches for Bittle’s hand.
He places Bittle’s fingers gently over his own sternum and says, “I’m right here.”
Bittle’s fingers curl against Jack’s chest, and he sounds choked when he says, “Honey, I know.”
He moves slowly, is sure to be careful when he settles his legs on either side of Jack’s hips to straddle him. He places both of his hands on Jack’s cheeks, rubs at Jack’s cheekbones with his thumbs softly before leaning in to kiss Jack gently. He pulls back quickly but not unkindly and says, “I know. And I’m here too.”
Jack nods, and it makes their noses bump against each other. His eyes fall closed, and he concentrates on the closeness he feels with Bittle when Bittle presses their foreheads together. “I was thinking,” he starts. “I know the doctor said no sex, but I kind of just. I miss you, I want to feel like we’re in the same place for a while. And you seem calmer if I can run my fingers through your hair or if we’re just touching. I was thinking I could do that.” He’s rambling, and Jack smiles even though he can’t see Bittle with his eyes still closed. He leans his chin forward to press his mouth to Bittle’s skin. Bittle says, “I just want to never stop touching you.”
Jack understands, doesn’t think he could ever get enough of pressing their skin together, of feeling the way Bittle breathes, feeling the way he reacts and shakes and laughs. When he kisses Jack, Jack can feel the weight of it, the enormity of its importance; Jack loves him so much, more than he knows how to say, but he knows that Bittle feels it back. When they do have sex, Jack can never get close enough, can never be touching Bittle enough. He wants a second set of hands, wants another mouth. Even when one of them is inside the other, when it gets hard to distinguish where one of them stops and the other begins, Jack still doesn’t feel like they’re close enough.
“Okay,” Jack says, and he opens his eyes. He can’t meet Bittle’s eye from this close, not really, and he feels crosseyed for even thinking to try. Instead, he kisses Bittle again, once, twice, a third time, gentle. His lips tickle with how careful he feels, and he asks, “Just like this, or?”
“Oh,” Bittle says. “Do you think we can just kiss for a bit first?”
“Of course,” Jack says. There’s no urgency to it, but Jack can feel the hunger behind Bittle’s mouth anyway. Just because he’s slow doesn’t mean it doesn’t make the bottom of Jack’s stomach stir. Eventually, Bittle pulls away. He traces his fingertips, feather light, over Jack’s brow, down the arch of Jack’s nose. When Jack’s eyes fall closed, Bittle touches them softly; the pads of his fingers are rough, but they don’t catch on the sensitive skin of Jack’s eyelids. He traces Jack’s lips, that are still buzzing, and Jack sighs. Bittle scoots back, and Jack pulls off his t-shirt. They resettle with Jack lying down on his back, and Bittle pays the same slow, delicate attention to Jack’s throat, his shoulders, his clavicle. He traces his fingers down Jack’s sternum in a straight line, and leans down to kiss Jack’s chin. When Bittle drags his fingers out and then up over Jack’s nipples, his breath hitches.
“Relax,” Bittle says.
“Sorry,” Jack says. He does feel relaxed, and his head feels empty, his whole body focused on feeling the soft way that Bittle keeps touching him. He wants to catch it all, make sure he never forgets how it feels.
Bittle flattens his palms on Jack’s chest, circles Jack’s nipples with his thumbs.
“If you don’t stop this is definitely gonna be a sex thing,” Jack says. He’s already hard in his pajamas, but he still doesn’t feel the urgency to push it. He does feel calm, and safe, and his brain feels blessedly empty. And he feels like he’s touching Bittle for the first time, with how delicate it seems. Jack sees what he means, about missing it, wanting to be close like that. It’s like going back to basics, but somehow better. Like they needed to be missing it for it to be so sweet, so important.
Bittle says, “Jack.”
He opens his eyes, and when he looks up at Bittle’s face, his throat feels tight. “Bittle,” he says. He stretches his arm up to cup the side of Bittle’s face, and he turns his cheek into Jack’s palm. “Eric,” he says, and it catches in his throat. He blinks, and his eyes feel wet.
“You’re okay,” Bittle says. “We’re okay.”
Jack closes his eyes again, clamps his eyes shut tight. He nods, and Bittle turns his head to press his lips to the centre of Jack’s hand. “I love you,” Jack whispers. “I’m sorry. I love you, I promise.”
Jack can feel the tension fall out of Bittle’s body, and he hadn’t even known it was there until he could note its absence. He’s been so far in his own head that he somehow stopped paying attention. He thought he was alone in the bandaid conversation but he wasn’t, not really. Bittle has understood him in a way that no one else has. Since Jack let Bittle get the chance to try, Bittle has loved Jack in the most caring, open, generous way that Jack’s ever experienced, and Jack had assumed that Bittle wouldn’t understand. But of course he would, did, does, and he doesn’t want Jack to rip him away from this. It could be fast but it would never be painless. It would hurt in a way that Jack hasn’t hurt in a long time.
When Bittle settles with his face pressed into the crook of Jack’s neck, Jack cradles his hands on the back of Bittle’s head. He copies the way Bittle has been carting his fingers through Jack’s own hair for days, and Bittle sighs into Jack’s skin. “I love you too,” Bittle says.
“I don’t do it on purpose,” Jack whispers. Cards on the table, he figures.
“I know,” Bittle murmurs. “I know. It’s hard to get out of your own head sometimes. I know the feeling. But I want to know it all, okay? I know you’re hurting and you’re scared, but that’s what I’m here for, y’know?”
Jack remembers his mom talking about his father, how the good parts of their relationship were just window dressing for the parts where they had to fight for it. And something unwedges in Jack, like they were both struggling, but it wasn’t against each other. They both wanted to end in the same place, where they fixed whatever impossible, unspoken thing that was eating away at them.
“Okay,” Jack says. Bittle kisses gently at Jack’s neck, and Jack says, “You were right.”
“About what?” Bittle asks.
“That it helps, being close to you. Being able to feel you.” He can feel Bittle smile against his skin. “That’s not new though. You’ve always done that for me. It feels easier, when you’re around. I can’t explain.”
Bittle leans back, holds his face above Jack’s. He’s not smiling but he still looks happy to Jack, and Jack can’t explain that either. “You don’t have to,” Bittle says. “I know what you mean.”
His head still hurts, and he still can’t skate, and that means no circus trip.
sorry for the long wait on this one. i've been pretty stuck on this, but it's been feeling better than it has in the last month or so, and so hopefully that'll mean more frequent updates, but i can't strictly offer any real promises.
i want to give a conversational warning for the contents of this chapter for homophobic attitudes. please read the notes at the end of this chapter for a more detailed account of what this means if you want, but please note that that warning isn't spoiler free.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A lot of things happen all at once.
First: October passes into November. The last of the leaves fall from the trees, and Providence becomes the bare landscape that Jack associates with his rookie year. Bittle looks great in autumn, was made for fall colours and scarves pulled up to his nose. He’s soft, and the dull light of the sun makes him look like the only warm thing in a city of dead leaves and worse roadwork.
Second: The Falconers go on a roadie that lasts the better part of two weeks, and Jack stays home. He gets cleared to start exercising again, but it’s highly regulated and closely monitored. His head still hurts, and he still can’t skate, and that means no circus trip.
Third: Bittle starts asking about Christmas plans. Which is something they have to do for real, now. Because they’re adults. A family, really.
It makes sense to Jack, in retrospect. Everything happens at once. That tends to be the way things go--tends to be the way things fall apart.
Jack is at the gym when it happens.
The team gets back from their two weeks out, and Jack is doing alright by the time he sees them. He likes most of the guys on the Falcs just fine, would dare to call a good few of them friends, even. Still, being out for so long, feeling so isolated from them--it was worse than he thought it would be. When he finds Sharpy in the gym, he’s more relieved than he thought he’d be.
When he’s done with his trainer, he showers and dresses.
“Nice look, Cracker Jack,” Sharpy says, hip checking Jack gently in the hall.
Jack looks down at himself; he’s in joggers and Toms and a t-shirt. He looks normal.
“Fuck off,” he says, and punches Sharpy in the arm. He passes Sharpy, whose gait is slowed anytime he looks at his phone while trying to walk in a straight line. Jack turns around to walk backwards, and calls, “I look normal!”
Sharpy sing-songs, “Whatever you say, Miss New Booty.”
Jack opens up his phone on his way back to his car, and there’s a message from Bittle that says, when do u thin you’ll be home
Usually, Bittle’s texting is meticulous, and that’s the first thing that throws Jack--the typo and the lack of punctuation. Jack texts back, leaving now. everything ok?
He buckles himself in and considers just calling Bittle back, but he thinks that if it were serious, Bittle would have called Jack right off the bat.
It only takes Jack twenty minutes to get home, but he still resents the travel time.
Jack can hear Margeurite on the other side of the door when he slides his key into the lock, her nails clicking as she scampers across the condo to where Jack’s opening the door.
“Bonjour lapin,” he says, and she yips at him. He tosses his keys onto the table by the door and bends to pet her. When he gets his hand by her ear, she leans her whole head into his touch. He ruffles the hair at the top of her head and says, “Babe, you here? I texted.”
The apartment is quiet, and Jack thinks that Bittle must’ve gone out. Except then Margeurite shuffles back towards the living room rather than her usual fair of following Jack into the kitchen and staring up at him until he feeds her too many dog cookies.
Jack says, “Eric?”
Jack follows Margeurite into the living room. Bittle is tucked into the armchair they shoved in the corner for lack of other ideas. The one that is usually left empty save for Margeurite’s stuffed animals. His chin is tucked over his knees, his arms wrapped around his shins. When Jack walks into the room, he looks up at him, and tries to smile. Bittle says, “Hi,” but his voice cracks on just the one word.
Jack doesn’t want to spook him, doesn’t want to do or say the wrong thing, but he ends up in front of Bittle, crouching into his space faster than he’s really aware of. “Baby,” Jack says, soft, “What’s wrong?”
Bittle clamps his eyes shut, and Jack watches as he inhales slowly through his nose. “My dad,” he starts, his throat going tight halfway through, cutting the words short, his accent almost dropping off completely. He blinks his eyes open, and Jack settles on his knees in front of Bittle, slips his hands into the small space between where his knees are bent, the backs of his calves pressed tightly into his thighs. “He--”
“Is he okay?” Jack asks, genuinely afraid of what Bittle is going to say, until Bittle lets out a disdainful scoff.
“Just a fucking asshole,” Bittle says. He blinks, too-fast, and his voice breaks again when he says, “He knows we--that I--He’s not happy about it.”
“Jesus,” Jack says. He leans his forehead onto Bittle’s shins, presses his lips softly to where Bittle’s fingers are clasped together tightly. Jack squeezes at Bittle’s calves, and says, “What can I do?”
Bittle’s hands move from his legs, and Jack leans back as he drops his feet to the floor. He pushes his hands into his eyes, and Jack can tell he’s actually crying when he says, “Fuck, I don’t--nothing, I think.”
Jack doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know what to say. There are already so many horrible things in the world. And this is--it’s just a massive, horrible thing. A thing that Bittle doesn’t deserve.
The cruel part of it, Jack guesses, is that the world doesn’t really seem to care about deserving. Not really. Not where it counts.
They both knew it was a possibility, but no one wants to imagine that their worst fears will actually come true.
And maybe they’ve been living in a fantasy, a bit. And maybe it’s been shattering since Jack got his concussion, but maybe it’s been cracked for even longer. Jack doesn’t know.
The thing is, Jack is happy with Bittle--even when the going gets tough. He loves Bittle more than he can actually understand, and he never really gave a shit about whether or not Bittle’s dad gave two shits about him. But--to decide that your son loving someone made him unloveable, unworthy, wrong--it pisses Jack off more than maybe anything else can. It’s one thing to be a father, but it’s something else to be a dad, and--and if you had a kid like Bittle, who is the brightest, sweetest, most gentle and kind person Jack has ever touched...Jack can’t understand why anyone would ever throw that love away.
And it’s not something Jack can fix. There’s really nothing Jack can do but love Bittle through it.
Jack was lucky; he came out to his parents years ago and with the knowledge that they really, really didn’t care. That they loved him. That nothing else mattered--not hockey, not school, not anything other than the fact that Jack was alive.
Jack wraps his hands around Bittle’s ankles, and he rests the side of his cheek on Bittle’s knees, and he says, as soft as he can, “Eric.” Bittle pushes his hands into his eyes with more pressure, and it looks like it hurts, to Jack, and Jack says, again, “Eric, baby.” Bittle exhales through his mouth, and Jack says, as steadily as he can, “I love you very much.”
Bittle hiccups, then, and his hands stop pressing into his eyes and he seems to shift to cradling his face instead. Jack’s seen Bittle upset, seen him sniffle at movies, seen him so mad that his hands shake with it. Jack has never seen him like his, like there’s a crack running down the middle of him. All the fight that usually inspires Jack falls out of him, all his enthusiasm, all the things that give him his easy-going and light-hearted nature seem to disappear entirely, and Jack--
“I’m so sorry,” Jack says. Bittle’s shoulders shake, and he sniffles. He lifts his hands and wipes the backs of them under his eyes. Even though he’s still crying, he holds Jack’s eyes, and nods.
His voice is rough and soft at the same time when he says, “I love you, too.”
Jack bites his lip, and he says, “I love you more,” with a soft smile pulling at his cheeks.
Bittle smiles, bites his teeth into his lower lip, and he says, “I love you to the power of infinity plus one,” as he lowers himself from the chair and down onto Jack’s thighs.
Jack says, “Okay,” and smiles into the side of Bittle’s cheek. He gets his hands around Bittle’s middle, and Bittle loops his hands under Jack’s arms, runs his fingers gently along the backs of Jack’s shoulders.
It takes a few minutes, but Margeurite promptly gets jealous that all eyes aren’t on her, and she tries to push her way between them. That gets a small laugh out of Bittle, and it’s not as light as normal, but it’s better than nothing, and Jack will take it.
“Do you want to nap? It’s early enough still.”
Bittle nods into Jack’s neck, and Jack says, “Marg, bedtime, let’s go.” Bittle untwists from where he’d been octopused around Jack, and helps Jack stand. His knees pop, and Bittle cringes.
“How’s your head today?”
“The same,” Jack says. He ushers Bittle into their bedroom with his hands on his shoulders, and Bittle strips out of his jeans before climbing under the comforter. Jack follows his lead, struggles to get his shoes and pants off at the same time. When he slides into bed beside Bittle, they’re facing each other, and Jack scooches towards Bittle until their noses are pressed together, their legs tangled at the knees and ankles.
“I’m sorry,” Jack whispers into the sacred space between them. Bittle moves closer, presses his nose to Jack’s collarbone and tucks his head right under Jack’s chin.
“It’s not your fault,” he says into Jack’s skin.
Jack carts his fingers through Bittle’s hair. He can feel the edge of a headache pressing in behind his eyes, and he’s happy they’re already horizontal, happy that he should be able to fall asleep before it gets too bad. “I know,” he says, soft and slow. “I just wish we could catch a break.”
It takes the whole rest of the day, but Jack slowly gets the story out of Bittle.
Bittle had called his parents’ house looking for his mom when she didn’t answer her cellphone. His dad had answered, and had laid his usual guilt trip into Bittle like he does every single time Bittle calls.
It’s the usual shit that Jack fucking hates but Bittle just shakes off: you never call me. We miss you around the house. Are you working yet, your mother hasn’t said anything about it. Can’t imagine your roommate feels great about you not having a job, that’s not how we raised you, etcetera, etcetera until Jack usually has to make up an excuse to mime in Bittle’s direction to get him off the phone. Bittle loves his parents, and Jack knows he doesn’t love the relationship he has with his dad, but Bittle doesn’t like to stir up conflict, and he knows that the stakes are high, where his personal life is concerned. Jack tries his best to understand that much, at least.
The shit he can’t get behind though--even when it’s not laden in homophobia and bigotry and the fact that Bittle’s dad’s general disposition seems, to Jack, to be that of an asshole--is the guilt about the distance between them. Bittle’s been out of his parents’ house for going on five years now, and it’s not like he wouldn’t guilt him if he needed to move back home. The you never call line rubs Jack the wrong way in a way that chafes all his emotions until all that’s left is a petty anger that he can’t share. Bittle calls his mom at least once a week, but usually more. They skype all the time. Hell, she texts Jack after every Falcs game, even though he hasn’t been playing. She checks up on them, asks about Jack’s doctor appointments, emails them recipes, asks about the dog. It’s Bittle’s dad who never calls. And if he wanted to talk to his son so badly, he could just call. Anytime, really.
And on top of it, Jack’s blood boils for Bittle. His heart aches for him. He has a pain inside him, now, that Jack will never really understand. Jack wishes he could, if only to lighten the load that has so obviously settled in Bittle’s chest.
After that, Bittle had asked after his dad’s team, and then about Thanksgiving. He asked about Christmas, as vaguely as he could, not wanting to finalize anything just yet.
(Jack feels properly guilty about that, because it is absolutely Jack’s fault that they hadn’t discussed it. Jack has been putting off calling his parents about it for reasons he can’t really pinpoint. He thinks it’s because he wants to be back on the ice by then, doesn’t want to make any plans to leave town if it means he’s going to be back to playing games two days later.)
Bittle’s mom had come home, somewhere in there, and the phone call ended up on speaker phone. Which Bittle hadn’t known about. He’d assumed that his dad had passed the phone off to his mom, because they chatted without him saying anything for a long string of minutes, and then Bittle had mentioned the holidays again. Would coming up to Providence be a possibility? And Bittle’s mom had gotten tongue tied, or nervous, and Bittle had assumed it was about money, and so he said, if it’s about money, we can take care of the flights. It wouldn’t be a problem.
And then Bittle’s dad had said, We?
And Bittle had said, Uh, well. Jack and I--
And then something else had happened that either Bittle doesn’t want to repeat or doesn’t actually know, because then his mom said, Richard, Jesus.
And then proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan, and Bittle ended up just, giving into it. Coming out to his dad over the phone even though he already knew it was going south, and quickly.
“I was just tired,” he tells Jack as they eat sandwiches for dinner over the sink. “I just--I figured, you know, I’m here, and I’m with you, and that’s not changing anytime soon. And me being gay definitely isn’t changing--I spent enough time as a teenager dealing with that line of thought that I just--I couldn’t find the effort to care anymore. I can’t tell if he knows that Momma knew.”
They walk Marguerite together, and Jack hates that he can’t find it in himself to reach for Bittle’s hand where it swings between them. Jack’s nose is cold. He’s wearing gloves, but he knows his hand would be warmer if his fingers were pressed between Bittle’s.
Jack runs a bath, because it’s cold outside and it’s been a terrible day, and, he thinks, it might help the tension bleed out of his neck. He’s sure that the entire day has been decidedly not good for his head. He pours the baby brand bubble bath under the tap, momentarily grateful for his sensitive skin if it means they get to use baby-oil scented bath soap. It’s been a terrible day but, Jack thinks, it’s not a terrible life. They, at least, get to have this.
He shuts the water off and calls Bittle’s name softly, and strips out of his clothes. He struggles with his socks, and when he stands up again, Bittle is leaning against the doorframe.
“I ran a bath,” Jack says, self-satisfied. He doesn’t always remember but when he can, he tries his best to be sweet for Bittle. They’ve had a tough time since Jack’s hit, and that has mostly been Jack’s fault. But he’s trying, and he wants to spend his whole life trying.
Bittle smiles, and so Jack guesses that it’s working. “I can see that,” he says. He unfolds his arms and steps towards Jack. Jack grabs for the back of his t-shirt and pulls it over his head.
“C’mon,” Jack says. He steps into the bath, and it’s a touch too warm, his skin still cold from being outside for so long. He wants to step back out with the way the heat is biting at him, but he lowers himself into the water instead. It hurts, but it feels good, too. Bittle likes the shower to be hotter than Jack does, and Jack’s happy to feel like he’s cooking for a few minutes if it means Bittle can have that small pleasure.
“I’m not really--” Bittle starts, stops.
“It’s just a bath,” Jack says.
Bittle looks at him for a long moment, and the air feels heavy until he nods, and Jack smiles, relaxes back into the tub with a sigh. Bittle strips, and Jack watches his slow movements with appreciation but no real hunger.
There’re too many bubbles, and when Bittle steps into the water, he almost steps on Jack’s thigh.
Jack shoots a hand up to Bittle’s thigh, laughing at the prevented accident, and says, “Careful.”
Bittle settles against him, tucks his back along Jack’s front. He dips his hands under the water and runs his hands along Jack’s thighs to his knees. He traces Jack’s kneecaps with soft fingers, and it almost tickles.
Jack’s hands settle over Bittle’s forearms. He leans forward to press his lips softly to Bittle’s shoulder before leaning back all the way.
It’s a big tub, and they can both settle without too much discomfort. It takes coordination to get back out of it, but that’s not a concern that Jack has to think about until they get there. They stay pressed together, soaking in the tub in silence, until the water turns cold and their skin starts to wrinkle. Bittle unplugs the drain, and they let most of the water drain out before re-filling it. Jack washes Bittle’s hair gently, slowly. Afterwards, Bittle turns around and settles on his knees in front of Jack.
He slicks Jack’s hair back from his face and smiles. “I like you like this,” he says. “You look very sharp.” Jack hums and closes his eyes while Bittle slowly runs his hand down the side of Jack’s face. “My handsome man,” he says, and Jack blinks at him.
“I am,” Jack says, and Bittle rolls his eyes. “No,” he says, smiling too. “I just--I am yours, y’know?”
“You’re a sap,” Bittle says, but his eyes look wet at the corners.
“It’s gotta get better,” Jack says. “Bad things happen in threes.”
Bittle rolls his eyes. “Your superstitious ass should not be hoping for another bad thing to happen to us. I know we’re very lucky, but gosh, Jack, c’mon. Don’t jinx it.”
“I think,” Jack says, biting back on his smile, “That jinxes are also somewhat superstitious.”
Bittle flicks Jack with a finger to his cheek, and Jack crinkles his nose, an over-dramatic pout on his lips.
“Cut it with the puppy dog eyes,” Bittle says, and his mouth is firm but there’s almost a laugh in his voice, and so Jack blinks at him slowly, and Bittle rolls his eyes. “Honestly, I don’t know who is worse, you or the actual dog.”
“You love us,” Jack says, smiling, and Bittle presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
Jack is out for another eight days, but the team doctor clears him to skate with the team on Tuesday, and after a week of non-to-light-contact, they add him back to the roster.
They win at home against Carolina, and Jack doesn’t score, but he gets an assist on Sharpy’s goal, and he feels good. He’s happy and smiling, and Bittle drives them home with one hand on the wheel and another on Jack’s knee.
The next day, Bittle has a very short, very terse phone call with his mother. He doesn’t tell Jack either the nature or the results of the conversation, but his face looks pinched and his shoulders look tight for the rest of the day. Jack kisses him while they’re brushing their teeth before bed, a mouth full of toothpaste, and Bittle pushes him away, but he laughs into Jack’s mouth when they’re both tripping their way back to bed.
“We leave for Winnipeg on the 27th,” Jack tells his mom over the phone. He’s sitting on the carpet in the living room, and Marguerite is settled at his feet with her toy duck. Bittle is anxious that she’s going to rip it open and choke on the plastic squeaky piece, but Jack thinks she just likes to make a mess, just wants to ruin the toy and spread the stuffing all over the house before she decides she’s done with it. “I have a game on the 23rd, and practice on Boxing Day, but if you guys wanna come stay, obviously the guest room is yours if you want it.”
“I’ll ask your father. What about Eric’s family?”
“Uh,” Jack says. “They’re, um, probably not gonna make it.”
There’s a slight pause, and Jack closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to talk about this, doesn’t know if he can. It’s Bittle’s family. It’s not really his place. He doesn’t want to say the wrong thing, make it worse. “That’s too bad,” his mom says eventually. Jack isn’t religious, but he’ll thank God every single day that his mom knows when to drop something without him having to say so. “I’ll talk to your father. I’ll get back to you tonight, probably, but I think both our schedules are all clear. Should work.”
“Okay,” Jack says. He bites his tongue, and then says, “I love you, mama.”
“I love you too, baby. Eric too. Do tell him, okay?”
“I will,” Jack says, and he wants to cry. “I’ll talk to you later?”
“Sounds good,” she says. “Have a good time at practice.”
Sharpy and Webs and Tribby drag Jack to lunch, and Jack orders soup and a sandwich, and they all tease him, but it’s fun anyway. They talk shit, mostly, joke around about all the weird pranks Sharpy’s been pulling on the rookies, talk about the new drill Dan had them go through in practice. Sharpy tells stories about his kids, and they talk about what the plan should be, for all the different kinds of playing they’re going to face when they get out west. They all panic about not being finished with their Christmas shopping, but Sharpy clearly has it the worst, with two kids to consider.
Jack, eventually, tells them about Bittle’s dad. They’re his friends, and they all love Bittle too. Jack explains the situation briefly and says, “My parents didn’t care, and I don’t know how to help him. I don’t know how to fix it.”
“Oh, Jazzy,” Sharpy says, and he sounds sad. He sighs, and he says, “Everyone’s parents fuck them up, but that’s just--that’s shit, you know?” He shakes his head. “I don’t think there’s anything for that. Christ.” He turns to Webs beside him, then looks across at Tribby. “Neither of you have a kid unless you’re ready to love them no matter who or how they are. That’s the only rule I got. I’ll kick your asses.”
“Uh,” Webs starts, looking wide-eyed across at Triber, who saves his ass with, “Mum said something along the same line when I came out to her. You don’t need to tell me.”
Sharpy, funnily enough, doesn’t even look all that surprised. He just smiles wide, and then says, “Well. Okay. Good.” Jack knocks his knee against Tribby’s and smiles at him. Just because Jack is privy to the knowledge of Caleb’s relationship with Zach doesn’t mean than anyone else is, but Jack is proud of the small steps they’re clearly making.
Jack knows how hard it is, with the life they have. He knows what it costs.
Tribby smiles back, and Webs’ cheeks are looking a bit flushed on the other side of the table, but everything else seems normal. Jack’s food is good, and he makes a mental note to bring Bittle to this place next time they have the chance.
Jack runs his hands over Bittle’s stomach and thighs as he sucks him down, and Bittle wraps his fingers in Jack’s hair. Jack hums, and Bittle’s hips stutter.
Bittle says, “Jack, I’m--” and he tugs at Jack’s hair, but Jack just hums again, hollows his cheeks and sucks, and Bittle comes down his throat with a groan.
Bittle’s hands loosen in Jack’s hair, and Jack wipes the back of his hand over his mouth and chin before moving back up Bittle’s body and holding himself above him.
Bittle cradles Jack’s face in his hands, and says, “Goodness,” before laughing softly.
Jack kisses Bittle’s neck, considers sucking a hickey into his pale skin but decides against it. His parents will be here in a few days. It’s less awkward for everyone, Jack thinks.
It’s not like they don’t know already, but he thinks it’s just...poor form to let them see, is all.
Instead, Jack kisses Bittle’s cheek, his nose, his eyelids. He skips over Bittle’s mouth and kisses his chin, and Bittle whines softly.
“Hmm,” Jack says. “I feel like I’m forgetting something.”
Bittle laughs, and runs his hands down Jack’s chest to his sides. Jack says, “Do not--” before Bittle is pinching at the soft skin under Jack’s ribs. Jack twists away from it, laughing.
He knows, logically, that the response that people feel when they’re being tickled is actually a panic response. He knows he can’t help that his brain wants him to escape it. And so he laughs, loud and desperate, and Bittle laughs too, his fingers tickling Jack’s soft skin. He moves with Jack, and Jack doesn’t have anywhere to go. And even though his body is trying to get away from the touch, Jack relishes the ease of it all. He feels happy, and loved. He doesn’t feel scared--not anymore. He’s not going anywhere. Not really. And neither is Bittle.
And so his body panics without his heart’s permission, but that’s okay, because Jack laughs into Bittle’s skin, and he doesn’t tell him to stop. He just rolls them over, presses Bittle down into the mattress and kisses him on the mouth.
That stops his hands from their ruthless assault on Jack’s sides, and Bittle sighs into Jack’s mouth. “That’s what I was forgetting,” Jack says, and Bittle huffs.
“Bad joke,” Bittle says. He wraps his arms around Jack’s shoulders and tugs him closer, until all of Jack’s weight is pressing him down into their mattress.
warning for homophobic attitudes are specifically in reagards to bitty coming out to his dad, and his reaction to finding out that jack and bitty are living together. there's not use of derogatory language, nor is there much conversation at all, but rather the fall out of that, and the related emotions that come with that kind of upsetting, horrible rejection. if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to me on tumblr.
Chapter 4: interlude
He misses sharing a Haus with his best friends, misses the ice at Faber.
i've only been to boston once, and I don't actually know if the T goes all the way out to cambridge, but like. let's pretend. tw for very brief and passing mention of abortion, but only in broad strokes. ask if you have any concerns.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Shitty has been falling in and out of love with his life for as long as he can remember. It’s only recently, though, that he understands the weight of what it means to lose touch with his life.
It’s funny, how time and distance have a way of doing that. How so many hours spent in the law library bleed together, how his eyes itch and his back hurts and how he never gets to the gym as much as he’d like. How all of those things have left him more than a bit lost.
He’s tired, deep in the marrow of his bones. He falls asleep beside Lardo more nights than not, and he wakes up next to her, too. Wakes up to the way she breathes with her mouth open, drools onto her pillow. The way she says she doesn’t like to sleep pressed up against him but wakes up with her hands over his middle and her knees pressed into his thighs.
He doesn’t have a bad life. Shitty has a great life. She drags him to the grocery store and makes him shower and shoves food under his face, and he’s grateful for all of it, nose buried in a book or eyes glued to his computer screen.
Shitty is grateful for so many things, which is how he knows his life isn’t bad. But he’s not in love with it, right now. He misses it.
He misses sharing a Haus with his best friends, misses the ice at Faber, misses Jack screaming at him whenever he noticed that Shitty had been eating his raspberry jam. He misses Bitty. He misses Rans and Holsty, and the frogs, even, Ollie and Wicks and Johnson.
Shitty misses who he was when he was with them.
He gets the call from Jack on Tuesday morning. The Falconers are meant to play in Minnesota, then Dallas. Shitty misses the call, his phone on silent while he writes up flash cards, and he doesn’t see the notification until hours later.
Jack left a voicemail, which is out of character, and sets Shitty’s heart hammering as he tries to swipe his Charlie card and his voicemail password at the same time. It’s late, late enough that people are huddled together on the T platform.
His phone says, “To review your messages, press one.”
He does, and picks at the skin by his thumbnail with his index finger. Down the platform, there are two college kids laughing, one swinging their bag around by the handle, carefree. Shitty remembers being that way, cackling and heavy-stomached with too much beer, but he’s not sure everyone had the privilege. Not Jack, certainly. Not even Bitty, really.
He never realized how much he would be losing when he packed up his room and settled into Harvard Law. He didn’t know how much he’d never get back.
“Uh, hey Shitty,” Jack’s recorded voice says, and Shitty feels his shoulders drop and his breath leave him. He loves Lardo, loves her more than anyone has ever loved anything in the history of the world, probably, but it’s different than the way he loves Jack. Jack is his best friend -- and Shitty doesn’t even know when he last talked to Jack, which is stupid and horrible but not unsurprising, because the last time they talked it was the same thing -- and Shitty just misses him.
“Sorry for bothering you, I’m sure you’re studying. I uh. Sorry. God. Shit. I hope you had a good Christmas. Sorry we couldn’t make anything happen. Maybe, uh. All Star weekend, maybe?” Jack sighs, and Shitty knows it’s just a voicemail, that this version of Jack has existed since he left the message hours ago, but Shitty still feels guilty without knowing why. Still feels sad. Everything is so heavy for Jack. And Shitty’s been his friend for a long time, only a couple of years shy of a decade, really, so he knows -- has seen Jack struggle with that weight time and time again.
“I just. I wanted to um. I didn’t know who. Eric came out to his dad and it didn’t go very well and I wasn’t sure who to. I know you’re busy. We’re fine, we’re doing fine. We’re. I hope school’s going well. Sorry for bothering you. Say hi to Lardo.” His voice turns monotonous despite using Bitty’s first name, which is a dead giveaway for Jack and for anyone else. Shitty gets it, that saying it hurts. When bad things happen, recounting them out loud makes it hurt more. Makes it real.
But keeping secret hurts, too, and Shitty knows that Bitty coming out to his dad was brave. Hiding hurts too. It couldn’t have been easy. It never is. Ex nihilo nihil fit.
The truth hurts.
When Shitty tries to call Jack back, it goes straight to voicemail. He’s probably in the air, halfway across the sky and thinking about something else. Anyone else.
There are so many things that Jack lives with that Shitty will never understand. Already, in the years since they’ve graduated, they’ve grown apart. Lost each other in the haze of living their lives. And Jack, in the closet and in love, is so different from the Jack Shitty lived with for all those years. Shitty still loves him, but he’s surprised by him now.
There are things that Jack has done that Shitty never would have guessed at. Jack getting a dog, Jack giving her a soft, French name. Jack loving her, lighting up when she greets him at the door. Jack, soft in the pale of light from the window in his livingroom, kissing Bittle in front of Shitty like it’s nothing. Jack owning a navy pair of Toms, worn out but still wearable. Jack emailing Lardo about a spaghetti sauce recipe that they apparently have been building on for years, changing it as they see fit.
And there’s so much that Shitty doesn’t get to know about. Not that Jack was an open book before, but there’s a kind of intimacy that you achieve when you live with someone for years, and there’s a kind of loss when they find a new home and grow into that space without you. Shitty misses knowing the weirder parts of Jack, misses seeing the little, barely-visible notes that he’d leave in the condensation in the mirror, misses the way he only did his laundry once a month. Misses the way Jack’s feet were always cold, the way he’d press them into Shitty’s calves when Shitty would jump into Jack’s bed. He misses watching dull as fuck history documentaries with Jack, just because it meant they were doing it together.
And there are things Jack has missed in Shitty’s life, too. Things that have happened to him, to Lardo, with both of them, that Jack hasn’t been a part of. Things he doesn’t know about. Things like them learning how to live together, them fucking on the floor of their apartment the second Jack drove away, and then fucking in the kitchen next, the shower, the bathroom floor, the doorway to their bedroom. Things like the time Lardo drove to her parents house and stayed for a week because Shitty wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t eating, wasn’t talking, was only studying.
Things like Lardo peeing on a stick and then crying, and Shitty kneeling in front of her, unsure if he should ask to see what it said or just push his fingers into his hair and wanting to do both but not knowing how. It being positive. Lardo making an appointment at Planned Parenthood the next day, and Shitty driving to the appointment, and then again to the next one. He made her tea and traced his fingers over her ankles when she stuck them in his lap, but he didn’t know what to do, and he had no one to tell.
And things like the deli down the street from their apartment. The one that looks pretty nasty and like it couldn’t pass a health code inspection but that makes the damn best sandwiches Shitty has ever had.
There are places his life and Jack’s life don’t overlap. Places they’ll never overlap again.
By the time Shitty gets home, the lights are off in their apartment. He kicks his shoes off and drops his bag at the door and stumbles blindly towards the bathroom. He’s got his t-shirt halfway over his head when his phone vibrates in his pocket.
He drops his t-shirt to the ground and wiggles his phone out of his pocket. When he reads Jack’s name, he can’t help the smile that cracks across his face. “Jackabelle,” he says, voice soft so as not to wake Lardo in the other room. “Hey.”
“I hope I didn’t wake you,” Jack says, fast. “Thanks for calling me back.”
“Yeah,” Shitty says, because there’s nothing else to say. “Of course.”
“Did you, uh. Listen to the voicemail I lef--”
“Yeah, dude. Shit’s fucked. You okay?”
Jack huffs a breath, and he must be in bed because Shitty can hear him shift. “Have to be,” Jack says.
“Nuh-uh,” Shitty says. “That’s not what I asked.”
“I’m fine ,” Jack says. “I just don’t think Bittle really is. And it’s...it’s hard to help. There’s nothing I can do.”
Shitty is sure that Jack does a lot, actually. He used to question it, question whether or not Jack would be a good person to be in a relationship with. But three years in, they must be doing something right because they seem happy. Jack’s complicated, but he has a big heart. It’s just hard to get at, hard to hold onto. “Is his mom--”
“She knew,” Jack says. “I don’t know, he hasn’t spoken to her. She called his phone on Christmas but he either didn’t see it or ignored it. I don’t know.”
“Christ,” Shitty says. “That’s--”
“It’s fucked, is what it is,” Jack says, and it’s like a bottle being uncorked. Jack has never been a huge talker, but when he’s angry he either turns it on himself or turns it on whoever can’t defend themselves. “How could you--to your own kid? Why would you have a kid if you weren’t going to--”
“I don’t know,” Shitty says. “The world is horrible.”
“He doesn’t deserve it,” Jack says, and he sounds like all the fight has fallen out of him. “He’s so-- he doesn’t deserve that.”
Shitty slides down the wall to sit on the floor, his knees bent and his toes pressed into the cabinet under the bathroom sink. He’s not sure anyone deserves that, to be abandoned by their parents, to be left like that, to not have those two people love you unconditionally. Life is hard enough. Shitty’s parents are no walk in the park, but they’d never--
He doesn’t think they would ever do something like that.
Shitty won’t ever be in the position of finding out, though, so what the fuck can he say about any of it?
“He doesn’t,” Shitty says. “You’re right.”
On the other end of the line, Jack’s voice sounds tight. “I really love him,” he says, and Shitty wonders why he’s beating himself up over this. Bitty is the softest person Shitty’s ever known, kind and gentle and angry and so, so strong.
“That’s okay,” Shitty says. “That’s...good, isn’t it?”
Jack says, “I want him to be happy.” He sighs. “I want him to be happy with me.”
“Is he not?”
Jack says, “He’s not happy about anything. Not the way he used to be. I don’t know.” Shitty can’t really imagine what being in love feels like for Jack. For Shitty, it’s lots of sex and pressing his face into Lardo’s tummy and them eating cereal together every morning before they head in their own separate directions. It’s not always awesome, and sometimes they scream at each other, but they’re a team, and they work together. They got a goldfish a month ago, and it’s still alive. It has two different names, Genevieve on Shitty’s end, and Gold Dust Woman from Lardo’s. But they have a happy little life, even if it’s mostly just Shitty doing school stuff and Lardo in her studio and the two of them in the same bed at the end of each day.
It’s a hell of a life, but it’s theirs.
Being in love is probably different for Jack. It probably costs a lot. Hiding and feeling everything so completely. It probably hurts in Jack’s chest all the time, the way Shitty’s heart gets heavy when he and Lardo are pressed together and slow with it, when she laughs against his mouth. It can’t be easy, and they’ve had a rough year. Jack’s concussion and then this.
There are dragons in everyone’s life; monsters under beds and shadows that move around in the dark. Noises that go bump in the night. That’s the thing about monsters, Shitty figures. They live where you live.
And there’s no escape.
“Are you going anywhere for the All-Star break?”
“We might,” Jack says. “Are you off school? Could we whisk you away?”
“I don’t know,” Shitty says. “I can do my best to check? To see what I’d need to do to get away?”
“It’d be nice,” Shitty says. “Wouldn’t it? The four of us, drinking in the middle of the day and doing fuck all?”
Jack huffs a little laugh at that, and says, “Yeah, just like old times.”
And it’s not true; just like there’s no way to get to the future from here, there’s no way to go back. But Shitty thinks that’s kind of the point of life. You make it so that each little bit is as good as the last, if different.
He’s been falling in and out of love with his life for years, but there have been constants, these last eight years. Jack’s weird laugh. Lardo’s soft hands. Doing good work, and the feeling that comes with that.
If the four of them made it to some beach in Cabo or wherever, it wouldn’t be like old times. For one thing, Jack and Bitty have gotten their shit together with more efficiency and more affection than anyone could have guessed. Two, Shitty and Lardo also managed to talk it out, and they have a life of their own.
They’ve missed so much of each other’s lives. Important stuff. It was never like that before. Before, they were in each other’s pockets twenty-four-seven.
But it’d be nice, to hide away in a resort and drink margaritas and play chicken in the hotel pool.
It wouldn’t be like old times, not exactly, but it’d be fun, and they’d be together, and that’s all that would matter.
Which was all that really mattered before, at the end of the day. And maybe that’s what Jack meant. Maybe that’s what Jack needs. And so Shitty says, “Yeah. The good ol’ days.”
i promise i'm trying very hard to finish this story. i really appreciate everyone's support and patience with this, and i probably owe you all more of an explanation than i can really give. simply put: this story is extremely emotionally taxing for me, and psychologically hard for me to write (especially form jack's pov) because a lot of it is taken from the nastier bits of my brain, and a lot of the narrative pieces of this fic are things i have struggled with, or am struggling with, and will struggle with for the rest of my life. i'm more than happy to answer questions about this verse or this fic or how that relates to anything at all (be it jack's mental health or something else, idk) in the comments section below. anyway, again - i really am more grateful than i know how to say, and i love you. you are all kind, caring, gracious, patient people, and i'm happy to write for your eyes. you've always supported me, from my very first day in this fandom, and i'm always gonna try my best to deserve that kindness, and i'm always gonna try to pay it forward. basically: thank you, i'm in your corner, and i've got your back.
“We’re gonna do it,” Sharpy says, his eyes steady on Jack’s.
warnings for symptoms of depression //
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack wakes up and presses his nose into the skin where Bittle’s shoulder and neck meet. He breathes once, deep, and then rolls over. He swings his legs over the edge of the bed and leaves the warmth of their bed behind.
The clock on his nightstand reads 4:45 in a steady, nauseating green.
Their shower is big, and the water is warm - for all the things it has in common with the design of their bedroom, it’s still not the same. Soft neutrals and carefully chosen accents do nothing for Jack.
Jack’s appreciation of their home has always been about the way it feels. No number of trips to antique stores could ever make Jack feel at home the way the sound of Bittle’s breath beside him does.
Aesthetics so often fall short of what Jack actually wants to see.
Caleb finds Jack on the ice, and he says, quiet, “Can you stick around with me for a few minutes once Dan calls practice?”
Jack nods, “Sure. You all good?”
Caleb shrugs, and Jack wants to say something but isn’t sure what. Dan calls his name and he moves forward to take his turn in the drill. Jack tries to watch Tribby, and he tries to watch Webs, but Dan’s been running them on different lines since the start of the season, and they don’t overlap much. He hadn’t noticed anything off in the locker room when he was lacing up, but that doesn’t mean much. The list of things that Jack doesn’t notice on a daily basis is decidedly long.
Jack is skating in circles around centre ice when practice ends, and Sharpy chirps at Jack. “Some of your wires get crossed over, Jazzy? Operating system crash?”
Jack swings his arm in a poor imitation of a robot. “Virus detected,” he says. “Delete file name Patrick Sharp .”
Sharpy laughs, and Jack’s face breaks into a smile.
Sharpy is stepping into the tunnel when Jack shouts, “Bye, Sharpy!”
When he’s gone, Tribby leaves the puck he’d been hitting into the air with his stick and skates towards Jack. He says, “We don’t need to stay here. We can go somewhere else, if you don’t wanna skate anymore.”
“You don’t wanna practice more?” Jack asks.
Caleb shrugs, and Jack’s heart is suddenly hammering against his chest. “Is everything okay?” He asks, and Caleb looks away, nods.
Jack steps into the apartment and Marguerite comes racing to the door, nails clicking against the hardwood as she skids to a stop in front of him.
“Hi, baby,” he says, and she yips at him. “Is your dad home?” He asks, even though it makes no sense. Bittle’s car was in the first of their two parking stalls. She presses her face against his leg, and Jack rubs at her ears before gesturing for her to move. She runs back into the apartment. Jack follows her, because she’s smart and usually knows what he wants, and also because when that fails, it’s not uncommon for her to try and heard him and Bittle like they’re sheep - a disorganized and temperamental mess that ought to stick together but need the reminder every once in awhile.
“Hey Bits,” Jack says, and Bittle looks up from his laptop. He smiles, and he looks a bit sad, but his mouth stays curved for long enough that Jack doesn’t question its sincerity.
“Hi,” Bittle says. Jack settles on the couch, pats the cushion beside him so that Marg can jump up beside him. She does, curling up against his side and settling her chin in his lap. Bittle goes back to whatever he’s typing on his laptop, and Jack props his feet up on the coffee table. Bittle is curled up into his chair, legs tucked up, laptop resting awkwardly against his knee.
Jack’s chest feels tight, but there’s no way to fix it. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what’s happening. He can’t pinpoint the way this silence feels different than any other, isn’t really sure that it actually is. He can’t be sure that it’s not a symptom that he’s imagining, something that his anxiety put into his mind and has spiraled out of his control.
It feels bad, though. That much Jack knows. He feels on edge and nervous, and either it’s the silence or it’s Jack’s brain or it’s something worse. He can hear the click of Bittle's laptop keys with each tap of his fingers, and he can see his chest moving, but in Jack’s mind, they may as well be a whole country between them. Bittle, here, in their home, and Jack on the other end, looking out at a different ocean, living in the past.
“Caleb is going to ask Zach to move in with him.”
Bittle doesn’t look up from what he’s doing, but Jack sees him smile. “That’s great,” he says. He hits one key with particular force and then looks up. “Did they tell everyone or--”
“No,” Jack says, quick.
“Oh,” Bittle says.
“He wanted advice. Wanted to know how we figured it out. He’s scared Zach’ll say no. Scared that people might, I don’t know. Figure it out, I guess.”
Jack buries his fingers into the curly fur along Marg’s back.
“Oh,” Bittle repeats, and he looks upset. It’s the opposite of what Jack wanted. He wanted to tell Bittle what he’d told Caleb. He wanted to prove that there’s a small piece of him that’s brave enough to crack their life open and share it.
He wants to be the kind of partner that can bare witness to Bittle’s own struggles and find a way to help.
He wants to tell Bittle about the smile that had broken out across Tribby’s face when Jack had told him the truth - that when you know, you know. That it’s scary, but it’s the easiest thing in the world.
That when you get a glimpse at the happiness that could one day be the centre of your life, you do everything you can to keep it in sight.
Jack sits down next to Sharpy on their flight to Nashville, and they get twenty minutes before Sharpy says, “Okay, Zassafras, spill it.”
Jack says, “What?”
“You’re so tense you’re about to blow a gasket. Let’s hear it.”
Jack sighs. “I don’t--”
“Not me you want to be talking to, huh?”
Jack squeezes his hands into fists, and exhales slowly through his mouth. “No,” he says, slow, and Sharpy nods. He pats Jack’s knee quickly.
“You’ll get there,” he says, and Jack bites the inside of his cheeks. If only he actually knew where he was headed.
Jack settles on his back in the dark of his Nashville hotel room adjusts his head against the stiff pillows. They don’t even really smell like laundry detergent. Can’t even mimic a sense of home.
He rolls onto his side and texts, i love you to Bittle.
After four minutes that feel like an eternity, Bittle responds. I love you too, honey.
They win against Nashville. They go to Dallas and win there too.
In Tampa, Jack takes a stick to the eye. Four stitches and some painkillers, and it feels like nothing. In Pittsburgh, he gets the brunt end of Letang’s work.
In Chicago, Seabrook presses him into the boards, throws his elbow into Jack’s ribs.
When he presses into the bruises in the locker room, Sharpy says, “Cut it out, you’ll make it worse.” Jack drops his hands quickly.
When he picks up his phone, there’s a text from Bittle. Looked like a rough one. Hope you’re okay.
Jack responds: nothing’s broken. He repeats it to himself on the bus, and again when he can’t fall asleep on the plane. Nothing’s broken.
When Jack steps in the front door, he can hear laughter coming from the kitchen. There are shoes that don’t belong to either of them in the hall. Jack steps out of his sliders and drops his bag by the laundry. He leans against the threshold and watches as Shitty waves his hands around, caught up in a story Jack hasn’t heard. His heart swells with fondness. Lardo catches his eye and she smiles softly before raising her nearly empty glass of wine in greeting. Jack smiles and offers her a small wave.
When Shitty finally stops talking, Jack says, “Nice to see you’re still able to keep a party going well into the morning, Shits.”
A smile cracks across Shitty’s face at that, and he smiles when he meets Jack’s eyes. “Some of us haven’t grown boring in our old age.”
Lardo snorts, and Jack smiles softly at Bittle. “Hey,” Jack says, softer.
“Hi,” Bittle says, and something in Jack’s chest loosens.
They stay up for an hour longer, until Jack can’t justify not going to bed. It’s his job to take care of his body. He excuses himself while Shitty and Lardo offer to clean up their empty glasses. Bitty offers to help while Jack showers the airplane off his skin.
It’s hard for Jack to swallow. Things change so quickly. Nothing stays the same. And it’s not for a lack of wanting. Jack misses, now more than ever, how easy it used to be. With everyone he loved save for his parents and Kent under one roof. It’s strange, the way nothing in his life looks out of place, and how wrong it feels.
That’s the hardest part of being crazy, Jack thinks. You never get used to it.
Once he’s brushed his teeth, he steps quietly into their bedroom. The lights are off, the apartment quiet. He pulls on clean boxers and then slips under the comforter on his side of the bed.
He tucks his nose into the soft skin of Bittle’s shoulder, and sighs against him. He can’t see Bittle’s freckles in the dark. He reaches his hand out, hesitates before he settles his hand on Bittle’s arm, dragging his fingers down to Bittle’s wrist. Jack exhales a shaky breath against Bittle’s shoulder, and some part of his pride goes with it.
“Where’d you go?” He asks, barely a whisper.
He’s sure Bittle is awake, can feel it in the tension in his shoulders. Bittle says, “You’re the one who was gone,” but it’s so quiet that there’s no bite in it.
“That’s not what I meant,” Jack says, settling his hand over the back of Bittle’s, lacing their fingers together. Like holding hands but twisted around. Almost there but not quite.
They win against Vancouver at home, and again against Washington two days later. They drop one to Jersey, but when they beat Detroit at home, Jack’s goal is the only one on the board. They qualify for playoffs two nights later in Montreal, and something ignites under Jack’s skin.
Hacter is the last to join in the dogpile that’s grown with Jack at the bottom. Jack can’t actually see him, but he hears him yell, “Jazz, you fuckin’ beaut,” and Jack laughs.
Later, after media, Sharpy smiles at Jack as he’s shouldering his bag.
“We’re gonna do it,” Sharpy says, his eyes steady on Jack’s.
Jack bites his lip and offers him a small smile. “Yeah?” Jack asks, meaning it to sound snarkier than it does.
“Yeah,” Sharpy says, confident as always but lacking ego. Jack’s seen Sharpy act on ego, seen him charm his way to the front of line-ups and out of interviews, but this isn’t that.
“When you know,” Sharpy says, snapping Jack out of his own head.
“When you know, you know,” Jack repeats.
i hope you're all doing well. like i've said before: sorry this is so hard for me to write, sorry it's so slow to come around. i know how the end looks. it's just taking time to find it in me. thanks for understanding. i know lots of you get it - when the inside of your brain feels bad, the things that come out of it feel bad too. thanks for sticking with me. thanks for sticking with jack. i promise we're both going to keep trying. xox
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
Jack loves his dad but there’s a part of him that will never forgive him simply for being who he is. It’s childish and not really fair, but Jack doesn’t know how to change it.
thank you, sarah. love u a super duper lot.
we're almost there, friends. thanks for your patience.
Jack can hear the front door open and close again from his spot in the living room.
“Jack?” Bittle calls into the apartment, and Jack hears Marg’s feet on the hardwood as she moves into the room. She runs around the coffee table and sniffs at Jack’s head before she licks at his face. He twists his arm up to pat her on the side of her face.
“Hi baby,” he says, voice a bit rough. She licks up his cheek again, gets his ear. He scrunches his face up and leans away from her. “Your breath smells horrible,” he says, and she doesn’t say anything, obviously, but Jack smiles up at her. She looks different from this angle. Still all curls and floppy ears, still cute as all hell, but Jack so rarely looks up at her like this.
She moves away from him eventually, jumps up on the couch and out of Jack’s view. Bittle comes into the room a few minutes later. Jack hears him huff, but when he tilts his head back against the rug, he still can’t see him.
“Why’re you under the coffee table?”
“I like it,” Jack says. He turns his head to the side when Bittle walks towards him. He sits down on the floor, his back against the couch, and tucks his feet under Jack’s thighs.
“Okay,” Bittle says, hesitant and slow, like he’s already walking on the conversation version of eggshells, and Jack hates it. It’s his house. His floor and his area rug and his coffee table. He can do what he wants in his own home.
“Don’t psychoanalyse me,” Jack says, and it comes out sharper than he means for it to but not so mean that he wants to apologize for it.
Bittle shifts and Jack feels his feet move where they’re pressed into the underside of Jack’s legs.
“Why do you sound angry?”
“I’m not angry,” Jack says, but he does sound angry, and maybe he actually is. He didn’t realise. He sighs. He touches his fingers into the swirling patterns of the wood on the underside of the table, traces a circle once, twice. “Maybe I am angry. I don’t think I’m angry at you. I don’t--”
He stops. Breathes deep. This is their home but Jack doesn’t live in it half of the time. He wants to disappear into the floor, out of his life and find a way to breathe easily again. He can’t remember a time when it was easy. He remembers being a kid and it wasn’t easy, not the way it seemed to be for everyone else. “It’s hard for me to be the only one who has to talk about why I’d rather be quiet,” he says then.
“I-” Bittle starts, stops.
“Just because we have a pretext for me being crazy doesn’t mean I owe you something you don’t owe me. It’s--we’re a team. I know you’re upset but I can’t help if you don’t let me.”
Jack turns his head to the side and still can’t see Bittle’s face, but he’s happy for it. Bittle pulls his feet back and wraps his hands around the front of his shins, rest his chin on his knees. He’s so small.
“You’re not crazy,” Bittle says eventually, whispers it into the space between them.
When they were at Samwell, it was like a chasm, the Grand Canyon, deep and stretching farther than Jack could really understand, impossible to cross. And then they got over it, through it and across it and then it seemed big in a different way. It was infinite in its closeness. The intimacy Jack has found in their life seemed impossible before, like something that only happened to other people. And now it’s like that but worse. Jack understands that there are shadows all over the place, places where all the light gets absorbed and looks darker than it should be. Impossible in its depth and void. There are downsides to baring your soul to someone else, to leaning on them with all your weight. You can love someone more than anyone or anything in the world and still see parts of them that you don’t like. And Jack does love Bittle; there is a softness to it that Jack has never felt before. If his happiness fits on the couch, sits in the space between his leg and Marg’s body and Bittle’s leg on the other side, then his loneliness fits under the coffee table, his grief behind a closed bathroom door, his fear in the foyer.
“I am,” Jack says. “I’m trying really hard,” he says, huffs. Tears spring to his eyes. He wipes at them, harsh and hard enough that it hurts, with the back of his hand. He breathes out through his nose. “I’m sorry that I’m the reason your dad--”
“You’re not the--”
“Not in the way you think, maybe, but it’s--”
“Jack,” Bittle says, in the scary voice he used to use on the Frogs when they were really fucking with his shit in the Haus kitchen. “My dad being a bigot and a homophobe isn’t your fault. He’s a person who can make his own decisions and that’s how he’s decided to be.”
“I wanted to kill him,” Jack says. “I was so--I’m really angry.”
Bittle shrugs. “No one’s perfect.”
Jack shakes his head even though he knows Bittle can’t see it. “Doesn’t mean he’s off the hook for it.”
“No,” Bittle says. “I still want to forgive him. I want him to change his mind. I don’t know if he ever will. But. He’s still my dad, you know?”
If anyone knows, it’s Jack. Maybe not for the same reasons. You can love your parents as much as you’re able and still hate them. Jack and his dad aren’t close, but they’re doing better than they ever were before. Jack loves his dad but there’s a part of him that will never forgive him simply for being who he is. It’s childish and not really fair, but Jack doesn’t know how to change it.
“Parents are just people. They’re doing their best.” Bittle shifts and stretches out on his back next to Jack on the floor. Jack moves over a bit so that Bittle can fit under the table beside him. Their arms press together from shoulder to elbow. Jack’s hand flexes where it’s resting against his own stomach.
“What about when your best isn’t enough?”
“I don’t know,” Bittle says.
Their first two playoff games are in Columbus and Jack’s heart pounds in his chest the whole way there. They get in the night before, have a light practice in the morning. Jack naps, eats, sits at a table across from Hacter and Sharpy and his knee bounces the whole time. He’s quiet, but no one says anything about it. He kicks around a soccer ball with Caleb in the hallway in Nationwide before they have to get dressed.
In the room, Coach gives a good rally speech and the guys are excited. There’s a good energy, and when Dan offers the room to Jack, he clears his throat awkwardly. It gets a few chuckles and Jack pulls his hands behind his back and leaves them there.
“We’ve done this before,” he says and swallows. “We know we can beat them. You don’t need me to tell you how - if we go out there and play our game, we’ll win. So let’s win.”
Jack heartbeat is pounding in his head until the puck drops, and then it gets quiet. Everything else falls away, and it’s just the puck and his team, the Jackets and the sound of skates scraping. Jack’s always been good at seeing the ice. It’s always been the one place where he didn’t miss the forest for the trees.
When they get back into Providence and are up two in the series, it feels a bit better. Across the country, The Aces go up in their series against Calgary.
The Falcs end up taking the series in five games, closing out in Columbus. They get a few days off as the Penguins beat the Devils. They lose to Pittsburgh in the first game at home, but take the second. They take the third but drop the fourth and go into game five tied for two each. Crosby scores halfway through the first overtime period and for the first time, Jack feels nervous. They win game six 2-0, Zach with both goals, and Jack really doesn’t feel like he does much of anything until game seven. They’re up, and then Kessel ties it up, and then something in Jack clicks into place and he scores twice in as many shifts. The time on the clock counts down and they take it.
In the car on the way home, Jack presses his face against the window. His hair is sticking to his forehead, still wet from the shower. “Crosby gave good press after,” Bittle says when they stop at light.
“Hmm,” Jack hums, not really a question but still an acknowledgement.
“He likes playing against you, I think.” He smiles over at Jack, Jack sees it out of the corner of his eye. “He said you’re calm in a way that not many people are, that it makes it hard to play against you because nothing gets under your skin.”
That seems to go against everything the media knows about Jack, and he’s not sure if he wants to thank Sidney or be annoyed by it. But, in spite of himself, he finds himself thinking that that really is a nice thing to say.
“That’s not true,” Jack says, his breath fogging up against the window.
“Obviously not,” Bittle says, and it has a laugh in it, soft. “Still. I think he wants you to win.”
“Don’t jinx anything,” Jack says. “Sidney wouldn’t jinx it.”
Toronto is a tough team to meet, too: all their fresh faces from the past few years have more meat on their bones and more experience under their belts. Jack’s tired but not so tired that his Montreal born-and-raised blood doesn’t boil at the idea of losing to them.
Jack doesn’t see the game, but his phone rings when it’s late, he’s in bed but not asleep. Bittle’s in the shower. Jack rolls over and unplugs his phone from the charger to answer it.
“Hi,” he says, cautious. Nervous.
“Hey Zimms,” Kent says.
“So?” Jack asks.
“Game just ended,” Kent says, drawing it out.
“And?” Jack asks, a bit more urgency clear in his voice.
“You better still be my friend when we win in four.”
Jack laughs at that, and some tension bleeds out of him. “You’re my oldest friend,” Jack says, then, and it makes his chest hurt a bit. “It’s just hockey.”
“You know,” Kent says. “For the first time in our lives, I think we might be on the same page.”
“Wild,” Jack says, only half-joking.
“I want to tell you something,” Kent says. “But I’m really nervous for no real reason other than that it’s you I’m telling it to.”
“Kenny,” Jack says. “It’s fine.”
“I know,” he says, and Jack actually believes him. Jack’s not the same person he was when they were seventeen, eighteen, twenty-four and angry with it, but neither is Kent. Jack hears him take a deep breath on the other end of the line, and he exhales on the other end of the country.
“I’m going to get married,” he says in a rush. “Wow,” he says after a pause. “Christ, feels great to say that out loud.”
“That’s--” Jack says. “Can I ask--”
“He plays D,” Kent says.
Jack’s quiet for a minute, thinks about it before he says, “Goldammer?”
Kent laughs. “He says I can tell you that he says, ‘Good guess.’”
Jack breathes out slowly, keeps his breath even. “Congratulations, Kenny.”
“Thank you,” Kent says. “I just. I wanted to tell you. It’s not going to be a big deal, but it’s in August. Whatever happens, will you come? We’re not--” Jack can imagine him shaking his head, the way his cowlick curls up, the way he smiles like he’s sad but really it’s just that everything he feels is more than one thing at any given time. “We’re not coming out or anything,” he says. “But we’re not going to hide, either.”
Jack swallows past a lump in his throat. “I’m really happy for you,” Jack says, and it comes out rough.
“You sound,” Kent starts, stops. Jack doesn’t know what he wants to say, doesn’t know what he’s holding back. Jack can imagine any number of different things. Sad, quiet, sick, tired, different, angry, alone. Jack can imagine any number of things he could feel about it. He can imagine any number of ways this could be different if only Jack were different. It could have been Jack calling Kent, Jack marrying Bittle. Jack marrying Kent, if their lives were really different.
“You should get to bed. Big game tomorrow,” Kent says. Jack hears a voice in the background and Kent adds, “Jeff says not to fuck it up. He’s seen instagram pictures of your dog and wants to meet her.” In the other room, Bittle shuts off the shower.
“I’ll do my best,” Jack says.
“That’s all I can ever ask for, Zimms. That’ll be enough. Sleep tight.”
“Night,” Jack says
Game seven in Toronto is hard work - their injuries are catching up with them, those on top of the fucked up sleep schedules and the exhaustion that settles in with Playoffs. Sharpy’s shoulder isn’t doing great. Jack’s knee is starting to ache. They’re hurt but not falling apart at the seams even though they should be.
They’re up 3-2 in the third and Zach gets checked into the boards. Jack doesn’t see it happen but knows something’s wrong right away, the way Zach tries to keep the puck in but doesn’t move his hand at all, holds his stick the same way he was when he got pinned against the glass. He kicks at the puck but it gets away. Mashkov is the biggest guy on the Leafs roster and Zach isn’t big. When the play ends, Jack goes to the refs, asks for a review on the play, but it was a clean hit and Zach’s not even on the bench, is right behind Jack like he’s got an A on his chest or something.
Ewers skates by Zach, and Jack barely hears him when he says, “Don’t be such a pussy, Webs, it was clean and you know it.”
“I’m fine, Jack,” he says from behind Jack’s shoulder, soft. “Leave it.”
“It was a fair hit,” the ref says, and Ewers says, “See? Your boyfriend’s fine, Zimmermann. Fuckin’ drama queen.”
Jack whips his head around to look at Ewers and then back at the ref.
“Can it, guys. Commercial’s gonna be done soon.”
Jack turns to Zach and says, “Bench, now.”
Ewers makes a kissy face at Jack when they pass the Leafs bench and Jack says, “Fucking asshole,” under his breath but loud enough to be heard.
“Stop,” Zach says. “It’s fine.”
“Get his glove off,” Jack says to the trainers, ignoring Webs entirely. “His hand, there’s something wrong with it.”
“I’m fine to play.”
“Like shit,” Jack says, throwing himself onto the bench.
After a minute of deep breathing on Jack’s part, Caleb makes Mack switch spots with him and nudges Jack in the shoulder. “What happened?”
“His fingers, I think.”
“I meant with Ewers,” Caleb says, and something about it reminds Jack so much of Bittle that it hurts.
“He’s an asshole,” Jack says.
“I know,” he says. “Played with him in the W.”
“He-” Jack sighs, bites the inside of his cheek. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Then let it go,” Tribby says. Jack takes a drink of his Gatorade and stretches his neck out to the right, then the left. There are seven minutes left in the period, and if they can keep the puck out of their net, they’ll win it. Jack swallows. He knows, logically, that Ewers doesn’t know shit about him, they’ve never met other than on the ice, it’s not real, Jack’s gay but there’s no way for anyone on the Leafs to know that, Jack’s fine inasmuch as he always is. He watches the ice and takes some kind of twisted comfort in knowing that Tribby and Webs get it, too, that he’s not alone, that on the other side of the country, Kent is watching, and that he gets it too. The rest of it--
Zach’s got three broken fingers and maybe a sprain, but they let him back on the ice again, his fingers put back in his glove. Jack wants to ice his knee and maybe punch something, but he swallows past it and follows Zach out onto the ice for the shift change.
It’s not easy, but they’ve all spent their entire lives playing through the hurt.
Zach gets the puck to Jack’s tape, and Jack barely looks, doesn’t remember anything other than a simple flick of his wrist and the lights going. They win 4-2.
When Jack gets home, the lights are off. It’s quiet. Marg doesn’t make a sound, and she doesn’t come to the door, which means she’s sleeping in their bed. He slips out of his shoes, lines them up beside Bittle’s runners. He undoes his tie and hangs it and his jacket over the back of one of the chairs at the kitchen island. When he slips into their bedroom, he can hear Bittle’s soft snoring. He changes into his pyjamas, brushes his teeth and washes his face before heading back into their room and crawling under the covers.
“Good job,” Bittle murmurs, still more asleep than awake, and Jack kisses his cheek before settling beside him. He looks up the ceiling, white and crisp but somehow different from all the hotel ceilings across the continent.
“I’m sorry,” Jack whispers. Bittle shifts beside him, curls into Jack’s side, rests his cheek against Jack’s chest. He runs his fingers across Jack’s stomach, over the soft t-shirt he’s wearing.
“Why?” Bittle asks. There’s no accusation in his tone, nothing sharp or angry or frustrated. It’s better than Jack deserves.
“I love you so fucking much,” Jack says. “I wish it was easier for me.” He closes his eyes. “I don’t know how to be what you deserve.”
“It’s not about deserving,” Bittle says, slow. “I love you and I want to be with you. Everyone deserves that, including you.”
“Kent is getting married,” Jack says. There’s a pause that would feel awkward if it weren’t the middle of the night.
After a long time, Bittle says, “He deserves that, too.”
“Yeah,” Jack says, and blinks up at the ceiling. It takes him a long time to fall asleep.
The next morning, he has a text from Kent.
will u stand beside me at my wedding
Jack doesn’t hesitate. Yes.
sweet, Kent replies. Then: id say may the best man win, but thats u and i plan to kick ur ass. so<
Yeah, yeah, Jack sends. Meet you at centre ice, buddy.
“I just miss him,” Jack says, which is stupid, he saw Bittle this morning.
Vegas is hot all year long, but it’s even worse in June. It’s dry, and the small of Jack’s back is sweating by the time he’s off the plane and halfway across the tarmac. The air conditioning in the airport is a small victory.
Jack sits alone on the bus, like always. Sharpy is asleep on the other side of the aisle. Zach’s beside Caleb somewhere behind Jack. Most of the guys have their eyes closed, faces pressed against the window. Jack watches the other cars on the highway and exhales against the glass.
The hotel is like any other hotel except for in the ways that it’s not. It’s Vegas. Nothing gets done halfway-- not the food, not the noise, not the hockey. The sheets in the room are tucked in tight, hospital corners, just like anywhere else, but they’re soft, softer than what they normally end up with. Jack remembers to set his alarm on his phone for an hour and a half from now before he passes out, the blinds pulled shut and the world moving on just fine without him in it for that small stretch of time.
He wakes up wishing he’d slept longer, wakes up wishing he could sleep for a month. He showers and pulls his sliders out of his bag, his shorts, his dry-fit.
He meets Hacter in the lobby right on schedule and the rest of the team trickles down within a few minutes. They get back into the bus and go to the practice ice. After, Jack eats more than he really wants to just for the simple fact that he knows that he needs it.
It’s still early enough when they’re done, barely after seven. They don’t have to be in bed for a few hours. Jack’s had his phone on airplane mode since before take-off, but he turns that off and a few messages come through, Shitty and Bittle and his mom. He scrolls past them to Kent’s name, types out a message, hits send, waits.
sure, want me to come pick u up?? I know a couple places we could go
Okay, Jack responds. We’re staying at the Signature.Do you know where that is?
lmao yes jack i know where it is. see u soon u weirdo Kent says.
And sure enough, twenty minutes later, Jack’s phone buzzes with a simple, outside. b fast before this bellhop murders my ass
When Jack steps outside of the automatic doors from the lobby, he expects Kent to be in some weird sports car. Jack knows he owns a Tesla, has seen the photos of it. But he’s in a little hatchback, plain and black and the most normal, nondescript car Jack could have come up with. Kent’s got the windows down, leans across the passenger seat to say, “Get in, loser,” before he laughs at himself. Jack opens the door and Kent leans back, taps his hands against the steering wheel. Jack does up his seatbelt and says, “So.”
“Hi, Jack,” Kent says. He shakes his head. “Don’t be so weird. Where do you wanna go?”
"Not drinking,” Jack says, and Kent puts the car back into drive before pulling forward. He signals out of the hotel parking lot and drives the speed limit. He’s a good driver, normal, responsible. Jack’s not sure he’s ever actually been in the car with Kent driving. A first time for everything.
“Obviously not, Zimms, Christ. I meant, like, have you eaten?”
“Team dinner ended when I was texting you.”
“Sweet, good, me too. There’s this place I go to that has good coffee, but they do other stuff, too. Tea or whatever. Hot chocolate.”
“Sure,” Jack says, and they sit in a kind of awkward silence for a few minutes. The sun’s still up, the lights not out in full force. It’s kind of uncanny, Jack thinks. He can’t imagine living here. Kent turns once and again, takes them further away from the Strip, and Jack’s grateful.
“What’s with the car?” He asks.
“Don’t diss my wheels, dude,” Kent says, but he looks over and Jack and smiles. “It’s honestly a bit for staying incognito. No one will think it’s you they’re seeing in the Costco parking lot if you’re driving a soccer mom car.”
It’s smart, actually, but the audacity of it all makes him grin. “That’s not a bad idea, Kenny,” he says as Kent parallel parks into a small spot.
“Practice makes perfect,” he says as they both get out of the car. “Plus, it was Jeff’s idea. Can’t take all the credit. He owns a Subaru. Makes fun of me for having fancy china. Place is a block up this way,” he points down the block and Jack follows. Jack knocks their shoulders together.
“Hey,” he says, a bit quieter. “Congrats about that, for real.”
Kent’s cheeks go a bit pink and he looks down at his feet quickly before looking at Jack. “Thank you,” he says, a grin threatening to split his face in two. “I...it seems nuts. I don’t know.”
“You deserve it,” Jack says, and Kent holds the door to the little coffee shop open, so Jack steps through.
“Feels weird to say it, but I think you’re right. What about you? All good on the Eastern front?”
Jack looks up at the menu and doesn’t know what to say. “I--It’s okay. Eric’s family is...complicated. He’s been. Quiet, I guess. I don’t know how to make it better. Plus. You know,” he shrugs.
“Plus we’re never at home, and you’re tired.”
“I just miss him,” Jack says, which is stupid, he saw Bittle this morning. Jack looks away, blinks his eyes, hard, then says, “What’re you going to get?”
Kent gets a London Fog and Jack follows his lead and they go back to the car. Kent says, “I wanna show you something,” and Jack nods.
It’s weird, being in the car together, just driving. It’s something they used to do ten years ago, when things were different, when Jack was different. Kent’s smile is still all gums and teeth, his cheeks dimpling and his ski-jump nose crinkling, but his laugh is deeper and his shoulders are broader. Jack doesn’t really know him anymore despite the fact they’re closer now than they have been in years. Since Kent showed up at Samwell, they’ve had more tough conversations than not, scary ones, complicated ones that seem to only happen in the dead of night. But Kent doesn’t care about who Jack is, really, just how he is, that he’s okay.
When they were younger, Jack always thought Kent was jealous of him, competing with him. Now, Jack knows Kent was just following his lead. Kent was just a kid with a single mom trying to stumble his way through a life that seemed too good to be true. Now, Jack knows that Kent is the one who is leading by example without knowing that that’s his role.
They’ve been so many things to each other, nearly fifteen years of being in someone’s life will do that. There are, of course, so many places where their lives don’t fit together. But Kent is Jack’s friend in a way that no one else is, in a way no one else ever will be. It’s not about who he loves more, there’s no scoreboard. It’s complicated, but for Jack, everything is. He finds, now, as Kent is pulling them off the highway onto a small exit, that he doesn’t care to explain it or even really analyse it. They’re going to face each other tomorrow and that’ll be the beginning of the end of their season. And when it’s done, they’ll both go home, neither of them will have an empty bed. No matter what, it’s not going to destroy either of them to lose to the other. And Jack couldn’t have said that ten years ago, not when one of them was going to get a Vegas jersey and one of them wasn’t.
The desert stretches out on either side of them, and eventually Kent turns again, pulls to a stop in a small parking lot. “Where are we?” Jack asks.
“Red Canyon,” Kent says. “It’s a conservation area.”
“So like...a park.”
“Yes,” Kent says, cajolingly. “C’mon.” Kent gets out of the car, bends back in to grab his paper coffee cup of tea.
Jack follows him across the empty parking lot to a small trail. “I came here a lot when I first discovered it. There’re a bunch of trails. Some of them are long but. I don’t know. It’s Vegas, right? The lights get to be a lot after a while.”
“No offense,” Jack says. “But I do have a hard time believing that the west coast is the best coast.”
Kent laughs. “You would say that. Montreal isn’t even on the coast. You’re so fake.”
Jack laughs too. “Not that this isn’t nice.”
Kent rolls his eyes. “Whatever, it gets better. Anyway. I was going to say. I like my life here, I’m happy I got to play here. It’s a good team. Good guys in the room and stuff. And sometimes I wanted to leave, right, but running away from a place doesn’t really change anything, I guess, just the scenery. And I know that sounds, like, something the annoying guy in our English class that last year, who looked like he jerked it to Kerouac or whatever, but. I’d come out here, and it’s quiet, and it’s really actually beautiful.”
There aren’t lots of trees, but they thin out even more, and they walk further out until it all clears and it’s just flatlands stretching out in front of them. There’re mountains in the distance, rolling hills that are so, so different from New England’s. The sun is setting, the sky streaked red, pink, orange, purple. They stand side by side, Kent’s cup in between his two hands, held in front of his face. Jack’s is almost empty.
“For a long time,” Kent says, voice soft, like he’s scared to say anything at all. “I hated my life here, but it wasn’t this place. It was just my life. I hate hiding, but I don’t want to have a public life. I don’t want to be have to talk about my private life to reporters. And it’s hard to balance that. But.” He shakes his head, and Jack looks away from the sun setting to look at the side of Kent’s face. “Eventually, I got my shit together, and when I did and I had someone to share it all with. I don’t know. I didn’t hate it so much, and it didn’t seem like talking about it to people would be so bad. I love him, you know? It’s hard, sometimes, and sometimes it’s fucking hell, but it’s our life, and I’m not ashamed of it. And whatever you’re going through, I can’t promise it’ll be better, or fix itself. But. Whatever it costs you, all of the hiding and the distance and whatever else is happening--I think you just gotta ask yourself: even though it’s hard, is it worth it?”
Jack looks away, pulls at the seam on the sleeve of his cup until it splits. He shoves it in his pocket before it ends up on the ground.
“Why’d you bring me here?” Jack asks.
“I figured you could go home in a couple of days, and you can tell Eric about it, and you’ll have something to talk about other than hockey. Plus, I don’t know. I never come here with anyone. But. Christ, Jack, I don’t know. Maybe it’d be nice if our whole friendship wasn’t based on us trying to make the past up to each other. Maybe we can try something new.”
Jack is quiet for a long minute, and then he exhales and it feels like something shakes loose inside his chest. “Thank you,” he says, voice catching.
“Yeah,” Kent says. “Anytime.”
Vegas wins the first one 1-0 after almost a whole period of overtime.
Jack does media after because he always does, pulls double time whenever they play the Aces. It’s the match-up that hockey beats have been waiting for since before Kent went first in the draft and Jack went to the E.R.
He’s cold to them--he doesn’t need to tell them about how the feud doesn’t exist. They both want to win. Of course they do. He just wants to go out and play his kind of hockey. They have to pick it up, try to go back home without being down by two. But he doesn’t own the media an explanation for anything else.
Sharpy scores early in the first off a pass from Jack. Goldammer gets one in behind Hacter in the third to tie it, and Jack can’t find it in him to be pissed about it. Dan calls for Tribby’s line to go out, and Webs pats his back before they all jump the boards and says, “Let’s get it back,” and then when they take possession of the puck, they do, Caleb getting it right to Zach’s tape and Zach putting it top shelf with a beautiful shot that makes Jack’s heart pound and his palms get a little sweaty.
They go back to Providence tied in the series 1-1.
Jeff is sitting on the floor of their foyer and Bittle is leaning into Jack’s side, laughing. Kent’s cheeks are a bit pink, but he’s smiling, too. “I love you,” Jeff says as Marg licks the side of his face. “I love her,” he says, looking up at them.
Kent rolls his eyes and smiles when Jack laughs. “She’s pretty cool,” he says.
“If only she’d stop eating Kleenexes,” Bittle says, and Kent says, “My cat is obsessed with licking the tops of our shoes.”
“Anyway,” Jack says, gesturing towards the rest of the apartment. “Food’s ready, if you wanna actually come in.
Bittle points to all the different parts of the apartment as they make their way towards the dining table, a brief tour.
“It’s a nice place,” Jeff says.
“Nice view,” Kent says, making his way towards the window.
“Yeah,” Jack says, following Bittle towards the table. They all sit and dish out their food. Jeff groans, and he and Bittle talk food for a bit.
“My mom and I are trying to put a cookbook together, but it’s not easy. She’s in Georgia, so we sometimes have a hard time coordinating times to talk. I’m sure you guys know all about that.”
“‘Course,” Kent says. “Doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck all the time.”
Bittle shrugs, awkward, and Jack settles his hand on Bittle’s knee, squeezes once before lifting it back to take a sip of his glass of milk. There’s a bottle of red wine sitting on the table, but they haven’t opened it, probably won’t considering three of them have to play tomorrow. “Must be weird,” Bittle says, “Fraternizing with the enemy when you’re in the middle of it all.”
“Yeah.” Jeff laughs and throws his arm across the back of Kent’s chair. “It’s a bit weird.”
Kent tilts his head at Jack and smiles softly before hiding his mouth behind his own glass. Jack smiles back.
The Falcs win 2-1 the next night. Kent scored the only goal that Vegas had, is the only reason they made it onto the board. He played well, but the Falconers played better. Jack makes the drive home on autopilot and falls asleep fast, Bittle’s arm over his waist and his knees pressed into the back of Jack’s own.
Game four is worse, scrappier than the last three. They go up on the board, and then Vegas ties it up. Jack takes a stupid hooking penalty and Kent scores. Jack has no doubt that the media will be all over that one unless Jack does something about it. He gets an assist on their next goal. Zach takes a hit when he gets stuck on the ice while the rest of the guys switch off, one that gets his hand caught between someone’s body and the boards, and Jack cringes. Zach is dead set on staying out til the end, until the last game. He’s been amazing, been playing beautiful hockey despite the number of broken bones in his hand. It’s dangerous, Jack knows, could fuck up his whole career. But he gets it, somehow. It’s worth the cost. When they win the game 3-2, it feels like a bargain.
Game five in Vegas is awful, fucking pathetic considering how close they are. They lose 3-0, and Jack’s knee is swollen. Sharpy’s girls call him when they’re on the way back to the airport, and when Sharpy hangs up, he shuts his eyes.
“All good?” Jack asks as they’re boarding the plane.
“Tired,” Sharpy says. “Never gets easier, y’know?”
“Yeah,” Jack says. “I know.”
Jack’s parents get in just before lunch time. Jack picks them up while Bittle makes lunch. He’s going to take them out in the afternoon so Jack can sleep, and then they’ll be at Brown for the game. Jack’s nervous, doesn’t know what to do with his hands, taps them against the steering wheel the whole way there, fidgets with the radio the whole way back while his mom talks over it.
They get back and eat lunch out on the patio. It’s nice out, and Jack has always loved the middle of June but he hates it now. They talk about nothing, Bittle and Jack’s mom both talking about some TV show with big hand gestures. Jack’s dad catches Jack’s eye and nods once, then smiles, and Jack can’t help it and looks away without smiling back.
Jack wakes up from his nap before his alarm with Bittle straddling Jack’s stomach. “Hi,” he says, quiet.
Jack rest his hands on Bittle’s thighs and says, “Hey,” raspy.
“Your parents are looking at some antique stores or something. I let them take the car.”
“Okay,” Jack says, stretching his neck to the left and then the right until it cracks, pops. “What time is it?”
Jack groans. “I’m not trying to be, like, a world class asshole, but I really need to sleep for, like, at least another hour.”
“I know,” Bittle says, and smirks. “I figured I can blow you and then you can pass back out, though.” He drags his hands across Jack’s chest appreciatively even though Jack knows he’s lost too much weight in the final playoff push.
“I--” Jack says, and Bittle’s smile softens.
“I should’ve just had your dick in my mouth before I woke you up,” he says, and Jack laughs.
“Okay, okay,” he says. “I’m tired but I’m not dead, Bits, c’mon.”
It’s fucking incredible hockey. It’s hard, damn near impossible, and Jack’s exhausted but he feels like his blood is on fire. They net one when Schultzy makes an unreal pass to Webs, and he wraps around the net only to tap it up to Jack. He shoots hard, and it’s loud, and the crowd erupts with it. Vegas fights hard, comes back at them and gets it back four minutes later.
In the locker room, they eat orange slices and Jack’s good knee bounces. Sharpy leans into Jack’s stall and says, “Jackabelle,” and it sounds almost like a question.
“Yeah?” Jack asks, pushing his hand down against his knee to stop it from moving.
“When this is all over, can I talk to you about something?”
“Is it your shoulder?” Jack asks, eyes going wide.
“No,” Sharpy says. “Don’t worry about that. I’m fine to play. I might be old, but--”
“You’re not old,” Jack says, no joke in him, no way to ease his nerves.
“I am,” Sharpy says. “A bit. But I still have it in me to win. So let’s fucking win, okay?”
“Okay,” Jack says, and he can’t bring himself to smile, but his knee relaxes and he puts another orange slice in his mouth.
They stay tied until the end of regulation. Before going back down the tunnel, Jack tries to pick Bittle out of the crowd, tries to see his mom and dad, tries to find where Shitty and Lardo and Ransom and Holster are sitting and can’t, doesn’t know where they are. He thinks of his mother’s soft hands, the way she’d sit on the side of his bed when he was a kid and rub his back. He can hear the way she’d say, “Deep breaths, honey,” and, “Take your shoes off,” and, “Make good choices.” He can remember the way she’d cried and cried when he was in the hospital and the way she said, “Be good,” when she dropped him off at Samwell, and he remembers thinking that he always had been, he was just scared, it was the media made it into something else, the vodka and the cocaine and the pressure. But it was never about being good, or better than his dad, it was just about being able to try. He could be good all he wanted, but he couldn’t make the world believe it was true if they didn’t want to. But he could be great, now, and he could show them, and he could make her proud. He remembers saying, “Of course, mama,” and hugging her.
In the hallway outside the locker room, Caleb asks Zach, “You good?”
Zach says, “Of course,” and smiles, and Jack finds that he’s not afraid anymore, no matter how it ends.
Jack gets over the boards, is on the ice for what feels like a lifetime. It’s a mess, both teams desperate for it for different reasons. It feels like it happens in the blink of an eye. Jack is a part of a scramble on their end of the ice, gets it out to Ira, who passes it back to Jack. Jack gets it to Tribby’s tape and then he’s gone, him and Zach the two fastest guys on their roster, and they’re past centre ice instantly, Kent coming off his own bench with a desperate switch and going after them.
And then Tribby shoots the puck wide, Webs wrapping around to grab it back and put it in the back of the net, not a beautiful shot but not an ugly one, either, and not bad for a Cup winner. The horn blares, the lights flashing, the crowd a cacophony of screams.
And then Caleb is crashing into Zach, screaming and then pressing their mouths together. It’s like déja-vu except Jack’s not gutted, and he’s crashing into them a second later, and he’s not breathing but it’s like nothing else he’s ever felt. He’s not sure he can even see anymore, is just laughing as Falconer after Falconer crashes into them, a sea, and it feels amazing, impossible, better than almost anything.
It’s a frenzy, overwhelming in a way Jack hasn’t felt in his entire life. When he gets the Cup first, he spins it around, tears in his eyes, until he spots his dad’s name. He holds it above his head before bringing it down to kiss it.
He passes it to Zach, deserving Conn Smythe winner, who gives it, of course, to Caleb. When Caleb passes it to Sharpy, he throws himself at Zach, smiling into him, and Jack smiles at it, the lack of fear, the open affection. The absolute, earth-shattering joy of the moment. He watches Sharpy skate around and knows it doesn’t mean as much to him now as it did the last time he won it, but he gets that it’s not a contest in that way. Jack looks around at the rest of his teammates and knows that this team, this roster of guys--they’re important to him now in a way that no one else ever will be.
Jack and his dad do an interview with Mcguire, and his dad tears up. “I’ve never been happier in my life,” his dad says, and Jack has to bite back tears.
A lot of stuff happens at once. Bittle and Shitty and Ransom and Lardo and Holster come down onto the ice, follow to the bar that they pick, Jack’s parents drink out of the Cup and Sharpy loses it, laughs until he cries, and Jack wants to kiss Bittle but doesn’t, can’t bring himself to do it even with Zach kissing Caleb every second they aren’t drinking.
Jack’s drunk, happy despite the tightness in his chest when he meets Bittle’s eye. “You did real good,” Bittle says, and he just sounds proud, happy, kinder than Jack would be if the tables were turned.
“I love you,” Jack says.
“I know,” Bittle says, and he smiles, knocks their shoulders together before smiling. Lardo jumps on Jack’s back and Jack laughs, lifts his hands around his back to hold onto her.
“We’re doing grenades,” she says, and someone whoops a cheer at that.
Jack wakes up with his head pounding. He groans, rolls over and the movement makes his stomach slosh. He swallows past his dry mouth and he says, “”m I dead?”
Bittle groans and shoves at Jack. “Phone,” he says, and that’s when Jack realizes that’s why he’s awake. The sun’s coming in through the crack in the drapes. Jack moans, finds his phone.
“Why?” He says, and there’s a laugh on the other end of the line.
“Zimms,” Kent says, still laughing. “Buddy, it’s 2PM. Up and at ‘em.”
Jack rolls out of bed when Bittle groans again, and he pads into the bathroom. He closes the door softly and runs the tap. He splashes water into his mouth and then says, “I didn’t think you’d…” trails off.
“I’m not upset, Jack, c’mon.”
“You’re not?” He sits on the floor, back against the wall, feet pressed into the door to cabinet under the sink.
He can almost hear the shrug. “Sucks to lose but if it was gonna be anyone, I’m happy it’s you.”
Jack’s not sure he would have been able to say the same, actually, but Kent’s a good guy, a good friend even after all this time.
“You played so fucking well,” Jack says.
“You too,” Kent says. “Listen, I’m at the airport, but I wanted to say congrats, you know? I saw your dad but didn’t talk to him, obviously. Just. Tell him and your mom that I say hey, would you? And your boy, too. Thank him for having us.”
“Is that why you called?”
“Nah,” Kent says. “Just wanted to fuck with you, knew you’d still be out cold.”
“Get fucked,” Jack says, but he’s smiling, would laugh if it wouldn’t rattle his brain against the insides of his skull.
“Plan on it,” Kent chuckles. “I hope things with Eric get sorted,” he says, then, tone softer. “I just--I saw the photos, Of Triber and Webs. I wanted to make sure you were good.”
“Oh,” Jack says. He closes his eyes, turns to press his face against the cool wall. “We’ll be okay.”
“That’s good,” Kent says. “I gotta go,” he says. “Just wanted to make sure.”
“Text me so we can book flights and stuff.”
“Drink some gatorade, take some painkillers.”
“Gonna,” Jack says, and they end the call.
Jack shakes two Tylenol and then two Advil into his palm and swallows them with his face held under the tap. He takes the same pills out to Bittle, nudges him until he takes them from Jack’s hand and swallows them with a sip from a bottle of water on the nightstand. Jack crawls back into bed and Bittle settles against him.
“Mhm,” he hums against Jack, and Jack presses his face into Bittle’s neck. “Thank you.”
“‘Course,” Jack says, closing his eyes.
Chapter 8: Postlude
Jack honestly doesn’t remember much. He remembers being on the parade float, remembers swaying with the vodka shots Caleb made them all do, remembers hearing his dad’s voice, a laugh in it, saying, “Son, whatever you do, don’t drop it.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The next six days pass in a blur of alcohol. Jack honestly doesn’t remember much. He remembers being on the parade float, remembers swaying with the vodka shots Caleb made them all do, remembers hearing his dad’s voice, a laugh in it, saying, “Son, whatever you do, don’t drop it.”
He remembers telling Sharpy that he loved the Cup more than his dog, which isn’t true, not really, but felt real at the time. Remembers Sharpy saying, “Zimmboni, I wanna tell you before they announce it--”
“You’re retiring,” Jack remembers slurring, and Sharpy nodded, teared up, shook his head.
“It was a good run,” Sharpy said, and Jack said, “A hell of a finish.”
He remembers kissing Shitty right on the mouth, sitting on the floor of the apartment, Holster passed out on the couch behind them. He doesn’t remember what happened to anyone else, but he remembers Shitty laughing, and then he remembers apologizing, saying, “Sorry, Shits. I’m really sorry.”
“What for? For laying it on me? It’s fine, you’re in my celebrity five.”
“No,” Jack remembers saying. “I’m an asshole, I’m sorry I’m a bad friend, that I’m bad at texting you back, that I don’t know what’s been happening ever with--”
“Hey,” he remembers Shitty saying before he rested his head against Jack’s shoulder. Jack remembers leaning into it, “Don’t say that. I’m not doin’ much better.”
“You’re my favourite,” Jack said, and Shitty laughed.
“You’re my family, brother,” he said, and Jack shifted to put his head in Shitty’s lap. Shitty said, “Open up,” and poured beer into Jack’s mouth.
Things settle down eventually simply because they have to. No roller coaster is all downhill, top speed. Jack’s even more exhausted than he was in the middle of playoffs, feels like his liver could slide right out of his body after the betrayal of the last week.
He spends a whole day in bed, then moves to the couch the next day. He watches an entire season of Border Patrol, and Bittle makes fun of him while still being a good sport. He takes the dog out, orders take-out for the two of them, sits with Jack’s feet in his lap and doesn’t try to talk to Jack about much of anything.
Zach does an interview with Sports Illustrated. He and Caleb aren’t the first out players, not in the years after Jack’s first season, after Benn and Seguin had their Cup win, but no one’s gone to media with it before, has just ignored the speculation to police what kind of photos people see, what people can talk about it. Jack’s not sure what’s worse. That seems like its own kind of hiding, putting out Instagram photos once a month to keep the fans happy and talking but not ever doing anything else.
Bittle goes to Boston for a few days, sits in meetings, and then calls Jack. “I’m in the car.”
“You shouldn’t drive and talk on the phone.”
“Bluetooth,” Bittle says. “It’s fine.” Jack can practically hear him vibrating on the other end of the phone. “They’re gonna publish it.”
“Holy shit,” Jack says, smiling, laughing, full to bursting. “Bittle. Eric.”
“I know,” Bittle says, and then he’s laughing. “I gotta call my mom, shit, I’ll call you back, she’s--”
“Of course,” Jack says. “I love you.”
“Love you too,” he says. “See you soon.”
Jack isn't sure that he's a good man, is positive he's made a mess of it, actually, but he wants to be better in anyway he can. Being proud of Bittle is easy. It's easier than the rest of it, anyway, and it doesn't seem like a bad place to start.
When Bittle gets home, Jack stands to meet him, walks towards the front door. Bittle drops his bag and jumps at Jack. Jack catches him, laughs, and kisses him hard. “I’m so fucking proud of you,” he says, and Bittle keeps laughing, kisses Jack’s face, his nose, his cheeks, his chin.
“You deserve it.”
“Fuck,” Bittle says, “I love you.”
“I know,” Jack says, and he walks them back towards the bedroom.
They go to Montreal for a week, spend time with Jack’s family and lay out by the pool. They go home, and Jack trains, and Bittle Skype’s with his mom and they work on the book. Bittle drags Jack to hot yoga and Jack hates it until he doesn’t, and then he loves it, befriends the teacher and buys a bunch of stupid, overpriced yoga clothes. Bittle invites Caleb over for lunch while Zach’s hand gets operated on, and he sends him off with a casserole before he goes back to the hospital to take him home.
Lardo and Shitty come and stay with them for a week, Ransom coming part way through and Holster joining them on Friday night until Sunday. They drink sangria and get brunch and it doesn’t feel like it did at Samwell, but it feels nice, good, new and soft and somehow bigger.
Jack’s phone buzzes as he’s loading the washing machine and he pulls it out of his pocket. He doesn’t recognize the number and so he says, tentatively, “Hello?”
“Hello,” the voice on the other end says, deep and drawling.
“Mister Bittle,” Jack says, professional but no doubt cold.
“I was hoping you’d be able to put me on the phone with my son. He won’t return my calls.”
“He,” Jack says, stops. Closes his eyes. “He’s not here, at the moment. Sir.”
Jack hears him sigh. “I’d like to speak with him,” Bittle’s dad says, and Jack wants to kill him, would do it with his bare hands if he thought Bittle would ever forgive him for it. “I owe him an apology.’
“Yes,” Jack says.
“I owe you one, too, son.”
“Did your wife give you my number?”
“She did,” he says, and Jack doesn’t know what to say to him, doesn’t want to make it worse but can’t forgive him for it either.
“I’ll tell him you called.”
“Yeah,” Jack says, and hangs up, and punches the washing machine.
Jack signs a six year extension, Zach signs one for four, he and Caleb buy a giant house on the water. Sharpy retires, quiet and solemn, and then throws a huge barbecue, his beautiful family smiling the whole time.
Jack finds Bittle in the kitchen, humming to himself and stirring something on the stove.
“Morning,” Jack says, looking into the open fridge.
“Pick something or close the door,” Bittle says, then turns towards Jack with a smile on his face. “Good morning.”
Jack closes the fridge door, sits on the stool by the island. “What’re you making?”
“Compote. Figured I’d do waffles.”
Jack moans, and Bittle laughs. Jack asks, “How can I help?”
Once they’re eating, Jack says, “I need to talk to you about something,” with his heart pounding in his chest.
Bittle looks up at him, swallows around his mouthful of food. “Okay,” he says, slow, almost scared.
Jack takes a steadying breath. “Your dad phoned me last week.”
“Why?” Bittle asks, eyes huge, wide. His eyebrows draw together and he looks angry. Jack looks down at his plate and tries to cut his waffle with the side of his fork. He gives up.
“Because you won’t call him back,” Jack says, puts his fork down. “That’s not--you don’t have to call him back. You can choose whatever you want. I support whatever you decide to do, even if you don’t decide now. There’s something else.”
“Okay,” Bittle repeats. He puts his cutlery down, presses his hands into his eyes.
“Hey, no, Bittle, it’s not--” He reaches forward to pull Bittle’s hands away from his face, holds them against the table. He runs his thumb over Bittle’s knuckles.
“I want to--I know it’s not the same, my relationship with my dad. But. Look, when I was seventeen, I was sure I couldn’t be good like he was good, couldn’t live in his shadow, and at that point, I’d rather than die than be worse than he was. You can see the problem.” Bittle nods, squeezes Jack’s fingers in his own. “I love him very much, but he will never understand me. And that’s okay.”
Jack nods. “I am who I am, and he is who he is. And you are who you are. But, I don’t know. I don’t have to be the same as my dad, I can have a different career. It’s not my whole life. And it’s sure as shit not the best part of my life.”
Bittle eyes well with tears. “It’s okay, Jack.”
“No, I’m serious, listen. You’re it, okay? You’re all of it. And. I’m sorry that it’s so hard for me. I’m sorry it’s taken me so fucking long to be able to explain it.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s...you’re sick.”
“I know, but I can still take responsibility for my actions. And, like. Look, I want to get to the place where I’m not scared of what people will say. I want to be happy and safe with it, like Zach is, like Shitty and Lardo are, like Sharpy and Abby and anyone else in the world. But I’m not there yet. I want to tell you I will be, soon, but I can’t promise when, I don’t know how to get there any faster. I--the happy life, the future..it’s always seemed like something other people got to have. But I’m fucking stupid, I have it already, you’re here, and I don’t want you to go, not ever, not anywhere I can’t follow. I’m proud of loving you but I’m not--”
“You don’t have to,” Bittle says. “I would never make you come out for me.”
“No,” Jack says. “I know you wouldn’t. That’s why I need to tell you all this.” Jack’s rambling and he knows it, but he doesn’t know how to stop. “I know, like, my name’s going to be on that Cup, and that’s special, it was hard work, but it’s not worth shit if I don’t get to share it with you.”
Bittle laughs, then, smiles even though a tear escapes from his eyes. He shakes his head. “I know it’s been a crazy year, special and a dream come true, but it’s been pretty hard.”
Jack smiles, turns Bittle’s hand over in his. “Fucking awful, actually,” he says.
Bittle laughs again. “Thank you,” he says.
Jack asks, “Can we go to bed?”
Bittle nods. “Yeah,” he says, and he pulls at Jack’s hands, kisses him hard when their bodies meet. Jack stumbles backwards towards their room, gives up, gives in, pushes Bittle into the wall and kisses him until he can’t breathe.
Jack’s Cup day is on his birthday. They spend it in Montreal, at his parents’ house, and it’s a big scene, a giant party that Jack had nothing to do with but is willing to participate in, and it’s fun. Ransom cries into the Cup, and Bittle gets a great photo of it.
Kent’s wedding is in the middle of nowhere, some place Jeff’s family used to come to. He’s got a lot of siblings, and they’ve got kids, and a few of their teammates are there, one guy that Jack and Kent played with in Rimouski who never made it out of minors. Kent’ mom and sister and, surprisingly, dad, are all there. Bittle looks handsome, helps Jack with his hair before the ceremony, kisses him before he takes his seat and Jack goes to stand on his mark. His hands are sweaty but they don’t shake, and he holds them behind his back and waits.
Standing beside Kent, Jack looks at him, smiling, and then out to Bittle. He holds his eyes, blinks at him, slow. When he hands Kent his ring, it makes Jack’s chest tight to remember how things used to be. Everything changes so fast, the moments that make up a life fade back into memory so quickly. Kent says his vows, gentle and soft and hard to swallow past, and Jack watches Bittle’s face. His own eyes well with tears, but the corner of his mouth turns up, and it makes his heart feel full to understand how important these moments are, how heavy they feel but how quickly that goes away, how all of this is the hardest and easiest thing he’s ever done and how they’re the same thing, somehow, how much he loves Bittle and Kent and the rest of his life, everyone in it, how nothing, not a single thing can survive in the havoc of it all, how nothing stays the same for long. How important it all is, how huge and suffocating and scary it is, how beautiful, how worthwhile. Kent steps up on his tiptoes to kiss Jeff and then he laughs, and Jack smiles, Bittle smiles back, and then it’s over, the moment moving into something else, another party, another toast, good food and bad dancing and loud laughter.
When it’s late, Jack gets their stuff together, slips back into his suit jacket. Bittle is talking to Kent’s sister, laughing, and Jack signals with him in their own, weird little language that he has five minutes, and Bittle nods.
Jack finds Kent, drunk but not dangerously so, inside, leaning against the counter and staring into space. “Hey,” Jack says. “Am I interrupting?”
Kent shakes his head. “Was just trying to clear my head,” he says, taking a big sip of water from the glass in his hand.
“We’re gonna get going soon, I think.”
“It’s late,” Kent says, nodding.
“Yeah,” Jack says. Stops. Swallows. “Listen, Kenny--”
“Thanks for doing this,” Kent interrupts.
Jack shakes his head. “Can I say something?” Jack asks, stepping towards Kent, leaning against the counter beside him. He looks down at his own hands, decides against it and stuffs them in his pockets.
“I...Sure, yeah, ‘course.”
“I wanted to thank you,” he says. “I-- I was a real world class asshole to you. And I know it was years ago, a long time, but I hope part of you is able to forgive part of me. Today was really special, and it meant a lot to me to be here.”
“You practice that in the mirror?” Kent asks, but there’s no heat to it, falls kind of flat in the relative silence of the house.
“No,” Jack says, and then he huffs a small laugh of a breath. “Dick.”
Kent elbows him. “Thank you,” Kent says, quiet. Jack sees him wipe at his eyes quickly, and then he says, “Does it ever go away?”
“Does what?” Jack asks.
Kent shrugs. “All of it. I’m scared shitless even though I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. And, I don’t know. Most days, I’m not mad at you at all, but there are days when I think probably part of me is going to love you forever. And that part of me still gets mad, sometimes.”
Jack breathes deep through his nose, exhales out through his mouth. “I don’t know,” he says eventually. “I don’t think so, really.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Kent says. “I want to live the life that I have now. I’m not really--”
“I get it,” Jack says, fast.
“Are things at home better with you guys?” Jack nods. “He seems like a good guy.”
“He is,” Jack says. “I want to be with him for as long as he’ll have me.”
“You know,” Kent says. “When we were young, when we--I loved you but I thought you were a real piece of work. I’m sure you thought the same about me. Now, I don’t know. I guess it’s weird to realize that you’re the bad guy in your own story. That no one has the power to fuck up your life the way you do. I guess the big thing is that when it’s right, you don’t want to fuck it up, would do anything to make sure you don’t.”
“I’m not medicated anymore,” Jack says. “Haven’t been since you found me on the bathroom floor.”
“Does it work for you?”
Jack shrugs. “Sometimes. I don’t know. It’s hard to weigh the two against each other. I’m crazy without the meds but addiction’s a disease as much as the rest of it. It’s hard to know if I could hold it off.”
“Seems unfair,” Kent says.
“It’s hard to talk about. Hard on Bittle, too, which I know isn’t fair. But, I don’t know. For some reason, he wants to be with me anyway. I’m trying to be grateful.”
“I think we’re supposed to feel lucky. For all the good shit that I’ve got...Jeff’s the best of it, you know?”
Jack nods. “Rest is just hockey and the havoc that comes with it.”
Kent laughs. “I’m happy you’re my friend, Jack.”
“Me too,” Jack says, and he means it. “I oughta go.”
“Don’t wanna keep your better half waiting.”
“No,” Jack says, and he pushes himself to stand straight. “Congratulations, again, Kenny.”
“Thank you,” Kent says. He steps up to hug Jack, hard, and Jack hugs him back until Kent pulls away. “We’ll need to, like, go shoot guns or something, make sure we’re both still men.”
“How about go-karting?” Jack says, and Kent laughs at the compromise.
Bittle sends his dad an invitation to his book launch and then immediately regrets it, goes into a kind of frenzy over it, panics and gets angry and then quiet, and then bakes, like, seven pies in an hour. Jack takes them to the neighbours, eats the blueberry right out of the pie pan, feeds Marguerite bites of it off his fork.
That night, in bed, Bittle says, “I feel stupid.”
“You’re not stupid.”
Bittle huffs, takes Jack’s fingers in his own hands and pulls on them until the joints pop. Jack makes a fist and squeezes Bittle’s hand in his, rolls onto his side and props himself up on an elbow.
“I hate that I want him to be proud of me.”
“Because he hurt my feelings and he can’t take it back. I shouldn’t want him to be proud of me.”
“You’re allowed to want to things that oppose each other. You don’t have to forgive him to still love him.”
The dog jumps up on the foot of the bed and crawls until she can squeeze herself in between their bodies. “Marg,” Bittle says, laughs, and she yips at them before settling.
“Mood kill,” Jack says.
“She’s your dog,” Bittle says, smile clear in his voice.
At the book launch, Jack stands back with his mom, has his arm thrown over her shoulder. She says, “You must be very proud of him.”
Jack says, “More than I thought possible, really.”
“You two’ve had a big year.” She says, leaning into him a bit. “What’s next?”
Jack’s not sure. They’re going to Europe next summer, Jack wants to find a charity to partner with. Bittle’s video blog has exploded, so that’s up in the air. Shitty’s done school, he and Lardo are looking for a place, Bittle signed them up to help with the moving. It’s going to be crazy, the season starting in less than a month, hectic in a way that means there’s barely room to breathe. “I don’t know,” Jack says. It’s not slowing down anytime soon. “I think we’re just going to try to be happy.”
“I think that’s brave, ” his mom says, and he smiles. He’s not ready to come out, not ready to get married, but he’s not afraid of it, either, and that’s different than it’s ever been before. It’s nice, in its own way. Unexpected and kind of overwhelming in its normalcy, but something he’s okay with, too, something he’s ready for. Something he thinks he and Bittle both deserve. Even if it’s one step forward and two steps back, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get where they’re going so long as they go together. “No one could call that crazy.”
“No,” Jack said. “Not crazy.”
that's all folks! i don't want to say that this series is done, not really, because i do honestly carry this jack with me everywhere i go, but please don't wait around for anything anytime soon. i wrote some notes on this series, this story, this experience, these characters, me, the future of this little world, and a little bit of extra stuff here on my tumblr. if you wanna follow along there, feel free, but it's really just pictures of chris pine. for a more personal look at pictures of my dog (not marg in name but otherwise exactly the same) and me yelling about canada, here's my twitter account. if you don't want to read those extra notes, please just read this: thank you for believing in jack, for loving him, for following him through to this point. you were believing in me, too, when i really really needed it.