Jack tries to avoid the phrase "having a nervous breakdown." It isn't just a figure of speech to him — he's actually had one, and he would very much prefer not to repeat that experience, thank you very much. But after just an hour at Bittle's parents' house, he really needs some way to describe how he's feeling, and that comes pretty close.
It's not like he didn't know what to expect. Jack is out to his parents, even though that's pretty much it, but Bitty's only out at school. They exchanged a quick hug in full view of Suzanne Bittle at the Atlanta airport, about two hours ago, but other than that, Jack hasn't touched Bitty since graduation. That was six weeks and four days ago. Yes, he's been counting. And right now, the only thing in the world Jack wants more than the Stanley Cup, or even a spot on Canada's next Olympic hockey team, is to press some part of his skin against Bitty's. He wants to rest his cheek against Bitty's hair, nap with his head in Bitty's lap, just be calm and quiet and close to him. Well, he also wants to bite the spot on Bitty's jaw that fit so perfectly beneath his palm in May and reacquaint his fingertips with the curve of Bitty's spine, as long as he's thinking about it. Which he has been, every one of those six weeks and four days.
If he doesn't get to touch Bitty soon, he's going to lose it.
He doesn't have to be psychic to know Bitty feels the same way. Bitty keeps drifting toward him while they talk to Suzanne, bumping up against his side in a plausibly deniable way, making tiny unconscious movements to reach for Jack's hand before catching himself and stepping away again. They've finally taken seats on opposite sides of the kitchen table, just to be safe, but under the table, Bitty is scuffing the toe of his sneaker against Jack's in a way that shouldn't be as distracting as it is.
"Bittle," he finally says when he can't stand it another instant, "where's your, um..."
"Oh gracious, I'm a terrible host! It's down the hall there, on the left."
Jack waits a minute or two before pulling out his phone and texting, Come here. Please. Back in the kitchen, Bitty laughs and says something unintelligible before his footsteps come down the hall and stop outside the bathroom door. Jack opens the door, pulls him in, and shuts it as quietly as he can.
He slides his nose against Bitty's and whispers, "Hey."
"Hey, you," Bitty whispers back. "You're really here."
The frantic feeling in Jack's chest subsides as they breathe together, eyes closed, lips meeting almost chastely. Then the tip of Bitty's tongue flicks against Jack's upper lip and Jack is instantly frantic again in a different way. His hands fly up to angle Bitty's head just so. Bitty's fingertips dip under the waistband of Jack's jeans at the small of his back. Jack presses Bitty against the edge of the sink and considers lifting him up onto it so they can get even closer.
Suddenly Bitty breaks the kiss. "Oh, damn," he groans, "that was the garage door opener. Coach is home." He slides his hands off Jack's torso and scurries out of the bathroom. Jack needs a moment to compose himself before he follows.
Bitty's father is burly, balding, bleached-wheat blond, and not at all insulted that Jack can't bring himself to call him "Coach." He claps Jack on the shoulder and says, "That's all right, son, you've got enough coaches in your life already." When Bitty admits that he refers to Bad Bob Zimmermann as "Mr. Jack's Dad," his father laughs and says "Fine, let's go with Mr. B."
Mr. B, as it turns out, is home early because Madison holds its July 4th fireworks display on July 3 so town employees don't have to work on the actual holiday. But that means the fireworks are just a few hours away. And as Bitty explains, his family has traditions, which are very important, for which they need to prepare. Which is how Jack finds himself watching Bitty and his mother packing a cooler while Mr. B offers him a beer from a local microbrewery.
Bitty intercepts the bottle, plucking it from his father's hand with a "Mind if I try it?" and twisting off the top before he gets an answer.
Mr. B shrugs. "You live in a frat house, Junior. It's not like I think you're sober as a judge."
"Yeah, but we usually go for quantity, not quality." Bitty makes a face. "I'm tellin' you, Coach, you don't know how bad beer can be until you've had Narragansett Black Label."
"Help yourself, then. Just take it easy. And no underage drinking in public."
Bitty saunters around to Jack's side of the table and leans against it, his back to his parents. Only Jack sees his smile when he wraps his lips around the neck of the beer bottle and takes a long gulp, then tongues a droplet off the rim in a way that makes Jack shift in his chair. "Oh, that's really good," he sighs, barely keeping a straight face as he hands Jack the bottle.
Jack isn't sure whether he wants to kiss Bitty or pop him on the ass with the nearest dish towel. He skips both in favor of raising his eyebrows and swigging a mouthful, then holding Bitty's gaze with an enthusiastic "Mmm." It's not entirely for effect — the beer is genuinely delicious — but he still enjoys Bitty's creeping flush as he adds, "You're right, Bittle, that is really good."
Mr. B offers him a fresh bottle, but Jack shakes his head. Any more and he's likely to put his hands all over Bitty later, in full view of the entire town of Madison. As tempting as that is, they both know that's something they can't afford, not yet. Probably not for quite a while.
"Jack's not a big drinker. He can be our designated driver." Bitty heads for the refrigerator and says over his shoulder, "Which reminds me, Jack, the truck is a manual. Can you handle a stick?"
It may be the most beautiful triple entendre Jack has ever heard, but he can't say so in front of Bitty's parents, and the grin on Bitty's face says he knows it. So Jack says in his best hockey robot monotone, "The Falcs say I have the softest hands of all the rookies." That gets a tiny choked sound out of Bitty, and now it's Jack's turn to smirk.
"Come help me load the truck," Bitty says.
There's not a lot of loading to do, but it's a moment alone in the garage behind a closed door. Jack leans against the front bumper of the pickup and pulls Bitty toward him. Bitty goes willingly. He nuzzles into Jack's neck and bites softly at his jaw.
"You're killing me," Jack murmurs against Bitty's temple as goosebumps prickle up and down his arms. Bitty sighs and turns his head just enough to catch the corner of Jack's mouth with his own. Jack can feel him smiling into the kiss.
They spring apart at the sound of the doorknob turning and a voice saying, "Junior, would you make sure the flashlight in the back seat is working?"
Bitty is only a little breathless when he replies, "Yes, sir."
It seems like all 4,000 people who live in Madison have squeezed into Heritage Park, and at least 3,000 of them know the Bittles and want to meet the stranger sitting with them. "Don't worry," Bitty reassures him after the fifth or sixth time Suzanne introduces Jack as one of his college friends. "Nobody here cares anything about hockey."
Of course, that's when the woman talking to Suzanne tilts her head and says, "Don't you think Junior's friend there looks an awful lot like that hockey player we all had a crush on in high school?"
Jack tries not to grind his teeth. He's spent his whole life under the eyes of strangers who look at him and see his father. He can take it.
"Hi, I'm Jack," he says with a polite smile and the offer of a handshake. "Zimmermann. Yeah, Bad Bob's my dad."
And so, naturally, at least a dozen more women — and a handful of men — just happen to approach their blanket over the next half-hour with cries of, "Suzanne Bittle, what a coincidence! I haven't seen you in ages! And who's this young man with you?"
Whenever anyone actually bothers to talk to him directly, he tells them how much he enjoyed playing hockey with Bitty for two years and how good Bitty was as his winger. Bitty demurs, pleased but embarrassed, until he overhears his father bragging to a friend about how his son played on the line of the NHL's next big star. Suzanne looks up from the piece of cold fried chicken she's demolishing just in time to see Bitty staring at the back of Mr. B's head, looking astonished and delighted. "What's got you so happy all of a sudden?" she asks.
"I just — I never thought I'd see the day Coach was actually excited about me playing anything that wasn't football."
"Oh, sweetheart, he just needed to hear how good you are from someone who knows something about hockey! Jack, that was such a lovely thing to say, thank you."
Bitty looks at Jack like Jack is the Christmas present he begged for but didn't really think he'd get. Jack drags his eyes away to tell Suzanne, "Bittle would be a good hockey player even if I hadn't said anything."
She gives him a tremulous smile. "But you did, and look how happy you made him and his daddy."
Jack doesn't know what to say to that. He's about to stammer something about just being honest when, to his immense relief, a voice comes over the loudspeaker to welcome the crowd to Madison's Independence Day celebration. The ballfield lights go off with a loud clunk. Everything is darkness and the low rustle of spectators waiting for the show to begin.
Bitty stretches out on the beach blanket and smiles up at Jack. "If you lie down and look straight up, it feels like you're falling into the sky," he says.
Red and silver sparks blossom overhead. Jack leans back on his elbows, then drops all the way to the ground. He carefully hooks his little finger around Bitty's in the dark space between them where no one can see. Bitty makes a soft, happy sound and Jack falls up, up, up.
Jack's seen fireworks before. On the other hand, he's never been caught out in a warm Georgia downpour. Or left the Bittles sitting in their truck, waiting to get out of the parking lot, while he and Bitty run splashing most of the mile and a half back to the house. Or raced Bitty to his bedroom, laughing at the way their shoes squelch.
He's never sat on the edge of a bed holding Eric Bittle between his knees, but it's an experience well worth having.
It's not just air conditioning on damp skin making him shiver involuntarily. It's the way Bitty stares down at him and says dreamily, "Jack Zimmermann is in my bedroom. Pinch me." So Jack does, slipping one hand beneath the hem of Bitty's shirt to pinch at his side until he squirms. Jack keeps going, sliding his hands up Bitty's ribs, rucking his shirt up high enough to show the fine golden hair dusting his sternum. He's about to tell Bitty to raise his arms when a door slams.
"Dicky, make sure y'all put your wet clothes in the dryer, or at least hang them over the tub," Suzanne calls out. "And come help your daddy find that air mattress before he goes to bed!"
Bitty hollers back, "Just a minute, mama." The edge of impatience in his voice gives Jack a sudden, vivid mental image of Bitty marching into the kitchen to huff out an indignant "Do you mind?" as if his parents were frogs raising a ruckus in the Haus during finals.
"You heard her." Bitty holds out a hand. "Although it's not exactly the way I imagined getting your clothes off."
"So you've thought about getting my clothes off, eh?"
"Maybe." When Jack unbuttons his sodden shirt, Bitty stares at his bare chest and swallows audibly. "Okay, definitely."
Jack continues to strip down to his underwear, which is as rain-soaked as the rest of his clothes and clinging to him in a way that doesn't disguise that he's half hard. Bitty goes pink as his gaze flicks down and instantly up again. Jack reaches for him, but he backs toward the door. "Jack Zimmermann, you are an absolute menace," he says breathlessly. "If you aren't in dry clothes by the time I come back upstairs, I won't be held responsible for my actions."
"Better hurry," Jack calls after him. It sounds like a chirp, but it really, really isn't.
"Bittle, why does the air bed have a USB port?"
"It does not...well, I'll be darned." Bitty looks up as his mother comes into his bedroom with an armful of bedding. "Mama, look at this. I don't know if you use it to charge your phone while it's inflating or to play music through your pillow while you sleep."
"I've heard you talk about things blowing up on Twitter," Jack says, careful to keep a straight face. The side-eye Bitty gives him is deeply satisfying. The pillow he hurls at Jack's head, only slightly less so.
"It's been a long time since you last had a sleepover," Suzanne says, "and I'm pretty sure the two of you won't pretend to be pro wrestlers and give each other bloody noses at 3 in the morning — "
"I was eight!"
Suzanne continues serenely, " — but I'm still gonna ask you to keep it down to a low roar. I can't make two grown men go to sleep, but if we can hear you from the other end of the house, I will call Jack's parents, you see if I don't."
"Mother!" Bitty flops onto the air bed, which emits a long, low fart sound. He slaps his hands over his face at Jack's snort and wails, "Not a word, you hear me? Or I'll slip something awful into the hamburgers tomorrow."
"Oh, and we're off to a good start already." The tone of Suzanne's voice reminds Jack startlingly of her son. It figures that the entire Bittle family has a world-class chirp game. "Jack, what time zone is Montreal in? I wouldn't want to wake your mama in the middle of the night."
She catches Jack's eye, and to his astonishment, she winks.
She leans over her son to tug him to his feet, wishes them goodnight, and then she's gone and it's just Jack and Bitty in a small bedroom that suddenly feels too big because they're on opposite sides of it.
They stand staring at each other until her footsteps recede. Then Jack sinks back down onto Bitty's bed. Bitty flies across the room to reclaim the spot between his knees and curve his hands around the back of Jack's neck. "Hi again," he whispers into Jack's hair.
"Hi," Jack replies. He slips his arms around Bitty's waist and lets his forehead drop against Bitty's chest. He's dizzy with the possibilities, or maybe the way Bitty is quivering under his hands. He and Bitty have talked a lot in the last six weeks and four days. That was just talking, though, with more than a thousand miles between them. Now they're less than an inch apart, and no matter what he wants, he needs to be sure Bitty wants it, too.
"Are you okay with this? We don't have to — "
"We most certainly do." Bitty tugs at the faded t-shirt Jack likes to sleep in. "Off. Now."
Jack doesn't want to let go of him, even for that. He can't help the soft sound of protest he makes when Bitty puts a few inches between them to pull his own shirt over his head. He reaches out reflexively to lace their fingers together and pull one of Bitty's hands to his mouth. "Please," he says against Bitty's knuckles. He isn't even sure what he's asking for, just more, more of anything, more of everything, as long as it involves as much of Bitty touching as much of him as humanly possible. He's nearly choking on the needy whine that wants to burst out of him, but he manages to shape it into Bitty's name as he falls back on the bed, dragging Bitty down on top of him.
They kiss until Jack's lips are tingling and he can hear his own pulse thrumming in his ears. He fumbles at the waistband of Bitty's sleep shorts, trying to work them over his hips even though he can't see what he's doing. Bitty wriggles out of them, and bon dieu, the way he feels. Jack wishes he had half a dozen more hands so he could run his fingers through Bitty's hair and thumb over his cheekbones and knead at his biceps and stroke down his spine all at the same time, and still have hands left over to cup the solid muscles of his ass and thighs.
"You've been keeping up with your squats," he says, and punctuates it with a squeeze.
"Oh my goodness, Jack, shut up."
They writhe and grope and giggle until Bitty gets a firm grasp on the hem of Jack's shorts. One good tug and they're at mid-thigh. Another and they're gone, on the floor or across the room or vanished into another dimension. Jack doesn't care, not with Bitty hooking his arms under Jack's shoulders and twining their legs together.
"Lord, look at you," Bitty says wonderingly. "Right here in my bed. You look like you belong here."
"There's nowhere else I'd rather be."
"I want to keep you here all weekend."
"I want you to keep me here all weekend." The words spill out of him, hoarse and sincere. "I'll do anything you want. Tell me what you want."
"You." Bitty's voice shakes. His eyes are wide and solemn, his face flushed, and he shifts against Jack like he can't help himself. "I want you."
Jack didn't realize he was capable of feeling so desperate and so happy at the same time. He loves Bitty's stuttering whine, the way his hips buck under Jack's touch, the way he wraps his fingers around Jack's to show him what he likes — he just loves Bitty, and it consumes him all at once, like a fever. He's burning and Bitty is gasoline and they're going to explode and take the house down with them. He never wants to stop, he can't stop — he's grinding urgently against Bitty's hip, it's too good, he's right on the edge, no, no, not yet, fuck! He's still panting out shocked little sounds and trying to keep his hand moving when Bitty arches off the bed and comes gasping his name.
Jack kisses him, kisses him, kisses him.
"I'm still here," he breathes, as much to himself as anything. Now that he knows what it feels like to hold Bitty skin to skin, close as the summer air, he never wants to be anywhere else ever again.
They clean up with someone's discarded t-shirt and switch off the light. The bed is small for one person and downright crowded for two, but when Bitty curls into Jack's chest, it's somehow precisely the right size. Jack pulls him in even closer and drifts for a while on the sound of Bitty's breathing and the rain hammering the window.
"I hope that was okay," he whispers into the dark. Bitty nuzzles at his collarbone and hums contentedly. "Was it?"
"No, it was terrible. Worst thing ever."
He rolls his eyes, even though he knows Bitty can't see it. "Are you seriously chirping me right now?"
"Jack." Bitty presses a hot open-mouthed kiss on his chest, just over his heart. It feels like he's been branded. Maybe he has been. "It was amazing. I want more."
He thinks about it for a long time while he runs fingertips up and down the back of Bitty's neck. He knows Bitty meant it as a compliment, but — he needs to be sure. He takes a deep breath and finally says, "I'm sorry I didn't last longer."
"Oh, sweetheart." Bitty's voice is slow with onrushing sleep. "You lasted all day."