Actions

Work Header

So This Is Love

Work Text:

When Eric is six his mother drops him off at his aunt's house so she can run a few errands.

Eric’s cousin, Hannah, is eight and right in the middle of a Disney Princess phase.

The two of them sit in the cool basement and watch Cinderella.

Hannah’s in a dress that’s an exact copy of the one Cinderella wears to the ball.

She giggles at the mice and the stepmother's cat.

She swoons with Cinderella and Prince Charming croon that this is love.

Hannah hauls Eric to his feet and makes him spin her around the carpeted floor like the Prince does at the ball.

As Hannah is rewinding the tape so they can start it again Eric asks her if they could watch something else.

“Sure,” she says brightly. “I have Beauty and The Beast, The Little Mermaid.” She clutches one tight to her chest. “Oh! How about Sleeping Beauty? That’s my second favorite!”

That’s not what Eric had in mind but there’s no stopping Hannah. She pops in the tape then sits cross legged on a pillow next to him, back straight and eagerly anticipating the first lines.

In a faraway land, long ago, there lived a King and his fair Queen.

Eric lies on his stomach with his chin pillowed on his hands with his knees bent and feet swinging in the air.

He thinks he likes this one better. He likes the music more. His feet move rhythmically as Aurora sings, I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream. I know you, the gleam in your eyes is so familiar a gleam. Yet I know it's true, that visions are seldom all they seem... but if I know you, I know what you'll do: you'll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream...

Even at his young age he knows it’s a nice thought. He understands why Hannah likes these kinds of movies. Love at first sight and princes and happy endings.

Still, when Suzanne comes to pick him up he complains.

“We watched them all like a hundred times.”

“Dicky, I was only gone for three hours. You couldn’t have.”

“Well, we watched them a lot. First Cinderella and then Sleeping Beauty.”

“I used to love Sleeping Beauty,” she says wistfully. “So romantic.”

“I guess I liked it better. It had a dragon in it.”

“I hope that doesn’t give you nightmares.”

“It won’t.”

(It does.)

Eric looks out the window as Suzanne takes a left onto Main Street and then a right onto Oak. His little feet kick out and just narrowly miss the back of the passenger seat. “Mama,” he says and Suzanne hums. “Do you think I’ll ever find a prince?”

“Honey,” she laughs. “You are the prince. You just need to find your princess.”

Eric wrinkles his nose. “I don’t want a girl.”

“All little boys say that at your age. Just wait. It’ll happen.”

That doesn’t sit right with him but his mama start singing along to the radio softly.

“I got stuff to make a pie when we get home. Peach or apple? What do you think?”

Eric considers and then says “both.”

He pretends to fall asleep on Elm Street so she has to carry him into the house.

 

********

 

He steps on the ice for the first time a year later.

It changes everything.

He goes straight down and laughs as Suzanne stands over him and tries to pick him up.

“Oh, sweetheart.”

“Mama,I’m okay.” He takes a small step and then another and then he starts to glide.

It’s the easiest thing he’s ever done.

Everyday after school he begs his mother to drive him ten minutes from home to the rink. There’s free skate from five to six so she tells him he has to wait.

“Get your homework done, help me figure out something to do with all these cherries your Aunt gave to me. Your daddy said he can’t take another pie so we have to be creative.”

“And then we can go?”

“And then we can go.”

Eric skates there every night for months.

He’s quick and confident. He beats kids twice his age around the rink with ease.

He never thought he’d be an athlete due to his slight frame and the passive comments from Coach as they watch football games. Mama would tense up and look like she wanted to say something. Eric ignored it outwardly but thought about it as he laid in bed at night.

It’s a surprise when a short woman with brown hair and a thick Russian accent hands Suzanne a card and asks her if Eric has a coach yet.

 

*******

 

Skating was fun but figure skating is something else.

It’s freeing.

The jumps and spins he learns make him feel like he’s flying.

Katya is tough and demanding but when he sticks a difficult landing he thinks he can see the hint of a smile on her face.

He wins ribbons and trophies.

He has a built in set of friends on the circuit.

He feels accepted for the first time.

He is at home on the ice with the music flowing through the speakers. Spotlight on him and his parents in the stands.

When he finishes his set the crowd cheers and claps.

Katya mentions the junior olympics but all Eric hears is Olympics.

Maybe that is how he get to live out his happily ever after.

 

*******

 

Thirteen year old Eric Bittle is a figure skater and he’s proud of it.

But he’s also barely 5’5 but his doctor says he has plenty of time to grow. (He only gains an extra inch and a half.)

He likes home-ec and loves to bake.

He sits with girls at lunch but never asks any of them out.

He gets kissed by Matt Lewis, a beautiful eighth grade football player in the empty locker room after gym class.

It’s unexpected and nice and he finally understands what all the girls have been talking about at lunch.

It’s like a dream.

It’s something he had the suspicion that he wanted but didn’t know how to act on it but now that he knows he’d like to do again and his heart knocks around in his chest when Matt asks him if he’d like to come over his house the next day.

“To study,” he says with a wink and Eric has to lock his knees to keep himself from swaying back against the lockers.

He manages to tell mama about his after school plans without a blush. She’s happy he’s making a new friend and doesn’t even ask him what class they’re planning to study for.

Coach tells him Matt’s a good kid. “Maybe he can give you a few pointers about throwing the ball, Dicky.”

The next day after the final bell he’s waiting for Matt so they can walk to his house together when he’s surrounded by the entire football team.

His back is against the wall as Matt puts his hand over Eric’s mouth so he can’t make any noise.

Three others lift him easily and carry him the short distance to the utility closet. They dump him in there and lock the door before he can get up.

His phone is missing from his bag.

Mama won’t be expecting him home for hours and even if she calls Matt’s house he could come up with a cover story. He could tell her he’s spending the night. That would make her real happy. Matt could take this far.

He pounds on the door and yells until his hand hurts and his voice is sore then fishes around in the dark for the light switch.

No one misses him.

There’s no white knight or brave prince coming to rescue him.

He's on his own.

 

*******

 

Coach wants to raise hell.

The angriest Eric has ever seen him is in the principal's office Monday morning.

Suzanne doesn’t even try to rein him in.

She sits with her arm around Eric on the couch and shoots daggers at Matt and his parents on the opposite side of the room.

“He locked my boy in a closet all night then lied to my wife. What are you going to do about this?”

“That’s a very different story from what Mr. Lewis has told us.”

“You think he locked himself in there on purpose?” Coach explodes.

“Kids cry for attention all sorts of ways. It’s not a secret that Eric doesn't have a very large group of friends-.”

Suzanne makes a pained noise and pulls herself up.

“Enough. I’ve heard enough. If you’re not going to do something about this then we’ll find someone who will. Let’s go.”

On the way home they talk about calling the superintendent, calling the media, “a few years ago I coached the son of that congressman, remember. I bet he’d do us a favor.”

“Can you please let it go?”

Suzanne swivels around in her seat to look at him and Coach taps the brakes.

“How can we let this go?”

“I don’t want to make it worse.”

“They locked you in a closet all night. How could it be worse?”

There’s only a dull ache in his arms from where they grabbed him.

“I just don’t want to think about it more than I have to. I want to forget about it.”

“Honey.”

“Please.” Eric rests his head against the window and shuts his eyes.

Suzanne makes a sympathetic noise in the back of her throat and turns around.

He's Cinderella sweeping the floor.

Aurora pricking her finger.

Belle getting locked in her room by the Beast.

Not every story gets a happy ending.

 

*******

 

It’s better in Madison.

His father got the head coach job and even though Bitty should be sad to say goodbye to his childhood home no one is too broken up about it.

The commute is too long for Bitty to continue to figure skate, even though both his parents tell him they’d try to figure out a way to make it work.

“We both know how much you love it, Dicky. We didn’t mean to take you away from it.” His mother explained.

But Eric decides he’s ready to try something new.

He drops the figure skates and picks up a hockey stick.

“You sure you're going to be able to handle this?” Coach asked with concern. “Isn't hockey kind of a physical sport?”

“There's no checking. I already looked into it.”

He did not want a repeat of pee wee football. He got tackled one time and his mama had to carry him off the field.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” Suzanne asks as she looks over all his trophies then down at the helmet and stick leaning against the wall. “Is this going to make you happy?”

“I think so. Coach will like it.”

“But will you? You know we just want you to be happy.”

Eric nods and goes back to his homework.

 

******

He originally thought hockey would just be a way to fill an obligation.

He never thought he’d fall in love with it. (And later fall in love because of it.)

He’d get to finally be the good, southern, jock son that his father always wanted.

It's not football but it's not figure skating. It's a man's sport. It's something men watch in bars while they're drinking beer.

But he’s good at it. Fast and coordinated. He’s a great passer and the coaches praise him.

His dad actually cheers for him when he can make it to a game.

People wave to him in the halls and he might not be getting invited to parties every weekend but he’s not getting shoved in closets either.

The team makes him captain his junior year and then again senior year.

That’s when brochures from colleges start showing up in the mail.

 

******

 

“Most of them are offering scholarships,” Bitty says absentmindedly as he sorts through them. They’re mostly local community colleges and small state schools but there are a few from further away. There’s one from California and another from Michigan. There’s one from a university a bit outside Boston that Eric’s never heard of before.

“I guess it would be nice to have some help. Are you sure you want to play hockey in college? The rules are a bit different there.”

She’s talking about checking and even though Eric wants to roll his eyes at her worries he knows she’s right.

“I think I’m ready for it.” It’s a white lie at best. “They might not even want me. I’m sure they send these out to a ton of kids. I’m supposed to send a tape in and then they’ll decide if they want to see more of me.”

“You’re going to send a tape to all these schools?”

“I’m going to do some research first. See if I can narrow it down.”

“Okay,” She sighs and ruffles his hair. “Let me know if you need any help.”

 

*******

 

He doesn’t tell his parents this but he never even considers any of the southern schools.

College is a time to find yourself and have fun and he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to do that when he’s too afraid to hold the hand of a cute boy in public or private.

So he starts on the west coast and works his way east.

There’s a lot to consider.

Class size, how nice the campus is, how nice the dorms are, what programs they offer, how diverse the student population is.

When he gets to Samwell he knows he can stop looking.

The photos online were taken in the fall so all the leaves on the trees that line the river that cuts right through campus are bright red and orange. There are enough courses offered to keep him busy and interested and the the dorm rooms like nice.

What really sells him is the banner at the top of the Campus Life page.

Voted #1 Most LBGTQ-Friendly Campus Three Years Running.

He digs a little deeper and finds more.

Samwell Athletes and Allies Organization.

One in four, maybe more!

His heart is set and his mind is made up.

 

******

 

“Samwell. Why does that sound so familiar?”

“I don’t know, mama. It’s outside Boston. Have you ever been up that way?”

“No, it’s something else. It’s gonna bother me. I’ll think of it in the middle of the night or something.” She drops the application back onto the table and Eric puts it in the padded envelope with the DVD of him playing. He edited in a few shots of him doing spins in his figure skates just to emphasize how good he is on the ice. He’s hoping it’ll take away from his small size. “You sure about that one? It’s mascot is a well.”

“She dances. It’s cute.”

“I suppose so. But it’s so far away.”

“It’s good to have options, mama.”

 

******

 

Eric cries openly in the kitchen with his mama hugging him when he gets accepted.

He’s able to hide it with his head turned towards the passenger side window of the truck as Suzanne takes the exit that’ll lead them into Samwell.

Two boys hold hands and walk in front of him and Suzanne as they unload his things from the bed of the truck and carry it upstairs.

Two girls kiss goodbye as Eric stands in line to get his photo ID taken.

There are booths lining the sidewalks advertising different clubs. Students are handing out stickers with the equality symbol and the rainbow flag on them and people are eagerly taking them.

He’s seen more diversity and acceptance in one hour here than he did in eighteen years in the small towns in Georgia.

His mama hugs him tight and tells him to call whenever he wants, at anytime of day. She tells him to be safe and have fun and study hard.

She holds his face in her hands and tips his chin down so he has to look at her. “You be sure to tell me all about those teammates of yours when you meet them. And if any of them give you a hard time I’ll be up here so fast-.”

“Mama.” He wraps his arms around her. “It’s gonna be okay. I promise.”

 

******

 

The team is overwhelming. And loud. And destroys his pecan pie. He doesn’t even know where the pie tin ends up.

A guy with a mustache and long hair introduces himself as Shitty and sticks out his hand with a warm “and who the fuck are you?

Eric tries to stop himself from shaking when he says “Eric Bittle. I play forward and-.”

“Bittle.” Shitty narrows his eyes and looks him over. He tips his head to the side then back again before he breaks out in a wide smile. “Bitty!” He shouts as he grabs him around his shoulders and tugs him against his side. “Yo, boys, meet Bitty. Sick accent by the way? You southern?”

“I’m from Georgia.”

“Alright. You were the one that brought that wicked pecan pie, weren’t you?”

“I made it.”

“Hold up.” Shitty spins him around as two more incredibly tall men skid to a halt in front of him. “You made that?”

“He made that.” One of them says and sticks out his hand. “Ransom.” He jabs his elbow into the taller man’s side and it looks like he doesn’t even feel it. “That’s Holster. He made that pie, bro.”

“He’s going to be very important to us, I can tell. How soon can we get him into the Haus.”

“He’s gotta get dibs.”

“Who can we work on for him?”

“Sounds like something Johnson would be into.”

Bitty ducks beneath Shitty’s arm and slams straight into the solid chest of the most beautiful human he has ever seen in his life. A Disney Prince if he ever saw one.

He looks right over Bitty.

“Jack!” Shitty hollers then launches himself right at him. “Oh Captain, our Captain. Look at you. Look at him. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful.”

“Okay, Shitty.” Jack tries to pry him off but Shitty holds on tighter. He gets a hand on Jack’s face and brings it close to his own so he can inspect it.

“That jawline. Those cheekbones. I was worried they wouldn’t survive the summer.”

“What? You saw me last week.”

“Never know what could happen. My biggest fear is that one day you’ll meet a piece of glass those babies can’t cut. You met Bitty yet?” Shitty reaches out with his spare hand to hold Bitty by the elbow. “Eric Bittle, unofficially. Officially, Bitty. One of our newest and smallest members. He bakes, bro. And he’s from the south. Got an accent and everything. We’re just collecting accents on this team. Say sorry, Jack. Say something in French. Let him hear yours, it’s fucking stunning.”

“Bittle.” Jack says and Bitty nods.

“Yeah. That’s. Yeah.” Bitty sticks his hand out even though he knows his palm is sweaty and cringes when Jack takes it. His hand completely disappears in Jacks. “It’s really nice to meet you. I can’t wait to start playing with you. All of you.”

Jack drops his hand and steps around him. “We need to get started.”

Shitty trails after slips an arm around his waist when he catches up.

Ransom and Holster flank Bitty on both sides.

“Don’t worry about Jack, man.”

“He’s a little rough when you first meet him but he’ll grow on you.”

“Really?”

“Or you’ll grow on him. Either way someone's growing on someone.”

“Okay.”

“So, what other types of pies do you make?”

 

*******

 

“Are you all settled in?” Suzanne asks on the phone a few nights later.

Bitty spins around at his half of the dorm room- he has twinkling christmas lights over his bed and a Beyonce poster on the wall, bought and hung after Suzanne left.

“I think so. I still need to buy a few more books but I have time.”

“That’s good now tell me all about this team. I’ve been worried sick over it

“They gave me a hockey name,” Bitty tells his mama on the phone a few nights later. “They call me Bitty.”

Suzanne is quiet for a moment. “Are they making fun of you?”

“No, no, mama, no. It’s just what they do. Everyone has one. One of the guys is named Shitty.”

“Oh dear.”

“It’s actually helping me remember who’s who. It’s gonna take me awhile to remember which one is Justin but I’m gonna remember Ransom. At least I think he’s Ransom. Could be Holster. They’re always together. I can’t recall.”

“You have time to figure it out.” Suzanne says. “But everyone’s being nice?”

“Yeah.” But it’s weak and he can visualize his mama sitting straight up in her chair.

“What’s the matter? Who’s giving you a hard time? Can you talk to the coaches about it?”

“It’s not like that, mama. He’s not picking on me but the Captain of this team is so hard to please. Apparently his dad is some hockey legend. Bad Bob or something. I don’t know. I guess he won a bunch of Stanley Cups.”

“Wait. Are you talking about Bad Bob Zimmermann?”

“Well, Jack’s last name is Zimmerman. So I guess so.”

“Oh my lord, that’s how I recognized Samwell. I forgot his son went there. Have you met Bad Bob yet? Is his son as handsome as he is? Jack Zimmermann. That’s right. Oh, honey.”

“What?’

“Well, I think I remember your father watching something on ESPN about him. If I remember correctly he went through a rough patch a few years back and that’s how he ended up at Samwell.”

“He’s got an attitude like he’s still going through that rough patch.”

“Maybe he is, Dicky. Give it time. Bad Bob is so charming.”

“Mama.”

“I’m just saying if he’s anything like his father it’ll all work out. He’s so dreamy.”

“Can we please talk about something else? Honestly, if I never talk about Jack Zimmermann again in my spare time it’ll be too soon.”

“Okay, if you insist. Have you baked yet?”

“Mama,” he closes his book and sits back in his chair. “Wait until I tell you about the state in which I found this kitchen.”

 

******

 

Bitty gets an assist in his first game then does a keg stand at his first college party.

He’s feeling pretty good about himself and his baby hangover until Jack knocks on his door 4am to tell him to get dressed and meet him at Faber for a private checking practice.

To Jack’s credit, he is going slow and he doesn’t have his pads on when he pushes him against the boards but it doesn’t stop Bitty from curling into a ball on the ice and wanting to scoff why should I? when Jack tells him he needs to trust him.

“Get up, we’re doing it again.”

Bitty sigh and hauls himself up to his feet only to end up back on the ice a few moments later.

“Sametime tomorrow, okay Bittle?” Jack says at 6:55. Kids are starting to make their way onto the ice so they can warm up before their tournament.

“Jack,” Bitty tries not to whine but he can’t help it.

“The only way you’re going to get better is to practice. Go to bed earlier tonight and don’t be hungover tomorrow.”

 

******

 

“That’s a lot better, now try to keep your eyes open next time.”

Bitty can feel Jack’s body pull slowly away from his own and cracks open an eye.

“Was it really better?”

“You’re still standing. That’s improvement. I told you if you keep working at it you’ll get better.”

“It’s only taken me two weeks.”

Jack puts his hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “Progress is progress,” he says before he skates about six feet away and squares up. Bitty wishes he didn’t look so good in the early morning light. “You ready to go again?”

Bitty nods.

 

******

 

The goal against Yale is a lucky shot. His eyes were closed but that doesn’t seem to matter to his mama (you should have seen me in the stands, all emotional!) or to Bob Zimmermann (a good bounce is a good bounce) but to Jack-.

“Why is he like this?” Bitty complains to Shitty around another sip of beer.

Suzanne is back at the hotel for the evening and the rest of the Haus is quiet. Shitty is the only one that didn’t have a parent show up and he doesn’t look too broken up about it.

“Why does he have to be so mean?”

Shitty stretches his legs out on the roof and tries to gauge if the distance between the edge of the roof and where Bitty is standing. “He doesn’t mean to be, Bits.”

“But he is. I thought we were getting along a lot better. Checking practices have been going really well and he hasn’t yelled at me in practice for weeks and then tonight he just…..why couldn’t he have just been happy for me?”

“Jack’s gone through a lot of shit in his life. Sometimes he’s a little intense.”

“I’ve been through shit too.”

Shitty laughs.

“Not funny.”

“I’m sorry but there’s something about a short person swearing that cracks me up. It’s like when a chihuahua gets mad.”

“Then I had to go out to dinner with my mom who can tell when something’s bothering me from a thousand miles away and I couldn’t tell her about what Jack said because she’s in love with him and his dad-.”

“That is the curse of the Zimmermann men. Making woman fall in love with them at first sight.”

Bitty throws an almost empty can at Shitty.

“So I had to sit there pretending I wasn’t miserable which made her upset and it basically ruined the whole weekend. Does he say shit like that to you? Why is it me?”

Bitty sits down and leans in when Shitty wraps an arm around him. He pulls his knees up to his chest and tries not to cry.

“You want me to talk to him for you?”

“No, you’ll make it worse.” It’s deja vu. Didn’t he come all this way to get away from that feeling? Now it’s right at the surface again.

“Look, Bitty,” Shitty says as he searches through his pockets for something. “I can’t begin to explain everything that goes on in Jack Zimmermann’s head and I can’t give you the details behind them because they’re not mine to share and I’m not going to make excuses for him but…”

“But you’re his best friend and you’re always going to defend him.” Bitty says.

“Sometimes he’s an asshole.”

The bluntness startles a laugh out of Bitty.

“And I think he knows when he’s being an asshole. He probably feels terrible about it. I can guarantee you he is not having a great night tonight.”

“Good,” Bitty mumbles and Shitty finally liberates a joint from his pocket.

“You wanna partake?”

“I’ve never done that.”

“Okay bro, no worries. No pressure. You mind if I do it?”

“I said I’ve never done it. Not that I didn’t want it.”

“Fuck it up, Bitty.”

They lose track of time but as Bitty is furiously nodding along to what Shitty is saying about the importance of feminism and Title IX Jack sticks his head out his window.

“Shitty, if you’re going to do that close my window first. It reeks in here. And you shouldn't be on the roof. It's dangerous.” He ducks back inside and locks the window and Bitty has a ten second stoned freak out that they're gonna be stuck on the roof forever before Shitty is pushing him through the open hall window.

Shitty lands halfway on top of him and they both start laughing as Jack steps out of his room. He’s still wearing the suit he wore to dinner except his tie is loosened and his hair is a little messy. He looks too good for Bitty's wounded little heart to take.

“What the actual fuck, Jack?” Bitty groans.

“Is he drunk or high?”

“Take out the or and add an and.”

“Shitty, you can't let him do that.”

“He's fine.”

“I'm fine, Captain. Like you really care.”

“He can't even stand up on his own.”

Bitty does manage to get to his feet but he sways into the wall and Shitty catches him beneath the arms. Bitty finds this hilarious.

“Grab his feet, man, help me.”

“Just pick him up. What's he weigh, a hundred pounds?”

“125, thank you very much.”

“A buck twenty five,” Shitty whistles. “I think my sister weighs more than that.”

“Rude,” Bitty mumbles as Jack finally gets a hold of his feet.

“I'm not carrying him like this the whole way back to his dorm so what's your plan?”

“You're welcome to cuddle with me, Bits.”

“Not my type.”

“To the couch then.”

“No.” Bitty goes rigid in their arms. “That couch is a crime against nature. It is diseased.”

“Just put him in the kitchen. That's where he's happiest. He named the oven.”

“He can't sleep this off on the kitchen floor, brah.”

“Go get some extra blankets and pillows. I think Johnson is staying with his girlfriend tonight and Ransom and Holster won't miss a few pillows. They'd probably be glad to know they were able to help out. We’ll build a little cocoon for him against the oven.”

“That's why you're the Captain. Always got a plan.”

If he ignores the fact that the sheets probably haven’t been washed in months and he doesn’t want to think about all the places the pillows have been. He loves his cocoon. It’s warm and comfortable and Betsy has his back.

Jack downs a bottle of water by the light of the fridge and Shitty serenades Bitty with a truly terrible version of Wrecking Ball and pets his hair until he falls asleep.

In the morning he blinks himself awake with only a mild headache.

Jack is standing at the sink looking out the window with a protein shake in his hand. Bitty’s still mad and he stares daggers into Jack’s back until Jack sets the glass gently in the sink, braces both hands on the edge of the counter and lets his head hang between his shoulders.

A second ago he looked perfect. Downing a shake in his well worn but well kept, but hideous yellow sneakers, running shorts and a practically painted on long sleeve Underarmor shirt. He was tall and proud and confident.

Right now he looks very small and broken and Bitty wants to unravel himself from the sheets and press his chest against Jack’s back.

There are footsteps coming down the stairs and Jack pulls himself together as quick as he let himself break apart.

He rolls his shoulders and rinses the glass then meets Ransom and Holster at the bottom of the stairs.

“You’re going for a run this early?”

“It’s late.” Is all Jack says before he’s out the door, closing it softly behind him. Bitty’s heart jumps in his chest when he realizes it was because he didn’t want to wake him up.

Holster isn’t as kind.

“Yo,” he shouts. “Bitty’s here. Does that mean pancakes?”

“That’s where my pillows went.”

“You blamed it on the ghosts, bro.”

“They’re real. I’m telling you. Is he okay?”

“Yo Bits, you still alive?”

Someone kicks at him and Bitty swats them away.

“He lives.”

“He’s alive?” Shitty is naked with his hair still wet from the shower. “Wouldn’t it be a fucking bummer if I killed him after his first time gettin’ high?”

“Bits got high? We missed it.”

“Are there going to be pancakes or not?”

“Just give me a second, Holster, Lord.”

“He’s sassy in the morning. I like it.”

 

*******

 

Coming out to Shitty is the most terrifying and satisfying thing he’s ever done. It’s better than landing his first triple axel and that goal against Yale.

“I’m gay.”

“Oh. Cool, bro!”

That’s it. It’s so simple. So wonderful.

Shitty is the best friend he’s ever had and on the way back to his dorm when he starts to tear up with truly happy tears, Shitty doesn’t say anything, just wraps his arm around Bitty’s shoulders.

 

*******

 

Ransom and Holster take it a bit differently.

They look at him then look at each other and then explode.

“We can find the perfect guy for you.”

“What are you into? What’s your type?”

“Do you like them tall? Short? Blond, brunette, redhead? How do you feel about redheads?”

“You want an athlete or are you more into the artsy students?”

“I wish Samwell had a better culinary department.”

“Don’t you know some dude at Johnson & Wales? How do you feel about long distance?”

“What about personality? Do you like them funny or more reserved. You want an introvert or an extrovert?”

“I’m gonna graph this. Y-axis looks, X-axis personality. Let’s plot some dudes.”

“What are you plotting?”

Ransom and Holster both swivel away from Jack and face Bitty. They know this is not their secret to tell.

“They're trying to find me a guy I can take to Winter Screw. As a date.”

Jack's face stays exactly the same as he opens the fridge and grabs a water.

“Oh. Okay. That's. Good for you. Have fun. Bye.”

“That was fucking weird,” Ransom says.

“I'm gonna go ahead and guess you're interested in guys that are able to speak in full and complete sentences.”

“Put it on the graph, bro.”

 

******

 

It’s nice to put a face to Lardo’s name even if it’s nothing like the one he had been imagining.

He thinks she’s easily the most interesting and cool person he’s ever met but she’s also a little too perceptive.

She catches the look Jack gives him after Coach Hall and Murray give him the start.

She and Bitty are the last ones out of the locker room and she spins on her heel in front of him.

“I’ll talk to Jack for you.”

“What? No. You don’t have- there’s nothing to talk about.”

“Don’t worry, bro.” She punches him on the arm. “I got your back.”

So Bitty watches them obsessively. He’s ready to jump in and change the subject whenever they start to talk but they never do.

They sit at the kitchen table together in absolute silence while Bitty rolls out pie crust.

He watches Lardo tap her fingernail against the tabletop to get Jack’s attention.

Jack looks up and she raises her eyebrows.

He rolls his eyes and she tips her head.

Jack glances at Bitty, who almost lets the rolling pin slip out of his hands, and then sighs. “Yeah, okay. I have to go or I’m going to be late. See ya.”

She waits for the front door to close before she says “You’re welcome.”

“I don’t even know what that was.”

“You’ll see Bits, you’ll see.”

 

*******

 

Things start clicking with Jack on and off ice.

Lardo winks at him after Jack’s third goal off Bitty’s assist and Jack pulls him in with his hand on the back of his helmet during their celly.

Jack sits next to him when they go out for dinner and knocks his elbow as he reaches for his beer.

Bitty feels himself lighting up from the inside out just from looking at the smile on Jack’s face as he reaches for another nacho.

Then some idiot analyst runs his mouth and Jack is wide eyed and shaken, standing and walking out with clenched fists.

Bitty stays and eats with the rest of the guys but everything tastes bitter.

He's means to bake a pie or two when he gets to the Haus but he bypasses the kitchen and heads straight up the stairs.

Jack’s reading a book on the roof by the light coming through his window.

“Do you want a blanket or something. It's kind of chilly.”

“I'm alright, Bittle.”

“I could get you some hot chocolate. Or tea. I think we have the kind without caffeine in it. I know you like to go to bed early.”

“Bittle.” The book hangs from his fingertips and Bitty's poised to apologize, duck back into his room, and lock the window. “Hot chocolate might be nice.”

“Okay! We have marshmallows and those peppermint stirrers. I can whip up some cream too.”

“Bring a cup out for yourself too.”

Bitty smiles at him and Jack’s answering one is weak.

He takes extra care with the hot chocolate, foregoing the store bought powder and melting his good chocolate slowly in heavy cream and whole milk.

Jack is there to help him through the window. He takes both mugs and brings them back over to where he was sitting so Bitty follows and settles in close.

Bitty is buzzing with words of encouragement.

Those guys didn't know what they were talking about.

I've never seen anyone play the way you play.

You make everyone better.

You've made me better.

I think you're amazing.

They sit together in silence until Shitty rolls through Jack’s window and complains that Bitty didn’t make hot chocolate for him.

 

******

 

When Bitty opens his eyes he’s flat on his back on the ice. The whole team is around him and Jack is shouldering his way towards the front. He takes off his helmet and drops to his knees by Bitty’s hip.

“Bitty, you okay?” He shakes his gloves off and his hands hover over Bitty’s forehead and it’s only then Bitty realizes his own helmet is missing. That’s not good.

“You called me Bitty.”

Everyone shares a concerned look.

“That’s your name.”

“You always call me Bittle. You never call me Bitty.”

There’s a sigh of relief and Jack shakes his head.

“Are you okay? Can you get up or do you need help?”

“Are you going to carry me?” Bitty chirps.

“Do you need me to?” Jack answers, as serious as ever. The coaches and athletic trainers stand on either side of him.

Bitty shakes his head and winces as he gets to his feet and the crowd erupts for two different reasons.

Some of them are cheering for Bitty and the rest are focused on Ransom, Holster, and Spencer and the ref who is trying to keep peace between them.

“Tell them to stop it,” Bitty mumbles and Jack’s skating off to pull Ransom and Holster away and then slams Spencer against the boards while the ref isn’t looking.

“Brah.” Shitty skates off to help Jack and the crowd goes crazy.

Everything is so loud and bright and the skirmish that’s going on is so unnecessary and Bitty thinks that as a whole, boys are so dumb.

He steps off the ice and looks over his shoulder. Jack’s watching him until he gets shoved by the goalie and Jack takes a swing at him.

Sweet but dumb.

 

******

 

They make Bitty watch the next game from a press box.

“It’s quieter. You really shouldn’t be here at all with a concussion but I don’t think we’d be able to keep you away so let's compromise.”

When they lose he’s not there to comfort anyone.

He makes four pies. Cherry, apple, peach, and blueberry that the team settles in and eats them throughout the Haus.

“Bits,” Ransom licks his fork clean. “Even though this is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten it kind of has a sadness aftertaste to it.”

“Sorry.”

“Not your fault, bro. Not your fault.”

 

*******

 

In May Johnson shakes Bitty’s hand, tells him he has his dibs, and walks away without another word.

Holster, Ransom, and Shitty all tell stories about the months of grunt work they had to do to get dibs and Jack calmly explains that he’ll be living in the Haus next year and Bitty lights up.

“We can have big team dinners and brunch and just think of all the pies I can make! I can make pie at two in the morning if I want to.”

“You do that now,” Jack says. He’s smiling but trying to stop it and Bitty beams back.

 

******

 

Jack’s off to Chicago. Then Boston and Montreal.

Bitty’s heading back home to Georgia.

Jack lets him go with a chirp about eating more protein.

Bitty wants to call it flirting. It’s right on the edge.

But this is Jack and he is Bitty and they don’t flirt.

 

*****

 

“Bittle.”

“Jack.”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Sorry, I didn't mean to call you.”

“Oh. Okay. Bye.”

“No, wait, Jack. You don't have to hang up. It's not like I don't want to talk to you. I just...I'm surprised you picked up.”

“We’re taking a break. I saw it was you and got worried.”

“Why would you worry?”

“How's your head?” Jack says, cutting right to the chase.

“It's fine. How's Chicago?”

“The facility is really nice.”

“And.”

“The hotel is too.”

“How's the city?”

“I don't have a lot of time to go out.”

“You haven't seen any of it?”

“I still have a few more days left. How's Madison? Pick any peaches yet?”

“A few but….I don't know. Never mind.”

“What is it? What's wrong?”

“Nothing really, it's just that it's weird being back. I got to be myself at Samwell and now I feel like I'm back in the closet down here. It's not fair. This is my home. I should feel comfortable here but now I know how it feels to be out and it’s so much more than I ever thought it would be.”

“Do you think you’ll ever tell them?”

“Well, yeah, I’ll have to eventually. I hope I will. I want to meet someone someday. I want to fall in love. I’m just having a hard time finding someone who wants to fall in love with me you know? Oh, what am I saying? You know? Of course you don’t know. Look at you.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means look at you. You can date anyone you want to date. Everyone loves you.”

“That’s not true.”

“Okay, Mr. ‘My Butts Been Featured In Cosmo.’”

“I really don’t like to talk about that,” he says. It starts out serious but ends in a laugh and Bitty so wants to chirp him. My word, Jack Zimmermann laughing at something I said. Someone check if hell has frozen over. Jack, you’d probably already know because you’d be down here skating on it. But the sound is so rare to Bitty’s ears that he just lets it wash over him. “Looks aren’t everything, Bittle. Plus it’s not like you’re not...ya’know.”

“No, what?”

“You’re not unattractive.”

“Wow,” Bitty says dryly. “What a glowing review from a literal Adonis.”

Jack huffs out a breath then says “You’re hot, Bitty” and then there’s a long stretch of dead air.

Bitty’s mouth has dropped open. He feels like his heart is in his throat and face is burning up. He can only imagine what Jack looks like.

“Oh,” he squeaks.

“Yeah. At least that’s what Shitty is always saying.”

“Shitty?” For a second he forgets who Shitty is. “Shitty. Right. Well. I’ll have to thank him when I see him.”

“You could accidentally call him next.”

“I bet he’d love that.”

“Yeah.”

Someone calls Jack’s name on his end and Jack says “I should go” at the sametime Bitty says “I should let you go.”

“It was nice talking to you. I guess I’ll see you in the fall.”

“Sure. But you know, if you ever want to accidentally call me again this summer I’ll try to be there.”

“Okay, Jack. Try to have some fun this summer.”

 

********

 

Bitty knows exactly what the coaches want to talk about when they pull him into their office after practice but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

He can’t take a check. He can’t even take Dex brushing against him.

Chowder is starting to question it and Jack is looking at him like he did when he was a freshman. That’s what hurts the most. Jack spent all that time with him last year to help him get over this and now he’s back to square one. He wasted Jack’s time.

“Hockey is a contact sport,” they tell him, “have you on the roster may not be in your best interest. Or the team’s.”

Bitty’s able to keep it together until he pushes himself through the back door and sits down heavily on the steps.

He pulls his hood over his head and cries.

 

*******

 

Jack’s watching a documentary about the Korean War when Bitty gets back.

Lardo is sleeping in the armchair and Shitty is stretched out on the couch with his head in Jack’s lap.

“Bittle.”

Bitty hangs his head. He wanted to sneak by.

“What did the coaches talk to you about?”

“Nothing.”

“Bittle.”

He sighs and steps into the living room. Shitty mumbles something in his sleep.

“I’m probably going to get cut. I can’t take any contact and hockey is a contact sport so…”

“You’re just rusty.”

“That’s what they said.”

“We can work on that. We did it before, we can do it again.”

“I don't know if it's worth it. Maybe Chowder can move into my room and you won’t have to listen to me singing in the shower anymore.”

Jack frowns.

“It’s okay, Jack.”

“It's not okay. I’m not gonna let you get cut.”

“I can't ask you to do this, you have to be busy. This is your senior year. You have classes and all the new frogs and you're thinking about what team you want to sign with. I don't want to take up your time.”

“You’re not. You’re part of the team. You’re a priority.”

He can feel himself start to tear up again and it’s the last thing he wants. “What if I’m hopeless?”

“You’re not hopeless. You just need help.”

“A lot of it.”

“Luckily for you I don’t have any other plans between four and six every morning.”

Bitty groans. “Every morning?”

“Every morning. Starting tomorrow.”

“You sure I won’t be taking up your time?”

“No. You can do this, Bittle, I know you can.”

Bitty’s touched. “Thank you, Jack. I'm gonna make you a pie.”

“Go to sleep, Bittle.”

“Pie first!”

Shitty lifts his head off Jack's thigh. “Someone say something about pie?”

 

******

 

“Let’s do it again.”

“Jack.” Bitty hauls himself to his feet. “We’ve been doing this everyday for a week and haven’t gotten anywhere.”

“It’s gonna take some time.”

“I think we should stop. You’re getting mad.”

“I’m not mad,” he snaps then repeats it less frantically. “I’m frustrated. I don’t understand what’s stopping you from being able to do this.”

Bitty looks down at the ice and Jack sighs.

“I know you can do it. You’re not afraid of being touched off the ice so what happens when you’re on it?”

“It’s different.”

“How? All I want to do is understand.”

Bitty shrugs. He doesn’t want to tell Jack about the horrors of his childhood. Of peewee football. Getting locked in a closet overnight. He knows Jack didn’t have an easy childhood. He’s been in the public eye ever since he was born and Bitty has seen the baby pictures and the photos online of a thirteen or fourteen year old Jack before he shot up his final five inches and lost the baby fat. Bitty thinks he was cute, in his own gawky awkward way, but the world can be a cruel place. He’s in the minority.

They might be able to commiserate over it. Swap humiliating stories and Bitty would feel like a giant weight had been lifted off his his shoulders but he looks at how much Jack has changed and what he’s turned into. Then he looks at himself, too scared to take the smallest bump from his captain on empty ice. He doesn’t think he’s changed at all and it’s embarrassing.

“I guess I feel like I don’t have any control out here. I don’t like that.”

“Okay.” Jack nods. “That’s something. I’m going to try something, you trust me, right?”
Bitty doesn’t have to think before he answers. “Yes.”

“Okay, so just….” He skates closer and puts his hands on Bitty’s arms to slowly push him back against the boards. “Tell me when this is too much.”

One of Jack’s skates is between Bitty’s. Bitty’s back is completely against the wall. Their chests are brushing and Jack is still moving closer.

It’s overwhelming to be this close to him but not in a bad way. His palms are sweaty and his face is flushed and his heart is beating so hard he’s sure Jack can feel it through his gear but none of it has anything to do with being afraid.

Bitty can barely breathe but he manages to get out a quiet “Jack,” and Jack is immediately putting space between them and skating backward.

“Sorry, sorry. Was that too much?”

“Ummm.”

“You think you can try again?”

Bitty almost laughs. There’s nothing he wants more than to try it again. “Yeah, okay.”

So they keep doing it, over and over again, with Jack pushing a little closer and harder each time and stopping as soon as Bitty says his name.

They do it until Jack stops asking if Bitty is ready for him to start again.

Until Bitty is ready to take Ransom and Holster on their offer to hook him up with some kid on the swim team because what he’s feeling for Jack right now needs to be put somewhere new and fast.

It’s a crush. It’s a 19 year old dry spell. Jack is hot. This was inevitable.

Bitty lets Jack get close enough that he notices the small cut at the hinge of his jaw, like he nicked himself shaving, and has a wild desire to press his lips there.

Then he thinks about Jack’s reaction. Letting him down easy so awkwardness lingers between them or icing him out completely. Either way he ends up losing him and that’s unacceptable.

He pushes Jack away as hard as he can and Jack looks stunned as he drifts back.

Bitty has an apology ready to go when Jack’s face breaks into a huge grin and he’s laughing.

“That’s how you do it, Bits! There you go! If someone pushes you, you gotta push back a little. Maybe not too hard, but this is a good start.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Jack bumps the back of his hand against Bitty’s chest. “You think you can do it again?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you going to push me away again?”

“I don’t see how I have any other choice.”

“Good answer, Bittle. You ready?”

No.

“Yes.”

 

******

 

Jack takes him for coffee at Annie’s afterwards where he refuses to let Bitty pay.

Bitty sips his drink, heavy on cinnamon and whipped cream, and listens to him talk about NHL teams and what classes he might drop and what ones he might want to take in the Spring.

He must be riding the high of a the excellent checking practice because this is the most Bitty has ever heard him speak off the ice.

Jack's knee keeps bumping into Bittle’s and Bitty keeps moving back.

But Jack somehow finds it again, like a magnet.

Finally Bitty just gives into it. He lets himself have a small reward for a job well done.

What could it hurt?

 

*******

 

Bitty bribes his way into HIST 376 Women, Food, And American Culture.

He snags the last seat next to Jack, narrowly missing it to a girl with hearts in her eyes, and watches him doodle hockey plays in the margins of his notes.

“Shit,” he says under his breath at the end of class.

Bitty pats his hand and says “Jack Zimmermann, you are going to be so happy you met me.”

He has the upper hand in the kitchen and it's fascinating and endearing to watch Jack struggle with something that Bitty can do so naturally.

“I'm screwing this up, Bittle. I'm ruining your project. Look at this.”

Bitty stands on his toes and peers over his shoulder. The lattice work is a mess but he can tell Jack is really trying.

“It looks great. And this is only a test pie so don't worry about it. Now what were you saying before? California? The west coast? You’d really go all the way out there?” It seems painfully far.

“Right, everyone from California is really nice but I still have my Big 3….”

Jack’s covered with flour and holding pie dough and talking about his future and Bitty is suddenly weighed down by how much he feels for him.

If he thought about it, he’s had a crush on every member of the team at some point. He has a crush on the barista at Annie’s with the blond curly hair who smiles at him and Jack when they come in and writes their names on the cups in loopy cursive.

Crushes are no big deal. He’s gotten very used to dealing with them. He’s had years of practice.

But it hits him like that hip check that ended his season last year that this is so much more than a crush.

He thought it would be lighter. That he’d float away with it like how Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty did in those movies he watched with Hannah years ago. But maybe that only happens if the other person loves you back. If there’s a chance for it.

Unrequited crushes are something you get over and laugh at. You look back on it and joke about how stupid it was and how obvious it was that it was never going to work.

Unrequited love sits like a boulder in your stomach, your heart, your mind. It’s too heavy to move so you live with it until it finally erodes away. It could take years. It could sit there forever.

He wants to get over this as much as he wants to bask in it forever. He's never felt like this before and even though he knows the longer it goes on the more it's going to hurt, he wants to keep it.

It's confusing and painful but maybe that's what love is sometimes.

Love.

Oh god.

“Bittle? What’s wrong? If there’s anything on my face you put it there.”

“I’m just happy.” Bitty blurts out. “You sound happy and hopeful.”

He wants to photograph the soft smile on Jack’s face and save it forever.

“Oh.”

“It’s nice. I just want you to be happy, Jack. Wherever you go.”

“Thanks, Bittle.”

Bitty heaves a sigh to cut the tension then claps his hands together.

“Now let's take a look at this pie.”

 

*******

 

He tweets a photo of him and Kent Parson.

In the middle of the night he wakes up and deletes it.

He can’t get Kent’s words and the look on Jack’s face out of his head. It’s all he hears and sees.

Kent might be a celebrity but Jack is so much more than that.

 

******

 

“Are you Eric Bittle?

Bitty nods and backs up a few feet. He doesn’t know the guy’s name but the knows he’s on the football team and that he has a foot of height and at least a hundred and twenty pounds on him.

Jack is an arm lengths away crouched down with laser focus on the backs of two containers of protein powder.

“You're on the hockey team. You guys are doing great this season, gonna win it all, right?” He holds up his fist and Bitty bumps his knuckles against it. “You're a sophomore, right? You'll be back next year. You're fast as hell, man. You ever think about switching to football? We need someone with your speed.” He laughs and playfully punches his shoulder.

“Oh, I don't think-.”

“I'll see ya around, Bittle.”

“Okay, sure. Wow.”

Jack's looking up at him, protein powder still in his hands.

“I wish I could go back to my 13 year old self and tell him about that. Let him know that everything's gonna be okay.”

“I know what you mean,” Jack says softly then picks up a third container.

Bitty takes out his phone, opens Twitter and types out sometimes I'm overwhelmed with the urge to hug Jack then deletes it. He's not ready to answer the replies that would get.

“You ready yet?”

“They don't have the kind I like.”

“Can't you get something else?”

“....no.”

“We can try Murder Stop & Shop.”

“You want to make a pie.”

“Pie can wait, Jack. I know how seriously you take your protein.”

“Ha ha, you sure you don't mind?”

Bitty shakes his head and types out a new tweet.

Going to Murder Stop & Shop with Jack for protein powder. #PrayForUs

“Are you tweeting this?”

“Do you not want me to?”

“Can I read it?”

Bitty holds his phone out and Jack’s face does something that vaguely resembles a smile. “I don’t think anyone needs to pray for us.”

“We’re going to Murder Stop & Shop, Jack. Someone was murdered there.”

“Years ago.”

“Then they’re due for another one.”

“I’ll protect you.”

“Jack, I can protect myself just fine.”

“I’m sure you can but I’m still gonna help out.”

Bitty wants to do so much more than hug Jack.

Graduation is right around the corner.

He's running out of time.

 

******

 

Bitty feels like he's losing his mind over Jack’s playoff beard.

Jack complains and says it itches and Bitty is transfixed as Jack runs his hand back and forth over his jaw.

His palm makes a rough scratching sound as it passes over the short hairs. It makes Bitty’s spine tingle and his toes curl up in his slippers and all he can think about is how it would feel against his neck and down his chest and-

“Bits, dude.” Lardo is elbowing him hard in the side.

Bitty swings his head around to look at her. His bottom lip slides free of his teeth. He didn’t even know he was biting it.

“What?”

“The oven. It’s been going off for like, thirty seconds.”

Everyone’s looking at him. The team is strewn around the living room enjoying brunch. Jack’s index finger is poised just below his lip and Bitty wants to get caught up in that but the oven buzzes again and he almost kicks Chowder in the face in his frantic attempt to get up.

He has an asparagus and swiss cheese quiche in there and Betsy has been baking so unevenly lately….he’s never burnt anything because of a boy before.

“Oh gosh,” he whispers. One side is burnt and the other is well on it’s way.

“Sorry, Bitty.” Lardo’s standing in the doorway with her arms crossed. “I tried to tell you but you were heavily distracted by something.” She fixes him with a pointed look which Bitty ignores.

“It’s okay. It’s salvageable. I can just scrape the burnt part off. Lord, when I think about what these guys used to eat before I got here….an extra crispy bit won’t bother them at all.”

“Cool. You know if you ever want to talk to me about...something, you can.”

Bitty forces a smile and pats her shoulder on the way out to the living room.

 

******

 

There’s a steady thrum of tension moving through the team the closer they get to their final playoff game.

Everyone handles it a little differently.

Shitty shit-talks Harvard a lot more even though Bitty has caught him wearing the Harvard Law sweatshirt Lardo bought for him.

Lardo shows up at the Haus covered in paint from head to toe.

Dex and Nursey argue more.

Chowder carries around his goalie mask wherever he goes.

Ransom and Holster constantly have their nose in a book, throwing themselves into their school work just to take their mind off the pressure.

Bitty, to the surprise of no one, bakes.

“Brah, we cannot eat all these pies,” Shitty tells him. They are starting to stack up. “We are only mortals. We are only one team.”

“Should I drop a couple off with the LAX bros?”

“Fuck them,” Shitty grumbles as he digs into another pie.

Jack’s started carrying around a camera with him and takes photos of everything.

The empty rink, the pond, geese, trees, the river where the water is bubbling up from the ice.

On more than one occasion Bitty will turn around and see Jack with the camera raised in his direction then slowly lower it while looking slightly embarrassed.

“Make sure you get my good side, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Jack smiles then raises the camera and takes the shot.

 

*******

 

Losing is always terrible.

Jack always takes it the hardest, like it’s a personal defeat, like he was the only one out on the ice and needs to carry the responsibility of the loss alone.

Jack’s the only one that doesn’t drag himself into the locker room afterwards.

He’s learned from Shitty that when this happens it’s best to let Jack work it out on his own and give him some space but this isn’t a regular season loss. This is the last game of his college career and he wanted to win more than anything.

Bitty finds his jersey first; covered in confetti and hanging off the back of a chair.

Jack is sitting on a pallet with his head in his hands and when he turns around Bitty can tell that there are tears in his eyes.

“Oh honey,” Bitty breathes out and hops onto the pallet next to him. He puts his arms around him, one across his back and the other across his chest and his fingers barely meet at Jack’s far shoulder.

Jack tenses and Bitty wonders if this is too much but then Jack is melting into it and turning his head so his face is pressed to Bitty’s neck.

Jack’s beard is scratching at his skin and it would be everything Bitty wanted if there weren’t tears mixing along with it.

“I know how much this meant to you,” he says and Jack makes a pained noise and pushes his face against his shoulder. He doesn’t want to hear it. “Okay, alright,” Bitty soothes as he works his hand into Jack’s hair. “Okay.”

 

******

 

Shitty has Lardo chop off his hair.

Jack decides to sign with the Falconers.

Bitsy finally breaks down beyond repair.

Jack gives him his coat on top of Faber.

The sleeves go passed his hands and he wraps it tight around his body on the walk back to the Haus.

He and Jack hang back as Shitty and Lardo peel off towards her dorm. Shitty insists on walking her this late and she doesn’t put up much of a fight.

Holster and Ransom bounce off each other up ahead and when Rans pulls Holster back from stepping off the side of the curb Holster starts to cry and hugs him because “you just saved my life, bro.”

“Sorry about your oven.”

“Oh, thanks. Dex did as much as he could for her.”

“She stuck around a lot longer than anyone thought she would.”

“Yeah. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. People need pies.”

“I think everyone will be okay for a little while.”

“I need to bake pies like you need to skate.”

“Oh.”

Ransom and Holster start singing I Will Always Love You to each other, stop, seem to realize something, and circle around to belt it at Jack’s butt the whole way home.

 

******

 

His new oven is beautiful.

Chowder is bouncing up and down when he tells him “We all chipped in but it was Jack’s idea! He came up with it!”

Jack is across the crowded room but Bitty clears a path and wraps his arms around his neck.

“Thank you, Jack,” he whispers and Shitty pats both their backs.

“Everyone chipped in. It wasn’t just me.”

“I know.” He pulls back and wipes his hand across his eyes. “But it was.”

 

******

 

“Hey, Bittle, which tie should I wear?”

Bitty spins around in his desk chair. “You’re not dressed yet?”

“I just have to pick a tie and put on shoes. I’d ask my mom but she’s downstairs with my dad and Georgia…”

“The blue one.” Obviously.

Bitty tries not to stare as he loops the tie around his neck and works on the knot.

“Do you have a second?”

“Yeah, Jack, everyone one in this house is waiting on you.”

“Okay, good because I wanted to say this no in case I didn’t get a chance to later.”

“I’m going with you to graduation. I’ll see you afterwards.”

“No, I know but….I wanted to thank you and apologize. You were always so nice to me even when I didn’t deserve it.” He holds his hand up when Bitty starts to refute him. “I know how I acted around you when you were a freshman and I shouldn’t have done that. I know that now. I probably knew it then but I didn’t do anything about it. I wish I took the time to learn how great you are back then. I wish I could have been your friend back then. I missed out and I’m sorry.”

Bitty puts one hand over his heart and the other over Jacks. “Thank you, Jack, that really means a lot to me. You really mean a lot to me.”

Jack's eyes are all soft and so blue and Bitty swears he can feel Jack’s heart beat a little faster beneath his palm.

Someone clears their throat in the doorway and Bitty drops his hand.

“Sorry to interrupt but we’re going to be late if we don't get moving,” Bob says. “Jack, where are your shoes?”

“In my room. I'm going.”

“Sorry, Mr. Zimmermann.”

“Eric, for what I’m sure isn't the last time, Bob is just fine.”

“Mr. Jack's Dad,” Jack whispers to Bitty and Bitty swats at his arm.

“Don't start with me today.”

 

******

 

He’s sandwiched between Bob and Alicia and almost losing hearing in both his ears when Jack’s name is called and they both cheer loudly.

“It comes from years of attending hockey games when someone you love is playing, Eric.” Alicia tells him with a pat on the back. “You’ll get used to it,” she says and Bitty doesn’t ask her what she means.

 

******

 

Bitty’s got his hands on Jack’s tie and is barely holding back tears and words.

I don’t want you to leave. I don’t know what anyone is going to do without you next year. I want you to be so happy. I want you to be happy with me. We should try it.

“I guess the next time I see you will be on TV.” Is what he goes with.

“Bittle, I’ll drive up before the season starts.”

“Oh, of course.”

Then they’re really saying goodbye and Jack turns his back first and Bitty feels like he can finally let that tear fall.

 

******

 

Jack is kissing him.

Jack is sweaty and out of breath and Beyonce is singing Halo in the background as his hand is cups his face with a featherlight touch. It’s barely there and Bitty puts a hand to Jack’s chest to make sure that he’s real. That this is really happening.

Jack pulls back and Bitty thinks that’s it, Jack’s going to realize he made a mistake and take off for Providence and never talk to him again, but then he’s back with his thumb moving across his cheek as his lips move.

His phone buzzes and he’s still kissing him.

“That’s my phone,” he says, finally pulling back and it feels like it takes forever for Bitty to open up his eyes. Jack is standing so close to him. His hand is still pressing against his side.

“Oh.”

“I gotta go.”

“Okay.”

“I gotta go but I’ll text you, okay?”

“Okay.”

Bitty’s on his toes to meet him halfway this time and they kiss until Jack really does have to go. He has family waiting on him.

“I’ll text you,” he says and then he’s out the door and Bitty tracks his footsteps down the stairs.

Bitty sits and tries to catch his breath. That boulder that’s been crushing him is floating away.

He wants to laugh and cry and shout it out the window loud enough for the whole campus to hear.

His phone buzzes before Jack can even be out the front door.

Hi.

I really like you.

When can I see you again?

Bitty wants to respond with:

The the actual fuck was that? You can’t just do that. Do you have any idea how hard I’ve been pining for you and you come in here with no word of warning and you just….

Instead he takes a deep breath and with shaky fingers types out:

4th of July. Come down to Georgia. The town has a huge party. My mama will be happy to see you.

Jack texts back:

I’ll be there.

We can’t tell anyone. I’m sorry.

Reality comes crashing in. He won't be shouting it to anyone.

I understand. It's okay.

I'll call you as soon as I can. I miss you.

Bitty answers with:

I miss you too

Then cradles the phone to his chest.

 

*******

 

Jack calls that night.

Bitty’s already tucked away in his twin bed in Madison but his parents are still awake downstairs so he answers with a whisper.

“Is this a bad time?” Jack whispers back and Bitty bites his lip to stop himself from laughing.

“No, honey, it’s alright. My parents are all the way downstairs but this feels funny. Like I’m sneaking a boy into my room or something.”

“Have you ever done that?”

“Not a lot of boys down here for me to do that with. You’re the first.”

Jack’s voice is low and rough when he says “I like that,” and Bitty feels his face heat up. “I’m serious about you, Bittle.”

“You’re serious about everything.”

“I know. My parents know. So does Georgia. I figured I should start out this relationship with the team by keeping a secret from her but I’m not telling anyone on the team yet or anyone at Samwell.”

“Lardo might know. I didn’t tell her but she just...you know how she is. She figured out I liked you awhile ago. I won’t say anything officially to her.”

“You know why we have to be like this, right?”

“I get it. It’s your career. It’s important.”

“So are you. It won’t be like this forever. I promise. I just need to get established.”

“Sweetheart, you don’t have to explain yourself to me.”

“I want to make you happy.”

“You’re already doing that just by talking to me.”

“I will tell people. I want a lot with you,” says but he doesn’t sound scared or unsure. He’s stating a fact and he’s so good with those. Bitty’s heart is in his throat. “I need you to wait a little bit.”

“I can do that.”

He’s had years of practice, afterall.

 

******

 

Before he and Jack got together he used to think of Madison in broad terms.

Hot and humid. Boring. Not much going on.

Now he’s always going to think of it in specifics.

The way Jack looked as he got out of the rental car.

The sound his back made when Jack pushed him against the door of his bedroom after dropping his bags to kiss him for the first time in over a month and Jack’s sound of disappointment when Bitty slows it down and tells him they need to go back downstairs.

Pinkies overlapping beneath picnic tables.

Knees knocking under dinner tables.

Fireworks.

Jack’s hands shaking when they get to the button of Bitty’s shorts in the back of the pickup truck.

Bitty reaching down to steady them and saying “it’s okay, we don’t have to.”

Jack looking down at him and answering “I want to. Do you want to?”

“I want to. But maybe not like this. Right here.”

Later that night after showering off sunscreen and bugspray, Bitty reaching down for Jack who’s lying on an air mattress and running his fingertips across his shoulders and asking “Are you awake?”

Jack squeezing his hand in response and climbing onto the bed.

Kissing each other quiet to the sound of fireworks in the distance.

Hands roaming and shirts behind pulled over heads.

Jack starting out in English then switching to French and Bitty vowing to take a french class in the fall so he can learn what Jack’s saying.

Falling asleep with his head on Jack's chest and waking up like that too.

Saying goodbye at the end of the weekend. Jack opens the door of the SUV and Bitty steps close and puts his hands on his chest.

“I wish you could stay longer.”

“I know. Me too.”

“I can't wait to come up to Providence-.”

“I love you,” Jack interrupts.

“Oh.”

“It's gonna be awhile before we see each other in person and I didn't want to say it for the first time over Skype. I didn't want it wait. It's okay if you don't-.”

“I love you too.” A delightful laugh bubbles out of him. “But it's not fair telling me this when I can't touch you.”

Jack curls his fingers into Bitty's waistband and tugs.

“I think a hug will be okay.”

“Maybe,” Bitty says against Jack's neck. “But it's not enough.”

 

********

 

They get by with texts and phonecalls but it’s Skype that sustains them.

They talk every night, even when Bitty’s falling asleep as Jack tries to get him to go over french vocab with him or Jack is tired and stressed about how he played in the game.

“I got you a key,” Jack tells him one night. His hair is still wet from his shower and Bitty’s been staring at the dark marks it’s been making on his Samwell t-shirt as it drips dry.

“To your apartment?”

Jack reaches off screen and when he leans back up he’s holding a key close to the camera. It’s attached to a keychain shaped like a bunny and Bitty clutches his chest. “When you come up and visit me I’ll give it to you.”

“You know if we hadn’t already said I love you when you left this would be a good time.”

“I love you, Bits,” Jack says, steady and serious right into the camera.

“I love you, too.”

Bitty leaves Madison a week before he has to and holds his hand out in front of him when Jack opens his apartment door.

“I said I would pick you up.”

“I want to use my key.”

Jack drops it in his palm and Bitty closes his hand around the cool silver bunny.

He gets the door open on his own then leans back against it.

“Hi.”

“Hey.”

Then Bitty jumps and Jack catches him and they don’t have a reason to use any key for another three days when Bitty finally drags him out of bed so Jack can show him his new city.

 

*******

 

“Ransom and Holster are being ridiculous.”

“What are they doing now?”

Bitty cradles the phone against this shoulder and his ear and stirs the cinnamon and sugar into the apples. “They're trying to set me up on a date for Winter Screw and they will not take no for an answer.”

“Oh.”

“They say they're determined to find me someone before they graduate because they can't leave without making sure I get laid in the Haus and all I'm thinking about is you and me every time you come to visit. Jack?”

“They're never going to stop.”

“I can keep saying no.”

“Do you want to tell them?”

Bitty stops stirring and puts the spoon down. “Tell them what?”

“About us. That way they can stop bothering you.”

“I can deal with it.”

“But you shouldn't have to. They're our friends. They're practically family. This way I can tell Shitty.”

“You should tell Shitty.”

“He's gonna cry.”

“He's probably sensing something is going on with you right now. He can feel the disturbance.”

“I think he’ll be happy for us.”

“Everyone will.”

Bitty tells everyone as they’re crowded around the kitchen table.

He gets them full on pie and then says “Jack and I are dating. We have been since graduation.”

He’s hit with silence and keeps going.

“It’s more than dating. We’re in love.”

Chowder drops his fork. Dex clears his throat. Bitty claps his hands.

“Okay great, thanks for listening, does anyone want more pie?”

Lardo narrows her eyes then smiles. “I fucking knew it.”

That breaks the dam and everyone is crowding around Bitty.

Ransom and Holster are yelling for deets, Nursey is asking why he didn’t say something sooner. Dex punches Nursey’s shoulder and tells him because some people like to keep things private once in awhile. Chowder is crying.

“Seriously, why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Holster asks.

“We’re keeping it quiet for now. Jack’s not out and y’all have to keep this to yourselves. Jack’s gonna tell Shitty but besides the assistant GM at the Falconer’s and his parents y’all are the only ones that know.”

“Yo, Shitty’s gonna freak the fuck out when he hears this.”

“Those Harvard kids aren’t gonna know what hit them.”

“Rest in peace to his fucking roommate.”

“We’re not gonna tell anyone,” Lardo says with her arms wrapped around Bitty’s waist.

“Nah, man, we got your back.” Ransom claps him on the back then slides back into his seat beside Holster. “Now, for real, deets. What’s it like?”

“It’s gotta be good. Like, best ever.”

“Height differences just fuck me up.”

“You don’t haffta be graphic, but please, if you wanna be graphic, get graphic.”

“Does he talk dirty in French?”

“Do you have to have one hand free for Google translate the whole time you guys are going at it?”

“What is the other hand doing?”

“Knock it off, y’all, please,” Bitty laughs. “You’re gonna make me regret telling you.”

“We just want to make sure you’re happy, Bitty,” Chowder says and Bitty leans over to pat his head.

“Well, if that’s what you want to know then I can tell you without a doubt that Jack and I are very happy.”

“I like the way you said very, Bits.” Holster says.

Ransom yells “Deets!”

 

*******

 

Bitty gets a text from Jack right as he’s leaving his 2 o’clock lecture.

You’re going to get a call from Shitty. Just a heads up.

Bitty is in the middle of texting him back when the call comes through.

“Hey, Shitty, what’s up?”

“What’s up? What’s up? What the actual fuck is up, Bitty? You and my best guy are in fucking love, that’s what’s up. Holy shit.”

“So Jack told you?”

“Yeah he told me. I am overwhelmed. I had to sit down while he was talking. I’m crying right now. Goddammit, Bits! Do you have any idea how fucking thrilled I am? Bro, I’m not gonna lie to you, I had serious fears about Jack never getting to be as happy as he deserves to be. We all know he’s gonna kill out there on the ice but hockey can’t last forever, you know. It kept me up at night but then you skated on in with your pies and accent and you fucking love him. You love each other.”

“Shitty, take a breath.”

“I am so in love with your love right now. Do you know how much he loves you. Dude, I’m in love with you now just listening to him talk about you. I already called Best Man duties.”

“Shits, slow down.”

“No fucking way man, you two are getting married. No doubt about it. Lardo would be a good best bro for you. Or Chowder, holy shit, can you imagine Chowder in a tux. A-fucking-dorable.”

“Shitty.”

“I’m not freaking you out am I? Shit. I’m just so hyped.”

“You’re not freaking me out. I mean, you are a little. Maybe I’m overwhelmed too.”

“Fuck. These are all good things, Bits.”

“I know but we’re not even together officially yet. If we go out somewhere and someone recognizes him I’m just his friend.”

“How do you feel when you’re alone with him?”

“Like he loves me more than anything.”

“Then there ya go. Look, I know right now it’s a shitty situation and it’s not perfect but honestly Bits, it’s probably never gonna be but he cannot keep a lid on you forever. He’s practically bursting at the seams with it. It’s beautiful. It’ll all work out just the way you two deserve it to. God knows you two deserve it.”

“Harvard has made you very wise, Shits.”

“Fuck that. I’ve always been wise. It’s only made me a little more pretentious. I love you guys.”

“We love you too.”

“Don’t look around that apartment too hard. You’re gonna find a ring.”

Bitty kicks at a stone on the sidewalk. “He bought me a KitchenAid.”

“Fuck,” Shitty groans. “Book the venue. Reception will probs be at Faber.”

He texts Jack back after he hangs up.

I think Shitty is happy for us.

Ha ha. Skype tonight?

I’d love to.

 

*******

 

“Have I ever told you how much I love your mom?”

“A few times?”

Jack glances up from the book he's reading as Bitty climbs into bed.

“I mean, your dad is great, everyone knows it but your mother….” Bitty sighs dramatically. “I'd move mountains for Alicia Zimmermann.”

“Are you gonna leave me and run away with her?”

“If she wanted me to, in a heartbeat.”

Jack smiles and reaches over to absentmindedly stroke his thumb across Bitty's knee and Bitty thinks he is so content.

He has a beautiful boyfriend who loves him. Really loves him.

He gets to climb into a bed with him, their bed.

They spent the evening having dinner with his parents.

Bob and Alicia are so warm and welcoming and lovely.

Bob asked Bitty about life in Georgia and how his parents are doing and Alicia helped Bitty make a coffee cake for them to eat in the morning before Jack takes them out on a tour of the city.

Bitty might need to get back to Samwell on Monday but right now he's picturing the next fifty years and Jack’s right there and he's still climbing into bed with him at the end of the day.

This is all that he wanted. This is all he never thought he'd get but still-.

“I think I want to tell my parents about us.”

That makes Jack put down his book.

“Or at least about me. I'm so happy with you and I'm thinking how it's not fair that I'm not even giving them the opportunity to be a part of it. They won't tell anyone about you. I'll make sure of it. I won't even tell them about you if you don't want me to. I should have asked you that first.”

Jack's hand spreads across his thigh. “Bittle, it's okay. You can tell them whatever you want to.”

“They wouldn't out you. Mama’s not petty like that. If she was upset with me there's no way she could out you without telling everyone about me too.”

“Hey.” Jack leans in and presses his lips to Bitty's. “It'll be okay.”

 

******

 

It takes Bitty another three weeks to work up the courage to actually tell them.

He's back in Providence with Jack for the weekend and tells him after dinner he's going to skype with them.

“Do you want me to be there when you do it?”

“No,” Bitty says after thinking it over. “If they say anything...I don't want you to hear it.”

Jack kisses his forehead as Bitty starts up his laptop. “I’ll be in the bedroom if you need me.”

Bitty’s heart is racing as the call connects and his shoulders slump when only his mama is sitting there.

“Hey Mama, is Coach around?”

“He’s just in the other room, hun, you need him too?” But she’s already hollering for her husband.

“If he’s not busy.”

“For you, sweetheart, never.”

Coach sits down next to her at the kitchen table and looks more interested in what’s going on than annoyed that he was pulled away from whatever was doing.”

“Where are you?” Suzanne asks, squinting at the computer. “Is that a hotel room? It’s really nice. Is everything okay, honey? You’ve got us worried.”

“Yeah, Mama, everything’s fine. It’s great actually. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Umm.” He wishes he had his notecards just so he’d have something to do with his hands. If Jack had stayed out here he’d be holding them. “Okay so you might have an idea about what I’m going to say but also maybe not.”

“Dicky, just spit it out.”

“I’m gay.” It’s gone. Out there and he can’t take it back.

“Oh, honey,” his mother says.

“Is that all?” Coach says.

“What?”

“I’m sorry, Dicky, but your father and I have been expecting this for quite sometime.”

“You knew?”

“We had a feeling but we didn’t want to assume. You know there are so many different ways for a person to identify themselves these days.”

“Lord, have you been taking classes at Samwell? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“We thought it would be best to let you move at your own pace. When you were ready you would tell us. That’s what the books suggested.”

“You read books about it?”

“A few. Articles here and there. I read a good one in the waiting room of the dentist last week. Dicky, you’re so outgoing and sweet.”

“We figured that if you wanted to have a girl you would have gotten yourself one by now.” Coach tells him.

“Honestly every time you called I expected you to tell me you met a boy.”

Bitty laughs, a little high pitched and frantic. “Well, actually…”

“Eric Richard Bittle, don’t you tell me you’re in a hotel room with some boy.”

“No, Mama, it’s not that. Umm...this isn’t a hotel room. This is Jack’s kitchen. In Providence. Jack is the boy.”

They don’t say anything and Bitty’s about to check the connection when Suzanne starts to squeal.

“Jack Zimmermann is your boyfriend?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh my gosh, I couldn’t have picked a better one for you.”

“He’s doing real well this season,” Coach offers.

“Have you been watching him?”

“When I get a chance.”

Suzanne slaps her husband’s arm. “We watch all of them. We just didn’t want to embarrass you. Oh, wait until that Linda Taylor hears about this. She keeps going on and on about how her daughter married a veterinarian.”

“You can’t tell anyone, promise me.”

“Why not?”

“Jack’s not, he can’t, we’re not.”

“He’s keeping you a secret.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Dicky, you waited how long for an opportunity to be yourself and now he’s telling you to keep quiet about it?”

“I know it sounds bad but it’s not like that. He’s not ashamed of me.”

“Of course he’s not ashamed of you, who could ever be ashamed of you?” Coach says and Bitty’s a little surprised to hear that from him.

“Jack’s not out publically yet. A few guys on the team know and some of our friends from Samwell and his parents but that’s it. Think about how scared I was to tell you this and now he has to tell the whole world. You know how sports fans can be.” He looks at Coach and Coach averts his eyes. Bitty’s never heard him say anything disparaging but he’s pretty sure his father has heard other people say things and he probably hasn’t done anything to stop it. “We won’t be a secret forever. He has to make sure people are talking about how he’s playing first. He wants to prove himself.”

“He’s doing a damn good job at that.”

“I’ll tell him you said that. He loves me. He tells me all the time and sometimes I think it’s killing him to not be able to go out with me without worrying that someone’s gonna find out but it’s what he has to do.”

Suzanne’s voice sounds a little watery when she asks “He really loves you?”

“So much, mama.”

“And you love him?”

Bitty nods. “Yes. More than I ever thought I could. Everything is so much….more with him. I don’t know how to explain it but I never thought I could feel like this. I was starting to think I wouldn’t get to.”

“Oh, baby,” Suzanne says softly and there are definitely tears in her eyes. “Is Jack there?”

“He’s in the other room.”

“Can we talk to him?”

“Mama…”

“Don’t worry about anything. We aren’t gonna be mean to him I just think we have the right to talk to man that’s stolen our son’s heart.”

“What are you going to say to him?”

“Go get your boy, Dicky.”

“Do as your mother says, son.”

Jack’s sitting on the edge of the bed with his hands on his bouncing knees when Bitty comes to get him. He springs right up when the door opens.

“Is everything okay?”

“It’s fine. It’s great, actually.” He reaches for Jack’s hand. “It’s all going to be okay.”

Jack takes a deep breath and follows him into the kitchen where Bitty is immediately dismissed by his mother. He knows better than to hang just outside of the camera frame. She would know.

So he takes Jack’s spot in the bedroom. As he’s walking down the hall he hears Jack says “It’s nice to see you again, Mr and Mrs Bittle. You both look well,” and Bitty rolls his eyes and is so thankful he fell in love with that boy.

When Jack comes back to him ten minutes later he looks a little pale but has an easy smile on his face.

“Well?” Bitty asks, still sitting on the bed and Jack steps between his legs then kneels down so they’re eyelevel.

“They’re really happy for us, Bitty.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Jack’s hands spread across Bitty’s thighs and he squeezed. “But when we go back to visit we have to stay in separate bedrooms. Non-negotiable. No exceptions. Your mom expects us back this summer and they want to meet my parents which shouldn’t be a problem. Yours can come up here or mine can go down there. Whatever works best.”

“She’s awfully demanding.”

Jack tilts his head up to kiss him. “This is only the start.”

Bitty falls back on the bed and drags Jack with him.

 

******

 

The Bittles fly up to Providence.

Bob and Alicia Zimmermann in Madison, Georgia would draw a crowd. And a lot of questions.

Bitty flies around the apartment before anyone arrives cleaning what Jack has already cleaned. He’s got dinner and two pies he needs to get in the oven and he’s trying to reach a smudge on the window that’s just out of his range when Jack’s fingers clamp down on his hips and carries him away.
“I will get that.”

“You have to change the sheets on the guest bed.”

“I already did that.”

“The guest bathroom. It needs soap.”

“Done. You can sit down for five minutes.”

“How are you not freaking out?”

“Because you’re freaking out. It can’t be both of us.”

Bitty turns in his arms and clasps his hands behind Jack’s neck. “You’re not nervous because you’re letting me be nervous?”

“Yeah.”

“In some weird way that’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever done for me.”

“Your bar is set pretty low. I should be able to beat that, no problem.”

“You go ahead and try.”

 

*****

 

Bob and Alicia arrive first.

Bitty slides Bob a print out of college football stats to look over.

“You might need these,” Bitty tells him and Bob slides the paper back over.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Bitty makes a disapproving noise and pushes it across the table again. “Just in case. Humor me. Please.”

“Just look at it,” Jack says as he bearhugs Bitty from behind and walks him back over to the stove. The potatoes are beginning to boil.

It turns out Bob doesn’t need the cheat sheet.

When Suzanne and Coach arrive Bitty is smothered in a hug from his mother and a pat on the back from his father and then all but pushed aside so Suzanne can get to everyone else.

She starts with Jack who she hugs for the longest time. She’s even shorter than Bitty so Jack has to bend almost completely over so she can reach and then she moves on to Bob and Alicia.

Coach shakes hands with Jack and Bob but Alicia pulls him into a hug and he doesn't resist even though Bitty can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen his father actually hug someone.

During dinner Bob and Coach strike up a conversation about golf that keeps them going through dessert and Alicia gushes around Bitty and Suzanne gushes about Jack and Jack and Bitty sit next to each other in the middle of them all with their hands clasped together on top of the table and it’s more perfect than either of them could hope for.

 

******

 

“Do you think I should tell the team all at once or start with Tater?”

Bitty almost chokes on his dinner.

“What?”

“Don’t you think it’s time we start really telling people? I want to do it slowly. Maybe talk to a few guys at a time instead of just dropping it in the middle of practice.”

“And you want to start with Tater?”

“We spend a lot of time together. Last week we went out to breakfast and he held the door open for a couple of women who were holding hands. I don’t know. Might be a good place to start and look, I know we haven’t explicitly discussed this or anything but you’re going to be graduating and I want you to stay here, move in with me. You could find something in here or in Boston maybe. There’s an express train that can get you up there in half an hour. Whatever you want. I want to see you everyday and I don’t want to have to introduce you to the guys as my roommate when all of our things are going to be in one bedroom.”

Jack’s breathing rapidly and his hands are clenched hard around the edge of the table so Bitty stands and smoothes his hair back as he kisses him.

“I’ll make Tater a pie.”

“His favorite is blueberry.”

 

******

 

Bitty tells himself it’s okay to be intimidated by the hockey player standing in front of him who is tall enough to make Jack look tiny even though he had a smile on his face since he walked in the door.

“Little Teammate!” Tater greets him with his arms out wide. “I see you at games sometime. You here to visit Zimbonni?”

“Tater, Bittle-- Eric, isn’t just my old teammate. He’s my boyfriend. We’re together.”

“Boyfriend?” Tater repeats and Jack nods. Bitty doesn’t know what to do. “He make you pie, make you smile all the time?”

“Yeah, Tater, he’s the one.”

Tater reaches out to bring Bitty into a one armed hug. Bitty makes a small oof sound when he connects to his chest.

“Zimbonni, why you tell me you had girlfriend?”

“I didn’t, not really,” Jack looks more worried about Bitty being able to breathe than continuing the conversation. “You kind of just…”

“I make mistake. You tell me when I make mistake. Little boyfriend, you have pie now?”

“It’s still warm,” Bitty moves his head as much as he can to tip it towards the kitchen.

“Good, come on. We eat. We talk about Zimbonni and you tell me more about pies.”

 

******

 

Telling the rest of the team happens naturally.

A few guys here and there until the whole team knows.

“They’re all being cool about it or at least they’re trying to be,” Jack tells him over the phone. “That’s gotta count for something.”

When Bitty’s able to come back to Providence Jack invites Guy and Thirdy over to have dinner with them.

They each leave with two pies a piece and spread the word because soon the entire team is cycling through.

Every time Jack closes the door after his teammates leave full and happy it’s like Bitty can see the weight lifting off his shoulders.

 

*******

 

Bitty watches the post game press conference over and over on the DVR before Jack steps in the door.

They press has been relentless in their quest to figure out if he has a girlfriend or not.

He's not providing the media with the stories that they want to hear.

There's no drama.

No sign of a breakdown or rehab.

He's playing great so they have to stop the disappointment to Bad Bob Zimmermann storyline.

Jack's happy and that's not enough for them.

It doesn't sell magazines or garner hits on their website.

They start to focus on the future of the Zimmermann legacy. There are guys on the team younger than Jack that have wives and kids or a baby on the way.

He gets asked during every interview he does. While he’s out for a run by ameture photographers or sweaty and bloody in the locker room after a game.

Tonight, after the game a reporter stands up and says “Can you tell us anything about your girlfriend? When do you plan on settling down? Don’t you think it’s time to make Bad Bob a grandpa?”

Jack stares at the reporter until he sits down then looks off camera for a few seconds before he stands up and walks out. Tater follows him and Bitty rewinds it to watch it again.

“Did you see that?” Jack asks as soon as he walks through the door.

Bitty changes the channel. “Yes.”

“George told me I wouldn’t get asked anything personal.”

“She can’t control what they say once they’re in there.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. Stop giving interviews, I guess.”

“You can’t do that.”

“They’re not going to stop until they get an answer.”

“I know,” Bitty says quietly.

Jack sits down at the kitchen counter and Bitty grabs him a water from the fridge.

“What do you think I should do?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Bittle.”

“I can’t tell you what to do. This is your life.”

“This is your life too. You’re a part of this. You’re with me. I’m asking you what do you think?”

Bitty sighs and rubs his hands across Jack’s back. It’s tight with tension. It makes Bitty’s chest hurt.

“Honestly, all I’m thinking about are the guys that are playing that are in your exact position. You and I both know you’re not the only one.” He raises his brows and Jack nods. “None of them are thinking that they want to be the first one but someone has to be.”

“I don’t want it to be me.”

“I know.” He lets Jack pull him between his knees. “But everyone is thinking that. Someone has to make a move. And then I think about all the kids that were like me when I was growing up. Getting bullied and getting locked in closets. I would’ve done anything for a role model like you.”

“I never wanted to be a role model.” He wraps his arms around Bitty’s waist and rests his head against his chest. Bitty runs his fingers through his hair.

“I know, hun.”

“All I wanted to do was play hockey.”

“All I wanted to do was figure skate and bake pies,” he says and Jack tips his head up to look at him. Bitty cradles his jaw. “Sometimes you get more than you asked for. I don’t ever want you to do anything more than what you’re ready for. You’ve never rushed me into anything but since you asked, that’s what I think.”

“It’s not going to be easy.”

“I know.”

“People are going to say a lot of shit.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want this to ruin us. I don’t want it to be too much. What if we do this and it’s too hard and you figure out that I’m more work than I’m worth.”

“Baby,” he holds onto the side of his face and forces their eyes to meet. “I waited for this for so long. I’m not giving up on us no matter how hard it gets. I’m always gonna be right here.”

Jack takes a deep breath and his eyes slip closed. He opens them on the slow exhale.

“I can’t wait to tell the whole world about you.”

Bitty’s so in love with him it hurts.

“Then do it.”

 

*******

 

George releases a brief statement.

Bitty’s name is included. Georgia explained it was best to get it all out in the open at once or they’d just speculate who the guy was.

It comes out at what should be the end of the news day but social media never sleeps.

“Lardo says you’re trending on twitter. Huh. So am I?”

“Is that a good thing?”
Bitty shrugs. He hasn’t gone into the trending topic and he’s not sure he wants to.

“She says a lot of people are supporting you. A lot of celebrities.”

“Great,” Jack says dryly. He’s made a call to his parents and to Shitty and took one from Kent that Bitty tried really hard not to eavesdrop on.

Bitty called his own parents and has been texting the team ever since. Now he puts down the phone and crawls across the couch to Jack’s lap.

“I’m proud of you,” he says as Jack leans forward to press his forehead to Bitty’s collarbone. Bitty can feel his eyelashes flutter against his skin. “You did it. How do you feel about it.”

“Kind of terrified.”

“Okay. What do you want to do about that, right now?”

He squeezes Bitty’s hips with his hands and leans back against the couch cushions. “I want to go to bed.”

Bitty nods wordlessly and slips off his lap.

Jack holds him tight under the covers and in the dark Bitty can see both their phones flash with new notifications.

 

******

 

Jack’s alarm wakes them up and throws his arm out to pull it off the nightstand and onto the bed.

“Sorry, I thought I turned that off. Can you look to see how many people I’m going to talk to? I don’t think I can do it right now.”

Bitty taps in the passcode and winces. “Let’s not talk about that right now.”

“That many?”

“Why don’t we go somewhere? Let’s take a trip. You have some time off and I’ve got the summer. We can get out of here and go see Shitty and Lardo or go up to visit your parents. Don’t they have a house in the middle of nowhere we can use? Or we can go somewhere we’ve never been. Shut our phones off and go.”

Jack pushes himself up one one elbow, traces Bitty’s collarbone with his fingertip and says “No. I’m not running from this. I think we both spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to be ourselves and getting comfortable with it. You got there first and I feel like I held you back. Now it’s out there and we’re going to deal with it. I’m going to call Georgia then we’re gonna get dressed and go out for breakfast and I’m going to hold your hand the whole time. Okay?”

Bitty settles down against Jack’s chest with his arm around his back while Jack makes the call.

Love is not what he thought it would be when he was 6 and watching those Disney movies in his aunt's basement.

It starts with meeting a handsome stranger and then it splits.

It’s not easy.

It’s a push and pull. Watching and worrying and wanting and waiting.

It’s getting together just in time to have miles put between you and your love and having to figure out how to cross them without moving an inch.

It’s more watching and worrying and wanting and waiting and then it’s getting tackled in a kitchen by your best friends, your other loves, when you tell them.

It’s holding hands under tables and then over tables and then walking down the street on your way to breakfast.

It’s everything you’d ever want.

It’s looking at each other and seeing everything.