Chapter 1: Dex
Dex wasn’t homophobic when he came to Samwell. He didn’t hate gay people, or think they were going to hell. He didn’t even think they shouldn’t be allowed to get married or adopt kids. He just… hadn’t really met any before. Well, no one who was out and proud the way Bitty was. Maine might tend to swing blue in Presidential races, but that was mostly thanks to the more heavily-populated areas down south around Portland and Augusta. His tiny coastal town was full of Men’s Men who played football and worked on lobster boats and did not kiss other men or think much of men who did. So if there were any gay kids at Dex’s school, they must have hidden it.
So yeah, it took him a little bit to adjust to the fact that someone could dress and talk like Bitty, be a former championship figure skater, and be that into baking, and still kick ass at hockey, but he never disliked Bitty or held his sexuality against him.
But—and he at least had the self-awareness to be ashamed enough of this to never admit it to anyone—he did see Bitty as a bit of a curiosity.
So he may have paid closer attention to how Bitty acted around other guys than most of the team. When he ran into Bitty chatting with some guy as they left a lecture, or flirting and dancing with guys openly at parties, or going out on a few dates with some dude Rans and Holster set him up with. It wasn't because he thought Bitty was weird, he just found it interesting because it wasn't something he'd ever seen before outside of movies.
Which is how he became pretty sure that he was the only one on the team who noticed how bad Bitty had it for Jack.
He tried feeling the others out for information a few times, but it quickly became clear that nobody else saw it.
“You think Bitty acts… different, when he’s around Jack?” he asked Chowder.
“I dunno, probably! I mean, most of us do, right? He’s the captain! And he’s Jack Zimmermann! I know I’m still a little intimidated, I mean I know Bitty’s known him a whole year longer than us but I bet I’ll still be intimidated a year from now. Not that Jack will be our captain anymore then, but…” Dex quickly regretted his choices.
On one of the rare days he and Nursey were getting along, he took advantage of the conversation they were having about Chowder and Farmer.
“Bitty’s not seeing that guy from Winter Screw anymore, is he? I wonder if he’s after anyone right now.”
“Brah,” Nursey replied, and Dex could tell by the tone of that one word that their hour of peace was over. “Are you seriously worried that if the gay kid is single you’re not safe?”
He finally straight-up asked Ransom and Holster one day after practice.
“So, uh… Does Bitty have a thing for Jack?”
“What?” Ransom looked at him like he’d just mixed up a hockey stick and a lacrosse stick.
“Jack’s straight,” Holster replied patiently, as if that mattered.
“Dex.” Rans put an arm around his shoulder. “You should know by now that Bitty’s like that with everyone! He doesn’t bake Jack any more pies than anyone else. He doesn’t smile at Jack more than anyone else, or stare at Jack’s ass more than anyone else does.”
Dex frowned, because he was pretty sure Bitty did all three of those things. But maybe everyone was right. Maybe he just really wasn’t used to being around gay guys… but that didn’t explain why it seemed like Bitty was into Jack in particular. If he acted the same with everyone, shouldn’t Dex think he had a crush on every guy on the team?
And then that fall, Bitty was clearly Jack’s number one fan, and Dex seemed to be the only person on the team who was not the least bit surprised by that fact.
So when Jack came to visit, Dex was pretty sure he was the only one who saw the look in Bitty’s eyes every time the two of them spoke. Or the corresponding look in Jack’s eyes, which had definitely not been there the year before. Bitty was acting the same as he always did around Jack, but Jack acting the same way around Bitty was something new.
And when he saw Jack and Bitty coming downstairs together during the kegster—well, he was pretty sure he was the only one who noticed that at all. Or saw the look on Bitty’s face when Jack insisted to Shitty that he didn’t have a girlfriend.
It was another two weeks before he got up the courage to actually ask Bitty. It wasn’t any of his business, of course, but after nearly a year of feeling like he was crazy for noticing anything at all he needed to at least ask.
He had been at the Haus watching the Falconers game with everyone, and obviously everyone was horrified when Jack was led off the ice with blood gushing from his face. But Bitty was the only one who looked like he might cry.
The next day, he was studying in Chowder’s room when Farmer called. He stepped out to give them a little privacy, and found himself staring straight at Bitty’s door. So he knocked.
“What’s up, Dex?” Bitty asked as he opened the door, his face open and friendly as always. Dex stepped into Bitty’s room, glancing down the hall behind him.
“Hey, uh…” He closed the door for good measure. “Look, I know this is none of my business, and I swear to god I won’t tell a soul anything, but, uh—are you and Jack, like… together?”
He had his answer from the look on Bitty’s face before he had even made it through the question. Bitty’s eyes widened, looking terrified for a second, before he schooled his face into something that didn’t look nearly as casual as he probably thought it did.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Jack told y’all himself he’s not seeing anyone.”
Dex rolled his eyes. “You know as well as I do that he very specifically said he doesn’t have a girlfriend. He stopped himself when he was about to say he wasn’t dating anyone and changed it to girlfriend.”
Bitty turned around, suddenly finding some papers on his desk very interesting. “Did he? I didn’t even notice. Well, same difference, right?” His laugh was strained.
“And I’m pretty sure I was the only one looking, but you seemed pretty broken up about it, whatever words he used.” Bitty sighed, but didn’t say anything, and Dex shook his head. “Look, it’s not my business. You don’t have to answer anything. Just… I know we’re not best friends or anything, but I’m good at keeping secrets and if you need to talk to someone about it, I’m here, okay?”
Chapter 2: Tango
"Does Bitty have a boyfriend?"
"You would think he would, right?" Chowder responded, smiling brightly. "I mean, he's 'swawesome, right? I don't like guys but he's so friendly and cheerful and bakes so much, plus he's a great hockey player, and he dances really well, too, seems like he's a total catch. He should have guys all over him but I dunno, he went out with this rugby player a few times last year but I don't think they were boyfriends, y'know? Or if they were he didn't really say anything and it didn't last very long."
"Okay, sure," Tango cut in before Chowder could continue his Bitty-worship monologue, "he's great and he should have a boyfriend. But I mean, he's always texting on his phone? With this little smile on his face? I thought maybe he was dating someone?"
Chowder laughed. "Oh yeah, he's always on Twitter. He's addicted. Do you follow him? I mean, you probably do but if not you should because he's hilarious on there..."
Tango let Chowder keep babbling, but he wasn't convinced. Bitty was on Twitter a lot, yeah, but like five tweets a day, not eighty.
"Is Jack Zimmermann... not... straight?" Tango meant to phrase it a little more delicately, but he never was very good at finding the right words once he opened his mouth.
Holster burst out laughing.
"Bro, what? Where the hell did that come from?"
"I dunno, there's all those rumors about him and Kent Parson--"
"Dude, those are rumors. Don't believe everything you read in fanfic."
"Well, and he, uh. I've noticed him, uh, checking out guys' asses? Bitty's a few times, but like, this other guy once, too? After that Falconers game we all went to."
Holster threw an arm around Tango's shoulder. Tango startled, but didn't pull away.
"Tango, Tango, Tango. What you have to understand about Jack Zimmermann is that he absolutely must keep an eye on his competition in the ass department. Of course he's watching Bitty's ass - Bitty's been working hard on it for the past year, we've all been monitoring his progress."
"Oh. Uh, okay." Tango knew Ransom had been doing some kind of squats regimen with Bitty, and he had, in fact, seen team members checking the progress. He didn't think he'd be able to explain how the way Jack looked at Bitty's bottom was different from the way anyone else did, so he didn't try.
Tango went to visit his aunt in Toronto for Christmas. When he emerged through the gate back at Logan, looking around for the signs that would direct him to the exit, he heard a familiar drawl from the stream of passengers coming through the next gate.
"I'm out of the plane now, sweetheart, safe and sound. The snowstorm was really only around Montreal, the weather here is fine. Well, colder'n a witch's tit, but clear.... Okay, honey, I'll talk to you when I get back to the Haus. I--" Bitty cut off abruptly when his eyes met Tango's. His tone changed from warm and familiar to something more impersonal and businesslike. "Um, I'll talk to you later. Yes. Goodbye!"
According to the screen next to the gate, Bitty was flying in from Montreal instead of Atlanta.
"Tango!" Bitty greeted him overenthusiastically, the smile on his face a little strained. "Imagine seeing you here! How was your Christmas?"
"It was great. My aunts just adopted a little boy, he's the cutest."
"Awwww," Bitty said, "that's adorable."
"So, uh, why were you in Montreal? Before break you were talking about seeing your family in Georgia."
Bitty blushed and looked straight ahead as they made their way down the concourse.
"Oh, I was just visiting an old friend. I was just there for the new year, not the whole break."
Tango nodded. "Cool."
They walked in silence for a bit, other than searching out the signs pointing them to the Silver Line. But Tango was deep in thought.
"Bitty," he finally asked, "do you have a boyfriend who lives in Montreal?"
Bitty sputtered and blinked at him for a minute. "What? No! I do not have a boyfriend who lives in Montreal!"
"Who were you just talking to, then?" Tango cringed as soon as the question left his mouth.
"Tango, with all due respect, that is not your business,” Bitty said, his voice firm but gentle.
“Sorry, I know, it’s just—there’s someone who makes you awfully happy, isn’t there? I mean, you don’t have to tell me anything, just. That’s good.”
Bitty just smiled, not looking at Tango. Then he turned the conversation back toward what Tango had done in Toronto.
It wasn’t until they were on the Silver Line bus on their way to South Station to catch a commuter rail that something hit Tango.
“The Falconers just played in Montreal on New Year’s Day, didn’t they? Everyone was talking about it on the group chat. Did you get to see Jack?”
“Yes,” Bitty said simply. “I went to the game and I got to see Jack.”
“Cool.” Tango nodded, not sure what else to say.
Tango was doing his homework in the Haus den when he realized he hadn't smelled anything coming from the kitchen all evening.
"Wait, is Bitty in Providence again?"
"What?" Ransom, Lardo, and Nursey all asked at once.
"Isn't that, like, the third time he's gone to visit Jack in Providence in the past month?"
"I don't think so," Ransom said, shaking his head.
"He would've told us if he were going to visit Jack," Lardo added. "He's probably just holed up in his room. He's got a tough semester."
"Wait, what d'you mean the third time?" Nursey asked. "I didn't even know he'd gone once since Christmas break."
"A couple weekends ago, he was checking the commuter rail schedule on his way out the door," Tango explained, "and muttering to himself about getting to Canton Junction on time. If he weren't going to Providence, he'd go to a closer station, like Norwood Central or Windsor Gardens, right?"
"That line doesn't only go to Providence," Ransom pointed out.
"Well yeah, but where else would he have been going with an overnight bag? And last Wednesday he wasn't around, just like tonight. I didn't see him again until after lunch on Thursday, and when I asked he even told me he ran down to catch a Falconers game at the last minute since he doesn't have class Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning. I don't think they have a game tonight, though."
"Then he's probably not down there," Nursey said with a shrug. "Maybe he's studying in the library. I know it seems like the dude's surgically attached to the oven sometimes, but he does leave the kitchen now and then, y'know."
"… I guess."
Holy crap. Tango was alone in a car with Jack Zimmermann. The Jack Zimmermann. Who was best friends with like all of Tango's friends.
Jack had come up for their game that afternoon. After they'd won, Jack had come back to the Haus to hang out for a while. When Bitty tried to bake something only to discover that he was out of sugar, Jack had volunteered to run to the store for him. Or, rather, Bitty had told Jack very sweetly to run and get him some sugar, and Jack had complied seemingly without a second thought.
How Tango had wound up coming along for the ride, he wasn't even exactly sure of. But here he was!
Dear god, don't say anything stupid. Don't embarrass yourself in front of Jack Zimmermann.
"Are you and Bitty, like, secretly dating or something?"
JESUS CHRIST, WHATEVER YOU DO DON'T ASK HIM THAT!!!
"Uh." Jack stared at him until the car behind them honked because the light had changed several seconds ago.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to—I mean, it's not my business. Never mind." Jack didn't answer, and Tango managed to hold back for all of ten seconds before his stupid mouth started running again. "It's just—Bitty's dating someone, I'm sure he is, there's someone he's texting all the time who makes him really happy, which is great. And he goes down to visit you all the time. And whenever you're in the same room you both stare at each other a lot, plus you check out each other's asses like every chance you get. And you were in Montreal together over New Year's but Bitty wasn't even going to tell anyone, I only found out because my plane happened to get in at the same time as his. So it's just—" He glanced nervously at Jack, who was staring straight ahead and gripping the wheel like his life depended on it. "Sorry, I'll shut up."
"Have you… have you said anything about this to anyone else?" Jack finally asked.
"Uh… sort of? I mean, I've asked people about some of that stuff?" Tango shrugged. "But nobody ever believes me."
"Okay. Okay, Tango, can we—can we maybe keep it that way? If I answer all your questions, can you swear that you won't say another word in front of anyone but me or Bitty?"
Chapter 3: Chowder
Living in the Haus was 'swawesome, and living across the hall from Bitty was the best. For someone who said he hadn't dated much himself, he gave the best advice. Anytime Chowder was confused—if Caitlin was upset and he didn't know why, or if he wanted to do something special for her and didn't know what—he could go across the hall and Bitty would always know what to do.
"Jeez, Bitty, you're so smart about this stuff," he said as he left Bitty's room. Valentine's Day was only a couple weeks away, and he'd been totally drawing a blank on what to do for her. "I can't believe you don't have a boyfriend. Every guy at Samwell is really missing out. I mean, every gay guy. Or bi guy. Every not straight guy, I guess. I dunno, maybe us straight guys are missing out, too—but don't tell Caitlin I said that!"
"I think Samwell's queer men are doing just fine without me," Bitty said with a laugh, and for some reason he was blushing and not looking at Chowder. Not like, just not looking at him, but like, looking not at him. "And please don't say things like that in front of Ransom and Holster, I do not need them to go looking for a date for me. Yet again."
"Oh, I won't! But you are really good at relationship stuff. When you do find the right guy, he'll be super lucky."
Bitty laughed again, and there was something soft about it that made Chowder feel like he was missing something.
"I don't know about all that, but thank you."
One of Chowder's classes was unexpectedly cancelled when the professor was in a car accident on the way to campus. His first two lectures of the day were on the other end of campus from the Haus, and he had a free hour off in between them, so he usually just stayed on that side of campus for lunch. But with his second lecture cancelled, he headed back to the Haus at 11am instead of his usual 1pm.
The Haus was quiet when he got there. As he went upstairs there was no movement above him, so it sounded like Ransom and Holster weren't home. As he passed Lardo's room, he realized that not only was it quiet, but the lack of music coming from Bitty's room meant that he probably had the Haus all to himself. That kind of made him sad; the whole fun of living in the Haus was having other people around all the time.
But as he approached his door, he realized he wasn't alone—he could hear Bitty's voice coming from behind the closed door across from his own.
At first he couldn't make out the words, but when he was standing right between their two doors he could hear Bitty loud and clear.
"Sweetheart, how many times do I have to tell you it's fine? We've known for months you'd be gone for Valentine's Day."
Chowder's eyes grew wide, and in his shock he missed the next thing Bitty said.
Because Bitty had a boyfriend! They'd just been talking about this last week and now—wait, for months? He'd had a boyfriend for months?
"I know, but I can't even send you flowers or anything. You've put up with so much for me, Bits, the least I could do—"
Chowder missed whatever was said next as he scrambled into his room and quietly shut the door behind him, heart pounding.
That couldn't have been—but it had sounded like—
He stared at his door. It would be wrong of him to try to hear any more of their conversation.
He realized that Bitty must have assumed he'd have the Haus to himself, because he probably usually did at this time on a Wednesday. If he let Bitty go on believing that, it was as good as lying to him.
So he snuck back out of his room, trying not to overhear any more of the conversation but unable to not hear the familiar French-Canadian accent saying "the next time you're down here…"
He snuck back to the staircase, and went halfway down.
Then he pounded back up the stairs, stomping as loud as he could. When he got to the top of the stairs, he called out "Hey, anyone home?"
Valentine's Day was on a Sunday, which meant that most of the Haus was hungover in the morning. When Chowder stumbled into the kitchen to find some cereal, he was surprised to see Bitty already dressed, halfway into a pie.
Chowder wondered if he was trying to distract himself from the fact that Jack was playing in Pittsburgh that day.
"Wow, Bitty, you're up early. What kind of pie are you making?"
"Well, y'all probably didn't notice since you were all nearly passed out, but for once in my life I managed not to drink an absurd amount last night. Amazingly enough, ten o'clock isn't that early when you're not hungover. And I'm trying to perfect this maple pecan recipe. It's not quite right yet." Bitty frowned down into the pot of filling he was cooking on the oven.
Chowder wondered if the uptick in maple-based pies this year was because of Jack.
"Cool! Happy Valentine's Day. I mean, you probably don't have any plans or anything, since you're not, y'know, you're not seeing anyone, but happy Valentine's Day anyhow?" Chowder shut his mouth and focused on his cereal. It may have taken him nineteen years, but he was finally starting to figure out when his mouth was close to getting him into trouble.
Bitty just gave him an amused look. "Thank you, Chowder, you too. Did you make those reservations I suggested for you and Farmer?"
"Oh yeah, I—" Chowder was interrupted by the doorbell. "I got it!"
He was surprised to see a box sitting on the porch, and the mail carrier heading back down the sidewalk to her truck. The box was from Amazon, sent with Prime one-day shipping. And it was addressed to Eric Bittle. Chowder bent down to pick it up—and found that it was heavier than it looked.
"Hey, Bitty," he said as he carried it into the kitchen. "You got a package. Were you expecting anything?"
Bitty frowned and wiped his hands on a kitchen towel by the stove. "No, I wasn't."
Bitty grabbed a knife and sliced the box open. He got a funny look on his face as he peered into it—confused, but with a little lopsided smile.
He pulled out of the box, one after the other, four bags of flour. They didn't look like normal flour bags, though—they were all brown, and tapered to a ziplock-type opening on the top instead of the usual flat, blocky flour bag top. Two were labelled "Pastry Flour Blend," one "Whole Wheat Pastry Flour," and one "Artisan Bread Flour." Then he pulled out a box of Cake Flour. All five had a logo at the top for King Arthur Flour.
When all five flour bags/boxes were lined up on the counter, Bitty looked back into the box. He blushed and turned his body just enough to hide what he was doing from Chowder—but Chowder had glanced into the box when half the flour bags were out and knew Bitty was removing the envelope that had been at the bottom.
"Well," Bitty said. "I, um. I forgot I ordered these. I can hardly ever afford the nice stuff, y'know, but I, uh. Thought I'd get myself a treat for once."
Chowder chewed his lip. He wasn't supposed to know what he knew. He wasn't supposed to have heard their conversation, or notice the card in the box or the fact that it was sent with one-day shipping.
Did that make it worse to admit that he knew, or to pretend he didn't? Didn't Bitty deserve to know that someone knew his secret? It would be lying to hide it. But Bitty would probably be happier thinking nobody knew. Chowder could feel the pressure building inside him as the two options warred in his mind.
"He sent you flours," he blurted before he knew what he was doing.
Bitty spun around, looking at him with wide eyes. "What?"
Chowder stuck his head out the kitchen door to make sure nobody else was up yet. If they were, they weren't downstairs. He took a deep breath.
"Jack," he said, nodding to the box. "He sent you flours for Valentine's Day. Because if he sent normal flowers everyone would bug you to find out who they were from. That's really sweet. Clever, too."
Bitty turned and started putting the flours away in a cabinet. "I don't know why you would think that," he said, his voice strained. "I ordered these myself. Why on earth would Jack send me anything?"
Chowder bit his lip for a second, struggling with how to answer.
"Bitty," he said carefully, "you didn't pay like $15 for one-day shipping and then forget you bought them a day later."
Bitty froze with one hand on the box, and suddenly Chowder was sure he'd done exactly the wrong thing.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" he said desperately, hoping Bitty would forgive him. "I didn't mean to, I swear. I wasn't listening, I just happened to hear you guys talking a few days ago when you thought no one was home! I only heard like two sentences, and I didn't say a word to anyone, not even Caitlin. I'm sorry, I just didn't want to lie and pretend I didn't hear you and pretend I didn't know who these were from and everything because you deserve to know if someone knows."
Bitty sighed, and Chowder could see his shoulders sag. Hopefully with relief, not sadness. He picked up the last bag of flour and stared at it for a few seconds.
"Y'know, they're not even homophones when he says it," Bitty finally said. He glanced over at Chowder, and Chowder must have looked as confused as he felt. "Flower and flour? With that accent of his, somehow he manages to say 'flour'—" He wiggled the bag of flour as he gazed at it to indicate which word he meant. "—with only one syllable. I sound drunk when I try to say it like he does. But I sound drunk when I try to speak French, too, so."
Chowder laughed a little, but he knew how strained it sounded. He was still kind of scared that Bitty was mad at him. Bitty looked up at the sound.
"Chowder, sugar, calm down. It was gonna happen eventually. I don't know how we kept it a secret for this long, except that most of y'all wouldn't realize what was happening if we made out on the green couch. We were actually just talking recently about letting everyone here at the Haus know, but until then, keep it quiet, okay? We really don't need anyone outside the Haus knowing."
Chowder swelled with pride that Bitty would trust him so much. "Sure, definitely, yeah! I won't breathe a word of it, don't worry! Wow, Bitty, that's so cool, you and Jack, huh? When…"
Chapter 4: Shitty
Shitty had a spring in his step as he got off the commuter rail train and headed out to his waiting Uber. Jack had a rare two days off in a row, and although they already had plans to get dinner with the whole SMH crew tomorrow night, Shitty had told him he couldn't do anything tonight due to a stupid law school social hour thing he was expected to show his face at. Which had been true at the time—but what he had not told Jack was that the social hour was cancelled that morning.
He was pleased to see Andrew working the front desk of Jack's building that day. Shitty was pretty sure the only way he'd be able to get away with surprising Jack was if Andrew was the one working—none of the other staffers had seen him with Jack enough to recognize him, plus Andrew was applying to Harvard Law himself and liked to hang on Shitty's every word about law school.
"Andrew, my man!"
Shitty managed to weave a little small talk magic, dropping in a few well-placed references to his evil criminal law professor and who she was torturing this week, until he was pretty sure Andrew had almost forgotten he didn't live there himself.
"Hey, I'ma head on up—oh, bro, could you do me a solid? I'm tryin' to surprise Jack, do you really have to call up and let him know I'm coming? I know he's here, I saw his car."
Andrew winked. "I'll let it go this time, Mr. Knight. But if Mr. Zimmermann complains—"
"Ah, if Jack has any complaints, he knows it's my fault. Trust me, he'll have no problem taking it out on me. Thanks Andrew, you're a beaut. I owe you one!"
It was only too bad Jack hadn't given in to his pleas for a key to the apartment. Then Shitty could really surprise him, instead of just knocking.
But knock he did. It took a minute before he heard Jack's muffled voice calling "Who on earth is that?"
He kept quiet—Jack had a peephole, he'd see who it was quickly enough.
Sure enough, a few seconds later the door opened to a confused-looking Jack, clad only in boxers, his hair damp.
"Shitty, how the hell did you get up here? The doorman didn't call up."
"Surprise! I used my feminine wiles to charm Andrew into letting me up so I could ambush my best bro with—" Shitty froze, holding up the six pack of CBC Big Man IPA he'd brought with him.
"Jack." Shitty shouldered his way into the apartment, where the sound he thought he'd heard became unmistakable.
There was a shower running.
And Jack definitely wasn't in it.
"Jack Laurent Zimmermann!" He tried to catch Jack in a headlock, but the six pack he was still holding in one hand made it difficult. "You dog! You filthy, dirty, lying, beautiful dog!"
Jack shut the door. "Shitty, it's not—"
"Don't have a girlfriend, my sweet ass!" He slapped Jack's perky behind. "Or your sweet ass, more like it!"
Jack looked pained. "I don't have a girlfriend."
"Well, you didn't have a game today, so a puck bunny didn't just follow you home, and it's a little early for you to have found someone at a bar. I mean, okay, maybe we're talking fuckbuddies here?"
"No, that's not—" Jack sighed. "Okay, look. I knew I wouldn't be able to keep this from you forever—"
"Ha! I knew it!"
"—but you cannot tell anyone, okay? Nobody, not even anyone at Samwell. This has to stay quiet."
Shitty's eyebrows shot up. "Jack. Is she fuckin' famous, man? I mean, I'm not shocked you got yourself a model or someth—Jack, are you dating Taylor Swift?"
Shitty wouldn't put it past him, with those eyes and that ass and all that money.
Jack's face contorted in confusion. "Taylor Swift?"
"She's this hot blonde singer—"
"Yes, thank you, I know who Taylor Swift is, Shitty, and I am not dating her." Jack led him into the kitchen and set the beer on the counter. "Okay. Look. Shitty. I don't have a girlfriend."
Jack's eyes were boring into Shitty as though they could convey some kind of secret message all on their own. Shitty squinted at him, trying to decode the message and failing miserably.
"I don't have a girlfriend," jack tried again, putting a very slow and deliberate emphasis on the last word.
"You keep saying that," Shitty said, shaking his head, "and yet there is someone in your shower whose identity you are being awfully cagey about."
Jack sighed and ran a hand over his face. "Look, I am trying to ease you into this so that I don't drop too many bombs on you at once. I had no idea that it would be this hard to get the mighty crusader against heteronormativity to figure out what I might have if I don't have a girl… friend."
"Oh, shit." Shitty's stomach dropped. He couldn't believe he fucked this up. "Fuck. Sorry, Jack, I'm a fuckin' idiot. God, I'm sorry, man, here you are, trying to come out to me—wait, that is what you're trying for here, isn't it? 'Cause otherwise—"
"Yes!" Jack threw his hands up. "Yes, that is what I am trying to say. And again, Shitty, you cannot say a word about this in front of anyone, do you understand that?"
"No!" Shitty yelped, but then quickly clarified. "I mean, no, of course I won't say anything. Jesus, Jack, I know I've been an asshole about this whole thing, but now that I get, y'know, what's actually going on here, look, of course I know how important it is to keep this kind of thing quiet. Not because you have anything to be ashamed of," he couldn't help adding, "obviously, just because you're a public figure in a line of work drenched in toxic masculinity and the worst of our fucked-up society's homophobic tendencies. Of course I get that."
"Great. Good." The shower suddenly turned off, and Jack glanced toward his bedroom. "Look, we were about to go get dinner, but maybe we should get something delivered here so we can all talk about this stuff freely. And you're welcome to stay and watch the game with us in a couple hours, it's the Pens versus the Bruins."
"So… you want me to meet this guy? You do realize there's a very real chance that I'll scare him away, right?" Shitty grinned. "Because, brah, if this guy is gonna date you, he better learn to love me, too, so I'm not gonna turn it down just to make him comfortable. I'll keep my pants on, but only as a personal favor to you."
Jack smiled, looking toward the bedroom again, and Shitty was struck by how happy he looked. Wow. This is serious.
"Trust me, he wants to hang out with you. He'll be really glad to know you're here. The thing is—"
"Jack?" A very fucking familiar southern drawl called out from down Jack's hall. "Honey, do you know where my grey Samwell hoodie went? I swore I left it here."
Shitty stared at Jack, eyes wide and jaw slack. "No!"
He dashed down the hall before Jack could stop him, throwing open the door to Jack's bedroom and tackling the short blonde who was holding a towel around his waist and pawing through one of Jack's dresser drawers.
"Eric Richard Bittle, you fuckin' beaut!" Thanks to a combination of a size advantage, the element of surprise, and the lack of a six-pack, he easily got Bitty into a headlock and started administering a noogie as Bitty yelped in protest. "Who knew you had it in you!"
"Shitty Knight, I am naked let me go right this instant—"
Shitty let him out of the headlock, only to pull him up and plant a wet, sloppy kiss right on his cheek.
"I can't believe you've been tapping that majestic ass and managed to keep it quiet!"
Bitty wrestled himself back out of Shitty's grip and whipped the towel back up off the floor where it had fallen, trying to protect what little modesty he had left.
"Shitty, what are you even doing here? Jack, you said he couldn't make it tonight, you didn't tell me you were gonna tell him—"
"He just appeared at the door, Bits." Jack stepped into the room and scooped a t-shirt up off the floor to pull over his head. "It seemed easier to tell him than to come up with an even more elaborate lie. We have to start somewhere, right?"
"Bitty." Shitty put his hands on the very disgruntled-looking Bitty's very wet shoulders. "Please, tell me you are tapping that majestic ass. Because I don't think I could—"
"Oh my lord, I am not giving you details about our sex life! Now can I get dressed in some semblance of privacy?"
"Ahhh." Shitty backed off, shaking a finger at him. "But you admit that you do have a sex life."
Bitty looked like he might drop his towel just to attack Shitty, but Jack cut in just in time.
"Shitty, leave him alone. Come on, let's go order some food. Bits, we're ordering in, what are you in the mood for?"
Bitty sighed. "Y'all owe me right now, so I demand we order from that Thai place on the corner. You know what I like there, Jack. Oh, and one of you two gets to run to the store and get some heavy cream and unsweetened chocolate, because I am making myself a French silk pie and the two of you will be lucky if you get a single damn bite of it."
Chapter 5: Lardo
Bitty looked exhausted after morning practice. Again.
And Lardo knew why. She'd heard him up late talking to Jack on the phone—again. Jack's game hadn't ended til ten, and at eleven-thirty, when Lardo went to bed after cramming for her test later today, it sounded like they were just starting their conversation. With practice at six, there's no way Bitty got a good night's sleep.
It had made sense the time Jack got hit with the puck; they'd all been worried, and Bitty wouldn't have been fulfilling his role as Team Mother if he hadn't continued fussing over his teammates even when they were gone.
But since then, it's become a regular occurrence. Bitty and Jack had already been talking a ton, maybe every day. But at least it wasn't late at night. Now Lardo was pretty sure that Bitty stayed up to talk to Jack after every one of Jack's games. And it was starting to show.
Really, this was the kind of thing the captains should be addressing. But given what she was pretty sure was the root of the problem, Lardo wasn't about to send Ransom and Holster after Bitty.
Instead, she took matters into her own hands.
Hey, you busy? Can I call?
To her surprise, her phone rang almost immediately with a call from Jack. They texted a good bit, but she wasn't sure the last time she'd actually talked to him on the phone. They just weren't the phone call kind of friends, never had been.
"What's up, Lards? Everything okay?"
Nope, not the phone call kind of friends, and Jack knew it. Lardo had always liked that about him, that he never tried to make any of his friendships anything other than what they were. He wouldn't expect to sit silently with Bitty any more than he'd let Lardo cuddle him naked, but all of Jack's friends were important to him.
"No, actually. I'm worried about Bitty."
"Bitty? Why? Did something happen?" There was an edge to Jack's voice, like he was ready to drop everything if something had happened. Lardo tucked that information away.
"Look, Jack, I'm not gonna beat around the bush. The kid is low-key obsessed with you, and I dunno if it's healthy anymore."
There was a long pause.
"What? Sorry, what? I'm confused. Why do you say that?" Jack sounded honestly baffled, which surprised Lardo. Surely he'd noticed?
"Jack, come on. Don't tell me you didn't notice he had a crush on you last year. And now that you're gone, instead of moving on he's like, pining for you. How many times a week do you guys talk on the phone? He watches all your games, keeps track of all the Falconers social media. Don't tell him I told you this, but I've caught him sleeping in his Zimmermann jersey. And now for the past month he's been calling you after like every one of your games, and it's keeping him up late when he has to be at practice first thing in the morning. He's exhausted."
"Okay, okay," Jack broke in. "I get it. I won't let him stay up so late just to talk to me."
"No, Jack, I don't think you do get it." Lardo sighed. "The lack of sleep is kind of the straw that broke the camel's back, but it's this whole pattern. And you're feeding it, see?"
"I… don't know what you want me to do," Jack said. "If he has a crush on me, it's not like I can make that stop."
"But you can stop enabling him. I don't think you're leading him on, exactly, I'm sure he knows where he stands. But as long as he has unfettered access to you, he has no reason to, I dunno, go find guys to date who might actually love him back. Don't you think he deserves to find someone like that?"
"Lards, of course I do," Jack said gently. "Bitty is wonderful, and he very definitely deserves to be loved. But I honestly don't think that talking to me on the phone is preventing him from finding that."
"It's not preventing him so much as it's giving him an excuse not to try," she explained. "Look, I'm not saying you should cut him off. But maybe don't be available to him 24/7? And maybe, I dunno, encourage him to go on a date, let Rans and Holster set him up with someone?"
"I—I don't know about that." Jack sounded suddenly hesitant. "That's not really, you know, my business. If you think he needs to date, you should talk to him about it yourself. And, I mean, if he's already tired maybe going on dates isn't really what he needs, you know?"
Lardo pulled the phone back from her ear and squinted at it as though if she stared hard enough, she could see the look on Jack's face. Was he blushing? If they were face-to-face, would he be avoiding her gaze? Ugh, the telephone was so limiting sometimes.
"I think he would take it more seriously coming from you," she said carefully. "Unless…"
Jack waited a moment for her to go on. "Unless what?"
"Well, you know, it takes two to make a phone call."
"…What does that mean?"
"It means, you're perfectly happy to talk to him like every day, when I know you only talk to Shitty once or twice a week. You're not annoyed that he calls you all the time, even after games when you must be exhausted, too. In fact, you're like, resisting when I suggest maybe you should calm it down a little."
"He's one of my closest friends." There was a defensive edge to Jack's voice. "And he's Bitty. He talks. A lot. I wouldn't be friends with him if that annoyed me."
"Jack, look, feel free to shoot me down if I've got it all wrong here, but…" Lardo ignored the nerves running through her stomach and forced herself to go on. Yes, Jack might get mad at her, but he needed to think about this. "Do you… maybe have feelings for BItty? Like, maybe the kind of feelings that would make you not want us to set him up on dates with other guys?"
Jack's silence was more than enough answer.
"Look, Jack, you don't have to tell me, okay?" she said in a rush. "Maybe you're not even sure. Just promise me you'll think about it, and then talk to Bitty? One way or another? If you have feelings, talk to him about that, because you guys both deserve to be happy and if you'd make each other happy then even better. If you don't, then try to let him down easy and encourage him to move on. Okay?"
"I need to talk to Bitty," Jack murmured to himself with a sigh. Lardo frowned—she wasn't sure if he'd been listening to a word she'd said.
"Good, yeah. Talk to Bitty."
"Are you at the Haus?" Jack asked suddenly. "Is he nearby?"
"Um, well, yeah?" Lardo stumbled on her words, caught off guard. "I mean, I'm in my room, and I think he's in his room? I dunno, I could hear his music when I came in here, he might have left. Why?"
"Okay," Jack said. "Okay, give me fifteen minutes?"
"What?" Now Lardo was completely confused. "Are you gonna talk to him now? I mean, I don't really need an immediate report or anything."
"But will you be around in like ten or fifteen minutes?" Jack sounded urgent now.
Lardo was so confused.
"Yes? I can be?"
"Okay. Okay, just—I'm going to talk to him now. Don't go anywhere."
And then he hung up.
Lardo blinked down at her phone. Had he just had some kind of epiphany? Was he about to call Bitty and profess his love? If so, why would he want Lardo to hang around, and why would he think it would only take ten to fifteen minutes?
She shook her head and picked up the novel she was supposed to be reading for her American Lit class.
Not even ten minutes later, a knock at her door made her look up.
She opened the door to find Bitty on the other side. Uh-oh. What had Jack told him? Was he pissed that she'd interfered?
"Hey, Bits, what's up?" She kept her face passive, even as her heart rate kicked up.
"Hey, Lardo, you mind if I come in?" He held up his iPad as she closed the door behind him. "Jack and I wanted to talk to you, you mind if we Skype him?"
Uh-oh. She was pretty sure she was about to get chewed out by two people at once for butting in where she didn't belong. Although it was a little weird that Jack would want to do it over Skype. Either way, though, she got ready to explain that she was honestly worried about Bitty and it was all out of love.
She and Bitty got comfortable on her bed, and he put the call through to Jack. When Jack popped up on the screen, he didn't look mad. Neither did Bitty, come to think of it.
"Hey, sweetheart," Bitty said, smiling at Jack. Lardo blinked at him. Sweetheart? "Can you see us okay?"
"Yeah, I can see you both fine," Jack replied. "Um, so, Lardo, can you keep a secret?"
Chapter 6: +1
By April, Bitty was honestly sort of shocked that his friends were still in the dark. He and Jack hardly even tried to hide it anymore.
They all knew he went down to Providence once every couple of weeks, sometimes more, and spent the night at Jack's. They expected him to have the latest news on Jack or the Falconers before anyone else. When Jack came up to visit, they didn't exactly kiss in front of the others, and they were still careful in public, but at the Haus they touched way more than was reasonable for friends. Bitty's head on Jack's shoulder while they watched a movie on the couch, Jack's hand on Bitty's back while he watched Bitty mixing dough in the Haus kitchen.
Everyone had seen that sort of thing, and nobody questioned it. Bitty figured maybe Shitty's extra-cuddly brand of heterosexuality (which was still fully on display whenever he came to visit) had inured them all.
Hell, last weekend Jack had spent the night in Bitty's room and nobody thought anything of it. They'd gotten one curious glance from Lardo, but that was it.
They'd talked, and Jack was going to come out once the season was over. He'd been talking to George already, and formulating a media plan. He wasn't going to openly identify Bitty as his partner to the press, but they weren't going to hide it anymore, either.
Bitty had already told his parents, thank goodness, but they still needed to figure out a way to tell all their friends before the general public knew.
Now it was playoffs season, though, and both their teams had made it. Which meant that they saw each other even less than usual, and when they Skyped they were more tired and couldn't talk for long. How to tell their friends about their relationship was not even really on their radar at the moment, since the NHL season wouldn't end for another two months or so. Jack's press conference would probably be in July.
Right now, between playoffs and Bitty's classes (one of which was kind of kicking his ass) and not getting to see each other in person for nearly a month, their relationship was basically in survival mode. Text a lot, call when they could, Skype for like five minutes to say good night, if that. It was just one of those things they had to get through.
Then some Boston radio show decided to devote a week to mental health in sports. And Jack agreed to go on for an interview about his anxiety, despite his exhaustion and busy schedule.
Everyone on the team wanted to hear it, of course. Jack always did the usual press after games, but he hadn't been invited for many individual interviews like this and every time it did happen everyone crowded around the radio or TV.
Bitty was on the phone with him beforehand, helping him to go over his talking points. Jack was extra nervous, since the topic wasn't sports this time, but all the things he wished the general public didn't have to know. Of course, Jack had talked to one of the Falconers' PR people first, but they weren't too concerned. After all, most of Jack's story was already out there. This was just a chance for him to clear the air about some of the nastier rumors and advocate for better mental health awareness and acceptance in sports in general and hockey in particular.
So far, the host had been kind and respectful to the athletes he'd interviewed, but just in case, Bitty was trying to come up with some more antagonistic questions so Jack would be prepared for anything.
"Now, there have always been rumors that your overdose was on cocaine or some cocktail of party drugs. Were you using those kinds of drugs at the time?"
"Absolutely not. I was drinking, I'll admit. More than I should have. Not only because I was only eighteen, but also because alcohol doesn't mix well with Xanax. That contributed to the overdose. I'd tried to drown my sorrows about the draft, but wound up having a panic attack. I was too drunk to think straight, so when the Xanax didn't stop it immediately I just kept taking more until I lost consciousness. But there were absolutely no other drugs in my system, and I have certainly never touched cocaine."
The phrasing was carefully chosen. If pressed, Jack would admit that he'd smoked a fair bit of pot, but he really hadn't had any the day of the overdose and he'd rather not admit to any illegal drugs to the media if possible.
"That was good, sweetie. Perfect."
They went through a couple more questions, and then it was time for Jack to head to the studio. Bitty was a little worried—he'd sounded so tired, he really should have been taking a nap. But he'd had no problem rattling off his prepared answers, even if they did sound a little extra robotic that day.
Bitty went downstairs twenty minutes later to find half the team gathered around Holster's laptop, waiting for the show to start. He tried to find himself a spot, giggling when he wound up getting pulled down half into Ransom's lap and half into Nursey's.
The show started, with Jack as the first of three interviews. The first ten minutes were smooth as silk. The questions were soft, all designed to let Jack talk about anxiety without revealing too much about his own experiences. Then they started to get more personal, but still friendly. Jack handled it all well, talking candidly about what had happened to him and about how he thought the culture needed to change to keep similar things from happening to other young players.
As they approached the twenty minute mark, the interviewer started to wrap things up by pulling the conversation into the present.
"So how are you doing right now, Jack? An anxiety disorder never really goes away, and right now you've got the pressure of your first NHL playoffs. How do you deal with that?"
"Well, as I said before, I am on safer medication. I'm lucky that Prozac controls my anxiety fairly well, and it's not addictive. I'm still talking to a therapist, of course. And I try to get plenty of sleep, since I've found that sleep deprivation very much contributes to panic attacks for me. That's harder with playoffs, but I'm getting by."
"And what about your support system? We've heard over and over again this week how important other people are for recovery and staying healthy. Who in your life is helping you stay healthy?"
"The Falconers as an organization have been hugely supportive. Obviously, it's not something I could ever hide; the entire hockey world knows about my anxiety disorder and my overdose whether I want them to or not. But from the moment I started talking to them before I signed, the Falconers have made it clear that they view this as a health issue like any other, like if a player were diabetic, and they will make sure that I have the medical support that I need for it. Knowing that my team doesn't look down on me for it helps immensely."
"And outside your team? How do your friends and family contribute to your stability?"
"In the immediate aftermath, of course, my parents were invaluable. Knowing that they loved me and supported me no matter what made all the difference. Now, you know, they are in Montreal and I am in Providence, so it's harder, but they do what they can. They check in on me, and I know I can be honest with them about anything.
"And I'm lucky that I still live fairly close to my friends from college, so I can see them regularly. They remind me that I am not hockey, that's not all there is to me. Yes, they were on my team then, but I also lived with them and studied with them and played video games with them, and when I go back to Samwell or they come to visit me, I know that they don't see a teammate, they see me. Given that a lot of my problems stemmed from thinking there was nothing of value in me besides what I could do on the ice, that is huge."
Everyone in the room let out a collective awwwww. Ransom squeezed Bitty until he squealed.
"We love you, Jack!" Lardo yelled at the computer.
"That is certainly very important, and that's also something we've heard a lot this week. Professional athletes often get that message, that their status as an athlete is the only thing that matters, that who they are as a person is secondary or maybe even irrelevant, and that can really mess with a person's head, I'm sure. One more question on the topic of your support system before we start wrapping this up—a lot of people have talked about how important their partner is, how dealing with their mental health is a regular part of any long-term relationship and how they set up systems or structures together to keep things running smoothly. Do you have someone like that in your life, a partner you can trust with these things on a day-to-day basis? How do they help you, or what role could you see them playing if you don't have a partner right now?"
Jack was quiet.
Bitty was quiet.
He couldn't help but notice that the host had used such gender-neutral terms. They'd had all sort of athletes on that week, Bitty knew—male and female, a couple who were openly gay. They must have decided on a policy of using that kind of terminology across the board, just to keep from using the wrong words with the wrong person.
But to Bitty, after hearing journalists over and over again ask Jack about a "girlfriend" or a "special woman in his life," it sounded like an invitation. It sounded like the host was saying "no judgment here, whatever you say, we're fine with it."
He knew it would sound the same to Jack.
It would be so much harder to lie in the face of that. It was easy for Jack to deny things that really weren't true. It was always a little harder when he was asked if he was "seeing anyone," even when he knew that the person asking was assuming a female. Bitty wasn't sure anyone had ever asked Jack about having a "partner," about "them."
Bitty held his breath, waiting for Jack to answer.
Now Bitty really couldn't breathe.
Jack's voice was soft, and BItty was sure he was looking down at his hands.
Around him, his teammates gasped, a chorus of questions from half of them immediately being shushed by the other half.
"I do. Have a partner. And…" Jack paused again, and Bitty could just barely hear him talking big, calming breaths. "And he is incredible. I absolutely would not be where I am today without him."
The room was silent. Bitty realized he was clutching Ransom's shirt in his fist, but he couldn't seem to let go. He couldn't move.
"He always seems to know when I need to talk, versus when I need to stay quiet for a while and let things… marinate, I guess, inside, before I talk about them, and he never pressures me to talk about anything before I'm ready. And when I need the silence filled, before I get lost in my own head, he is excellent at that."
As he spoke, Jack's hesitation fell away. Bitty realized he'd never heard Jack talk about him to someone else before, and it was overwhelming to hear the obvious pride and love in his voice.
"I worry, sometimes, that I am not as good at the emotional support things as he is. It seems to be second nature to him, to know what I need before I do, and I am not like that. But I am trying and learning, and I think that even learning what he needs and how to give him that is helping me, too. Understanding how he works helps me understand how I work. I hope that I am giving him even half of what he gives me, because, yes, he is absolutely invaluable. I have no idea where I would be without him."
Bitty was crying. He wasn't quite sure at what point he'd started, but tears were streaming down his face and his shuddering breaths were the only sound in the room besides the host quietly wrapping up the interview, thanking Jack for his candor.
The host didn't make a big deal about what Jack had said at all. Didn't point out that he'd admitted to dating a man, didn't press him for further details.
It was so much nicer, so much safer, so much kinder than anything the PR people had been preparing Jack and Bitty for. They'd imagined a press conference under harsh lights, cameras flashing, journalists throwing out obnoxious questions.
Of course, the cameras and obnoxious questions would come. Probably very soon. But Bitty was so, so glad that Jack had gotten to start the process on his own terms, with an interviewer who was respectful and kind and didn't treat him any differently from any of the other interviewees.
Holster closed the laptop. Everyone else in the room looked shell-shocked.
"Bitty…" Lardo started, and Bitty prepared for the onslaught of questions. "I'm so sorry, bro."
"Uh, what?" Bitty wiped his tears away, confused.
"No offense," Holster said, "but it's been kinda obvious that you've got a thing for Jack. Like, a crush on him or whatever. It sucks ass that you had to find out he's with another guy like this."
"Why would Jack do that?" Chowder asked, staring at the laptop. "You hang out with him all the time, why wouldn't he, like, warn you first?"
Bitty stared at all of them in turn. Every face was looking at him with sympathy, even pity.
"Are you all serious right now?"
"C'mon, bro, don't deny it," Ransom said, rubbing Bitty's back sympathetically. "We all know you're crazy about Jack. You talk about him all the time, you hang all over him when he's around, you run off to Providence every chance you get. I kinda assumed he knew, too, I mean, how could he not? But if he did, why wouldn't he have told you he had a boyfriend?"
"I mean, if he didn't tell Shitty, he wouldn't tell anyone, right?" Lardo offered. "It's not like Bitty's the only person he was hiding it from."
"Yeah, but Bitty's the only one in love with him, look how upset he is!" Nursey replied, motioning to Bitty's tear-streaked face.
"You guys, no!" Bitty climbed off of Ransom and Nursey, standing up. "I'm not upset, I'm crying 'cause I'm happy! You can't all really be serious, can you? Nobody, not one person, gets what's really going on here?"
They all just looked at him with faces displaying varying degrees of worry, pity, or confusion.
"Oh my god, y'all. It's me! Jack was talking about me!"
He could see understanding dawn in a few people's eyes, but some were still clearly confused.
"We know how close you are to him, Bits," Holster said carefully, "and of course you're really important to him and you probably offer him a lot of emotional support and stuff. But he was talking about a partner, like, a romantic partner? Jack has a boyfriend, bro."
"Of course he has a boyfriend!" Bitty exclaimed. He could not believe this was happening. He knew his friends could be dense when it came to him and Jack, but… "I am his boyfriend! I am Jack's romantic partner! We've been dating since he graduated! When I go stay at his apartment in Providence? It is not as a friend. I do not stay in the guest room. I sleep in Jack's bed, with Jack, because he. Is. My boyfriend."
He looked around again, and thought he might finally have gotten through.
"So… is that why Jack was so annoyed about us trying to set you up for the Winter Screw this year?" Ransom asked.
"Those noises that were coming from your room last time Jack visited…" Chowder looked thoughtful. "That wasn't some movie you guys were watching, was it?"
"I saw you guys kissing in the basement at that last kegster Jack came to," Dex added, "but I thought you were both just really drunk. Like how Ransom and Holster make out when they're super drunk sometimes, and it doesn't mean anything. March even took a video last time they did it for blackmail purposes."
Just then, BItty's phone buzzed. Of course, it was Jack. He climbed over his friends and dashed into the kitchen for a little privacy.
"Oh my god, Bits, what did I just do?" Jack said the instant Bitty picked up. "I didn't mean to. He was just so nice, and I could tell he wouldn't be a dick about it, and I was so tired, and so sick of hiding and lying, and it just came out. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that without talking to you first, I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, baby, that was amazing." Bitty was pretty sure he was going to cry again. "It's not what we planned, and doing it during playoffs will probably make things a little complicated, but it was beautiful and it was perfect and I love you so much. …Also, our friends are all idiots."