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So suddenly, I'm in love with a stranger

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"Jack, come in," Georgia, the Providence Falconers' GM, greeted him, standing up from her desk as he knocked on her door frame. The door had been open, but she was typing away at her computer, and he hadn't  felt comfortable to just walk in.

"Please have a seat, we're waiting for one more person and we'll get started," she smiled, gesturing to one of the two plush chairs that sat in front of her desk. She plopped herself back down in her own chair and glanced back at the monitor of her computer to finish up her email before they got started.

Jack glanced around the room awkwardly, not knowing what to say. He'd come right after practice, as she'd requested. He figured she would be the one that would do all the talking, not him.

He cleared his throat nervously, making George's eyes flicker from the screen to Jack. Shit, that's not at all what he'd meant by that. Great, now she thought he wanted to say something. Shit, shit, shit.

"Umm..." he blinked and then cleared his throat again. "So, what's the meeting about?" he asked, scratching the back of his neck nervously.

"Don't look so tense, Jack," she laughed. He’d met her a couple of times during the process of of the trade,  so she was familiar with his awkwardness when it came to talking of all things other than hockey. "It's nothing bad; don't worry. We're just waiting for someone from PR and we're going to be addressing some.... gaps in your media presence," she smiled and Jack urged his cheeks not to flush.

He should have known this was coming. He knew that there was a social media clause to his contract, but he was hoping that maybe they'd just forget about it. Or they'd have someone run the accounts for him. He hated this part of the job, and frankly didn't know why it was even required. He was here to play hockey, which he could do very well, thank you very much. Talk about hockey? Sure, okay, that was understandable. Talk about things other than hockey? Not so much.

That hadn't been a problem in Vegas though, because of Kenny. They made such a good team. Had made such a good team.  But regardless of past or present tense, in Vegas he and Kenny had been attached at the hip--for obvious reasons--and Kenny was always on his phone. By default, Jack wound up in pictures on Instagram, in Snapchat stories, Vines, and was mentioned in tweets, so management never really required him to set up his own profiles.

Providence was going to have to be different.

"I'm only five minutes late!" A twangy voice cried as a small man rushed into the room. Okay, maybe not small per se, but definitely smaller the Jack and Georgia. "I'm so, so, sorry George. They're doing road work near my apartment and there are twenty million detours. Of course they would start such a thing while I'm on vacation so that I don't know about it until I try to come into work." He was talking a mile a minute as he walked towards them, placing a plastic container on the corner of Georgia's  desk before rounding it to kiss the woman on both cheeks. "But I do have that peach pie I promised you."

"How was Madison?" George asked, making the blond grin as she opened the Tupperware to take a peak.  

"Oh, it was lovely; nice and warm. Unlike here. I can’t believe it's barely a week into September and I already feel like I should be pulling out my winter coat," he chuckled.

"Or you need to learn to take your vacations in the winter," Georgia teased.

“As if such a thing were possible when working for an NHL team,” he snorted in reply. It's at that moment that the young man noticed Jack, still sitting in his chair quietly, watching the exchange.

"Oh, goodness, where are my manners," he gasped. He rounded the desk again and stuck a hand out for Jack to shake. "Eric Bittle, PR," he introduced himself as Jack stood and wrapped his large hand around Bittle’s smaller one. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you Mr. Zimmermann, we're so happy to have you on board."

"Call me Jack," the taller of the two replied, because he really didn't know what else to say.

The three of them sat down and George started to explain the purpose of the meeting.

"So, Jack, it has come to our attention that media isn't really your strong suit."

"Yeah, I know," he mumbled with a sigh. "It's just that Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and whatever else is popular really just aren’t my thing, you know? I know some guys have PR do it for them, is that an option?" he asked, jumping the gun. May as well just get this over with as quickly as possible.  

Eric and George both blinked at him.

"Although that was something we were going to bring up, we wanted to address your interviews first," Georgia explained. It was Jack's turn to blink at them.

Interviews? What was wrong with his interviews? That had everything to do with hockey. Hockey was his safe zone.

"I don't think I understand..." His gaze flickered between the two staff members.

"Honey," Eric said gently. Jack tensed, feeling as though the term that was supposed to be one of endearment was being used in a condescending manner instead.  "You're a little....Stoic? Cold? Now, I personally don't see it, but some have also thrown around the word rude..."

"What Eric is trying to say is that even though you’ve only been here a couple of weeks, your demeanour is noticeably very different than the one you had while playing for the Aces,” George explains, before Bittle can go on. "Are you happy here with us, Jack? You're settling in okay? Things are good with the team?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. The team's been great, everything is good..." He’d been a little nervous about how they would act around him, at first, to say the truth. Jack knew that people may not be as accepting of his sexuality as some, but if anyone had a problem with it, they hadn’t said anything to him or treated him any differently because of it.

Georgia leans back in her chair and Bitty shot her a glance before turning his body to be facing Jack.

"Well, what we want to suggest in that case, just to make sure this doesn’t become a long term changet, is media training--"

"I had media training in my rookie year, thanks. Ten years ago ," Jack interrupts him. Who did this kid think he was? He barely looked old enough to have finished college, let alone  have a full time position in PR division of an NHL team.  

"Alright, wrong choice of words," George interjects. "What Eric means is that we're working for you to become the face of our team, Jack. And from what we saw when you were with the Aces, we were expecting someone a little more...charismatic."

"That's where I come in," Eric grinned, almost irritatingly so. Jack glowered.

"I don't need to be taught how to smile." Although the scowl on his face would beg to differ. "I've spent my whole life involved with hockey media. What makes you more qualified than me?" He glared at Eric, challenging him to try and best him.

"You listen here, Mister Zimmermann," Eric snapped before George could start to mediate the conversation again. "I spent four years playing in the ECAC at Samwell University on a hockey scholarship. I was a top six winger my freshman year--captained the team my last two--all while keeping up my grades, winning two NCAA National Championships, and single-handedly making sure no one on the team got scurvy.. I graduated with a degree in communications. I came highly recommended your team’s goalie, John Johnson, and I have been working this job for a year and a half and seeing as they haven't fired me, I'm going to go ahead and say that I've been doing a damn good job, thank you very much."

George was clearly trying to hide a smirk as Jack tried to reign in his impressed look.

"I still don't need a babysitter," Jack retorted.

"Good, because since that's not in my job description. You'd be paying extra for that,” he sassed right back.

Jack turned to Georgia and let out a quiet sigh. "I don't have much of a choice do I?”

_/   \_

Jack liked Providence. The east coast in general, really. It reminded him of home, of Montreal, with its short, humid summers and cold, bitter winters. Jack had missed the cold--which was saying something, since his job required him to be in an ice-filled arena for the better part of the year.

Vegas wasn’t bad per say; it had been a lot of fun, back when it was new and Jack was younger, but the desert heat and the shining lights had grown old pretty quickly.

Providence was a great change of pace. It was quiet, and suburban, and it had great running trails that went through the park near his condo, and down by the river front. That was something else that Jack had missed: being able to run outside without melting into a puddle of sweat.

Another thing he loved about Providence was his new apartment. It was a little on the pricey side, which really wasn’t much of a problem after playing in the NHL for the past ten years, but it was totally worth it. It had large windows, which basked most of the rooms in sunlight and overlooked the river. It was a private building with a doorman, a pool, and a gym, and it had come highly recommended by the Falcs’ management as well as a few of the players.

His final choices had been between this place and another apartment which had been closer to the practice complex. Sure, the other place had had it's perks; Jack could have walked to work and he would have been able to enjoy the large shower with multiple shower heads and amazing water pressure. But, in the end, the view, the proximity of his teammates, and the large bathtub (though he wouldn’t admit this detail to anyone else) were what tipped this scale in favour of this apartment.

Unfortunately, today hadn’t been the day where Jack finally got to try out his tub seeing as he was currently pressed for time.

He rubbed a towel to his damp hair, hoping to absorb any of the extra water, and knowing that it would air dry quite quickly after that. He pulled on the outfit that he'd tossed onto the bed earlier, before his run: a plain black t-shirt, jeans, a red plaid shirt, and his blue Falconer's baseball cap. That would help prevent any remaining drips of water from falling on his shoulders and wetting his shirt.

He checked the time and decided it would be best if he left right away. He grabbed a banana and a protein shake for the road as he passed by the kitchen, and also scooped up his wallet and keys from the counter.

He didn't have to wait too long for the elevator to arrive. He suspected it was probably already on it's way down as he caught sight of who was already standing in the lift.

"Oh!" the rookie goalie exclaimed, his face lighting up like fireworks on the 4th of July. "Hi Mr. -- I mean, Jack! Hi!" He breathed out an awed 'wow' under his breath that Jack was sure he hadn't been supposed to hear, so he pretended that he hadn't.

"Hey Chow," he smiled, stepping onto the lift. He pressed the button to close the door, seeing as Chris was headed towards the lobby as well.  "How are you?" he asked.

"I'm good! I'm going down to the gym, you heading there too?"

"No, I went for a run earlier," Jack shook his head. Silence fell over them for a moment and Jack felt bad. He should say something else. He didn't want the rookie to think he was rude or that Jack didn’t like him. Enough of the press already thought that, apparently. "I have a meeting with PR at nine," he added.

"Oh, ‘swawsome!" Chris exclaimed. "Maybe you'll get pie!"

Jack's brow furrowed in confusion, wondering why the people who pushed so hard for him to stick to their meal plans would bring him pie. He didn't get the chance to ask though because the doors slid open in the lobby and Chow stepped out.

"Well have fun!" he exclaimed, waving as he made his way down the corridor towards the gym. Jack stood alone and slightly confused for a moment. Well, the kid certainly wasn't lacking in energy that was for sure.

The practice facility wasn't a long drive from the apartment, and Jack got lucky with the lights, so he got there in record time, showing up a whopping 30 minutes early for his meeting with Eric.

He sat in his car for a moment, debating if he should just stay here to finish his shake and eat his banana, but then decided against it. Bittle probably wouldn't approve; wasn't he supposed to be teaching Jack how to be less of an awkward robot anyway? With a sigh he got out of his car and made his way up to the offices. George had told him which one was Eric's. Jack wondered if the blond would be early today, or if he'd be stuck sitting on the floor outside the door as he waited. Maybe his car would have been the better option....

However, as he rounded the corner, he found that the door with the names Eric Bittle and Laura Whittaker etched on a nameplate on it was open. Jack knocked, peeking his head inside, hoping to find Eric and that whoever Laura was, she didn't come into work on Sundays.

"Jack! Come in!" Apparently the blonde wasn't any less enthusiastic at eight thirty in the morning.

"Sorry, I know I'm early..." Jack apologized, stepping into the small office.

"Nonsense, sit," Eric instructed as he ducked under his desk and produced a Tupperware container. He pulled open the lid revealing plump muffins neatly arranged inside. "Can I tempt you with a muffin to go with that horrible protein shake and banana?"

"It's not horrible," Jack grumbled, slumping down in an empty chair that was wedged between the wall and Bittle's desk.

"I speak from experience; I know that it is. You can't get that powdery taste out of your mouth for hours after drinking one. Now come on," he shook the box of muffins. "They're even nutritionist-approved! Full of grains and fresh fruit; tons of protein."

Jack's eyes narrowed at him. "Are you chirping me?"

A couple of years ago, Jack may or may not have answered the question 'What advice do you have for young teens aspiring to reach the NHL?' with 'eat more protein'. He'd yet to live it down.

"I don't know," Bittle smirked. "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't." He shrugged innocently, leaving the box of muffins open on his desk as he turned back to his laptop momentarily, taking a sip from a Starbucks cup as he did so.

When he was done his shake and banana, Jack tossed the peel in the trash by the door and took a muffin. He peeled off the paper cup and took a tentative bite; surprised that it actually tasted like apples -- and maybe apricots? -- rather than blandness, which was what he was used to when eating muffins that were allowed in his diet.

"So, I did a little digging," Bittle said, turning back to Jack while he chewed on his muffin. "And I think I may have found what's different between here and Vegas." He turned his laptop around so that Jack could see the screen. More specifically, so that he could see the Youtube page and the paused image of his and Kenny's faces on the screen.

Bittle pressed play and Jack forced himself to watch reluctantly.

"So Jack, any plans for the summer?" A reporter asked from off camera.  

"Hockey? Getting ready for next season?" he answered with an awkward chuckle.

"Ah, come on Zimms," Parse laughed, throwing an arm around his shoulders.  "You just won a Stanley Cup, take a break! I know your dad still has that cabin out in Maine..."

"Yeah, but I do that every year; we go up and visit family, that's nothing exciting or new," Jack shrugged, talking more to Parse than he was to the reporters.

"You want new and exciting? Done. I'll book us a trip somewhere, we'll get up to a bunch of things these guys will want to hear about," Kent teased with a smirk.

Jack easily recognized the mischievous glint in his eye on screen. They'd done exactly that, that summer; gone on a trip. A private resort somewhere in California where no one had been able to find out what shenanigans they'd gotten up to. Or, well, the shenanigans that Parse had gotten them into, he’d always had a knack for that. Jack pushed the memory away and focused on Eric who had paused the video and was looking at him expectantly.

"What?" Jack asked. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to be looking at.

"Didn't you see it?" Jack just blinked in reply, making Eric sigh. "Kent Parson!"

Jack's jaw clenched at the sound of the name, but said nothing. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was a sore spot... I mean, I'd heard the rumours, but you know... You can  never really trust tabloids, can you?" Bittle quickly said, probably realizing the error he must have made.

"We broke up," Jack said bluntly.

"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear-"

"It's fine," Jack interrupted him. He sighed, removing his ball cap so that he could run his hand through his hair, before shoving the hat back onto his head. "So basically you're saying that without Parson, I'm shit? Great, that's exactly what I always wanted to hear," Jack muttered. He'd heard it so much over the years that he started believing it himself. This move to Providence was supposed to help him prove to himself, and everyone else, that it wasn't the case. Clearly he wasn't off to a good start.

"Oh, no, no, Jack that's not what I'm saying at all! A video with Parson was just easier to find because there's so many of them. I was just trying to illustrate a point; which is that you weren't alone in interviews in Vegas. You had Kent to lean on and to put you at ease. You had a friend around to make the situation more comfortable for you. Lord knows public speaking isn't for everyone; you found a way to cope with it, and now that we know that, we can make things easier for you," Bitty smiled encouragingly.

Jack had never heard it that way before. He'd always just figured that Kenny never shut up and always wanted to be the centre of attention, or that he could be charming enough for the both of them, letting Jack hide in his shadow once more...

"So all we need to do is try to make sure that you don't have too many solo interviews and maybe practice some answers for commonly asked questions, so that way you'll be more comfortable to answer them when they come up." Eric smiled at him gently. "How's that sound?"

Jack blinked a couple of times and took a deep breath. He could do this, he didn't need Parse. He was capable of doing this alone and succeeding at it too. The lump that had formed in his throat slowly dissipated and his shoulders sank noticeably as he relaxed once more. "Yeah, I think I can do that," he nodded.

"Perfect! Let's get to work!"

_/ \_

Jack had met Kent Parson at the development camp for the Aces his rookie year in the NHL. Officially that is. While Jack had played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, having grown up in Montreal, Kent, who was from upstate New York, had played for the USNTDP in Ann Arbor and then for a year at Boston College. Their paths had crossed in their youth at international competitions, but nothing more than that.

Jack was drafted first overall. It had been a pretty easy choice for the Aces. As an expansion team, a new franchise, they definitely wanted Bad Bob Zimmermann’s kid as the face of their franchise, especially with the way he’d lead Rimouski--both in points and with the C. Everyone was convinced that he’d do the same once he got to the NHL. He hadn’t even been signed yet and the talking heads were already mentioning things like the Calder, and the captaincy, and the Stanley Cup.

Kent’s name wasn’t unknown by any means, but he wasn’t Jack Zimmermann . It was still a bit of a surprise when the Aces chose him with the second first round pick they’d acquired.

Some people said that that both of them winding up on the same team--and then on the same line--had been a fluke while others said that it was fate. But no one could deny that Zimmermann and Parson were one of the best duos that the NHL had ever seen. Something had just clicked into place, like they were each other’s missing puzzle pieces, and they had quickly become a force to be reckoned with.  They had taken the hockey world by storm and after spending three years on the team, Jack had been made captain at the ripe age of twenty-one. That year, he led the team to their first Stanley Cup win in franchise history.

It wasn't just on the ice that they had clicked either; their chemistry had been present off-ice too, and they had become fast friends. The two had been inseparable; they had roomed with each other on roadies, always had stalls next to each other in locker rooms, hung out after practices and games, and spent enough time in each other’s apartments that when their ELCs were up and they were both signed for matching extensions, they had moved into an apartment together.   

Jack had known since puberty that he'd been interested in both boys and girls. It wasn't a hard thing to figure out when spending a large amount of time with a large group of very fit boys. On one hand, he had no problem joining in with his teammates when they talked about girls, but on the other hand, he also had to force himself to never let his eyes linger for too long when they were in the locker room. It was never something that he was ashamed of; he remembered bringing it up to his parents pretty soon after figuring it out for himself, but it wasn't something that he'd actively broadcast, either. He knew that not all of his teammates would be as accepting as his parents had been, and he definitely didn't want to make things unnecessarily difficult for himself in the locker rooms. Maybe some people had suspected it, seeing as he wasn't really one for hookups or dating, but he'd also had a girlfriend or two for brief periods in his youth, so maybe not.  

Things with Parse, however, hadn't been as easy as they had been back when he was playing in Quebec. Kent was a little on the smaller side, but lean and muscular all the same (he’d bulked up even more the longer he played in the NHL), with light blond hair that could look white in the right lighting, and an eye colour that Jack had never been able to put a name to. It had been especially hard for Jack to keep his eyes to himself the first couple of years that they had played together, but he'd managed all the same; he hadn't wanted to risk his friendship with Parse  because of a stupid crush. But then, the day after winning their first Stanley Cup, Jack had woken up with a splitting headache thanks to an epic hangover (which wasn’t much of a surprise, it had been happening well before either of them had been old enough to drink in the States), naked, and in Kenny’s bed (which was a surprise).  Jack would find out later as he tossed off the covers that Kenny, who was sleeping next to him, had also naked.

Jack had panicked and left the room before Kent could wake up, afraid of what would happen when he did. Would Kenny blame Jack for taking advantage of him while they'd both been drunk? He couldn’t really remember how they had gotten home the night before, but there were flashes of clothes being ripped off as they had entered their apartment and echoes of moans bouncing off the walls.  

He'd been so nervous when, later, he'd stepped into their shared kitchen after his shower and had found Kenny in sweats, shirtless, with his signature snapback on backwards, keeping his hair out of his eyes as he made them breakfast.

"Eggs good, dude?" he'd asked, glancing at Jack over his shoulder. And that was that. They didn't talk about the night before, and if it hadn't been for fading hickeys, Jack would have suspected that it had been nothing more than a dream.

It didn't happened again. At least not for two years. They won the cup again in 2014, and Jack got a weird sense of déjà vu the next morning, except that this time, they'd ended up in his bed. Again, they hadn't talked about it. Jack was beginning to wonder: if they won another Cup next  year, would he get to sleep with Parse again? Since the last time this had happened, Jack thought he was finally getting over his crush. He'd even gone on a couple of dates the year before, a girl named Morgan who was friends with the wife of one of their d-men. She had been nice, but things had never really progressed to more. But now, all those feelings for Parse had just come tumbling back.

Fortunately, Jack hadn't had to wait until the end of the season, or a Stanley Cup, for Parse to sleep with him again. This time, it happened on New Year's Eve while they were ringing in 2015. Maybe alcohol was the common denominator rather than hockey. Jack had to ask. He needed to know. Sleeping with his crush (because yes, it was definitely still there, he decided, after six more months of deliberating), more than once at that, wasn't doing much to help with the pining.

When he'd asked, Parse had blinked at him. "Dude, you know I don't bring girls home… And we've slept together more than once. I thought you knew I was gay?"

And that had been pretty much the extent of the conversation. From that point on, they started hooking up more frequently, and not only when they were drunk. It started to happen on roadies, or if Kent was having a dry spell (Jack found out that Kenny's hook ups would actually happen at the clubs he went to, or at the other person's place because 'come on dude. You live here too, and I know how you are about your early bedtime'). But then, it would happen after bad games, just to let off some steam, or after good games, just to keep riding that high, but then it would happen after practices too, and then Kenny stopped going to clubs to hooking up. It had gotten to the point where Jack could almost pretend that they were doing this exclusively. He didn't know why he was torturing himself like this, though; Kenny had never mentioned wanting a relationship, and it wasn't as though they could even go on dates if they wanted to, but Jack had been enjoying what they had (despite all the pining) and he hadn't want to give that up.  He'd always figured that one day he would have enough of their friends with benefits arrangement, he'd blurt out his feelings to Parse, and he'd inevitably get his heart broken. But, against all odds, Kenny had come to him first.

"Look, I don't want to make things weird Jack but... I think I'm falling in love with you," he'd admitted one night, while they were lying tangled in the sheets of some hotel's bed in downtown Vancouver. After picturing this moment for almost a year and a half, Jack had never imagined it turning out like this.

Nothing really changed after that. Nothing could change. Their dates consisted of them going out together, just like they'd always had, except now there were more fists clenching so that they wouldn't reach out for the other's hand, and lip biting, as if that would dampen the urge to kiss the other. Oh and they called each other boyfriends in the privacy of their own home. That was a big plus.

But they did get to tell people eventually. They both made the All Stars game that year, so that's when Kenny officially met Jack's parents.

"Are you sure about this, son?" Bob had asked pulling Jack aside when dinner was over. "This won't interfere with your game?"

"No, of course not," Jack had replied immediately. His father had believed him, because if there was one thing Jack took seriously, it was hockey, and not even a boy could interfere with that.

"Alright," he'd nodded. "Whatever makes you happy."

So four people knew. Jack didn't know if Parse had told his own parents, he didn't talk about them much, so Jack had never asked.

But that hadn't been enough for Kenny. He wanted to tell their friends, and management, and the team, and fucking everyone else too. The thought made Jack's stomach twist up in knots. He wasn't ashamed of Kenny, he also wasn't ashamed of being queer (despite what Kent spat at him during the recurring argument), but now wasn't a good time. The Aces weren't doing well, and Jack was starting to fear that he may get traded, come next season, even though there was still two years left to his contract. No one else was out in the league, and who could tell if another team would even want him if he were to come out.

Thoughts like that kept him up late at night, tossing and turning in Kenny's bed, which had always felt too soft to begin with, not able to fall asleep. All the what ifs were haunting his brain, and they were starting to take a toll on him. Maybe he was getting too old for this... The thought had made him laugh. Washed out at 26, what would the talking heads say about that? It was the truth though; his game was suffering and he was sick and tired of having the same fight with Kent over, and over again.

"I'm sick of hiding Jack!" Kenny would yell. "I want to take you out on a real date. I want to be your date at all the events we go to together. I want to be able to hold your hand; I want to be able to kiss you in public. Fuck, Jack, what'll happen in a couple years down the line when I want to marry you?"

That line was new. It threw Jack off guard. He hadn't ever doubted Kenny's feelings for him, but to know that maybe one day he'd like to settle down with Jack? Well... That did things to him.

So he agreed. They decided that they would start telling people next season.

It didn't magically make everything better though. They still had a crap season, they stripped Jack of his captaincy, and gave him and Kent matching A's instead. Kenny had been ecstatic. Jack had thrown up in one of the stalls in the locker room.

They had started small. They told their close friends over the summer, then management during preseason, and then the team. Kent was all smiles and he did most of the talking. That's how it always was with Kenny; talking, just like everything else in life, came easy to him. Jack stayed quiet, lurking in the shadows, trying not to let it show just how nauseous this was making him, and trying to hide the fact that his hands had been shaking the whole time.

"You're not going first," Kenny would repeat time and time again. "We're going together. It'll be so much easier, I promise." But that wasn't Kent's promise to make. And it didn't really make things easier, no.

Sure there was a lot of positivity, management was on their side, if anyone on the team had a problem with them, they didn't say anything, and a lot of the fans had their backs too, but the negative comments couldn't just be ignored, no matter how hard Jack tried.

He hated the fact that people were more preoccupied about who he was sleeping with, rather than how well he was playing hockey. Not that he was playing hockey all that well at the moment and that no one would let him forget it.

"Now, I'm not saying that Zimmermann shouldn't have a boyfriend, but I am saying that maybe picking someone from his team wasn't the wisest choice," all the reporters would say. "Clearly it's a big distraction, his game has been going down hill."

All this while Kent was peaking and playing with the best hockey of his life. Kent did interviews about being the first openly gay NHL player, (Jack was pretty adamant and was always correcting people; Kent was gay, he was bisexual. Yes, it mattered), did photo shoots, and was actively involved with various organizations. This all made everything so much harder for Jack, and exponentially increased the pressure he was feeling. Not only did he have to deal with his boyfriend taking all of this in stride while he struggled to get out of bed and face the world in the morning, but he also had to deal with people on live television, radio, and the Internet comparing him to his boyfriend and demonstrating how subpar he was.

This went on for about six months, until Jack had a massive break down at the end of the 2017/2018 season. He didn't even finish playing the playoffs. All the public knew was that he wasn't fit to play. They had all assumed it was an injury; something from that bad check he'd taken during his last game on the ice when they'd been playing the Blackhawks.

Kent was the one who’d found him lying on their bathroom floor and called 911. Jack had been unconscious and didn’t remember the ride to the hospital in the ambulance, or much of what had happened before hand. The first question he’d been asked when he became lucid was, ‘what did you take?’. When Jack had denied being on any drugs there had been promises of keeping it hushed up, but that they needed to know what he’d taken so that they could properly treat him.

“I didn’t take anything,” Jack had insisted, but he was sure that no one believed him. They wheeled him into the hospital and brought him into a room where they asked him some more questions and started running tests.

Jack had done his best to recount what had happened earlier that morning; the dizziness, the shortness of breath, the nausea that had seemed to rise from his gut to his chest, his shaking hands, trying to make his way to the bathroom to vomit, feeling too cold, and then too hot, so he’d laid on the cool tiles to try and feel better.

The doctor had come back in later in the afternoon and had asked more questions. Had he been feeling sick in the past couple of days? Had he eaten anything weird last night or this morning?

“What happened right before you started feeling dizzy?” he’d asked finally. They were exhausting all of their options and it didn’t seem to be food poisoning or a virus.

Jack rubbed his eyes as he thought back. “Nothing really… I’d had breakfast, I was thinking about going to the gym, and then practice this afternoon… About our game in a couple of days…”

The doctor had paused, giving Jack a long look before speaking again. “Has anything like this happened before?” he’d asked. “Before a big game?”

“Not like this.”

“How then?” he’d pressed, and so Jack spilled. About everything.

The doctor said it was safe to assume that he’d had a panic attack that morning, and that he was going to refer Jack to a therapist. He also suggested that Jack may not be fit to continuing playing for the end of the season, especially if just thinking about games could trigger another attack. It’s best they got this under control before it started to get worse.

Therapy helped. A lot. It gave him a lot of really useful tools to manage and control his anxiety. Jack was grateful that things had happened when they did and it actually felt like he was in control of his life again. He’d been diagnosed with anxiety and mild depression, the latter probably caused by the anxiety itself. He also had medication, for his anxiety, but it was to be taken as needed. His doctor had explained how easily it was for his body to get used to the dosage if he took the pills too often and that that could lead to needing higher and higher dosages, which could easily escalate into a dependency; something that Jack didn’t want. So, he had a small orange bottle of pills, stored away in his medicine cabinet, and they were to be taken if he ever felt like he wouldn’t be able to handle an upcoming stressful situation or if a stressful situation occurred and he felt like he wasn’t in control of his anxiety. He hadn’t needed them yet, but summer was coming to an end and a new season of hockey was about to start. Though, if he got to the point where he couldn’t manage things on his own and he needed to take his medication, that would be okay too. And, he also knew that if such a thing were to happen, people would have his back; his family, his therapist, his coaches, his team managers, and, of course, Kent. They were all on his side and if things got bad, he knew that he’d have them to fall back on no matter what happened.

As the new season started up again, some things were different, but not everything changed, not had magically become better. Things were still rough on Jack, but he pushed through, head held high. People had asked about his absence, and he answered them truthfully, but things didn’t go beyond that. Jack didn’t want to be a role model, especially when he could still feel so helpless at times. How was he supposed to help others and lead by example when he had no idea what he was doing himself? There were so many other people out there who were better suited to fill that role; Jack was just a guy with his own burdens who wanted to play hockey. Simple as that.

But then again, not so simple either. His game had finally started improving again, now that he could finally concentrate on the game itself. However, he was now stuck coming home after a long day to listen to Kent excitedly talk about the new contract that the Aces had offered him, while management had yet to contact Jack about his.

It came eventually, of course, but it still stung that Kent had been asked first. Though, it did get Jack’s gears turning. Would it really be in my best interest to stay with the Aces? he had wondered. It was clear to him now that they favoured Kenny over him; Kenny had risen to the occasion, while their initial first pick, Jack, was no longer meeting their high expectations. They barely seemed concerned about that fact that he was entering UFA status. Now, Jack obviously wouldn’t turn them down if he didn’t get any other offers over the summer, but at this point, if one came, Jack could see himself saying yes to another team. He wanted the chance to keep bettering himself; to keep reaching for more, to win another cup, to be captain again. And no, he didn’t think that he’d be getting much of that if he stayed here.

But Kent was in Vegas, and he said as much when, in July, Jack expressed interest in signing with the Providence Falconers.

"You're singing for an expansion team?" He made it sound like a bad thing when he'd said it.

"As opposed to the expansion team I'm already signed with? Yeah, well, I'm thinking about it..."

"It's not the same Zimms, they're a newer team; they haven't even made the playoffs yet... I don't think this is a good move for your career... It's not like the Pens or the Blackhawks are banging on your door to sign you; the Falconers are definitely going to be a downgrade." God, Jack hated his condescending tone.

"And you think that staying stuck in a rut with the Aces is better?" He sighed and ran an unsteady hand through his hair, tugging on it ever so slightly, frustrated. "Fuck Kenny, I'm not the wunderkind that they wanted me to be. I don't think I ever will be. I'm pretty sure the only reason you don't have a C yet is because they feel bad that they'll be giving it to my boyfriend or they think it'll fuck with my anxiety."

"C'mon Zimms, don't say that..." Kent muttered. "You're a good player, and we're an even better team. You can't just break up the set; we're supposed to be a package deal."

Jack hated that he was trying to guilt him into staying. "I need this Kent. I need to do this for me; for my game. I can't live in anyone's shadow anymore. I had enough with being compared to my dad, and now it's even worse that I'm being compared to you... The Falconers have some good players and coaches, and I think I need to go back to the basics in order to keep bettering myself. Plus they're offering me more money than The Aces can..."

That had made Kent laugh. "More money? Jack, since when do you care about money? Your biggest splurges in the past 10 years were your car and splitting the price of our condo."

Jack had blinked, not knowing what to say. Why was Kent so mad about this? He'd imagined that he'd be upset that Jack was leaving, but he didn't think that he'd be this pissed . If anything, Jack's mind had even thought of the possibility of Kent being happy that to have Jack out of the picture; that way he could finally the captaincy all to himself.

Kent sighed, sounding as exasperated as ever.

"I mean... I'm sure we can work out something for the condo..." Jack guessed. Maybe money was what he was upset about?

"It's not about the condo Jack!" He'd yelled back, making Jack flinch. "It's about -- You know what, no. Fuck this. Do whatever you want."

He'd grabbed his wallet and keys front the coffee table and stormed out of the apartment without another word, and without stopping as Jack had called out his name.

When he’d come back, he’d seemed… resigned.  "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled... it's just. I was upset. Providence is just so far from Vegas, and we're not in the same conference, so we'll barely play each other and I just..." Kent had sighed, running a hand through his hair. He’d been out for hours, giving them enough time to cool down. "I'll miss not having you around... But this doesn't have to be the end for us, right? We can do the long distance, we can still see each other? And we'll call and Skype."

"Kenny... That's... You really think that'll work? You know me, I can't even -"

"Answer your phone, when I call you from the store, yeah I know," Kent finished the sentence for me.

"I just think it'll be easier if we break it off now... before either of us gets hurt."

"Too late," Parse had muttered under his breath. "So this is it, we're just throwing it all away then," he'd added louder.

"C'mon Parse, we can still--"

"No," Kent interrupted. "Don't say it. Because we can't-- I can't do that."

"Alright... M'sorry it has to be like this then..." He'd expected to feel more upset about it than this, but for some reason he wasn't. Sure he was sad, it was another chapter of his life that was ending, but he really believed it was for the better. At least for him. And according to his therapist, Jack was allowed to be "selfish". Though his therapist would argue that in this context he’d be misusing the word selfish.

" You're allowed to do things for yourself Jack ," she repeated time and time again. " You're allowed to live your life you're own way and make decisions based on what you want and what is best for you. You're the hero of your own story, not the sidekick in someone else's ."

So yeah, he was upset, but not as much as Kent seemed to be. And that's what puzzled him the most about all of this.

_/ \_

During their second meeting, Bittle handed him a sheet of paper.The list on it was a printed out version of all the questions, along with their carefully formulated answers, they'd come up with last time.

"This is what we're practicing today," Eric explained, a serious look on his face. "We're not leaving leaving here until you know these forwards and backwards." He paused his 'bad guy' persona for a moment before continuing. "Well, until 7 at the latest anyway, I have a dinner to get to."

They didn't even make it that far. After about an hour the two of the were bored out of their minds.

"I have an idea, do you have your skates with you?" Bittle asked. Of course Jack did, what kind of a question was that? So they took a small break as Jack ran down to his truck to fetch his bag. He came back inside to find Bittle already on the ice, his stick abandoned near the centre of it as he skated laps, seemingly working on footwork.

Jack joined him, him checking him ever so slightly as he skated by.

"Mr. Zimmermann!" He called out after him. Jack turned to see him with his hand over his heart. He'd stopped skating and other hand was on the boards. "There will be none of that with me on the ice."

Jack's brow furrowed. "I thought you played hockey in college?"

"I did, didn't mean I liked checking."

"Fair enough, sorry," Jack apologized. After a couple more warm up laps with Bitty asking Jack questions from across the rink, they grabbed their sticks and some pucks (using four of them as makeshift nets) and played one on one, no checking allowed.

Bittle had explained that his captain his freshman year, John Johnson, now one of the backup goalies of the Falconers, had gotten him to work with some of the other guys on the team with checking, but he'd still never completely gotten over his mental block.

"It's okay though," he assured Jack.  "I did get really good at avoiding them, so the fear never became an issue during a game. Luckily I'd never gotten hit too bad, I can't imagine what would have happened if I'd gotten airborne or something, Lord," he shuddered at the thought.

Halfway through their game, Jack could answer any one of Eric's question, and even decently improvise his way through some that were made up along the way. It was easier to learn like this; hockey made everything easier. Learning the answers became like muscle memory; as if he were learning a new play.

Eric called it quits around four and they set up another meeting for Friday, after the Falconer's practice, when they would bring Tater in to explain the situation to him. Alexei was who Jack had requested he be paired with for interviews, when possible. Their stalls were next to each other in the locker room, so that made things easier, and Tater was a generally talkative and friendly guy, which was exactly what Jack needed.

"Is no problem Zimmboni!" he'd exclaimed when Jack had asked him for the favour. Tater had decided that the ‘Zimms’ nickname that Jack had been going by for years was too boring and that he needed something more fun. "I was same when I first play in the States; people laugh at my accent or no understand what I say! Now, no one can tell; I speak like you!" he laughed loudly as he elbowed Jack gently. He liked Tater.

Things were going well, and they were right on track to begin the season. Jack was feeling confident that he'd be able to handle things, until George called him into his office to formally request his presence at some fancy dinner thing. Jack didn't really hear most of what she was saying, just that anyone who was involved with the Falcs was going to be present, that the team's presence was required, and that spouses and dates were welcome as well.

The whole idea made Jack a little uneasy and a little nervous, but he didn't let his anxiety get the best of him. At least until the day before the event when he couldn't get his hands to stop shaking.

He'd sat on his bed, holding the full orange bottle of pills. He could take one; it wasn't a sign of weakness. It wasn't. But still, he didn't want to. He needed to prove to himself that he could do this. His team would be there, if things got too much he could go find a teammate; Tater or Chow or someone else, anyone, and stick with them. But then again, his teammates probably didn't want him third wheeling all night.

Then the solution hit him; Bittle. He imagined that events like tonight would require the presence of at least one PR member, right?

He quickly swapped the pill bottle in his hands for his phone.

Are you going to be there tonight? he texted Bittle . I don't know if I can do this... I don't think I'm ready… he added when he didn't get a reply.

It took a couple of minutes, but his phone eventually let out the preprogrammed chime.

Don't you insult my hard work, Mr. Zimmermann! You are ready. But yes I will be there if you need me! :-)

It felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off of his shoulders.

Meet you out front at 5

He didn’t wait for Bittle’s answer before tossing his phone on the bed. He stared at the orange bottle for another moment before opening it and shaking one out. No, this definitely didn’t feel like weakness. If anything, having the pill in his pocket as a safety net made him feel even more at ease.

He could do this.

_/ \_

He couldn’t do this. It was 4:59 and he was pacing outside of the hotel wondering where the hell Bittle could be. He was going to make him late and Jack didn’t want to make a bad impression by being unpunctual. The easy solution would be to go in alone, but that thought just made Jack even more angsty.

“I’m on time!” a familiar voice called out from behind him. Jack turned on his toes, prepared to tear Bittle a new one, but when he came into view, Jack’s mind went blank. Bittle was wearing tight black pants, matching black bow tie, a pale blue button up, and a light grey tweed jacket. Jack wasn’t going to lie, Bittle cleaned up nice. His jacket stretched across his broad shoulders and tapered off nicely at his thin waist. His outfit -- a plain black suit, white shirt, and blue tie -- seemed dull in comparison.

“Jack.” The man in question blinked back to reality. “I said, do you want to go in? We don’t wanna be late.”

Jack nodded and let Bittle lead the way, not yet trusting his voice to say anything.

Get it together Zimmermann , he thought to himself. Luckily, walking into the full reception hall of the hotel was enough of a distraction. His mind went from focusing on Bittle to focusing on his rising anxiety. Bittle seemed to notice this and quickly tugged on the sleeve on Jack’s jacket and pulled him off towards the side of the room.

“Bitty!” another familiar, excited voice exclaimed. The young goalie quickly enveloped the blond in a hug, leaving both Jack, and the woman who seemed to be Chow’s date, standing awkwardly to the side.

“Caitlin Farmer,” she introduced herself with a smile. “I’m Chris’ girlfriend.”

“Jack Zimmermann. Nice to meet you,” he shook her hand gently. Thankfully, he didn’t have to try too hard to come up with small talk, seeing as Bittle jumped in quickly, explaining how the three of them had gone to Samwell together.

“My mom went to Samwell,” Jack smiled. “I’ve heard so many great stories… If I hadn’t gone into hockey, I think I would have applied.”

“Oh, wow, can you imagine what it would have been like to all go together?” Chow gasped.

“Wouldn’t have worked out that way,” Jack shook his head. “We would have missed each other because of the age difference.” Chris’ face fell into a disappointed pout as his girlfriend questioned Jack on his choice of major, had he gone to Samwell. Talk of college eventually brought up Bittle’s pies, which both Caitlin and Chow swore were the best.

“Well, I mean, I’ve only gotten the privilege of trying Eric’s muffins, which, mind you were pretty good, but--”

“Honey, you’ve gotta stop calling me Eric,” Bittle interrupted. Jack’s brow furrowed. He’d purposefully forced himself to call the man by his first name, rather than by his last as he had been doing in his head. What else was he supposed to call him?

“Everyone calls me Bitty. Hockey nickname. You know how it is,” Bittle explained, probably sensing Jack’s initial confusion. "Only people who don't know me call me Eric. George only ever uses it when she's trying to be formal, or professional, or whatever. Even my mom doesn't call me Eric," he explained.

"What does your mom call you?" Jack asked, which resulted in Bitty stuttering out a garbled response; something along the lines of 'mind your own business' and 'why would I even bring that up right now?'. His cheeks flushed and Jack tried not to laugh. Tried.

It’s at that moment where George came up to greet them and was dead set on whisking Jack away to come and meet a laundry-list full of people whose names Jack almost immediately forgot. He shot a worried glance and Bitty, who simply smiled.

“Don’t worry George,” he jumped in, patting the woman gently on his arm. “I’ll go introduce him right away.”

They met a few people and Bitty let Jack do most of the talking, although he jumped in whenever he sensed that he was needed.

“Jack Zimmermann,” a loud voice boomed as the pair had been making their way towards the next person on George’s list. They paused before turning and come face to face with a tall man with greying hair. “James Gardener, we met briefly upon your arrival. Again, I’m so pleased that you decided to sign with us, Jack.”

“It’s good to see you again, sir,” Jack smiled as he reached out to shake his hand while the man conveniently mentioned knowing Jack’s father and various hockey uncles. Name dropping was something that had gotten old pretty quickly with Jack.

“How rude of me, this is my wife, Sophia,” he introduced her, before shooting an expectant glance at Bitty.

“Oh, Eric Bittle,” the blond introduced himself for the first time of the night. Embarrassment washed over Jack momentarily, he’d been raised to have better manners than that. However, he shouldn’t be the one to blame, seeing as everyone else he’d met that night had already known who Bitty was. Although, team owners probably have more important things to do than meet and remember the names of the PR staff.

“Such a good young man, coming and spending the night schmoozing all us old folks to support your man,” Sofia grinned, patting Eric’s hand, which she was shaking. “I remember doing the same when I was your age and wanting to be anywhere but here.”

Jack blinked and his cheeks flushed. Oh, she thought that he and Bitty were --

“Nowhere I’d rather be, ma’am,” Bitty grinned at her, bumping shoulders with Jack.

“Young love,” she beamed at the two of them.  Eric smiled back easily while Jack tried to keep his breathing steady.

“Would you excuse us?” he managed to say, finally, before anyone else could start up with the small talk again. “We were just on our way to speak with Georgia.”

“Oh, of course! Say hello to your father and to your uncle Mario for me, would you?” James grinned. Jack simply nodded and placed a hand on Bitty’s shoulder to steer him away.

He got him through the crowd before dropping his hand and stepping around Bittle to walk off in front of him, heading towards the washroom. He paced around the empty room for a couple of minutes, wondering if Bittle would actually follow, or if he was just going to get a couple minutes alone to calm down. The door opened and Jack watched Bittle step inside through the reflection of the mirror.

“What the hell was that?” Jack spat, turning to look at him. He couldn’t understand why Bittle had lied. He was here for work, he said he was here to help Jack, not to pretend to be his boyfriend and reap the attention and benefits that came with it. “Do you know how unprofessional that was? Not to mention that the last thing that I need right now is for people coming up to me and asking questions about my boyfriend .”

“Would you rather I told them that I was on the PR staff and that I was, as you so kindly put it, ‘babysitting’ you tonight?” Bittle snapped back, crossing his arms over his chest. “I said what I did to protect you. I was trying to be discreet. I hardly doubt that she’s going to tell anyone else, and if she does, I doubt anyone here will be running to tell tabloids.”

Jack dropped his gaze to his feet, feeling a little bad that he’d snapped at Bitty. He had just been trying to help, which was why Jack had asked him to stick by him tonight.

“I’m sorry I did that Jack,” Bitty sighed, his tone becoming more calm. “I realize that it was a betrayal of your trust, but it’s just for this evening. You’ve been doing so well, Jack, after tonight you won’t need me tagging along with you anymore.”

Jack took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Sorry I snapped at you... Come on, let's go back out there."

Dinner and the rest of the mingling went fairly well. Eric had managed to get them seated together, at a table with George, Chow, Caitlin, and a couple of other important people from the team. No one else questioned the nature of Jack and Bitty's relationship, so there was no need to lie to anyone else.

"I had a good time tonight," Eric smiled up at Jack. When he'd said he was going to call it a night and head back home, the blond had agreed and had followed suit. "Normally these things are such a bore, but you're quite the conversationalist Mr. Zimmermann."

"That was definitely a chirp," Jack chuckled, holding the door of the hotel open so that Bitty could step out into the cool night.

"No! I'm serious. You're not the hockey robot everyone seems to portray you as, Jack. You can be funny when you want to." Jack smiled proudly. Tonight had definitely been a success.

"Thanks for your help," he replied.

"All part of the job. Now, would it make sense for us to split a cab? What part of the city do you live in? Oh, maybe an Uber would be cheaper...." Bitty rambled as he fished his phone out of his pocket.

"Didn't you drive here?"

"No, I took a cab. Last time I was at one of these I drove myself and had a bit too much to drink to be able to drive myself home; that's how boring these things are, I'm telling you, maybe I ought to start bringing a real date to these things to make them more entertaining... But anyway, I took a cab here."

"I have my car, I can give you a ride," Jack proposed, pulling his keys from his pocket. "I haven't had anything to drink. I live in Chow's building, is that close to you?"

"It’s out of the way for you, from here… It's fine. I don't want to put you out. I'll just call myself a cab, no worries!"

"Bittle, it's fine. Seriously, come on, it’ll only take me a few extra minutes" Jack insisted with a small frown. He pulled Bitty's phone from his hand as he clearly continued to dial a number, and placed a hand on his shoulder to steer him to the parking garage.

"I suppose this is what you get when you put a Canadian and a Southerner together," Bitty muttered, grabbing his phone back and pocketing it.

_/ \_

A few days later, Jack woke up a little tired, but he still dragged himself out of bed to go for a run. He zipped the key to his front door in the small pocket of his running pants and slipped his phone into the larger pocket.

He’s been asked on multiple occasions, mostly by Parse, how he could run without listening to music.

“Isn’t it boring? Fuck, I think I don’t think I’d make it longer than five minutes before I quit and gave into the little voice at the back of my mind telling me how fucking painful running is.”

But Jack didn’t mind. Sure, jogging silently on a treadmill with only the sounds of his footfalls, the wiring of the machine under his feet, and his steady breathing could get dull, but he loved listening to the sounds of the city as it woke up. There were birds chirping, only a few cars driving by, the sounds of people biking to work, or chatting quietly amongst themselves; it was pretty peaceful. He also used his runs to think; like people do in showers, definitely not the excessive thinking that could trigger anxious thoughts of existential crises.  

It was nearing six thirty as he stepped outside into the crisp autumn air and took off toward the park, the rising sun behind him so that he didn’t have to squint. He followed his usual route, focusing on keeping his breathing even as he went over last night’s game in his head. They’d played really well, and it almost made Jack feel giddy. He repressed the feeling though, obviously, because thinking about how if they kept playing this well, surely they’d be able to make the playoffs, was a recipe to jinx their shot. But regardless, it was still a relief, somewhat of a confirmation that he’d made the right choice coming here.

As the sidewalk turned into a pathway and roads turned into grass, Jack spotted a familiar figure up ahead. He wasn’t too surprised to see Bitty, seeing as the path could easily connect both of their neighborhoods. However, he wouldn’t have recognized Bittle if the red hood of his sweatshirt hadn’t slipped off as he took the loop of the walkway, revealing his bright blond head of hair and the side of his face for a brief moment before he hid it again under the garment. By the black leggings that were under his black shorts, Jack assumed that Bitty must find the weather cold this morning. The thought made him chuckle quietly and he decided to speed up to catch up to Eric. Although the idea was easier said than done. He may be small, but damn, he was fast.

Jack had managed to almost catch up to him, but his quads were screaming under extra exertion of his almost sprint and he was starting to get winded. “Bittle,” he called out, but Eric didn’t turn around. Jack let out a huff and pushed himself just that much more, to finally close the gap between the two of them and tug gently on the sleeve of what Jack could now see was a Samwell sweater.

Bitty jerked in surprise and turned to look over his shoulder. His face lit up as his eyes landed on Jack.

“Jack! Hi!” he grinned. He slowed his pace and tugged earbuds out from under his hood.  

“Do you always run this route?” Jack asked, trying to speak without it showing that he was panting.

“I do, but lord, never this early. I vowed that after college that I wouldn’t get up before sunrise anymore.”

“And what made you change your mind today?”

“I have yet to get into bed, so there was no need for me to drag myself out of it,” Bitty chuckled.

Jack’s brow furrowed. “How are you not exhausted after yesterday?”

“Oh I am, but after getting home, I was starving, and I didn’t want to go back out so I decided to try  a new recipe, but I couldn’t get the consistency right for the pie filling. It was driving me nuts so I had to get out of my kitchen before I burned my entire building down. I figured after all the mini pies I’d been eating I should probably go for a run. After having like, three cups of coffee of course,” he laughed.

“I wish I could help, but baking really isn't my strong suit. I’ve been on mash potato duty at Thanksgiving since I was 9. The pumpkin pie disaster of 1999 ruined my mother’s trust in me to do anything else,” Jack regretfully admitted.

“Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out, I usually do,” Bitty assured him as Jack skidded to a stop. He heard Eric’s feet continue to make their way further from him as he stopped in front of the river, but didn’t say anything. He was too concentrated on trying to snap a photo of a couple of geese and their goslings that were waddling towards the water.

“Warn a guy,” Bitty huffed, coming to stand right behind Jack just as he stood up.

“Here, look,” Jack tilted the phone in the other man’s direction so that he could look at the photo he’d managed to get.

“Very charming,” Bitty smiled. “Now come on, we have a mile left and I haven’t come up with a pie solution yet.”

_/ \_

The next couple of weeks that follow, Jack seemed to keep running into Bitty, no matter where he went; the grocery store, the coffee shop near the practice rink, at the mall when he’d gone to buy new socks, and even in his own building. (Bitty had been bringing Caitlin --read Chowder-- a pie.) Jack definitely didn’t mind it, he didn’t dislike Bittle, he’d even go as far as calling him a friend.

That’s why it wasn’t so much of a chore to stay after practice so that Bitty could finally set up a Twitter account for him. It didn’t stop Jack from whining about it the whole time though, just to get a rise out of Bittle.

“I still don’t understand why I have to have one of these,” he said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. “Sidney Crosby doesn’t have one.”

Bittle shot him a glare over the edge of his Macbook. “I don’t see why you’re complaining,” he said as his fingers continued dancing across the keyboard. “It’s not like you’re running the account.” He glanced down briefly at the screen before looking back up at Jack. “Any requests for your handle?” He got a blank stare in return. “Your username.”

“You’re the expert,” Jack just shrugged, making Bitty sigh exasperatedly. Bitty talked as he worked, explaining that since he’d taken so long to make an account, most variations of his name were probably already taken. They --and by they obviously he meant Bitty--  tried a number of things: JackZimmermann, Jack_Zimmermann, JZimmermann, and those variations while including the number 1. He also tried including ‘Falconers’ in a couple, but Bitty decided against it, because what would Jack do if he was traded? Not that it was his concern anyway, Jack pointed out, but Bitty still refused.

“Do you have a middle name?” He asked, running a hand through his blond hair.

“Laurent,” Jack supplied.

“Aha! Got it! You are now officially @JLZimmermann,” he grinned happily. “Alright so… Providence Falconer. Center. #1.” The clickety-clack of the keys paused. Bitty’s eyes flickered back up to Jack. “Anything to add?” Jack shrugged again. “Alright then save. If we think of anything else we’ll just add it in later. I suppose that you don’t have any ideas for first tweets, so I’ll deal with that later. Now, am I setting anything else up for you? We’ve taken care of the Facebook page already, so that’s up and running. Is there any platforms that you want to be on?” Jack pursed his lips as he thought about it while Bitty listed off suggestions. “We could set up an Instagram or a Snapchat but without you running it, that may be a little difficult. We’ll probably just feature you on the team’s accounts every now and then… Other than that…”

“If I were to do it myself, how often would I have to post?” Jack asked, interrupting him. It wasn’t that he was opposed to social media, not that he saw much of a point, but he wouldn’t know what to post, and he felt like it would either go unused for ages or it would just create unnecessary stress and pressure about figuring out what to post.

“As much or as little as you want!” he was clearly excited that Jack was showing interest about this. “Anything else at this point will just be extra to what we’re going to be posting on the Facebook and Twitter. What were you thinking of? An instagram? You could post all of your Geese photos on there,” Bitty snickered.

“Yeah actually, that’s exactly what I was thinking.” Jack didn’t realize that Bitty’s smile could get any wider than it already was, but it did, and it, in turn, made Jack smile back.

He pulled out his phone, as instructed, to download the app and set up an account with the same username as his twitter and to sync up both profiles. Bitty also made him download the Twitter app and gave him the login information so that he could tweet.

“Just in case you ever he have something to say,” he explained.

They finished up after that and Jack offered to give Bitty a ride home. He’d mentioned that he was getting a ride home with Laura, but she was currently meeting with some new interns that they hired for the beginning of the season.

It was only when he himself was home later that night and that he saw what Bitty has posted as his first tweet. He’d been checking his email one last time for the night and had see the blue icon and curiosity got the better of him.

Despite Parse’s teasing, Jack wasn’t inept with technology and the app itself was straightforward enough for him to figure out to get onto his profile (or whatever the proper term was). Pressing the “me” icon wasn’t exactly rocket science.

@JLZimmermann: Better late than never, eh?

Jack closed his eyes and shook his head as he chuckled. Bittle and his damn sense of humour. He quickly sent him a text before calling it a night and tucking himself into bed with his book. (Yes it was only ten p.m. but they had a game tomorrow and it was important that he rested up before then.)

You think you’re funny, eh?

Bitty’s reply was almost instantaneous; I know I’m funny.

A second message came immediately after: Eh ;)

_/ \_

The beginning of the season wasn’t going well. Not well at all. This was pretty hard on Jack, considering that during the preseason games the whole team was clicking and things were going pretty well. He’d had such high hopes for the season.

He got back from their first string of away games, forcefully threw his bag to the floor and slammed his door shut behind him. That last part he regretted just a little; other people did live in his building after all. But, his concern was not enough to distract him from the self loathing, so instead he fell onto his couch with a loud groan. How could he have been so wrong about this move? How could he have thought that he could come out here to Providence and actually excel without Parse. Kenny had been right; they shouldn’t have broken up the set. They were better together. Clearly. Jack felt like such a failure.

Fortunately, he didn’t get too far down the rabbit hole before an urgent knock sounded at his door. He debated if maybe he should ignore it; it was probably Chow coming down to see if he could cheer him and Jack really wasn’t in the mood for company right now. The knock sounded again and a voice boomed from the other side:

“Jack Zimmermann, you beautiful fucker, I know you’re home! I saw your car parked downstairs, come open this door!”

Ah, the unmistakable voice of Shitty Knight. Jack really didn’t have much of a choice now. If Shitty wanted to get into his apartment, he would find a way.

Jack had known Shitty for most of his life. The Zimmermann’s and Shitty’s mom had neighboring summer houses in Maine and the boys, only being two years apart in age, had grown up together. As children, they hadn’t really kept touch other than in the summer, but as they had grown older, they’d exchanged numbers and talked every so often. Before moving to Providence, the pair hadn’t seen each other in person for years, for obvious reasons of course; Jack had been living in Vegas and after attending University of Massachusetts, Shitty had gone to Harvard Law for three years. But, regardless of that, the second that he’d heard that his old buddy Jack was moving to the east coast, he’d demanded that they see each other the second that he arrived. The two had seen each other quite a few times since then, even though they were still technically living in different states.

With a large sigh, Jack rolled off of his couch and trudged to the door to pull it open.

“There you are you Canadian Adonis, you,” Shitty grinned, stepping over the threshold and enveloping Jack into a tight hug. “Those were some tough couple of games brah, but you played well.”

Jack simply shrugged, not knowing what else to say.

“Stop,” Shitty instructed immediately. He pulled out of the hug and closed Jack’s front door. He had a bag slung over his shoulder, so clearly he’d decided that he was staying the night. Jack appreciated it; he could probably use the distraction, even though he wasn’t in the mood to entertain. But Shitty would know that. Shitty understood. It’s one of the reasons why Jack liked Shitty, and kept him around.

“Shits, what if coming here was a mistake? What if this isn’t going to lead to that big break through I’ve been hoping for…” he ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. “What if I left every good thing that had ever happened to me back in Vegas?” he added quietly.

“Well that’s a fucking lie ‘cause I’m right here bro,” Shitty dropped his bag near the couch and spread his arms open wide. “Just give it time. You can’t just jump ship when the harbor is still in view; you don’t know what’s hiding out in the open seas yet. Set sail before you decide that your ship is sinking.”

“Yeah but….”

“No, no buts. There shall only be one kind of butts tonight; you and I are going out and I’m not going to take no for an answer!”

They started off by pre-gaming at Jack’s apartment, because apparently Shitty didn’t just pack clothes, he also brought along some booze. And it was only when Jack finally had a buzz going that Shitty was able to convince him that they should head out to a gay bar together. (Mostly, Shitty didn’t want Jack moping around his apartment half drunk, going through the what ifs and could haves and convincing himself that maybe, despite not giving the breakup a second thought since it happened, splitting up with Kenny had been the wrong decision.

Fortunately, it was Shitty’s job to reassure him that he had made the right decision and that this moment of weakness was only caused by loneliness; which could be quite an easy fix. And so Jack agreed to go to the bar. And Jack agreed to have a couple of more drinks. And when a stranger tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to dance, he agreed to that too.

Unfortunately, what happened at the gay bar, did not stay at the gay bar. Jack woke up to more than a few voicemails from both Bittle and George the next morning. He also woke up next to a naked Shitty, but that had happened so many times that it wasn’t enough to even make him blink. His head was throbbing and he needed painkillers, food, and a shower. ASAP.

Once he felt decently human again, he decided to call Bittle back. Out of his two options he seemed the less terrifying. Oh boy, was Jack ever wrong.

“What in the world were you thinking Mr. Zimmermann?” he got scolded as soon as Bittle picked up the phone. “Do you know how bad this looks, mister ‘I’ve had media training my whole life’? This is rule number one, Jack. I cannot believe that you of all people would let your picture be taken while grinding on some boy who had his hands up your shirt!” Bittle sighed, pausing for a moment before he continued in a tone of voice that didn’t sound mad, but more along the lines of disappointed. “George and I need you to come in, within the hour. We need to do damage control.” And that’s how Jack found himself leaving Shits in his apartment and driving down to the practice rink. The disappointment was worse in person.

“I’m sorry, but to be honest, I don’t really remember doing any of those things,” Jack told them after they each scolded him, again, for his actions from the night before. Not that admitting that you were drunk to the point where you didn’t remember things was much of an excuse, but still. “My friend was in town and he wanted to take me out to cheer me up, that’s all. I’m 90% positive that nothing happened with that other person,” Jack defended himself.

“You should have known better,” Bitty muttered under his breath while George shot him a look.

“Alright, the time for reprimanding is over,” she told him. “We need to work finding a solution.”

“How do we even fix something like this?” Jack asked, his eyes flickering back and forth between the two. There was no denying it was Jack in the photos; although the ones of him dancing with the other man were blurry and packed with other people, there were much clearer shots available from the beginning of the night which permitted people to prove that it was either Jack in the photos or someone who looked extremely similar to him and happened to be wearing an identical outfit. The media was already speculating if moving to Providence was a good move for Jack. This was definitely not going to do him any favours.

You can take the boy out of Vegas, but can you really take Vegas out of the boy? , the headlines read. They then went on to describe what a horrible choice the Falconers had made by signing Jack to eventually fill the captain position because his priorities were not in the right place and that this would be the downfall for a team that had yet had the chance to rise.

“Well, we certainly don’t tell them that you were drunk enough to blackout,” Bittle snapped again. He sighed running a hand through his hair. “There’s no way to not make this look bad for you or for the team. We’re just lucky that this boy hasn’t gone to the media to try and get a story published about his one night stand with Jack Zimmermann.”

“But that didn’t happen,” Jack repeated.

“It’s his word over yours Jack, and those photos of you making out with some blond twink are more than enough evidence for tabloids to spin some sort of a story. They’ll take his side over yours because a scandal will help bring in a hell of a lot more profit than them publishing an ‘oops, sorry, our bad’ story. Not to mention that anything you say now will just look like a cover up,” Bitty explained.

“But my friend was there, he can vouch for me; I didn’t go home with that guy! I think...”

“Unless we have both of you and that guy saying that, then the best we can do is release some sort of apology to the team and make sure that something like this never happens again,” said Eric.  

“What if we can get that guy to say something?” George asked, her head perking up.

“Are you suggesting that we try and find him? Because that’s just a waste of our time,” Bittle shot the idea down.

“No, not him specifically, just a guy. There are no clear photos of him and Jack together which gives us the opportunity to find someone who can pretend to be that guy,” she explained. Bittle pursed his lips, obviously considering the option.

“I’m not sure denying a one night stand is enough to convince tabloids that Jack isn’t a wild Vegas party boy…”

“This is so unfair,” Jack muttered. “I was just letting off some steam, I didn’t do anything wrong. Yeah, it looks bad, I know that, and I’m sorry, but how is this any different from what some of the other guys do? Snowy and his girlfriend had pictures of them taken out at a bar with some friends last week and all they got was praise about how cute they were.”

“That’s because they were dating…” Bitty paused and Jack could almost hear the gears turning in his head as they though. “Okay… If we can find someone that looks like the guy from the photos that won’t fuck this up, we might be able to make things look a little better. It may not fix everything, but it’ll held things die down and not seem like a big deal… The question is where do we find someone we can trust to not fuck this up?”

_/ \_

“I do sincerely want to apologize to both my team and the Falconers’ organization for the photos that surfaced from the weekend. I’m very well aware that of how unprofessional it looked. However, I do want to assure everyone that this isn’t and will not become habitual behavior for me. The team had just spent a week on the road and upon my arrival in town, I received a surprise visit from a childhood friend, so we decided to spend the night out in the company of my boyfriend, the man with whom I was photographed with. So again, I do apologize for the inappropriate behavior and I assure you that my main priority is, in fact, still hockey. Thank you.”

Jack had practiced the speech so many times that he’d probably started saying it in his sleep, but it didn’t keep him from having it written down on a cue card. He fiddled with it, folding it this way and that, as he sat back in his chair, leaning away from the microphone. They’d started the press conference with his statement, then Sam Boswell, the current captain took over. Jack tried to look like he was paying attention, but he couldn’t help that his mind was wandering elsewhere. He sat anxiously awaiting the Q&A portion of the conference, hoping that the press would focus on someone else, but not expecting them to.

As predicted, it didn’t take too long for someone to address Jack, trying to clarify if he had, in fact, just mentioned a boyfriend.

“Yes, Eric and I have been seeing each other for a couple of weeks, we were going to wait and see if it was going to become serious before making any sort of announcement about it. Clearly we should have been more careful,” he chuckled nervously. He glanced to the other side of the room, where Bitty was standing, smiling back sweetly even though Jack knew that he was annoyed about this. Truth be told, Jack was just as annoyed, but Bitty was blond, and the right height, and this way they didn’t have to involve someone else. No one other than George, Jack, Shitty, and Eric would know the truth. And whoever the real blond was, but it wasn’t like he’d be able to claim any different now.

The press conference didn’t last much longer, and the journalists in the room were asked to try and stick to the subject of hockey seeing as their time was limited. The players left the room first, when things finally wrapped up, but Jack lingered outside the door as the reporters left as well. Only a few were still lingering by the time Bitty exited the room.

Jack raised his brows at him, silently asking how he’d done.

“You did just fine,” Bitty assured him quietly, strategically placing a hand on Jack’s arm and squeezing it gently. “I’ll see you after practice, right?” he said a little louder, hoping that someone would overhear him. Their plan was to hope that one of the reporters put two and two together and realized on their own that Eric Bittle who’d been mediating the press conference, and Jack’s boyfriend Eric were one in the same.

“I did drive you here,” Jack pointed out. “The least I could do is drive you home.”

Bitty clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes with a sigh. “Save the chirps for the ice, Zimmermann.” He quickly glanced over his shoulder to see if there were still journalists leaving and then pressed a quick kiss to Jack’s cheek. Mission accomplished.

Almost a little too well. The chirps in the locker room the next day before the game were almost unbearable.

“Zimmboni,” Tater piped up when Jack had walked in. “Is internet lying or are you dating tiny blond baker from PR?”

Chow gasped audibly. “You’re dating Bitty?!”

Jack didn’t even get a chance to stutter out a reply, the bright red blush on his cheeks was enough for his teammates. “Oh my gosh, wait ‘till I tell Farmer! She’s going to be so excited; I’m so excited! We can double?!” Chowder was practically bouncing up and down in his stall, his half tied laces completely forgotten.

Jack didn’t get a chance to answer him before some of the other guys chimed in, commenting about the large amount of time that Jack had been spending upstairs in the offices since the summer.

“Guys,” Boss, interrupted, in full Captain mode. “Let’s focus on the game we’re about to play alright? You can ask for intimate details about Zimms’ love life after we win.”

Jack shot him an appreciative glance, but the wink he received in return let him know that his captain may not be on his side after all.

The game against the Bruins that night went surprisingly well. Extremely well. It was definitely a tough game, but Jack managed to score one last goal in the last two minutes of the last period, securing them a 3-2 win as the clock quickly ran out afterwards. Jack’s shoulders had sagged in relief. Shitty had been right; it was way too early in the season to think about jumping ship.

However, despite the win, and then the next one against the Habs two nights after that, the media was still on Jack’s back. They had indeed managed to piece together that Jack’s “boyfriend” was Eric Bittle of the Falconers’ PR team, but that had just brought on more and more rumors. There were speculations about how long Jack had been cheating on Kent with Eric or if Eric had been the reason that Jack had decided to sign with the Falconers instead of renewing his contract with the Aces. Jack blatantly ignored those types of questions and comments and no one had been able to get a statement from Kent yet.

It made Jack worry. He wondered what Kent thought about it and often checked his phone to see if he had any missed calls. No, Jack didn’t particularly miss Vegas, except in moments of weakness, and he was really enjoying Providence, despite all the hardships, but still he’d loved Kent and he respected him; they been best friends for ten years, after all. And, yes, Jack had already tarnished -- ruined, really -- that relationship all on his own, but it didn’t mean that he wanted these rumours to soil any good memories that Kent had of them.

So he waited for the phone call, his cell weighing heavily in his pocket; he waited to see Kent’s name would flash across the screen and wondered if  was going to be greeted by the angry sound of Kent’s voice or if he’d sound more hurt, either on the other end of the phone on recorded on his voicemail (Jack hadn’t decided if he’d actually answer the phone or not, if Kent were to call).

But Jack never got to find out, because the call never came. And Jack didn’t want to call himself to try and clear things up, because maybe Kent just didn’t care anymore. And for some reason that thought, more than anything else, shook Jack to his core. And it was usually at that point that he’d head down to the gym, sometimes asking Chowder to come join him, or took his new DSLR out on the town.

_/ \_

Jack and Bitty tried to avoid the whole ‘couple’ thing for as long as they could. Media and teammates alike assumed what they wanted from the few pictures of the two that existed or whenever they saw Jack and Bits together, but in reality, the pair spent the next couple of days avoiding each other unless absolutely necessary.

This is why, Jack is quite surprised when Bittle comes up to him after a long practice when Jack just wanted to go home and crawl into bed.

“Can we talk, before you leave?” he asked, making Jack’s brows furrowed.

“Um… Yeah, sure? I’ll meet you in your office?” Bitty nods once before turning on his heels and walking away. Most of the guys had already made it into the locker room, but a few were still making their way off the rink, meaning that they’d just seen the exchange.

“Hot date, Zimms?” Cooper wiggled his eyebrows at Jack.

“Fuck off man,” Jack shook his head, letting out a soft chuckle.

“Oh, is that what you do when you’re up in his office?” Snowy chirped.

“You wish you knew,” Jack shot back cheekily, opting to ignore them as he got himself cleaned up to go and meet Eric upstairs.

“What’s up?” he asked, stepping into the now familiar office and closing the door quietly behind him.

“I wanted to talk to you about the charity event this weekend,” Bitty said, closing the top of his laptop.

“Sure,” he nodded, letting Bitty know that he could go on. Bitty’s brows furrowed at him, as if there were something that Jack wasn’t cluing in to.

“Jack, I’m going to be attending the event, not only because I’m a member of the PR team, but as a former athlete, one who was open to his college team about his sexuality for four years. It’s a cause that hits close to home and I want to support it,” he explained, as though Jack had any reason to stop Bitty from showing up to the You Can Play benefit. Bitty must have sensed his confusion, because he sighed in frustration. “Jack, there’s going to be media there. If we’re in the same place at the same time they’re going to expect us to act like a couple…”

Oh. Right.

“Now, I don’t want to have to do this anymore than you do, but we’re going to have to, for the foreseeable future at least. It’s best to come out with it now and let the attention of it die down as soon as possible.” Jack snorted at Bitty’s use of words. Come out . That seemed to be the recurring source of his problems these past few years.

“Alright then,” Jack agreed, as if there were anything up for debate. He stood up and made his way towards the door. “In that case, I’ll pick you up at three.”

Jack couldn’t decide why he was so nervous about this. If anything, he should be ecstatic; this was exactly what he’d wanted at the last event they’d had. He’ll have Bitty by his side all night to come to his rescue in case he flubbed up any interactions with the strangers that would be present tonight (media or otherwise).

Yet, here he was, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel nervously as Bitty sat in the passenger seat next to him and an awkward silence settled around them in the car. This shouldn’t be this hard, they’d been becoming friends before they had started avoiding each other.

“So,” Jack said after clearing his throat. “Did you ever figure out your pie dilemma, from a while back?” he asked.

Bitty let out a frustrated sigh. “No, the maple syrup make the whole filling too runny, and anything I’ve tried to add to thicken it back up just throws the whole flavor off.”

“Maple syrup? Why not use maple sugar instead?”  Jack glanced over at Bittle who had his lips pursed thoughtfully.

“I don’t know if the maple flavour would stand out as much as I imagined…”

“Put it on top? Like a crumble?” Jack suggested instead. Bitty’s head bobbed as he considered it.

“I’ll have to try it, thanks.” Bitty smiled at him as they pulled into the parking garage of the hotel where the event was being held. “And here you thought you wouldn’t be any help to my baking.”

The tension between them seemed to dissipate after that.

“You ready?” Bitty asked, as they stood outside the doors of the reception hall, moments later. Jack shrugged, at a loss for words and hoped that Bitty didn’t see him flinch as his hand had brushed against his. If he had, he didn’t mention it, and instead assured that things would be fine. Jack squeezed his hand once, and in they went.

They got cornered by Chowder and Cait almost immediately, and any chance of them avoiding a double date disappeared entirely. By the time they sat down for the meal, Jack had grown accustomed to having his fingers laced with Bitty’s. It was grounding, comforting really, in the constant buzzing around the room that set Jack’s nerves on edge. It was also one of the excuses, along with keeping up appearances, that Jack seems to keep their bodies connected one way or another throughout the whole meal; knees bumping under the table, his arm draped across the back of Bitty’s chair, and even his fingers brushing casually across the nape of Bitty’s neck as he animatedly told one story or another. If he minded Jack being so tactile, he didn’t mention it.

They stayed joined at the hip for the rest of the evening, until Jack excused himself to use the restroom, and came back to find Bittle missing. He made his way through the room, making casual conversation with a couple of people who approached him, and kept his eyes open for his “boyfriend”. Finally, he caught a flash of blond outside of the open double doors that had been opened to provide a cool breeze into the packed reception hall.

As soon as he deemed that his current conversation had reached a polite length, he excused himself and slipped outside. He paused, just beyond the doors, and took in the small courtyard. The sun had long since set, but there were fairy lights scattered around the trees and hedges to provide a warm glow. Bitty had settled in on one of the benches, his face illuminated by the light of his phone, which he held in both hands as he typed something onto the screen, his thumbs moving quickly. Instead of announcing his presence right away, he pulled out his phone and snapped a quick picture of the scene. Unfortunately, he must have left his sound on and the electronic shutter sound filled the silence. Bitty looked up from his phone, surprised, until he caught sight of Jack, which made him roll his eyes in amusement.

“You’ll catch a cold out here Bittle,” he said, joining him on the bench.

“Just had to answer a couple of emails,” Bitty replied, tapping the screen a couple more times before locking his phone and slipping into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Jack watched a shiver run through his body.

“Hmmm, or were you on twitter again?” Jack chirped, bumping their shoulders together. “Come on, your teeth are chattering; let’s head back inside before I have to lend you my jacket.”

“Oh, the press would love that,” Bitty snorted as they stood up from the bench and made their way back inside.

Later that night, Jack stared at the picture he’d snapped with a critical eye. Certain things needed improving; it wasn’t centered properly, and it was a little too dark. Without thinking twice, he pulled up Instagram and started editing in photo until satisfied. It barely even registered that he’d pressed share, before locking it, placing it on his nightstand, and then falling asleep. Thank goodness he’d never turned his notifications on for the app.

_/ \_

“Hey Jack,” Chowder called across the locker room after practice. “We still on for bowling this weekend?”

“As if Zimms would say no to playing with some balls,” one of the guys called. Jack had been facing his locker and hadn’t been able to discern who’s voice it had been. The room bursted out laughing and Jack rolled his eyes at the chirp.

“You wanna join? Make it a threesome?” he shot back. He glanced over his shoulder to find Skip turning bright red and trying to stutter out a comeback. Ah, the culprit. He shot him a playful wink and went back to pulling off his Under Armour.

“But it’s already a foursome; Skip would make it a fivesome!” Chowder exclaimed, sounding confused. That was it; the room fucking lost it. Jack ignored them – children, that’s what they were – as he headed towards the showers.

“What? It’s a double date!” he heard Chowder try to explain before the sounds of the locker room got drowned out by the running water.

_/ \_

They stood outside the bowling alley, shoulder to shoulder, staring down the doors.

"This is weird," Jack spoke first. "Doesn't this feel weird to you? They're gonna know, they'll be able to tell."

"It'll be fine," Bitty answered, though the tone of his voice wasn't too convincing. He took a deep breath and let it out in a determined huff before slipping his smaller hand into Jack's.

Oh it was definitely weird. Jack had spent years doing just the opposite of this; pretending to be nothing more than friends, dropping hands when people got too close. Even when he first came out, any form of PDA had been wary; hidden hands and kisses so brief you'd blink and they'd be over. But nothing like this, never like this; never purposefully flaunting a relationship.

It was also weird because Bitty's hands were nothing like he's been expecting. Although, smaller than Jack's, it wasn't as soft or dainty as he'd been expecting. Bitty's hand was strong and calloused, and his skin felt a little dry under his fingertips. Jack didn't know why he was so surprised. He shouldn't have assumed anything else; Bitty was a baker and he had mentioned being a hockey player. Jack had held the hand of a hockey player for years; he should have known better.

"We'll be fine," Bitty repeated, giving his hand a small squeeze before they made their way inside the building.

“Jack! Bitty!” Chowder called from over by the front desk, waving a hand over his head. Bitty tugged him along before embracing his two friends in tight hugs. Jack awkwardly stood there for a moment before deciding to give Farmer a gentle hug and offering Chow a fist to bump.

They pay for their shoes and games before heading over to their lanes.

“I’ll get the first round?” Bitty offered, pulling out his wallet again. “Seeing as someone wouldn’t let me pay.” He shot a pointed look at Jack and headed over to the bar before anyone could object.

By the time he got back, the other three have set up and chosen teams already.

@eric_bittle: Date night! @JLZimmermann @CChow55 @K8Farmer

@eric_bilttle: Teams for game 1! Falcs VS S/O. We all know who’s gonna win ;) [img_815] [img_816]

“Hey Bittle, how bout we leave the phone alone for the night and focus on bowling. It’s your turn,” Jack teased, nudging the boy. Bitty looked up from his phone, surprised. He’d barely just sat down after his first turn! Surely, his name was highlighted on the screen and there was a large X next to Jack’s name.

“Oh, of course,” Bitty rolled his eyes. “Of course you would be good at any other sport we’d make you play!”

Jack and Chowder ended up winning the first game, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Bitty struggled at the beginning; causing a plethora of chirps to come his way.

“You sure you don’t need me to show you like that guy over there?” Jack asked, nodding towards a couple of teenagers standing near the foul line. The boy was standing behind the girl, his front pressed up against her back and he guided her arm in the right direction and told her when to let go of the ball. They waited, wrapped up in each other, as it rolled down the lane and slowly knocked down a couple of pins. It wasn’t very many, but the young girl still jumped around giddily, turning to hug the boy tightly.

“Thank you Mister Zimmermann, but I think I’ll manage,” Bitty shot back, blushing.

Regardless, Bitty and Caitlin managed to make up some pins and weren’t beat by that much.

“Wanna be on the winning team this time?” Jack asked, nudging Bits’ shoulder.

“You know what, I think I do. Chowder, honey, you’re with me this time.”

@eric_bittle: Falcs somehow managed to win the first one, time for round 2! Samwell Men’s Hockey VS fans ;) [img_821] [img_825]

They had order a second round of drinks, meaning that everyone was feeling loose and happy. For one couple, it also meant an increased amount of PDA, and that couple was not Jack and Bitty.

“Chowder, focus! Quit fraternizing with the enemy!” Bitty called as they waited, once again, for Chow and Cait to take their turns. Instead, they were giggling quietly together, Cait in Chowder’s lap with arms wrapped around each other. As they finally took the lanes, Jack turned to Bitty.

“Should we maybe be… more touchy feely?” he whispered. “Aren’t they gonna see right through us?”

“Nah, they’re too caught up with each other to be paying attention with us,” Bitty laughed. He reached up, pushing a lock of Jack’s bangs away from where it had fallen down on his forehead.

“Besides, not all couples need to flaunt PDA, the little things count too,” he winked at Jack, patting his cheek, before heading to Chowder’s lane to offer him a high five for the spare he just threw.

Chowder and Bitty manage to squeak out a win, and Jack would have asked for a rematch, had Chowder not insisted on wanting to play to Cait for their last game.

@eric_bittle:  SAMWELL FOR THE WIN!!! #redandwhite [flexing emoji]

@eric_bittle:  Last game, time to see who the superior couple is!! [img_840] [img_847]

The third game was different than the rest, in the sense that Bitty had become a lot more tactile than he’d been in the first two. Some part of him always seemed to be in contact with Jack: his foot nudging up against Jack’s shin, his hand squeezing Jack’s bicep, or an arm thrown around Jack’s shoulders, letting his fingers dance around the skin of his neck or upper arm.  

Jack didn’t mind it mostly. He knew that it was all part of making them believable. Instead, he just tried to suppress, or more accurately ignore, the goosebumps that erupted across his skin due to Bitty’s gentle touch.  

Thankfully, it wasn’t as much of a distraction to Jack as it was to Chowder or Farmer, who seemed more interested in each other than the game. Needless to say, Jack and Bitty won the final round.

“I’m hungry,” Chowder whined as the couples left the bowling alley hand in hand. “Bitty will you come over and make pie? I miss your pies.”

“Honey, you can’t eat pie like you used too,” Bitty replied regretfully.

“Not enough protein,” Jack chuckled, making Bitty roll his eyes.

“What about that quiche you made? That time I brought Cait to the Haus to meet you guys? Eggs are protein right? And it was sooooo good,” Jack couldn’t tell if Chow was groaning because he was still whining or if it was more of a moan because of how delicious Bitty’s food was.

“Do you have the ingredients for quiche?” Bitty asked, making Chowder’s eyes light up.

“Yes! At least…” he turned to look at Cait, who nodded. “Yes! Does that mean you’ll come?”

“I suppose that depends on Mister Zimmermann,” Bitty turned his head to Jack.

“I like quiche,” he replied with a short shrug.

“Yes!!!! Quiche!!!” Chowder exclaimed rushing towards his car. Farmer laughed, following him at a slower pace, calling out to Bits and Jack that they’d see them at the apartment.

Many hours, slices of quiche, and stories of their childhoods later, it was time to call it a night.

“Well this has been fun,” Bitty grinned, hugging his friends tightly. “Thank you so much for suggesting it.”

“Anytime, it was so great to hang out with another couple,” Cait grinned. “And you guys are so adorable together.”

“Yeah Bits! I’m so glad you guys found each other! It’s ‘swawesome!” Chowder nodded. “And thank you so much for the quiche!!”

They said their goodbyes and Jack and Bitty left the apartment, hand in hand. As soon as the door clicked shut behind them, and they’d moved far enough to be out of view from the peep hole, they dropped their hands.

“I’d say mission accomplished,” Bitty nodded as they got into the elevator. Chowder and Caitlin were under the impression that Bitty was going to be spending the night at Jack’s, but in reality, Jack pushed the button for the parking garage to go drive Bitty home. Bits had tried to insist that he’d just call an Uber, but Jack refused. “I’d say we were very believable.”

“It was fun,” Jack nodded. “They’re both pretty great. Oh, here,” Jack pulled his phone out from his pocket and opened up his photo library. “I took a picture of your quiche; I might put it on Instagram.”

Bitty laughed, handing back the phone and opening the passenger door. “You are full of surprises Mister Zimmermann.

_/ \_

After the charity dinner and the double date, things became easier for the two. They ignored the chirps from their teammates and co-workers whenever they interacted at work, and they especially ignored the press. Things became like before and their friendship continued to progress.

“Jack!” Bitty called out across the parking garage one morning. “I’ve got something for you!”

His teammate’s snickering, as they pulled their gear from their trunks, could not be ignored.

“What’s that?” Jack asked, slinging his hockey bag over his shoulder and shutting his trunk.

Bittle handed over a small tupperware, much to Jack’s confusion. He opened it, only to reveal a small mini pie.

“Maple sugar-crusted apple,” Bitty announced proudly. “I ended up putting the maple sugar in the crust, it was too sweet as a crumble. Go on, give it a try.”

“Doubt the coaches would appreciate that, right before practice,” Jack pointed out, as they started walking towards the entrance to the building. All the other players had already made their way inside and Jack didn’t want to be the last to show up for practice.

“Then keep it as a snack for after, but I expect a detail report by the end of the day Zimmermann,” he warned as he headed towards the elevator and Jack headed towards the end of the hall.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Jack chirped, saluting him playfully, before walking into the locker room, a wide grin spread across his face.

Things had also begun to change on the ice, as well. Plays were executed as flawlessly in games as they had been in practices, and their winning streak continued through their stretch of home games into their away games. Being away from Providence was easiest when trying to keep up with the whole boyfriend front because when he was out of town, Jack got a lot less questions and remarks about the lack of sightings there had been of him and Bitty. Not that Jack disliked spending time with Bitty, especially now that it meant that he got surprise maple-apple mini pies. But even his sanctuary of away games couldn’t last forever, seeing as Bitty was part of the Falconers’ staff. And with the first time that Bitty joined them on the road, came the most extensive fake boyfriend stint yet.

Seeing as everyone on the staff, save for George and the two men, thought that Jack and Eric were a real couple, whoever was in charge of booking rooms at their hotel in Ohio assumed that the two would rather share a room, rather than pairing Jack with his usual road roomie. Clearly Bitty was much better at keeping up with their little game than Jack was, who, upon hearing both of their names called to step up and grab their room key, froze in confusion. Bittle on the other hand flounced to grab their key card before dragging Jack calmly towards the elevator, already filled with other players. They got off on the fifth floor and made their way to room 526 before either of them said anything.

“Shit,” Jack muttered to himself as the door clicked audibly shut behind them. The single queen size bed at the center of the room was very hard to miss. “I’m so sorry,” he apologized, because really it was all his fault. If he hadn’t gotten drunk with Shitty and gone to that club, Bitty never would have had to step up to the plate and pretend to be his boyfriend, and in turn, wouldn’t be stuck sharing a bed with a man who was still closer to being a stranger than a friend.  

“Nothing we can do now that won’t arouse suspicion,” Bitty shrugged, dropping his duffel bag on the bed.  There wasn’t even a couch that Jack could offer to sleep on, not that sleeping on a couch the night before an NHL hockey game was a bright idea, but still. And there was no way he’d let either of them sleep on the floor. Looks like they were stuck sharing.

It was already late at night, they’d gotten on the last flight leaving Boston, so there was no time to beat around the bush. Bitty had pulled his toiletry bag from his duffel and what seemed to be a change of clothes.

“Do you mind if I shower first?” Bitty asked. Jack shook his head and went through the motions of his normal routine after checking into a hotel. By the time he was done, Bitty was stepping back into the room, clad in a pair of the shortest shorts that Jack had ever seen and a grey t-shirt with the word ‘Samwell’ printed out in red across his chest. Luckily, he had his head ducked as he unraveled a towel from around his head to see Jack trip over his own feet as he stood up from the armchair in the corner of the room.

“All yours,” Bitty smiled, running his fingers through his damp hair to push it away from his forehead.

“I...Um, yeah.. I’ll just…” Jack stuttered as he grabbed his pile of things off of the mattress. His eyes lingered on Bitty who was rummaging through his bag as he took a step back towards the bathroom. And then another, and another, until he bumped into the doorframe. Quickly, he disappeared into the bathroom and shut and locked the door behind him. He leaned against the wood, still damp from Bittle’s steaming shower and took a deep breath.

“Get it together Zimmermann,” he muttered to himself. He made his shower as quick as he could, seeing as he didn’t trust himself to stand up for long, due to the amount of yawning that he was doing. He didn’t even dare turn to face the shower head, just in case he drowned himself.

After pulling on a pair of plaid sleep pants and a t-shirt, he trudge out into the room to find Bitty burrowed into the blankets.

“Maybe if you wore a couple of more layers to bed, you wouldn’t be so cold,” Jack chirped, pulling back the blankets on his side and getting into bed.

“I’ll do as I please, Mister Zimmermann,” he replied, keeping his eyes trained on his phone.

“So what’s happening in the Twitter universe?” he asked with a yawn, laying his head back on the fluffy pillows. “What have you been saying about me?”

“I have my own Twitter to manage, thank you very much, my whole life doesn’t revolve around you,” Eric chirped back, nudging Jack’s leg with a socked foot.

“It should be! I am your boyfriend after all.” Jack gasped, making Bitty roll his eyes dramatically. “We should take a selfie just to prove it to all of your followers.”

“What is this? Jack Zimmermann wants to take a selfie?! Well, I can’t say no now!” he teased, but still pulled up the camera app on his phone and extended his phone. He framed the two of them, heads resting on the white pillows as they grinned up at the phone. Jack watched him caption the photo:

@eric_bittle : Early night curled up with this one.

And then retweet it from Jack’s account.

“There,” he announced, locking his phone and plugging it in on the night stand. He turned off the light and curled up into a small ball. “Night, Jack.”

“Night, Bits.”

_/ \_

The photo went viral and Jack had to spend the press after winning the game avoiding the personal questions that were thrown his way. As they got back to the hotel, his phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out to see his mother’s photo on the screen.

“Hello?” he answered. He usually called his parents on Sunday nights, or after an away game stretch, which wouldn’t be for another three days seeing as they were heading to Detroit tomorrow.

“Hi, mon chou. How are you?” she asked pleasantly; clearly she wasn’t calling because something was wrong. Maybe she’d just gotten the dates confused.

“Alright, a little tired, but happy. We had a good win tonight,” he replied. He lingered in the lobby as the team headed towards the elevators. He knew that he’d probably see most of them come back downstairs within the hour in order to hit the town before tonight’s curfew. They had a midday flight tomorrow, so he assumed that most of the team would take advantage of it. He, on the other hand, only had plans to head upstairs and watch some tape.

“Yes, your father and I were watching, congratulations,” he could hear the smile in her voice, but also the slight hesitation.

“Maman, is something wrong?” Jack asked, wondering what she wasn’t telling him.

“Oh, honey, no,” she sighed on the other end of the line. “Look, your father says we probably shouldn’t push, and that you’ll tell us when you’re ready, but if reporters can ask then so can I. Jack, sweetheart, when were you going to tell us that you were dating someone?”

Oh.

He sighed, running a hand across his face as he took a seat on one of the lobby’s couches. He’d completely forgotten that this would most definitely make it’s way back to his parents.

“I’m sorry, I just didn’t…. We weren’t really ready to tell anyone and then, well, the bar happened. I guess I didn’t think to mention it the other times we’ve spoken ‘cause you hadn’t either…”

“We’d have loved to hear if from you anyway,” she insisted. “So, where did you two meet?”

Jack huffed, amused. “We met at work mom. He’s been helping me with my media presence.”

“And is he treating you well?” she asked. That made Jack let out a small laugh.

“Yeah mom, he’s great.” She didn’t answer again, so Jack assumed that she was waiting for more details. “He made me this really great apple pie the other day, with maple sugar in the crust, it was delicious.”

“You? Breaking your diet over pie? He must be one special man.” It was Jack’s turn to pause.

“Maman, are you chirping me?” he asked, appalled. He’d expect such a thing from his father, but his mom?! This was a betrayal like no other.

“Must have learned from the best. Now, I’ll let you get some rest. We’ll talk to you when you get back to Providence.”

“Alright, have a good night. Say hi to dad for me.”

“Will do. Oh, and Jack? If Eric comes to Montreal, we’d love to take you both out to dinner.” Jack chewed on his bottom lip. It was one thing to lie to the media, and his team, and the whoever else seemed to care, about this whole thing, but it was something else to lie to his parents about it.

“I’ll let you know if he’ll be there,” he promised. They said goodbye once more and hung up the phone.

“Well that was a much better review then you gave me,” Jack jumped at the sound of Eric’s voice behind him. He turned to find the blond boy smirking proudly.

“Eavesdropping much?” Jack shot back.

“You were talking about my pie, how could I not?” Jack stood and Bitty casually hooked his arm around his elbow as they made their way towards the elevators.

“Good, then I hope you heard the part about how my parents want to meet my boyfriend when we’re in Montreal,” Jack countered, making Bitty trip ever so slightly over his own feet.

_/ \_

Much to Bitty’s horror, they found themselves traveling together, on Jack’s dime -- because of course I’m going to pay, Bittle, this is my fault -- two days before the Falconers’ game so that they could spend some time with Jack’s parents.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Bitty mumbled to him on the plane. “Do you know who your parents are ?! We should come clean and just tell them this is a scam.”

“Are you scared of my parents, Bittle?” Jack chuckled, amused. Bitty had been the one to insist that the less people that knew that their relationship was fake the better. Yes, Bob and Alicia could be trusted, but then again, accidents and slip-ups could happen. Jack had to agree that the safest option would be to keep them in the dark. Jack also figured that bringing home a real boyfriend (as opposed to a fake one) would appease his mom a little who, since he’d announced that he was moving to Providence, was worried of him being lonely in a new city all by himself. This was regardless of the fact that Shitty lived a short car ride away and that Jack would be spending countless hours with the same 23 people (not including staff) almost daily.

“Jack, your father’s nickname has the word bad in it. And I know better than to underestimate your mother. I heard about what happened between her and George Clooney!” Because, of course Bitty would know exactly who Alicia Zimmermann was, besides the fact that she was Bob Zimmermann’s wife, or Jack’s mom.

But, no matter how much Bitty huffed and puffed, they still arrived at Pierre-Elliot Trudeau airport, made their way through customs, and headed directly towards the exit. Both of them only had carry ons, the team was taking care of bringing Jack’s hockey gear when they showed up in a couple of days. Jack was on the phone, talking in fast French while still managing to lead Bitty by the hand through the crowded airport with ease.

“Right there,” Jack pointed towards his parents’ car, hanging up the phone and slipping it into his pocket.

“Jack!”, a loud booming voice called as they made their way to the pickup area. Jack rolled his eyes at his father who was waving at them as he popped the trunk. When they got to him, Bob quickly pulled his son into a bone crushing hug.

“Papa, this is Eric Bittle. Bitty, this is my dad,” Jack introduced them as he pulled away.

“Wow, um, hi, hello. Nice to meet you Bad B--, I mean Mr. Bad B-- Mr. Jack’s dad,” he stuttered as Bob pulled him into a hug. Jack wasn’t even able to try to hide his laugh as he stuffed their bags into the trunk and shut it.

“Bob is just fine,” his father chuckled, clasping Bitty’s shoulder as he glanced over at Jack. “He’s a lot smaller in person,” he announced.

“I am normal sized!” Bitty exclaimed, coming to his defense before Jack could interject. Bob simply chuckled.

“Let’s get you boys home,” Bob chuckled, heading towards the driver’s side. Jack pulled open the back seat and gestured for Bitty to get in first.

“Hi, mom,” Jack greeted Alicia, leaning around the front seat to peck her cheek gently. “This is Eric, my boyfriend.” That was still a very weird thing to say out loud.

Alicia turned in her seat and extended a hand for Bitty to shake, assuring him that under other circumstances she’d give him a hug (she would, of course, do exactly that as soon as they pulled up at their home in Westmount). The conversation flowed easily and beside him, Jack noticed Bitty finally start to relax. He didn’t try to stop himself as he reached out to give Bits’ knee a gentle, supportive, squeeze.

The drive home wasn’t too long, luckily it wasn’t rush hour yet, so there wasn’t an abundance of traffic on the roads. No sooner than they arrived, Bitty was whisked off for a tour of the house while Jack went and dropped their bags off in his old room. The guest room was being redecorated, so they would have to live with sharing a large double bed, rather than a queen this time. When he was done, Jack easily found Bitty and his mother in the kitchen.

“You have to let me bake something, if not just to let me use such an amazing kitchen, then to thank you for welcoming me into your home,” Bitty was insisting. “I make a mean maple-crusted apple pie.”

“So I’ve heard,” Alicia smirked over at Jack. “And I thought you might say something, or at least was hoping you would... Does that make me a horrible host? Anyway, I picked up a few things that you might need, Jack can show you where everything is. If something’s missing, let us know,” she shot Jack a wink and then suspiciously disappeared from the kitchen.

“This is…. Wow,” Bitty breathed, still taking in the room. Jack gave him a moment, pulling himself up onto the counter. Finally, Eric let out a sigh of content, and then started rolling up the sleeves to his button up. He washed his hands before turning to Jack and listing out the things that he would need. Jack was hoping that would be the extent of him helping, but no, Bittle put him to work on peeling and cutting up the apples while he started on the crust.

“So, why did you choose communications and a PR job with the Falconers over cooking or pastry school?” Jack asked.

“Samwell doesn’t offer that many food classes, at least not enough for me to try and declare any type of a major. So I decided on communications and took food classes when I could, thinking I might find something more after graduating, but then I got offered a position that I didn’t want to turn down. And I love my job, so I’m glad that things turned out the way they did. Besides, baking is still a great hobby to have.”

“I’m glad things turned out this way too,” Jack admitted before he could stop himself. He glanced up to find Bitty smiling at him, so he smiled back, despite the pale blush on his cheeks, and continued to work on the apples.

The pair made a good team and soon enough, Bitty was teaching Jack how to make a proper lattice.

“Are you sure you don’t want to do this?” he asked, his brow furrowing in confusion. “I’m going to mess it up.”

“You are doing just fine Jack,” Bitty assured him. “Wait, no, that piece goes under.” He quickly caught Jack’s hands and moved them to the correct position.

“Keep going,” Bitty said as Jack paused for a moment too long. He nodded and did just that, ignoring the goosebumps that had spread up his arm because of the light touch of Bitty’s fingers against his hands.

The pie turned out to be a great success with the Zimmermanns, who both had seconds as they all retired to the living room with glasses of wine in hand. Jack didn’t have seconds of course, he was on a strict meal plan. But, that didn’t stop him from stealing a bite or two off of Bitty’s plate when the blonde was doing too much talking and not enough eating. If Bitty noticed, he didn’t say anything, but Bob did catch Jack and raise his brows at him. Jack smiled back, feeling a little guilty, and placed his fork on his empty plate. He could just try and play it off as a couple-y thing. Couples shared food all the time. He was just trying to sell it.

He leaned back against the couch, casually resting an arm around Bitty’s shoulders as he stifled a yawn. He definitely didn’t miss the shared look between his parents. Okay, that definitely looked cliche, but it had been a real yawn! Proof; another came mere moments after the first one! And the yawns kept coming, until it was ten o’clock and Jack deemed himself to not be a party pooper if he excused himself to go to bed.

“Alright,” he announced as soon as there was a lull in the conversation. “It’s past my bedtime, I think I’m gonna turn in.” He patted Bitty’s leg gently and stood up. He picked everyone’s empty pie plates before noticing that there were three pairs of eyes on him.

What?

Oh. Right.

Boyfriend.

Jack swallowed as his eyes flickered around the room, time was running out, he was hesitating. What was he supposed to do? He wasn’t expecting Bittle to follow him upstairs; he could handle himself just fine with Jack’s parents. So should he kiss him goodnight? That’s what a normal couple would do. He’d kissed Parse in front of his parents before, so this shouldn’t be weird. The longer he waited though, the more it made it weird.

“Well, you guys enjoy the rest of the night,” he smiled. He ducked down and pressed his lips briefly to Bitty’s. “See you guys in the morning,” he called once he’d gone to the kitchen and put the plates in the dishwasher. He made it all the way upstairs before it hit him; he could have simply kissed Bitty on the cheek and been done with it. He hoped he hadn’t crossed a line… Shitty would have his head if he found out that Jack hadn’t asked for consent.

Too late now. He’d apologize in the morning. Now, it was bed time.

_/ \_

Jack didn’t know how many hours he’d slept before he was woken up by someone whispering his name.

“Jack, psst, Jack. Wake up.” Jack groaned, shifting uncomfortably as he wanted desperately to go back to sleep. He was then made aware of the smaller body that he’d curled into while sleeping. Bitty.  As soon as he realized, he let go of him and rolled onto his back.

“What time is it?” he asked, his voice cracking, rough with sleep.

“Like three thirty,” Bitty whispered back. “I didn’t mean to wake you up, but I really need to pee and well… I couldn’t get up,” he explained as he got out of bed and made his way to the door.

“Sorry,” he yawned, curling into his side.

“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. It’s the last door to the left, right?” Jack hummed in confirmation and Bitty slipped out of the room. He didn’t even have the chance to come back to bed before Jack drifted back to sleep.

Jack awoke a couple of hours later, as per his usual routine, and found himself spooning Bitty once more. Carefully, he rolled out of bed, and grabbed some of his running clothes before going to the bathroom to change. He quietly made his way downstairs to grab a banana to eat before leaving and found his father, clad in running gear as well, scrolling through something on his tablet.

“I was wondering if you were going to go for a run today,” he commented, locking the screen and giving Jack his full attention. “Figured if you weren’t up within the hour I’d just go on my own.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Jack asked as he swallowed his first mouthful of banana. “I have a game tomorrow, I can’t slack off now.”

His father hummed, but didn’t clarify any further. He waited for Jack to finish his fruit and the pair headed off. They followed Bob’s familiar route, weaving up and down the steep hills of Westmount for the better part of an hour before heading back to the house. Bob went upstairs to take a shower and eventually start breakfast, while Jack hit the weight room in the basement. By the time he’d finished up and had taken a shower, Bitty was finally waking up.

“Morning,” he yawned at Jack, clutching one of the pillows.

“Hey, I’m sorry about last night,” Jack apologized. “I didn’t ask your permission before kissing you. And also sorry about the spooning. I guess I’m not used to sharing this bed with anyone and thought you were a pillow of something,” he chuckled uneasily. He’d shared a hotel room with Bittle a few times now, and not once had they woken up cuddling. So, this had been the only reason he’d been able to come up with that morning, as he’d replayed the event over and over again.

“Don’t worry about it, Jack. It happens,”  Bitty reassured him. Jack was suddenly his with déjà vu. Had Bitty called him sweetheart last night? Or had he dreamt that part…?

“Still,” Jack said, letting his confusion go. “I didn’t have your consent.”

“Well now you do, I consent to any necessary kissing or accidental spooning. We are supposed to be dating.”

Jack nodded a couple of times. “But you’ll tell me if I ever cross a line?”

“Yes, Jack, scouts honor.”

“Alright, well there should be waffles downstairs soon, if you’re hungry. I’m gonna go give my dad a hand.” He left Bitty to properly wake up and headed back down to the kitchen.

“Your boyfriend is quite the catch, son,” Bob chuckled. Jack glanced over his shoulder to see if Bitty had followed him down, but the blond was nowhere in sight. Bob handed over his phone in guise of explanation.

@eric_bittle : Y’all, I’m about to eat waffles made by @badbobzimmermann11 #whatislife

“Funny, charming, a hell of a cook. He’s a keeper, son,” Bob continued as Jack read the tweet on his father’s Twitter feed. “I can tell you’re quite smitten with him as well.”

“It’s good to see you happy again, Jack,” his mother added.

Jack smiled, not knowing what else to say and feeling slightly guilty that he’d lied about this whole thing. Luckily, Bitty decided to join them at that moment.

“Morning,” he greeted them cheerfully. “Is there anything I can help with?”

Bob was in the midst of assuring him that everything was taken care of and that the two of them could join Alicia at the table for some coffee when Jack interrupted him.

“Is that my shirt?” he asked, staring at Bitty, his brow furrowed in confusion. It could very well be one of Eric’s, maybe he liked sleeping in oversized Falconers’ shirts. But then again, Jack couldn’t find his in his bag this morning, despite thinking that he’d packed it, and he recognized the small stain near the team’s logo.

Bitty looked down at himself and blushed. “Oh, look at that. I’m sorry, I must have been going through your bag when I was looking for my pajamas last night! It was dark and I didn’t want to bother you with the light. And I just pulled on yesterday’s pants figuring that I’d shower after eating…”

“It’s fine,” Jack assured him, calmly. And because his parents’ presence in the room felt ever so prominent he added: “Keep it.”

Bitty blushed again as Jack gave him arm a gentle squeeze, before going to pour them each a mug of coffee.

They spent the rest of the day showing Bitty around the city and Jack found himself thinking less and less about actively treating Bitty like he was his boyfriend  because it was starting to become automatic. Bittle must have been right after all, Jack could very well function like a normal human being, rather than a robot; he, in fact, just needed to be around people he was comfortable with. Jack smiled, happy that this whole plan had worked out in the end.

The team was flying in this afternoon, so Jack and Bitty left to meet them for dinner and then a brief meeting, before heading back to the Zimmermanns’. Regardless of Bitty chirping him about having such an early bedtime, he joined Jack and went to bed at the same time. After getting changed and tucked in, they laid in the dark in silence until Bitty started squirming.

“Bits, your feet are freezing,” Jack whispered when his foot brushed up against his leg.

“Yeah, sorry. I might go get socks but… cold,” he pouted with a sigh. When Jack looked over at him, he found the comforter tucked up under Bitty’s chin.

“Bittle, it’s still October,” Jack teased, but he still scooted towards Bitty, trapping his feet between his calves.

“Wha- Jack, what are you doing?”

“Warming your feet. It’s not like we’re not gonna end up like this later…” he mumbled, but then froze. Maybe Bitty didn’t want to cuddle for warmth. “Unless you’d rather I go get you your socks...And maybe a sweater?”

“Don’t you dare move,” Bitty replied, huddling himself closer to Jack’s chest. He was so close, Jack could feel his breath against his neck. Jack waited, every nerve in his body buzzing, until Bitty’s breathing evened out, before slinging an arm across his small body and falling asleep himself.

They didn’t win the game, which put a small damper on Jack’s mood, but regardless, it was a good couple of days. Besides, playing the Bell Center would always be high on his list of favourite things.

When they got back to Providence, Bitty and Jack returned to their respective homes and Jack couldn’t help but notice how empty his bed felt.

_/ \_

There were other opportunities for them to act as a couple, but none of them were as extensive as the Montreal trip. And quite frankly, Jack missed it. He found himself hoping to get invited out on double dates with Chowder and Cait -- or Farmer as Bitty and Chow called her -- just so that he could have an excuse to hang out with Bitty.

During their next stint of away games, Laura was the PR person that joined them on the road. This meant that Jack was rooming with Tater once more, who’d not so subtly mentioned that he could disappear from the room for a little while if Jack wanted some time to call his boyfriend. Chuckling, he’d sent a text to Bitty mentioning this and in reply he’d gotten a line of laughing emojis.

Unfortunately, while they were away, Halloween happened, meaning that Jack missed Bitty in an extremely suggestive Bunny costume. He’d seen a couple of selfies on Bitty’s Twitter (no, he wasn’t creeping, he was studying so that he could, one day, maybe take over his own Twitter. Maybe.). But those were tame compared to the photos posted by TMZ. More specifically, a photo of Bitty cradled in some blond’s arms. A huge, buff guy that could easily pass for an NHL player, clad in some sort of a superhero costume. It really showcased Bitty’s long muscular legs, and Jack was not proud of how long he’d spent staring at the photo.

“Jack, we need to talk,” Boss and Tater approached him as he was sprawled out on an uncomfortable airport chair trying to read a book. He quickly snapped it shut and sat up.

“What’s up?” he asked, genuinely concerned by the serious looks on their faces. What had he’d done for his captain to need to approach him for a serious chat, with Tater in tow to most likely soften the blow?

“We don’t want to do this, Jack, but… It feels wrong to keep it from you. If you haven’t seen it already that is…” Boss explained, very unclearly. Had they seen the photos of Bitty too? Jack could feel his cheeks warming up already. Oh boy, was he not ready for this conversation…

“Zimmboni, I so sorry. But we no want you to hear it from someone else” Tater said handing Jack his phone so that he could read the article.“They maybe make mistake, yeah?”

But, no, the scandal had not been the photos of Bitty’s puck bunny costume. No, the real scandal was that Bitty had been seen having brunch with said buff guy the next morning. It could be seen on the pictures that they were sitting close together at a small table for two, off in a more secluded area of the restaurant.

Jack felt sick reading the words: Have Jack Zimmermann’s party habits rubbed off on his new boyfriend, or can we say that similarities, rather than opposites, attract? Click here to read more about what NHL star’s boyfriend was doing this Halloween! Hint, it wasn’t Jack Zimmermann.

His brow furrowed as he read the article. Great, another scandal to deal with, he thought. Then he realized that maybe he should fake being upset about this. That would be the appropriate reaction if he thought his boyfriend was cheating on him, right? Or should he be angry?

“This looks bad, Jack, but this kind of shit always does. I mean… I’ve lost count of the number of times these rags have claimed that I’ve cheated on Jenny or vice-versa. You just get home to your boy and everything will get cleared up,” Boss assured him. Clearly whatever expression that was currently on Jack’s face had been convincing enough.

“Um...yeah,” Jack nodded, not sure what else to say. What else was he supposed to say in a situation like this? “Thanks for letting me know… I’ll, um, I’ll call him?”

Before either of his teammates could say anything else, their flight was called over the intercom. Boss shot him a regretful look.

“Looks like it will be a little longer before you can do that. Come on,” the captain said, following the rest of the team over to the gait.

However, the whole flight, Jack still couldn’t shake that initial uneasy feeling. He eventually realized that he wasn’t annoyed because he was being dragged into, yet another, scandal. But rather, because he felt a little jealous. And if that thought didn’t open his eyes to what had been going on, Jack didn’t know what would have. Jack wasn’t just comfortable around Bitty, no, this wasn’t just about being himself now that he was at ease. This was Jack developing a crush on him! It all made sense now; how he felt almost giddy when Bitty would accidentally slip up and call him sweetheart, or when Bitty would reach out and join their hands when they were together.

Jack suddenly felt the urge to kiss Bitty again, but properly this time, just to see how it would feel. He could, if he wanted to. Bitty had given him his permission. But no, Jack decided he couldn’t take advantage of his trust like that. Besides, he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to find out what it felt like anyway, because obviously, whatever he was feeling, Bitty wasn’t feeling it too. Bitty didn’t want to be going on fake double dates with Jack, or sharing hotel rooms, or meeting his parents; Bitty wanted to date tall, muscular, blond men.

Jack suddenly felt incredibly guilty. Because of him, Bitty had been forced into a fake relationship, meaning that he couldn’t even go out on dates anymore to find someone he actually liked, because then shit like this happened! Jack desperately wanted to call Bits; none of this was fair for him. They should just call everything off; tell the media that he and Jack had broken up, so no, he hadn’t been cheating on him. But, unfortunately, Jack was on a flight, so he was going to have to wait until they touched down in Providence to do anything about this…

As they waited for their baggage at T.F. Green airport, intermittently taking photos or signing things for fans that approached them, Jack waited for his phone to turn back on. He’d just spotted his bag on the other end of the carousel when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Hi honey!” a warm voice greeted him. He turned around in surprise and accidentally got a mouth full of Bittle, who had apparently been leaning up to peck his cheek.

“Um, hello,” he blinked, slightly confused. He was supposed to be getting a ride home with Chowder and Farmer. What was Bitty doing here?

“I thought I’d surprise you,” he answered, seemingly reading Jack’s mind. When Jack didn’t answer, only blinked down at him once more, Bitty nudged him. “Isn’t that your bag?”

Finally, Jack snapped out of it long enough to grab his bag as the carousel brought it to his feet.

“So,” Bitty continued talking, slipping his hand into Jack’s. “I ran into Chowder first, and I spoke to Farmer this morning, so they already know I’m taking you home. Do you have everything?”

“Uh, yeah,” Jack nodded.

“Great, then we’re good to go!” Bitty smiled and gave his hand a squeeze. They walked in silence until the got the the parking garage and into Bitty’s car.

“I’m sorry I ruined your date,” Jack said as Bitty stuck the key in the ignition. The blond looked over at him in confusion. “I saw the photos, Tater showed them to me. He seemed a little distraught as he tried to assure me that it was probably just a misunderstanding. I just… When you offered to do this for me, I didn’t think about the repercussions it would have for you; just because I’m not looking for anyone to date, for real that is, doesn’t mean that you’re not. And it’s not fair that you have to put your life on hold just because I fucked up.”

“Jack, I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this, if I had objections I wouldn’t have agreed to do it. And that wasn’t a date. I went to the party with a bunch of guys from college -- Chowder was so upset that he wasn’t going to make it -- and Holster and I were the only ones functional enough to make it to breakfast the next day. Not to mention that the poor boy needed someone to spill to about his pining. I volunteered as tribute,” Bitty explained.

“So, you’re not cheating on me?” Jack asked, the corner of his mouth twitching up into a small smile. “You don’t wanna leave me for someone taller and younger, who makes you feel more alive?” he chirped.

“Lord, no, Holster’s not my type at all,” Bitty laughed, with a roll of his eyes as he started the car and put it into reverse.

And with that, Jack spent the rest of the car ride back to his apartment wondering what Bitty’s type was.

_/ \_

Shitty visited that weekend, insisting that he wanted to meet Jack’s boyfriend.

“Shits, you know he’s not actually my boyfriend right? You were there that night,” Jack pointed out.

“Yeah, I also know that you don’t shut up about him, or that maple pie he bakes you. I wanna know if he can make me a strawberry cream pie. Come on, please,” the whining tone in his voice was enough to make Jack give in, if only to make it stop.

Jack had been to Bitty’s apartment before, and knew his apartment number after buzzing him down a couple of times, but he’d never actually been inside. He followed Shitty, almost reluctantly, to the first floor and down the hall to apartment 15 and hung back. Shitty knocked enthusiastically on the door. The pair were both surprised to find a petite Asian woman with an asymmetrical haircut on the other side of the door, rather than Bitty. And Shitty said just as much.

“You’re not Bitty,” he stated.

“Nope,” she replied, not giving them anymore insight.

“Is he here?” Shitty pressed. The woman gave him the same reply.

“I guess I should have called in advance,” Jack chuckled awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry to have bothered you.” He turned to make his way back down the hall, a whining Shitty trailing behind when she stopped them.

“Since you’re the boyfriend, I suppose you can come in and wait,” she left the door open before disappearing into the apartment. Shitty didn’t need to be told twice and quickly turned on his heels, following her in. Jack tried not to groan as he did the same.

“So, I’m Shitty and obviously you know Jack. Are you Bitty’s roommate?” Jack closed the door behind him and toe-d his shoes off, leaving them with the other pairs on the welcome mat.

“Yeah, name’s Lardo,” Jack heard the woman reply. He followed the sounds of their voices and found them sitting in the living room, Shitty having already made himself comfortable on one of the couches.

“That a hockey nickname?” Shits asked as Jack shoved his feet off the couch cushions so that he could sit down too.

“Yeah, I was the team manager for the team at Samwell. That’s how I met Bits.” They continued talking as Jack took in his surroundings, admiring the half finished artwork leaning against the far wall.

They hadn’t been there very long before they heard the door click open followed by Bitty’s familiar drawl, complaining about how cold it was outside.

“It’s like the longer I live here, the worse it gets! Oh, and you want to know the best part? At the grocery store I --” Bitty stopped dead in the doorway. “Oh, hello! I didn’t know you were coming over, Jack!”

“That was my doing!” Shitty announced proudly, standing from the couch and walking over to Bits. “Nice to see you again little brah,” he pulled a confused Bitty into a hug, despite the grocery bags he was carrying.

“But who--”

“How bout I help you with those?” Jack interrupted, nodding towards the bags. Bitty agreed and led him to the kitchen, leaving both of their friends behind.

“Who the hell was that?” he whispered, shedding his jacket, and scarf.

“Shitty,” Jack supplied. “Who we were allegedly out with at the club the night those photos came out. I’m guessing he’s assuming your roommate doesn’t know the truth, hence why he didn’t introduce himself properly.”

“I haven’t told her, but she’s pretty perceptive, maybe she’s figured it out. This is the first time you’ve come over,” Bitty pointed out, busying himself with putting his shopping away in the cupboards. He looked over his shoulder at Jack who was currently chewing on his bottom lip nervously.

“Do you think she’ll tell anyone?”

“Oh honey, no,” Bitty put the last box of butter into the fridge and moved to stand in front of Jack, who was leaning the counter. “I’d trust Lardo with my life. In college she --”

“Brah, they’re just putting away groceries!” Shitty’s voice rang out through the hallway.

Jack turned to look over his shoulder, expecting to see their friends walk into the room, but his head was quickly pulled back and tilted slightly down in order for Bitty to plant one on him. Jack was stunned for a moment, before his hands curled gently around Bitty’s hips and his eyes fluttered shut.

It was unlike the other two kisses they shared; the modest peck in front of his parents or the accidental lip brush at the airport. No, this was a real kiss. The kiss that Jack had been hoping for. Bitty’s nails graze his short stubble as his hands wrap around make their way around his neck. Jack knew that this was fake, he knew he shouldn’t make things worse for himself, but he just couldn’t resist. He tugged Bitty closer which meant that Jack was now leaning too far down and they ended up bumping foreheads and noses.

Oh great , he thought, now I’ve gone and ruined everything.

But, Bitty simply let out an amused huff through his nose and tilted his head before pressing his mouth to Jack’s once more.

“See, told you they’d gotten distracted,” Lardo’s voice interrupted them. Hmm, maybe she didn’t suspect them after all. Bitty pulled away from Jack who reluctantly let him slip out of his hands. “Shitty and I want to go play some pool, you guys in?” she asked.

“Sure, just let me finish up in here,” Bitty nodded, turning back to his last bag of groceries. Shitty snorted, clearly hearing the same double entendre that Jack had heard. His cheeks felt warm and he wondered if they were as pink as the color Bitty’s ears were turning.

“We’ll wait downstairs then,” Lardo laughed, pushing Shitty out of the kitchen.

“Ridiculous, the pair of them,” Bitty muttered, shoving some boxes into the overhead cupboards. While his back was turned, Jack let his fingers brush across his lips, just as Bitty’s mouth had. Just replaying the moment in his head made his stomach flip in excitement.

Well, it was official. Jack Zimmermann had a crush on Eric Bittle.

“I thought you said she knew,” he said, letting his hand fall to his side.

“Well, you can never be too sure. Better keep her in the dark, just in case.”

Jack couldn’t help but agree; wishing that he could have stayed in the dark about these feelings. Knowing for sure was going to make matters a lot more difficult now.

_/ \_

Weeks later, Jack had a Friday night off, which was pretty surprising. But what was more surprising, was that he wanted to go out and do something. More specifically, he wanted to go out and catch a new action movie that was playing. He’d ask Chowder, maybe Tater, but he knew by experience that the two of them talked during movies, and both probably had plans, because they also, for once, had a Friday night off. And the same went for the rest of the team. He could call Shits, but that was a long drive for a movie and it was pretty last minute.

Jack was debating going by himself when it dawned on him; this was what boyfriends were for! Or well, fake boyfriends that were also friends. Yes, that was a great idea. He and Bitty could hang out as friends! Maybe that would help subside his crush; being able to see Bitty outside of a situation that required them to pretend to be romantic. Maybe that way he’d finally be able to stop replaying that kiss over and over again in his head. He felt so pathetic, the kiss had lasted seconds , yet it was the only thing he could think about.

Yeah; they could hang out, be bros, see each other in another light, and then maybe Jack’s feelings would drift away from romantic and back towards friendship. He shot Bitty a text, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to ask. If he didn’t get an answer then he would consider going alone.But, before he could think about it further, his phone chimed with an incoming message.

I was going to try this new restaurant that open in my neighborhood that specializes in southern food, but you could join me if you wanted? And we can go to the movie after?

He thought about it for a moment. He did say that he wanted to go out and do something.

Jack picked Bitty up at his apartment around 5. He was already waiting downstairs, typing away on his phone, as usual. He was standing between the two doors, where the mailboxes were, obviously shielding himself from the cold. He was bundled up in a jacket, toque, and large scarf. When he noticed Jack’s car, he quickly stuffed his phone in his pocket and pulled on a pair of mittens. It hadn’t even snowed in Providence yet. Jack tried not to laugh at him and instead turned up the heat a little more. Bitty grinned widely before climbing into the passenger seat and peeling off his hat and mittens, despite having just put them on.

“You cut your hair,” Jack remarked, rather than greeting him.

“Well, hello to you too Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty laughed. “And yes I did, thank you for noticing.”

It was short on the sides and longer on the top, showing off the curve of Bitty’s scalp where it was cropped close. “I like it,” Jack said aloud. “It suits you.”

Bitty all but beamed at him before giving Jack the address of the restaurant. They got recognized almost straight away, which shouldn’t really surprise Jack, but it did. So instead of this being a night with a friend, it turned into another fake date.

Jack had mumbled an apology as they got escorted by the manager to a nice table for two in a quiet corner of the restaurant.

“Hush,” Bitty had replied. “You make it seem as though I wouldn’t want to be seen on a date with you.”

Because of course he wouldn’t, it was now part of Bitty’s job to be seen on dates with Jack. But this wasn’t helping Jack at all because rather than spending the night trying to see Bitty as a friend again, as one of the guys, he would be giving into the nagging voice in his head that was telling him to hold Bitty’s hand, or run his fingers through his hair, or kiss him senseless.

Jack suppressed a sigh as they cracked open their menus; there was no point sulking over this. He may as well try to have a good time and enjoy his night off.

“So, what are you thinking about ordering?” Bitty asked, closing his menu while Jack’s eyes still skimmed over the options.

“Probably the chicken,” he mumbled to himself. Chicken was always a safe bet in restaurants, to make sure he stuck to his meal plan as much as possible. And chicken was a great source of protein. He glanced up to see the pained expression on Bitty’s face.

“Honey,” Jack’s heart lurched at the pet name. “I know you have a meal plan, I’m familiar with it. I am friends with your nutritionist. I’m sure there’s something new you could try without breaking your diet.”

“Alright then,” Jack said, feeling a little adventurous. “You are the one who wanted to come here. And I bet you’re quite the expert on southern food; order for me.” Who was Jack kidding, he wasn’t feeling adventurous, he mostly did it because he wanted to make Bitty beam at him again.

As predicted, Bitty was pretty much an expert, not only in southern food, but in Jack’s tastes. To please him, Bitty order him a honey pecan salmon salad (which struck up a debate about pronunciation) and something called a southern sampler plate for them to share. Bitty on the other hand ordered himself a pulled pork sandwich (which was apparently a specialty) with a side of mac and cheese and fried green tomatoes. Bitty also offered to share bites of his food when he noticed Jack eyeing his choices.

“I have spent enough time with you to know some of the things you like,” Bitty pointed out when Jack had praised him. He even managed to tempt Jack into having a few bites of his peach cobbler; which was “good, despite peaches not being in season, but not as good as what I could make, and definitely not even close to Moomaw’s.”

When the bill came, Jack insisted on paying, which caused Bitty to make a fuss, and their waitress giggled as she took Jack’s card and ignored Bitty’s pleas to let him at least pay half! Jack made sure to leave her a hefty tip.

Jack also insisted that he pay for their movie tickets, seeing as it had been his idea.

“That makes no sense Jack,” Bitty huffed, putting his wallet away. “The restaurant was my idea and you didn’t even let me pay half.”

Jack just shrugged it off, casually throwing an arm around Bitty’s shoulders and led him towards the employee who was taking tickets. “I’m think I’m good for it Bittle,” he insisted.

Bitty scoffed but didn’t object to either; the arm, or the paying. But Jack knew better than to get his hopes up; they were in public, of course Bitty wouldn’t refute it.

There were a decent amount of people in the theater, but it wasn’t packed so they still had their pick of seats. Jack tried not to get excited when Bitty led him towards one of the back rows and repeated his silent mantra over and over in his head; this is not a real date, this is not a real date, this is not a real date. Had it been one, however, and had this not been a movie that Jack was excited about seeing, he would have wasted no time before taking advantage of the dark room, especially after the kiss they had shared in Bitty’s kitchen the other week. But, of course, Jack stayed on his best behaviour and kept his hands and lips to himself. The movie was pretty good, at least the bits that he was able to pay attention too.  

When it was over, he drove Bitty home and gave him a goodbye smile, rather than a peck goodnight. He barely made it around the block before his phone dinged in the cupholder. Had he not been stopped at a red light, he wouldn’t have glanced at the screen and seen that it was Bitty that had texted him. Curious to know what he could possibly need to say after being apart for less than five minutes, Jack pulled over to the side of the road once the light turned green.

Eric: Oh lord. [img_536]

The image attached was a blue tie with tiny little Falconer’s logos on it.

I’ve given Shitty a tie like that.

The gift had been a joke, but Shitty wore the tie to work with pride.

Eric: I’m assuming it’s his, granted I can hear him through the front door.

Eric: He’s very loud!

Eric: Oh lord, if it’s on the outside door who knows where they’re going at it!

Eric: [gasping emoji] NOT MY KITCHEN.

The texts came in faster than Jack could reply.

I can’t believe he’d come into town and not tell me…

Eric: Really? You’re not at all concerned about the fact that I’m going to have to have my whole apartment sanitised? Or that I’m locked out of my home!?

I’m not that far, I’ll come pick you up. You can crash in my spare room, just grab some spare clothes.

Eric: No way! I’m not going in there! I’ll wait for you downstairs.

Eric: And thanks.

Jack pulled away from the curb and circled the block to get back to Bitty’s building. As Bits climbed back into the passenger seat the pain and sorrow on his face were very apparent.

“Come on, I’m sure your kitchen is safe,” Jack nudged him. “Shitty is just a really loud person. And he’s also very respectful of other people and their belongings.”

Bitty hummed, but otherwise didn’t speak. “Come on, don’t let this ruin your night. What’ll cheer you up?” Jack asked.

“Froyo?” Jack glanced over at Bitty who’d noticeably perked up.

“Really? You’re hungry already?” he teased. “Where do you put it all?”

“Rude!” Bitty gasped. “Come on, please. There’s a place around the corner. It’s yogurt, Jack. There’s protein in it!”

“It’s also frozen. You’ve been complaining about the cold since September.”

“Shhhh, details!” Regardless of how illogical it was, Jack still spotted the brightly colored sign and pulled into a parking space. He chuckled as Bitty practically skipped inside. He watched as Bitty filled his cup and brought it to the girl at the cash. As he searched for his wallet in the many pockets of his jacket, Jack pulled a twenty from his own wallet and handed it to the cashier.

“Jack, no,” Bitty said firmly. “You’re not even ordering anything!”

“Can I have a bottle of water please?” he asked the girl, still holding out his money.

“You’ve paid for everything tonight, Jack, stop it.” Bitty had finally managed to locate his wallet and pulled a couple of bills out for the girl. “Please,” he begged her.

Jack watched a smile spread across her lips as she gave in and took Bitty’s cash. He let out an overdramatic sigh as he put away his cash. “I try to treat you to a nice date night and now you’re making me look like a bad boyfriend in front of this young lady,” he chirped.

Oh gosh. Why would he say that?! Why did he say that?! The girl suspected nothing, now Bitty was going to think he was weird, or paranoid, that they couldn’t go anywhere without chalking up their relationship and overselling it.

“You don’t get to pay for everything just because you make more money, mister. That’s not how this works,” Bitty replied without missing a beat.

“No,” Jack agreed. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to spoil you any chance I get.”

Bitty’s cheeks turned a nice shade of pink and Jack decided he’d pushed his luck far enough. Jack thanked the girl, grabbing his water bottle off the counter.

“Have a good night,” she smiled at them, giggling along with their banter. Jack shot her a grin and a wink as he held the door open for Bitty.

He was positive that his actions were going to get questioned as soon as they were alone, but Bitty buckled himself into his seat and happily ate his yogurt without another word as Jack drove them home.

_/ \_

After that night, it started becoming a regular occurrence for Bitty to be kicked out of his apartment and wind up at Jack’s. Thankfully, now, Shitty and Lardo gave him more of a warning. Lardo also assured him that they weren’t just hogging the apartment solely for sex. They were also using it for dates when neither of them felt like going out and as a studio. This last part was apparently not a new occurrence; but now that Lardo was painting Shits in various stages of undressed, Bitty wasn’t too keen on hanging around while she worked anymore. The new couple also assured Bits that the sanctity of his kitchen remained intact and that Shitty was, indeed, just very loud.

So now, not only was Bitty constantly on his mind, but he was also, very often, in his apartment. Not that Jack complained, because that meant he came home from roadies to find Bitty making something in his kitchen, or curled up on his couch wearing one of his sweaters because it was too damn cold and he couldn’t figure out how to work the thermostat.

With Bitty taking up all of this space in his life, Jack barely had anytime to freak out about the fact that in the upcoming week, the Aces were coming to Providence for a game. Barely. It still caught him by surprise and Bitty had been the one to find him sitting on his couch, staring at his phone.

“Jack?” he called out. “I tried knocking, your door was unlocked… Honey, are you okay?”  He kicked off his boots and rushed to Jack’s side.

“Um, yeah, sorry,” he mumbled, locking his phone and sitting back against the cushions. When had it gotten dark out? “Must have lost track of time.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Bitty’s face was riddled with concern.

“I… No. Yeah, I’m fine, just surprised. We’re playing the Aces Saturday and I, I haven’t seen or spoken to Kenny since the move… It’s gonna be weird, that’s all.”

Bitty leaned over and wrapped his arms around Jack’s broad shoulders and gave him a squeeze. He was still wearing his outerwear, which was still dusted with a couple of snowflakes that hadn’t had a chance to melt yet. It must be snowing again.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Bitty asked, his mouth muffled into Jack’s shoulder. Jack shook his head. “Alright. Well, I’d say I’d bake you something, but it’s not your cheat day, so how about I make you some chicken? And then we can watch one of those documentaries that you like? Would that take your mind off of things?”

Jack nodded and gave Bitty a tired smile. He wasn’t sure what he’d ever done to deserve such a good friend.

The distractions worked for that night, but come Saturday, Jack was a mess. If it were an option for him to call in sick to work, he would. But, unfortunately this was the NHL, and you couldn’t do that. So, he went through his game day ritual as though nothing was wrong, burying his anxiety as he waited for his meds to kick in. No matter how many of the breathing exercises that he did, he just couldn’t calm himself down today. He also really didn’t want to be focusing on his anxiety when he needed to all of his attention on playing the best hockey he possibly could. So he’d decided that for today the right choice for managing his anxiety would be to take his meds. And by the time he met Chowder down in the parking garage to give him a ride to the rink he was already starting to feel more relaxed.

When they got there, Chow walked ahead of him, an excited spring in his step like every time they had a game. Oh, how Jack missed and envied that mindset; showing up to play the best hockey you could and actually having fun with it. They rounded the corner and Jack walked right into the goalie who was stopped dead center in the middle of the hall.

“Oh wow,” he whispered in awe. “That’s Kent Parson.”

Jack’s eyes flickered down the hall to the blond that was leaning against the wall, staring at something on his phone. He wanted nothing more than to turn around and run the other way before Kent had the chance to look up. The Aces weren’t supposed to be here yet, why was he here?

Okay. Dumb question. Jack could read context clues. Kent was waiting outside the Falc’s locker room before any of his teammates were due to show; he obviously wanted to try to talk to Jack alone. He also knew that Jack would probably show up early enough to their skate that they’d have time to chat without it majorly disrupting his day.

“You wanna head in Chowder? I gotta…”  Jack cleared his throat. “Tell the guys I’ll be right in.”

Chowder nodded and scurried along, shooting Kent one of his famous starry-eyed expressions. Chow walking by finally made Kent look up from his phone. The pair stared at each other until they heard the door from the locker room slam shut, signaling that they were alone.

“Parse,” Jack breathed out.

“Hey Zimms,” the corner of his mouth quirked up slightly as he made his way towards Jack, stopping a couple of feet away. “Miss me?”

He was trying to seem cocky and sure of himself, but even after months apart, Jack could still read him better than anyone else. There’s was just a small hint of vulnerability and fear in his eyes.

Jack swallowed the lump in his throat and tried to ignore the question. Yeah, he missed the hell out of him, but he missed his best friend. He didn’t miss his ex-boyfriend, and he didn’t miss the toxic relationship that had driven him to the brink of a meltdown. Kenny probably didn’t want to hear that answer anyway.

“What are you doing here, Kenny?” he asked instead, the nickname slipping out before he could bite his tongue.

“You really wanted our first meeting to be at center ice?” he asked raising his brows. “I didn’t want to give the media that satisfaction.”

Jack nodded, adjusting the strap of his bag so that it wasn’t digging into his shoulder. He listened to Kent take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Jack watched as he pulled off his snapback, ran a hand through his hair, and then place it back on his head.

“So I got the C,” he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“Yeah, I heard. Congrats,” Jack didn’t know why he was telling him this. Of course he’d heard. What was the point in standing here and making awkward small talk if it was just going to make them both miserable? What was the point of pretending?

“Yup. And I heard that you got a new boyfriend.” Ah. So that’s where this was heading. Jack almost wished he had gotten an angry phone call when everything had gone down. It would sure as hell beat having this conversation face to face. “I gotta hand it to you Zimms, you’ve got a type,” Kenny laughed quietly.

Jack said nothing and watched Parse’s adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. The blond looked down at his shoes and kicked the wall gently with one foot. When he looked back up Jack could see his eyes shining with tears.

“I know it’s stupid to ask,” he voice cracked a little as he spoke. “But is it true? Did you come here for him? Or did you just move on from me that fast?”

“Kenny,” Jack dropped his bag to the floor and took a step closer, reaching a hand out towards him.

“Don’t,” Kent warned, taking a step back. “Just answer the question Jack.”

Neither of the options seemed like the right answer though, so Jack gave his own. “Neither. We’re not dating, Parse. I fucked up. We were playing like shit and I went out and I got trashed and I...I guess I missed you, so I flirted and I danced, and then pictures got leaked. PR said it wouldn’t look as bad if I was with a boyfriend rather than a hook up.”

Jack could tell by his expression that it wasn’t the answer that Kenny was expecting. His shoulders sagged and he tentatively reached out for Jack’s hand. For a second, Jack let him. Just to see. But it was just another hand. That spark they’d once had was long gone.

“It doesn’t change things though, Kenny,” he whispered, although there was no one around but Kent to hear. “What we had was good…”

“What we had was great,” Parse corrected.

“But it was too much; things happened way faster than I could handle, and it was wrong of me for not saying anything. We skipped over so many steps, which I thought would be okay because we had been friends for so long, but turns out I would have needed those steps.  We burned too fast and too strong, and then we burnt out.” Kent chuckled, for real this time, and gave Jack’s hand a squeeze.

“You’re way too eloquent, Zimms. You should’ve quit hockey and became a writer instead.”

“But then I never would have met you,” he pointed out. And with that, he ruined the moment. Kent sighed and dropped his hand.

He took a step back, and hesitated before stepping forward again, into Jack’s space, pressing their mouths together. Jack kissed him back, a firm press of his lips, but still, he felt nothing. But this was a goodbye kiss, it was closure.

A throat cleared behind them and they sprung apart.

Shit.

They shouldn’t have done that. They were at the rink, with Jack’s team and staff running around prepping things for the game. It was foolish of them to think they wouldn’t get caught. They both looked behind Jack to see Bittle standing there with his brows raised.

Parse clasped his arm and gave it a squeeze. “I’ll see you on the ice, Zimmermann.”

Jack nodded, leaning down to pick up his bag, slinging it over his shoulder as Kent made his way down the hall, murmuring a quiet ‘hey’ to Bits as he passed.

Jack expected Bitty to at least reprimand his sloppiness, but instead he marched right past Jack and went into the locker room.

_/ \_

They ended up winning against the Aces. Jack had almost cried in relief when the puck went flying past Trip’s glove, hitting the edge of it, before hitting the back of the net. They’d been neck and neck the whole game, neither team wanting to back down. There had been seconds left to the last period when Jack scored.

Kent had hugged him, knocking their visors together for a moment, before skating off the ice. They definitely had a lot of things to talk about and work on if they wanted to be friends again, but at least they weren’t stewing on opposite ends of the country, hating each other and holding grudges. But then again, maybe they wouldn’t be friends. Kent hadn’t seemed too enthusiastic about the idea, back when Jack had first brought it up after their break up, but at the very least they could be civil. Or at least Jack hoped.

Things with Bitty on the other hand seemed to be… off in the weeks following the Aces game. They didn’t run into each other at work as much, and despite Jack knowing that Shitty was at his apartment spending time with Lardo, Bitty hadn’t shown up on his doorstep again. Maybe he’d started visiting Chowder and Farmer instead. Or he’d invested in a set of ear plugs.

So, that’s how Jack found himself sitting at home, alone, watching a documentary on Netflix after he’d had enough of watching tape. His phone rang unexpectedly, twenty minutes into the film and Jack jumped in surprise. And then jumped on his phone. He was only slightly disappointed to see that it was Shitty calling and not someone else.

“Hey, look who finally managed to remember that I existed,” he chirped, answering the phone. “Have you had enough sex to break your dick and do you just need something else to do?”

“Jacques Laurent,” Shitty gasped on the other end of the line. “I’m appalled that you think that my sex life starts and ends with my dick. And no, nothing has happened to it, by the way, that’s not why I’m calling.”

“What’s up?” Jack was answered with a pause that lingered just this side of too long. “Shits? What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, it’s probably nothing, but… there’s people on the internet claiming that your’s and Bits’ relationship is fake.”

“I- How -- What people?” he asked. He could feel his heart hammering against his rib cage; things would look so much worse for him if people had found out that they’d lied. “Does PR know about this?” is what he asked. But what he really wanted to know was if Bitty knew. He was usually on top of this stuff. Why wouldn’t Bitty be the one to call him about this sort of thing?

“I don’t know if they would, see I have your name on google alert and --”

“Wait, what?” Jack interrupted.

“Don’t act like it’s a big surprise Jack, how else was I supposed to know how you were doing while you were on the other side of the county; you didn’t call, you didn’t write. I thought you’d forgotten about me; thought you’d found someone with a better porn stash or worse, a better flow!” Shitty chuckled. “But anyway, it’s not much. Just some trashy hockey blog , it’s only got a couple hundred notes, I wouldn’t be too worried.”

Jack scoffed. “You know who you’re talking to, right? Think ignorance would have been bliss in this case, Shitty.”

But regardless, Jack did try to not worry about it and after his short chat with Shitty, he got back to his documentary and the whole conversation managed to slip his mind. Until he was dragged into the PR office. Again.

Apparently the post Shitty had found had gone viral. The page claimed they had some sort of an ‘inside source’, but they never revealed who it was, nor did they provide any proof so it all seemed like another silly  internet rumour. But Georgia, Bitty, and Jack were all taking this claim seriously.

“No one aside from the people in this room, and Mr. Knight, know about this, correct?” Georgia asked.

I haven’t told anyone,” Bitty defended himself. “Even my parents think it’s real.”

“Your parents think we’re dating?” Jack asked. Bitty hadn’t mentioned them, not even when they were in Montreal with Jack’s parents.

“Well, I figured that since my father is an avid Sports Center watcher I may as well call them and break the news that I’d finally found a boyfriend before they saw it for themselves.” He said it as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. Jack tried not to blush; he’d really dropped the ball on the parent front. Maybe if he’d told them sooner they wouldn’t have insisted on meeting Bitty and then maybe Jack wouldn’t be in this mess of feelings.

“I can’t think of anyone…” Jack shook his head, not wanting to admit that he’d spilled the beans to Parse. Kenny wouldn’t do this to him, would he? “Lardo might suspect but I don’t think she’d say anything.”

He looked to Bitty for confirmation, who agreed immediately.

“Alright, well, for now it’s nothing but chatter, I suppose we should only worry if they actually start coming up with evidence. And if it comes to that, we’ll have a plan or an explanation of some sort to take to the press,” Georgia said, soon before excusing herself so that she could get to another meeting.

Jack sat in silence on his chair, watching Bitty gather his things. He couldn’t get his mind off of Parse. He really thought that they were going to be okay with each other, after their conversation. Or at least on their way to being okay. Was Parse still pissed at him enough to do this as some sort of revenge? Jack had made him believe that he could move on in a blink of an eye and now Kent wanted to destroy his reputation? Or was Kent upset because regardless of being single Jack still didn’t want to get back together and that if Kent couldn’t have Jack, then no one could?

“Jack, are you okay?”

He blinked at the sound of Bitty’s voice and looked up to find the other man staring at Jack’s hands. They’d been resting on the table throughout the meeting, and Jack didn’t know when they’d started shaking. He quickly clenched his fists, digging his short nails into his palms, bringing them under the table, onto his lap and away from Bitty’s eyes.

“I told Kent,” he whispered.

“You think he’d do something like this to you?” Bitty didn’t look the least bit surprised by this revelation.

“I don’t know… I…” Was there really a point in defending him anymore? Especially if he’d stoop so low he’d pull this kind of bullshit. Jack knew Kent could be vicious towards people against whom he held a grudge. And Kent’s number one priority had always been himself. “Maybe. Shit I’m so stupid,” Jack dragged his fingers through his hair, tugging on it. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like something Kenny would do. Jack was livid, not only at Kent but at himself for thinking that he could trust Kent with the truth, or that he’d deserved the truth at all.

“Honey, no, this isn’t your fault,” Bitty had come around to his side of the table to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Jack’s heart felt like it was going to shatter out the sound of the pet name. Everything was going to be ruined now; the truth would come out and he and Bitty would go back to being just friends. No more holding hands, no more staged kisses, no more sharing beds. It felt as though Jack had become addicted to Bitty, and now he was being forced to quit by going cold turkey. The hand on Jack’s shoulder was starting to make him itch for more, so he stood up and headed towards the door.

“Look, this whole thing is a mess. Maybe we should wait till this thing blows over and tell everyone we broke up. It was only supposed to be a temporary solution, and now it’s just causing more harm than good,” Bitty said softly.

“I gotta go,” Jack muttered, leaving the room without more of an explanation.

_/ \_

How could he do this to him? How could he take everything good in Jack’s life and just ruin it?! First hockey, then their own relationship, and now Jack and Bitty’s?! (Not that it was a real relationship, but still.) Jack had never been a violent person, but the anger was taking such a toll on him that he’d dropped his gloves the first time someone so much as brushed up against him in the first period of their next game. It definitely helped with his urge to punch something, but it didn’t do much for how much he wanted that something to be Kenny’s stupid face.

Kent had tried to call him, sent him a couple of texts, but Jack had let them go to voicemail and deleted everything without a second glance.

It wasn’t until Shitty gave him a call that he even decided to second guess his decision about putting the blame on Parse.

“Why the hell did I just get off the phone with Kent V. Fucking Parson telling me he’s worried because of what’s happening in the media and you’re not answering your phone?” Jack swore he was silent for a minute before Shitty spoke again. “He sounded really concerned, man. And I thought you guys talked, why are you screening his calls?”

The next time Parse called, Jack answered.

“Thank fuck,” were the first words out of Parson’s mouth. “You really had me worried Zimms, are you okay?”

Jack rubbed his hand over his face. Kent maybe able to be an asshole at times, but Jack didn’t think he would spill to the media and then pretend to be concerned with him.

“I-Shit, I don’t know man,” he muttered.

“Well no fuck, you’ve gotten into three fights in the past two games; for someone who’s not one to drop his gloves, you’re turning into your dad.” Jack laughed for the first time in days.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why you apologizing to me? Maybe you should say sorry to Gallagher for almost knocking out his teeth,” Parse chuckled.

“No, I… When the new rumours -- or well, the truth about Bitty and I -- leaked I automatically assumed that you had been the source. I thought maybe you were trying to get back at me and… that was completely uncalled for. I’m so sorry Kenny. I’m such an asshole.”

Jack had to check his phone to make sure the call hadn’t gotten disconnected when he didn’t get an answer.

“That sounds like something I would do, but it wasn’t me Zimms. I swear,” the sincerity in his voice rang clear and true. Jack also noted how Parse hadn’t denied it when Jack had called himself an asshole. “Besides, even if I did want to fuck up your reputation, I wouldn’t drag someone that you liked into this, his job is at stake too, that’s not fair. Or spill to a Tumblr blog .”

“Kenny, I told you it’s not --”

“Oh cut the crap Zimms,” Parse cut him off. “I follow you both on Twitter and I’ve seen the photos of you together. The relationship might be fake, but you care about him. For real. You look at him the same way you used to look at me…”

_/ \_

Jack lay in a hotel bed one night after an away game, staring at the ceiling. Tater was snoring softly in the bed next to his, and for once that wasn’t the reason that Jack lay awake, sleepless.

If it hadn’t been Parse, then who was it?

Georgia, Jack, Bitty, Shitty, Lardo. He repeated the five names over and over like a mantra, waiting for some sort of an epiphany. It definitely wasn’t George nor himself. Neither Shitty nor Lardo had anything to gain by leaking this type of information (and that was if Lardo had even figured it out in the first place). That left Bitty. Bitty who’d been avoiding him. Bitty who’d suggested that they break off their fake relationship.

What if Bitty leaked it as an excuse to break things to finally break things off with you? What if he figured out you were pining for him and it freaked him out?

Jack urged the voice at the back of his head to shut up. That made no sense because Bitty had caught Jack and Kent kissing. Surely Jack kissing another man should leave Bitty a little doubtful of his assumptions about Jack’s feelings?

What if Bitty thought you liked Kent? What if this was just some ploy to break up so that Kent and I could get back together? But If that was the case why would Bitty risk tarnishing both of our (and the Falconer’s) reputations?

Jack rolled over, muffling a loud groan into one of the plush, white pillows. None of this made any sense. Jack was missing a piece of the puzzle, but which one?

_/ \_

Jack managed to keep himself in check on the ice and keep from dropping his gloves unnecessarily, but his mood hadn’t necessarily improved.  He was frustrated and annoyed that he couldn’t figure out who the leak was, nor what their motivation could have been. And yes, he’d tried moving on; nothing new had surfaced and the rumour was starting to die down, but it was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched. He needed to know. (Mostly because he needed to stop blaming Bitty, because even though he hadn’t voiced his suspicion he still felt guilty for even thinking it.)

He stayed late after practice one day because the time he spent on the ice was the only time when he was able to manage to keep his head clear from treacherous thoughts. Chowder had stayed too, insisting that he wanted to get more practice in too, but Jack had a suspicion that Chow just wanted to keep him company. Eventually, Chowder called it quits, but Jack didn’t. At least not until his name echoed out through the practice arena.

“Mister Zimmermann.” His blades cut through the ice as he braked, scattering snow across center ice. Bitty was standing on the edge of the rink, his arms crossed over his chest. This was the first time in days that Bitty was addressing him directly.

“Mister Bittle,” Jack sassed back.

“Don’t you dare give me that attitude. I did not waste my time with you for months just so that you could act like an asshole to the press, which, by the way, you’ve started doing to your teammates as well.” Bitty’s words cut through him like knifes; he had to refrain from hanging his head in shame. “I know what happened sucked, and it was scary, but it’s almost over, so you can stop pouting. And for fuck’s sake, stop being mad at Kent Parson, he didn’t do it.”

As the last couple of words resonated through the rink, every last bit of hope that Jack had disappeared. How could he know that this wasn’t Kent’s fault? Jack hadn’t told anyone that Kenny hadn’t said anything, namely because no one but Bitty was aware that Parse was in on the secret. So if Bitty was so certain that Kent wasn’t involved it was because --

“Are you the source?” Jack blurted out before he could stop himself.

“What?!” Bitty looked utterly betrayed by his words. “Of course not! How could you think that? I don’t care how hurt I am that you and Parson are gonna get back together, I would never do something to jeopardize your career. Who do you think I--” Bitty stopped talking, his eyes going wide. Quickly he cleared his throat and started over.

“Wait, what?” Jack pushed off with his right skate, gliding forward, closer to Bitty.

“Nothing, forget I said anything.” The closer he got, the more prominent the red of Bitty’s cheeks became. Jack had a suspicion that it wasn’t just from the cold.

“What was that about me and Parse?” He stopped on the edge of the ice.

“Oh!” Relief washed over Bitty’s face. “It’s just that, I saw you kiss and, well, I may have overheard what was said before that. I heard you tell him what we had was fake, though I did miss your eloquent declaration of love,” Bits managed to get through most of an eye roll before stopping himself. “You know the rest.”

Jack let out a loud laugh that was mostly one of relief. “No, what you didn’t hear was me telling him that we were never going to have what we had back then, it was never going to be the same.”

Bitty let out a soft ‘oh’ before his brow furrowed in confusion. “But you kissed him.”

He kissed me. Then I kissed him back.”

“But, why?”

Jack shrugged, not knowing the answer himself. “Because I wanted to? To say goodbye?”

“You still love him.” That wasn’t a question, and he definitely wasn’t wrong.

“Yeah… But I’m not in love with him anymore.” Jack chewed on his bottom lip, before letting out a small sigh. He nodded his head towards one of the nearby benches and Bitty silently led them to it to sit down.

“People always say that when you’re in love with someone that relationships are easy, you know? They’re a lot of work, but being with that person is as natural as breathing. It wasn’t like that with Kenny. We loved each other, and it was fun, but it was a constant uphill battle. We both ended up doing some pretty shitty things because we could bring out the worst in each other to the point of self destruction. I just… I don’t know… I guess I just grew apart from him at some point, but I didn’t realize it until I left and I could finally see that I didn’t need him. It’s like how you reach a certain age and you grow out of your stuffed animals, you know?” Jack turned in time to see Bitty’s cheeks turn pink. He then remembered peeking his head into his guest bedroom a couple of weeks prior, only to find Bitty still asleep with a stuffed rabbit clutched to his chest. “He’ll always have a place in my heart and I know where to find him if I want to, but I don’t need him.”

Shit that felt good to say out loud.

“He was right when he called you eloquent.” Jack laughed, tipping his head back ever so slightly. He leaned his stick up against the side of the bench, pulling his gloves and helmet off. Mostly he was just trying to buy some time and find the courage to say what he was going to say next.

“So, what was that about you being really upset about Parse and I?”

Bitty groaned, covering his face with his hands. “I thought you hadn’t heard that.”

He rubbed his eyes and ran his fingers through his hair, making the cowlick at the back of his head stand up. He took a deep breath and sat up straight, but kept his gaze forward, staring out at the ice. “I was upset that we were going to have to break up, and pretty jealous that you two were going to get back together before I had a chance to tell you how I felt.”

Jack tried not fight off the smile that was threatening to break out across his face. “And how do you feel?”

Finally, Bitty turned his head to face Jack. “I feel like I don’t want this to be fake anymore,” he whispered.

They were so close that Jack could count the freckles that dusted across the bridge of Bitty’s nose. And for some inexplicable reason, he wanted to, but he also wanted to kiss Bitty again. He brought his hands up to cup Bitty’s chin, his fingers tracing the sharp angle of his jaw. He watched as Bitty’s eyes fluttered shut, his lashes casting small shadows across his cheekbones. He took his time; watching the small puffs of air escape Bitty’s mouth, savoring the moment -- the anticipation -- basking in the happiness, the giddiness, and the excitement that this was finally happening. And then finally -- finally! -- their lips brushed together. Bitty, clearly impatient, tilted his head up, pressing his lips more firmly to Jack’s as his fingers clutched the front of Jack’s jersey, pulling them closer together.

Jack felt blissed out; this is everything he wanted and more. It was like the kitchen all over again, but ten times better because now Bitty was kissing him back and Jack knew that he wanted it too. For real. This was real; the press of their lips, the occasional knocking of their teeth, fingers dancing across each other’s skin, clutching at the other’s clothes, trying to pull each other closer and closer. How weren’t they close enough yet?

Jack’s hands cupped Bitty’s hips as the kiss deepened. Their tongues slid against each other and Jack’s senses became overwhelmed; all he could touch, smell, see, hear, and taste was Bitty. Bitty, Bitty, Bitty, Bitty. He tried not to groan as he slipped his fingers up the back of Bitty’s shirt.

The blond yelped, pulling away and exclaiming “Your hands are like ice!” which made Jack laugh until Bitty pulled him down into another kiss to shut him up. They don’t separate again until a wolf whistle resonates through the empty practice rink, making the two men spring apart, as though they’d been caught doing something wrong.

“I knew this what you do during ‘meetings’,” Tater crooked his fingers to make quotation marks around the word. He was dressed in his street clothes, a smirk on his lips. “Chowder tell me you still here, hogging up ice. I come tell you enough practice for today; you work too hard.”

“I think you’re right Tater, maybe I should spend the afternoon practicing my tonsil hockey.”

Bitty groaned beside him, no doubt blushing, while Tater demanded to know if tonsil hockey is like table hockey and if he could play too.

_/ \_

Obviously, from that point on Jack and Bitty started dating for real. They didn’t bother telling anyone that it was fake before, but they did tell Georgia and Shitty that they were official now. George smirked, shaking her head, and warned them not to let it get in the way of either of their jobs. Shitty on the other hand had jumped for joy and had hugged them both until they couldn’t breathe before planting sloppy kisses on their mouths.

“Shitty you have a girlfriend!” Bitty exclaimed. “And I have a boyfriend!”

“Took you guys long enough to get your shit together, I wondered how many more times we’d have to purposefully sexile you from the apartment so that you two could spend some time together and  get your heads out of your asses. The both of you have the worst heart-eye faces, I swear! It was so obvious, how didn’t you see it?!”

Maybe they would tell people down the line, as a funny story to laugh at over drinks, but they definitely wouldn’t mention it to anyone who could run to the press and create a scandal of any sort. Jack in particular had had enough of those to last him a life time.

“Hey Bits?” Jack whispered one night, after they’d both turned off the lamps on their bedside tables and snuggled up under the blankets.

Bitty hummed, rolling over so that he could face Jack.

“The other day, when you said that it wasn’t Parse’s fault. How did you know he didn’t do it? I mean, I knew, but I’d talked to him about it already.”

“Oh, my gosh, did we never tell you?” Bitty sat up and turned one of the lights back on.“Shitty lawyered his way into getting the Tumblr page to reveal their source. I think they were just a bunch of kids and he scared them silly, but they directed him in the direction of another blog that belonged to one Owen Stone. He’s about my height and blond, according his pictures. He’s apparently from Providence, and Shits is pretty sure he’s the guy from the bar.”

“Should we be worried?” Jack’s brow furrowed as he sat up too. They’d just gotten everything smoothed over! The rumour was finally dying down.

“Nah, he spoke about it anonymously. And if he does try differently, he just looks like someone wanting his fifteen minutes of fame,” Bitty assured him. With a sigh, Jack fell back onto the mattress, his head resting against his pillow.

“Thank fuck,” he whispered in relief. Bitty chuckled, turning off the light again and snuggling into Jack’s chest.

_/ \_

A couple of weeks later, after discussing the subject with Bitty, Jack decided to call Kent and tell him too. Jack decided that he deserved the right to know.

“Yeah, I’m not surprised. I am shocked it took you so long though,” was his reply. “In other news, I am seeing someone new too. He took me to a Clipper’s game last week.”

“You went on a date with Aaron?! Swoops?” Jack exclaimed. He’d seen the photos of the two on Twitter. He’d just thought that they were out as linemates, as friends. How heteronormative of him. Shitty would be ashamed. “I didn’t know he was into guys…”

“Neither did I… Until you were gone and I was single and out and he started getting very flirty,” Kent chuckled. Silence settled over them as Jack pondered this; when you were so preoccupied with your own closet, or your own coming out, you forgot that there were others going through the same thing as you… But that hadn’t been the point of this phone call!

“Wait, you know? About Bitty? You’re not mad?” he asked Kent, coming back to the original subject.

“Jack.” Jack could picture Kent giving him his ‘are you fucking kidding me?’ look from across the country. “You weren’t the only one with the love sick expression. He looks at you like you hung the fucking moon.”

Basically, Jack learned that he should never, ever play poker. Looks like moving to Providence had been the right decision after all.