Actions

Work Header

Infinity, Plus One

Chapter Text

Freshman Year

Fall Semester

“So here’s the thing, y’all—,” Bitty fidgets in his rolling chair, glancing around his freshman dorm room nervously before looking back at the camera. “I don’t know what I expected my NCAA hockey team to be like, really—but it sure as hell wasn’t this.”

 

The first time Bitty tries to go to team breakfast, he briefly worries that he won’t be able to find anyone in the giant dining hall, but then he hears lots of shouting—and maybe some singing?—and he figures, oh, that’s them. Needless to say there’s been a period of adjustment.

As soon as he sits down, Shitty slaps him on the back and goes on some rant about how great it is Bitty isn’t a ‘bigoted dickface cockhole’ which feels like a pretty low-bar for favorable behavior, but at least he seems accepting, which is nice. Bitty can mostly just smile and nod while Shitty talks.

Ransom and Holster seem…fine? They’re currently talking about pussy, which is definitely not a conversation Bitty has any interest in at all, so—

“Bittle.” Bitty looks up from his sub-par biscuits and over-ripe strawberries to lock eyes with Jack, who’s just sat down across from him. Jack, the team captain, is unfairly handsome and also terrifying, in essentially equal parts. Gruffly, he advises, “You need to eat more protein.”

Bitty looks down at his plate and huffs. He’s about to mutter something about the aberration that is powdered eggs, when someone says, “Lay off the frog, Zimms,” and thumps down into the chair next to Jack. It’s Parse, the alternate captain—equally unfairly handsome but not nearly as intimidating as Jack. For one thing, he’s smaller by a good couple inches and slimmer in build, but it goes beyond that; Parse has a perpetual smirk (practically a grin compared to Jack’s apparently carved-from-marble frown) and he’s always chatting quietly with someone, the kind of talking that invites you into the conversation.

Parse fiddles with his snapback and ignores Jack’s scowl. “How’s your first week been, Bits?”

“Oh, um, fine, thanks? It’s been a little overwhelming, honestly. I know Samwell’s kind of a small school, but Madison—the town I’m from—is even smaller which, really, wasn’t all that great but it was familiar and this is all so new and—oh gosh, I’m so sorry, I’m rambling again ain’t—aren’t I?” Bitty takes in an extra-deep breath to make up for the lost air and glances down at his plate guiltily.

Except Parse just laughs, “No worries. Talk all you want, man. What’s it like back home?”

They locked me in a supply closet when I was twelve and I never want to go back. “Oh, well, you know. Everyone knows everybody so that can be a bit tirin’, but they’re like one big family.”

“Christ, I can’t imagine what it’d feel like to have everyone know your story. Must be fucking exhausting, eh, Zimms?” Parse smirks and tries to ruffle Jack’s hair, but Jack glares and elbows him away. Either Parse has really good timing or Jack is just being dramatic, because he mumbles something about seeing everyone at practice and stalks away towards the dish return with his mostly-empty plate.

Parse just shrugs and slides down into Jack’s now empty chair, shoving a piece of toast into his mouth as he does so. “Anyway, Bits, if you need help finding anything around campus feel free to hit me up. Plus I think Shitty’s gonna give a Haus tour like, next week, so.”

“Oh, um, thanks but…I don’t have your number?” Parse just makes a grabby motion with one hand—the other being occupied with more toast—and types his number into the proffered phone carefully. He slides it back with a wink. He’s saved the contact as ‘Parse :D’ which is a little weird, but Bitty shrugs and keeps it.

“Yo, Parse, come look at these texts, bro,” Ransom calls from two seats over, “and tell Holtzy they definitely mean mad pussy.”

Parse looks at Bitty and rolls his eyes, acting exaggeratedly put-upon with his smirk, but slides his seat down to get a better look at Holster’s phone. He takes the time to scroll through what seems to be a lengthy conversation and concludes, “Mad pussy. Angry, definitely. Maybe even furious.” His eyes flick back over to Bitty, who stifles a giggle with a mouthful of bacon.

 

~*~

 

Bitty wrings his hands together and grimaces. “So, my high school hockey team was co-ed—no checking allowed. But I’m in the NCAA now! I’m definitely ready to start taking hits on the ice. It’s fine. Really.”

 

Practice had been going fine. It really had been. Except now the first week is over and that means scrimmages which means being on the ice in full gear, skating around and trying out plays, and really all of that would be fine except—

“Bittle, heads up!”

What what what no no please don’t hurt me I’m so sorry no no no please please please ple—

“…or get into fetal position at center ice,” a voice that sounds a lot like Jack grumbles from somewhere up high and far away, “That’s also an option.”

“Bittle.” Coach Hall sounds closer, like maybe he’s bent over or something. Bitty tries to make a sound that isn’t a whimper; he probably doesn’t succeed but everything’s a little woozy still so who knows. Did he faint? “Hey, son? You okay?”

Holster’s booming voice washes over him while he tries to sputter out words. “You know? I’m thinking we can make a play out of this.”

“If you just…slide…me on down…to the bench, I’ll be just fine, Coach,” Bitty manages at last, but apparently they thought “slide” was just an expression and not his honest-to-God preferred method of transportation because they’re making him stand and skate even though Bitty’s not entirely convinced he’s capable of either of those things.

He makes it to the bench and is trying not to throw up when Parse skates over. Jack is talking to Coach Hall, his eyebrows drawn in a stormy line while Ransom, Holster, and Shitty discuss fainting goats, which means they’re probably making fun of him, which is just fucking perfect, honestly, and Parse is skating over to what? Laugh in his face? Tell him to quit the team and go home because he’s gonna let everyone down? He’s going to let everyone down and lose his scholarship and he can’t afford this school and—

“Hey. Wanna go get nachos later?”

Bitty looks up incredulously. “What?”

“The dining hall has fucking orgasmic nachos on Mondays. Wanna go?” Parse is staring at him with an open expression. He’s so nonchalant that Bitty wonders if he somehow missed the entire…incident. But his eyes are so warm, mostly green and a little gray, and on second thought maybe everything about this is deliberate.

Bitty nods and says, “Sure.”

Parse whoops and slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders, pulling him into a companionable not-quite-hug. He cups his free hand over his mouth and shouts, “Nacho Mondays!”

The scattered conversations all halt as several people turn and cheer back at him. Shitty yells, “Fucking Nacho Mondays!” and body slams into Jack, who maybe even almost-smiles back.

 

~*~

 

The nachos are disgusting. Bitty picks at them listlessly, debating how he’s possibly going to eat this entire plate, when Parse plops down next to him and asks, “Whatcha think, Bits?”

Bitty bites back a smile and says, as seriously as he can manage, “I’m kinda worried about what you think an orgasm is.”

Parse stares at him in shock, mouth gaping, and Bitty worries that he’s made a mistake, overstepped, but Ransom bursts into laughter from across the table and declares, “Man, Bits is fucking savage, bro. We gotta keep him.”

Holster is laughing raucously and slapping Shitty on the back, and Bitty lets himself smile just a little. Parse puts a hand to his chest in mock horror and tells him, “These are the best fucking nachos I’ve ever had in my life, Bits.”

“Oh, honey,” Bitty answers, patting Parse’s bicep in pity before standing to get a new plate (the sole benefit of buffet-style college dining). When he sits back down, not a single ounce of nacho cheese on his plate, Parse is locked in a debate—argument, maybe—about 30 Rock versus the Office with Holster.

Ransom sighs dramatically and turns to Bitty. “Yo, Bits, by the way? Sick shirt. Where’d you get it?”

Bitty looks down at his navy blue button-up and smiles. Maybe the team likes him after all.

 

~*~

 

“Good news! I found a kitchen I can use whenever I want. Now, it may be in what’s essentially a goddamn frat house, but well, you know—,” Bitty grins, “count your blessings, and all that.”

 

Bitty’s still just as likely to drop to the ice during practice as he is to stay upright, and classes don’t seem all that great, but the week does have a bright spot: this afternoon, Bitty is heading to the ‘Haus’ to get the grand tour. From what everyone’s said, the Haus is the hub for all hockey team goings-on; it’s where the team spends their free time, a handful of them live and, most importantly, where the parties are. Bitty’s been at college for less than two weeks and he’s itching for the experience.

Bitty has a hand curled around his phone, head tilted down as he follows Google Maps down frat row; most of the houses look nice, unassuming even. There are big beautiful trees that must turn wonderful colors in the fall, overlooking old-fashioned porches. Even better, it looks like there are bars a stone’s throw away on the other side of the tree line; maybe Bitty should look into the fake ID Holster offered to get him, after all. His phone pings and says you have arrived at your destination. Bitty looks up excitedly and—

The Haus is a dump. Bitty stares up at it, looks down at the map, sort of praying he’s gotten himself turned around again, and then looks back up again with a grimace. Honestly, the building looks like it should be condemned, not housing half a dozen college athletes. There are lawn chairs on the roof, plastic cups stuck in the bushes like Christmas ornaments, and a pair of boxers hanging from a tree.

“Hey, Bitty,” Ollie greets; he and Wicks have just gotten there which means, yes, he really is in the right place, Lord help him.

“Hi, Ollie. Should we—,”

Shitty bursts through the front door and belts out a greeting, talking about alcohol and virginity loss and bad decisions, which sound like they’re all too related in Shitty’s mind for Bitty’s comfort. And really, he should probably be paying closer attention to the tour, but good Lord there’s a kitchen. So Bitty can’t really be blamed for veering off; kitchens are his siren song.

The thing is: sirens aren’t necessarily pretty. The kitchen is filthy as all get out and there’s an entire cabinet filled with nothing but Sriracha sauce for some God-forsaken reason. There’s a tub of protein powder on the counter, right next to an upended, empty keg. The fridge is 90% beer, 5% eggs, and, mercifully, 5% butter. Bitty finds some bowls that still look their original color and sets out to mix a pie crust.

He’s really starting to despair when it comes to a filling, but the front door swings open and some of the boys come in from outside. Johnson, the goalie, wanders into the kitchen with three grocery bags dangling from each arm.

“Oh, let me help you!” Bitty offers, quickly sliding a case of beer out of the fridge to make room for the pie crust.

“Thanks, Bitty.” Johnson smiles at him and drops the bags onto the kitchen table.

Bitty helps sort through the groceries and gasps when he finds fruit. “Um, would it be alright if I used a few of these apples? I can pay you for them, or—,”

“Chyeah, bro, go ahead. I bought them for you.”

“Um, what?”

“Yeah,” Johnson explains, “The author felt like having a plausible explanation for your pie-appearing gimmick was more appropriate for this rendition of the narrative.”

Bitty blinks. He briefly wonders if he’d hit his head harder than he thought the last time he fainted. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Bittle. So Bitty gets to work on the filling, warmth spreading up from his toes up into his stomach as the scent of simmering apples and cinnamon fills the room.

He’s humming to himself, pouring the filling into the pie tin, when he turns around and realizes he has an audience. Ransom, Holster, and Shitty are staring with a herd of frogs crowded behind them. Bitty tugs at his bottom lip and apologizes, “Oh, sorry, I just—whenever I find a kitchen I just—pies appear!”

Shitty scratches his head. “We’ve been here like, five minutes.”

Bitty slides the pie into the oven and looks at his phone; it’s definitely been at least fifteen. He sits in the kitchen for a while, chatting with the team, until the sound of water running cuts off abruptly—had the shower been on this whole time?—and Parse shouts from somewhere, “Holy shit! Why doesn’t our house smell like ass anymore?”

Bitty pokes his head around the doorway just in time to watch Parse slide down the bannister, in nothing but a towel slung low on his hips. It’s a miracle the thing stays on at all, honestly, but Bitty is very thankful it does, because he’s having a hard enough time not staring as it is. Parse careens around the staircase and skids to a stop right in front of Bitty. Water droplets splatter from his already re-curling hair.

He’s trailed by Jack, fully dressed but also sporting wet hair, dark bangs hung low over his forehead. Which is weird, because Bitty definitely just heard the one shower, he thinks—but then again, maybe he was just distracted by his baking.

“Bits. Bitty. Is this your doing?” Parse gestures vaguely, which Bitty assumes is supposed to indicate the baked-goods smell that’s wafting through the Haus.

“Um, yes? I—,” Bitty tries to answer, but his words cut off in a squeak because Parse is hefting him into the air and shouting something about fucking favorite frog.

Parse drops Bitty back down to the ground and says, “Sorry, other frogs.” He tosses the words over his shoulder as he shoves past Holster to stare at the pie, partially lit inside the oven, like it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

Bitty focuses on slowing his startled heartbeats and almost misses it when Jack nods at him and says, “Smells good, Bittle.” His heart flutters one last time and then quiets.

 

~*~

 

So maybe the Haus should have been condemned by now, but Bitty is pretty glad it hasn’t been. He finds himself gravitating there after his classes are finished for the day, and sure, Betsy the oven (as he has christened her) is a big part of that, but—

There’s also the way Holster sings Broadway tunes to himself while he studies, and the way Ransom adds cinnamon to the coffee grounds to make the brew taste better. There’s how Parse is a mathematics major, and tutors all the underclassmen every Wednesday afternoon, how he doesn’t get annoyed when Bitty needs something explained twice. And there’s the way Shitty can always tell when Bitty’s worn out from a long day, knowing just how to swoop in and cheer him up. There’s even Jack, who Bitty sits with in silent companionship when words are too much but solitude isn’t enough.

There’s the place he goes to bake, but there’s also the people he’s baking for.

 

~*~

 

Some Wednesday in September, Bitty and Parse are sitting across from each other on Parse’s bed, passing a pie tin back and forth and gabbing about a little of everything. Parse is taking a statistics class with a professor who has a wicked sense of humor. Bitty’s just finished catching up with his mother on the phone and goodness did she have some juicy gossip. It’s comfortable in a way Bitty hasn’t felt in a long time.

Parse’s phone buzzes; he pauses in his latest anecdote and smirks when he reads the text. “Sweet, Johnson’s staying with his girlfriend tonight.”

“Oh, that must be nice. My suitemates are always around. I swear, I’ve never felt so crowded in my life.” Bitty, feeling dramatic, flops sideways on the bed.

Parse joins Bitty in his horizontal theatrics. “That’s rough. Johnson’s a pretty chill roomie. Fuckin’ weird dude but like, crazy nice.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He found out I was gonna have to get a part-time job to afford rent and just straight up offered to let me move in with him. Fucking gives up his single so I can survive off my summer job.” He smiles fondly. “Like what the fuck?”

Bitty reaches lazily for the pie tin and sighs when he finds it out of reach. Parse pushes it closer. “Wow, that is really nice.”

“Yeah. He’s like, the weird older brother I never had. Except I’m older, but, whatever.” Parse laughs. “I don’t feel old.”

“Are you an only child?”

Parse’s voice turns soft, maybe a little sad. “Nah. Got a little sister. It’s just me, her, and my mom. Or it—,” he stops, takes a steadying breath. “Sorry. It was, I guess. I don’t talk to my family much anymore.” Definitely sad.

“I—,” Bitty reaches out to touch, to comfort, but hesitates. Parse looks over at him expectantly, eyes more blue than green today. Bitty places a hand on his forearm and squeezes. “I’m sorry, Parse.”

“Thanks, Bits. It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”

 

~*~

 

“Y’all, I know I’ve been talkin’ about how great the team is but—well, I’ve been thinking of quitting.” Bitty shifts uncomfortably and runs a hand through his shaggy hair. “I just don’t—Jack chewed me out in front of everyone today. Again. And it caused this whole thing and I don’t—I don’t know.”

 

Bitty blinks his eyes open and moans. He’d almost made it through the whole scrimmage. The clock was going to run down and it was going to be over, all over, and he’d been doing so well except—

Except Holster is so big. No one should be allowed to be that big and Bitty is never strong enough, never man enough to fight back and if you can’t fight you run and if you can’t run, if you can’t run

So Bitty is curled into a ball on the ice, and Jack is standing above him. How nice, Bitty thinks, The captain is going to help me up. See if I’m okay.

But then Bitty’s eyes come into focus a little better and oh God, Jack looks so angry; Bitty’s never seen him this angry and he doesn’t know why he scrambles back to his skates because he should just stay on the ground where he belongs and now Jack is shouting.

“What the hell was that?” he spits.

Bitty sputters, “I’m—I’m so sorry. I’m trying really hard, and I—,”

Everyone is staring, Bitty knows it. Even the coaches, even the players on the benches. He can’t cry. He cannot cry. He can’t because they probably already hate him, think he’s useless and why is he on this team and he can’t be the boy who cries, too.

Jack looms closer and Bitty shrinks away, sliding backwards on his skates. “Are you—you call that trying? This isn’t a joke! Either get with the—,”

“Back the fuck off, Zimmermann!” There’s a blur of jersey and suddenly Parse is between Jack and Bitty, spraying shaved ice up into the air as his skates cut through it. “Jesus Christ, seriously, what the fuck—,”

“He’s a detriment to the team and you—,”

“That’s not true. Just because you can’t see—,”

“—can’t see it. He’s your—your little pet project or something and—,”

“—anything but yourself. Christ, fucking—,” Parse is seething, spitting words through clenched teeth slithering between the cadences of Jack’s shouts, “my fucking pet? Don’t make this about me, Jack. Fuck, it’s not even about Bitty, is it? It’s all you and your own fucked up head and if you don’t stop taking your shit out on this team, I swear to fucking God, Zimmermann, I’ll—,”

Jack shoves him. Parse flies backwards and Bitty practically dives to get out of the way. “You’ll what, Kent? You’ll leave? Fucking leave. Make my day.”

Parse does. He rips his helmet off and throws it to the ground so hard that it makes a cracking sound like the snap of a bone and then he’s gone faster than should be possible, flinging himself over the gate without opening it and vanishing into the locker room.

“Tabarnak,” Jack mutters, and without so much as a glance at anyone, even Bitty, he skates off after Parse the way he chases a pass that’s been shot wide.

 

~*~

 

They finish the scrimmage in unbearable almost-silence; nothing spoken but stilted instructions and clipped phrases of congratulations or criticism, all deserved and equally insincere.

In the locker room, Ransom is the one who finally breaks the silence. “Yo, Bits, Jack just gets real bitchy towards the end of pre-season, and Parse—gets tense.”

Holster nods. “After the first game, Jack’ll go back to regularly-scheduled levels of bitchy and Parse’ll stop throwing down his gloves every time Jack so much as fucking breathes wrong.”

“Hey,” Shitty argues, “when a bro’s dad is Bad Bob, a bro’s gonna turn into a fucking hockey Nazi every once and a while.”

Wicks snorts. “Then what’s Parse’s excuse?”

“A bro can only handle so many years of Zimmermann-shit,” Holster offers in explanation, voice dry.

Bitty raises his hand uncomfortably. “Wait, um—who’s Bad Bob and—haven’t you all known Jack for like two years?”

The stares he gets in response are not encouraging.

 

~*~

 

So Bitty goes home—after being reassured he’s not going to be shoved into any equipment lockers for his ignorance, ever, what the fuck Bits did someone do that to you?—and he ignores the essay he has due at eight AM tomorrow in favor of Googling who Bad Bob Zimmermann is.

And really, Bad Bob Zimmermann being a veritable NHL legend is apparently just the tip of the iceberg. Because from there, Bitty Googles Jack’s name, and well, people seem to have plenty to talk about when it comes to Jack Zimmermann, without saying much of anything at all.

Here’s what Bitty learns: Jack Zimmermann was supposed to be the star of the 2009 NHL Draft, with Kent Parson at his side. Jack was destined, it seemed, for the greatness of his father, for a long-burning fame, for the kind of brilliance lesser eyes can’t stare at directly.

Here’s what else Bitty learns: Sometimes stars are betrayed by their own fusion. And when stars implode, they rarely die alone.

Jack Zimmermann withdrew from the 2009 NHL Draft and checked into a rehab facility in Maine. The magazines never could quite decide what the rehab was for; plenty of people suspected cocaine, others were certain painkillers were the culprit. The tiniest whispers, as Bitty would learn, told a truth no one wanted: that anti-anxiety medications don’t mix well with alcohol, and Jack Zimmermann had convinced himself he needed both to make it through the day.

The more slippery thing is this: what exactly happened to Kent Parson? A month after Jack Zimmermann withdrew from the draft, Kent Parson rejected his multi-million contract offer from the Las Vegas Aces and vanished. He refused to make a single statement to the press, and the Aces were equally tight-lipped, simply saying that they were disappointed to see Parson go. ESPN thought Parson cracked under the pressure, too petrified by the prospect of skating against Zimmermann’s ghost. Some of the smaller magazines speculated that Kent spiraled, hooked on whatever Zimmermann was using and caught in the same coil of fate.

The brave, young parts of the Internet spun the tale like this: star-crossed lovers, not being forced away but slammed together, until the whole thing cracked apart in the kind of brilliant death usually reserved for viewing through telescopes. They were victims of a playwright; poison and a dagger.

 

~*~

 

“So, um, Hazeapalooza. Let’s just say,” Bitty looks away from the camera, blushing, “we do things a little differently here at Samwell.”

 

It’s the weekend before the first game of the season. Bitty is editing a vlog post in a pair of sleep shorts and an old t-shirt in his room, trying to tune out whatever his suitemate Chad is watching on the TV in the next room. There’s a knock on the door that makes Bitty jump; he can hear Chad sigh dramatically when he pauses the TV and gets up to answer.

Chad shouts, “What the fuck?” and then, “Eric, it’s for you!”

Bitty saves his video and walks out into the main room nervously. Parse is standing in the doorway holding a black bag, a blindfold, and a roll of hockey tape. He’s wearing both a bandana and a snapback, which is all kinds of ridiculous, and Bitty would probably laugh if he weren’t kind of creeped out.

“Um,” Bitty says.

Parse asks, “Can I come in?”

Bitty nods and walks backwards to sit on the arm of the threadbare couch that came with the suite. He tugs on his lip and watches Parse carefully close the door behind them. Chad flips the TV back on.

“So,” Parse starts awkwardly. He takes off his hat and runs fingers through his cowlick. “I’m, uh, supposed to kidnap you?” He gestures with his apparently-for-kidnapping supplies. “But I thought, um, considering—you know—maybe that would be kinda unchill? So.”

Right, Bitty thinks, Hazeapalooza. “Oh, um, thanks. Yeah, that would’ve—,” he looks down, embarrassed, “thanks.”

“So, we’re just going to Faber and then the Haus, if you wanna follow me?”

Hesitating, Bitty looks up. “Um, are you—are you gonna get in trouble?”

Parse raises his eyebrows. “What?”

“For not, um—for not doing it right?”

“Bitty. Bits,” Parse laughs, “I run this shit.”

Bitty laughs nervously. “Oh, right, silly me. Of course you would, since—anyway, um, I think—since, um, I know what’s happening? It’d probably be okay if, uh—.” He waves a hand at the supplies. Chad coughs loudly and retreats into his bedroom.

“You sure? It’s seriously not a big deal.” Parse looks genuinely concerned, like he’s worried Bitty’s suddenly going to freak out, which is a little insulting but—fair.

Bitty nods and, after taking a breath to steel himself, holds out his hands with wrists pressed together. He stares at the ground until he realizes nothing is happening, so he looks up anxiously and sees—Parse just kind of staring at him, actually, with a weird expression Bitty can’t place.

“Um.”

Parse blinks and sighs out a clipped laugh. “Sorry, um—sorry, nothing, I’ll—this part first, actually, yeah.” And then in a flurry of movement, Parse is behind him wrapping a blindfold around his eyes. Bitty tenses and Parse whispers, “This okay?”

“Y-yeah,” he whispers back and, surprisingly, it kind of is. Sure, he’s trembling slightly which is embarrassing and there’s the little frantic whisper in his brain saying, it’s dark run get out run, but there’s also Parse’s hand squeezing his shoulder and his own voice thinking, no, it’s okay. No one’s gonna hurt you. You’re safe here.

Parse slides the bag on next and everything turns a blacker-black which is almost better than before. “Okay, Bits?”

“You’re gonna make me late to my own hazing, Parson,” Bitty manages to chirp, and he smiles in triumph when Parse laughs.

“Bossy,” Parse teases, but he moves back around to Bitty’s front and cups his wrists. Bitty shivers. There’s the crinkling sound of fresh hockey tape being started and the strange sensation of something sticky wrapping around his wrists.

It’s…weird. It’s weird because, well—because it isn’t that weird and it should be, right? It should be a weird thing, maybe a scary thing, that he’s blindfolded and getting tied up by someone he barely knows, but—

But the tape is snug on his wrists and it’s like the moment when you’ve carried all the grocery bags in at once and you drop them all to the floor even though it bruises the fruit and the cans all roll away because you can’t carry anything anymore and now you don’t have to and—

Oh. The gentle, whispered thrum of arousal under his skin buzzes louder, like someone’s prodded at a hornet’s nest with a stick. Bitty bites down on his lip really, really hard.

“Bitty? Bitty, are you okay?” Parse’s hands are still gently gripped at Bitty’s wrists and he’s leaning forward, maybe; Bitty’s neck tingles with that strange little buzzing feeling that happens when someone’s shifting into his space.

“Oh,” Bitty squeaks, “Yeah, I—sorry, did you, um, ask me something?”

“Yeah, I just, uh—,” Parse sounds distinctly uncomfortable and Bitty blanches. Can Parse tell? Bitty’s not even that hard but maybe it’s noticeable through his shorts and why is Parse still touching him sweet Lord in Heaven. “I asked if it was too tight.”

“No!” Bitty says too quickly and winces. “No, um, it’s fine I just—I was distracted? Um, thinking about my blog. Yeah.” He really wishes he could see Parse’s face; he can’t tell if his bluff passes muster.

Parse finally pulls his hands away and Bitty shouldn’t be disappointed but he is. “Okay, uh, great. Should we, uh—can we go?” Bitty just nods so his mouth doesn’t run off without him and stands, a little wobbly without the use of his arms; Parse grabs him by the elbow and starts to lead him towards the door. “Oh, uh, did you want—it’s kinda cold out, do you want longer pants or anything?”

“You don’t have to baby me,” Bitty mutters, tugging his elbow free and promptly walking straight into the doorframe. Fuck.

Parse cackles and slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders to lead him away. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Bits.”

 

~*~

 

So Bitty learns that Hazeapalooza starts with a kidnapping and ends (after a lot of weird howling and other bizarre but distinctly un-cruel things) with a party at the Haus that people sort of just wander into even though it’s technically supposed to be a team event. Shitty’s goal for the night is to get all the frogs “bitch-ass shitfaced,” which he’s certainly accomplished when it comes to Bitty.

In fact, Bitty is so bitch-ass shitfaced that when he stumbles into the kitchen to steal a cold beer from the fridge, and finds said-fridge obstructed by two people humping each other against it, he forgoes being appalled by how unsanitary it is and just says, “Excuse me.”

He can’t see either of their faces because the girl’s hair has fallen forward while they kiss. He does, however, get a really great view of half her ass from where her dress is hiked up, the man’s hands rumpling it as he supports her weight, her legs wrapped around his waist. Bitty spends an indulgent moment wondering what it would feel like to be where that girl is, strong hands on his ass, rutting against someone’s maybe-hard dick, and—

Either coincidentally or because he heard Bitty’s request, the man flips himself and the girl around so that she’s sitting on the counter with him between her thighs, path to the refrigerator now clear. Except, it’s also now obvious that ‘the man’ is Parse, snapback-less head tilted back as the girl kisses at his neck, his mouth parted in a stupidly sexy little sigh. Bitty’s brain scrambles to pick an emotion and settles on some awful combination of jealous, aroused, and awkwardly ashamed.

Because Bitty is clearly being punished for something he did in a past life, Parse’s eyes roll open and he notices him staring. “Bits! How’re ya, man?” He sounds as drunk as Bitty feels.

“Oh, um—,”

“Bits, this is—,” Parse turns back to the girl and squints, “Tasha?”

“Tara.”

“Bits, this is Tara. Tara, Bits—my fav’rite freshie.” Parse winks at him, for some reason. He’s also grinning broadly, which is weird. Maybe it’s some sort of subtle bro-bragging thing, a silent check out what I’m fucking later tonight.

Parse reaches out and ruffles Bitty’s hair, his other hand still under Tara’s dress. Which is also weird and suddenly Bitty wants to go home. “I uh,” Bitty sways and leans up against the refrigerator for support, “I’m gonna go—go back to—do y’still have my wallet?”

Tara is starting to look a little put-out; Bitty shrugs at her apologetically. Parse scrunches up his nose in concentration. “Uh, yeah, it’s—my room, c’mon.”

“Oh, um, I can just—,” Bitty starts, looking at the very pretty girl who’s currently glaring at him something fierce, but Parse is already telling her he’ll be back soon and pulling Bitty away.

They stumble up the stairs and duck underneath the caution tape blocking off the top. Parse’s room is right around the corner, across the hall from another bedroom that has the light on inside and a red snapback hanging from the doorknob. Parse grabs it and fits it snugly onto his head, muttering something about where this went.

Bitty furrows his eyebrows in confusion. “Um, should you—isn’t that—or is that just socks?”

Despite his string of words making no objective sense, Parse seems to understand him. “What, in Zimms’ room?” he laughs, “Nah.” He pushes his own door open and waves to Johnson, who’s stretched out shirtless in bed with his girlfriend, Ginger, watching something on a laptop.

“Oh, sorry,” Bitty squeaks, “are we interrupting?”

Johnson shrugs. “It’s cool. We knew about this plot-point.”

Goalies are hard enough to understand sober, so Bitty just nods and waits by the door for Parse to grab his wallet off the desk.

“C’mon, Bits, I’ll walk ya home,” he says, after he tosses the wallet across the room and Bitty tries to catch it after it’s already hit the floor.

“’m fine,” Bitty protests, even as Parse wraps an arm around his shoulders again and he automatically settles into the touch, “you should go back to, uh—.” Bitty remembered her name a minute ago, he really did.

Parse doesn’t say anything for a moment, focused on walking them both down the stairs, but when they reach the bottom he says, “Nah, bros before—chicks,” and laughs to himself even though Bitty has no idea what’s funny.

They stumble outside into the cooling September air; Bitty shivers despite himself which makes Parse laugh and chirp, “Told ya, shoulda worn the pants, Bits.” His eyes drop down low and back up again. “Shorts’re cute though.”

Bitty turns red and looks away. “Um, thanks?” Parse didn’t mean it the way he wishes he had; he knows that, but it’s still a good feeling.

They walk silently for a while, alongside the river, passing other collections of drunk friends ambling along. There’s a tense jumble of thoughts tumbling around in Bitty’s head, so when Parse asks what he’s thinking, what comes out is: “I Googled you the other day!”

To Parse’s credit, he kind of just laughs. “Look, Bits, I was young and camera phones were kinda new and everyone was taking nudes back then.” When Bitty stares up at him in blank horror, he laughs even harder. “I’m totally kidding. There’s no pictures of my dick on the Internet. I think. Let me know if you find any. I was a hot teenager.”

First, Bitty thinks, you’re a hot adult, and then, secondly but probably more importantly, you’re avoiding the conversation. He blessedly is able to refrain from speaking either thought out loud. “I’ll keep you posted,” he says instead, and Parse laughs again. It’s probably not a good thing, how intensely giddy Bitty feels whenever he can make Parse laugh, but if Parse is allowed to shirk his past then Bitty is certainly allowed to ignore his little (or not so little, but he’s not going to think about that either) crush.

So the chance to talk about anything of consequence slips away and in its place, an onslaught of playful chirping arises. Parse ruffles Bitty’s hair, so Bitty hip-checks him in a huff and he pretends to fly sideways from the force of it, stumbling off the sidewalk and tumbling to the ground. Bitty dissolves into a fit of giggles and tries to help him up, but gets pulled down into the grass instead, yelping.

“I like the grass,” Parse says, setting his hat to the side and putting his hands behind his head. He closes his eyes with a soft sigh.

“Me too. I—,” Bitty looks over and groans. “Parse, what’re you doing? We gotta go home.”

“Don’t wanna.”

Bitty puts a hand to his head in exasperation. He can see his dorm building, right on the other side of the bridge, and he has no idea where any of this is coming from. “I—we should go,” he insists, and he moves to stand up but Parse grabs with gentle, fumbling fingers at his wrist.

Parse’s eyes are pale gray under the streetlights by the water, the barely-opaque crumble of charcoal ash after a fire. “Stay with me, Bits.”

“Okay,” Bitty says, because he doesn’t know what other words there are. He stretches back out on the grass, and stares up at the clouded sky until he falls asleep.

 

~*~

 

Bitty finally makes it back to his dorm somewhere past four AM, after shooing a groggy and vaguely sober Kent Parson back towards the Haus.

He’s asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow and doesn’t wake up until eight hours later, to a dead phone and an empty bedroom. There’s the worst (and first) hangover of his life pounding between his eyes, so he fumbles through his drawers until he finds a bottle of Tylenol and swallows two, washed down with a day-old water bottle sitting on his desk. After plugging his phone in, he trudges off to the shower he shares with his suitemates.

The hot water seeps into his muscles, sore from sleeping on the ground and various Hazeapalooza antics. Memories from the night filter back in, mostly in reverse, the sputtering of an old VHS tape being rewound. There’s calloused fingers on his wrist, then in his hair, on his arms. Laughing in the cold, inside and outside, near the quiet of the river and in the chaotic chatter of the Haus. There’s the actual hazing, howling nearly-naked in Faber, throwing toilet paper over the trees of the lacrosse frat house across the road, wandering down the streets blindfolded.

And there’s so much Parse. He percolates up through all the alcohol-hazed memories, his smirk or his ridiculous, snorting laugh or his eyes. There’s Parse at the party, Parse on the walk home, Parse in his room before any of it happened. Bitty bites down on his lip when he gets to that last part. With his eyes squeezed shut, he can almost feel the ghosting sensations, wrists bound together, hands holding his own in place.

Bitty feels himself getting hard just thinking about it, letting his mind wander over the implications. He presses his forehead to the tiles and inhales a deep breath of steam. With one forearm braced against the wall, he brings his other hand down to his cock and strokes himself to hardness, thoughts swirling and taking shape in the heat.

The thing is: Bitty doesn’t really understand what he liked about it, at first. He knows that he wanted Parse’s hands on his body, that he wanted to slump forward against Parse’s chest and be pushed back, onto the couch, and climbed on top of, that he wanted to be kissed and covered and touched. He knows that he wanted to be taken care of.

It’s a strange realization, that final knowing, and it scares him even as it drives him to stroke himself faster, harder. Because being taken care of—it means needing something that maybe someone can’t give you. It means aching trust, dependency, a faith Bitty doesn’t even really put in God, a million things he’s decided he doesn’t deserve to ask for.

So Bitty, teeth sunk into his lip and cock throbbing in his hand, skips over the asking and ends up somewhere in the having.

He’s pressed into a bed with Parse bracketed above him, strong muscles he’s pretended not to notice sunk down on him. There’s the familiar stick of hockey tape and fingers with callouses against his wrists, and the perfect pressure of being bound in place. Parse whispers, “This okay?” and Bitty remembers perfectly how it sounds.

Parse—Bitty whimpers a little and slows his strokes, tries not to come yet. He feels a little twinge of guilt, wrongness at painting Parse into this fantasy of his when Parse isn’t even—but it isn’t like Bitty hasn’t thought about people he knows, his other teammates even, before. He’s wondered what it would be like to fuck Holster or blow Ransom, and, Lord, as prickly as he is, Bitty’s sure dreamed about getting Jack Zimmermann on his knees.

Except, the thing is, this feels different, more personal. Because it’s specific, no longer aimless mind-wandering or pragmatic masturbation so he won’t be as likely to pop a boner in the middle of the lecture hall. This is about what Bitty wants, probably more than anything he’s considered sexually before.

So Bitty tries to filter Parse away, files in other men: celebrities, different teammates, that hot guy in his English class. It sticks, for little faltering seconds, but Parse keeps glitching back in with his stupid gray eyes and his gentle hands and his whispered, “This okay?”

It’s not okay, and Bitty comes in thick spurts all over the bathroom tiles to Kent Parson’s phantom lips on his neck.

 

~*~

 

Bitty scrambles to turn on his camera and spins around in his rolling chair. He’s still clutching his hockey stick to his chest. “I got an assist! I got an assist in our very first game! And I’m gonna tell y’all all about it but we went out to dinner to celebrate and now there’s a party and I gotta get changed and—and I’m just so happy, y’all! I love hockey!”

 

Bitty carefully fluffs his hair and straightens out his collar. He’s starting to second-guess the boldness of his outfit choice (a bright green shirt and tangerine shorts) because maybe it’s a little too…much and he won’t fit in and maybe—but he doesn’t have time to change because everyone specifically told him to come kind of early so he could do the first kegstand and he’s probably already late, so that’s settled, and he rushes out the door, phone in hand.

There’s already music blasting from the Haus by the time Bitty gets there. He wonders if he should knock, but he kind of doubts anyone would hear him if he did, and honestly Holster told him to stop knocking and just come in whenever like, two weeks ago. So that probably counts for kegsters, too.

Inside, it’s chaotic already and only eleven PM. There are people everywhere, maybe three times the amount of people Bitty would have assumed could fit inside this disaster zone of a former frat house. He squeezes between the bodies, people dancing and talking and drinking, searching for a familiar face. After several uncomfortable minutes, he finds Holster and Ransom who are holding court in the most crowded room of the Haus. Bitty understands now why the place is so sparsely furnished; it’s apparently in order to cram as many people as possible into a single space, as close as possible to the keg.

Shitty seems to have a sixth sense for when it’s time to give a speech, because suddenly he’s appeared, shouting over the din of the crowd about traditions and kegstands and alcohol abuse. Bitty’s spotted most of the hockey team around the room, but—

“Um, where are Jack and Parse?” Bitty asks. He’s not sure why, but he’d kind of been hoping they’d be around for this.

“Eeeeeh,” Ransom answers uncomfortably, “Jack doesn’t really do Haus parties, since he doesn’t really do drinking…anymore. Parse should be around though.”

Holster rolls his eyes and sarcastically adds, “Poor guys. Bet you at least one of them is upstairs getting sucked off by a puck bunny.”

Ransom laughs. “Parse always—speak of the devil. Jesus, bro, bunny had teeth.”  Bitty turns around to follow his gaze and blushes; Parse has a handful of hickeys on his neck and an honest to God bite mark on his shoulder, peeking out from the strap of his tank top.

Winking, Parse casually rests an elbow on Bitty’s shoulder. “Deets later. Kegstand now.”

The whole kegstand experience is kind of exhilarating. Bitty swears it’s the alcohol that leaves him flustered afterwards, not how it felt to have Parse’s hands on his leg and hip or the way Parse laughs when Bitty lowers back to the ground and stumbles into him a little.

Parse and Shitty do kegstands next, Ransom and Holster holding their legs and Bitty operating the valve a little tentatively. After that, Shitty drags Bitty away to introduce him to the wonder that is tub juice. Tub juice tastes a little like candy and a lot like someone poured a bunch of cough syrup into some rubbing alcohol and called it a day. It’s an improvement over the beer.

The next time Bitty sees Parse, he’s gone through an entire cup of tub juice and things have turned pleasantly woozy. Parse leans against the wall right next to him, their shoulders nearly touching, and looks over with sly eyes. “Bitty. Bits. There’s something you gotta know about me.”

Parse’s face is so close Bitty can feel his breath against his ear. It takes him a long time to answer. “Oh? Um. What?”

Parse grins. “I’m the best goddamn wingman on the SMH and I will get you laid as fuck.”

“Oh.” And now Bitty’s just disappointed, because he’s not sure what he wanted to hear—what he thought it was possible he’d hear—but it sure as hell wasn’t another team member trying to set him up with a girl.

“See anyone you like? I’ll totally go talk to them for you.”

“Um.”

“Seriously. I’ll go talk to ‘em, see if they’re into it. And if they are—,”

And that’s when it hits Bitty: that Parse, unlike the rest of the guys, isn’t saying she or her. Maybe it’s not purposeful; maybe it’s just how he talks. Maybe it’s everything Bitty had hoped to find at Samwell. There are more words, Parse explaining his detailed wingman technique, but Bitty’s otherwise occupied.

He’s thinking about how it would feel to say, yeah, I like that boy in the blue shirt. There’s even a tiny part of brain that’s thinking about saying, yeah, I like you. His head is buzzing and Parse has so many freckles and he might be Bitty’s best friend and his mouth is right there.

And in the end, Bitty doesn’t have the courage to say any of it. “Um, not tonight. Thanks.”

Parse doesn’t miss a beat even though Bitty’s pretty sure he interrupted him in the middle of a sentence.  He asks, “Cool. Dancing then?” and then all of a sudden he’s grabbing Bitty’s hands in both of his own and pulling him into the middle of the room, deep into the hot press of bodies all writhing in various states of intimacy.

Seemingly at random, Parse picks a spot on the pseudo-dance floor and starts dancing, shimmying his shoulders and shaking his hips with the baseline. Their hands slowly slip apart and Bitty kind of just stares, dumbfounded. Parse dances like a total dork, his hands above his head or taking off his snapback to run fingers through sweaty hair. He also looks the happiest Bitty’s ever seen him and it kind of takes him by surprise because—isn’t Parse always happy? But no, not like this, not with his eyes lidded and a goofy, soft smile on his face, not with a looseness in his body—the sudden absence of the positioning, the crafted poise as if held up by marionette strings, that Bitty had never noticed him using.

It’s maybe the most beautiful thing Bitty’s ever seen and his brain just kind of short-circuits and tells him touch. So Bitty lets the crowd jostle him, dancing along until, of course, eventually he bumps up against Parse, their shoulders knocking together. Bitty smiles sheepishly up at him, and he grins back. Bitty shimmies a little, playfully, his arm brushing up against the warm, bare muscle of Parse’s bicep. Parse presses into the contact with a laugh and then they’re dancing, not really together but in each other’s space, connected from shoulder to elbow.

The heat in the room is a palpable thing, heavy with the humidity of sweat and wrapping around Bitty’s throat. His lips are parted a little to suck in air, his head thrown back with closed eyes, and he can feel Parse watching him, can feel the buzzing energy under his skin and the little prickle on his neck. Parse bumps his hip against Bitty’s, laughs when he stumbles a few steps in surprise, beckons him back in.

Bitty goes readily, melting into Parse’s easy exuberance, and now they’re pressed together by hip, thigh, shoulder, a thousand little points of contact adding to the drunken high in Bitty’s head. This could be the best day of my life, Bitty thinks. It’s the best one so far. He’s almost scared to see what better feels like. He wonders if it exists and if anyone deserves it.

Bitty used to think about alternate universes a lot. He’d think about other places he could be, other lives he could live. When he was locked in that utility closet, when he’d given up on anyone finding him, he’d shut his eyes and thought about better. In the morning, when the janitor had finally, finally opened the door, Bitty was far away, not in Georgia, maybe not anywhere, and he’d cried and cried at the coming back home.

Tonight, in another universe, Parse likes boys and Bitty tilts his head to the side and kisses Parse on the mouth and he finally, finally knows what lips feel like, what a tongue feels like against his own. In another universe, Bitty has his thighs gripped around Kent Parson’s waist and his arms around Kent Parson’s neck as they make their way up the stairs. They collapse onto a bed, maybe not even the right one, and fuck like they’d danced, laughing and easy and happy.

But tonight, in some other universe, Eric Bittle is still scared and small somewhere in Georgia, and it isn’t the worst thing to come back home anymore.

The dancing lasts a long time, probably longer than it should have given how tired Bitty is by the end of it, but he’s not exactly about to complain.

Afterwards, Parse heads off to find Ransom and Holster, presumably to talk deets, which is a conversation Bitty would distinctly prefer to avoid participating in for a variety of reasons, so he hangs out with Shitty at the tub juice station, sampling the wares.

He’d honestly been intimidated by Shitty at first because, well, Shitty is brash and loud, but it turns out he’s mostly loud about good things, like feminism and LGBTQ+ rights and alcohol. Bitty’s becoming a pretty fast fan of the alcohol. So he hangs out with Shitty and they talk about serious things, like their childhoods (Shitty’s: bad. Bitty’s: bad), and which flavor Kool-Aid they should use for the next batch of tub juice (Shitty has always wanted to try blue raspberry, but Bitty thinks that sounds awful and votes for orange).

Bitty helps Shitty bring in the tub juice around one in the morning, when things start to settle down. Most of the strangers have filed away, leaving just the hockey bros and their closer friends, most of them still drunk but a more relaxed kind, goofy-dancing or hooking up on the furniture, which—well, Bitty knew he couldn’t trust that couch to begin with.

In the kitchen, Bitty finds Parse sitting on the counter, talking to Jack, which makes Bitty raise his eyebrows in surprise. Jack is gripping a plastic water bottle so tightly Bitty’s kind of afraid it’s going to explode, dressed in basketball shorts and a Samwell t-shirt; he looks annoyed, but not in his usual way.

“—fucking fine, seriously,” Parse is saying, voice clipped.

“Hey, y’all!” Bitty greets cheerfully, hoping to break whatever weird tension seems to be stretching between them.

Jack’s voice is gruff. “Hey, Bittle.”

“Bits! Toss me a beer, will ya?” Parse grins at him.

Bitty nods and fumbles around in the back of the fridge for the nearly empty case of Natty Light. He chucks one clumsily to Parse, who catches it without much fumbling, and cracks one open for himself.

Jack scowls at Parse and snatches the can away, hissing, “Seriously?”

He drops the can in the trash and stalks away towards the stairwell. Parse rolls his eyes and makes a grabby motion towards the beer Bitty has pressed to his lips. Bitty hesitates for a moment, fingers thrumming against the metal, but hands it over in the end. He grabs a fresh can from the fridge and hops up on the counter next to Parse.

“Gonna fucking snap and just kill the guy, one of these days,” Parse says mildly.

“Okay,” Bitty answers, a little drunk and very bewildered.

Parse laughs and clinks his can against Bitty’s in a toast.

 

~*~

 

Bitty slumps into his desk chair and grumbles in the vague direction of the camera, “Reason number five to hate my hockey captains: they woke me up. At four AM. To skate at Faber. On a Sunday. Because apparently we work harder than God now.”

 

Bitty wakes up to shouting. Specifically, his suitemate Michael shouting, “What the fuck is wrong with you people? Do you know—Eric!” There’s a loud banging on his bedroom door, “Do you know what fucking time it is?”

Bitty rolls out of bed and stumbles into the living area; Michael stalks away as soon as he catches sight of him. Jack is standing in the doorway, looking as chipper as Bitty imagines he ever looks. Next to him, Parse is swaying on his feet, barely conscious.

Bitty peers at the clock near their TV. “It’s—it’s four in the morning,”

Parse slumps against Jack’s shoulder, and Jack only half-heartedly shrugs him away. “Are you hazing me?” he mutters. He leans over again and this time Jack lets him stay. “You can’t fucking haze me, Jack, we’re the same age.”

Jack just smiles—actually smiles, like he’s amused—and looks back at Bitty. “Bittle, get your things. We’re going to Faber.”

“Like hell we are,” Bitty mutters under his breath, but he trudges back into his room to get ready anyway.

 

The walk is weird, mostly because Jack and Parse are actually getting along, apparently. Parse keeps flopping in front of Jack’s path and Jack keeps laughing under his breath like maybe it’s a secret that he laughs, and shoving Parse back upright before he falls over completely. Bitty walks on Parse’s other side and tries to figure out what sorts of things Jack is whispering to make Parse laugh so hard, but he can never quite hear.

After he gets suited up in all his gear—despite the fact that Parse and Jack are apparently skating sans pads—they head out onto the ice.

“It’s so early I’m going to vomit,” he moans, skating lazy circles in the ice around his captains.

Jack smirks and chirps, “You’ve never seen the sunrise from a rink, eh? Thought you were a figure skating champion.”

Bitty rolls his eyes and, because he’s tired and petty, does a simple spin, spraying shaved ice over Jack’s track pants. “I am and I have, Captain, but—,”

Parse, laughing, tries to copy the move and falls spectacularly on his ass. While Bitty laughs so hard he nearly wheezes, bent over with his hands on his knees, Jack skates over with an honest-to-God grin on his face. “Let’s leave that to the professionals, eh Kenny?”

“Fuck you, Zimms,” Parse shoots back, but he lets Jack pull him to his feet and thumps his head against Jack’s shoulder before skating away.

“Alright, Bittle, let’s get going,” Jack says, his face falling neutral again. “Stand up against the boards and brace yourself.”

Bitty freezes up immediately. “Um.”

Jack is skating closer at a leisurely pace; Bitty watches him nervously. “Ready?”

“Hold up, Zimms. Why don’t we try with me first?” Parse zips in from the side and grabs at Jack’s arm to come to a stop. Jack opens his mouth to argue but Parse interrupts him. “You’re a big boy, Zimms,” he says, punctuating the statement with a smack on the ass, and Jack’s responding glare has surprisingly little heat behind it. “We gotta start the kid off easy his first time.” Then Parse winks at Bitty as he skates over.

There are lots of ways Bitty’d like to be touched by Parse; he’s experienced several of them, in fact. But being smashed up against the boards while Jack barks impossible commands like square up and push through is not one of them, even if Parse is trying to whisper encouragements under his breath. If anything, that makes it worse, because Bitty is supposed to like Parse’s voice and right now he’d agree to never hear it ever again if this can just—

“Stop stop stop!” Bitty wails, shaking out of his skin, watching everything turn dull around the edges, hearing himself hit the ground before he feels it in his bones.

Parse is crouched next to him, eyes blue and swimming with worry in the harsh rink lighting. He's reaching a hand out guiltily, hovering above Bitty’s shoulder, like he’s not sure he deserves to actually touch. His hair is curled messily and Bitty wants to reach out and smooth his fingers through it. He lifts shaking hands to pull his helmet off instead and refuses to look Parse in the eye.

“What in the deep-fried hell was that?” he manages, voice quivering.

Jack sighs and puts a hand to his face. “He came at you slow. And he’s not even wearing pads.”

Parse tries to help him up; Bitty shrugs him off and stands on his own, braced on the boards to steady himself. Jack is still talking, telling him he’s a good skater, that they’re going to make this work. “Trust us,” he says, like Bitty can snap his fingers and make it happen. How nice that would be.

Bitty is silent for a moment. Parse nudges his arm gently and he nudges back. Finally, he sighs and asks, “Then how long are we going to keep doing this?”

“However long it takes, Bits,” Parse tells him, smiling softly, and wraps his arm around Bitty’s shoulders.

Jack clears his throat. “But actually there’s a youth hockey tournament today, so we have to get out of here by seven.”

“Guess we better get back to it, then,” Parse says, but breaks into a laugh when Bitty whispers in mock horror, “He means seven AM, right?”

 

~*~

 

They stay on the ice until 6:58 when people start to file in to set up for the tournament. Bitty is exhausted, the kind of soul-tired that drags down the skin around his eyes and pulls a fog over his brain. He’d stopped counting the number of times he dropped to the ice when he hit double digits and it feels like there’s a bruise from each one. Parse and Jack are laughing, caught in some sort of wrestling match that Jack is clearly winning while Bitty strips out of his gear.

“Ow, don’t cheat, Kenny!”

“I’m giving you a handicap, Zimms, you have like thirty pounds on me. I mean, most of that is ass-weight, but—ow, rude.”

They seem so nonchalant, completely at home here and with each other. Bitty kind of wants to kill them. He finishes changing back into his clothes and gets up to leave, sulking away with his eyes trained on the floor. Except of course Parse notices, because he’s apparently got some sort of alarm that goes off in his head whenever Bitty wants to be alone that says, hey, go ruin that thing.

“Hey Bits, wait up! D’you guys wanna go get breakfast?” Parse asks, jogging up next to him.

Jack declines, “Think I’ll go for a run.”

Bitty glances up at Parse’s face and finds it suspiciously blank. “Honestly? I want to go back to my dorm and sleep for ten years.”

“Bitty. Bits.” Parse puts a hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “We can sleep when we’re dead.”

Bitty shoots back, “Which’ll be sooner for you than for me, Mr. Parson, if you don’t let me go home.” His tone comes out harsher than he intended, but he’s too goddamn drained to care. Jack snickers anyway.

Something flashes across Parse’s face that he can’t place. “Okay, okay. Uh, walk with me at least? Since you’re on the way.”

With a resigned shrug, Bitty agrees and heads outside, shoulders braced against the morning chill. Jack nudges Parse in farewell and peels away, back in the direction of the Haus. The resulting silence is uncharacteristically awkward, with Bitty’s eyes trained on the ground and Parse watching the autumn foliage rustle in the light breeze.

They’ve reached the Pond before Parse speaks. “Um, so—,” he looks over at Bitty and falters, then shoves his hands in his pockets and looks away again, staring off at the horizon. “I—fuck. Do you—what happens when you—,” he gestures vaguely with one hand, “Do you remember it?”

Sometimes there’s blood—his blood—everywhere and sometimes it’s just the sounds and sometimes he’s not hitting the boards he’s smashing into a row of lockers so hard he leaves a dent and sometimes it’s everything and nothing all at once.

Bitty curls farther into himself, becomes a small, hunched little creature in the face of the October wind and the world. “No.”

“It’s just—you, uh—you say things, you know? Sometimes.” Parse stares at Bitty’s shoes, like it’s the closest he can get to really looking at him.

“Oh.” Bitty stares at his shoes too; one degree of separation suspended between their gazes. “Like—like what?”

At some point they stopped walking. Bitty isn’t sure when or who did it first, just that he realizes suddenly they’re standing on the Beach, both unnaturally intent on the same pair of sneakers and taking turns grinding out little bunches of words. Parse shifts his weight and clears his throat before finally saying, voice hushed even though there’s no one else around, “’Please don’t hurt me again.’”

Bitty takes a long time just to say, “Oh.” He turns his head to the Pond, where the sky is still brooding, not yet tinged by the pink early morning light bleeding outwards from behind them. When his eyes flick over next, Parse has followed his gaze to stare at the horizon. He’s backlit by the sun, strange morning shadows dancing over his face and catching in his hair.

“I just—I’m not gonna, like, make you talk about it, but I just—you can, you know?” His voice is timid, but maybe not insincere like Bitty had feared it would be. “I’m—I’m here. For you. If you—if you want.”

They make eye contact for the first time in nearly ten minutes. Parse’s eyes are pale and strange in the half-sunlight, nearly unnerving. He smiles just a little. Bitty nods and manages, “Thanks, I’ll—I don’t know if—but, thank you.”

The world clicks back into motion and they walk again, slower than before, careful footsteps crunching down against the early crop of fallen leaves. “’Course, Bits,” Parse says, smile wider than before, and reaches out to ruffle Bitty’s hair. “Sure I can’t drag you to breakfast?”

Bitty, exhausted as he is, thinks about it before responding, “No, sorry, I just—I’m really tired.”

Parse shrugs. “No worries.” They reach the intersection where their paths diverge and linger for a moment, shifting awkwardly on the balls of their feet, reluctant to move away. Finally, Parse says, “Um, see ya soon, Bits.” He reaches out for what was probably meant to be just a pat on the shoulder, but Bitty thinks it's a hug, so he turns into it awkwardly and then freezes with his arms sort of hovering near Parse’s sides as he realizes the mistake.

“Um—,” Bitty starts, but Parse just laughs and pulls them together into a real embrace, arms snug around Bitty’s back and cheek warm against his temple. Bitty’s chin hooks perfectly on Parse’s shoulder and he can feel the shuddering of his chest when he breathes.

“Bye, Bits,” Parse murmurs, and then his arms slip away and he goes, a wave thrown over his shoulder as he walks.

Bitty waves back, and he stands for a long time in the growing light before he moves away.

 

~*~

 

“So,” Bitty says, swiveling in his rolling chair, “Shitty keeps goin’ on about how hockey culture is—let’s go with paradoxical. And I’m starting to see what he means.”

 

There’s a lot of things Bitty had known would be different between his small-time co-ed hockey team back home and the NCAA. For one thing, there’s the checking—but he tries to think about that as little as possible and it’s worked out decently so far. And, well, he expected there to be some differences in how the team acted, just—not like this.

The locker room is like a weird war zone with rules of engagement that are impossible to understand. Clearly there’s supposed to be an eyes-to-yourself policy, except Holster literally just felt up Ransom’s calf muscles in order to compliment them and Shitty keeps going on about how Jack’s ass is “sculpted from Canadian marble” and Ollie and Wicks are comparing their abs.

When Parse walks back in from the showers, using his only towel to dry off his hair, Jack chirps, “Put some clothes on, eh Parse? No one wants to see your dick,” even though Shitty has been standing around naked for a good ten minutes, but apparently it’s an old joke between them because Parse just rolls his eyes and laughs.

“Like no one wants to see your ass, right?” he answers, and of course he whips his towel at Jack to punctuate the statement, which makes Shitty start arguing in protest. Parse just smirks and hits Shitty’s ass next, and Shitty retaliates in kind, and pretty soon half the locker room has been recruited into some weird ass-slapping fight while Bitty slips into his clothes as quickly as possible, eyes fixed firmly on his gear bag, back guardedly against the wall to avoid being pulled into the mess.

So yeah, it’s been weird.

 

Their second home game, they’re up by two points halfway through second period, and the whole team is feeling pretty good. Bitty’s perched near the end of the bench, watching the first line skate off at the end of their shift. Jack gets back first and sits next to him, downing half a water bottle as he does so. “Hey, Bittle,” he greets, “playing well tonight.”

Bitty ducks his head to hide his blush. “Oh, um, thanks, Jack! You—you too.”

Jack looks like he might be about to answer, but Parse skates over and plops down right in his lap. It’s not that weird of a thing—Shitty routinely sits pretty much anywhere but on the actual bench, and Holster enjoys squashing people underneath him on a semi-regular basis—but Bitty’s never seen anyone try to do it to Jack.

Apparently for good reason, because Jack grunts and shoves Parse right off. “Ugh, Zimms, rude,” Parse complains, but then he looks over at Bitty with a glint in his eye that’s not at all comforting. “Fine, Bits’ll be my lap buddy.”

“What, no—,” but Parse is already sitting on Bitty’s thighs and leaning back into him. “Oh my God.”

“Dude,” Holster tells Parse in mock horror, “don’t squash Bitty. We like him.”

“’m fine,” Bitty protests through a mouthful of Parse’s jersey, “mostly.” And honestly, the mostly is because Parse’s very nice ass is very close to Bitty’s crotch, not because he’s too heavy or anything. So Bitty can definitely probably deal with that. Maybe.

Bitty’s not expecting it to actually become a thing, except it one hundred percent does. Whenever he gets back to the bench, if Parse is there he pulls Bitty down into his lap, hands resting comfortably on Bitty’s thighs. And pretty soon, Bitty’s used to watching a quarter of the game from behind Parse’s shoulder, head poked around the side while someone makes the inevitable chirp about crushing the frog that they both ignore.

It becomes a thing at the Haus, too, which should probably be weirder, but for some reason never quite feels that way. Bitty comes over one afternoon to hang out (instead of doing his biology homework) and finds everyone squished together on the couch—except Jack, who’s in the armchair—watching old episodes of 30 Rock.

“Oh, hey y’all,” Bitty says, and goes to drag in a chair from the kitchen like he always does when the room is full like this.

Except Parse just goes, “Hey Bits, you can sit with me,” and leans back farther into the couch.

“Um.” Bitty hesitates, biting his lip, but no one seems to even bat an eye. Jack kind of peers at him for a second, but honestly that’s Jack’s expression half the time so it’s sort of meaningless, as far as reading a room goes. “Okay.”

It’s a significantly more intimate experience without all the hockey pads between them. Bitty can feel the soft curve of Parse’s thighs, the jut of his collarbone when he leans forward into Bitty’s back to watch the TV more intently. Parse is warm, buzzing from the beer he’s holding in one hand, and whenever something particularly funny happens he smacks lightly at Bitty’s leg with his free hand, like he’s making sure Bitty heard, and buries his face in his shoulder while he cackles.

And Bitty can see why everyone likes this so much, why girls back in high school—even now, at Haus parties—were always so sly about sliding into boys’ laps, leaning back against their chests and getting arms wrapped around their waists. It’s not quite the same here, of course, no matter what Bitty wants it to be; this is just an extension of a hockey thing, part of the strange overfamiliarity this team seems to have developed. But Bitty thinks, one day. One day he’ll have this for real, and it’s a nice little start.

 

~*~

 

There’s a Haus party almost every weekend, Bitty learns, depending on how you define a party. Sometimes they’re little get-togethers, mostly just the twenty-some people on the hockey team and significant others. Other nights, like tonight, there’s anywhere upwards of fifty people crammed into the Haus from all over Samwell, all dancing and drinking like crazy.

Bitty’s trying to avoid giving this very nice girl the impression that he’d like to kiss her when Parse finds him. “Bitty. Bits. Come be my beer pong partner.”

“Oh, sure? I’ll prob’ly be awful at it; I’ve never played,” he admits, but Parse is already dragging him away towards the table.

“S’cool. Normally I play with Lardo and she fucking shames me, but she’s studying abroad, so—.” Parse shrugs.

Holster and Ransom are hanging out near the beer pong table, maybe waiting their turn to play, maybe just chatting up the two girls who are apparently the opponents. Bitty raises an eyebrow at Parse. “Wait, um, who’s Lardo?”

“Bro,” Parse laughs, “I forgot you haven’t met her! Lardo’s our team manager—,”

“And Shitty’s future wife,” Ransom cuts in.

Holster nods and adds, “She just, uh, doesn’t know that yet.”

Bitty giggles. “That she’s the manager or Shitty’s wife?”

Laughing, Parse hands Bitty a ping pong ball. “Second thing. Poor guy’s got it bad. But look, we gotta—we gotta focus, Bits, okay?” He waves jauntily at the girls across the table and winks at them for good measure.

Bitty does not focus. He plays half-hearted beer pong (which doesn’t seem to matter, because Parse is actually really good) and divides most of his attention between the listening to the ridiculous stories Rans and Holster tell about Lardo and watching Parse flirt with their opponents.

They get the girls down to the last cup when there’s still three on their own side of the table. Apparently the Haus rule is to do shots before trying to sink the last ball. Parse shotguns an entire beer instead because “fuck vodka it’s disgusting,” and Bitty chirps him to hell and back for it after downing his glass without batting an eye.

“Okay, okay Bits. Bitty,” Parse says very seriously, swaying on his feet a little while he talks, “I’m gonna make this shot okay? But you gotta—,” he bends down so they’re at perfect eye level and puts his free hand on Bitty’s shoulder, “you gotta blow on it for good luck.”

Bitty blinks slowly. Parse’s eyes are bright and close and flecked with green. He shakes his head and giggles. “I ain’t—I’m not doin’ that. It’s silly.”

“Bits, ‘s tradition.” Parse actually pouts a little bit, which is honestly ridiculous and Bitty cannot handle it right now.

“O-okay, fine,” he sighs, and Parse grins and holds the ball up right between their faces. Bitty puckers his lips and blows gently, blushing and looking away as soon as he’s done. Parse straightens and lines up for his shot, eyebrow quirked in concentration.

The ball clips the rim but splashes into the cup and by the time Bitty processes that they’ve won, Parse is already lifting him into air and cheering. When he puts him down, Parse slings an arm around his shoulders and walks them over to the girls to shake their hands.

“Good game, boys,” one of them, a tall blonde who’s got her hair tucked under a pink camo ballcap, says. She smiles knowingly at Bitty. “Y’all are cute together.”

Bitty’s sure he’s turning bright red. He stammers quickly, “Oh, um—we’re not—he’s just—,”

Parse just laughs and ruffles Bitty’s hair before dropping his hand back to his shoulder. “We’re teammates.”

The other girl, shorter and brunette, looks between them with a smirk before settling her gaze on Parse. “So does that mean you’re single?”

Bitty resists the urge to rolls his eyes and says, “He is,” nudging Parse in the side. He ducks out from under Parse’s arm and goes to stand with Ransom and Holster, who are resetting the beer pong table for the next round. Parse turns to wink at him and he gives a thumbs up in response.

 

~*~

 

It’s another early Sunday morning trek to Faber. Bitty’s gotten used to the four AM wake-up time pretty quickly, even if he still wishes he were curled up in bed; Parse, on the other hand, is basically asleep on his feet as always.

“Zimms. Jack. I’m too tired; carry me.” He paws at Jack’s arm like a cat.

Jack snorts and pushes him away. “No.”

“Bits. Bitty, my man. Carry me?”

“Kent Parson, you are a grown ass man. I ain’t—,” except Bitty apparently doesn’t have a say in the matter, because Parse ignores him and jumps up onto his back, wrapping his legs around his waist. “Good Lord, seriously?” Bitty stumbles but regains his balance, and grabs Parse’s legs with a resigned sigh. “I should drop you. I hope you know that.”

Parse just shrugs and props his chin up on Bitty’s shoulder. “Yo, Bits, your hair smells like really fucking good.”

Jack presses a hand to his face. Bitty glances sideways at Parse. “Um, thanks? It’s just—it’s just my shampoo.”

“Sexy shampoo,” Parse amends. He leans his head against Bitty’s cheek and closes his eyes. “Wake me up when we get there.”

“Oh my God, you’re the worst,” Bitty complains, though to be honest he’s a little less annoyed by the situation than he’s letting on.

Jack elbows him gently, his wry smile barely visible in the pre-dawn light. “Better you than me, Bittle.”

“Gee, thanks, Captain.”

 

~*~

 

“So, it’s family weekend at Samwell, and my mother made the seven hour trip from Madison to Atlanta to Boston to here.” Bitty sighs. “Things have already gotten—interesting.”

 

The Wednesday before family weekend, Bitty shoves a nearly empty pie tin back across the bed towards Parse and gripes, “It’s not like I’m not excited to see her, it’s just—when she gets excited about things, she can be a bit much, you know?”

Parse snorts affectionately. “Says the guy who jacked our oven five minutes after being invited inside.”

Bitty sticks his tongue out at him. “Yeah, but what would y’all do without my cooking?”

“Die from sriracha overdose, probably.” Parse flops down onto the bed with his feet dangling off the edge and stares up at him. Humming in solemn agreement, Bitty lays down too, so the tops of their heads bump together. They stare at the ceiling in silence until Parse says, so quietly Bitty almost misses it, “At least she’s coming.”

“Hm?” Bitty angles his head to try and get a better look at Parse’s face.

“At least she’s coming,” he repeats. “My mom, she—uh, I mean, she probably has work, but—.” He goes silent.

Bitty bites his lip. “Do you—would you wanna have dinner with us, then? I’m sure my mother would love to meet you.”

Parse laughs softly. “Thanks, Bits. I’ll uh—I might have plans, but I’ll try okay?”

 

~*~

 

“Oh, and did you see that cobbler recipe posted to our site?” His mother asks, looping her arm through his as they leave Faber, leaves crunching under their feet.

Bitty rolls his eyes affectionately. “Mother, please. You know I check our Pinterest like it’s the news.”

They chatter while they walk towards the Haus, which Bitty’s a little nervous about showing her, but she practically insisted, and he really shouldn’t have talked about it so much if he wasn’t prepared to introduce her, he figures. They pass Jack on the way there, who’s walking quickly in the opposite direction, back towards Faber.

“Oh, hey Jack!” Bitty stops to greet him, but Jack barely slows down until he’s already passed them and looking over his shoulder.

“Bittle, hi—oh, you must be Mrs. Bittle, hello, sorry, I—I’m late to meet my dad.” He gives a short wave and then gestures off into the distance.

Bitty waves back, but Jack’s back is already turned again. “Oh, uh—alright then.”

His mother is apparently unfazed. “Well, he was certainly in a hurry. And even more handsome in person, Dicky! I can only imagine what his father looks like.”

Bitty groans. “Mother, I’m begging you—please stop talking about Bob Zimmermann. If the boys hear you goin’ on about it I’ll never hear the end of it.”

She tuts, “Oh hush, Dicky, you’re not too proud to be seen with your mother now, are you?”

“No, ma’am,” he sighs, “I just—never mind. Just don’t say anything, okay?”

“I’m sure I can find some other way to embarrass you,” she teases, and Bitty sighs in resignation. They reach the Haus, and he can actually feel her forcing down the shock she’s experiencing. “Oh, Dicky, it’s—charming.”

Defensively, he starts, “I know it’s not much to look at but—,”

The front door swings open and Parse steps outside, frowning fiercely at his phone. He looks up and brightens slightly at the sight of them. “Hey, Bits! Have you—you haven’t seen Jack, have you?”

“Um yeah actually, he went—I think he was looking for his dad.” Bitty points in the direction Jack went. “Why?”

Parse’s face falls again, something like pain flashing across it as he shoves his phone into his pocket. He’s dressed nicer than normal, in khakis and a green button-down, a plain black snapback facing forward on his head. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“Okay, well—um, Kent, this is my mother. Mother, this is Kent, he’s—,” Bitty hesitates. His mother knows who Parse is; Bitty’s probably talked about him more than any of his other teammates, but that feels awkward to admit. “He’s a really good friend of mine on the team.”

Parse looks up at that and smiles, nodding at Bitty before turning to his mother and shaking her hand. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

“Good to meet you too, Kent. Dicky’s told me so much about you,” she gushes as they walk into the Haus together, and Bitty winces. “Don’t worry, all good things, of course.”

“Mother—,”

Parse smirks and quirks an eyebrow at Bitty, chirping him silently. “Well, Dicky’s been pretty great to have around.” Bitty buries his face in his hands.

Bitty and his mother start on a pie crust while Parse “supervises,” which amounts to being a nuisance. Ransom and Holster are already out with their families, but Shitty is around and stops by to say hello. Mercifully, he’s wearing boxers.

After Shitty heads off and the pie crust is almost done, Parse nudges Bitty and quietly asks, “Hey, uh—are you guys still going to dinner?”

Bitty looks up at his mother and they share a brief, silent communication. The thing is: dinner had been the plan a whole two days ago, and Bitty had kind of figured Parse wasn’t coming because he never brought it up again, and so in true Bittle fashion somewhere between the airport and Faber “going out to eat” had become “bake a pie in the frat house and maybe order a pizza.”

But his mother, God bless her, seems to understand something in the purse of Bitty’s lips, or maybe Parse’s sudden fascination with the linoleum flooring, because she says, “Of course! Dicky was just telling me about that great place—what was it—?”

“Annie’s—,” Bitty scrambles to supply.

“Annie’s—you’ll join us, won’t you dear?” She wipes the flour off her hands and pats Parse on the shoulder.

If Parse thinks Annie’s Café is a strange place to eat dinner (it is), he doesn’t say anything about it. He just looks up at them with a smile and says, “Yeah, sure. Thanks.”

 

~*~

 

Annie’s is a short walk from the Haus. Once they get there, they order sandwiches and coffees at the counter and find a booth in the corner, Parse and Bitty sliding into one side and his mother on the other. Parse swipes his finger across the whipped cream on top of Bitty’s latte and Bity swats his hand away.

“Shoo! Order your own next time,” he scolds.

Parse sighs dramatically. “But I don’t like it in the coffee, Bits. You know this.”

Rolling his eyes, Bitty thinks to himself, this boy, and looks up to see his mother smiling at them with a strange, soft expression.

“So, Kent,” she says, “Dicky says you’re majoring in mathematics.”

“Because he’s a crazy person,” Bitty mumbles.

Parse glares at him playfully. “Numbers are fun.”

“You will literally never make me believe that.”

Ignoring him, save for a brief smirk, Parse turns back to Bitty’s mother. “But yeah, I’m a math major. Took me a little while to figure out what I wanted to do. I mean, college wasn’t—I didn’t think I’d end up here.” He laughs, and Bitty’s not sure if he’s imagining the bitterness or not.

“Oh, well,” his mother says briskly, “the Lord has a path for each of us, sweetheart. I’m sure you’re right where you’re meant to be.”

Bitty knows she’s just trying to be kind, and that she even means it, but he’s also spent enough drunk Saturdays with Parse to be pretty damn sure it won’t help at all. He slides his foot against Parse’s under the table, a little in comfort but mostly in warning. Parse leans in with his knee, so that their calves are pressed together, and simply says, “Um, thank you.”

The woman working at the counter calls out their food order, which thankfully derails the conversation. When they sit back down, Parse knocks their knees together again, a simple sharing of space that Bitty honestly has no remaining context for but isn’t exactly going to complain about.

“So, Mrs. B,” Parse asks, “Dicky says you work at a doctor’s office?”

“Oh my God, stop,” Bitty mutters under his breath. Parse just winks and turns back to Mother, who’s waving her hands excitedly while she talks about her job.

 

~*~

 

“I think ‘Dicky’ suits you,” Parse argues with a cackle, after they leave Bitty’s mother in the safe-keeping of Ransom’s and Holster’s families.

“Ugh,” Bitty groans, “what do I gotta do to convince you to keep that between us?”

Parse rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Hm. One million dollars.”

Bitty snorts. “You’ll be makin’ twice that per year, pretty soon.”

“You don’t know that, Bits. I could end up an accountant in fuckin’ Queens.” His tone is light, maybe overly so.

Bitty hesitates before chirping, “Don’t sell yourself short. You could make it in Manhattan.” Parse laughs and knocks their shoulders together while they walk. They’re quiet for a long moment before Bitty softly asks, looking up at Parse, “You don’t really think that, do you?”

Parse doesn’t turn his head. “’Course not,” he says, and it’s not convincing at all.

 

~*~

 

There’s less than three minutes left in the game with still no points on the board, and for some reason Bitty’s out on the ice. He really feels like he shouldn’t be out here, that there must be someone better—even though Jack’s been skating off all night and nothing he tries to shoot to Parse is connecting (if he tries to pass at all)—someone who could make bigger plays or actually check the opposition or—

Shitty has the puck but a D-man slams him hard into the boards, sending the puck flying. Bitty’s brain shuts off except for the burn in his legs, the line the puck traces through the air, the smacking sound it makes when it catches against his stick. Nearly frantic, Bitty skates hard and fast towards the net, tries to filter out the shouts of the opposing team, looks for someone to pass to but Shitty is still behind him and Wicks is across the rink and—

“Bitty, shoot!” Ransom yells.

He does, instinctively, even though he’s already convinced it won’t go in except the next time he opens his eyes it’s to the blaring of the buzzer overhead and four teammates speeding towards him with grins on their faces.

Shitty gets to him first, crushing him into a hug amidst a stream of curse words. Bitty catches a glimpse of the bench over his shoulder, finds Parse—on his feet, cheering with a huge grin on his face—instantly, before Holster and Ransom envelope him and obscure the view.

He skates off in a state of relative shock, interrupted only by the strange urge to get back to the bench as quickly as possible. The whole team is congratulating him, slapping his back or ass and offering fistbumps. Bitty goes past them all in a daze, not even jumping at all the contact, until he’s standing in front of Parse.

“I scored,” he tells him, like it’s possible he didn’t see.

“Hell fucking yeah, you did, Bits!” Parse cheers, and before Bitty knows it he’s being pulled down into Parse’s lap, arms curled all the way around his waist and Parse’s face smashed into his neck. “I’m so fucking proud of you, Bitty.”

“I—,” Bitty stutters and has to start over with new words. “Thank you.”

Bitty stays wrapped up by Parse for most of the rest of the game, staring at the slow tick of the clock on the scoreboard instead of the ice, while the whole thing sinks in. Then Parse’s line gets pulled for the last shift of the game and Bitty sinks down to the bench in the space he leaves, leaning sideways until he thumps onto Ransom’s shoulder.

 

~*~

 

Bitty’s starting to feel giddy by the time he changes out of his gear and goes looking for his mother, Parse ambling along with him. They find her waiting in a hallway near the locker rooms, looking excited and a little lost, and she immediately starts taking pictures of Bitty on her phone, then handing the phone off to Parse so he can take some of the two of them. She chatters all the while, gushing about how proud she is of Bitty, how great Parse looked on the ice too, when finally Bitty manages to say, “Thanks. I’m just—I’m still in shock. But we should really shower up now.”

“Oh, before you two go, lemme take one more picture—,”

A voice Bitty doesn’t recognize, thick with a French accent and warm, offers, “Would you like one of all three of you?” Mother’s eyes go wide as Bitty and Parse turn around. Bad Bob Zimmermann is standing in front of them, eyes crinkled up in a smile, Jack tense at his side. “Though you might want Jack to take it—he’s always been a better shot than me.”

Jack, arms crossed and voice uncomfortably flat, starts, “Dad, this is—,”

But Bad Bob is too busy pulling a startled Parse into a hug while Bitty watches, wide-eyed. “Kenny, so good to see you, son! We missed you at dinner.”

Parse grunts into Bad Bob’s shoulder, arms going up somewhat belatedly to reciprocate the hug. “Hey, Dad. Sorry.” Bitty tilts his head and frowns a little in confusion. He knows—from his adventures with Google—that Parse has known the Zimmermanns for years, that Bad Bob apparently pulled strings to keep Parse billeted with them the entire time he was in the Q. But this—looks and sounds like a hell of a lot more than a reunion between mentor and student.

When they pull apart, Bitty catches Parse’s gaze shifting to Jack as he adds, “Missed you too.”

Jack coughs and tries again, “Dad, this is Eric Bittle and his mom. Bittle’s the one I told you about—the figure skater.”

“Oh, pardon my manners! Pleasure to meet you both.” Bad Bob shakes Mother’s hand first, then Bitty’s.

Bitty, a little star-struck and caught off-guard by Parse’s reception, flounders and stammers, “Nice to meet you Bad B—uh. Oh. Mister Bad B—ah. U-um. Mister Jack’s Dad!” Parse snorts and pats Bitty on the back with a smirk. As if Parse needed any more chirping material.

“Hah! Please, just call me Bob.” Bitty nods nervously, but before he has time to dwell, Bob is letting go of his hand to clasp him on the shoulder instead and continuing on, “I gotta say, I was a bit worried when I first saw you on the ice, but—well, I suppose I thought the same thing about Kenny back in the day, eh?” He winks at Parse and then turns back to Bitty. “That was a clutch shot, son.”

They chatter about hockey for a while, Jack stalking away halfway through with a glower leveled at Bitty as he brushes past. Bitty bites his lip, but turns back to the conversation in time to hand his phone over to Bob to get some photos.

When that mess is over with, Bob shakes the Bittles’ hands again and pulls Parse into another hug. It’s an unrushed affair, complete with a short, murmured conversation in what might very well be French instead of English. They switch back at the end though, when Parse chuckles and tries to pull away. “I gotta go, Dad. I’ll—I’ll see you, I guess.”

“Call any time, Kenny,” Bob says, voice warm and maybe nostalgic, “I mean it.”

“I know,” Parse tells him, his voice faltering over the words. Bitty looks away guiltily, suddenly feeling like he’s been peering into some private thing that doesn’t belong to him. Then, clearing his throat, Parse slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders and says lightly, “C’mon, Bits. Let’s go shower up; you smell rank.”

“Excuse you, Parson,” Bitty snorts, “You smell worse.” He makes sure his mother knows how to get to her hotel and sets a time to meet her tomorrow morning, and then they’re off to the locker rooms in a flurry of chirps.

 

~*~

 

There’s no party after the game tonight, since some family members will be hanging around, so Bitty’s just looking forward to going back to his dorm, maybe getting some homework done (a very reluctant maybe) and recording a vlog post. But as he and Parse are heading out of the locker room, Bitty catches sight of Jack ahead of them and runs to catch up. Bitty’s proud of his goal and all, but he knows he couldn’t have done it without all the help Jack and Parse have been giving him and, well, that’s the sort of thing that needs to be said.

“Hey, Jack! Wait up! I’m so glad I caught you,” he pants. Jack doesn’t turn around, but he does stop walking, at least. “’Cause, um. I just wanted to say again, good game. And thank—,”

“Bittle,” Jack cuts in. His voice is dismissive, almost sneering. “It was a lucky shot.”

Bitty stands and stares as Jack walks away, feet thudding lightly against the concrete steps. He gnaws at his bottom lip and jumps when Parse puts a hand on his shoulder. “Fucking—,” Parse mutters, then turns to Bitty with more conviction, “Fuck him, Bits. You played great.”

Before Bitty can say anything back, though, Parse is jogging off to catch up to Jack. He rests a hand on his back when he does, and Jack turns to him, head hung low. Bitty can’t quite make out their words and he doesn’t particularly want to, but he can hear the gentle lilt of their voices as their silhouettes melt into the October night.

And here’s the thing: Jack is kind of an asshole. Bitty’s known that from basically day one; it’s a steady, reliable fact, part of the Samwell Men’s Hockey experience. So really, it’s not that big of a deal, what Jack just said. It stings like hell, and certainly takes the edge off Bitty’s pride, but that’s how things go.

The part that’s worse, the part that puts the sick little twisting ache in Bitty’s belly, is the way Parse goes so easily to him, like Jack’s the one who’s wounded from the encounter.

The part that’s the worst of all is this: the reminder that whatever Bitty is to Parse, Jack is clearly more.

 

~*~

 

Bitty gets home and finds Chad curled up on the couch, headphones in watching something on his laptop. He waves at him half-heartedly and gets no response, which really was to be expected. After recording a cathartic video he probably won’t end up posting and giving up on the pretense of working on homework, he changes into sleep shorts and his favorite old t-shirt and climbs into bed. With Señor Bun tucked secretively against his chest, he scrolls through all the pictures he took with his mother throughout the day, filtering the ones he’d like to post to Facebook.

Knowing full well he won’t be able to get to sleep before midnight, Bitty thumbs through his social media, adding a few things to the family Pinterest board, catching up on the Instagram feeds of his old hockey teammates. Not twenty minutes later, his phone pings with a notification from Facebook: Kent Parson made your photo his profile picture.

Bitty raises an eyebrow at his phone, like it’ll provide him some sort of answer, and clicks on the notification. It’s the very last photo Bad Bob had taken using Bitty’s phone, after his mother had bowed out and gone to stand with Bob, chatting him up like Sunday after church, bless her heart. Bitty hadn’t even realized Bob was still taking pictures.

It’s not really that great of a picture, objectively speaking; Bob was probably right about Jack being better with a camera. It’s just the tiniest bit blurry and off-center, but Bitty had posted it anyway, mostly as a self-indulgence. Parse has his arm around Bitty, but he’s reached up to ruffle his hair; he’s just said something chirpy, causing Bitty to roll his eyes fondly, and he’s laughing at his own joke with his freckled nose all crinkled up and eyes bright. It’s the most them thing Bitty has ever seen.

Parse’s caption just reads, “Besties :D”

Bitty scrubs a hand over his face and raises his eyes towards the ceiling. “Message received,” he says, and hits ‘like’ on the photo before shoving his phone under his pillow.

 

~*~

 

Bitty checks again to make sure none of his suitemates are home before he continues. “—so I thought I could be myself here, even if I was on the hockey team. The only thing is…I’ve kind of waited all of fall semester to actually come out to my teammates. Oops.” He reaches instinctively for the little stack of notecards in his bag, running his finger along the tops. “Well, wish me luck, y’all.”

 

Winter Screw—Bitty honestly can’t remember what the dance is actually called—is right around the corner, and it seems like no one will shut up about it. Which is sort of becoming a problem for Bitty.

Most of the gang is walking to breakfast at the dining hall when Ransom and Holster pounce on him like bro-jackals.

Holster brags, “We even found a date for Jack “The Pickiest Man Alive” Zimmerma—,”

“Hey!”

“—and we would’ve found one for Shitty if he wasn’t holding out for Lardo,” Ransom adds.

Shitty grumbles, “Fuck you guys.”

Ransom ignores him. “So come on, Bits—what’s your type?”

Men. Bitty, of course, doesn’t say it. He looks up and finds all four of them, even Jack, staring at him with interest. And, not surprising himself in the slightest, he bolts.

There’s not actually a pie in the library, obviously, but Bitty walks there anyway and sinks down to the steps out front, head in his hands. He’s not sure why he’s having such a hard time with this; it’s not that he doesn’t trust his teammates, logically, to support him. But there’s still the little trickling voice in the back of his mind, ticking steady like a metronome, lie—hide—lie—hide, that he can’t seem to push away.

“’Sup, Bits?” Bitty looks up to see Parse, who’s just walked out of Founder’s with a girl under his arm. She’s got sleek black glasses that take up half her face and pretty red hair in a braid.

“See you in class, Kent,” she says, and heads off, her boots clicking against the concrete.

Parse waves to her and plops down next to Bitty on the steps. “You okay?” He stares expectantly, waiting for his answer. Bitty tugs at his bottom lip and stares back. He can hear his opening line in his head. No, I like boys and I’ve never told anyone. The problem is, he can’t picture the part that comes next.

Because here’s the thing: Bitty knows Parse is a really good guy. He talks with Shitty all the time about the importance of neutral pronoun usage and affirming less common sexualities, and Bitty’s never seen him fail to walk the walk once. And outside of that, he’s just plain Bitty’s best friend. If it were any other secret, any other close-guarded revelation, Bitty would hand it to Parse first in an instant.

But here’s the other thing: it’s one thing to be accepting, in the abstract. It’s another thing to know that your teammate—the guy you change next to in the locker room, the guy who sits on your lap when the couch is full, the guy who introduced you to his mother—just might want to fuck you.

So, “Everything’s fine,” is what Bitty tells him, and he gets up hurriedly to leave. “I just forgot something, uh, in my dorm. See you at breakfast?”

“Um, sure,” Parse answers, and Bitty waves erratically over his shoulder while he flees.

 

~*~

 

So it’s Shitty, in the end, by the river bank on a bench, who listens when Bitty says, “I’m gay,” for the very first time. It’s Shitty who watches Bitty pace back and forth with his foot sliding against the same patch of ice over and over and listens to the speech carefully scribbled onto notecards until Bitty’s finally ready to let the words come out, who tells him it’s okay he waited so long, that it was his choice to do it at all.

He’s not quite weightless; he’s not sure he’ll ever get to feel that way. But there’s something different in the way he moves, a light dizziness in his steps like he’d been wading through water and now his limbs don’t drag and it’s too easy to get around.

Bitty looks at Shitty while they walk and smiles. “You know, Shitty, you’re good at this! You really just took this whole coming out thing in stride. You could be a peer counselor or something.”

Shitty shrugs. “Idk, bro, I’m kinda used to it. People just come out to me all the fucking time. Fuck you not—sophomore year? Six different people came out to me in a week.”

“No!” Bitty laughs, feeling a little giddy.

“Bits. I felt like I had a goddamn sign taped to my back that said ‘Will Affirm All Sexual Identities.’”

Giggling, Bitty suggests, “Maybe it’s, um—like pheromones or something.”

“I should donate my fucking body to science or something.” After a moment of quiet, Shitty asks, “Are you gonna tell anyone else?”

Bitty nods nervously, “Um, Ransom and Holster, for, uh—Screw, obviously.” He looks up nervously and then back down. “And I think—I don’t want it to be a big thing? So people can kind of just know if it comes up.” He waits for a long time, still convincing himself of the statement before he manages to admit, “I should probably tell Parse, though.”

“So I mean, you fucking never have to tell anyone, Bits. That’s always your goddamn choice,” Shitty reminds him, and he smiles faintly in response, “But why’re you making it sound like that’ll be harder?”

“Um, I just—,” Bitty struggles to find the right words, “He’s my—well, one of my—he’s my best friend and I—we’re—what if it makes him uncomfortable and things aren’t the same anymore or—,”

Shitty puts a steadying hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “Bits. First of all? You’re the same person you’ve been the whole fucking time okay? You’re just more open about you, and even if you’re into Parse—,”

“I’m not!” Bitty squeaks, too quickly, flapping his hands in protest, “I’m not—I don’t—I don’t think about my teammates that way.”

“Hey, you guys are super fucking close. It wouldn’t be that weird if you were—,”

“Shitty, no, okay?” Bitty cuts him off again, voice tinged with a little desperation. “It’s not—that’s not why.”

Shitty holds his hands up in defeat. “Okay, alright, sorry Bits. But just—uh, Parse is a really chill dude, alright? I promise you’re not gonna freak him out or anything.”

“You can’t—how can you know that?” Bitty asks, worrying at his bottom lip while they walk. “How can you just know?”

Shitty goes uncharacteristically quiet, face tilted up towards the snow-laden clouds, for a long moment. “I, uh—well, I mean, I guess you can’t fucking know anything for sure, technically, but—fucking, I dunno man, Parse obviously cares a lot about you and he’s—I’ll shave my fucking head if shit gets fucked because of this, alright?”

“That’s—a weirdly strong endorsement?”

Shitty smiles and nudges Bitty gently. “’Chyeah, bro.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty finds Ransom and Holster next, still riding the adrenaline high from making it through his conversation with Shitty, mostly because he’s pretty sure he’s running out of time before they show up on his doorstep with a very nice girl who’s going to be very disappointed at Screw.

He ends up with an Excel spreadsheet he’s instructed to fill out by the end of the day and email to Ransom, and a strange mix of hope and foreboding bubbling in his stomach.

 

~*~

 

He waits until Wednesday, armed with one third of a blueberry pie (Parse’s favorite; Bitty’s not above stacking the deck) and the liquid courage of exactly three quarters of a beer can, to talk to Parse. They’re both propped up against Parse's headboard, shoulders knocked together casually, relaxing to the soundtrack of Britney Spears leaking softly from Parse’s laptop speakers and the sharp staccato of forks scraping against a pie tin.

Bitty very well might shake clean out of his skin. He wonders how long that sort of thing normally takes and if he’ll turn into a ghost or just float on up to Heaven.

Parse sighs to himself and drops his fork; it clatters in the tin in weak protest before silencing. He reaches out and grips Bitty’s shoulder. “Bits, what’s wrong?”

“What? Nothing’s—,”

“Bitty, come on. You’ve been acting off all week and I’m starting to get fucking worried about it. What’s. Wrong?”

“I—I just—I have something to tell you, I guess?” Bitty stares at the pie tin. The filling is starting to leak out the sides of the remaining pie, syrupy little tendrils puddling in the ridges of the tin. “I—and it’s something I’ve wanted to—but I didn’t know how to—and I—God—,” Bitty laughs weakly and Parse squeezes his shoulder, “this was supposed to get easier.”

Bitty takes a moment to study Parse’s face—the long, pale lashes framing smoky gray eyes, the carefully groomed eyebrows, the dusting of freckles across his cheeks and nose—like maybe something’s about to change in it forever and he’ll need to remember the difference. He closes his eyes and whispers, so his voice won’t crack, “I’m gay.”

His eyes open and it’s still Parse looking back at him, with a subtly quirked smile and a hand so steady on his shoulder Bitty feels like he might be rooted to it forever. It doesn’t feel real. “And I just—I wanted to tell you sooner, I really did, but—but I didn’t wanna make you uncomfortable or something and—,”

“Bits—,”

“—and I understand if things are different now but I’m not gonna make anything weird I promise and—and if you—,”

“Bitty, Christ, listen to me,” Parse interrupts, his hand tightening on Bitty’s shoulder. Bitty clamps his mouth shut and nods. Voice thick with conviction, Parse leans in close so that their eyes lock. “Nothing’s weird. Nothing’s fucking uncomfortable. You were my best friend five minutes ago and you’re still that now.”

Bitty doesn’t move. He’s the inside of a snow-globe, all shaken up and drifting back to rest, just the tiniest bit changed. Parse’s eyes are right there but he stares through them, peers at some other scene entirely in his mind’s eye. When it all flashes past and Parse’s eyelashes flutter slowly, Bitty asks, “I—are you—it’s all okay?”

“Of course, Bits, of course it’s—there’s nothing that wouldn’t be, alright? I need you to fucking understand that—there’s nothing ‘not okay’ about you.” There’s something raw in Parse’s voice, urgent, maybe a little pained.

Bitty looks up with a tightness locked around his throat and nods. Parse has just the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips when he wraps his arm around Bitty’s shoulders and it’s too much, too much to carry that little flicker on top of it all and Bitty crashes forward into Parse’s chest with a helpless sob.

There’s arms wrapped around him pulling him so, so close and a hand stroking through his hair and the too-gentle rhythm of Parse’s heart in his chest. There’s the rub of tear-damp fabric against his cheek and the broken whisper of, “It’s okay—it’s gonna be okay—you’re okay—,” that can’t possibly be for Bitty, just can’t be.

“I-I’m s-sorry,” he chokes out, voice scratching ugly and pathetic over the words, “I p-promised myself I w-wouldn’t—I’m so s-sorry, I d-don’t know—,”

Parse just keeps right on talking, his words a soothing murmur above Bitty’s ear. “You can cry, Bits, it’s okay. I’m here. I’ve got you, okay? I’ve fucking got you.”

And maybe—just maybe, Bitty thinks—maybe it’s even true.

 

Bitty stays wrapped up in Parse’s arms until he’s wrung out of tears, until even the lingering shallow hiccups that always follow a hard cry are gone. He stays a little past that, too, because Parse is still pressing him close against his chest and stroking his hair and he’s singing along to the music now, in a hushed tenor that makes Circus sound more deserving of worship than any hymn on Sunday morning.

So Bitty lingers, and Parse lets him, until there’s a pounding down the attic stairs and a loud bang against the door that’s probably supposed to resemble knocking. Holster booms, “80’s rom-com night! Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink double-fucking-feature!” and then spins right around and repeats the knock-shout combination on Jack’s door, even though Bitty’s pretty sure the entire neighborhood hear him the first time.

Bitty looks up, attempting to rub the puffiness from his eyes, to find Parse smirking at him. He ruffles Bitty’s hair and says, “I’m in if you are.”

“Um—yeah, sure.” Bitty uncurls slowly, cracking the joints in his back as he stretches, and nearly sends the pie tin clattering to the ground as he climbs off the bed.

Parse laughs and catches it, setting it on his desk for safe-keeping. He slings an arm back around Bitty’s shoulders as they head downstairs. “I’m eating the rest of that pie myself,” he tells Bitty with exaggerated seriousness, “I hope you know that.”

Bitty smiles up at him. “All yours.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty frowns in concentration and adjusts his bowtie in the mirror before turning to his camera. “Tonight’s the Winter Screw dance. Ransom and Holster have found me a date, apparently, so y’all best pray for me. Now, I’m a Southern gentleman, so normally I’d pick up my date at his door, but apparently we’re all meeting at the Haus to pregame, so—y’all best pray for me twice.”

 

“Kent Parson, tell me you are not planning on wearing a snapback to this dance.”

Parse jumps back when Bitty tries to snatch the hat off his head and argues, “It’s my nice hat, Bits!”

“Your—oh my God—I honestly don’t know why I’m surprised.” Bitty sighs and resists the urge to run a hand through his carefully tousled hair. He takes a moment to take in Parse’s appearance: he’s in a dark navy suit, already slim-cut and snug around his shoulders and thighs, like he’s put on some muscle since he bought it. His shirt is cheekily unbuttoned, teasing a glimpse of collarbone, and tie-less. “Well, at least the rest of you is—,” Sexy. Absurdly attractive. Incredible. Bitty clamps his mouth shut in panic.

Parse quirks an eyebrow and smirks, moving into Bitty’s space playfully. “What’s the rest of me, exactly?” When Bitty doesn’t answer right away, Parse laughs and bats his eyelashes. “C’mon, Bits, lay it on me. I clean up nice, don’t I?”

Bitty rolls his eyes and chirps, “You’d look better without the hat.”

Immediately, Parse pulls his snapback off and tosses it on the couch without even looking back; his eyes are trained on Bitty. He’s still smirking but his voice doesn’t have quite the playful edge it did before. “Yeah? And now?”

He’s standing closer than he should be, closer than anyone else stands. It’s unsettling but not unwelcome and that only makes Bitty’s skin prickle more. There aren’t any words that feel right on Bitty’s lips and it’s just as well because there’s movement on the stairs and suddenly Jack is braced against the doorway, in a classic black suit and white dress shirt with a popped collar. Parse shifts away immediately; Bitty feels the extra inch of distance in his bones.

“Parse, have you seen my blue tie?”

“You have like three, bro.”

“The nice one,” Jack clarifies, and Bitty is struck, like he sometimes is with them, by the familiarity laden in that statement. He doesn’t know how many ties anyone owns or which is their nicest, not even about his father.

Parse shrugs. “Should be in your room. Check the—your desk.”

“Ah, okay.” Jack turns and heads back up the stairs. Both of them watch him go.

“Fucking Christ,” Parse mutters, nearly under his breath, “it should be illegal for an ass to look that good in slacks, yeah?”

Bitty laughs nervously, but in the end he decides to roll with it. “Amen.”

Whatever weird tension that was growing between them is dispelled, but Bitty preens a little internally when he realizes Parse isn’t going to put the hat back on. Jack returns shortly with his apparently-the-nicest blue tie firmly knotted under his collar, Shitty on his tail, and Ransom and Holster joining a few minutes later. Johnson appears from the kitchen, where apparently he’s been the whole time, a few minutes before everyone was told to be ready.

They break out a case of beer as their dates start to file in. Jack’s date, an athletic blonde girl named Camilla, is first, precisely on time. Next is Holster’s date, who’s walked in by a tall, dark-haired man who looks vaguely familiar. Ransom jumps up and greets them both, then walks the guy over to where Bitty is sitting with Parse, perched on the arm of the recliner.

“Bits, this is Henry. He—.” Whatever Ransom was about to say is cut off, because his date’s just arrived and he bustles off to meet her. Bitty looks up at Henry (who apparently looks familiar because Ransom showed him a picture a little over a week ago) and gives an awkward wave.

Henry waves back with an amused laugh. “Hi, uh—Henry, like Justin mentioned. And sorry, you’re—Eric, right?”

“Yes! Um, most people call me Bitty, but um—either is fine.” Bitty wipes his sweaty palms off on his slacks and offers a handshake.

“Oh yeah? It’s cool you have a nickname too.” When Parse and Bitty just stare at him in confusion, he clarifies, “You know, since you’re friends with the hockey team?”

Well, then. Bitty bites his lip and tries to shove down the queasiness he feels in his gut. Of course he doesn’t look—anything enough—to be on the team. He shouldn’t really blame Henry for assuming, should he? “Oh, um, actually, I—uh—,”

“Actually,” Parse cuts in, his voice uncharacteristically cool, “Bits is a kickass forward. He’s our best freshman player, easily.”

Henry looks startled as his eyes flick between the two of them. “Oh, um—sorry, I—who are you?” He holds his hand out and Parse shakes it roughly.

“Kent, his captain.”

Laughing nervously, Henry apologizes, “I’m sorry for assuming, I just—I’m not really that familiar with hockey and I thought—uh, never mind, just sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Bitty tells him quickly, “I’m on the small side, really, it’s fine.” The door opens again and Johnson’s girlfriend, Ginger, walks in, arm linked with another girl who Bitty realizes, with a strange tweak in his stomach, is the same girl Parse was with last week at the library.

Parse shoots Bitty a look he can’t read and stands. “Size isn’t everything anyway, right bud?” The way he clasps Henry on the shoulder as he walks away is decidedly too harsh to be friendly.

Bitty scrubs a hand over his face in frustrated embarrassment. “Sorry, he’s—I actually have no idea what that was.” Privately, Bitty thinks wryly how that statement is starting to apply to a startling percentage of their friendship.

“It’s, uh—don’t worry about it.” Henry takes Parse’s seat in the armchair and looks up at Bitty. “So, what’s hockey like?”

Bitty talks with Henry for a while, learns that he knows Ransom through some terrifying-sounding biology class they’re both taking, that he used to be a swimmer but doesn’t have time for a college team if he wants to keep his grades high enough to get into med school. Bitty politely doesn’t mention Ransom’s 4.0 GPA. He slips away when he notices Parse’s date sitting alone, talking to Ginger and Johnson.

Parse is in the kitchen ostensibly mixing a round of drinks, but he’s downing a shot of Malibu when Bitty approaches him and says, “Hey.”

“Hey.” Parse refills the shot glass and slides it over to Bitty and grabs a new one from the cabinet. “I don’t like your date.”

Bitty rolls his eyes and spins the shot glass between his fingers. “I noticed. Why?”

Parse carefully pours the rum right to the top of his glass. “Don’t like people who make my friends feel like shit.”

“He didn’t—,” Bitty hesitates and instead says, “He apologized. He’s actually pretty nice.”

“Sure, okay.”

“What’s—,” he pauses to reel in his exasperated tone and starts over, “why’s it bothering you so much?”

Instead of answering, Parse downs his shot and Bitty, resigned, does the same. Parse goes to fiddle with a snapback he doesn’t have and ends up with a hand awkwardly tangled in his gelled hair instead. “Fucking—,” he mutters, and glances up at Bitty, frustrated.

“Here, let me—,” Bitty reaches out awkwardly and Parse dips his head down to let Bitty help fix his hair.

“I don’t like it when people assume shit about other people, okay?” Bitty stares at him for a moment before nodding. Parse stashes the Malibu back in the ‘nice liquor’ cabinet and grabs the set of Solo cups he mixed, two to a hand, and starts back into the den. “Better not keep our dates waiting, Bits. They might think we’re leaving them for each other.”

Bitty snorts and grabs a beer from the fridge on the way out.

 

~*~

 

After everyone’s good and buzzed, they walk as a small horde to the dance, which is in the student center near the Pond. They stop on the Beach to take pictures with the sunset behind them, Jack frowning at Ransom’s iPhone while he takes most of the shots. Parse has his arm around his date’s shoulders and he keeps leaning in to talk quietly to her, making her smile genuine for the camera; they look easy together, comfortable and warm. Bitty shivers and Henry slips an arm around his waist.

Inside, everyone peels apart, off to spend time with dates’ friends or, in Parse’s case, immediately melt into crowd on the dance floor. Bitty suddenly longs for the strange anonymous intimacy of Haus parties, the hot mess of sweaty bodies pressing him into his friends, into Parse. Here he feels exposed, on display, weaving through the respectable gaps between groups of people with another man’s hand on his hip.

The haze from the alcohol is keeping him from bolting, but maybe it’s also putting the weird nausea in his stomach and in hindsight he could have done with one less shot of Malibu, maybe then he’d be enjoying this more instead of feeling like he’s going to throw up and he swears everyone is looking at him, looking at the obviously gay kid and how he—

“Hey, you okay?” Henry is watching him with concern furrowed in his brow.

Bitty takes a shaky breath. “Um, yeah, I—this is just—I never—,” he gestures at the room, the people who don’t seem to be staring anymore and maybe never were, “I just came out and I—I’ve never gotten to have this, before, and it’s—a lot.”

Henry nods sympathetically, runs his thumb along Bitty’s side in comfort. “Yeah, I—I wasn’t out before Samwell, either. It gets easier, okay?”

“O-okay.” Bitty nods, a little reassured. He tells himself he can do this, that this is who he came here to be. He gets to go on a date with a cute boy and be seen with him in public. It’s not a lot to ask of the world. He probably deserves even more. “I’m—let’s meet your friends.”

Henry’s friends are all pre-med students, seem to mostly be dating each other, and are apparently completely plastered. They’re hanging out near the buffet tables, downing little cups of water and mini-sandwiches. They make small talk for a few minutes, and then someone asks Bitty how he knows Ransom.

“Oh, we’re on the hockey team together, actually.”

A couple of the guys laugh, clearly assuming Bitty’s joking, and he bites his lip, but a girl who’s been looking at him funny the whole time claps her hands and asks, “Oh, you’re number fifteen, right?”

Bitty turns to her in surprise. “Um, yes?”

“My boyfriend plays for Yale. I was at your game!”

“Oh,” he laughs nervously, “You’re prob’ly not too happy with me, then.”

She shakes her head in protest and puts a hand on his shoulder. “No, no, you were so great! Your goal was—it was a great shot.”

Bitty blushes and looks down at his shoes. “Oh, um, it wasn’t—it’s nothin’ special.”

“I bet it was cool,” Henry offers helpfully, and Bitty is oddly grateful when everyone leaves it at that.

 

Eventually, they finally make it to the dance floor. Bitty nearly jumps out of his skin when Henry grabs his hips and pulls him in close, but he manages to pull himself together without it becoming a problem. Bitty’s never had this before: his ass pressed right against another boy’s crotch, fingers gripped at his hips, his shoulder blades nestled into the soft muscle of someone’s chest. It feels indecent and maybe even obscene and he loves it.

Bitty’s always known he was a good dancer, ever since hotel room parties with the middle school girls he figure skated with. The thing is, he’s starting to think he’s a great one. Henry is practically panting behind him, hands just this side of too tight on his hips, face buried in his hair, and when he shifts just right—well, Bitty knows what someone else’s erection feels like against his ass now, and he’s definitely a fan.

At some point they take a break to hydrate and Bitty checks his appearance in his phone. He’s completely disheveled, half of his hair sticking up in a mess where Henry’s face was pressed up against it, a flush high on his cheeks from the alcohol and the dancing, his lips plump from how he’s worried at them with his own teeth. Bitty’s not sure when the last time he felt attractive—honest-to-God desirable—was, but he feels it in a sudden rush now and it muddles with the buzzing in his head.

Jack and his date are leaned up against the wall near the punch, chatting idly. He nods at Bitty and asks, “Having fun, Bittle?”

“Oh, um, yeah! Jack, this is Henry. Henry, this is Jack, um—our captain.”

Henry shakes Jack’s hand with a raised eyebrow. “I thought uh—what’s his name?—the rude blond dude was the captain.”

Jack looks at something over Bitty’s shoulder and smirks. “I’ll have to have a talk with him; I’m supposed to be the rude captain.”

Bitty giggles and suddenly there’s a hand on his shoulder as Parse slides by to stand with them. “Damn fucking right you are. I’m a fucking treasure, right Bits?” He looks just as mussed as Bitty, with his hair completely ruined, jacket abandoned (hopefully) in coat check, and an extra button undone on his shirt.

“Whatever you say, hun,” Bitty tells him with a chirpy pat on the arm, and reaches around him to pour a glass of punch.

Parse chats with Camilla for a few minutes, ignoring Henry completely until his date comes back from the bathroom. He looks between Jack and Bitty and declares, “Time for more dancing!”

Jack is trying to bow out, apparently, but Camilla convinces him to come along. Parse winks and ruffles Bitty’s hair as he brushes past and Bitty takes a moment to shake his head clear. He grabs Henry’s hand and leads him back to the dance floor, the giddy laugh he gets in response feeling light and far away.

If Bitty had been asked about twenty minutes ago, he would’ve said he knew exactly how hot dancing (in a public place, anyway) could get. Twenty minutes ago, he hadn’t been able to watch Kent Parson from five feet away while he did it.

Parse has his head thrown back and lips parted. Every so often, he lifts a hand off of his date’s hip to run fingers through his curling hair, the gel that had tamed it long chased away by sweat. They’re grinding filthily and Bitty finds his hips instinctively trying to match the rhythm, create some kind of primal bond through the pounding of the bass. There’s maddeningly hot breath against his neck and when Parse’s head lolls forward again, he’s looking right at Bitty, eyes glinting with indecipherable hunger in the low light. He wets his lips with his tongue and Bitty tilts his head back against Henry’s chest to escape the sudden molten heat in his veins.

 

~*~

 

They’re still dancing, Bitty carefully avoiding looking at Parse for too long, instead focusing on the strangely adorable goofy dancing Jack has going on with Camilla, when one of Henry’s friends—the girl who recognized Bitty—finds them.

“Henry, we—uh, there’s a problem?”

Henry sighs, sounding put out but not surprised. “What’s wrong?”

“Greg is like, beyond wasted. We think he snuck a flask in or something and he just—we need help getting him home, I’m so sorry.” She bites at her bottom lip and looks at Bitty guiltily.

“Oh, I hope he’s doin’ alright. Maybe I can help?” he offers, looking up at Henry.

Henry grimaces. “You don’t mind?”

“No, of course not! We could always come back later, or—um.” Bitty pauses and laughs nervously.

“Yeah,” Henry laughs too, rocking his hips into Bitty’s ass suggestively before sliding away, “or.”

Bitty doesn’t really remember anyone’s names, but Greg is pretty easy to pick out based on his current state: slumped against the wall, held upright by two girls. Henry and Bitty take over for them and walk him outside. Henry leads them towards the river, and explains, “A few of us have an apartment at the edge of campus. We can take him there and then, um—stay, if you want.”

“Oh, I—,” Bitty’s heartbeat quickens and he feels the heat rising to his face. Snow is starting to fall, thick lazy flakes that catch in Henry’s hair. “I’d like that, I think. I just—um, this is awkward, but I—maybe you should know—,”

Greg promptly lurches to the side and vomits all over Bitty’s shoes. It’s like he aims for them, honestly, and in the weird kind of clarity people sometimes get in the middle of shocking events, Bitty thinks, how rude.

The second after thinking that, he jumps backwards with an appalled gasp and hand to his mouth. “Shit—shit, ew!”

Henry gags and backs away, clearly trying to avoid contributing to the percentage of Samwell sidewalks currently covered in throw-up. He manages to pull himself together and pats Greg on the back while he continues to retch. Bitty stares down at his shoes numbly.

“Fuck, I’m so sorry, Eric, oh God,” Henry says hurriedly, yanking Greg unceremoniously back to his feet.

“It’s fine,” Bitty lies.

“No, it’s—look, you should go back—uh, clean up, I guess—and go back to the dance. Have fun with your friends.” Greg scrubs a hand over his face.

Bitty frowns. “I—I can come with you still, it’s really okay.”

“No, look, I—look, I’m gonna have to watch him all night now,” he sighs, “Don’t spend your first Screw watching my dumbass friend throw up for three hours.”

Bitty fidgets. There’s vomit on his socks starting to soak through onto his skin. “I—okay. It—I’m sorry, but—it was nice meeting you?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll—I’ll get your number from Justin, okay? I had a good time.”

Bitty watches him leave and turns to head back over the bridge, towards the dance and his dorm room. He makes it half-way across and gives up, sinking to the ground and dangling his feet over the edge overlooking the water. It sparkles from the light of the streetlamps.

He stares at the river for a long time, at some point taking off his (probably ruined) shoes, curling and uncurling his socked feet in an absent-minded self-pity.

“Bitty?” The wood creaks and suddenly Parse is sitting next to him, looking the right kind of exhausted with his jacket draped over an arm. “You okay?”

“My date’s friend threw up on my shoes,” Bitty tells him, wiggling his toes pointedly.

Parse laughs. “That is fucking hilariously awful. I’m—,” he stuffs his knuckles in his mouth to keep from laughing harder, “sorry, I’m sorry. I actually am sorry. Are you okay?”

Bitty swings his legs and shrugs. “They’re my favorite shoes.”

“We’ll clean ‘em. Believe it or not, I have some experience in the technique.”

That draws a laugh from Bitty, short and clipped though it may be. “Your throw-up or someone else’s?”

“Yes.” Parse smirks when Bitty laughs again.

They sit in comfortable silence, until Bitty looks over and asks, “Where’s your date? Or is the ‘screw’ part of the name supposed to be ironic?”

Parse shrugs. “She just like, totally fucking ditched me. It was weird.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! That sounds really rough.”

“Thanks. I mean like, if someone’s not into me that’s obviously fine you know? But Johnson set us up and he said, uh—said she’d be ‘exactly what I needed’ and I guess—would’ve been nice, you know?”

Bitty nods and purses his lips at the sudden sadness rushing back into his brain. “Yeah, I—I really do.” He blinks rapidly to stave off the tears pricking at his eyes and purses his lips.

“Hey,” Parse says softly, “you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah—I—I mean no, I’m—,” Bitty feels Parse’s eyes on him but stares stubbornly out at the water. “I, um, I’ll be fine. It’s just—it’s stupid.”

Parse shifts closer and the bridge creaks again. “Bet it’s not.”

Bitty sighs and scrubs at his face. “I—you can’t—please don’t chirp me okay? But I just—I came to Samwell to be myself and tonight was the first time I—,” he looks over nervously and finds Parse listening intently, a sympathetic frown tilting his lips, “I thought maybe—maybe—oh God.” There are tears now, ones of hot frustration that he barely notices. He whispers miserably, “I’ve never even kissed a boy. I just wanted—why can’t I have that?”

“Do you want to?” Bitty looks up in confusion; Parse’s eyes have that glint to them that means he’s gotten some idea in his head.

Bitty looks back down. “I—I mean yeah, that’s—,”

“No, I mean like—do you wanna wait for it to be special or some shit? Or—?”

“Lord, honestly?” Bitty grips the edge of the bridge tightly. “I’m tired of waiting.”

All Parse says back is, “Cool,” and then there’s a hand on Bitty’s chin tilting his head up and the little tingle on the back of his neck, and Parse is leaning forward to—

Bitty stops thinking. His brain stutters and reboots and leaves him with a vague little pocketful of sensations: Parse’s chapped lips, calloused fingers on his jaw, the sudden squeeze of a hand on his knee. Three little half-thoughts tumbling in his brain and it’s all there’s room for at the moment, a comfortable level of chaos. It occurs to Bitty to kiss back and so he does, presses back and moves his lips a little experimentally. Parse chuckles deep in his throat and sucks briefly on Bitty’s bottom lip before pulling away.

Something unsettling flashes in Parse’s eyes that Bitty can’t place before it flickers and disappears. His hand slips away from Bitty’s chin and clasps him on the shoulder. “There,” Parse says, his sudden cheerfulness thick in the fragile spaces between their bodies, “now you’ve kissed someone.”

He stands and Bitty stares up at him blankly. “I—yeah.”

“Are you—are you okay? You’re like, spacing out on me bro.” Parse leans down and waves a hand in Bitty’s face.

Okay is a relative term that describes a very, very small portion of Bitty’s current emotional hodgepodge. “Yeah, mostly. You keep askin’ me that.”

“Going for the hatty,” Parse chirps, and when he offers Bitty a hand up, he accepts. “C’mon, Bits. We’ve got shit to do.”

Bitty can’t help but lean in when Parse’s arm wraps around his shoulders; he blames it, privately, on the shock, and the faint alcohol haze pounding behind his brain. “We do?” He wrinkles his nose in disgust when he slips back into his shoes as Parse steers them towards the Haus.

“Winter Screw tradition. Everyone who doesn’t get laid goes back to the Haus, gets shitfaced and plays Mario Kart, and chirps the ever-loving fuck out of everyone who does the walk of shame.” Parse is gesturing excitedly with his free hand; Bitty stares at the arcs it cuts through the air like maybe it’s spelling out answers.

“Oh, I—okay.” It’s a little sad, Bitty thinks, that this revelation is the least surprising thing that’s happened to him in the past half-hour. “I—I need to change though.”

“Borrow my shit,” Parse offers, and Bitty agrees.

The snow is still falling, a little heavier now, and Bitty watches it with a passive fascination so that the thoughts filter in slower. He thinks about all the pieces of Kent Parson that take up warm little nooks of his brain: Parse, the hockey captain. Parse, the math tutor. His best friend, his first kiss.

And maybe he should be upset about that, a little indignant that his only kiss probably didn’t mean anything besides pity. But he can close his eyes and catch glimpses of the giddy heat in his gut and the way his whole body curled into the touch, and he can’t bring himself to resent it. Maybe that’s the problem, actually, because all Bitty can think about, as he watches the snowflakes catch on Parse’s eyelashes, is that maybe every other kiss should come from Parse too.

 

~*~

 

Shitty is already on the couch, playing the single-player mode and laughing every time his car falls off Rainbow Road. He reeks of weed, which is oddly comforting.

Parse greets, “Hey, Shits. We’ll join you in a sec.”

“My condolences,” Shitty answers solemnly, and then slams his car into one of the NPC’s so they both tumble off the track.

They both change into sweatpants and old t-shirts and shuffle back downstairs; Parse detours into the kitchen and comes back with a case of beer. He plops down right next to Bitty on the couch, their thighs nearly touching, even though Shitty is all the way at the other end and there’s plenty of space in the middle. Bitty trades him a controller for a beer wordlessly.

The door opens for the first time two-beers-a-piece later, and Jack trudges inside, tracking snow in with him. His hair is damp and ruffled, and his tie hangs undone around his neck. Parse looks over at him with a grin. “Hey, Zimms. Joining the Lonely Hearts Club?”

“Um,” Jack averts his eyes awkwardly, “goodnight.”

He moves to go upstairs, but Shitty throws down his controller and shrieks, “You beautiful motherfucking Canadian Adonis! Deets!” He catapults over the couch and leaps at Jack, who catches him with a startled laugh.

Shitty keeps pestering Jack, but Bitty can’t tell if he gets anywhere because he’s focused on Parse, who’s gone so tense Bitty can see the cords of muscle in his clenched jaw. Bitty hadn’t been aware you could play Mario Kart angrily, but apparently you can because Parse is, smashing the buttons and glaring at the screen.

So it’s Bitty’s turn to ask, quietly so no one else hears, “You okay?”

Parse shakes his head slowly and slumps down a little into the couch. Bitty bites his lip, uncertain, but finally leans sideways slowly, resting his head on Parse’s shoulder and letting their bodies nestle together in a gentle tactile comfort.

It’s like Parse unfolds. Some of the tension dissipates and his body spreads outwards, pressing up into the contact Bitty created, trembling gently at the sudden change. He whispers, “Thanks,” but his eyes never move off the screen.

And Bitty starts to wonder. He wonders about kisses, and arms around shoulders, and two boys who vanished together from the world.

 

Ransom comes in next, with his date, who—to her credit—doesn’t seem phased by the devastating barrage of chirps being slung around. Bitty is good and drunk by this point, Parse is almost a full extra beer ahead of him, and Shitty is worryingly cross-faded, so none of the chirps are particularly clever. Parse is mostly just wolf-whistling and falling all over Bitty in his efforts to climb over the couch to get a better look at Ransom, and Bitty has to grab him around the waist so he doesn’t topple right down onto the floor.

“Why’re you like this?” Bitty grouses after Ransom finally breaks free and leads his date upstairs. Parse is half-draped in Bitty’s lap and doesn’t seem to be budging, so Bitty plays Mario Kart with one arm partially hooked around him. He’s pretty sure he’s winning even though he can’t really see the screen anymore; Parse’s head is in the way.

“I ask—,” Parse laughs, “ask myself that ev’ry day, Bits.”

 

Holster is last—Johnson apparently isn’t coming home tonight—and mercifully for him, alone. He pretty clearly wasn’t alone until recently, though; there’s a sizeable hickey on his neck and he'd definitely left the Haus this evening with a tie that’s nowhere in sight. When he stumbles in, he looks at Bitty and groans, “Aw, Bits, I was really hoping you’d get your dick sucked tonight.”

Bitty snorts, “Me too,” and Parse huffs a laugh into the couch cushion.

After the chirping—which is a bit lazy, if Bitty’s being honest—Shitty taps out and stumbles off to bed, mumbling something about having fulfilled his solemn oath to the Haus. Parse yawns and thumps his head onto Bitty’s shoulder. He murmurs, “Looks like I low-balled you, Bits. ‘pparently I was s’pposed to blow you.”

“Um.” Parse slides down so that he’s stretched out on his stomach, his chin propped up on Bitty’s thigh. “What’re you—,”

Parse leans even farther in, until his face is so close his lips nearly brush against the fabric of Bitty’s sweatpants, and Bitty is suddenly desperately grateful he’s not in his thin dress pants anymore. He shifts uncomfortably, presses into the godawful couch because even that is better than Parse noticing that he’s getting hard just from—whatever this is.

Parse purses his lips and blows a warm, steady stream of air over Bitty’s crotch, right above where Bitty’s dick is starting to take an embarrassing amount of interest. He looks up at Bitty from under his eyelashes, expression intent. Bitty swallows thickly and tries not to stare at Parse’s mouth—the same mouth that was pressed against Bitty’s an hour ago, the mouth that he could be wrapping around Bitty’s cock. The whole thing is bizarre, charged with a strange crackle of want that Bitty fights desperately to tamp down with his teeth dug into his bottom lip.

Bitty nearly cries with relief when Parse flops onto his back and bats his eyes up at him. “Oh, baby,” he coos, voice pitched in a ridiculous falsetto, “was that as good for you as it was for me?”

“Oh my God—,” Bitty’s voice cracks and he giggles with a tinge of hysteria, “you’re the—the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met.”

“Yeah,” Parse agrees. He rolls onto his side and nuzzles against Bitty’s thigh, “but you love me.”

Softly, bewildered, Bitty whispers back, “Yeah.” He reaches out tentatively and cards his fingers through Parse’s hair. Parse makes a pleased sound in the back of his throat and slips an arm behind Bitty to snuggle in closer, his hand gripped gently at the hip.

Bitty leans back into the couch, eyes tilted up at the ceiling without knowing what he hopes to find, and wonders and wonders.