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Healing Rules

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_x_ _x_ _x_ July 29 _x_ _x_ _x_

George left not long after Jack’s anxiety attack started. Eventually Jack stopped shaking, and let Bitty hold him. Suzanne handed the baby to Coach, who stretched out on the couch with the baby on his chest and promptly fell into a light doze, one hand protectively over the baby’s back.

She slipped into Theo’s bedroom, where Alicia sat, reading on her phone, while Theo lay, eyes closed, on the bed.

But not asleep, there was too much tension in his shoulders for that, his brow furrowed.

“Alicia?” Suzanne said quietly.

Alicia slipped her slim reading glasses off and put them in a case attached to her phone.

Suzanne said, “Jack… he… you should go. I’ll sit with Theo.”

Alicia’s eyes widened, and then she sighed. “I was wondering when that would happen.” She left quickly.

Theo opened his eyes, and asked, “What?”

Suzanne sat down in the chair that Alicia had vacated. “It’s not your problem, sweetheart. Everyone’s just tired.”

“I feel like I slept all day,” Theo said.

“That’s probably because you did, but you needed it,” Suzanne said.

“Is Jack okay?” Theo asked.

“He’s just worried about you, hon.”

“I’m fine,” Theo said automatically. “I survived.”

He sat up and then winced. “How long is my butt going to hurt?”

“Days, probably,” Suzanne said. “Not too long.”

“Am I a bad person for not wanting to see the baby?” Theo asked, his voice curiously flat.

“Oh, no, honey. I think everyone understands why that would be hard.”

“But it would be easier if I could,” Theo said.

“We’re looking for ways you won’t have to,” Suzanne said.

Theo rolled onto his back. “I feel like as long as he has a say in what happens with the child, it hasn’t stopped.”

“Now that the baby is here,” Suzanne said, “we can finally start the process to sever that man’s connection for good. It’s just going to take a little time.”

Theo closed his eyes. “I’m just so tired.”

“Sleep, sweetheart.”

“Will you stay?” Theo asked.

“Gladly,” Suzanne said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Once the rush of the massive physical shock that was the first part of his anxiety attack passed, Jack was left with a free-floating sense of unease, but he’d lived with that for long enough that it responded to his internal self-talk and he was able to shove it aside. It sat in the corner of his mind and body, a slight tension across his chest, an ache at the back of his throat, that had been gone for so long he thought he’d forgotten what it was like. But it sat there, familiar and annoying, and it took an act of will and his mother to finally break him loose.

“Have you slept?” Alicia asked him, when she came out of the bedroom.

He shook his head.

“You should sleep. I’ll keep the monitor,” Alicia said.

“You’re assuming that anyone’s going to put the baby down,” Jack said.

Alicia peered over the back of the couch, where the baby still slept on Coach’s chest. “Can’t leave them there, it’s not safe,” she said. “I’ll get him ready for bed and put him up in the nursery. You should get Eric to go to bed, too.”

Jack looked over at the kitchen, where Bitty sat, perched on the edge of a kitchen stool, staring into space. “He looks like he’s going to fall asleep sitting up,” Jack said, his voice coming out louder than he’d planned.

“I can hear you,” Bitty said.

Jack stood up. “C’mon. Maman has the baby. Time to sleep.”

Bitty stood up and walked over to Alicia, who was carefully taking the baby off of Coach’s chest. He held out his arms, and she hesitated, then handed the baby to him. “Just to say goodnight. You’ve been up for way too long.”

He snuggled the baby close, and dropped a kiss on the baby’s cheek. “G’nite, sugar.”

Jack reached out and stroked the baby’s head. “Merci, Maman.”

“Shoo,” Alicia said.

“I want to say goodnight to Theo,” Bitty said.

Jack nodded.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty texted his mother from outside Theo’s bedroom door, and a moment later, it opened.

Jack knelt by the head of the bed. Theo opened his eyes, and Jack gave him a small, sad smile, and held out a hand. Theo unfolded his hand from under his cheek, and took it.

“We haven’t forgotten about you, kiddo,” Jack said. “You were amazing this morning.”

“I couldn’t have done that without you guys,” Theo said. “I’m sorry I’m…”

Bitty sat down on the foot of the bed, and said, “Darling, you have absolutely nothing to apologize for.”

“No baby with you?” Theo asked, looking over.

“Maman is sending us to bed,” Jack said. “She’s got him.”

Theo closed his eyes. “You should go, then.”

Jack squeezed his hand. “We’re still here for you. Sleep well.”

Theo hesitated, and then squeezed back.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack fell asleep almost immediately. Bitty drifted, not quite asleep, not quite awake, for a while, and then his whole body gave an involuntary jerk and he sat up, abruptly alert. He slipped out of bed, put Jack’s bathrobe on, and a moment later was in the nursery next door. The baby was in the crib, eyes open, and he smiled down. “There you are, Baby Boo.”

He put a hand down. The baby was swaddled, but his cheeks were cool. “You need someone to warm you up,” he whispered. He picked the baby up, unwrapping him enough to get him skin to skin, then tied the bathrobe around the both of them. He sat down in the rocking glider and pulled the ottoman over. He leaned back, put his feet up, and rocked gently, humming “Summertime” under his breath.

A few minutes later, Alicia slipped into the room. “You should sleep,” she said.

“Apparently my body doesn’t think so,” Bitty said. “’Sides, he was cold. He’s supposed to get skin-to-skin time to keep his temperature up. He’s too small to put down.”

“I’m worried you’re going to fall asleep like that,” Alicia said. “He could slip down.”

“Alicia Zimmermann, bless your heart, I have never once dropped a baby.”

“I’m fairly certain that all your baby experience has involved sleeping occasionally,” she said. “You’re no good to anyone if you don’t.”

“I’ll take him back to bed with me,” Bitty said.

“Jack sleeps too soundly,” Alicia said.

“I think we’ll manage,” Bitty said. “I’m a light sleeper anyway.”

She started to open her mouth, and he raised his eyebrows, and she sighed. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“If you can bring a bottle up when he’s due for his next feeding?” he asked.

She nodded.

He carried the baby back to the bedroom, and turned on the little light on his side of the bed. He stared at the pile of pillows, then tossed all but one onto the window seat, one-handed, one at a time. He pushed the comforter over to Jack’s side and pulled a lighter cotton blanket over his side of the bed.

He sat carefully on the edge of the bed, holding the baby, and lay down, still in Jack’s bathrobe, pulling the blanket and sheet up to his hips, the baby tucked carefully against his upper chest, still skin to skin.

He woke up later to the sound of Alicia trying not to laugh and failing. A small head was bobbing wetly around his neck. The bedside lamp cast a soft pool of light, and the baby had scooted upwards, and appeared to be trying to latch onto his chin.

“I brought you a bottle,” Alicia said, giggling in spite of herself. “Looks like he needs it. I can give it to him, if you like?”

Bitty shifted the baby down a little, and then yelped and put a hand over his chest. Alicia snorted, and he said, “Um, yes, ma’am. But give him back when you’re done?”

There was an awkward shuffle as he worked the baby free of the bathrobe, then the small weight was gone, and he sat up blearily. “What time is it?”

“Midnight,” she said.

He closed his eyes, still sitting up.

“Really, Eric. Please, try to sleep. Every bit counts, even the ten-minute and twenty-minute stretches.”

“He’s just so small,” Bitty said, sleepily rearranging the bathrobe and curling up on his side. Forty minutes, six burps, and a diaper change later, Alicia put a hand on Bitty’s shoulder, and he roused just enough to tuck the baby in the crook of his arm.

She stood there for a few minutes, bemused, studying the layout of the room, then dimmed the light to almost off and left.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The rest of the night followed a similar pattern. The baby wasn’t particularly fussy, but he’d start bobbing his head and a few minutes later, Bob or Alicia would appear with a bottle.

It was Bob’s turn, at 4:30 in the morning, when Bitty said drowsily, as he handed the baby over, “You’re spoiling us. I’m going to have to figure this out sooner or later.”

“You can’t have slept much last night,” Bob said. “The next few days are going to be rough. Less rough if you let us help. Besides, this is the easy part, he hasn’t yet decided that life is misery.”

“Oh, I’ll let you. I’m happy to let you,” Bitty said. He lay back down, his eyes already closed. “Yessiree Bob, go right ahead.”

“We’re going to get you a—what did they call it? Side-car?—tomorrow,” Bob said. “You might not use it, but Alicia will fret less about the baby being in bed with you.”

“Mm,” Bitty said, helpfully.

“Also a bottle warmer,” Bob said.

“Bobble warmer,” Bitty echoed.

“And…” Bob stopped. Bitty was already out. “…and I’ll tell you in the morning.”

_x_ _x_ _x_ July 30 _x_ _x_ _x_

Saturday morning, Jack woke feeling more rested than he’d felt in months, but as soon as he was awake, the conundrums came crashing back down and it took an enormous act of will to keep breathing until it passed enough for him to actually find the oomph to open his eyes. He rolled onto his back and looked over to find Bitty curled up away from him. He blinked, and then realized he hadn’t heard the baby in the night. He sat up, put his feet on the ground, and looked back at Bitty. Now he could see where a tiny, fuzzy little blond head was tucked against Bitty’s shoulder. Bitty was sound asleep, his lips just brushing against the baby’s hair.

Jack reached for the camera on the nightstand, and started taking pictures, when the baby’s eyes opened and looked right at him. He got one more picture of the baby with his eyes open, and set the camera down.

“Alright, mon ’tit potimarron, let’s get you up,” Jack said, and walked around the bed to ease the baby out of Bitty’s arms.

“...time is it?” mumbled Bitty.

“Seven,” Jack said.

Bitty patted around his shoulder, and his eyes flew open. “Oh, you have him,” he said.

“Sleep, Bits,” Jack said. “I’ll go get him a bottle.”

“No, ’m up,” Bitty said, his eyes closing. “I can cook.”

There was a little knock on the door, which opened to reveal Suzanne, bearing a tray with two heaped plates, coffees, and a warm bottle. Jack took the bottle and said, “You’re a lifesaver.”

“Y’all were the ones with the infant all night,” Suzanne said.

“I didn’t wake up at all,” Jack said.

“Barely,” Bitty said, sitting up. “Alicia and Bob did most of the feeds.”

“Your daddy is heading back to Georgia tomorrow morning,” Suzanne said. “I’m going Tuesday.”

“Don’t you have prep Monday?” Bitty asked.

“I’ll get it done Wednesday,” Suzanne said. “Amy Lynn is going to set my room up for me, in exchange for a peek at the baby pictures. I have things I need to do here Monday.”

“August first,” Jack muttered absently, as he sat down to feed the baby.

Bitty’s eyes went wide. “I’m supposed to be at the rink all week for the intensive. I completely forgot. They practically arranged it for me.”

“Bits, we’ll manage,” Jack said. “Do the intensive. I’m sure between Maman and Papa and me we can handle this.”

Bitty pushed his hand roughly through his hair. “I don’t even think I’ve looked at my summer calendar in a week, everything’s been on the due date calendar.”

“Bitty, darling, eat something,” Suzanne said, offering him a plate.

He stared at the plate. “I was going to make breakfast.”

“Sweetheart, the only way this can possibly work is if you let us help you and let some things go. The baby—who you desperately need to name because I cannot just keep calling him ‘the baby’—is going to be fine. You can let us feed you and help with the baby while we’re here. I already ate—there’s no reason for you to be dropping hash on his head.”

Bitty broke the egg into the hash on his plate, and took a bite. “Oh god.”

“See?” she said. “Better already.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

It took them until nearly 8:30 in the morning to get out of the bedroom, simply because every time they started to think about going, they’d get distracted by the baby. A diaper, a change of clothes, a burp, another change of clothes.

Bitty fretted about Jack’s schedule being thrown off, Saturdays were workout days, but Jack laughed. “I can work out later.”

Bitty stared at him. “Who are you, and what have you done with my Jack?”

“It’s the off-season,” Jack said.

When they got downstairs, Bob was doing dishes with Coach, while Alicia and Suzanne were making a list of boutiques.

“Has anyone checked on Theo?” Jack asked.

“Mary is in there with him,” Suzanne said. “She called me this morning and I thought earlier was better, since he’s so down.”

Jack nodded, frowning. “Thank you.” He unlocked his phone, and pulled up a text message from George.

GM: Erin said yes.

His breath caught, and he closed his eyes. Bitty, who was wearing the baby on his chest, caught the sound and was at his side. Jack held out the phone.

“Yes? Oh…” Bitty sat down heavily on one of the dining room chairs.

Suzanne narrowed her eyes. “What?”

“George wants to have Theo come stay with her and her wife,” Jack said.

“It feels like giving up on him,” Bitty said. “It feels like failing.”

“Nonsense,” Alicia said. “This isn’t about you or your success. It’s not about what you need. It’s about what you can give and what Theo needs and what the baby needs. The only easy place for the baby to be right now that will not leave him vulnerable to Theo’s mother or rapist or their families interfering is with you, because of the guardianship. Any other option will involve DCYF and multiple state agencies. One of the things Theo wants is for the baby to be safe and cared for until he has the authority to make a decision about the baby’s final home. Leaving the baby with you, there’s some simple paperwork and no immediate judicial oversight. Any other choice is going to be hard on Theo, too. And it’s Theo’s choice. You’re not going to kick him out, you’re simply offering an option that might let him heal without having his wounds reopened continuously. Make it his choice. You can make it clear that the door here is open, and that you aren’t giving up.”

“I thought we would probably end up adopting Theo,” Jack said. “I… don’t know how to unfeel that.”

“You don’t know how things are going to be in a month, or a year,” Suzanne said. “And he’s going to go off to college in a couple years, anyway. This was never going to be forever.”

“You haven’t stopped caring or helping just because we’re adults,” Jack said. “I was—I am prepared to keep helping him for a long time.”

“Jack,” Alicia said, “this is about what Theo needs right now. And what he needs right now, to be honest, is a quiet place to heal, where he’s not being faced with what hurt him every moment. You can certainly help him with money. You can be a friend to him and an emotional support. But you probably can’t be his dad, because you can’t both meet his needs and provide him with a safe space. He needs you to take care of that child. Someday he’s going to look back on this and he’s going to know that he did his best by this little boy, and he’s going to have no regrets and no guilt about not being able to parent him himself. And that’s a gift that is well within your capacity to give. But you can’t do that and meet his very real need right now to not see the baby. If there was any justice in this, he could have given the baby away at birth and walked away. Or had an abortion months ago. But the timing of the situation is a perfect storm, and so we have to find the path that is least damaging. Maybe it won’t look like what you expected, but you know that George cares about him. Deeply, from what I saw last night.”

“They’ve been spending whole days together,” Jack said. “I don’t think I realized how close they’d gotten.”

“So let’s give Theo a choice,” Suzanne said. “And please make it clear to him that your only concern is that he be where he needs to be to heal, whether that’s here or there.”

Mary came out a few minutes later, and Jack asked, “Theoretically, if he were to want to stay somewhere else, how soon would it be safe for him to move?”

Mary looked sad, and said, “I’d rather it be after Monday, honestly, but women go home from the hospital hours after births sometimes. It’s really easy to overdo, though, and the longer you can wait, the less chance he’ll end up bleeding too much.”

“How is he doing, physically?” Suzanne asked.

“He’s healing well. The birth was uncomplicated, there wasn’t a lot of damage done. He can start getting up today for short periods.”

“Is he awake?” Jack asked.

“He is. He could probably do with more to drink, and a change of sheets.”

“The sweats?” Alicia asked.

“He’s dumping all the fluid from the end of pregnancy,” Mary said. “It gets messy.”

“I can take care of the sheets and a drink,” Bitty said. “Mama?”

She took the baby from him, and he shrugged his way out of the carrier.

“I’ll come with,” Jack said.

“I’m going to examine the baby, if you don’t mind,” Mary said. “I need to do a heel prick for the newborn screening.”

“Will it hurt him?” Bitty asked.

“I’ll heat up his heel, and he can suck on a finger while it happens,” Mary said. “Most babies aren’t bothered much if we’re careful about prep.”

Bitty looked worried.

“It’ll be fine,” Suzanne said. “You didn’t even cry for yours.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty knocked on the bedroom door a few minutes later, a tray balanced on one hand. Jack stood behind him with a stack of fresh linens.

“Come in,” they heard faintly, muffled by the door.

Bitty pushed the handle down and opened the door. “Iced peppermint tea with honey,” he said. “And clean sheets.”

Theo reached a hand out and made a grabby motion. Bitty handed the tea over and Jack stacked the bedding on one of the side tables, and then sat on the far side of the bed while Bitty took the chair.

“Uh oh,” Theo said.

“Not exactly,” Jack said. “I heard from George this morning.”

Theo frowned, “About?”

“She talked to her wife, and they are offering for you to come stay with them,” Jack said.

Bitty immediately jumped in. “We aren’t saying you have to go.”

Theo blinked.

“Honestly,” Jack said, “It would be completely up to you. I will support you regardless, no matter where you live.”

“We want you to be where you need to be,” Bitty said. “You know, to heal.”

“This is your home,” Jack said. “You could stay there for a few weeks or a few months, and still come back here if you feel ready.”

“She lives down the street from my new school,” Theo said.

“You could stay there during the week and be here weekends if you wanted,” Bitty said. “This is about what is best for you, not about us.”

“What do you want?” Theo asked.

Jack looked down. “I’ll miss you if you go,” he said. “But it’s clear that the current situation is hurting you, and it’s more important to me that you not be hurt more than it is for me to keep you here.”

“Bitty?” Theo asked.

“Darling boy, this cannot be about anything but what is best for you.”

“What would be best for me,” Theo said, “would be not having been raped, and not having a baby, and not having to share.”

“Would you rather let DCYF take him?” Jack asked.

Bitty turned away.

“I can’t ask that,” Theo said.

“You could,” Jack said.

“If I asked you to chose between me and that baby,” Theo asked, “do you really think Bitty could let him go?”

“Is that what you want?” Jack asked.

Theo sighed and looked down. “No. I… if he went into the system, the asshole’s family would be all over it. And they’re racists and they raised him to be a rapist and if all I can do for this baby is give him better than I had, maybe that’s enough. It would piss that man off so much to know his son was being raised by you guys.”

“You count, too,” Jack said.

“Yeah, but I think I’d like living with George. I mean, the food won’t be as good, and the bedroom…” Theo looked around. “God, I feel bad that Lardo put in so much work here.”

“It’s still your room,” Bitty said.

“I love it, actually,” Jack said. “I like to color sometimes, when I’m stressed.”

“Feel free,” Theo said. “George is cool, though. And Erin is super sweet. When would I go?”

“That’s up to you,” Bitty said. “The midwife said that waiting a few days would probably make it easier on your body, but I know you’ve been struggling…”

“I don’t… I still get dizzy when I stand up,” Theo said. “Your moms have been helping me to the bathroom. Suzanne is really strong.”

“She’s had to help me or my daddy often enough,” Bitty said.

“Maybe when I’m not dizzy anymore?” Theo said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bob and Alicia went out later that morning to shop, and returned with a van-load of stuff.

“You needed a second car seat,” Alicia said. “You have two cars.”

Jack and Bitty stood in the doorway, staring at the pile of boxes Bob was pulling out of the back of the van.

“You put down both rows of seats?” Bitty asked, glancing down at the baby tied to his chest.

“And you said the house was too big,” Jack muttered.

“One car seat does not involve that many boxes,” Bitty said.

“Oh, that one’s the stroller,” Alicia said. “I tried to talk him out of it, but…”

Bob grinned and pointed to the side of the box.

Jack covered his face with one hand and shook his head.

Bob Sport Utility Stroller was printed all over the box.

“It’s even in Falconer blue!” Bob said gleefully. “Sport Utility. How could I not?”

“We have a stroller,” Bitty said. “A Bugaboo. George brought it over.”

“This is a jogging stroller,” Bob said. “And it’s a Bob.”

“That’s two boxes, what’s the third?” Bitty asked.

Alicia smiled. “Co-sleeper, mounts next to your bed.”

“Useful,” Bitty said. “And the rest?”

“A couple more of those baby carriers you like,” Alicia said. “Plus a couple of others the saleslady recommended.”

Bitty looked at Jack. “There’s no point in arguing with them about this, is there?”

Jack snorted. “You can try. But make popcorn first. I want to watch.”

“And the bags?” Bitty asked, looking back at the piles continuing to accumulate.

“Stimulating mobiles,” Alicia said, pointing at one bag. “Clothes,” pointing at another. “Useful gadgets,” she said, pointing at a third.

“Seriously, I do think we have enough stuff,” Bitty said to Jack. “How much can one baby possibly need?”

Then Bob pulled a giant contraption out of the back of the van. It looked like a cross between a bouncy castle and a flying saucer, only baby-sized.

Then a stack of colorful plastic pieces. “That’s it,” Bob said.

“What is that one?” Jack asked.

“Play yard.”

“It’s going to be a while before this one is down on the ground that much,” Bitty said.

“Eh, it looked like a good idea,” Bob said with a shrug. Alicia wore a look of long-standing bemused tolerance.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The rest of the day was spent assembling baby things and taking turns with endless rounds of diaper changes and feeds. The baby seemed mostly interested in sleeping, barely interested in eating, and rather alarmed at what his body was doing in the middle.

“Do all babies need this much burping?” Jack asked, the third time the baby spilled curdled formula onto his shoulder.

“That’s why you use the cloth,” Bitty said, tossing what looked like a smooth hand towel in Jack’s direction. “Put it down first, save your clothes.”

Theo slept most of the day, too, but towards evening made his way out to the kitchen for a few minutes. Suzanne was there, working on dinner, and smiled to see him up.

“No baby?” Theo asked, looking around.

“They went for a walk,” Suzanne said. “How does it feel being out of your room?”

“I feel like I ran a marathon,” Theo said, sitting down at the island.

“Pregnancy is longer than any marathon,” Suzanne said. “You’re not just recovering from the birth. Hungry?”

“Ravenous,” Theo said.

“Lasagna?” Suzanne asked, opening the fridge.

“That would be great,” Theo said. “Do you think I should go to George’s?”

“What do you want to do?” Suzanne asked, making a plate.

“I want… I want to belong somewhere,” Theo said. “I don’t want to feel like a burden. Or an inconvenience. And I know they don’t think of me that way, but this whole thing…”

“It’s awkward,” Suzanne said.

“And even if they don’t think of me that way, I still feel that way,” Theo said. “I mean, god, they’re taking care of my kid when I can’t even look at him.”

“I don’t think they see that as a burden,” Suzanne said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen my son happier than when he’s holding that child.” She put the plate down in front of the hungry teenager.

“And how could I ask them to give that up?” Theo asked around a bite of noodles. He swallowed. “With as busy as they’re going to be, how can I ask them to keep him? To put up with me? I mean, even my own mom couldn’t be bothered to do that.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Suzanne said. “They’ll figure it out. And you’re not a burden, neither of you are. You’re complicated, you’re not easy, but I think anyone with eyes could see that you are worth everything we do and more. You deserve so much better than the hand you were given. Your mother was so wrong.”

“She blamed me for ruining her life,” Theo said. “I mean, I was the reason she didn’t talk to her own father for so long. I don’t blame her, though, he was an ass.”

“She said that she hid you from your own father because she was afraid her father would kill him.”

“She told me he left her,” Theo said, looking at Suzanne curiously and taking a bite.

“She told me your father never even knew she was pregnant,” Suzanne said.

Theo dropped his fork. “Wait, he never even knew about me? I thought he left because she was pregnant.”

“I think Jack has all the stuff she gave me,” Suzanne said. “I asked her to give me his name. When they get back, do you want to take a look?”

“Do you think…” Theo stopped.

“I have no idea,” Suzanne said. “No idea at all what he’ll think of all of this, or of you, but I do know that your mother cared enough about him to try to protect him from her racist family. But we know she doesn’t always make the best choices.”

“God, how would I even introduce myself to him?” Theo asked. “Hi, I know I have giant boobs, but I’m your son. Please ignore the wreck my life is.”

“You don’t have to be the one to make the introduction,” Suzanne said. “That even assumes we can find him, or that he’s still alive, or that he’s willing to see you. But we can talk to him first, explain who you are and what the situation is, and get a feel for whether he’d be a safe person for you to talk to. And the boobs will subside soon enough after your milk dries up.”

“I think—” Theo stopped for a moment. “I think that I would like to find him. I mean, he deserves to know I exist? And I guess Jack is willing to support me, so it’s not like I need money from him.”

“If he thought it was the best thing for you,” Suzanne said, “I think Jack would adopt you in a heartbeat. Both the boys adore you.”

“It would all be easier if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?” Theo said. “I mean, if I didn’t feel like this was supposed to be my home, too, it wouldn’t feel so weird to want so desperately to leave it.”

“That might change over time. Things are raw right now,” Suzanne said. “Literally, actually raw, and it’s going to take some time for you to process everything. There’s no harm in doing that somewhere else.”

“Have they named the baby yet?” Theo asked.

Suzanne laughed. “Not even close. Bob keeps making ridiculous suggestions, and Bitty keeps wrapping his arms around the baby and saying, ‘That’s a terrible thing to do to an innocent little child.’”

“He’s a lucky kid,” Theo said.

“They’ll come up with something,” Suzanne said.

“If they could take him, do you think they’d want to?” Theo asked.

“I think Bitty is trying very hard not to think about the fact that the plan was to have the baby be adopted somewhere else eventually,” Suzanne said. “Every time anyone brings up anything remotely close, he starts baking.”

“I think the baby would be very lucky to have them, if they wanted to adopt him,” Theo said.

“Would that make things harder for you?” Suzanne asked.

Theo stared at his plate for a minute, not eating. “I think it’s already been harder than that. I think it would be harder wondering if the kid’s adoptive parents would accept him for who he is. And I know that whoever that child turns out to be, if he’s with them, he’ll be loved and not…”

Suzanne wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “You are loved, child. You don’t know how close I am to asking my husband to find work up here so I can be closer.”

“You’d do that?” Theo asked around a bite of food.

“It would be an enormous shift for us,” Suzanne said. “We’re not like Jack, money-wise, and it would involve selling our house and getting teaching certificates for this state, and finding a coaching job for him… but it is getting harder every day to be in Georgia when so much of what matters to us is so far away. We’d planned on staying in Georgia another fourteen years, but I could see, if things were still up in the air at the end of the coming school year, us working at getting up to this part of the world for the next one.”

“Why fourteen?” Theo asked.

“That’s when both of us will have been in our current jobs twenty years,” Suzanne said. “It would be easier to quasi-retire at that point. But we’ve never let that stop us from moving if that was what was needed to take care of our family.”

“But I’m not…”

Suzanne just gave him a look, and then got up and continued with dinner prep, saying, “Don’t be ridiculous. However this pans out, you’re family, and that’s all there is to it.”

Theo fled back to his room a few minutes later when the front door opened.

_x_ _x_ _x_ July 31 _x_ _x_ _x_

Sunday morning, Coach reluctantly got on a plane back to Georgia. “You really should have me there when you talk to Jones,” he said to Suzanne, as she dropped him off at Logan.

“If all else fails, we’ll come back up for Labor Day weekend,” Suzanne said, waiting until he set his bag on the curb and then wrapping her arms around his middle.

“I could leave after the game on the second,” Coach agreed. “Take two personal days.”

“You can’t stay now, you have to be at practice tomorrow,” Suzanne said into his chest.

“You gonna be okay?” he asked, pulling his shoulders back a little to look down at her.

She dashed her hand across her cheek. “I will be absolutely fine. You best get going.”

“They’ll figure it out,” Coach said. “We did, and they certainly have more resources.”

“I just wish we could take Theo back with us,” Suzanne said.

“It wouldn’t be impossible,” Coach said. “I mean, Jody’s gone off to school, but we’ve actually had families moving into town because of the Safe Zone program. If he wanted to come, we surely have room.”

“Maybe George will work out okay for him,” Suzanne said. “I don’t know. We’re going to be looking into seeing if we can find his father. It just tears me up that he feels like there’s nowhere and no one that’s his.”

“You think the father will accept him?” Coach asked.

“It’s not fair to not even ask,” Suzanne said. “He’s never had a chance to fail.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

That evening, Alicia and Bob took the baby for a walk, or rather, Alicia put the baby in the baby carrier and Bob pushed the stroller named after him, because, “They might need it.”

While they were gone, Theo came out to sit with Jack and Bitty and Suzanne and a box of papers from Ashley Burton.

Ashley had scrawled Theo’s father’s name on a Post-it note which was stuck to a copy of Theo’s birth certificate. She was the only one listed on that document.

Other things in the box included a stack of report cards, Theo’s yearbooks, and an album of baby pictures that covered about two years.

“She got a digital camera as a gift when I was three,” Theo said, when Suzanne wondered where the childhood photos were. “They’re on her Facebook. If she still has me friended. I don’t use it.”

“I’d love to see those,” Suzanne said.

“They’re all fluffy pigtails and pink dresses,” Theo said, flipping to the back of the album and pointing at his two-year-old self, wispy hair in a halo around his head and two sad little puffs on top that were barely visible in the rest of the baby hairs.

Bitty took the album and started flipping through. In the middle of the album, a couple photos were out of place, and Bitty went to straighten them. “There’s something behind this,” he said, laying the album flat on the table and carefully working the photos out of their sleeves.

Behind one of the newborn photos was a Polaroid of a painfully young Ashley with a radiant smile, the arm of a grinning Black boy thrown over her shoulder. They were both wearing camp shirts with the word “Counselor” in block letters across the chest. Bitty stared at it for a moment, and handed it to Theo.

Theo put a hand over his mouth when he saw it. “I went to that camp until I was twelve,” he said. “I had a scholarship. I didn’t… I know him.”

“You’ve met him?” Jack asked.

“He was in charge of my group every year from the time I was six until I left,” Theo said. “He never said anything or treated me different from the other kids. He was like, lead counselor, I think. I talked to him a lot.”

“Was he nice?” Suzanne asked.

“He was so kind,” Theo said. “Mom was struggling and working hard. Pastor was always the one who dropped me off. They’re the ones we lived with when I was tiny. Mom always said she couldn’t get time off work to take me, so he would. But Simon was nice to everyone. He was easy to talk to. I told him I didn’t feel like I fit in, and he just said, ‘Be yourself, Ro. God made you just like you are. There’s no shame in that. If God wanted us all to be the same, we wouldn’t all look so different.’”

“Sounds like a good man,” Suzanne said. “Not the kind to abandon a child.”

“He probably didn’t know,” Bitty said. “If your mother never… maybe that’s why she didn’t take you.”

“I just… I wouldn’t begin to know how to find him from that,” Theo said. “I only knew him as Simon, all the other counselors had camp names, he just said that his worked so well for games that he was keeping it. So whenever he told us to do something, we wouldn’t do it unless he said ‘Simon says.’ You don’t forget a name like that.”

Jack snorted. “I like him already.”

“Simon Talfor,” Suzanne read off the Post-it.

“Let me see,” Bitty said, and typed the name into Jack’s laptop. He frowned. “Yeah, no, that’s not him.” He switched to image search. “This guy must be even more of a Luddite than Jack.”

“Hey,” Jack said. “Call the camp.”

“He won’t be there,” Theo said. “They’re all done at the end of July.”

“Summer camps always have some staff around in the off-season,” Suzanne said. “Maybe not this weekend, but I’ll take down the camp information and see what I can dig up back home through the church.”

Theo handed her the Polaroid, and she took a snapshot of it with her phone.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Alicia was making a bottle in the kitchen in when Theo walked out of his bedroom in the middle of the night.

“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked him.

“Boobs hurt,” he said, grimacing.

“What did the midwife say about that?” Alicia asked.

“Cabbage. And a bra.” Theo said. “I hate bras.”

“Necessary evil to hold the cabbage in place.” Alicia said.

“The one you picked up doesn’t fit me,” Theo said. “It did yesterday, but it doesn’t right now. Breasts are terrible.”

“They’ll go down pretty quickly,” Alicia said, setting the bottle on the counter and opening the fridge. She pulled out a cabbage, and pulled off two large, cupped leaves. “Here,” she offered. “These should feel pretty good.”

Theo tucked them inside his tank top and then sighed. Alicia opened the cupboard and pulled down a bottle of caplets. “Here. Aleve. It should help.”

“Everyone says it gets better,” Theo said.

“It does. This, right here, today, should be the hardest point, and it should get better from here,” Alicia said. “I was a mess when my milk came in. Oh, sleep on a towel. You’re going to leak.”

“Ugh,” Theo said. “Does this ever stop being gross?”

“You should stop leaking in a couple days,” Alicia said. “It would be longer if you nursed. The bleeding will be a couple weeks. Then no more, right?”

“Do you think they’ll let me go on hormones?” Theo asked.

“I think that as soon as Mary clears you, Jack’s planning on getting you in with the endocrinologist,” Alicia said.

“Would George?” Theo asked.

“George would be having Jack stay your permanent guardian, but would have a temporary custody arrangement, I think,” Alicia said.

They heard a distant wail, and Alicia said, “I’ve got to get this upstairs.”

Theo nodded. “I’m going back to bed.”

Chapter Text

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 1_x_ _x_ _x_

Monday morning, Suzanne dropped a fretful Bitty off at the rink for the intensive, and drove herself up to the prison where Peter Jones was incarcerated. They balked at letting her visit until she explained that she was a CASA and that his infant son had been born and she needed to discuss the situation with him. Never mind that she wasn’t a CASA in Rhode Island and the baby wasn’t her case, they didn’t seem to care once they had boxes to tick. They took her ID and held her belongings and escorted her back to an interview room.

“You sure you’re okay without anyone in the room, ma’am?” the guard asked.

“I’m a married, God-fearing woman,” Suzanne said. “He’ll respect that.”

They led the man in wearing handcuffs.

She looked at him, and said, “You will keep your hands to yourself if I ask them to take those off?”

“I’m not a rapist,” he said.

“Well, you are, but I don’t think I’m your type,” Suzanne said. “I’m too married, and too old, and not vulnerable enough.”

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Are you going to behave? Or should I leave without telling you about the baby?”

His eyes widened, and he sat down.

“Please remove the cuffs,” she asked the guard. “You can monitor with video if you want, but please no audio.”

The guard nodded, and removed the cuffs, and then left the room.

“She had it?” Jones asked.

“Theo had a baby boy on Friday,” Suzanne said.

“She can’t have it both ways, being a mother and being a tranny,” he said.

“Actually, the state of Massachusetts is quite enlightened when it comes to such things, but what I need for you to do is sign a release so that the baby can be adopted.”

“My mother will take him, or my wife,” Jones said.

“Theo has specifically said that he does not want anyone from your family anywhere near this child, as he is concerned that their racist leanings would bias them against his best interests,” Suzanne said. “And both Massachusetts and Rhode Island are absolutely clear that you will never have custody or visitation under any circumstances. He would prefer to keep custody himself rather than to give that child to people who would support a rapist.”

“Rochelle wasn’t in court,” Jones said.

“Theo was watching on closed circuit television while your mother and your wife pleaded your case at sentencing,” Suzanne said. “Bad enough that you would force sex on a child who didn’t want it, but worse that you would lie to your people about it, and that they would believe you over your victim. As a Christian, I could not believe the excuses you were making. A fourteen-year-old? And you a married man?”

“What she was saying was an abomination,” Jones started, but Suzanne cut him off.

“Rape is an abomination. Child molestation is an abomination. Getting a child on an unwilling person and then refusing to give your victim peace by letting him give that child to people who love him, and denying your infant son the security of growing up in his forever home with people who know he will be theirs forever, that is an abomination. A young person trying to figure out who they are in this world and coming to an adult for help in understanding is normal. He didn’t dare ask for help after you violated his trust, and his mother kicked him out when she found out. You broke his life. You broke his heart. You very nearly broke his spirit. And worst, you turned him away from God. If you wanted to ‘bring him to Jesus,’ you could not have possibly chosen a way more guaranteed to make him leave the church, and as a Baptist, I am offended you would treat anyone that way, but especially a child who looked to you for spiritual guidance.”

“You’re Southern Baptist.”

“Born, bred, and married,” Suzanne said. Never mind that they’d mostly switched to a Baptist church in Decatur that was no longer affiliated with the one she’d been born to.

“And the parents she’s picked? You approve?” he asked.

“I do,” Suzanne said.

“Why do you keep calling her Theo?” he asked.

“Because I do not believe that God cares much about our physical bodies, so long as we do not use them to create harm, and because Theo has asked me to,” she said.

“But she said she’s some kind of queer…”

“Asexual?” Suzanne asked. “Jesus Christ, as far as we know, was asexual. Churches for years have valued people who eschewed sexual contact. And even if he was, as you say it, ‘queer,’ that you would use a grave sin to try to coerce him back to the fold, as it were, is misguided, revolting, and frankly, more what I would expect from someone who cared nothing for the good book and everything for the pleasures of the flesh. I’d say it was the work of Satan, but I’m pretty sure that even the Satanists frown on pedophilia.”

He looked down.

“You have wronged this child,” Suzanne said. “If you refuse to sign the release, you wrong both of them, every day.”

“Is the baby being cared for properly?” Jones asked, without looking at her.

“He has a full household of people doting on him,” Suzanne said. “But they don’t know if he will stay, or if he will go, or if it’s safe to give him their whole hearts.”

“And is she okay?”

Suzanne stared at him, silent, considering. Finally, she said, “If you cared about his well-being, you should have kept it in your pants nine months ago. If you cared about his well-being, you would call him ‘he’ as the very least you could possibly do. To answer your question, no, he is not okay. Theo is bleeding, and doesn’t know what he is going to do next. He’s trying to heal from the damage you caused. You raped him nine months ago, and he is still bleeding. Still in pain. Because you used him, with so little care. You damaged him. And you lied to yourself about why you did it. You succumbed to temptation, you did not bring anyone closer to glory. Sign the release, and show that at least some small scrap of redemption is possible for your sinning heart.”

“I need to think about it,” Jones said, not meeting her eyes.

“I’ll have the lawyer draw up the necessary form,” Suzanne said. “It will be ready when you are. Just… don’t think about it too long, and remember, if you do this willingly, you won’t have to go through the embarrassment of having the court terminate your rights. They might decide to sever your rights to your other children while they’re at it.”

His eyes widened and he finally looked up. “They can’t…”

“I’m pretty sure they can,” Suzanne said. “But you can ask a lawyer.”

“You’ve seen the baby?” he said.

“Held him this morning,” she answered.

“Can I… you don’t have pictures.”

“Not with me,” she said. “They took my phone.”

“I don’t know what he looks like.”

“He’s a baby. And you may have contributed genetic material, but no one owes you pictures. He’s healthy, and he’s doing well, and his needs are being taken care of, except for his need for permanence. You could do one right thing by that child, and let him have that.”

“I… I can’t. Not today,” he said. “But I’ll think about it.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

When Bitty arrived at the rink alone, he was immediately mobbed.

“How’s Theo?” was the first question, with “We want to see pics!” a close second. “Did you bring pie?” came next, from one of the players, but then there was a smacking sound and an “ow.”

“Dude, they just had a baby, we should like, bring them pie.”

“Guys, I can’t… Jack has the pictures, and the baby, and we can’t put pictures up. Theo is… as well as could be expected. He did an amazing job. And I thought it might be tempting fate to bring pie when we’re supposed to be talking nutrition. Y’all should know better.” Bitty took a deep breath and resisted the temptation to fall through the floor. “Also, we’ve got a lot of help at home, so we don’t need a meal train yet.”

“Guys, give him space,” George said, pushing through the crowd of players and spouses. “Go find Nicky and she’ll introduce our first speaker.”

“Thank you,” Bitty said. “That was a bit much.”

“I’m surprised to see you here so soon,” George said.

“I couldn’t… you did this for me. I mean, in part.”

“Yes, but you must be tired, and seriously, no one anticipated this when we set this up.”

“Your players play while their wives are in labor,” Bitty said.

“Not if I can talk them out of it, they don’t,” she said.

“I really do want to learn from your experts,” Bitty said.

“Two hours, then… You didn’t drive?”

“Mama dropped me,” he said. “She’s off to talk sense into… that man.”

“If anyone could,” George said, “it would be her. I’ll drive you back if she’s not here by then. I want to see Theo anyway. In the meantime, come talk to Ed. He’s brilliant.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty tried not to look at his phone, but he kept glancing to see if there was any word from Jack, and Ed noticed. “If you have somewhere else to be?” he said.

“Oh, I'm so sorry, we have a new baby,” Bitty said. “I’m worried about them.”

“Let’s talk about the science of recovery, then. I’m sure George will come get you if there’s a serious problem at home.”

After two hours, Bitty felt like his head had been stuffed full of a thousand things he would want to remember forever, but he nearly bolted for the door when George opened it to say, “Suzanne has a few errands to run. I can take you home now.”

Bitty thanked the professor profusely, and the man shook his head, then handed him a thick folder. “Reread this when you have time, so that our efforts are not for naught.”

Bitty nodded. “I’ll be using it tonight when I make dinner.” Then he said to George, “Have you heard from Jack?”

“You’ll be there in twenty minutes, kiddo,” George said.

As she drove, she said, “I’ve rearranged the schedule. I know that Wednesday is Jack’s birthday, so we’ll do another two hours then. Do you think you can manage two hours tomorrow and four on Thursday?”

“I thought I’d be doing eight today,” Bitty said.

“You never would have lasted eight,” George said.

“I would have, but I wouldn’t have learned much.”

“Tell you what,” George said. “Why don’t you ask Jack to bring the baby tomorrow, and we’ll see if they’re a help or a hindrance.”

“Aren’t you worried about the media?” Bitty asked.

“Did you see any media here this morning?” she countered.

“How'd you manage that?” he asked.

“I announced we’d be having an intensive next week.”

Bitty laughed. “They’re going to be so mad.”

“They can suck it up and deal,” George said.

A few minutes later they arrived at the house, and while they didn’t actually push each other out of the way to get to the front door first, they both moved with purpose. Bitty was fumbling the combination when the front door opened.

Bitty let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding as George ducked between them to go in. Jack chuckled and handed Bitty a baby carrier.

“I’d rather have the baby,” Bitty said, looking at the bundle on Jack’s front.

“Put that on while your arms are empty,” Jack said.

Bitty stepped inside the house, and set the carrier and his folder down on the console table next to the front door, then started unbuttoning his shirt.

He was shrugging out of the shirt with Jack’s help when Alicia came in from the den, saying, “I heard the front door… Really boys, you have dozens of rooms, do you have to do that here?”

Bitty blushed beet red, and said, “The baby… skin to skin… I..” He sighed and buried his face in his hands.

“Oh, hon, I know, I’m just chirping you.” Alicia grinned. “If you needed alone time, I’m sure you’d hand the baby off, first.”

“Oh my god.” Bitty turned around to face away from her and picked up the carrier.

“She’s like that all the time,” Jack said, shooting his mother a rueful look. “Don’t mind her.”

“Mind?” Alicia chuckled. “You really are picking up his speech patterns, Jack.”

“Maman! C't'assez! Let the poor boy get dressed in peace.”

“In pieces,” Bitty muttered, as he wrapped the carrier around himself and then shrugged back into his button-down. “Gimme,” he said, turning around and holding out his hands for the baby.

Jack carefully pulled aside the stretchy fabric and handed the baby over. “We really, really need to name him today.”

“It feels like a huge responsibility,” Bitty said, giving the baby a kiss on the forehead. “I mean, he could have this name for a few months, or his whole life.”

“Naming a child is the least of the responsibility,” Alicia said, laughing. “But he’s lucky to have you, however long he’s with you.”

“Lucky…” Jack murmurs thoughtfully, then grinned. “Felix! It works in English and in French.”

Bitty cradled the baby in his arms, studying him. “Are you a Felix? Grab that folder, Jack, I’m going to need it.” He took the baby into the den, where Bob was in an armchair, browsing his social media on a tablet. Bitty sat down in the middle of the couch, and balanced the baby on his forearms, head resting in Bitty’s hands, and considered the newborn.

“Papa, what do you think of ‘Felix’ for the baby?” Jack asked.

Bob looked over. “Perhaps.”

“Okay but he needs a middle name, too,” Bitty said. Then he laughed. “We could name him after Samwell.”

“Felix Samwell is a little odd,” Jack said, sitting down next to Bitty. “Samuel? Samwise?”

“You’re naming him after luck and joy,” Alicia said. “He’s going to need strength, too. How about ‘Samson?’”

“Felix Samson,” Bitty said, and then smiled. “I think it suits him.”

“He should be a Bittle,” Jack said. “Since you caught him and all.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works,” Bitty said. “But I’m happy for him to have my last name, for however long he needs it.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Theo opened the door for George, and gestured for her to come inside.

“How are you, kiddo?” George asked, as Theo curled back up on the bed.

Theo shrugged.

“Need a hug?” George asked. “I give good spoon, and I’m highly non-threatening.” She hesitated, and then amended, “If you’re not a hockey player.”

Theo looked up, and gave a small nod.

George nudged her shoes off with her toes and dropped her bag on them by the door. She stacked extra pillows up against the headboard behind Theo and then climbed onto the bed. “Scootch,” she said, holding out an arm.

Theo looked, then turned over and put his head on her shoulder and burst into tears. “I’m a mess” he muttered after a couple of minutes.

“Yep,” George said. “Right on time. That’s why I’m here.”

“I hate crying,” Theo sniffed.

“Yeah, but your body is doing the thing,” George said. “I’d worry if you weren’t a miserable mess right now.”

“I’m wrecking your shirt.”

“It’ll wash. This shit sucks right now, it’s okay to be sad for a while. If you weren’t crying, I’d be looking for a shrink to find out why not.”

Theo made a weird laughing sob and then shook his head against her shoulder. “It just hurts.”

“Body and soul, I’m guessing?” George said.

“The body is annoying. I just… the things I want, I can’t have.”

“Well, right now, you need a hug. And you need some time to heal. And you need a break. I think we can do that. You want to be okay. You want to make a whole lot of shit you shouldn’t have to cope with go away, and you can’t. But we can and will meet your needs.”

“I really love Bitty and Jack and their whole family and I feel like I can’t… They’re not mine and I thought they were and…”

“They adore you, you know. And it sucks that there’s no way to meet that baby’s needs and yours in the same house right now, but it might not always be that way, and I know for a fact that even if you live someplace else, they are not ever going to consider you anything but family.”

“How can you know that?” Theo asked.

“Because I know how intensely loyal Bitty is to anyone he adopts. I’ve been noticing that with him since I met him. And by adopt, I mean his team, his family, Jack’s team. Even me. But especially you. And Jack… When Jack takes responsibility for something, he goes 110% to do what he needs to do. I don’t think he knows how to let people go without damaging himself. And the Bittles… they’re like lions fighting to make the world right, and Suzanne is about thisclose to changing her whole life to make this all work better. Bob and Alicia put about six projects on hold to come down here. All four of them have watched their kids go through hell and leave them for a while, and they didn’t stop loving their boys, and their boys learned that lesson down in their bones. You can come stay with me, you could stay with me until you graduated, and they would still think of you as family and be ready to drop everything, even if you aren’t living with them. You won’t lose that, even if you can’t be in the same room with that child for the next five years.”

“They should adopt him,” Theo said into her shirt. “But they don’t have the time, not this year.”

“They might do it anyway,” George says. “Part of being an adult is getting to set priorities, and from what I’ve seen, Bitty is very, very focused on what that baby needs, and Jack is focused on making Bitty happy.”

“It feels like I’m wrecking their lives,” Theo muttered

George laughed. “You’ve seen this house, right? And Bitty’s new car. You’ve tossed all the blocks in the air, but what they’re building is going to be stronger. The thing you haven’t seen is how much love they have for you, and for the baby. And yeah, it’s hard, and it’s going to be hard. But it’s not ‘wrecked.’ It’s just life.”

Theo gradually relaxed against George, and then fell asleep. George slid her phone out of the pocket of her slacks, and thumbed it open to let Jack know.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Suzanne came home late in the afternoon with a stack of paperwork from the attorney. She lay them down on the dining room table in separate piles. “Temporary caregiver custody for the baby,” she said, putting several stapled sheets down. “Application for home study.” Another stack. “Temporary caregiver custody for Theo for George.”

“George is currently being a nap pillow, I think,” Bitty said, sitting across from her with the baby on his chest. Jack sat next to him.

Suzanne nodded. “Good. Enrollment papers for Weller, for Theo. And an employment contract for a private investigator, to find Simon Talfor.”

Bitty stared at the stacks. “How do you learn how to do all this? I feel like I’d be curled up in a corner.”

“I’d have figured it out,” Jack said. “But I’m glad I didn’t have to.”

“It’s easier when it’s for other people,” Suzanne said. “But I asked the lawyer, and talked to the school. I wanted to get you as close to squared away as I could before I left.”

“Thank you so, so much, Mama,” Bitty said, picking up the first sheaf.

“You can pay me back in grandbaby snuggles,” Suzanne said.

Bitty looked down at the sleeping baby on his chest, and sighed. “Okay.”

Alicia set a glass of sweet tea down in front of Suzanne and said, “You said the G-word.”

“I did.” Suzanne met Alicia’s gaze without flinching as she took the baby from Bitty, deftly arranging the baby on her shoulder. He stretched and made a face, then went back to sleep, limp like a dishrag with his cheek against her neck.

“We don’t even know…” Alicia glanced over at Jack, who was studying the private investigator contract.

“I don’t care.” Suzanne took a long sip of the iced tea. “This child needs people to love him unconditionally, and I’d rather take the chance of having my heart broken later than withhold an iota of affection right now. There’s nothing ever to be lost by loving on a baby. They need it too much. If he goes on to be part of some other family, my heart will mend. If he stays with us but we fail to bond with him because we’re afraid of losing him, he may never recover. Right now, this baby is as much Bitty’s child as any other he might have. And Jack’s. Anyone can put milk into a baby and clean him up afterward. But I have to think he’s here for a reason, and while he’s here and I’m here, I’m going to grandmother him as hard as I can.”

Bitty stared at her, open-mouthed. Jack watched them all, his body as alert as it ever was on the ice when a puck was in play.

Alicia smiled. “Fair enough.” She looked down at the curly head on Suzanne’s shoulder. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. I worry so much about Jack’s heart that sometimes I forget what a strong support network he has, even when I’m not here. And if this little guy ends up somewhere else, it will be because Jack and Bitty chose that.”

“I don’t think I can,” Bitty said, his voice almost a whisper.

“I don’t think I want him anywhere else,” Jack said. “Not if we can make things work for Theo.”

“You know what you’re saying, boys.” Alicia looked from one to the other.

Suzanne gave a short laugh. “The writing has been on the wall since this little one landed in my son’s hands.”

“Oh, Mama! He has a name now.” Bitty elbowed Jack. “Tell her.”

“Felix Samson Bittle,” Jack said.

“You’ve picked a fine name for your son,” Suzanne said.

“I…” Bitty went pale and then flushed pink. “Oh god. I think I need him back now. Yes. My son. Oh lord, my face is tingling. Jack…”

“Our son,” Jack echoed, looking dazed. “Yes, I think so.” He reached across the table as Suzanne handed the baby across.

“Now you’ve done it,” Bob said from the nearby couch. “Does that mean I get to be GrandDad Bob now?”

“Like we could stop you,” Alicia said, her voice starting to crack as she sat down next to her son to stare at Felix.

_x_ _x_ _x_

George disentangled herself a few hours later, and came out to find someone to take her place at Theo’s side.

“I think the decision’s been made,” Suzanne said as she gathered a meal for Theo and her lesson plans for the coming year.

“They’re keeping the baby?” George asked.

Suzanne nodded. “Felix. If we can find a good situation for Theo.”

“Felix,” George murmured. “I like that.” She sighed. “He cried. Theo, I mean. And let me hold him for a very long time.”

“Finally. I was getting to worry. He hasn’t wanted to be touched very much for so long,” Suzanne said, impressed.

“We’ve been working on that at the rink,” George said. “He was actually using the physical and massage therapists by the end of the pregnancy. Anyway, what I’m saying is that I think he’s going to be okay with me—with us. He’s an easy kid to love.”

“Not what you expected when you sent Bitty to the center?” Suzanne said, chuckling.

George laughed outright. “I may have miscalculated the intensity of your son’s nurturing instinct.”

Suzanne snorted. “I’m not sure it’s possible to calculate that. I’m just glad he’s mother henning people who actually need it. The number of hockey players he’s taken under his wing…”

“Why do I have a mental image of a small chicken trying to mother ostriches?”

Suzanne giggled. “Pretty much. He succeeds, though.” She slid the lesson plans into a tote and slung it over her shoulder. “When do you think you want Theo to move in?”

“Whenever he’s ready,” George said. “Jack has my address, and our guest room is set up.”

Suzanne nodded. “Thank you for being willing…”

“You guys have set an example I might have to work hard to live up to,” George said with a small shrug.

“It’s above and beyond the call of a general manager to take in minor dependents of players,” Suzanne said.

George sat down heavily at the dining room table. “This stopped being about the job right around the time I heard the full story of what happened to him. I may live in a glass closet, but it wasn’t always glass. And I haven’t talked to my mother in a decade.”

Suzanne set down her things and sat down across from George. “Oh, sweetie. I didn’t know.”

George looked down at the table, and said, “It’s not like that, it’s just… I didn’t come out to her, either, she just got more and more vocal about ‘the gays’ and I got a good job and never looked back. Eventually she stopped leaving messages. But before we stopped talking, it was pretty poisonous, the pressure. I mean, I know where she came from and what it would mean there, but we don’t live there, and it doesn’t have to be like that, here.” George looked up at Suzanne. “Seeing you guys do it right, you don’t know. I needed to know it was possible. And knowing what Theo dealt with… I know exactly where he’s coming from. I mean, it’s easier for me, passing, than it is for him, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it, and the public conversations have gotten so, so ugly. Race, gender, sexuality, all of it. At least with the team, we can fine the guys if they go there. I’m glad that Theo has the room to figure out who he is, but it feels like a double-edged sword.”

“My mother was a Republican,” Suzanne said slowly. “The last few years changed her mind, but oh, it was a big, hard shift. She’s been okay about Dicky. About Bitty. The rest of the family… We’ve agreed to disagree, and we don’t schedule visits for major family gatherings anymore, because I won’t put him through that.”

“Best thing I ever did for my mental health was stop trying to attend family holidays,” George said. “Dad’s family isn’t so terrible. Mother’s… They were bad enough about the Olympics. So immodest.” She laughed dryly. “If they knew what my job entails… Let’s just say I’m really glad they live in Orange County, and I don’t tell them when we’re playing the Ducks.”

“I’m just so close to wanting to just leave,” Suzanne said, her accent getting stronger, as it did whenever she talked about family. “Family always held me there, but when you can’t even stand to look at them because the words they’re saying are so hateful… And I can’t tell Bitty about it, he thinks the falling out is about jam. It was never about jam.”

“Oh, that does make more sense, then,” George says. “I wondered. The team’s been taking sides.”

“There’s only one side,” Suzanne said. “If they knew.”

“I’m not sure I want to,” George said.

“I wish I didn’t,” Suzanne said. “Some words you can’t unhear. I hope… the most healing thing for me has been doing better by my son than my family did by the ones who went before him. I hope that mothering Theo helps you, too.”

“Mothering.” George blinked. “Oh. That’s…”

“Generally what one does when one takes in a child.” Suzanne’s voice was dry and amused. “I don’t know why this concept is so alien to all y’all. That’s why they call it foster parenting.”

“You’ve been thinking of yourself as a mother your whole adult life,” George said. “Give those of us who have had parenthood thrust upon us unexpectedly a little chance to catch up.” She frowned, and then said, “So to speak.”

Suzanne laughed, and stood, picking up the plate and her tote. “You’re gonna do just fine. And you’re not in it alone.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Theo took the plate from Suzanne with a weary half-smile.

“I hear you got a good nap in,” Suzanne said, laying out her paperwork on Theo’s desk. “We can talk, if you want, or I have some work to do. It can wait for the plane tomorrow, so whichever you prefer is just fine.”

“I think I want to go to George’s house.” Theo said, sitting with one foot off the bed and one foot folded under him.

“Tonight?” Suzanne asked.

“It’s kinda late,” Theo said. “What day is it? I lost track.” He looked the plate over, and then took a bite of pasta salad.

“Monday, August first,” Suzanne supplied. “Bitty’s doing an intensive this week in Providence, I’m going home tomorrow, Jack’s birthday is on Wednesday, and I think there’s a pediatrician visit on Friday.”

“Maybe the weekend?” Theo said. “So Bitty and Jack are free?”

“They’d make time for whatever you needed, sweetheart. You know that.” Suzanne pulled the chair around to face Theo. “You can stay as long as you like, but you don’t have to just to make everyone happy. I could drive you over before I get on the plane.”

“I think I want to stay for Jack’s birthday,” Theo said. “I… don’t want to take away from his day. Maybe I should go after?”

“Thursday, then?” Suzanne asked.

“I… yeah. I think so.” Theo took another bite, and when he swallowed, he said softly, “I’m really going to miss you.”

“Likewise, sweetie. But we can Skype, and I’ll probably be back this fall sometime.”

“You hate it there—why do you stay?” Theo asked abruptly.

Suzanne let out a surprised laugh as she said, “Oh, honey. That is the question, isn’t it? Why did you stay with your mama so long?”

“Because she’s my mom,” Theo said.

“And Georgia’s my home, and it’s hard to think about leaving. But more, we’re making change there, and leaving—I’m afraid that if Coach stopped pushing, they’d backslide. I worry about all my kids, and we’ve taken a few under our wing down there who… I need to know they’re going to do okay, that the changes at the school are going to stick, before we pull up our roots.”

“There should be a job going around and teaching people how to not be assholes,” Theo muttered. “You’d be great at it.”

“Language, honey. And maybe there is? I’d have to get comfortable with a whole lot more public speaking.”

“Sorry,” Theo said, stabbing a piece of broccoli with his fork.

“They named the baby,” Suzanne said. “They’re leaning toward adopting him, though I think they’d rather find a way to adopt the both of you. But that’s down the road a ways, and I don’t think they expect it.”

“I can’t even think about that right now,” Theo said. “But I’m glad they want him. Someone should.”

“Do you want to know the baby’s name?” Suzanne asked.

“I… not yet. Is that weird?”

“The more you know about him, the more real it is. And I can see how that might not be particularly desirable in your present circumstances.”

“Is George helping me for Jack?” Theo asked.

“Getting you maternity clothes, sorting out the logistics of the legal stuff, and outfitting the baby is helping Jack,” Suzanne said. “Holding you while you sleep because you’re sad and need a hug, and offering you a place to live and becoming your de facto foster parent? That’s because she genuinely cares about you.”

“It’s hard to know anymore. I don’t trust my own judgment.”

“You weren’t wrong to expect to be able to trust a church leader, or your mother, sweetie. That’s on them. You’re supposed to be able to trust them.”

“I… that’s not exactly it,” Theo said. “This isn’t… I don’t know what I expected, but this just isn’t how I thought it would go. Any of it. I mean, I understand exactly why things are happening the way they’re happening, and I don’t feel angry at Bitty or Jack, but it feels like I put my heart in the wrong place.”

“I don’t think you were wrong to care about them. I don’t think anyone quite got it in their minds how this would go once the baby was here, and while I think that the way the baby was born was probably the easiest it could have been on you, and certainly the gentlest it could have been for the baby… there’s something profound that happens sometimes when someone is that close in a birth. Bitty catching the baby may have made for an incredible bond between them, but it certainly didn’t make your choices any simpler. And knowing that probably doesn’t make it any easier to trust.”

“I don’t want to be ungrateful, you all have done so much.” Theo sighed. “I just feel like I don’t have right choices.”

“The good news is you don’t have to make any choices right now. You can go stay with George, you can start school, and it will be a while before anyone asks you to make any permanent decisions.”

“I know one thing.” Theo put his plate down. “I want my mom’s rights terminated. I want the no contact order, and I don’t want to see her again.”

“I think we can make that happen,” Suzanne said.

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 2 _x_ _x_ _x_

The next day, Theo begged to go with Alicia to drive Suzanne to the airport. “I haven’t been out of my room for more than thirty seconds in four days,” he said to Alicia.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Alicia said, and plans were shifted. Bitty and Jack gave Suzanne a warm goodbye, and headed to the rink with Bob and the baby in Jack’s SUV.

Suzanne put a pillow on the front seat of the minivan for Theo, and climbed into the captain's seat behind Alicia for the drive to Boston.

At the rink, Bitty and Jack dropped Bob and the baby off at the door before going to park.

“How the hell are we going to avoid the media when you’re bringing a baby to work for child care?” Bitty asked, grateful for the lack of media vans in the parking lot.

“We could get a nanny at home,” Jack said. “There’s no reason the baby has to be in daycare at the rink, I just liked the idea of being able to see him when I’m on breaks.”

“Or we could hire a nanny and have her drive in a separate car and go in without you,” Bitty said.

“Well, if we’re hiring a nanny, we could have her go with you to Samwell. You get big breaks between classes…”

“If the paparazzi have lost interest once the preseason starts,” Bitty said. “I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of them.”

“We don’t sleep around, we don’t go to clubs, and neither of us is Blooming the paps. I think they’re bored with us. Besides, Trump seems to be filling the outrage cups this summer, so they don’t need us. I had cameras following me when I was a dingbat kid getting drunk on the weekends and getting caught in compromising positions. I think they gave up on me years ago. Mostly.”

They went inside, to find Bob happy as a clam, completely mobbed by a small crowd of significant others.

“Mine,” Jack said, reaching for the baby. “His name is Felix. If you put him on social media, I know where you live.”

“Jack,” one of the women said. “This is not our first rodeo.”

“Yeah, but it is Jack’s,” another said. “When do we get to hold him? The baby. I assume Jack’s still off limits, huh, Bitty?”

Bitty snorted. “Baby needs to be a few weeks older before we pass him around. And Jack? Not in this lifetime.”

“Oooo, sounds permanent, honey.” That from Thirdy’s wife.

“It will be,” Jack said, and looked absolutely baffled at the squeeing his words triggered.

Bitty just laughed. “Put a ring on it, Mister.”

“I thought we were going to go shopping for them next week?” Jack looked completely at sea.

Bob laughed. “No one ever was able to chirp me harder than your mother, Jack. You’re surrounded.”

“I’m just going to take the baby now,” Jack said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

It was better, in some ways, having the baby there. Bob was a huge distraction, however. Bitty ended up getting about three useful hours out of five at the rink, and Jack listened attentively whenever he could, once his father had been helpfully dragged off, nominally to talk strategy with the coaching staff.

“I can’t believe how good he was,” Bitty said later, as they loaded up into the SUV.

“Babies are easy at this stage,” Bob said. “They’re just constant because it’s round the clock. But you boys feed him before he can cry about it, and he’s really got nothing to complain about. He’ll wake up more in a couple weeks, though.”

Bitty cooed at Felix while tucking him into the car seat. “I can’t wait to see you smile, Baby Boo.”

“He did smile,” Jack said. “While he was half asleep.”

“Yeah, but awake baby grins are the best,” Bitty said, climbing into the seat next to the baby. Felix stared at him, chin tucked to chest, eyes wide, lips pursed.

Jack loaded the diaper bag in behind the passenger seat and looked at the baby. “He looks like a tiny Winston Churchill. Very serious. Ready to take on the Germans.”

“Most babies do,” Bitty said. “But I think the most serious war he’s going to fight for the time being is with his diaper.”

“I’m going to miss Suzanne,” Jack said, climbing into the driver’s seat.

“I’m going to miss her cooking,” Bob said.

Bitty frowned. “Hey, now.”

Bob explained, “You’re going to be too busy to cook, with the baby, and the intensive? And you’re back at Samwell, what, next week?”

“Late next week. I can still cook. I cooked last year with a full hockey schedule and class load.”

“Well, we’d like to take you boys out for dinner tomorrow, for Jack’s birthday,” Bob said. “So you don’t need to worry about it.”

Bitty frowned. “That’s very kind of you. But I do enjoy cooking, and it’s getting to be a bit of a tradition for me to make Jack his birthday pie. The baby is no trouble, y’all have seen to that.”

“Papa, not tomorrow,” Jack said. “I don’t want us going to restaurants with the baby. We can do something once there’s a nanny. Maman said she was looking.”

Bitty added, “I don’t know if Theo would be comfortable coming with, and I’m certainly not going to leave him home alone right now.”

Bob went quiet, and they finished the drive home in an uncomfortable silence.

When they arrived, Alicia was just coming out of Theo’s room with some empty plates. She set them down in the kitchen and then came over to give everyone kisses on the cheek, including the baby in Jack’s arms. Then she looked at them all and said, “What?”

“We told Papa we didn’t want to go out tomorrow,” Jack said.

“Bob, the nanny will be here next week, and Theo is going to George on Thursday. There’s plenty of time to celebrate.”

“No, of course. I know,” Bob said. “Whatever Jack wants.”

“I’m just going to make dinner while Jack has Felix,” Bitty said.

“How’s Theo?” Jack asked Alicia.


“I thought you were just driving to Boston and back?” Jack said, puzzled.

Alicia shrugged. “He gave birth four days ago. Recovery takes time.”

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 3 _x_ _x_ _x_

Felix was restless that night, and Bitty was groggy and slow the next morning, despite Alicia taking most of the middle of the night feeds. Jack headed out for a morning workout with a microwave-thawed muffin and a smoothie he made himself, and Bitty found himself dragging through the morning with the baby, getting out of the house a full half an hour later than intended. He arrived at the rink after an uncharacteristically quiet drive with Bob, who came along nominally to help with the baby, but really because he couldn’t resist a chance to be at the rink.

When they pulled into the parking lot, Bitty swore, and then apologized to the baby. “Bob, what am I going to do?”

A news van was parked near the front entrance.

“Drive around to the loading dock,” Bob said, grabbing a snapback from the center console and pulling it on hastily. “The side windows are tinted, just get me as close to the door as you can.” He was already texting, and by the time they got around to the back of the building, Jack was opening the the service door and pushing an industrial-sized black rolling laundry basket down the ramp to the side of the car.

“Sorry,” Jack said, bringing the cart down next to the minivan. “They want to do a puff piece on the nutritional program. Don’t ask me how they found out. Just snap out the whole infant seat and put it in here.”

“Are you really sneaking our baby into the rink in the laundry, Jack Zimmermann?” Bitty said, sounding completely scandalized.

“It’s the clean hamper, it doesn’t even smell too bad,” Jack said.

“I should just turn around and head back home,” Bitty said. “This is a terrible idea.”

“I’ll just take the baby down to the office,” Bob said, clicking the seat out of the base. “No one will know he’s here. Or that he’s yours.”

Bitty covered his face with his hands as Jack took the car seat carrier from Bob and set it down on the bottom of the empty laundry bin. “This is a terrible idea,” Bitty said again, then sighed and picked up the diaper bag to follow Jack back up the ramp.

_x_ _x_ _x_

By the middle of the afternoon, Bitty was exhausted, and Jack was still not done.

“You look beat,” George said, putting a paper coffee cup in Bitty’s hands as he stood watching through the glass as Jack recorded a short interview. “You should retrieve Bob and Felix from the PR office. We’ll send Jack home soon.”

Bitty sipped the iced double chocolate mocha and sighed. “Thanks for the coffee, how did you know?”

George snorted. “You’ve been propping your eyes open with matchsticks since you got here. It’s painful to look at. Jack suggested the flavor.”

“Felix was up a lot last night,” Bitty said. “Don’t keep Jack long, it’s his birthday.”

“Any big plans?” George asked.

“Ha,” Bitty said. “I’m making a pie, and we’re staying in and going to bed early. Friends are coming down on Saturday, we’ll probably do more then. If I’d managed to drag myself out of bed an hour earlier, I’d have brought cupcakes.”

“Kid, I don’t think anyone is going to blame you for not having energy to bake cupcakes at eight in the morning with a five-day-old baby,” said George as she left the room.

Bitty watched for another minute, and then went to find Bob.

Bob was in the workout area, bouncing slowly on a yoga ball while carrying on an enthusiastic conversation with one of the trainers and patting the baby senseless against his shoulder. He stopped bouncing when he saw Bitty, and said, “Is it time to go?”

Bitty nodded. “I think Jack’s got the reporter tied up a bit longer.”

“Let us make our escape then,” Bob said, standing up gracefully and shaking the trainer’s hand, one hand steadying the baby on his shoulder.

Bitty picked up the diaper bag and the car seat and they made their way back out to the back door. Bob was offloaded the baby into the car seat when a voice said, “Hey, Bob, whose baby is that?”

Bitty’s breath caught and his eyes widened as Bob turned without missing a beat and said, “Just helping out a friend of the family, you know how it is.”

The reporter, with a camera guy behind him, said, “Hey, Bittle, you have any big plans for Jack’s birthday?”

Bitty plastered on a smile and turned and said, “No comment.”

“Won’t kiss and tell?” the reporter teased.

“I’m a gentleman,” Bitty said. “And his parents are in town. We’re really not that interesting.”

“Bake anything new lately?”

Bitty forced a laugh. “You can wait for my next video. But if you like, talk to the PR folks here and we can set up a cooking demo sometime.”

“No treats left?” the reporter asked hopefully.

“How often do I have things left over coming out of the building? Besides, we’re having a nutrition intensive. I might bring in some quinoa kale muffins tomorrow.”

The reporter blanched. “So who is the friend?”

Bitty rolled his eyes. “Y’all know better. You want to talk about cooking or hockey, I’m all yours. That little guy didn’t sign up for you nosing about in his life, nor did his parents. We’re doing a favor for a friend, and you shouldn’t even report that because it’s nobody’s business and not news.”

“Aw, but Bad Bob with a Baby…”

“Alliteration aside,” Bitty said, “you know Bob would do anything for anyone, and if it’s something the public needs to know, the Falcs would be all over telling you.”

The reporter handed his mic to his camera guy and waved the the cameraman off. “No, seriously, Bittle, off the record, what’s the deal? They pulled a bait and switch with this nutrition seminar, and that’s not like them. Someone’s hiding something.”

Bitty sighed, and said, “Look. Legally, you cannot report anything about the baby. There are confidentiality issues that supersede your right to know. I am flat out not allowed to tell you why you can’t know, but if you dig, you’re going to end up against a brick wall. Yes. We’re hiding something. Yes. We’re doing a favor for a friend. No, we can’t tell you. It will, at some point, be obvious.”

“The kid is part of a legal proceeding?”

“And his records are protected by state law,” Bitty said. “You could hurt several people by writing about him at all.”

“You might want to be more careful,” the reporter said. “Me, I’ve got ethics. Someone with a cell phone and a Twitter account might not.”

“He’s been here for two days, and the only reason it’s an issue is because you came. No one here is putting his picture up on Twitter.”

“I’m just saying, friendly advice from someone who likes your muffins,” the reporter said.

“Give me your card,” Bitty said, “and I’ll send you some.”

“Bribery,” the reporter said. “I like it.”

Bob leaned over from the passenger’s seat. “He gives baked goods to everyone. He’s just being polite.”

“If pictures of that child were to leak, what should we say?” the reporter asked.

“That Bob is helping a friend for a few hours,” Bitty said. “Which is the God’s-honest truth. Now if you don’t mind…”

The reporter stepped back with a little bow, and Bitty climbed into the driver’s seat and closed the door.

They sat there until the reporter was around the corner of the building, and Bitty let out a shaking half-sob, half-sigh.

“Hey, Eric. You handled it well. We knew it would happen sooner or later,” Bob said.

Bitty sat there, hands shaking on the steering wheel, not turning the car on.

Bob reached over and rested a hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “You should let me drive. Go back and sit with your little boy.”

Bitty frowned and then nodded. A minute later, Bitty was behind the driver’s seat, reaching over to rest his hand on the carseat, and Bob said, looking in the rear view mirror, “You can close your eyes. I know the way.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty pulled Felix out of the carseat when they got home, put the baby up on one shoulder, swung the diaper bag over his other, and went into the house, saying, “I think I’m going to lie down with him for a few minutes before I get started on Jack’s pie and dinner.”

“I’ll get the carseat,” Bob said, but Bitty was already up the front steps and poking the combination on the keypad to open the front door.

Four hours later, Bitty opened his eyes, completely disoriented. There was no baby next to him, and the clock on the shelf across the room read 7 pm. He muttered, “Shitfucksonofamothersucking…” and hauled himself out of bed.

“Channeling Shitty?” Jack said from the window seat, where he sat with the baby on one arm, bottle propped against his chest, and a book in one hand.

“Jack, I was just lying down for a minute. I’m supposed to make dinner, and pie, and at this rate it will be nine before anything is ready and…”

Jack laughed. “It’s okay, Bits.”

“It most certainly is not okay,” Bitty said. “It’s your birthday, and I didn’t even get to make you breakfast.”

“I told Papa to order in. Maman made me my favorite birthday cake. It’s not your pie, but it tastes like the best part of my childhood. The food will be here any minute now; I was just about to wake you.”

Bitty sat back down on the bed, rubbed his face, and said, “Shit.”

“Bits, really, it’s fine. You were up most of the night. I’m just glad you got a nap.”

Bitty shook his head, still covering his face with his hands. “I’m supposed to take care of you. I like taking care of you. And I didn’t even get a chance to get you a present.”

“Eric, stop,” Jack said, his voice gently rebuking.

Bitty dropped his hands and stared at Jack. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard you use my first name.”

“I figured it might get your attention,” Jack said. “Look, I don’t care about presents. And as good as your pie is, I don’t really care about pie either. You think I don’t know that you’re protecting my sleep every night? That you’re up three or four times a night with the baby, even if Maman helps, and you haven’t once asked me to help you with the nighttime baby care?”

“You have a job,” Bitty said. “It depends on you being healthy and alert.”

“You’re doing hard mental work this week,” Jack said. “You’re starting school soon, and that’s certainly as important. We’re going to have someone in here to help with things, but we’re in this together, and it’s okay for me to do some of the nighttime stuff. I don’t want you to wreck your car, and if you’re this tired after less than a week, something is going to have to give. It’s okay to ask me for a little help. My job gives me dedicated nap time every day.”

“I just… you’re paying for everything,” Bitty said. “This house, the food, the bills, I don’t even think I have a clue what electricity costs for this behemoth of a house. I assume we have garbage service, but I’ve never taken the trash out. I need to feel like I’m contributing.”

“Shitty would be reading you the riot act right now for acting like all you do for Theo and for Felix isn’t contributing,” Jack said. “If we were a straight couple and you were the girl, literally no one would think twice about you focusing on the baby. But we’re not a straight couple, and you’re not ‘the girl’ and your education is an investment in our future as much as my job is.”

Jack put his book down, put a cloth on his shoulder, and put the baby up for a burp. “We’re partners in this. We’re going to be married as soon as things settle down a little. What’s mine is yours. It’s not my money, it’s our money. And I’m okay with you sleeping when you need to sleep, because I know that it’s going to make it easier for you to do the things you need to do. God knows I love your cooking, and baking, but food will never be more important to me than your health and sanity, and if that means ordering take-out or one of us mere mortals cooking less perfect food, we’ll be fine. I don’t need your cooking. I need you. And that’s obvious to anyone with eyes.”

“But it’s your birthday,” Bitty said.

“And it’s being taken care of, and I don’t mind.”

“After dinner, let your parents take the baby for a while,” Bitty said. “If I can’t cook you dinner, we can find some other way to celebrate.”

Jack grinned.

A few minutes later, they made their way downstairs. Bob was paying someone at the front door.

When Bob had set the bags down on the dining room table, Bitty said, “I owe you an apology, sir.”

“Oh?” Bob asked.

“I really appreciate you getting dinner tonight. Going out wouldn’t have worked, but this really does make things easier. Thank you.”

Bob grinned. “I think when Jack was five days old, I tried to brush my teeth with sportscreme, I was so tired.”

Bitty winced.

“Yeah, it was pretty much every bit as unpleasant as it sounds. Woke me up, though. Don’t worry about it. This is a learning experience for all of us.”

“He was almost ready to clean his tongue on the carpet,” Alicia said. “Thank god for burp cloths. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed that hard.”

“Really, Bits, you can let me do some of the night stuff,” Jack said.

“It’s the early mornings that kill me,” Bitty said. “Five am should not exist.”

“How about I take him jogging with me?” Jack asked. “We’ve got that stroller.”

“The paps…” Alicia warned, putting plates down on the table.

“Don’t even know I’m living here,” Jack said. “I run that early because it reduces the number of pictures people take of me.”

“Put the top forward on the stroller,” Bob said. “And put a weight in the basket. Anyone asks, you’re using a special technique to increase your resistance while running, to improve your stamina.”

Bitty snorted. “That could actually work.”

“So anything after 4 am, you give the baby to me,” Jack said. “I’ll catch a nap later. You can sleep until 8.”

Bitty’s sigh could only be interpreted as relieved. “That would be wonderful.”

“Dim sum?” Bob asked, holding up a carton.

“I’d love some,” Theo’s voice said, behind them. “Happy birthday, Jack.”

Jack handed the baby to Bitty and went over to give Theo a hug. “Thank you. You going to be okay out here?”

Theo gave a small shrug and a nod. “It’s your birthday. I want to celebrate with you.”

“You are always welcome,” Jack said. “I don’t want you to make yourself uncomfortable for me, though.”

“I heard Chinese food,” Theo said. “Is there cake?”

“There’s cake,” Alicia said. “After dinner.”

“Excellent,” Theo said.

Jack sat down next to Bitty, and Theo sat on his other side.

“You’re sitting up,” Alicia said.

“Better, today.” Theo took the dim sum box from Bob and loaded three onto his plate. “Starting to feel human again.” He handed the box to Jack, and took a Styrofoam container of spring rolls from Alicia.

“Good to see you up and and about,” Bob said.

Theo made a small half-smile, staring at his plate and avoiding looking at anyone. “It’s good to be up, sir.”

Chapter Text

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 4 _x_ _x_ _x_

The next morning, Bitty and Jack helped Theo pack several large plastic totes full of clothes, computer, school supplies, and books, and drove over to George’s place in the College Hill neighborhood, leaving the baby with Jack’s parents.

“Jeez, are all of you rich?” Theo asked as they pulled in behind a huge old house.

“I’m pretty sure it’s apartments,” Jack said.

Bitty took a tote, Jack took two, and Theo put his backpack over one shoulder, a quilt over the other and two pillows in his arms, then they walked down the narrow path between the houses to the front of the building.

“No yard,” Bitty said.

“There wouldn’t be. This close to Brown, they’ve made every square inch count for living space,” Jack said.

“There’s a tower,” Theo said.

Jack laughed. “A little one.”

They pressed the door buzzer, and a moment later, a short, round woman with straight red hair, and light brown, freckled skin, opened the door. She smiled warmly. “I’m Erin, come on in. George is upstairs. Can I grab anything?”

“Let the athletes carry it,” George called down the stairs.

Erin rolled her eyes. “Can I carry your backpack, Theo? I know you’re probably not supposed to lift much.”

Theo handed the backpack over, and followed Erin up the stairs, trailed by Jack and Bitty.

“Living room or bed?” Erin asked over her shoulder.

“Living room,” Theo said. “I’ve been in bed so long it hurts.”

The stairs opened to an airy hallway with large windows at each end, lined with potted plants. The largest spider plant Bitty had ever seen sprawled across the far window, and the nearer window hosted a philodendron that climbed from hook to hook from the wide window down to the middle of the hallway, where Erin was opening a door. The hardwood floor was bright, clean, and clearly had been there since the house was built.

Their apartment was decorated with an eclectic conglomeration of furnishings: A low dining room table was surrounded by legless chairs and intricate brocade cushions in deep jewel tones. Across the wide open plan main room a sitting area was set up near a large bay window, with a formal, carved loveseat, an overstuffed sofa, and a leather recliner, all resting on a Kashmir rug.

“Take the recliner,” George called from the kitchen. “WiFi’s great there. Only person who sits there is my dad when he visits.”

Theo sat down and pressed the handle next to the arm. The foot sprang up and he leaned back, sighing. “How can I be this tired already?”

Erin set the backpack down on the short square table next to the recliner. “Can I get you anything, Theo?”

Theo shook his head, and pulled his laptop out of the backpack.

Erin escorted Jack and Bitty to the bedroom set up for Theo. It was cozy, set in the small half-tower, with a twin bed and a desk against the exterior wall near the windows. One interior wall was half built-in bookshelves and half built-in drawers. She twisted an old crystal doorknob on the other interior wall, opening a deep closet with a window in it. “You can put the totes in here for now, until he gets a chance to unpack,” she said.

Bitty set his tote on the bed and opened it, pulling out a stack of finely detailed coloring books and a new box of aquarelles. “I’ll just put these on the desk,” he said with a sigh.

“It’s hard letting go,” Erin said, as Bitty started to say, “Thank you for…”

They laughed, and then Bitty said, “I know that George is really fond of him, and if he couldn’t stay with us, I’m glad you’re here to pick up the slack.”

“It’s hardly slack,” Erin said. “We’ve got the easy kid.”

“Oh, babies are easy,” Bitty said. “They’re just constant. Not that Theo is hard, it’s just the situation… I hate feeling like there’s no right answer to be had anywhere.”

“We knew from the start that one or both of them might not be permanent,” Jack said. “But it doesn’t make this any easier.”

“He’s just been so sad,” Bitty said. “And I know why, and I wouldn’t expect anything else under the circumstances, but oh, it hurts not being able to fix it, and more to know that part of what hurts is about me.”

“Imagine how your mama felt watching you get bullied in school,” Jack said. “I think about how Maman coped with me in rehab all the time.”

Bitty sat down on the bed and said, “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Jack said, sitting down next to him and wrapping an arm around Bitty’s shoulders. Bitty leaned into the half hug, resting his head against Jack’s shoulder. “They seem to be doing pretty well now?”

Erin smiled, opening one of the totes marked “clothes” and putting things in drawers. “I have a friend who does foster care. All she does is babies. Takes in babies who are fresh in the system, and keeps them for a few weeks until DCYF figures out what to do with them. I asked her once how she could let them go. She said, ‘I know I’m only a soft place to land, a shelter, someone to teach them that the world is not just hard, that there is also love in the world. Most of my babies either go on to forever homes, or the mamas figure out their stuff and the babies go back to their mamas. Either way, they’re where they belong, and none the worse for wear for me having loved on them for a few weeks or months. Every once in a while, one stays, and that’s a blessing, but it’s not why I do it. Someone needs to love these babies, and I have a lot of love to give, so why not me?’”

She finished with the clothes and pulled the desk chair over to sit, saying, “I asked her if it didn’t break her heart to let them go, and she said that the first one was the hardest, and she cried for three days, and then the adoptive mama called her and told her he was playing and happy and giggling and sleeping through the night, and that was all she needed to know. She never cried another tear, because, in her words, ‘How could I be sad when he was so clearly where he needed to be, and the better for knowing me?’”

She smiled. “I won’t pretend that it’s going to be that simple with Theo. George told me the whole story, and he’s got a lot of wounds to work through. I don’t know if we’re going to be with him for days, or weeks, or what’s left of high school. But we’re here to help, and he is surely far better off for knowing both of you.”

“Thank you,” Jack said.

From the living room, they heard a sudden bark of laughter. Curious, they went out to find Theo and George looking at a video on YouTube of a chicken riding a Roomba. Theo was laughing helplessly, while George said, “Wait until you see the bullfrog playing Ant Crusher…”

Bitty whispered to Jack, “That may well be the first time I’ve ever heard him really laugh.”

“You keep saying that’s what social media is there for,” Jack whispered back. “I might actually believe it now.” He pulled his wallet out of his pocket, and went over to the living area.

Opening it, he slipped a credit card out, and handed it to Theo, sitting down on the loveseat as he did. “This is for times when unexpected expenses come up. I’ll see what you spend and where, but as long as you keep it reasonable, I’m not going to worry too much about it. That’s for a cab, if you need it, especially if you need to get out of someplace you don’t feel safe. You’re going to be at a private school where most of the kids have trust funds, and they'll want to drag you along places where they won’t think about the money at all, and the price tags will shock you. I don’t want you thinking that you have to spend money to impress people, but I also don’t want you feeling like you can’t go hang out with people because you don’t have money. You don’t need to impress them, and I don’t expect you to go on sprees for the sake of spending money, but you also don’t need to go into this feeling like you don’t have resources. Don’t use it to buy drugs, don’t use it to buy alcohol, but you can certainly go out to eat or to the movies or pay for a class trip if you need to.”

Theo took the card and looked at it. “Theo Burton,” he said. “I don’t have any ID that… Oh. It has your name on it, too.”

Jack handed over a folded envelope. “If anyone ever gives you trouble, you show them that. It explains that you are using the card with my permission, that I am your guardian, and provides emergency contact information for me, Bitty, George, and Erin. Don’t show the letter if you don’t need to, I don’t need my phone number getting out too much. But don’t hesitate if someone is making noises about theft of whatnot. It’s notarized, and on my lawyer’s letterhead. If anyone messes with you, you call me, you call my lawyer if it’s serious enough, you call George, you call any of us. If they question your name, that’s the other piece of paper, describing the situation and why your credit card name doesn’t match your student ID. But it will, as soon as you get a new student ID. You don’t even have to use Burton, they said they’d let you put whatever you want on it, and we can have a new card for you in three days.”

Bitty pulled an iPhone out of his pocket. “This has all those numbers, plus Mama and Daddy and Maman and Bob and the guys and Lardo and you don’t have to be in trouble to call us.” He passed it over. “Don’t worry about the data, it’s unlimited.”

Theo blinked. “But I have a phone…”

“You have a cheap emergency phone with no data and barely any messaging or minutes,” Bitty said. “You’re going to keep it, you’re going to keep it charged and you’re going to keep it in this.” He handed over a slim belt designed to be worn under clothes. “Use the iPhone like you would your main phone. If someone takes it away or steals it, you’ll have a backup. I know your school is pretty good about this stuff, but sometimes some people don’t get the message, and I carried a phone like that all the way through high school.”

George said, “We’re also going to be giving you a cash allowance. We’ll sit down and talk about finances as we go. You’ll be saving part, and using part of it for charity, and part of it will be for spending money.”

“George, you don’t have to…” Theo started.

“Oh, trust me, even if this lump over here hadn’t set it up, I’d still do that for you,” George said, punching Jack gently on the arm. “But Jack and his parents set up a trust for you, and it pays me an allowance every month to help cover your expenses, and one of the expenses specified in the trust is ‘a suitable allowance for incidental expenses for the minor child.’ So you’re not taking my money, and the way they set the trust up, it’s not really his money anymore either.”

“Wait, I have a trust fund?” Theo said, looking utterly perplexed.

“It makes the most sense,” Jack said. “That way, you don’t have to worry that having enough money is dependent on living with us. There’s also an educational trust, because that was the most tax-efficient way of setting up money for college and private school for you. I’m paying your living expenses as your guardian, but my parents put in the maximum for a 529 account that will start maturing your first year of school.”

“Maximum?” Theo asked, dazed.

“$140,000. That’s a five-year gift from two people.”

Theo blinked. “That would pay for, like, Harvard.”

“Shitty says Harvard is about seventy grand per year with room and board,” Jack said. “But that’s just what my parents put in. I can fund a 529 at the same level when we’re married, it just doesn’t make sense to do it until then, and we don’t need to yet.”

“I don’t know what to say,” said Theo. “It’s so much. I don’t think my mom’s made that much in her life.”

“It’s okay. I mean, after a while the numbers are just unreal,” Bitty said. “Mostly it just means that all you need to focus on right now is school, and you. Go to the school you want. Study what interests you. Don’t flip burgers for a living unless you really want to flip burgers for a living.”

“But Bob and Alicia just… They barely know me.”

“Papa has probably funded a million or more worth of scholarships for people he never met,” Jack said. “He’s met you. He likes you. He knows you’ll put it to good use.”

“I can’t even ice skate,” Theo mused.

Erin laughed. “Neither can I, Theo. Neither can I.”

Theo stared at the credit card in his hands. “There’s no way I can ever pay you back…”

“You’re a kid,” George said. “We all decided to parent you. Kids don’t owe their parents.”

“Someday,” Bitty said, “someone will need your help, too, sweetie. And you’ll be in a position to give it to them. And you will, because you know that’s what makes the world the kind of place you want to live in. And I know he’s not the easiest thing to think about, but Felix may be the best thing anyone’s ever given me, and the cost to you was too damn high by half. There’s no money in the world that could repay you for him or for the toll he took on you. They set up the trusts before Felix was even born, the money isn’t about him, but I don’t ever want to hear you talking about how you owe us. You don’t. We’re just taking care of the things that money can help.”

“I get more than money from you, Bitty,” Theo said. “I mean, there’s pie…”

“You’re chirping me!” Bitty said with mock indignation, completely delighted.

And then Theo smiled, a real smile.

“Oh, bless,” Bitty said, and asked, “Can I hug you?”

Theo nodded. “I’m going to miss… your pie. And you guys.”

“Pretty sure George is gonna drag you to the rink,” Bitty said, squeezing him. “You’ll see us there for a bit. And you are always welcome at the house. Always. We’ll make time.”

“I think about how lost I was,” Theo said. “I never want to feel that way again in my life. I’m pretty sure you saved my life, all of you.”

Jack reached over and put a hand on Theo’s arm. “I’m going to ask one thing of you, in all this, Theo.”

Theo stared back at Jack, wide-eyed. “What?”

“Live. Just, live. Don’t ever let anyone, not even you, make you think it’s not worth it. I’m absolutely sure that the world is better with you in it.”

Theo’s gaze dropped, and he said, “She said it wasn’t, you know.”

“Which is why you’re here, and not there,” George said. “We’re out to prove her wrong. It won’t be hard.”

“You have to get to the rink, all three of you,” Theo said, looking at George, Jack, and Bitty.

“That we do,” George agreed.

_x_ _x_ _x_

They made it through four hours at the rink, but the last hour of it was mostly a waste for Bitty.

“You’ve got it bad, kid,” Thirdy said to him as they chopped vegetables, the fourth time Bitty unlocked his phone to see if Bob or Alicia had messaged him.

“He’s just so little,” Bitty said. “And he changes so fast.”

“When my first was born, I called home like every shift change,” Thirdy said. “She had her mother there, and her sister, and my mother, and I still felt like I was letting my wife down by not being there. We timed the others for the off season.”

Bitty snorted. “Like we could have planned for this…”

At the next work station, Tater said, “You still go back to university?”

Bitty nodded. “Senior year. Last year.”

“Is lot of pies in air,” Tater said. “You captain this year, no?”

“Really, man? Nice,” Thirdy said.

“Yeah, I’m supposed to be there Tuesday to greet the frogpoles,” Bitty said. “We start conditioning in a week.”

“Oh man,” Thirdy said. “Kid’s going to be what, two weeks old then? Our second really woke up right around then.”

“Woke up?” Bitty asked.

“Yeah, when they’re brand new they’re like, I don’t know, only half here? Sleeping 20 hours a day, that kind of shit. Ten days, two weeks, three… they wake up, and bye-bye sleep. I mean, for my wife, though I did some of it.”

“We have a lot of help,” Bitty said. “It’s been okay.”

“Dude, I saw you yesterday.”

“There are always naps,” Bitty said. “We’ll figure it out.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Coming home was strange without Theo. In the days since Felix’ birth, they’d been juggling constantly to keep someone with Theo most of the time, and it was a strangely empty relief that they kept mentally tripping over to not have to make allowances for that.

Bitty took the baby from Alicia the minute he arrived home, and kept him until close to bedtime, skin to skin in a carrier. He looked around after the last of the dishes were done, and realized he hadn’t seen Jack in a bit.

Alicia saw him frown and said, “I think he’s in Theo’s room.”

Bitty dried his hands and walked through the house to Theo’s room. The door was ajar, and sure enough, Jack was in there, paint marker in hand, applying blue to the dragonfly’s body.

Jack glanced up when Bitty came in, and then returned to painting the small section of wall. “I called him tonight.”

“How is he?” Bitty asked.

“Settling in. Distant.” Jack pressed harder than he needed to with the marker.

“I miss him, too,” Bitty said.

“That’s just it,” Jack said. “I miss him, but I’m relieved, and I feel like a shit for being relieved.”

“Being here was hurting him,” Bitty said. “It’s not wrong to be relieved when someone you love is in less pain.”

“I was trying to make a safe space for him,” Jack said. “And I failed.”

“Just because it didn’t end up being here doesn’t mean you failed,” Bitty said.

“It just feels like some fucked up kind of schadenfreude to be so happy about Felix…”

Bitty snorted. “I think there’s a big difference between taking joy in the suffering of others and finding a large silver lining on a very dark cloud. You have never, could never take joy in Theo’s pain. But I don’t think we’re…” He hesitated, looking for the right word. “How to put this. You know I was raised Baptist. And they’re all about the original sin, this idea that we’re born tainted by what Adam and Eve did in the garden. And that never, ever sat well with me, that notion that babies are born somehow corrupted. I just don’t think we’re beholden to our origins that way.”

“Our origins?” Jack asked, looking at Bitty, bemused.

“I can know that my parents’ lives were forever altered by my conception and my birth, that their lives are on a path very different from the one they planned, and be grateful for the choices they made, without feeling guilt for being conceived. I literally did not ask to be born. Neither did Felix,” and at that, his hand went to the baby’s head, “nor Theo for that matter. I am grateful my mother decided to keep me in the world. I am blessed that they gave me the resilience I needed to get through life to this point. But feeling guilty about existing would be pointless. Felix was born out of a great evil, but all you have to do is look at him to know he is innocent in this. To not love him would compound the wrong, and it wouldn’t help Theo.”

“It feels like choosing between children,” Jack said.

“Sometimes parents have to,” Bitty said. “Sometimes the needs of kids conflict, and a choice has to be made to do the most good, or the least harm. We’re both onlies, but you just ask Dex sometime about how his parents juggled. Sometimes the choice goes to the person who can benefit the most, sometimes it goes to the person with the highest need. It might have been different if Theo could have picked out a set of highly responsible people to care for his baby ahead of time.”

Jack gave a short laugh and said, “You don’t think he did?” He changed pen colors and moved to a new section.

“I don’t think he knew that was what he was doing,” Bitty said. “I don’t think any of us knew. I mean, I like babies, but I wasn’t expecting to fall in love.” Bitty frowned, when he realized Jack’s shoulders were shaking. “What?”

Jack’s silent laughter turned into a ridiculous snorting giggle. “You never expect to fall in love, Bits. Or for people to love you back. I don’t know what you thought was going to happen.”

“You’re not surprised?” Bitty asked.

“Of course I was surprised at the time. It’s just really obvious in retrospect.”

At that, Bitty laughed, too. “Typical.”

“That’s why I’m laughing,” Jack said.

“I think I need to go fall down in a bed,” Bitty said.

“It’s not even 8:30,” Jack said. “That’s early, even for me.”

“We’ve got a pediatrician appointment in the morning,” Bitty said. “And the intensive, and Shitty’s coming Saturday, which means he’ll probably show up early because he ‘can’t stand not seeing his newest bro,’ and I want to see Theo… and some of us get woken up in the middle of the night.”

“Remember, I’m taking him in the morning,” Jack said, capping his marker.

“Still, I’m tired to my bones, sweetheart.”

“I’ll come with you,” Jack said.

“Maybe when I’m less tired, we can give Felix to your parents for a bit,” Bitty said. “I miss…”

“Yeah,” Jack laughed dryly. “Not enough hours in the day.”

“We’ve been too busy to get busy,” Bitty sighed. “We’ll have to figure that out.”

“Well, first you have to put the baby down…” Jack said, as if explaining something simple to a small child.

“Don’t patronize me, Jack Zimmermann, I know where you live.”

“I live with you, Bits.”

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 5 _x_ _x_ _x_

The next morning, they met Mary at the pediatrician’s office, finished filling out the birth certificate, except for Theo’s signature. Mary gave them a copy of the baby’s medical file, and went to get the papers signed. A little while later, they learned that the baby had already regained his birth weight and looked absolutely perfect.

“We knew that,” Bitty said, as Jack snapped another picture. “I mean, look at him.”

There was some poking and prodding, and Felix was thoroughly annoyed by the time they left, particularly put out by the shots.

By the time they got to the car, Felix was screaming in Bitty’s ear.

“I know we’re supposed to go to the rink…” Bitty said as he reluctantly strapped the crying baby into the car seat. “Shhhh, sweetie, I know. You’ll feel better in a bit.”

Felix let out a plaintive noise.

“It’s the first time anyone ever hurt him,” Bitty said sadly.

“I’ll take you two home,” Jack said. “Unless you want me to stay with him?”

“Clearly the show-him-off-at-the-rink plan is not going to work,” Bitty said, frowning at the wailing infant. “I’m not sure I could focus on anything knowing he’s so miserable. Why did we do that again?”

“George will understand. And shots are important,” Jack said.

“It just seems fundamentally wrong to walk into a doctor’s office with a content child and walk out with him wailing,” Bitty said, moving quickly around the car to the seat across from Theo. “Take us home. If he’s not better by 11, you go on in without us.”

Jack pulled a bottle of ready-to-feed out of the diaper bag and put a nipple on it. “Try this.”

Felix turned his head away from the bottle and let out a yell. “Just drive,” Bitty said.

Jack glanced back and said, “Seat belt.”

Bitty pulled it across and then reached over to rest a hand on the baby’s chest. “Oh Bugaboo, I know…” He looked toward the front, and said, “Drive.”

About halfway home, Bitty was able to coax Felix to drink by tapping his lips with the bottle nipple until he latched on. The baby sucked hard, brows furrowed, his entire being radiating deep betrayal.

When the wailing was replaced by the rhythmic sucking noise, Jack said, “What do you think?”

“I think my nerves are shot,” Bitty said. “If you want to go and take notes for me…”

“I’ll have George video it,” Jack said.

Bitty sighed. “It won’t be the same, but it will have to do. You can’t see his face. I think we just ruined his life.”

“He might think so,” Jack said. “He should be fine by tomorrow, the nurse said.”

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 6 _x_ _x_ _x_

By the next morning, the baby seemed to have forgiven the world its transgressions, and had apparently decided to sleep it off, snoozing through the run with Jack, and through Bitty’s morning baking storm.

Mid-morning, Bob and Alicia announced they were thinking about heading up to NYC for the weekend. “If you’ll be okay with the baby tonight?” Alicia said.

“The bottle warmer is like magic,” Bitty said. “And with Jack taking Felix out in the morning, I feel like a new man. Besides, Shitty and Lardo will be here.”

“We’ll be all right, Maman,” Jack said. “We need to get the hang of this at some point, I don’t expect you to live here forever.”

“The service is sending nannies over to interview Monday,” Alicia said. “I’m thinking once you have someone live-in, we’ll probably go home.”

“So soon?” Jack asked.

“We’ll stay a week or so to make sure you’re getting settled with them, but I think you two can handle it.”

“It’ll feel strange not having so many people around the house,” Bitty said.

“You won’t have time to notice,” Bob said. “You start conditioning next week.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Shitty and Lardo pulled up at 11. Jack pulled the door open before Lardo could finish entering her code to let herself in. Shitty eyed him and said, “Bro. What.”

Jack smiled and said, “What?”

Lardo cocked her head to one side, and said, “You look weird. For you. Like, I can’t put a finger on it.”

Jack immediately looked at his shoulder, turning around as he tried to see behind himself. “Did Felix urp on me? I usually catch those now.”

“Naw, man, your shoulder’s fine,” Shitty said. He reached up and grabbed Jack’s ears, then squinted in Jack’s face. “You look… you look happy. Show me this kid.”

“Felix, huh?” Lardo said.

Jack smiled. “He’s a lucky kid. Bits has him in the kitchen.”

Shitty shoved past Jack and ran through the house like a man on a mission. “Bitty!!!!”

Jack and Lardo stared after him, bemused. Jack looked down and said, “Take your bag?”

She handed it to him, and he carried it up to the couch room upstairs.

When Jack came back down, he found Shitty holding Felix awkwardly in his lap, explaining the fallacies of non-intersectional feminism. Bitty wasn’t quite hovering, but he wasn’t not hovering either. Lardo seemed bemused but not terribly eager.

“Jack, it’s a human being,” Shitty declared, when he realized Jack was standing in the doorway.

“In fact,” Jack agreed.

“Dude, how?”

“Well, there was a pregnancy, and then a lot of grunting and yelling from Theo—who has an iron grip, by the way—and then a messy bit. Literally. Bits was soaked.”

“Ew,” Lardo said.

“I cannot believe you reduced the miracle of birth to that,” Bitty said. “It was amazing. I could see hair, and then his little head, and then the next thing I knew, I was trying hard not to drop him on the bedroom floor. And he just looked at me.”

At that, Bitty, deftly removed the baby from Shitty’s hands, and snuggled him close. “Like you knew before I did, Sugar Baby.”

“Everyone always knows before you do, Bits,” Jack said.

“Excuse me, mister wait-until-the-last-possible-moment,” Bitty said with a fond grin. “I knew way, way earlier.”

“And did nothing whatsoever about it,” Jack said, now chuckling.

“How many times have you two had this particular conversation?” Lardo asked.

“Do you know how many pies I baked?” Bitty said, his words carrying no heat. “That is not nothing.”

“At least thirty,” Jack said.

“It was more than thirty! You yourself counted 17 that September alone.”

“I was answering Lardo,” Jack said. “That I knew of, 83 pies, 14 cakes, three batches of special brownies, twenty to thirty batches of actual brownies, and only God knows how many cookies, bars, biscuits, and pizzas.”

“There had to have been at least a hundred pies,” Shitty said, and then his eyes widened and he shrank back as both Jack and Bitty stared at him.

“What?” Shitty asked.

Bitty turned back to Jack. “You were counting my pies in September. I didn’t figure things out until November.”

Jack gave a noncommittal shrug, and a sly grin.

Lardo said calmly, “So should we babysit while you guys go bone or something? Because this feels uncomfortably like foreplay.”

“You’re not wrong,” Shitty muttered. Then, louder, “Wait, why were you counting baked goods?”

“At first, for chirping purposes,” Jack said. “Then just flat out awe.”

“Awww,” Shitty and Lardo said in unison.

Bitty gave a derisive snort and said, “If someone wants to hold the baby, I can get lunch. I mean, I can get it with the baby, too, but you came all this way to see him…”

“I’ll take him,” Lardo said.

“Bro, have you ever held a baby?” Shitty asked.

Lardo stared at him, and then said, “If I say yes, will you still respect me?”

“Bro, you know I always respect you.”

“Yes, I’ve held a number of human infants,” Lardo said. “They’re not scary, they’re just not a life goal.”

“Not a life goal for us right now either,” Jack said. “And yet…”

“And yet?” Shitty raised an eyebrow. “And yet, what?”

“We’re going to adopt him,” Bitty said.

“Theo?” Lardo asked, a million questions in her voice.

“Wants us to,” Jack said. “He’s with George for now, we’re going to see how things go.”

“Wait, so you guys are like, his dads?” Shitty blinked. “What’s he going to call each of you?”

Jack and Bitty looked at each other, and then Bitty said, “I guess I’m probably Daddy?” Then he sat down heavily in a chair, still holding the baby and looking rather dazed. “Oh.”

Jack stared at the baby long and hard, and then said, “Papa. I’m his papa.”

“You two really didn’t think this out,” Lardo said.

“It just sort of happened,” Bitty said, dropping a kiss on the baby’s forehead without thinking.

“We knew the baby might be here for a while,” Jack said. “We made a lot of arrangements for taking care of him. I’m not sure we made the leap from ‘there will be a baby living in this house that we are primarily responsible for’ to ‘We’re going to be parents.’”

“I’m not sure it’s sunk in completely, yet,” Bitty said. “Good lord. I mean, objectively it feels impossible that I am in any way ready to be a father. But then I look at him, and I can’t imagine being anything else.”

“Well, I, for one, embrace my new unclehood,” Shitty said.

“Me too.” Lardo grinned. Then her eyes widened in horror. “Oh god, I just realized you two are going to start calling each other Daddy and Papa.”

Bitty snorted. “Of course we are. I can count on one hand the number of times my mother has referred to my father by his given name.”

“He already never uses my name,” Jack said. “I mean, the few times he has, it’s been so out of place that it was actually frightening.”

“Sweetheart, that’s not…” Bitty stopped. “No, actually that’s true. I don’t know if I’ll call you Papa except to Felix, though. That feels personal.”

“I’d ask them not to do it in front of us,” Shitty said, “but that would probably be futile.”

“Gimme the kid,” Lardo said.

Bitty narrowed his eyes at her. “He’s a baby. He can be a kid in a couple years.”

“Whatevs,” she said, grinning and holding out her hands.

He set the baby gingerly in her hands, and she deftly supported the baby’s head as she brought him up to her shoulder. “Oh, the cloth?” she asked.

“Do babies come with those?” Shitty asked as Bitty slid the burp cloth onto Lardo’s shoulder.

“Pretty much,” Jack said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

They did, in fact, leave Felix with Lardo and Shitty long enough to go upstairs, but fell asleep together before anything much happened. They woke an hour and a half later to the sound of muttering on the other side of the door.

“Dude, if they’re still…”

“That sounds like Shitty,” Bitty whispered.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Lardo,” Jack whispered back, and then rolled out of bed, stepping into his pants. Yawning, he opened the door. “I can take him…”

“He’s kind of grumbling but doesn’t want the bottle,” Lardo said. “Please tell me we didn’t interrupt…”

“We fell asleep,” Jack said with a sheepish grin.

“Lame, bro,” Shitty said. “But understandable. This kid is cute, but is he like that all night?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Jack said. “Bits does most of the late stuff. I get him in the early am.” He flipped the burp cloth up and deftly tucked the baby up against his shoulder. Felix burped almost instantly. “There’s your problem.”

“Told you it was gas,” Lardo said to Shitty.

“So can we order pizza for you?” Shitty asked. “My mom said that if we were going to come visit someone with a new baby, we should bring food. But you know my cooking.”

Jack winced, and then nodded. “Pizza’s good. There’s a number on the fridge.” On his shoulder, Felix was bobbing his head back and forth until he found neck skin, where he promptly latched on. “I don’t suppose you brought a bottle?”

Shitty reached back and pulled a bottle out of his back pocket. Jack gave it a dubious look, and then shrugged, removed the cap with one hand, settled Felix in the crook of his arm and offered the bottle.

“Dude, you’re like a complete pro,” Lardo said. “That’s impressive.”

“I’d chirp you, but that’s a grade-A genuine life-skill,” Shitty said.

Jack looked over at the bed, where Bitty had fallen back asleep. “Let’s go downstairs.”

“I don’t remember him napping much,” Lardo said.

“You also haven’t seen how hard he’s been going,” Jack said.

“He gonna be okay this next year?” Shitty murmured as they headed down the stairs.

“We’ll have a nanny,” Jack said without conviction.

“Man, that’s still gonna be rough,” Lardo muttered.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty was glad for the nap later, as Felix woke up while they were eating pizza and stayed awake for the next six hours, then woke up again at 2 am.

At 4 am, Bitty stared blearily at the clock, barely processing the numbers as the reflex bottle heated, until it occurred to him that this shift wasn’t his. He rolled over, baby on his chest, and feebly thumped Jack’s shoulder with the warmed bottle.

“Mmmmph?” Jack grunted.

“Your turn,” Bitty said. “Baby.”

“Okay, cher’,” Jack muttered, and snuggled deeper under the blanket.

“Jack!” Bitty said.

Jack sat bolt upright. “I’m ‘wake, wha… Oh.” He took the baby and the bottle and the ubiquitous cloth, and said, “I’ll just… nursery… diaper…”

But Bitty was already asleep.

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 7 _x_ _x_ _x_

That morning, Bitty made sleepy pancakes at 9, and said, “I miss your mother,” to Jack a half dozen times, interspersed with, “I miss my mother,” at least as many times.

The day was spent lazily hanging out with Shitty and Lardo in Theo’s old room, coloring in the art walls and eating take-out.

“Now I know you’re tired, Bits…” Shitty said. “You haven’t muttered at the quality of the food once.”

“It’s fine,” Bitty said.

“I mean, it is,” Lardo agreed, “but you usually take more professional interest in the food you’re eating.”

“I’ve had my head stuffed with nutrition data for a week,” Bitty said around a bite of pho noodles. “And I’m sure you’re a better judge of lunch than I could ever be.”

She picked up a salad roll and turned it over. “It’s alright. Bà ngoại does it better, but this is passable.”

“My moo maw does most things better than any restaurant, too,” Bitty said.

“I’m not sure Grandmother has ever cooked anything in her life. Grandma was an indifferent cook.” Shitty said.

They looked at Jack. “Mémère was good, but the things she cooked you wouldn’t find at a restaurant here. Grandmama died when I was little.”

Lardo stared at the wall. “I need to make a metallic glaze for that dragonfly’s body,” she said, finally.

Bitty looked at it and cocked his head to the side. “Mama uses a really pretty pigment powder when she’s scrapbooking, it flashes from blue to green depending on your angle. Can you use that?”

“With the right glaze, most of those pigments will work,” Lardo said.

“I’ll ask her,” Bitty said.

Jack put down his paint marker, wiped his hand on a clean rag, and pulled his phone out of his back pocket. “I’m going to see if Theo wants to come before y’all leave.”

“Brah, that will never not sound strange coming out of your mouth,” Shitty said as Jack thumbed a message to Theo.

A moment later, his phone dinged. Tired. Next time?

Jack sighed, and sent back, That would be fine, kiddo. Hope you feel better soon.

Better than I was. Not ready for people.

As Jack wrote back, I completely understand, he said aloud, “He’s too tired, but wants to see you next time.”

Bitty frowned, and wrapped himself around the baby on his chest. “I miss him.”

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 8 _x_ _x_ _x_

Shitty and Lardo headed home late that night, and while it was a better night for sleeping, better was relative to terrible. Both Jack and Bitty were dragging the next morning when Alicia and Bob returned. She took one look at the two of them and said, “Okay, it’s eleven. You’ve got one interview at two, another at three, and another at four. Let us take Felix and you two please go nap until your eyes stop looking that way.”

Jack and Bitty looked at each other. Bitty unwrapped himself and handed the baby over to Alicia, saying, “Yes, ma’am.”

They fell asleep almost as soon as they stretched out on the bed, and did not stir until Bob knocked on their bedroom door two and a half hours later.

The first nanny candidate was an immediate no, as her style seemed more suitable for a military school than taking care of an infant. The second candidate showed up in a twinset, and spoke in a singsong voice that immediately reminded Bitty of his second grade Sunday School teacher. He looked closer, and noticed a tiny gold cross hanging from her neck.

“Do you use religious teachings in your work?” Bitty asked.

“I do,” she said.

Jack folded his arms over his chest, and asked, “And how do you feel about working for a gay couple?”

She looked at them in confusion, and then at Bob and Alicia, and said, “Oh, I… Oh dear.”

They showed her the door a few minutes later.

The third person to show up was a young woman in slacks and a button-down long-sleeved shirt, with straight brown hair hanging to her shoulders. As they sat down in the den, Bitty noticed a tiny simple gold stud twinkling on the side of her nose, and when she bent to pull a copy of her résumé out of her brown leather messenger bag, Bitty smiled at the line of small rings climbing the curve of her briefly-exposed ear.

He took the offered résumé. At the top it read: E. Taliaferro.

“Before we get too far into this,” Jack said, “We’re gay, so if you have a problem with that, we shouldn’t waste each other’s time.”

She looked at him for a long moment, and then with an ineffable small smile on her face, rummaged in her messenger bag, pulled out a hair tie, reached up, and pulled her hair into a high bun, revealing that the back and lower part of the sides were clipped close to her head. Still watching them, she unbuttoned her sleeves, and rolled her cuffs up to her elbows, revealing watercolor tattoos on both forearms, including a line of rainbow-washed moon phases on one arm, and a twining vine around the other. She turned her arm over, to reveal two interlocking women’s symbols. “I think I can probably handle that,” she finally said.

Bitty laughed. “And do you have a specific childrearing philosophy you adhere to?”

She tipped her head and said, “My job is to love and care for the children in my charge, and I work hard to follow parents’ instructions to the best of my ability. I won’t spank or use physical discipline, ever, but I’ve got a good list of alternatives, and I’m not a pushover. I am capable of doing scheduled feeds for children who need that, but prefer demand-based feeding. In general, I provide kids with nutritious, appropriate food choices and treats if parents allow, and I feed kids when they are hungry, let them nap when they’re tired, within the limits of the family’s schedule.”

Bitty glanced at the résumé. “What do you prefer to be called?”

“Ellie,” she said.

Jack looked over Bitty’s shoulder at the resume. She’d listed a bachelor’s in child development with a master’s in early childhood education, plus several previous nanny jobs and a practicum at a Boston Head Start program.

“Not that it matters, but how old are you?” Jack asked.

“I’m 25,” she said.

Jack nodded. “I’m surprised that you’re not teaching, with these credentials?”

“I vastly prefer working more closely with fewer, younger kids,” she said. “Nanny work is more hours on paper, but less stressful overall, I find. And it’s better for me to develop a relationship with one family, rather than a dozen.”

“They need someone who will live in, and be available at a variety of odd hours, sometimes overnight,” Alicia said.

“I only work one job at a time,” she said. “And live-in is fine. I’m flexible.”

“Absolutely no pictures can go on social media,” Bob said. “And there will be a nondisclosure agreement. You can’t talk to the press about working for Jack, or about Felix, and shouldn’t talk to anyone else about it either.”

Her eyebrows rose. “Are there specific issues I need to be aware of?”

“There are cases in juvenile court,” Alicia said. “And Jack values his privacy. Do you know who he is?”

“They came out on social media,” Ellie said. “I’m aware. What kind of schedule would you be looking at?”

“Right now we’re not sure,” Bitty said. “I start back at school, shortly, and we may want you to accompany one of us with the baby. So you might end up coming with me up to Samwell, or with Jack down to Providence. We actually like babies, we just weren’t expecting to end up raising one this year. But the situation is complicated, and here we are.”

“What kind of salary are you offering?” Ellie asked.

Alicia held out a hand to Bitty for the résumé and looked it over, then wrote a few numbers down on a small pad of paper and handed it to Jack. He looked and nodded, and said, “Your base pay would be $40,000 per year, for 40 hours per week. Overtime to be paid at $30 per hour. Room is included, and you are welcome to take meals with the family. Medical, dental, and vision will be covered through the service, we’ll pay the premiums. Days off would need to be arranged well in advance, and we can offer two weeks of vacation per year, but they need to be at our convenience.”

Alicia continued when Jack finished, “From personal experience, their convenience will probably coincide with the hockey off season and family trips. Your biggest job here is to make things less stressful, scheduling-wise, and to make sure that Bitty gets enough sleep and time to do the things he has planned for this year, and that Jack is able to train and travel without issue.”

“I think I can do that,” Ellie said. “Am I expected to do light housekeeping?”

“Only basic things related to the baby,” Alicia said. “They hire a service for the rest of it.”

“It’s really strange to me,” Bitty said. “I’m used to cleaning up after a bunch of hockey boys, but we just don’t end up having time to do everything and still get enough sleep.”

“Not with a house this size. Bitty’s default when he’s awake is to be holding Felix, whatever he’s doing,” Alicia said. “I think you’ll find that you end up with a fair amount of downtime from that, but we really don’t know how the school year is going to go.”

“Can I see the baby?” Ellie asked.

Bitty pulled the baby carrier open, and brought Felix out. He was awake but quiet as he stuffed a fist into his mouth.

Ellie smiled and held out her hands. Bitty handed the baby over with only a moment of hesitation, and she deftly supported him as she settled him facing her, head resting on one hand, the other hand curved around his back.

“Are you comfortable using a baby carrier?” Bitty asked.

Ellie nodded, and smiled widely, opening her mouth, eyes on the baby. His mouth opened in response. She said, “Well, Felix, I think we might get along.”

“When can you start?” Alicia asked, after a brief glance at Jack and Bitty.

“I’m between clients right now,” Ellie said. “My last charge just started full-day kindergarten. So it would take me a few days to arrange to move my things over, but then I’m all yours.”

“I start conditioning on Thursday,” Bitty said. “Jack’s practices for the World Cup start in early September. The sooner, the better.”

“We’d be happy to cover the cost of a mover,” Jack said.

“Can I see my room?” Ellie asked.

“Which room are you giving her?” Bob asked.

“Gosh,” Bitty said. “We’ve got so many right now. The baby has been sleeping with us, and will for a while. His room is next door, but he doesn’t use it. There’s a really large suite that Jack’s parents are in right now, that’s closest to the baby’s room, other than ours. At the other end is the couch room. Then there’s a guest room in the basement and Theo’s room, but…”

“But we don’t want to re-purpose Theo’s room yet,” Jack said to Ellie. “I think we’ll have Maman and Papa move down to Theo’s room until they’re ready to go, and put Ellie in the upstairs bedroom. She should have her own bathroom, and being close to the baby’s room is a plus.”

“Theo…?” Ellie asked.

“Theo is my ward,” Jack said. “He’s trans and very young, and he gave birth to Felix. He’s staying with friends right now for a variety of reasons, but we still want him to feel welcome. We have caretaker custody of Felix right now, and guardianship of Theo.”

“You may not meet Theo,” Bitty said. “You’ll usually be with Felix, and because of the way Felix was conceived, Theo doesn’t want to see him.”

“Oh,” Ellie said, and then realization dawned. “Oh, poor kid. That’s really rough. Is Theo related to you?”

Bitty shook his head. “We crossed paths when he was in desperate circumstances, and, well…”

Ellie stared at him for a long moment, and then at Jack. “And you’re hiring me at that salary…”

“We’re adopting Felix,” Jack said. “We’ve taken Theo in. Regardless of where he’s living, he’s effectively my responsibility, by choice. The resources are there. If I can’t use my money to turn a kid’s life around, what’s the point?”

“I’d love to work for you,” Ellie said. “It would be an honor to help you take care of Felix. The nanny service already vetted my references, but I’d be happy to provide you with contact information, if you want.”

“Of course,” Bitty said.

“I’ll make the calls, if you like,” Alicia offered.

Bitty nodded, and stood up, holding his arms out for the baby. Ellie said to Alicia as she handed Felix back, “I see what you mean.”

“I like him,” Bitty said, sliding the wiggling baby into the carrier he still wore, and flipping the fabric up over the child’s back. “Is it okay if we take Ellie up to show her the room while you call?” he asked Alicia.

“It’s fine,” she said.

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 10 _x_ _x_ _x_

By Wednesday, Ellie had moved into the upstairs room. Bitty was better rested, and that afternoon, Jack and Bitty left the baby with Ellie and Jack’s parents to head down to Providence to see Theo.

When they arrived at George’s place after Jack’s practice, they were greeted by a boy transformed. It took Bitty a few minutes to figure out what was going on, but the most obvious thing was that Theo was up and moving easily, and standing straighter and taller than they’d ever seen him.

“You look like you’re feeling better, physically,” Jack said.

“George got me binders,” Theo said. “Belly and chest. It helps so much. It felt like my insides were falling out. And hey, I almost look like a real boy!”

“You are a real boy,” Bitty said. “But yeah, you look totally different.”

“We’ve got an appointment with an endo next week,” Theo said. “And then we’re gonna do some school shopping…”

“Have fun with it,” Jack said.

“Oh, and we’re getting my student ID in two weeks, and I wanted to ask you… You said you would be taking Bitty’s last name when you got hitched, and I… for now can I use Bittle, too? I don’t know what I’m going to do long term, but I have to put something on the student ID, and I don’t want to be easily findable on the student directory, but I don’t want to not be in the student directory, right?”

Bitty put a hand over his mouth, and tears sprang to his eyes, and he nodded.

“As long as you need it,” Jack said.

Theo shifted, and said, “I’m hoping by then I can wear the binder longer. It looks like getting surgery is going to be a while.”

“You’ll get there,” Jack said. “And the binder looks really natural.”

“How’s… the kid?” Theo asked.

“He’s doing well,” Bitty said. “We have a nanny now, and she seems pretty awesome.”

“Not that Bitty lets her hold him much when he’s there,” Jack said.

“What needs to happen to let you guys adopt him?” Theo asked.

“We’ll be having a home study done in the next few months,” Jack said. “And they’re going to be pushing in early September to terminate rights.”

“For Peter or my mother?” Theo asked, voice calm.

“Both,” Bitty said. “And Mama has been working with a private investigator to find your father.”

“You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard,” Theo said.

“That camp hasn’t been calling back, and we think maybe your mom spelled his name wrong? Anyway, they’re working on it,” Bitty said.

“Lardo is putting metallic paints on the dragonfly when she visits,” Jack said.

Theo smiled. “That sounds really pretty. What are you going to use that room for?”

“It’s your bedroom,” Bitty said. “Right now Maman and Bob are in there, but we could easily set up another room any time you want to come back and visit. Or stay.”

“It makes a good guest bedroom,” Theo said. “I might come visit sometime later, after the court stuff is resolved. I mean, once you adopt him, and I can let that go.”

Jack smiled gently. “Any time kiddo. It seems like you’re doing pretty well here. We want you wherever is best for you.”

“They’re great,” Theo said. “The food is way different, but good different. And it’s really calm here. Before you guys, before George and Erin, I don’t think I knew what healthy conversation looked like. They talk about everything, and it’s all up front. It’s so weird to not feel like there’s a hidden subtext to every single thing someone says to me. But the counselor says that that’s what healthy communication is supposed to look like. With Mom, it was like I never knew what would set her off, like I was always getting things wrong. I still worry about it, but it’s nice being able to count on things.”

“Subtext runs so heavy in the South,” Bitty said, “that you can have whole conversations and feuds without anyone saying a word. It’s refreshing up here. Of course, things might have been a lot simpler with us if either of us had used our words a little sooner.” He elbowed Jack gently.

“I used my mouth as soon as I figured out what I actually wanted,” Jack said.

“Ew,” Theo said.

Chapter Text

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 11 _x_ _x_ _x_

Jack went to Faber the next day with Bitty. Bob and Alicia were still in town, and would be for a few more days, so they left Felix at home to avoid the media they suspected might be showing up for the first day of conditioning.

There were two reporters there at Samwell when they arrived at the 9 am practice Thursday morning.

“So, Jack,” the first reporter asked. “Are you ready for the World Cup of Hockey?”

“I’ve been working on my fitness all summer,” Jack said. “I always look forward to playing hockey, and it’s going to be great playing for Canada.”

“Did Team USA ask?”

“My heart is in Canada,” Jack answered. “Plus, I’d rather be on the winning team.”

“Is that a challenge for Kent Parson?”

“Kent is a great player. But Team Canada is a team full of great players.”

“Fighting words,” the reporter said.

“It will be a privilege to represent Canada,” Jack said.

The other reporter said, “How about you, Bittle? Looking forward to captaining your team?”

Bitty blushed, and said, “We’ve got some amazing players, and I’ve been working hard with Jack all summer. I’m hoping he’s taught me enough to step into some very big shoes.” With that, he looked pointedly down at Jack’s feet.

“Hey now,” Jack said.

“We heard you haven’t moved in here yet?” the reporter asked.

“It’s been a busy summer,” Bitty said. “I’ve got to get in and work with my team now, thanks. Feel free to talk to Jack’s agent if you want to set up an interview, I won’t be available this week, we’re doing some intensive conditioning.”

“You’d sit down with us on camera?” the reporter asked. “Both of you?”

Bitty shot a pointed look at the camera guys until they put the cameras down. “If y’all will stop showing up on campus to bug us when we’re working, we might, right, Jack?”

“I’d sit down for an interview if Bits wants to,” Jack said. “But only if you go through my agent and leave Samwell be. It’s his senior year. Spending it with a flock of reporters following him around isn’t how anyone wants to spend their senior year.”

The reporters looked at each other. Jack pulled two contact cards out of his wallet, and held them out.

“Before the Cup?” the first reporter asked.

“Before and after,” Jack said. “But not if I see either of your channels here on campus or anywhere near my house, and not if you publish pap pics.”

“And please, for the love of god, don’t ask us about being gay,” Bitty said, “It’s boring. And trite.”

“Oh, that memo got around three pies and a cupcake ago,” the second reporter said.

Bitty laughed and nodded at Jack, who opened the bag he had slung over his shoulder so that Bitty could reach in and pull out a box of cookies. “Chocolate chip macadamia,” Bitty said, handing a cookie to each reporter and another to the camera guys. “And call his agent. The last thing I need is the guys chirping me about the cameras. Play nice and I’ll do a live cooking segment for you.”

The reporters laughed, and started to pack up.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The Frogs, now juniors, greeted Jack with happy familiarity as the team clustered around in the locker room. The Tadpoles still seemed awed by Jack. The Frogpoles, as Bitty had resorted to calling the incoming freshmen (overruling Holster’s suggestion of “The Spawn” as undignified) were completely awed by both of them.

“Bitty, how come you haven’t moved in yet?” Chowder asked.

“Long, long story,” Bitty said.

“So can I have your room?” Tango asked.

“Tango!” Chowder frowned. “I’m sure Bitty still wants his room.”

“I’m not actually sure I’m going to need it,” Bitty said. “We’ve got a lot going on at home this year.”

“Home…” Nursey said. “Home-Georgia or home-Providence?”

“Home-our-house,” Bitty said. “In Attleboro.”

Dex said, “Wait, you moved in together? Like, got a place?”

“That contract Jack signed is sweet,” Chowder said. “Buying a house, oh my god, did you get a big one? Does it have a marble staircase?”

“It’s big enough,” Bitty said. “No marble, on the stairs, at least, though. There’s plenty of room for y’all to come visit.”

“Us-all… how many?” Chowder asked.

Bitty counted on his fingers. “If people don’t mind doubling up on the sofa beds, and we put out a couple air mattresses, the whole team.”

“They have to be willing to keep a secret, though,” Jack said.

“Oh, we’re not having them overnight yet,” Bitty said. “But there’s room.”

“Secret?” Nursey asked.

“Oh my god, did you guys get married?” Chowder asked.

Bitty laughed. “No, but…” And with that he pulled a gold chain out from under his t-shirt, with a gold band hanging from it. “That’s coming.”

The noise Chowder made was nearly inaudible, it was so high-pitched, as he flung his arms around Bitty and then shoved Jack’s arm, and then apologized.

“Wait, seriously, what?” Dex said.

“When?” Nursey asked.

“It’s not going to be a big dramatic thing,” Bitty said. “But probably soon. There’s other things going on.”

“Anything I need to know about?” Coach Murray’s voice came from the hallway. “Oh, hi, Jack.”

“Actually, yes,” Jack said. “But in your office.”

“I need Dex, Nursey, and Chowder to hear this, too,” Bitty said. “They may need to take up the slack.”

Murray nodded and said to the rest, “Upperclassmen, I want you to get started on our standard warmup. Two of you per freshman, show them the right form and let them know what to expect.” To Bitty he said, “My office.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

“So the good news,” Jack said, “is that I have permission from my GM to come help with your conditioning weeks, and share some of the things we’ve learned this summer.”

“And the bad news?” Coach Hall asked.

“The bad news is that I’m not going to be living on campus this year,” Bitty said. “And I’m going to need a lot of help with the captain duties.”

“Did something happen?” Coach Murray asked.

“They got engaged,” Chowder blurted.

“That’s not why, though,” Bitty said.

Jack pulled out his phone and pulled up his favorite photo of Bitty and Felix, and handed his photo to Coach Murray. “This is why.”

Murray blinked. And then tilted the screen so Coach Hall could see.

Coach Hall’s eyes went wide. “How…”

“It’s a really long story,” Bitty said, “and we legally can’t tell you because there are active cases in juvenile court involving the baby’s biological parents.”

“Baby, wait, what?” Dex said, and in a flash he and his fellow frogs were standing behind the coaches looking wide-eyed at Jack’s phone.

“Is this a temporary thing?” Coach Murray asked Bitty.

Bitty shook his head. “We’re working on adopting him.”

Chowder’s hands were over his mouth, his eyes wide. “Bitty, that’s a baby.”

Coach Hall took the phone and handed it back to Jack. The frogs followed as if mesmerized. “Do you have more pictures?” Chowder asked.

Bitty laughed outright. “It’s Jack.”

“You can swipe left from there,” Jack said. “Those pictures don’t leave my phone.” He handed the phone up to Chowder, who swiped sideways and made a small squeak. “So cute!”

Dex stared at the phone and then back at Bitty and Jack, his expression a strange mix of horror and respect. “Will we ever hear the story?” he asked.

“It will probably come out, but until the baby’s father’s rights are terminated, which they will be, it could be actually disastrous for people to connect the dots between who this baby is and who we are.”

“Why wouldn’t the father have rights…” Nursey started, and then stopped. “Unless he’s in jail…”

“It’s a long and complicated story,” Bitty said.

Nursey tipped his head and narrowed his eyes, and then said, “I heard about a rape case from my mom, this summer. It was all over the DA’s office.”

“Zip it, Nurse,” Jack said, sharply. “Seriously, don’t even speculate. It was not supposed to leave the courtroom.”

“If it is what I think it is,” Nursey said, “I hope his mother is okay.”

“I can’t even tell you that,” Jack said. “Seriously, shut it.”

“I just…”

“Chill, Nurse,” Dex said.

“Everyone involved is doing as well as could possibly be expected,” Bitty said, “and we’re working hard to take care of both baby and his birth… mother.”

Nursey looked alert to the hesitation, but said nothing.

“Are you going to be able to handle the captain position at all?” Coach Murray asked.

“We have a nanny, and I’m going to try,” Bitty said. “But I won’t be able to stay late except for games, and he may end up coming to campus with me, with us, for a while. He’s still really tiny.”

“How old?” Coach Hall asked.

“Two weeks tomorrow,” Jack said. “Bitty’s been doing a lot of the nighttime parenting.”

Murray pushed back in his chair and blew out a long sigh. “Shit, son, when my kids were two weeks old I couldn’t see straight, I was so tired.”

“I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything straight, sir,” Bitty said. “But Jack’s parents have been a huge help at night.”

“He’s sleeping in our room,” Jack said. “I sleep through it, but Bits gets woken up at least a little, even when Maman or Papa does a feed.”

“Wait, Bad Bob Zimmermann is burping a baby at 3 am?” Dex said with a disbelieving laugh.

“Calls himself GrandDad Bob,” Jack said. “It’s terrifying. But yeah.”

Nursey chuckled. “You ought to get video of that.”

“I did, trust me,” Jack said. “And we can’t share it anywhere.”

“Yet,” Bitty said. “Someday the adoption will be final, and my god.”

“What do you need from us?” Coach Murray asked.

“Understanding, mostly,” Bitty said. “And from my boys here, I need help actually keeping the team running smoothly, even when I can’t be here.”

“I can’t do the on-ice stuff,” Chowder said. “But I’d be happy to do whatever I need to, off the ice.”

“I vote Dex for bad cop, and me for good cop during actual practice.” Nursey said.

“Hey,” Dex started, and then stopped, grinned, and said, “No, that’s probably accurate.”

“We’ll see how it goes,” Coach Hall said. “As long as things run smoothly, and the team doesn’t suffer, we’ll cut you as much slack as we can, but we do need to have you here as much as you can manage.”

“I want to be here,” Bitty said. “I do. I love it here. It’s just that Felix needs me right now, and he’s so small, I hate being away…”

Coach Hall had a faraway look. “A decade ago, my wife had our first kid two weeks before the last game of the season. We were on constant roadies, and I felt so torn.”

“We don’t have a ‘wife’ in this situation,” Jack said. “And Bits has been doing the lion’s share of the baby-tending. I’m going to be doing a lot of it for the next two weeks, but then…”

“82 games plus the World Cup,” Coach Murray said.

“That’s part of why we’re living together. I can’t, can’t have an infant at the Haus,” Bitty said. “And with Jack’s schedule… Even then, we’re going to have to lean on the nanny pretty heavily, and I may end up bringing them on roadies if Jack is also gone.”

“At my expense,” Jack said. “I’m also thinking about making a donation to the school.”

“Not until Bittle graduates, you’re not,” Murray said. “But then, by all means.”

“NCAA rules,” Hall said. “I want things to be above reproach, though I know you would never want even the appearance of impropriety where eligibility rules were concerned.”

“I learned so much, y’all,” Bitty said. “This summer. Even with the baby. The sports nutritionists are amazing.”

“Are you cutting back your butter usage?” Coach Murray asked with a laugh.

“In some things,” Bitty said. “And switching to grass-fed for others. I use coconut oil for before-workout snacks to increase metabolism, and then we’re using grapeseed and avocado oils for cooking, nut oils where I need a liquid fat, and I have a couple of high-carb, high-protein fuel snacks for game days.”

“He’s also got an unlimited grocery budget,” Jack said.

“Anyway, I want to teach the Taddies and Frogpoles to bake.”

“What, are we a lost cause?” Chowder asked in mock indignation.

“I’ll teach you, but you’re going to be busy being my minions this year,” Bitty said. “Plus I have my senior paper to research and write.”

Coach Hall and Coach Murray looked at each other.

“Bitty,” Coach Hall started.

“I think with Ellie—the nanny—helping, it should be okay,” Bitty said.

“You have a lot on your plate,” Coach Murray said. “Are you sure you can even…”

Bitty looked down at his hands, and then back up. “I’m going to try. It’s all important. None of it will wait until it’s convenient. I don’t know what else I can do but my best. Felix can’t come last in this. He only gets to be a baby once.”

“I wonder at you taking on a baby at all, to be honest,” Coach Murray said. “Your year was already packed…”

Bitty’s voice was almost a whisper, it was so quiet, as he said, “He was born into my hands. I was the first thing he ever saw. And we’re the only safe people he’s got. I have to think he’s ours for a reason, and that we’re his. You don’t know… I wish I could tell you. But for whatever reason, he’s my son. Our son. And I’m not going to turn my back on him just because it’s not a good time for it.” There was a fierceness in his quiet words that had both coaches sitting up straighter.

“You were there when he was born?” Nursey said. “That’s intense.”

“Wait, you actually caught him?” Dex said.

Bitty nodded.

“Man, I was there when my baby sister was born,” Dex said. “I love all my siblings, but her… I’d wrestle lions for her. And I didn’t even catch her, I was just sitting next to my mom while we waited for the paramedics. Pops actually did the catching, and let me tell you, sis can get away with anything with him.”

“It was pretty amazing,” Jack said. “We didn’t know until he was born that he was staying. And then Bits caught him, and it was unthinkable that he would ever go.”

Bitty’s hands flexed and moved against his sternum, where Felix’s head usually rested.

“If it came down to it, and something has to give,” Coach Murray said, “hockey is just a game. You’re important to the team, and we want you here, but as a parent, I can tell you that if it came down to a choice between my kid and anything else in the world, my kid would come first. And it’s more important that you graduate than that you play another year of hockey.”

“I love hockey,” Bitty said. “I want to play. I think I can make it work.”

“Well, son, we’ve got your back,” Coach Hall said. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

When they arrived home late that afternoon, Bitty nearly ran into the house. Ellie was standing in the kitchen, bouncing a grumbling Felix while heating a bottle. She looked over when Bitty appeared across the room, and said with a small laugh at the raw look on Bitty’s face, “I think he missed you. You want him?”

Bitty held out his hands, and said, “Mine,” as he held Felix up in front of his face, smiled, and then propped the baby against his shoulder with one hand. Felix pulled his wobbly head back and stared at Bitty for a long moment, and then bobbled his head down onto Bitty’s shoulder, sighed, and fell asleep.

Bitty burst into tears, and sat down in the chair Jack dragged out from the table, rubbing his cheek against Felix’s hair.

“I’m not sure who missed who more,” Jack said to Ellie.

“I can see that,” she said. “So, should I come with you tomorrow?”

“Probably,” Jack said. “I think we managed to persuade the reporters that it’s better to contact my agent and get a nice meaty interview than to loiter around campus waiting for actual crumbs, no matter how tasty. I can’t guarantee we won’t see reporters. If we do, just don’t talk to them. Smile and don’t say anything. It’s none of their business, and it could actually damage the adoption if the wrong people found out where and who he was. Not to mention our safety.”

“Smile, or resting b-face?” Ellie asked. “I’ve got a great RBF.”

She let her face go slack and her eyes cold, and Jack gave a startled laugh. “Yeah, that’s probably good,” he said. “Very intimidating.”

She smiled merrily. “It’s a skill.” She slipped a hair band off her wrist and deftly twisted her hair up into a bun. “Felix got his fingers into it earlier and pulled half my bun loose,” she explained. “Hey, Bitty, you want me to get dinner?”

“No, I…” Bitty sighed. “Yeah, actually. I think I’m going to take Felix upstairs and take a nap. You’d think with the number of times you browbeat me on to those machines, I would have been more ready for today.” He looked ruefully at Jack.

Ellie handed him the warm bottle and said, “I just changed him right before you got home.”

“Where’s Maman?” Jack asked as Bitty retreated with Felix.

“I told them to take a break,” Ellie said. “She was hovering.”

“She does,” Jack said.

“I think they headed to the store to stock your fridge, actually,” Ellie said, deftly cleaning the bottle warmer and putting away the supplies. “We’re talking about setting up some freezer meals. Is he okay?”

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “I think the reality of the situation is dawning on him.”

“Hopefully I can take some of the pressure off,” Ellie said. “I’m not sure he knows how to accept help, though.”

“We’re working on that,” Jack said.

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 12-24 _x_ _x_ _x_

The next week and a half was a blur, but a reasonably smooth one. Each morning, Bitty would get up, throw together a baked good for the team, grab the already packed lunches from the fridge and toss them into the cooler, step into clothing laid out the night before, pick up the already-packed diaper bag full of shelf-stable ready-to-feed, diapers, wipes, burp cloths, extra baby clothes, pick up his hockey bag with two changes of clothes, remember to hand all the bags and cooler to Jack, grab his muffin keepers and dash out to the car. Streamlining everything else kept the baby-related chaos to a minimum, and Ellie followed them to Samwell with the baby in her car, to allow plausible deniability should the media show up.

Conditioning was a slog, but periodic breaks were a must, and Felix moved between Jack, Bitty, and Ellie as was convenient. As the team got used to having a baby around, some of Bitty’s teammates started warming up to their smallest fan. And fan he was; as his vision cleared, he stared, fascinated, at the skaters and the ice.

“You’re all like the best mobile ever,” Ellie explained to Bitty. “All black and red against the white ice.”

“You’re keeping him warm enough?” Bitty asked.

She just rolled her eyes.

“I know, I’m sorry,” Bitty said. “It’s just, he’s so little.”

“You have more hats for this child,” she said. “And he’s bundled up against someone most of the time.”

Dex was the surprise. Chowder worshiped little Felix from afar at first, and Nursey seemed vaguely freaked out by the whole idea of a baby, but Dex seemed to genuinely enjoy holding the baby, and did so with what Ellie called a professional level of skill.

A few days in, Bob and Alicia returned to Montreal with little fanfare.

A week in, a different media crew showed up, and without any pre-planning, a massive shell game ensued, where every time the reporter looked, a different person held the baby. Felix was against Dex’s shoulder when the reporter asked if the baby was his. Dex laughed, and said, “Nope, just helping out a friend. And don’t ask, the baby is part of a court case and you’re not allowed, and no one will tell you.”

Ellie looked absolutely nothing like her small charge. His head was a fluffy mass of tiny blond pinky curls, hers straight and mousy, her pale skin several shades lighter than his even now with the newborn redness faded. His nose was soft and wide, hers narrow, pointed; his cheeks full, hers narrow; his a perfect plump bow compared to her thinner mouth.

If anything, the lack of family resemblance to anyone on the team helped them. Of all of them, only Bitty bore even the slightest passing resemblance, hair-wise, and that wasn’t enough to catch the reporter’s attention. So when Ellie left with Felix an hour before practice ended, the reporter was left with a mystery with too few clues to even be all that curious about it, and the child was promptly forgotten.

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 25 _x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty sat down with Professor Atley the day before Felix turned four weeks old. She went over Bitty’s transcript with him, and outlined his requirements for graduation. The largest project by far was his senior thesis.

“I assume you have some idea about your topic?” she asked over a piece of pie.

He sighed. “I thought so. I thought it would be easy, researching the traditional foods of the American South, and how they’d evolved over time, and why. But after this summer…”

“Is this about that baby I keep hearing about?”

“What are you hearing?” Bitty asked, immediately alert.

“That Jack Zimmermann has been with you every day despite having an incredibly lucrative hockey career and a season barreling down on him. That you showed up to hockey practice with a baby you won’t tell anyone about. A very young baby, very cute, who looks maybe mixed, maybe not, hard to say, but he certainly doesn’t look like either of you.”

“Where did you hear…”

“Faculty lounge,” she said. “Don’t worry. We don’t gossip to the newsies.”

“Newsies,” he echoed. “No, that would be bad.”

He thought for a moment. “You know what happened last spring,” Bitty said. It wasn’t a question; he’d spent a hour in her office falling apart over the pressure of having paparazzi on campus not long after Jack had come out.

She nodded.

“Then you know how supportive my parents have been, how much they’ve changed their town.”

She made a small noise of agreement.

“This summer I volunteered at a youth drop-in center. One of the kids… didn’t have what I had. It was a wakeup call.”

“In what way?”

“His mother failed him in every possible way,” Bitty said. “Isolated him from a community that might have helped him, out of fear. Spewed so much hate about LGBT people that he couldn’t imagine coming out to her. The intersections combined to put him in a terrible situation, one we’re still trying to help repair. All Jack’s ridiculous money and we can’t fix it. I wish I could tell you all about it, but until the adoption goes through, it’s not safe. It might be three years before I can legally tell you any more than that.”

“Can you write a paper about a situation you’re legally enjoined to keep private?” Professor Atley asked.

“I don’t know if I can keep my focus on something that feels as trivial as food, after seeing this,” Bitty said.

She reached over and took his hands. “Eric, I understand that you saw things this summer that opened up your mind, and I appreciate you wanting to shift your focus and talk about them. And I can feel the upset just rolling off of you right now. Someone you care about was hurt, and you can’t talk about it, and you need, need to talk about it somewhere. Do you have a counselor?”

He shook his head. “I never…”

She sighed. “You talk to that boy of yours. His organization probably has someone for you to talk to, someone who will have the legal protection of confidentiality, which I do not have. As your adviser, I have to strongly advise you against diving into a personal, emotionally-loaded topic for your thesis. It might seem like a natural step, but it will tear you down. Not being able to use what you know, with the legal case, will inhibit you at every step. You have a topic you have deep expertise on, a subject you know well, which you find interesting, and which you will easily be able to complete this year in a manner which will allow you to graduate on time. Please, please do not complicate your life by taking on a subject you’re brand new to.”

“It’s not like I’m new to the bigoted bullshit that creates problems like this,” Bitty said. “You know where I come from. And why I left.”

“I do. I have family there still. And you have a lifetime to work at understanding intersectional feminism, and bless you for wanting to. But the time for you to speak on that subject… is after you understand it more fully, and are not under a gag order.”

“I just… it’s such a sharp difference, a child whose mother turned him away, compared to what we have, with our parents who wrapped us up like a quilt when we needed them the most. How do parents do that to their children?”

“And that’s why you can’t, cannot take this on as your thesis. Because not only do you not know the answer to that question, but the answer is unknowable for someone capable of unconditional love. In order to reject a child that way, love cannot be unconditional, and that’s not American Studies, it’s Psych. American Studies might tell you how a mother got to that point, but it won’t tell you how to fix it. You have to remember that no matter how complex a thesis is, it’s just one paper. It is not your only soapbox, and it is not your last chance to make a statement.”

He sighed.

“So, do I get to see pictures?” she asked.

He lit up. “Oh my, yes. And I have a pie for you.”

She grinned. “Baby first.”

He held out his phone.

“He is mixed, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” Bitty said.

“And are you going to do anything to explain his history to him, or are you going to simply let him pass?”

“I don’t want him to be the least bit ashamed of who he is,” Bitty said. “But honestly, I don’t even begin to know where to start. How do you tell a child that the only reason he exists is that a white man from church got violent because he met someone different whose story he didn’t value?”

She sighed and leaned back in her chair. “That’s an old, old tale that you’re telling. It’s the story of me and mine and we’ve been learning that story from childhood. But it’s best learned after a child knows to their bones that they are loved.”

“If I have my way, he always, always will,” Bitty said.

“Then the rest… don’t hide it, don’t lie to him, but don’t let him make the mistake of believing that it’s his fault or that he deserves it. He is not his mother’s pain, he is not his father’s sin. He is a new thing in the world, and a new chance for love.”

“I feel like we should make you his godmother,” Bitty said with a laugh.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said. “But I’d love to meet him some time.”

“The nanny is meeting me after class,” Bitty said.

“Tell me, Eric Bittle, is this Black child of yours being nannied by a white girl, or did you hire a brown woman with Jack Zimmermann’s money?”

“I’m not sure what difference it makes,” Bitty said, “But she is white. A lesbian, if I read her tattoos correctly, though Shitty would have my hide for assuming.”

The professor threw her head back and laughed. “No, it’s just rich, that after centuries of brown and Black women raising white babies, that this brown child of yours has a white servant.”

“We treat Ellie as an employee,” Bitty said. “Closer, maybe, to friend. I want to think we would no matter the race of the person we hired.”

“Oh, I’m sure, just let me revel in the historical irony for a moment.”

“Would it be better if we had hired a Black woman?” Bitty asked. “Mostly we were concerned about not hiring anyone who wasn’t comfortable working for a gay couple, because if they had a problem with us, they’d definitely have a problem with… Anyway, if we don’t want him to be ashamed of where he comes from or where he is, starting with a caregiver who doesn’t think his dads are sinful seemed pretty important.”

“He’s a child of the future, Eric, not the past. You have a good heart, and you love him, and that’s a step in the right direction. I don’t know an easy answer on whether he’d be better with a Black nanny or not. Some would say he should be in Black family, but with that skin… It’s complicated.”

“She dotes on him, if that helps,” Bitty said. “We’re trying to do the best for him that we know how to do. His… birth mother was mixed, raised by a white mother. I think we’ll do better than she managed, at least. And I love him with all my heart.”

“I’m not trying to make you feel wrong, Eric. I just don’t want you to go into this unaware that his experience of the world is going to be a little different from yours, and there will be things he goes through that you might never understand. Just like there are things you’ve had to go through that I might never fully grasp.”

“I keep hoping we can find common ground,” Bitty said.

“Maybe we can, but it’s maybe not all where you’re comfortable standing.”

“I want to do everything I can to make him feel loved, and accepted,” Bitty said.

“Is it true you’re marrying that Zimmermann boy?”

Bitty blushed, and smiled down at his knees.

“Then this child is going to grow up ridiculously privileged in most ways. No one has it perfectly easy, and frankly, I’m not impressed with most of the boys I’ve met who never had a hill to climb. You don’t have to be perfect as a parent, or to make his life completely free of all difficulty. The job you’ve chosen is to love him, to teach him, and to take care of him, and I don’t see you failing at any of those. Now, school, on the other hand…”

With that, she tapped the list of graduation requirements. “You’re going to have to get really careful about your time management if you’re going to get everything done, play all your hockey and still have time to squish those fat baby cheeks.”

Bitty gave a small, happy sigh. “They’re so squishable.”

“You’ve got it bad,” she said, laughing.

They walked out of her office together some time later, and she cooed over Felix and as they parted, said, “Talk to someone, Eric. Make the time.”

He laughed weakly as she walked away.

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 26 _x_ _x_ _x_

Friday was a rare day off for both Jack and Bitty, a mandatory rest day from the weeks of intensive conditioning, but the day was taken up entirely by lawyers and sitting down the with judge to finalize guardianship for Theo. They all met at the courthouse, and Ellie kept Felix in an unused jury box while they met with the judge.

The judge listened long and hard, and then said, “This morning, Ms. Kelly informed me that she had obtained a relinquishment and voluntary TPR from Ashley Burton from another judge. Has any progress been made in locating Theo’s father?”

“No, your honor. Suzanne Bittle has been keeping tabs on the private investigator, and we suspect that Ms. Burton may have misremembered his last name.”

“And I understand that Theo’s preference is that the current status quo, with Jack maintaining full legal guardianship and… Georgia Martin having physical custody for purposes of schooling, is preferable?”

“You have the home study for the Martin-Sullivan household,” Severson said. “Due to the complex legal issues surrounding the adoption of the baby, everyone considers the current arrangement the most stable option for all concerned.”

“I understand you’ve provided amply for Theo’s care, Mr. Zimmermann?” the judge asked.

“Yes, your honor. And I am happy to continue doing so as long as needed. Theo is family, wherever he lives. We’ve set up two trusts, one for educational purposes and one for living expenses.”

“And I understand you are looking into adopting the baby?”

Jack and Bitty both nodded.

The judge shrugged. “Well, that one is Massachusetts’ bailiwick, not mine. Take that up with DCF there. Jones still hasn’t signed a consent to adoption?”

“We already are, and no, he hasn’t,” Jack said.

“Well, I’ll light a fire under the folks over here. You’ve got your guardianship. What will you do if you find Theo’s father?”

“That’s mostly up to Theo and his father, if it comes to it. He’ll have my financial support regardless.”

“And you, Ms. Martin, Ms. Sullivan?” the judge asked George and Erin.

“We’re here for Theo however he needs us,” Erin said.

“Jack is taking care of the financial side of things, and Theo’s a good kid,” George said.

“You like where you’re at?” the judge asked Theo directly.

Theo nodded. “They’ve been super nice.”

“Well, I think you folks have this in hand for now. If there ends up being an adoption in the state of Rhode Island, you know how to find me. It would be a pleasure.” The judge bent his head and signed several documents, and then handed them to the clerk.

_x_ _x_ _x_

A few minutes later, they were all out in the hall, and Theo looked shaky.

“You okay there, sweetheart?” Bitty asked.

“I just… she… it’s over with my mother. She’s not my mother anymore. She did it voluntarily.” Theo stared at the floor.

“From where I’m sitting, she’s the one missing out,” Erin said. “Not you.”

“It’s what I wanted,” Theo said, “but I’m not sure I’ll ever understand. She was with me for fifteen years and she threw me away.” He sighed. “Not that I should talk, since I can’t even look at my child.”

“Enough of that, now,” Bitty said, standing in front of Theo and taking his hands. “Look at me.”

Theo met Bitty’s gaze.

Bitty held his gaze for a moment and then said, “Your mother decided to be your parent, and then changed her mind for terrible reasons. And when she stopped being your parent, she didn’t make sure you were safe, she tried to hurt you and kicked you out on the street.”

“I was there, Bitty,” Theo said.

“And you never decided to parent Felix. But you went to great lengths to make sure he was safe. You could have told us to take him to the nearest fire station, and if you’d insisted, we would have. But you put him ahead of your own well-being, and made sure he was not only safe, but loved, and well away from the people who caused you harm. That’s not neglectful parenting, it’s heroic. And it’s the exact opposite of what your mother did.”

Theo wrapped his arms around Bitty, put his head down on Bitty’s shoulder, and cried. Jack reached over and put a hand on Theo’s shoulder.

_x_ _x_ _x_August 29 _x_ _x_ _x_

The following Monday, Felix turned one month old, and Bitty started classes for his senior year at Samwell. Class shopping was usually a lot of fun, this time Bitty went through his day constantly torn. Jack was at the rink, and Felix and Ellie had gone with him. Morning practice bled into sitting in on several seminars, and no matter how hard he tried to focus, he found himself glancing at his phone and spacing out embarrassingly often.

He kept expecting the professors to call him on his inattention, but more than once he caught a professor’s eyes, and saw only sympathy there. He assumed the faculty gossip tree had done its job, and for once he was just completely grateful that he didn’t have to make excuses.

He met Chowder and Farmer at the Haus for lunch at 1, and was completely thrown by how foreign and shabby the place felt. He stopped in the doorway of the kitchen, which had been his haven for three years, but even the smell was strange now. Really strange…

“What is that?” Bitty asked, wrinkling his nose.

“Fish sauce,” Caitlin said. “There was an incident.”

“Right,” Bitty said, opening the fridge. It wasn’t as bad as it had been his first year, that first visit. But it wasn’t the well-organized resource he’d come to rely on. But eggs… He checked the fresh date.

“We haven’t been here long enough for things to go bad,” Chowder said. Bitty held up a bag of slimy spinach and raised an eyebrow, then tossed it into the trash. But there were mushrooms, and an onion, and garlic, and butter, and in the freezer, a couple of chicken thighs still looked presentable. A brick of good aged cheddar just needed a little trimming.  

“Go see if my herb garden survived,” Bitty said. “I need Simon and Garfunkel.”

A few minute later, Chowder came back with a small handful of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, which he stripped off the stems and chopped for Bitty without needing direction while Bitty pressed a quick, rough pie shell into a pie dish.

Bitty found himself constantly expecting Ransom or Holster to come in, and he kept having to remind himself that no, they were in Palo Alto. Holster had gotten a job in Business Affairs as an assistant financial analyst, and had already reported on the state of the Coral Reef as Ransom started orientation as a new student at Stanford Medical School. Ransom’s first day of class coincided with Bitty’s.

“I miss them,” Chowder said.

Bitty looked up from the sauté on the stove. “Them?”

“Our fearless leaders?” Chowder said. “We’re upperclassmen now. How did that happen, Bitty?”

Bitty laughed. “I have a one-month-old baby. Who looks completely different than he did a week ago. It feels like life is on fast forward.”

“Can I see pictures?” Caitlin asked.

“Let me wash my hands, and I’ll unlock my phone for you,” Bitty said, putting the quiche in the oven.

While she cooed over the pictures and the quiche baked, he went upstairs to his room. It was dusty, and still had a few things in it of his. Pictures on the walls. Johnson’s pucks and pennants. But it didn’t feel like home.

“Have you decided if you’re keeping it?” Chowder asked from behind him as Bitty stood in the doorway.

“The room?” Bitty asked, walking over to the bare mattress and sitting down.


Bitty sighed. “We’ve got Dex and Nursey upstairs. You’re here—”

“—Caitlin moved in with me this year,” Chowder said. “It’s working okay.”

“And you’ve got Wicks in Shitty’s room,” Bitty said.

“Lardo’s room,” Chowder corrected.

“It will always feel like Shitty’s room to me,” Bitty said. “You’re in Jack’s. Heck, I’m in Johnson’s. Who hangs out here the most?”

“Ollie is here a lot,” Chowder said. “His roommates suck.”

“Oh lord, he didn’t get a single for senior year?” Bitty considered, and then said, “I’ll talk to him.”

“So you’re not staying here?” Chowder asked.

Bitty considered. Tried to envision Ellie using his room as home base. Putting a portable crib in it for naps. The front door slammed and the mental image poofed. “I don’t think there’s any point. It gets too loud to make it useful for naps. We live close enough that if Ellie wants to, she can take him home to sleep. I study better in the library or at home anyway.”

“It’s going to be so weird,” Chowder said, sitting next to Bitty.

“Everything changes,” Bitty said. “This was so important to me and now…”

“He’s really cute,” Chowder said.

“It’s more than that, though,” Bitty said. “He’s… everything. Like my whole life boils down to before and after, and I can barely remember what it was like not to have him, and he’s only a month old.”

His phone buzzed, and he glanced at the screen. A picture of Ellie and Felix lit up, and he thumbed his phone unlocked.

She’d sent a picture of Felix, half asleep, with a wide, goofy grin on his face.

Bitty stared at it for a long moment, and then sighed. “I just miss him so much right now.”

“You’ll see him tonight, right?” Chowder asked.

“He’s 31 days old,” Bitty said. “Nine hours is an appreciable percentage of his life that I’m missing completely right now.”

“Not completely,” Chowder said, pointing at the screen.

“It’s not the same. I mean, she’s good with him. And I know she cares, and Jack loves him, and I know he’s fine, but I’m his person and it just feels wrong to have him so far away.”

“People work and have kids all the time?” Chowder sounded baffled.

“I just don’t know if I’m wired that way,” Bitty said. “Not that I really have a choice.”

“Have you decided if you want any of the morning classes?” Chowder asked.

“I don’t know,” Bitty said. “I just don’t know.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

After lunch, Bitty headed to Atley’s class—Race and Culture: Food Justice and Urban Reform—a carefully guarded piece of quiche neatly packed into a tupperware.

“It may not be apple pie,” he said as he handed it over, “But it’s fresh.”

She grinned. “You don’t have to bribe me, you’re a senior and majoring. You get first choice.”

“I would never,” he said, and she just laughed.

The introductory session managed to keep his interest, and afterward, the workout at the rink went well. But afterward, Chowder, Dex and Nursey wanted to sit down with him and talk logistics, and all he could think of was getting home.

“You know,” Dex said, “Chowder could drive us down to your house and back if you really need to get out of here.”

Bitty blinked. “But it’s forty minutes round-trip…”

“It’s twenty minutes there,” Nursey said. “And then it’s twenty minutes back. That doesn’t feel like forty minutes, even if it is.”

“Wait, you said there was room, we could spend the night, and you have to be back on campus for practice anyway,” Chowder said. “We can ride down with you and we don’t lose any more time than you do.”

“But the first day… you have… Farmer, and homework, and…”

“Bitty, if you don’t want us there, you can just say,” Nursey said. “But it would let you see your kid, and we really want to see your house…”

Bitty had his phone out, and texted Jack. Mind if I bring home a few strays tonight? I promise to take them back in the morning.

As long as you get your homework done, Jack texted back, almost immediately.

This is my homework. We’re talking hockey captain business.

It’s your home, too, Bits. You get to bring people over.

“That just might work,” Bitty said as they walked to the Haus for the frogs to get their things.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Chowder fretted about missing Farmer for half the trip home.

“Chris, you spent actually literally all summer with her, like, nonstop,” Dex said.

“Because I like her and want to be with her,” Chowder said.

“Hush, Dex. Let him have his feelings,” Bitty said absently as he turned into the driveway.

“Holy shit, that’s a mansion,” Dex said, staring at the house.

“Jack’s got, like, mad money,” Nursey said. “And mansions are bigger than that.”

“There were seven of us in a three-bedroom, thousand-square-foot house,” Dex said. “That’s a fucking mansion.”

“It kind of is,” Bitty agreed. “You guys can stay down in the bunk room or up in the couch room. I’m assuming you all want to bunk together? I mean, there’s a king-sized bed in Theo’s room. I figured since you had the attic you might like the bunks.”

He glanced into the rearview mirror, and caught Dex and Nursey glancing at each other.

Chowder said, “They got rid of the bunk bed when they moved in. It’s in the basement, in case someone needs it a couple years from now. And I’d rather not share a room with them if there’s space.”

“Is there room enough up there for two separate beds?” Bitty asked, driving carefully into the garage. He glanced into the mirror again, and another look was passing between the D-men.

Nursey said, “Um. No. There isn’t. We put a queen in.”

“Speak for yourself,” Dex said, teasing.

“A queen bed,” Nursey said. “Don’t be vulgar.”

“You like it when I’m vulgar,” Dex said, grinning.

Bitty blinked. “Oh. OH! You two should probably take Theo’s room, or the couch room, there are fold-outs that are king-sized.” He unbuckled and thumbed the switch for the back lift gate and the side doors, which slid back seamlessly.

As he unloaded the back of the van, handing off bags to each of the frogs, he said, “And how long has that been going on, not that it’s any of my business? Wait, I’m your captain. It’s totally my business.”

“You had a freakin’ baby, Bitty, and didn’t bother telling anyone on the team,” Dex said, shouldering three bags.

“It was complicated,” Bitty said. “We were busy.”

“A little bit after you and Jack came out,” Nursey said. “It got us talking. We spent the summer together.”

“We told Ransom and Holster and Shitty and Lardo,” Bitty said, opening the door from the garage into the house.

“None of whom are actually on the team anymore,” Chowder said.

Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of a fussy baby. The frogs looked at each other.

“Never heard him make that much noise before,” Nursey said.

Bitty dropped his things in the mudroom and rushed through to the den, where Ellie was bouncing a fretful baby. Bitty reached his arms out.

“You can try,” Ellie said. “He’s been a pill since he woke up. A darling, lovable, grumpy pill.”

Bitty said, “Oh, Sugar Dumpling, what’s wrong?” as he took Felix under the arms and brought him up to his shoulder. Felix reared his head back, wobbling a little, and stared at him.

“There you are, sweet boy!” Bitty said, with a wide smile. “Daddy missed you.”

Felix stared at his mouth, and then the corners of his mouth pulled up a little. He made a funny little “uh” sound.

“Oh my gosh,” Chowder said. “Is he smiling at you?”

Bitty grinned wider, and sat down on the couch in the den, resting Felix’s bottom on his knees and looking at his face. “Are you smiling for me, sweetheart?”

There were still spots of color on the baby’s cheeks as he stared wide-eyed at Bitty, and then made an open mouthed, toothless grin.

“I missed you, too, baby,” Bitty said. “I missed you so much.”

Jack came downstairs a moment later, then turned on his heel, went back upstairs and returned with his good camera. “What’s he doing now?”

“He smiled at me, he really smiled,” Bitty said.

“Probably gas,” Nursey said.

“Like the noxious noises escaping your mouth,” Dex said.

“It’s not gas,” Bitty said. “Look, he’s calm now. Daddy’s here. Was he like that all day?”

“Just the last part of it,” Jack said. “See if you can get him to smile again. I want a picture.”

“Smile for Papa,” Bitty said, making an open-mouthed smile at the baby, who copied him.

Jack snapped a picture and then said, “You boys want the tour while Bitty makes faces at the baby?”

“That would be ’swawesome!” Chowder said.

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 30 _x_ _x_ _x_

Tuesday, Bitty managed to focus more on the lectures, though the lecturers themselves seemed quite a bit more distracted. Ellie and Felix came to Samwell with him, and when Felix fell asleep in the baby carrier on Bitty’s chest while they were walking from Faber to the first class of the day, Bitty decided to just wear him into class. He introduced the professor to Ellie, saying, “If he fusses, she can take him right out of the room, but I’d rather not wake him.”

His professor, a lean, bearded man in his forties, just shrugged and said, “My wife took our oldest to all her grad school seminars. Do what you need to do, as long as it doesn’t disrupt class.”

Felix slept through that seminar and into his first meeting with Atley for his thesis. Halfway through their discussion, Felix woke up, and Ellie stepped forward to take him.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Professor Atley said, reaching out her hands toward the baby.

Ellie laughed, and pulled out a ready-to-feed bottle, popped a nipple on it, and handed it over.

“Just cold like that?” the professor asked, taking Felix from Bitty.

“We heat it at night,” Bitty said. “During the day he seems fine with the ready-to-feed at room temperature. They’re shelf-stable, so it’s not exactly cold, it’s just maybe not as warm as it gets at night.”

“Fancy,” she murmured, offering the bottle to the baby. “He is darling, isn’t he?”

“We’re fond,” Bitty said.

“Completely gone, you mean,” Atley said, laughing.

He gave an amused shrug of agreement, and brought up one of his sources on his laptop.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The rest of the day went smoothly, another class, a practice, the preseason intensifying. By the time they got home, Bitty was exhausted. Jack took one look at him and said, “Pizza. Then bed.”

Felix was up and down through the night. Ellie handled most of it, but because Bitty still slept with Felix mostly on his chest, every waking roused him, even when he didn’t have to stay awake for a full feed plus burps and diaper changes. Come morning, Bitty glommed onto a cup of coffee Jack handed him, and sucked it down.

“Bits, maybe he should sleep in the crib?” Jack asked.

“We could put the cosleeper in my room,” Ellie suggested.

Bitty frowned. “I miss enough with him during the day, I don’t want to miss the nighttime, too.”

“Did you get your homework done?” Jack asked.

“I’ll let Ellie drive,” Bitty said. “I’ll work on it then. There’s not that much, we’re still shopping.”

“You look so, so tired, babe,” Jack said.

“I’ll be fine once I have some more coffee,” Bitty said, getting up to start breakfast.

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 31 _x_ _x_ _x_

On the ride in, Bitty fell asleep leaning against the seat belt. He woke with an ice-water surge of adrenaline as a horn sounded and the car swerved briefly, his homework tumbling into the footwell as he reflexively clutched at the grip above the passenger door. He looked over, to see Ellie gripping the wheel, her knuckles white, her eyes wide, her face pale. He couldn’t see anything amiss on the road ahead of him, and he looked behind, nothing there either other than the normal morning traffic.

“Sorry,” Ellie said, her voice tight. “I’m not sure…”

“Was there something in the road?” Bitty asked.

“I was drifting a little and someone honked,” she answered. “The car was already correcting for it. It won’t happen again.”

He looked more closely at her, and breathed in sharply as he realized how tired she looked, too. “Oh god, I didn’t even think. You’ve been up more than I have, and you haven’t been taking anything like the downtime you need.”

“Hard to believe one tiny person could exhaust three adults so completely,” she said.

“Jack’s not that tired. I’m being so selfish dragging you along,” Bitty said. “You could be napping with him at home…”

“I’ll be fine,” Ellie said. “This is my job. I get a lot of sleep at night.”

“In pieces. And less than I do, which is nothing like enough,” Bitty shot back.

“Look,” he said a moment later. “If he sleeps again during my class, you go nap at Faber in the lounge, or we can see if the faculty will let you use their lounge, or you can nap at the Haus, I’m sure Chowder or Ollie…”

“Bitty, you’re exhausted,” she said. “What if he wakes up?”

“I’ll figure it out,” Bitty said. “I’ll take him out in the hall if I have to. This all ends up moot if one of us wrecks the car with us in it.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Morning practice was a disaster. Bitty felt like he was skating through molasses through the suicides. Not long after, he found himself tripping on the ice and careening into Dex, as one of his pads slipped down and fouled his skate.

Dex caught him while he was still upright, but their momentum carried them into the boards, Dex reflexively putting himself between Bitty and the board and taking the force of the collision with his shoulder.

Bitty hung there for a moment, head against Dex’s chest. He looked down at the loose pad. “Shit,” he said.

“Didn’t get the pad tight? That’s not like you,” Dex said.

“I thought…” Bitty reached down and removed the offending pad. “I guess I didn’t.”

“Are you okay? That could have been nasty,” Nursey said, stopping himself next to them. “I think Dex just kept you from going headfirst into the ice. Or the boards. Or both. Nice save, bro.” The last was directed at Dex.

“I’ve had enough practice catching your clumsy ass,” Dex retorted with no actual heat.

“My hero,” Bitty said, distracted, frowning at the pad. “Thanks, Dex. I’m just going to go fix this…” He gestured vaguely with the pad in the direction of the bench.

Chowder skated over, and squinted at Bitty, then said, “You look really tired. I’m not sure you should even be on the ice right now.”

“I’ve skated on less sleep,” Bitty said. “I just didn’t get the pad tightened down.”

“You were the one who lectured me up and down about equipment safety when I was new here,” Chowder said. “If you missed a strap, well, I’m worried you’re going to hurt yourself.”

“Or someone else,” Nursey added.

“You could take a nap?” Dex suggested. “I bet Coach would understand.”

“Y’all are ganging up on me,” Bitty protested.

“You’re the one who wanted our help. Let us. We’ve got this,” Dex said.

“My baby frogs, all growed up,” Bitty said. “Annoying fuckers. You’re just lucky I like all y’all so much. Fine.”

A few minutes later he was unlacing and then staggered over to the lounge and fell asleep in Holster’s napping spot, still wearing half his gear.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty woke, disoriented, wearing far less gear than he’d had on when he’d closed his eyes. A glance at his phone showed that it was almost noon. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath. He’d missed two classes. And where was Ellie?

He looked around. His backpack was leaning against the napping couch, with a note on it in Chowder’s handwriting. Ellie is napping in my room. I’m taking Felix to class, with Jack’s permission. Ellie told me what happened on the way in. If you get this before noon, message me. Otherwise I’ll meet you back at the Haus.

“I owe that boy, like, ten pies,” Bitty murmured, folding the note and sliding it into his backpack. The gear they’d been able to get off of him had been stowed properly, so he slung his backpack over his shoulder and headed to the locker room to finish getting into his street clothes.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack was at the Haus, holding Felix and laughing with Chowder, as Bitty came through the front door.

Bitty took Felix from Jack, looking at him strangely. “I thought you had…”

“It’s fine. They rescheduled to tomorrow. It’s the off season, still.”

Bitty snuggled the baby and made faces at him until Felix tried to grab his nose and failed.

“Nice try, kid, you’ll get it one of these days,” Lardo said from across the room, and Bitty looked up, startled.

“Lardo! What are you… is Shitty… What?” Bitty gave her a bewildered smile.

“Well, I might have a commission or two that would make it really convenient to stay with you guys for a bit. And with Shitty diving back into the pit of despair—I mean, law school—Boston is getting a little bleak for my taste.”

“Your taste is eclectic and usually includes bleak,” Bitty said. “I mean, we’d love to have you and all, it would be so good to see you, but I thought you were going to do that gallery gig?”

“It’ll wait,” Lardo said. “I mean, calling it a gallery is kind of an overstatement, and they’re kind of flaky. ’Sides. You need me right now.”

“We…” Bitty sat down on the kitchen stool. “What’s the plan?”

“Well, Ellie needs sleep some time. You have a ridiculous amount on your plate right now. I’m up all night painting half the time, anyway, so I’m going to sleep while you guys are at school, work on my art and help you at night, and in the evenings I’m going to make sure you stay on task.”

Bitty sighed. “It feels like I shouldn’t need that much help. I mean, don’t most mothers take care of a baby without a nanny and a housekeeper and still needing more help than that?”

“Most moms take the first six weeks completely off,” Jack said. “I was talking to my mother, and she was ready to get back on a plane and come back down.”

“What did you tell her?” Bitty asked.

“That the nanny had a near miss and you nearly went headlong into the boards because you were too tired to strap your pads on properly,” Jack said. “Chowder was very specific. He’s also surprisingly good with babies.”

Chowder grinned at that. “He’s really cute, and you should have seen Farmer’s face when she saw me with him.”

“I should be able to do this,” Bitty said.

“Maybe with some help, you can,” Lardo said. “It’s okay to ask for help. I mean, you don’t get to always be the one taking care of people.”

“He’s not even that hard,” Bitty lamented.

Jack came over and put his hands on Bitty’s shoulders. “Bits, look at me.”

Bitty stared up at him.

“I don’t want to lose you,” Jack said. “Not to a stupid car crash, not to a concussion. If you have another concussion, your hockey days are pretty much over. Not to mention your senior year. Whatever help we need, we’ll get, to make it so you get enough sleep and can do what you need to do.”

Bitty frowned and snuggled Felix closer. Then he stood and walked to the back door of the Haus.

He stared into the backyard, its summer-burnt grass and scruffy trees looking just as they always had, but simultaneously smaller, dimmer, less than they had before.

Jack’s arm slid around Bitty’s waist a few moments later, and Bitty leaned back into the contact, resting his head against Jack’s chest.

“What are you thinking, cher’?” Jack said.

Bitty sighed. “You said the end of hockey and the end of senior year, and it sounded like a relief.”

Chapter Text

_x_ _x_ _x_ August 31 (still) _x_ _x_ _x_

Jack pulled away and turned Bitty so that they were face to face. “Are you saying you wish you had a concussion?”

Bitty frowned. “Of course not. I’m just saying that right now hockey feels like a chore, all of my classes are completely irrelevant to anything I’m likely to end up doing, and the team doesn’t even need me. But Felix does. I’m not like you, Jack. Hockey isn’t everything to me. It was a means to an end, and I don’t even know if I care about the end anymore. I can’t just quit the team and keep going to Samwell, it’s too expensive.”

“Bits, you’re tired. Let’s go home, you can get some sleep, and things will look more manageable when you get up. Lardo’s going to help…”

“I can’t believe you’d ask her without asking me first,” Bitty said, too fast, regretting the words as they came out of his mouth.

Jack’s voice was filled with disbelief as he started to say, “You need help, she volunteered, I was just…”

“Excuse me,” Lardo said behind them. “If you two are going to fight, could you hand me the baby and I’ll take him out front?”

Bitty handed Felix to her, his whole body feeling vaguely numb, and walked down the steps into the backyard. Jack followed, a few steps back, as Bitty folded his arms and looked up at the clear blue sky.

“I don’t want to fight with you,” Bitty whispered as tears started to slip down his cheeks.

Jack enfolded him in a hug.  “We’re not fighting,” he said. “We’re figuring it out.”

Bitty sobbed on his shoulder, arms sliding around Jack’s middle. “I didn’t think it was all going to be this hard.”

“Are you regretting…” Jack started, hesitantly.

“Felix is the last thing I regret right now,” Bitty said. “It just feels like something is going to have to give, and I don’t want it to be him.”

“Whatever you want, Bits. Just tell me what you need.”

Bitty pulled out of Jack’s arms, and said, “I don’t know what I need. Maybe you’re right. Lord knows I’d love to spend some more time with Lardo.”

“We don’t have to decide now. I’ll drive you home. Lardo will bring your car home. You and Ellie can catch up on your sleep and we’ll do strategy over dinner,” Jack said. “And I’m cooking.”

“Let me guess,” Bitty said, dryly. “Chicken breast.”

Jack laughed and elbowed him as they went back inside.

The afternoon was lazy and drowsy and Bitty was still exhausted when Jack handed him a plate on the couch and took the baby.

A few minutes later, Jack sat down and said, “Look, I think you just need some sleep. Making huge decisions when you’re tired is almost always a mistake, and I’ve never seen you this tired before.”

“I’ll try,” Bitty said. “We’ll see how tomorrow goes. If I sleep well tonight.”

Lardo sat down on the other side of Bitty with her own plate and said, “I’ll take him. You’ll sleep okay if you know someone’s holding him.”

Bitty nodded halfheartedly. “It’s a lot, I mean, how late are you thinking?”

“If I need to go to sleep, I’ll bring him back. Otherwise I’ll just wear him for a while while I work,” Lardo answered.

_x_ _x_ _x_September 1 _x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty slept uninterrupted from 9 pm until 6 the next morning, and woke up a new man to find Jack puttering around the room with a baby on one arm.

“Tell me Lardo didn’t stay up all night,” Bitty said.

“She came in around 4 and gave him to me,” Jack said.

“Gimme,” Bitty said. “I missed him. I mean, I slept incredibly well, but I want him back now.”

“You’re a really good parent, Bits,” Jack said, handing over the cloth first, and then the baby.

“Hush, you,” Bitty said. “When was he last…”

“Fed, four thirty. Changed fifteen minutes ago when we got back from our run. Which he slept through.”

“Thank god he can sleep through almost anything,” Bitty said.

“Maman said the worst mistake she ever made with me was shutting herself in for every nap, but I think she did it mostly because I woke up really easily and wouldn’t go back to sleep.”

“Well, he’s been everywhere since he was days old, I think he sleeps in self-defense,” Bitty said. “But I’ll take it.”

“We had a good little chat at the 4:30 feed,” Jack said. “He kept cooing at me, so I cooed back. It was like a regular conversation. Only with fewer words and lower social expectations.”

“You’re a good dad, too, you know,” Bitty said.

“I feel so guilty about how you’ve just let me go on with my life. I maybe lose half an hour of sleep per night.”

“Your job…” Bitty started.

“Hasn’t even begun yet,” Jack said.

“You’re leaving for most of the month of September,” Bitty said. “I saw the schedule. I have to be able to do this without you.”

“I could bow out of the World Cup,” Jack said. “Your health, your school—it’s important.”

“Jack, do not be ridiculous. You are at the most critical point of your career. You’re building a reputation that is going to last you a decade or longer, and that reputation needs to be that you’re there for the game. We took this on in part because I adore babies and because I wanted to help. I’m utterly over the moon for this child, and I’m genuinely okay with you focusing on your extremely lucrative job that you love like breathing.”

“You missed a day of school and practice because I didn’t help you enough,” Jack said.

“I missed a day of school and practice because I was tired because somehow my life is being engaged to an incredibly hot, rich, kindhearted man who made it possible for me to help two kids out of a rough situation. Because somehow I’m in this amazing relationship and we have this amazing baby and the house of my dreams and I love it so much here with you and with him that I’m seriously considering walking away from both school and practice.”

“Bitty, I don’t know if I can forgive myself if you sacrifice your schooling for this.”

“What sacrifice, Jack? I’ve sat in on what, five classes? And not one of them is where my heart is. I want to learn more about cooking, and baking, and nutrition, and especially sports nutrition. I want to be an expert on those things and teach people how to make better food. I don’t regret a single moment of the last three years, but I don’t know what the heck I’m even doing at Samwell right now. I learned more that was interesting to me in ten hours during the intensive than I did in most of the previous three years of classes. If you’d been drafted when Kent was drafted, you wouldn’t even have a college degree, and I don’t think you’d miss it.”

The look on Jack’s face sent Bitty scrambling. “You know what I mean. I know you value your degree, and Lord knows the chances of us being together without it would be slim to none. But it’s not the only option. Maybe I’ll get my degree in a year or two. Maybe I’ll go to Brown or Providence, or even a state school. Maybe I’ll wait until Felix is in school and do a culinary arts program. I don’t know!”

“Giving up Samwell means giving up hockey, most likely,” Jack said.

“I’m not sure that’s a bad thing,” Bitty said. “I could coach, and still be involved. You know I’d be good at it. But you know and I know that it’s dangerous, and honestly I’m not sure both of us should be in hockey anyway, not when this little guy is so young. They pay you well enough to be worth the risk. But I’m never getting paid to play, and I don’t want to be. The frogs are amazing and the team will be fine without me. If I get hurt making stupid mistakes, Felix won’t be fine without me.”

“Do you have to decide now?” Jack asked. “Can we at least see if having Lardo here is enough?”

“How did that even happen?” Bitty asked. “I mean, I can’t picture you calling her up and asking her to come.”

“I didn’t. I was talking to Shitty on Skype and she was there and next thing I knew she was offering.”

Felix shoved a fist in his mouth and started sucking on it, and Jack handed Bitty a bottle. “There you go,” Bitty said as he replaced the fist with a nipple. He looked up at Jack. “I can try. I feel so much more awake today.”

“So it should be easier to do class,” Jack said.

“Maybe,” Bitty said. “We’ll see.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Physically, the day was easier. “I don’t think I realized how much being tired could hurt,”  Bitty said to Ellie at lunch. They sat at a picnic table near the Pond, which she’d staked out mid-morning during classes.

“Did you like your classes this morning?” she asked, handing him a sandwich from the small cooler they’d brought.

“The problem is that now that I’m not exhausted, I’m having a hard time sitting still for them,” Bitty said. “It’s not what I want to be doing right now. And I don’t think it’s going to help me later. Even bone-tired exhausted, I was fascinated with the nutritionists this summer.”

“Having a degree is useful,” she said around a potato chip. “I don’t need it to take care of babies, but it sure does get me a better-paying set of employers.” She grinned at him.

“You earn every penny,” Bitty said. “And there are few things I could possibly do in this world—and none of them involve a college degree—that would land me in a better financial spot than marrying an NHL player, not that that’s why I’m doing it.”

“You two are so ridiculously in love that it actually hurts to look at you when you’re together,” Ellie said. “I’d say you’re the Platonic Ideal of a romantic relationship, except there’s no way with that ass that there’s anything platonic about it.”

“Lesbian, hm?” Bitty asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m gay, not dead,” she quipped back. “Your man has a VERY NICE rear that I have no interest in for anything more than occasionally being impressed by it from a distance. But true love aside, some of the relationships I thought were the strongest I’d ever seen ended up failing down the road. You really should get a degree.”

“Do I have to do it this year?” Bitty asked. “I mean the baby’s going to be sleeping through the night someday. He’s going to school someday. He’s five weeks old tomorrow. How long is it this exhausting? Months? If I went someplace else, took classes I liked better… didn’t play hockey…”

“You’ve made up your mind,” she said.

Before he could answer, his phone buzzed and Jack’s face appeared on the screen. He propped the bottle with his chin and thumbed to the message, and nearly dropped the phone on Felix.

“What?” Ellie said, alert.

“Peter Jones just signed the termination of parental rights,” Bitty said. “I’ve got to call Jack.”

But the phone was already ringing. “Does George know yet?” Bitty asked without even greeting Jack.

“She was the one who told me,” Jack said.

“Does Theo know?” Bitty asked.

“Not yet. George wanted to give me the option…”

“We should go together. I’m free,” Bitty said.

“Don’t you have class this afternoon?” Jack asked.

“No, I don’t. We’ll talk about it later. I can meet you in about an hour, I need to talk to the coaches,” Bitty gave Ellie a pointed look, and she nodded and started packing.

“Bits…” Jack said.

“Not now, sweetheart. I know you have opinions, and trust me, I understand. But we’ve got more important things to deal with, and I want to be there with you when you tell Theo that he’s free.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Ending his time at Samwell took far less time than seemed possible. They swung by the business office and picked up some paperwork, which he filled out while waiting for Coach Murray to meet him at Faber.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Murray said. “We’ll miss you, and the team will be less without you on it, but you’ve helped bring in such strong recruits that I think we’ll be okay. Any chance you’d be willing to help us with incoming high school students in the future?”

“I don’t plan on being a stranger,” Bitty said. “I love this team, and I love this school, I just…”

“It’s a lot on your plate right now,” Murray said. “Take care of the important things. Take care of them.”

“I plan on it,” Bitty said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Ellie was waiting in the van outside Faber, Felix already strapped snugly in his carseat. “Ready?” she asked.

Bitty took a last look at the building, and the campus, and nodded. “I’ll need to come back and get a few things,” he said, loading the contents of his locker into the back of the van. He smiled at the baby and his voice shifted up an octave. “Yes, I will!”

Ellie laughed.

He climbed into the passenger seat a moment later, and said, “Thank god you’re driving, I’m going to be on the phone forever.”

She pulled out carefully, and worked her way through campus to the main street out of town as he sent a half dozen text messages to the the team. As they got on the highway, he checked the time, and then called his mother and put her on speaker phone because of the road noise.

“Mama? Did I get the time right, are you on prep?” Bitty asked.

Suzanne said, “What’s wrong, baby?”

“It’s not an emergency, but I thought I ought to let you know that I decided to take a leave of absence from school.”

Ellie shot him a look and he waved her off.

There was a long silence from the other end of the call. Finally, Suzanne said, “Has it been that hard?”

“I have so much help, Mama, but everyone is bending over backwards to help me do things that my heart just isn’t in anymore. I’m making dangerous mistakes on the ice. I’m not getting anything out of my classes when I’m tired. And when I stopped being tired, it became absolutely obvious that nothing I was studying was anything I needed for the things that I really want to do.”

“So when you say, ‘leave of absence,’” Suzanne said, “You mean, ‘dropping out.’”

“Taking a semester off while I apply to other schools with more relevant programs,” Bitty said. “Focusing on my family while they need me the most. Not derailing my friend’s art career to come let me sleep. Making sure we nail the home study. Getting married, maybe. Adopting a little boy who is now available for adoption because that… person finally signed the paper he should have signed a month ago.”

There was a squeal on the other end of the line. “He signed? You can adopt?”

“We’re going to talk to Theo now,” Bitty said.

“I wish I could be there. You know, we have tickets for Saturday to come up there. We thought we might need to go pay Jones a visit. But I’d much rather spend that time with you, with Theo, and with that darling grandbaby.”

“I’d be thrilled to have you. Jack is leaving Sunday for the World Cup.” He hesitated, and then his next words came out in a rush. “I know you’re disappointed in me.”

His mother’s laugh rang in a tinny bark through the phone speaker. “Of all the nonsense that has ever come from those lips of yours, Dicky, that is the silliest. You love Samwell. You love hockey. But you love that baby and Jack more, and Samwell was never the best academic fit for you, it was just where you needed to be at the time. Half of everyone switches schools at one point or another. I know you’ll get your degree when you find the right program, and even if you don’t, I don’t worry for a moment that you won’t find something useful to do with yourself. Clearly, you already have, or you wouldn’t be making the choices you’re making. But talk to George. I’m pretty sure she has plans for you, and if you’re not worried about NCAA eligibility…”

“Any more word on Simon Talfor?” Bitty asked.

“The camp went out of business,” Suzanne said. “The private investigator is trying to track someone down from it. There are no Simon Talfors anywhere near there, so he might have moved, or she might have spelled it wrong.”

“Talfor?” Ellie said. “Are you sure it isn’t Toliver?”

“It could be,” Suzanne said.

“Look for T-a-g-l-i-a-f-e-r-r-o and T-a-l-i-a-f-e-r-r-o,” Ellie said.

“Isn’t Taliaferro your last name?” Bitty asked, pronouncing it “Toliver.”

“Half the family pronounces it that way,” Ellie says. “The other half have their heads up their asses and pronounce it phonetically.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of good people who use the phonetic pronunciation,” Suzanne said. “None of them live in Georgia, though.”

“My cousins are not among them. The good people, that is,” Ellie said. “Several of them disowned me when I came out. I disowned them right back. But if you’re looking for a guy named ‘Talfor’ I’d be looking for a Toliver for sure.”

When they hung up a few minutes later, Ellie asked, “So if you’re going to be at home, does that mean I should be looking for other work?”

“Lord, no,” Bitty said. “I’ll have other irons in the fire soon enough, this just means that we might only actually need 40 hours of your time in a week, instead of 168. I’ve been assured by the wives that having a nanny is essential to sanity during the season. We can either stay home during the Cup and see him twice in September, or we can fly with him. There is literally no way we can keep Felix a secret if we don’t have someone to help keep him away from the press. I need you, it’s just going to be a different kind of busy. Tell me you have a passport.”

“I have a passport,” Ellie said.

“Good, because you’ll need it.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack was waiting at the front door of the rink, bouncing on the balls of his feet when they pulled up. When he saw the van, he froze, waiting for them to stop, and then jogged to Bitty’s side of the car. Bitty was already putting the window down.

“I can ride with you,” Jack said. “George left half an hour ago, and is going to meet us there. Media left a couple hours ago. They wanted a pre-Cup interview.”

“Of course they did, darling. You want the front seat?”

“Nope, I want to see Felix.”

“I think he’s asleep,” Bitty said. “He conked out when he heard Mama’s voice.”

Bitty reached up and touched the side door control, and it slid open. Jack bounced into the car, hitting the button to close the door and reaching back for the seat belt.

“Yeah, he’s out cold,” Jack said, glancing into the carseat. “Now, talk to me about school.”

“The more awake I am, the less it makes sense. I’m going to take a term off and apply as a transfer to another program part-time. I think we can afford for me to take a couple years to finish my degree if it actually puts me in classes that are relevant to what I want to do. That way, I can come to some of your September games, get enough sleep, and start working with George. The only reason she hasn’t already hired me was NCAA eligibility, and if I’m not playing hockey, that’s moot.”

“Promise me you’ll get your bachelor’s,” Jack said.

“I promise that I will keep taking classes until I know what I need to know to do the things that are important to me. If that gets me a degree, I’ll get a degree. You, of all people, should know these things aren’t always linear. Stop kicking yourself. My college education isn’t actually about you, Mister Graduated-at-24.”


Bitty entered the address into the onboard GPS, and Ellie followed the directions to George’s house.

“I assume you want me to hang out with Felix down here?” Ellie said as she let the car parallel park itself in front of George’s building.

“Please,” Jack said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty’s first thought when Theo opened the door was that he looked different. It wasn’t the binder, or the lack of pregnant belly, or even a new close-cropped fade with a short, natural flat top instead of the twists he’d had most of the summer. He carried himself differently. There was a confidence that had been missing. Bitty smiled and said, “Sweetie, you look fantastic,” as he gave Theo a hug.

“I feel so much better,” Theo said. “Mary says I’m cleared for normal activity. I’m thinking about learning to skate. And I’m starting hormone blockers next week.”

Jack gave him a sturdy one-armed hug as they came in.

“Are you ready for school?” Jack asked as they sat down in the little sitting area by the bay window.

“Totally set,” Theo said. “All registered, clothes bought, new shoes, school supplies, the works.”

“So we got some news today,” Bitty said.

Theo’s face shifted, and he looked warily expectant.

“Jones signed the TPR,” Jack said. “He now has no say, no rights, nothing, when it comes to Felix.”

Theo’s eyes widened and he sucked in a breath, then let it out in a long sigh.

“It’s over? He’s out of my life?”

Bitty nodded. “You don’t have to worry about him ever again.”

Theo blinked and looked away, a hand coming up to his mouth. Tears sprang to his eyes, and he let out a funny half-laugh. “Holy fuck, it’s over?”

“I mean, when we finalize the adoption it will be over for real, but yeah,” Jack said.

“And the adoption has nothing to do with that man, now,” Bitty said. “Ashley doesn’t get a say, either. You’re the one in control.”

Theo blinked, dazed, and looked over at George. “Did you know?”

“I found out this morning. Jack and Bitty wanted to be here to tell you themselves.”

“Mama’s coming up on Saturday,” Bitty said. “Want to come over and celebrate with us? Lardo might be there, too.”

“If you’re okay being around Felix,” Jack added. “We can have his nanny keep him upstairs if you’re not, though.”

“Actually,” Theo said, with a small, bemused frown. “Could I… I think I want to see him.” He looked at Bitty and said, “He’s yours and I love it here, but… now that he’s not tied to that man, I think I’d like to look at him, if you don’t mind? Sometimes it seems so unreal.”

“He’s actually down with Ellie in the car,” Bitty said. “We could have her bring him up?”

Theo hesitated, then nodded. “I’d like that.”

Bitty sent a quick text to Ellie, and George buzzed her up a minute later.

Bitty took Felix from Ellie at the door, and carried him back over to the sitting area. At almost five weeks, his newborn squint had worn off completely, and his hair stood out from his head in a fluffy blond halo of curls. His skin was light, but time in the sun was already starting to darken it a little.

“Hey, Felix, this is Theo,” Bitty said.

Felix bobbled a little and stared at Theo, who stared back for a long moment and then held out his hands. “Can I?”

Bitty handed Felix over, and Theo took him, a little awkwardly, and sat the baby on his lap, resting against one arm. “Hi, little dude,” Theo said, studying him. “Mom said I had dark blue eyes like that until I was three. The hair is wild, though.”

“Your mom is blonde?” Jack asked.

“I mean, she bleaches it now, but her hair was completely white when she was a toddler, Pastor said. But she had very straight hair. So does— The curl is all me. He kind of looks like my baby pictures, only washed out.”

“How is it, holding him?” Jack asked.

“Kind of like holding any other kid?” Theo said. “He doesn’t feel like mine, but I think that’s a good thing. Like if I babysat him, I’d definitely be babysitting, you know? I know he’s safe with you guys, and loved, and that he’s not really my problem anymore? So it’s okay.”

“I’m glad,” Bitty said softly.

“How’s your school going?” Theo asked.

“Um, I decided to take a break this semester,” Bitty said. “It is amazing how clear one’s priorities get with a baby in the house.”

“Wait… But hockey…” Theo said, frowning.

“It’s okay,” Jack said. “Bits just decided to take some time to reassess. Hockey was more a means to an end for him, it’s not his career.”

“After this summer, it became really clear to me where my interests lie,” Bitty said. “And it’s not in trying to twist an American Studies major into a sports nutrition program. I’ll go back to school, and probably soon, but this frees me up for some other options, not just Felix.”

“You’re not worrying about NCAA eligibility anymore?” George asked, only her long experience with the media keeping her tone merely politely curious. Her expression, on the other hand, belied a certain eagerness.

Bitty grinned. “Got anything for me?”

George folded her arms across her chest. “You’ll finish your degree somewhere else?”

“Tell me what you want me to learn and I’ll learn it,” Bitty said.

“Yeah, I might have something. Gotta talk to the GM, but they’ve been whining about Jack’s rabbit’s foot all summer anyway. I don’t think it will be a hard sell.”

Bitty’s eyes sparkled. “So we can do some of those video spots?”

“As soon as you want to,” George said.

“See?” Bitty said to Theo. “This could be better, right?”

After they were done at George’s, Jack insisted on stopping at the Attleboro post office, where they went through a lengthy process of applying for a passport for the baby. Bitty stared as Jack produced document after required document, including a copy of the court order terminating Jones’ parental rights that had to have come from George, and a notarized permission from Theo, plus the temporary custody agreement and Jack’s own proof of US citizenship.  

“How long have you been getting ready for this? And when do you think we’re taking him out of the country?” Bitty asked. It occurred to him only then that he had no legal bond to Felix, yet, and he fought down the twinge that accompanied that thought.

“I have no idea, but I’m going to be country hopping for most of the month, and it would be awfully nice if you had the option of coming. You know, if things get tight.”

“Oh man,” Bitty laughed. “You think I can be a rabbit’s foot for you even this tired?”

“I’d like the option,” Jack said, and paid an exorbitant fee to get the passport turned around quickly.

_x_ _x_ _x_ September 2 _x_ _x_ _x_

Lardo decided to stay through the weekend to work on a project in Providence anyway, but Bitty shook his head when she offered to take the baby Thursday night. “I like having him with me at night, and I don’t mind waking up with him if I can get a few extra hours in the morning and don’t have to spend nine hours thinking afterward.”

Without the relentless drumbeat of practice and school, and a baby who that very night decided that it was okay to sleep from 11 pm to 4 am (at which point Jack took him,) Friday felt positively lazy.

“I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have to be somewhere or mind anything but myself and my kitchen,” Bitty said.

“You are literally carrying that baby around with you while you cook enough food to feed an army,” Ellie said from the long counter. She had on a pair of slim, oval, wire-framed glasses while she sketched in a ring-bound notebook. “Let me know if you need anything, by the way.”

“Yes, but I’m carrying him because I want to and because I enjoy it, not because I have to. I’ll totally let you deal with the diaper he’s going to have soon.”

The kitchen was filling with pies, bread, cookies. Lardo came down just after noon, lured by the smells. “Stress baking, Bits?” she asked, taking a slice of warm bread from him and smearing it with butter.

“More like relief baking. Do you know how many things I didn’t cook this summer?”

“Oh my god, you kept track every time anyone ordered food, didn’t you?” Ellie said, laughing.

“He does,” Lardo said. “It’s like a personal affront.”

“I like pizza,” Bitty said.

“You like making pizza from scratch. And the tomato sauce. And the fucking mozzarella. I think the only thing keeping you from making your own damn pepperoni is that you don’t have the right kind of storage to make dry sausage,” Lardo said. “You see delivery pizza as some sort of failure, as much as you try to hide it.”

“My pizza is better,” Bitty said. Then he looked thoughtful. “Hey, there’s space in the second garage for a smoker…”

“Which Jack will buy if anyone so much as whispers to him that you want it,” Lardo said.

“I can buy it,” Bitty said. “I don’t have to ask.”

Lardo raised an eyebrow. “You have a credit card?”

“I have a credit card,” Ellie said. “If you stayed long, you’d have one, too. I use mine for gas and snacks when we’re out. I’ll use it for diapers and such on the road.”

“Is he always this much of an idiot about money?” Lardo asked Bitty.

“He doesn’t hand them out to anyone he doesn’t trust completely,” Bitty said. “My parents have one for plane tickets. They argued about it until they saw the news about the size of his contract and haven’t said a word since. And they only use it when they come up here. It’s pretty obvious when someone uses it, and no one’s abused the privilege. He literally only gives them to people who have to spend money in ways that reduce his hassles. And we all know he goes over it at the end of the month. I’m surprised he didn’t give you one for art supplies for the painting.”

Lardo snorted. “No, he wrote me a ridiculous check. When I argued with him, he just looked at me until I gave up. It was seriously the most bizarre price negotiation I’ve ever had.”

“How much?” Ellie asked. “I’m nosy, you can ignore me if you want.”

Lardo grinned at her. “Why would I want to do that? He wrote me a check for forty grand up front. There was a bonus on completion.”

“What does that work out to per square foot?” Ellie asked.

“I never bothered counting it. It’s Jack.” Lardo said.

Ellie opened a slim laptop and typed for a moment, then turned the screen around. “Bet he did.”

Lardo looked. “Sonofabitch.” There was a price sheet for mural painting. “Message me that link?”

Ellie grinned. “I would if I had your number.” She pushed her sketchbook over, and handed Lardo her thinline brush pen.

Bitty stared at them, tipped his head to one side, and then frowned as Lardo smiled back at Ellie and wrote her contact information quickly and neatly on the offered page. She stared at it for a moment, and then at Ellie, and, pulling a .5 mechanical pencil from the pocket of her overalls, said, “Do you mind if I…”

“Show me what you’ve got,” Ellie said.

Lardo laughed.

Bitty opened his mouth, shut it, and then went to the fridge, pressed a glass to the ice dispenser, then poured himself a tall glass of sweet tea. He pulled a lemon wedge out of the fridge, squeezed it, and stuck a straw in it.

Ellie glanced over and then said to Lardo, “Is there some reason my boss is sipping tea like it’s enough whisky to drown his sorrows?”

Lardo sighed. “Bits…”

“I’m not asking,” he said.

“You’re not asking really, really loudly.”

“It’s none of my business. But Shitty’s my friend…”

“It isn’t,” Lardo said without looking up from her sketch. “And he is. And he’s my friend, too. And that’s between us, okay? You trust me, trust that I’m not that kind of asshole. I’ve never been less than honest with Shitty.”

“I’m not asking,” Bitty said. “I trust you.”

Lardo glanced at Ellie, who was watching them with guarded amusement, and said, “Just to get it out of the way, I’m poly, bi-leaning-lesbian, and my main dude is so fanatically careful about respecting my boundaries and self-determination that he’s literally never actually asked me out on a date—in spite of the fact that we live together—for fear of seeming ‘coercive and heteronormative.’ And I think you’re really interesting, and I’d like to get to know you better.”

Ellie laughed. “Well, I’m definitely lesbian, but not really interested in the two-cats-and-a-U-Haul thing—for obvious reasons—so I tend to keep things casual and usually out of my boss’s kitchen. But then again, I usually don’t have one of my boss’s best friends hitting on me.” The last was pitched so that it carried easily to where Bitty had started kneading another dough with a little more vigor than was strictly necessary.

“It’s not my business,” Bitty called from the other side of the kitchen. “As long as you’re not doing inappropriate things in front of Felix, I really don’t care.”

“He mostly cares because Shitty is one of his best friends, and he’s worried that I’m breaking his heart,” Lardo said.

“Are you?” Ellie asked.

“He’s… my person. That’s not changing any time soon,” Lardo said. “But it’s easier to stay with him if I don’t let myself wrap myself up in him a hundred percent when he’s a hundred and fifty percent absorbed in law school. It works better if we let each other do our thing, so I don’t worry about him crawling into hockey players’ beds naked for cuddles, and he doesn’t worry about me disappearing for a few weeks and coming back very relaxed.”

Ellie laughed, and plucked the brush pen off the counter, looked at Lardo, and lightly brushed her cell phone number onto Lardo’s forearm. “I have tomorrow off,” Ellie said. “How about you hit on me when I’m not technically on the clock.”

“Bits has had that baby for the last hour,” Lardo said.

“Yeah, but he’s about to hand him over to me, so technically, still on duty. And healthy relationship and tea aside, I do think this may be freaking him out a little.”

“A bit,” Lardo said with a wink.

“I heard that,” Bitty said, pulling a jug of milk out of the fridge and pouring the entire thing into a pan.

“Oh my god, Bits, are you seriously making cheese right now?” Lardo asked.

“It sounded good,” Bitty said. “I want pizza. We’re having company tomorrow.”

“Have you seen him cooking like this before?” Lardo asked.

“Not quite like this,” Ellie said. “It’s something.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty’s phone vibrated itself off the counter and into the open dishwasher in the middle of the afternoon.

Bitty ignored it. Ellie had taken Felix up for a nap upstairs, and he was using the greater range of motion to work on several doughs at once.

“Bits, you’re going to have to talk to them sometime,” Lardo said, recognizing the quiet chirp of incoming group chat’s ring tone.

“What am I going to say?” Bitty asked, punching a bowl of dough down violently. “I quit. Sorry to let you down, guys.”

Lardo opened the group chat on her phone. “They’re worried about you. Wondered if something happened to Felix, or Jack. It’s not fair to leave them hanging.”

“Tell them I’m up to my arms in pizza crusts and brioche, and that I love them and that I’m sorry, but I’m more hindrance than help right now,” Bitty said.

Lardo’s thumbs flew as she read in her best announcer’s voice, “Bittle explained, in a rare fit of cowardice, that despite literally everyone understanding how overwhelmed he’s been, he could not give them the benefit of the doubt and an explanation so they wouldn’t worry.”

Bitty was wiping his hands on his apron and lunging toward her phone. She spun away from him and said, “Furthermore, he’s baking a worrisome number of pizza crusts, so there’s a good chance that hockey players wanting to see their bro anyway might want to come visit on Sunday.”

“You did not!” Bitty said, lunging around to try to reach the phone. She ducked under his arms and around the island.

“All rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated, unless you’re referring to his death this morning by cute when a certain small human burped and farted at the same time, literally scaring the shit out of himself and cementing his place forever in the Bro-hood.”

Bitty grabbed his own phone off the dishwasher door, dried it off on the towel tucked into his pocket, and thumbed open the group chat.

“Sorry, guys, Bitty’s been really tired and he’ll get back to you as soon as he’s up to it. Not sick, not dead, come visit Sunday,” Bitty read. He looked at Lardo and said through a sullen glower, “Fine.”

Bitty: Sorry, guys, things just got to be too much. I can explain more on Sunday. I’m so sorry to let you down, I really wanted to be there with you this year when Samwell wins the championship.

Chat blew up.

“See, was that so hard?” Lardo asked.

_x_ _x_ _x_


On Facebook…

Suzanne Bittle
Greetings, I’m looking for a Simon T, not sure of the spelling of the last name, who worked at the Faith Pines Baptist summer camp in 2000?

Simon Tolver
Yes, I worked there until they closed. Can I help you?


Suzanne blinked at the Facebook message in front of her for a long time before she realized that her hands were trembling.


Suzanne Bittle
Do you remember Ashley Burton? She was a counselor there, when you were.

Simon Tolver
We didn’t always know other counselor’s full names. But I remember an Ashley. She went by Cinders. I never knew her last name. Pretty blonde girl, we were campers together, then counselors. But she left, and I couldn’t get anyone to give me her contact information. Is she okay?

Suzanne Bittle
Is this you and her together?


She uploaded the picture of Simon “Talfor” and Ashley, and waited. There was a long pause.


Simon Tolver
That’s Cinders and me. I always called her Princess. How is she?

Suzanne Bittle
That’s complicated.


She took a deep breath, put her cursor in the reply box, and started typing. After a moment, she copied the whole thing out to Word, and continued typing there.

She reread her response five times before pasting it back, and then read it again for good measure before sending it.


Suzanne Bittle
I am told that something happened between you. And that you probably aren’t aware that she got pregnant. This is not a request for child support, but the situation is complex, and some things have happened that you have a right to know about.

She had the baby in 2001, but refused to tell anyone who the father was because she wanted to protect you from her family’s frankly racist and potentially violent response. She says she didn’t tell you because she knew you would want to be involved, and she feared for your safety.

That child is now 15 years old. And has had a rough time of it. Ashley parented for fifteen years, but I think she was scarred by what happened to her.

The situation is very sensitive. I need to know how comfortable you are with gay and transgender people before I tell you any more about your child, because he has been badly hurt this past year, and my family has been working very hard on helping to heal some of that hurt.


There was an even longer lapse before the response came, though the bouncing ellipsis sat there for a very long time.


Simon Tolver
I have a son? That’s amazing. Can I meet him? Is he okay? I don’t know very many gay or transgender people, but I’ve had people judging me all my life and I try very hard not to judge. We’re all people, right?

Suzanne Bittle
You’ve actually already met him, but he is trans. When you met him he was going by another name and had no idea you were related. He’s in a safe, supportive place now, but this year has been very, very bad for him. If you are able to accept him for who he is without trying to change him, I think it could be very healing for him to meet you. But in order to make the introduction, I need to know absolutely that you will not hurt him further by treating him as anything other than a boy, a son. He’s already been damaged by people who reacted badly to him, and I won’t have him wounded again that way.

Simon Tolver
It sounds like he has a staunch advocate at his side. What happened to him? Who is he? You said I met him? I honestly did not expect I would ever have children, to know that I have a fifteen-year-old son is a gift I could not question. I don’t know much about the whole transgender thing, but I’m willing to learn. I don’t have a lot in the way of money, but I really adore kids.

Suzanne Bittle
When he came out to one of his youth group pastors, he was raped, to “fix” him. Which not only broke his spirit for a long time, but he ended up pregnant, and didn’t figure out that he was pregnant until it was too late to do anything but carry to term. The man who raped him is now in jail. The baby is being raised by my son, whose fiancé is your son’s legal guardian. Your son is currently living with a friend of theirs, and will be starting school at a private prep school on Tuesday. Both your son and the baby are being well cared for. Theo wants my son to adopt the baby, and they’re making plans to do so.  

Simon Tolver
I have a grandchild?

Suzanne Bittle
I had essentially the same reaction the first time I saw them together. They weren’t planning on adopting, but my son and his fiancé fell in love with the baby boy, and given some other legal complexities, by the time things were sorted out, that, as they say, was that.

Simon Tolver
Please tell me you have pictures. Would I be able to see the baby? My son?

Suzanne Bittle
Do you remember a camper named Ro? He goes by Theo, now.

Simon Tolver
God in heaven. Yes, I remember Ro. And Theo is my father’s name. Theodore. She, or should I say he? I thought of her as she at the time, asked me what my favorite name was, and I said, “My father was named Theodore, and it means gift from God, and all of us are God’s gift. He was dubbed Theo before the ink on his feet dried, and was known as Theo until the day he died. He was the best man I ever knew.”

Suzanne Bittle
Always, always use he. He was a boy even when everyone thought he was a girl.

Simon Tolver
He named himself after my father?

Suzanne Bittle
I’m certain the first time he spoke that name aloud as his own was to my son on the day my son brought him home and coaxed his story out of him. But he’s always been Theo to our family, and it suits him. He’s a gift. He’s so bright, and despite everything, I think he’s going to do well. But there’s a loneliness since his mother… Well, I’ll let him tell you that story, if he chooses. We’ll just say she didn’t handle it well, finding out about the baby, and that’s how we got involved. When we got his birth certificate and what his mother thought your name was, that picture was with it, and he recognized you. He spoke highly of you.

Simon Tolver
The Ro I knew said, “I don’t understand what they want me to be.”

I just said, “Be yourself.”

Suzanne Bittle
Where are you located now? Your profile says Springfield, which isn’t very specific.

Simon Tolver
When I was working for the church that ran the camp, I lived in Springfield, Mass. I’m in Boston now, with family. The church was my life for a long time, but there was a scandal, and people got ugly, and a lot of us didn’t get paid for the last month’s work. It made the papers, and that hasn’t helped me much the past couple months.

Suzanne Bittle
I’m actually flying into Boston tomorrow to go visit my son and our mutual grandchild. I’m absolutely certain you’d be welcome, if you’re willing. If I know him, there’ll be quite a spread. Oh, I do have one more request.

Simon Tolver
I’d love to see the baby. And, anything. Well, almost anything.

Suzanne Bittle
We really need you to avoid talking about this to anyone until all the legal cases are finalized. I know that’s hard to do, but there’s a lot going on, and it would be easier to explain it to you in person.

Simon Tolver
That wasn’t a lot? Now I’m worried.

Suzanne Bittle
Your son managed to acquire a very wealthy benefactor. And famous. And if the media gets hold of any of this, it will be an absolute zoo. It could jeopardize the adoption, which, since Theo adamantly wants the adoption to go forward, could really hurt Theo. If the whole story gets out, it could be very damaging indeed, because of how awful people can be about anyone different.

Simon Tolver
I can see that. I can keep my mouth shut. My family here, they don’t need to know anything for now. My brother couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it. I wouldn’t be staying here, but at the moment, I really don’t have anywhere else to go.


The bouncing ellipses stayed, and Suzanne waited.


Simon Tolver
I just Googled you, I hope you don’t mind. I think I understand your hesitation. And I’d love to come with you tomorrow to see the baby. And Theo, if that’s possible.

Suzanne Bittle
I figured you might. I’ll send you some links this evening, some things to read and watch before you meet Theo. There’s a learning curve here, and the sooner you understand the issues well, the better it will be for your son. And you should know… He is loved. His needs are being met. But in part because of his mother, and in part because he’s been a fish out of water his whole life, I think there’s a wound that you might be the only person who stands a chance of really healing.

Simon Tolver
Cinders, Ashley… she was the sweetest person when I knew her. It’s hard to imagine her hurting someone that badly, but then again, I already feel a deep pain myself at the idea that she couldn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth. Then, I could have helped. I could have tried. I think part of me always hoped she’d come back.

Suzanne Bittle
I think she was a scared kid, and I’m not sure she ever figured out how to stop being a scared kid. But she’s not my concern in this. I think the world of Theo, and I cannot and will not have him hurt again.

Simon Tolver
No, you’re right, of course you are. Theo has to be the priority. I’ll do whatever I can. Should I meet you at the airport?

Suzanne Bittle
If you have a phone that will get Facebook there, I can message you when we land. We’ll be renting a car.

Simon Tolver
I’ll be the dazed-looking Black man holding a sign that says, “Hope.” Because this feels like a new direction. Do you think they have jobs where sixteen years of camp counseling and church maintenance might get me in the door, where we’re going?

Suzanne Bittle
They just might. The person Theo is staying with right now has the most extensive network I’ve ever seen for that kind of thing.

Simon Tolver
I don’t want charity, I just want to work and help take care of things. No one looks at me here for who I am, they just make assumptions and turn away.

Suzanne Bittle
There’s a lot of that going around. I’ll ask our friend if she has any ideas. She adores Theo.

Simon Tolver
With as hard as Theo has had it, I’m so glad he has so many strong supporters.

Suzanne Bittle
We’ll see you tomorrow. Our flight gets in around 11 am.

Simon Tolver
Thank you, ma’am, for finding me. For helping care for my family when I couldn’t.

Suzanne Bittle
It was really no trouble. Theo is an easy person to love. So is Felix.

Simon Tolver
Is Felix the baby?


Suzanne uploaded a snapshot Jack had sent her, a closeup of Felix’s face, staring curiously into the camera, eyes wide.

Simon Tolver
God bless you, ma’am. I mean that. I will see you tomorrow.   

Chapter Text

_x_ _x_ _x_ September 3 _x_ _x_ _x_

The man standing near the kiosk full of flight information consoles as they entered baggage claim was, in fact, holding a sign that said, “HOPE,” but he did not look particularly dazed, Suzanne thought. He looked eager. His black hair was trimmed close to his scalp, almost bald, his deep brown skin in sharp contrast to the white of his dress shirt. He wore a jacket and tie, what Suzanne’s mama would probably call his “Sunday-go-to-meeting-best.” He was a little taller than Coach, but not much, and the sign he held had been meticulously stenciled. She met his searching eyes and smiled broadly.

“Suzanne? Mrs. Bittle?” he asked when they got close. “I’m Simon.”

“Suzanne is just fine,” she said. “This is my husband, Eric. Everyone calls him Coach.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Coach said, sticking out his hand.

Simon clasped his hand in a firm handshake. “I can’t tell you how happy I am right now.”

“We just need to meet our car,” Suzanne said. “We only brought carry-ons.” She nodded at the rolling pilot bag Coach was pulling, and the large shoulder bag she carried.

“Rental?” Simon asked.

“Door-to-door luxury shuttle,” Coach said.

“Fancy,” Simon said.

“Jack insisted,” Suzanne said.

Simon folded his sign under his arm, and followed them out to the curb.

“I would have done a rental,” Coach said. “But we got to it a bit late and Labor Day weekend, well—”

“I could have borrowed my brother’s car,” Simon said. “If I’d known.”

“Nonsense,” Suzanne said. “This will give us a chance to talk.”

Coach snorted. “You mean, to coo over baby pictures.”

“Like you don’t have a continuous slideshow set up as your screensaver,” Suzanne said, elbowing him as they found their luxury shuttle.

It was empty, but for the driver, and as soon as they were on, he closed the door. “Attleboro?” he asked. “I’m told the address won’t compute via GPS?”

“Head via 152 to Bayberry Hill in Attleboro, and I’ll give you directions once we’re there,” Suzanne said.

The driver tapped the console, pinched the map, stared at it, and said, “Sure thing, ma’am. I’ll put up the privacy glass.”

The interior of the shuttle was relatively small, with two well-padded bench seats facing each other in the front of the bus, and then contoured seats going two rows back on either side. Suzanne sat down next to Coach in the front row of the front-facing seats, and Simon took a seat on the bench in front of them. “So I can see you,” he said.

Coach stood up. “You best sit next to her,” he said. “It’s going to be baby pictures all the way down.”

They traded places, and Suzanne took a tablet out of her bag. “I loaded them onto this, so they’re bigger,” she said, handing him the tablet and buckling herself in.

He stared at it for a moment, and she plucked it out of his hands. “Buckle your seat belt, I’ll show you the good ones.”

“Oh, I think I want to see everything,” Simon said. “I feel like I’ve missed so much.”

The privacy glass slid to the side for a moment and the driver said, “If you don’t mind, we’ll be taking the slightly scenic route, there’s a collision on the 95.”

“Which route?” Suzanne asked.

“118 to Locust Hill to Main, to Bayberry Hill,” the driver said.

“Oh, from Locust Hill, just turn on Ridgewood, it’s easier,” Suzanne said. “It’s right there.”

“Will do, thank you,” the driver said, pulling out into traffic. “We should be there at approximately 12:30.” The glass slid back.

“Perfect timing,” Suzanne said as she pointed her way through the menus of the tablet in her hand to get to the photo album she’d prepared. She pulled up the first picture, and said, “Jack took this the morning I got there, the day after they found Theo.”

The picture was in Jack’s old apartment, and showed Theo sitting at Jack’s dining room table, clothes shabby against the clean lines of the table and windows, looking completely miserable.

“He looks so sad and lost,” Simon said, frowning.

Suzanne waited a moment, and then swiped to the next picture. “And this is one Jack sent me yesterday, but I think he took it Thursday, not long after they told him the baby was freed for adoption.”

Theo sat on the loveseat in George’s apartment, surrounded by plants, wearing a button-down men’s shirt over a binder, and crisply pleated shorts, his expression lively.

“How…” Simon reached out, and Suzanne handed him the tablet. He flipped back to the previous picture and then back again. “He looks so much better here. And he looks like a boy.”

“He is a boy,” Coach said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I know, it’s just, such a transformation. Is he taking… I mean, did he…”

“I know you’re curious, but it’s not considered polite to ask him,” Suzanne said. “I can tell you that he’s had no surgeries. I don’t know if he’s started on hormones, but he’s slim, and I’m pretty sure George got him a good binder not long after he moved in.”

“Is George…”

“Short for Georgia,” Suzanne said. “She’s one of Jack’s bosses. Quite the athlete herself. She and her wife took Theo in when it became really clear that it wasn’t good for him to live where the baby lived.”

“Wife… Oh. That’s… I guess I’m going to be learning a lot this weekend,” Simon said with a bemused smile. “I spent most of my teen years either going to school, or going to church, or at church camp. I don’t have a lot of experience…”

“We were both raised Southern Baptist,” Coach said. “I can guess, and I didn’t either, but with Bitty, well, we figured we best get ourselves over the ignorance of our youth so we could understand.”

“You seem very accepting,” Suzanne said.

“Well, that’s the thing.” Simon looked at the tablet. “May I?” he asked, pointing.

“Of course,” Suzanne said.

He slid the picture over, and the next one showed Bitty and Theo at the drop in center, sitting in the front bay window. Theo’s belly was in silhouette, and he sat on one folded leg, the other dangling off the window seat, looking at Bitty. Bitty’s hands were up, his face animated, clearly explaining something.

“That’s where they met,” Suzanne said. “Jack took it later.”

“There was this contrast,” Simon spoke carefully, “at church. One minute they were talking about all of us, God’s children—and this was a mostly white church I was at, but with a strong missionary bent. So there were a number of children who were adopted, some, like me, from the system, and some from overseas, and they would talk a lot about how we are all the same, how the color of our skin didn’t matter. And the next minute they’d be ranting about homosexuality and the decline of morality, and how wrong people like that were, and it took me a while, but it got me thinking. My adoptive family, well, they started out okay, but I’m not sure they understood how different I felt all the time. There weren’t many people like me, weren’t many people who came from where I came from, and no matter how much noise they made in sermon about us all being the same, that really wasn’t how people treated me.”

He slide the picture over, and the next one showed Theo and Jack side by side in his room, looking at each other, each with a paintbrush raised.

“Bitty took that one,” Suzanne said. “That was the room Theo had at their house. Go on.”

“That’s some amazing art there, did he do it?” Simon asked.

“That was Larissa, their friend. But a lot of it was Theo’s idea.”

“He always had big ideas,” Simon murmured. “I really loved that about… him.”

“It’s harder when you’re thinking about who you used to think they were,” Suzanne said. “But you’re getting there.”

“When he was at camp, he was so shy most of the time. But get him talking, and my Lord, the things that child thought about. All the time. I don’t think he ever stopped thinking, not for a minute. We try… tried at camp to treat all the children the same, but the fact of the matter is that some of them needed us more than others. R… Theo and I would sometimes eat lunch together on the dock of the lake, while the others were playing team sports. And he’d just talk. He’d talk about science and about rockets and the stars and how everyone said it was so weird that a girl cared about those things. And I just listened. It was clear like crystal that he had an amazing, lively mind, and that people kept pushing him to focus on things like boys, and makeup, and making the right friends. He said he didn’t care about boys, and that scared him, that maybe he was a lesbian.”

Simon stopped, and made a bemused half smile. “Now there’s a strange thing I never thought I’d say. Anyway, he said he wasn’t into girls either, so it wasn’t that. And I told him that was okay. I mean, he was 11 years old. And all the girls were just silly about boys, and there’s poor Theo wondering why no one was interested in rockets, because surely rockets were better than lipstick.”

Suzanne laughed. “I can see that. I think the point Jack was all-in was when he heard Theo’s course load, which included just about every hard course a ninth grader could take, and his grades were amazing. Without that, I don’t doubt they still would have helped him, but I think that’s when Jack decided Theo was a kindred spirit to be protected at all cost. He’s all about challenging himself, and he has always treated Theo with such respect. Would have adopted him in a heartbeat if things hadn’t been so complicated.”

“Maybe that won’t be necessary,” Simon said, sliding the picture over. “Oh goodness,” he whispered. “Is that…”

There was a picture from not long after the birth, taken by the midwife, of Bitty holding Felix, staring down at the baby in wonder, chest smeared with a little blood from the umbilical cord, baby in a towel on his bare chest.

“That’s Bitty again, my son. And Felix. He caught the baby when he was born, and that was pretty much that. He’s been over the moon ever since.”

“Look at those blonde curls,” Simon said, shaking his head with a bemused smile. “To think a grandchild of mine…”

“Well, Ashley had blonde hair, and so does that man, so the genetics are certainly there, but his face is all Theo, and Theo’s face is mostly you, really,” Suzanne said. “Bitty swears he’s the cutest baby that ever was, but I suspect bias. Because obviously, Bitty was the cutest baby, in my completely objective opinion.”

Simon snorted. “Completely objective. Felix looks kind of like a squished up red potato there.”

“He’d just had a very tiring day. Look at the next one,” Suzanne said.

Simon did. “I take it back, and I think Bitty is probably right.” This picture had Alicia holding a much-recovered Felix while he slept on her shoulder, her head resting on the top of his. It was a close-up, and each lash was visible, his tiny fist balled up against Alicia’s collarbone. “Who’s that?”

“That’s Alicia, his other grandmother. Jack calls her something else to Felix, but I always forget, it’s in French. She used to be a supermodel.”

“I can believe that,” Simon said.

“I can’t believe she’s turning sixty soon,” Suzanne muttered.

Simon’s eyes went wide. “What? You’re joking.”

“She was going to high school when I was born, and she looks younger than I do,” Suzanne said, dryly.

“No she doesn’t,” Coach said. “You don’t look your age either.”

Simon considered Suzanne. “If I didn’t know you had an adult son, I’d guess you were my age.”

She laughed. “I’m guessing you’re what, 31? 32? I’m 43.”

“I’d say that’s too young to be a grandmother, but I guess I’m a grandfather, and I’m barely old enough to be a dad,” Simon said.

“Jack is 26,” Coach said.

“I guess I know that if Ashley had Theo when we were 16, and Theo had a baby at 15, that it makes sense,” Simon said, “but I haven’t had very much time to get used to the idea of fatherhood, let alone grandfatherhood. Will… if the adoption goes through, will I still be able to see the baby?”

“Bitty isn’t the sort to shut people out,” Suzanne said. “And that baby needs to know where he comes from, and I’m not talking about that man.”

“He’s in prison and will be for a long time,” Coach said. “And good riddance. Did we ever find out how they got him to sign?”

Suzanne snorted. “Ms. Kelly suggested to him that DCYF was taking a dim view of his obvious disregard for his child’s well being, and his lack of remorse and continued victimization of Theo, and that they were seriously considering terminating rights to all his children, and would if they had to go through the trouble of terminating any of them. And since his wife is divorcing him, that would cut off any visitation… He caved quickly.”

“When did you hear that?” Coach asked.

“Well, I suggested the strategy to her, and she emailed me back to let me know it worked,” Suzanne said.

“Remind me never to get on your bad side,” Simon said, impressed.

“She doesn’t have a bad side,” Coach said. “She just has a deep and robust sense of justice and rightness in the world, and a way of making the world behave.”

“Peter Jones was on my bad side,” Suzanne said. “Honestly, Ashley is, too, but I think I understand her a little better now. But how she treated Theo… you don’t do those things and remain a parent in my world.”

“I don’t think you told me what actually happened,” Simon said. “Did she hurt him?”

“If you’re asking, ‘Did she beat him?’” Suzanne said, “then the answer is no. But she scared him, and shamed him, and shunned him, and washed her hands of him, and that was without ever finding out that he was trans. Just for being pregnant. And pregnant by rape at that, though it took some doing to convince her of the fact, for all the boy was 14 when it happened. I’m not going to tell you the exact story, I’ll leave that for Theo, but the hurt she dealt him, for all it wasn’t an actual beating, broke him more than anyone ever has a right to break a child.”

“I wish I could have been there for him, for them both,” Simon said. “It must have been so hard. I just didn’t know. It… when we… It was toward the end of the June camps. We were so, so young. It was as much an accident as such things can be. I don’t want to deny my part in it, but I don’t think either of us quite knew what we were doing until we were doing it, and then when we realized… oh, I couldn’t look at her, I was ashamed of myself for ruining her, and she wouldn’t look at me, and we’d been so close. It took me a long time to stop being ashamed of the act itself. They had a course on sexuality at the church that they taught, later, they wanted me to teach the city boys they brought to camp, but it was full of lies, and I wanted to understand it better, so I started reading online. And I stopped thinking of it as ruining her, though I suppose in some ways it did, after all. I wasn’t ashamed of her, though I’m sure she must have thought it. I was ashamed of myself, for losing control, for giving in, for failing to stay true to what I’d been taught. But it doesn’t take very long on the internet to find less… biased information. I wanted to see what other churches were teaching, and the differences were so profound.”

He slid the picture of Alicia over, and laughed. “Is that you, sir?”

Coach raised his eyebrows and looked over, and then sighed. “You would put that in.”

It was Coach, lying on his back on the hardwood floor at Jack and Bitty’s house, mouth open, baby on his chest. Newborn Felix’s mouth was slack, too, and they were both sleeping in a slant of light from the window.

“Like a pair of very silly cats,” Suzanne said.

“It was warm. He was sleeping. It was restful.”

“It was the dining room floor,” Suzanne said. “There was a couch four feet away.”

“It wasn’t in a sunbeam. The baby needed the sunbeam. So he wouldn’t get jaundice.”

“I’d have done the same myself, for sure,” Simon said, and then looked sad. “I’m glad he had you to hold him that way, then.”

“There was a line,” Coach said. “That child will never want for people to love him. He’s got four—well, five, I’m guessing—doting grandparents, two loving fathers, and only the good Lord knows how many ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ between two hockey teams. I’m lucky I got to hold him at all.”

Simon moved the picture over, and there was another recent picture of Theo.

“George sent that, from the barber shop,” Suzanne said.

“He looks satisfied,” Simon said. “What I was saying before, once I started reading, I started questioning. Not out loud, just in my head. I questioned everything. How I’d come to live with the people who adopted me. Why they were so angry about gay people and so eager to prove themselves holy by ‘saving’ the children. I wish I could say all my questioning made me stronger, but mostly it just made me think, and the more I looked around, the fewer options I saw. I loved working with the kids. I loved the heart of people who wanted to save children, though I saw the deep flaw in how they forgot that we are all children. I’d been in love once, and my heart had been broken, and I wasn’t sure I saw the point of the pain.” He stared at the picture for a moment, one finger hovering over it, as if to touch the face, rather than the screen.

“I didn’t try much after that. Mostly I muddled along. The work was okay, the people were okay, the kids were amazing, and then it all fell apart. And it was like… have you ever picked up a windfall apple? One that looked perfect but bruised where it fell and then sat? And you go to take a bite, and that perfect apple falls apart into rot?”

Coach laughed. “Junior would get so deeply offended when that happened.”

“My church was like that. This veneer of noble intentions, and when it fell apart, there was embezzlement, three separate sex scandals, and it turned out that half the international adoptions, some of them my friends, had been done under suspect circumstances. And all that was left were people festering with hate. I couldn’t stay. I’d wrapped my whole life in it, and it was just never what I thought it was. I was staying on my brother’s couch, with nothing to show for the good work I thought I was doing. The summer camp folded when they ran off with the money before the camp even started this year. I’ve never been so disgusted in my life. But I’ll tell you, I was still praying to God. I was praying, before you wrote me, for some guidance, some direction, some idea of what I could possibly do next. That message you sent came like a bolt out of heaven.”

“She’s like that all the time,” Coach said.

“I’ll just bet she is,” Simon said. “And you, sir. I saw that video you did, and the articles you’ve been writing. I don’t think I could understand Theo half as well as I think I do now without that, so thank you.”

“You’ve had a day,” Coach said. “I had a sense with Junior that something was different, oh, pretty much since the day I met him. He came into this world dancing backwards, and I don’t think that boy ever stopped. And I love him for it. Not in spite of it. These kids, they’re something. But what I’ve seen in every one of them is a core of strength, like they’ve had to fight for their very sense of self, like most people never do. The ugliness people throw at kids turns my stomach, but the grace with which they go forward anyway warms my heart. So we’ve made it a different kind of mission, not to save their souls—because truly, I am not sure I’ve seen more perfect souls than some of the kids I’ve met this past year—but to make the world around them worthy of the light they bring. Including your boy. It did my heart good to hear that he was finally starting to find his place.”

“You said he’s in private school?”

“That’s Jack and Bob and Alicia,” Suzanne said. “And George. She looked for the most welcoming prep school in the area, and got him in. And the Zimmermanns, they’re paying for it. College, too.”

“I feel like I should be helping with that,” Simon mused. “It’s not right—a father should support his child.”

“Jack Zimmermann signed a contract for an obscene amount of money this summer,” Suzanne said. “If you tried to offer money to pay for Theo’s expenses, he would just shake his head and laugh. Between Bob’s hockey winnings, and Alicia’s career, his parents seem to spend most of their time finding places to give their money away as it is.”

“I think it actually annoys Bob,” Coach said. “He put away a nest egg that covers their living expenses and quite a bit extra from the interest alone during his fourth or fifth year in the NHL, and he keeps making donations, and he has a foundation, and money still keeps coming in. Alicia’s money is completely separate from that. Trust me when I say that your son does not need your money. What he does need is you.”

“There is no place on God’s green Earth I’d rather be. I just need to figure out a place to stay, and find work to pay my living expenses.”

“The boys have more bedrooms than they know what to do with. You should be fine for the weekend at the very least,” Suzanne said.

Simon started to protest, but Coach held up a hand. “Swallow your pride for a moment and do the thing that gives you the most time with your son, and your grandson. Bitty cooks for a regiment most days. There’s space. And George might know someone who’s hiring. You prayed for a path, and now you’re on it. Don’t dive off just because someone told you how a man is supposed to be.”

The privacy barrier slid back, and the driver said, “You might want to direct me now, ma’am. We’re almost to Ridgewood.”

“Just turn left, and I’ll point out the driveway,” Suzanne said. And to Simon, “Look at that, we’re here.”

Simon looked around. “Pretty neighborhood.”

“They have so much money,” Suzanne said. “It’s really a little daunting until you get used to it. Oddly enough, it’s surprisingly easy to get used to.”

“I cannot imagine,” Simon said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

“Wait here for a minute,” Suzanne said to Coach and Simon as the shuttle door opened. “I need to see who’s here. No one knows you’re coming, Simon.”

“Suzanne Phelps Bittle!” Coach said reproachfully.

“It’s too good. Just give me a minute, I want to get Jack and Georgia filming if they’re all here. I think Theo and Simon will want that video later.”

“Poor George is going to be so torn,” Coach said. “Video like that.”

“Pshhh,” Suzanne said.

She found Bitty, Jack, Theo, George, Erin, Shitty, Lardo, and Ellie in the backyard.

“Mama!” Bitty called out, as he saw her in the doorway. He came over right away. The rest were talking and chatting and several waved.

Suzanne surveyed the group, and said, “Sweetheart, could you send Jack, George, and Mr. Crappy on over to help me with my things?”

He looked at her strangely. “Mama, what did you bring? Where’s Coach?”

“Just trust me, sweetie. Your daddy is out front, he’ll be in in a minute.”

“But not me?”

“You’ve got your hands full with the baby,” Suzanne said.

“I literally actually don’t,” he said, holding up his hands and wiggling them. “That’s the whole reason for the wrap.”

“You don’t need to say literally and actually. They mean the same thing,” she said absently. “Go on now.”

“Yes, Mama,” he said on pure reflex.

Bitty quietly went to each of the people she’d requested and a moment later they were following her into the house.

“So I did some sleuthing of my own,” Suzanne said to Jack as she led them back to the front of the house. “And I need your help. Jack, Georgia, as Theo’s guardians you need to make the call here. Mr. Crappy, how are you with a camera?”

Shitty chuckled and said, “I can hold a camera just fine.”

Suzanne handed him her phone, ready to record but not yet active.

They opened the front door, and Georgia gasped to see Simon standing next to the shuttle. “You found him.”

“I found him,” Suzanne said.

“And in your opinion,” Jack asked, “is he safe for Theo?”

“He wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think they needed to meet,” Suzanne said. “But it is your call.”

Shitty made a strange squeaking noise. “That’s… Theo’s dad?”

“He seems like good people,” Suzanne said. “We had a long talk on the way down.”

“Theo is going to flip, but does he expect to just come in and take over?” George asked.

“He just found out yesterday that he has a son,” Suzanne said. “I don’t think he has any expectations at all right now. Give him a chance; he never knew.”

Simon raised his hand hesitantly with a bashful smile and waved.

Jack strode down the steps and stuck out his hand. “I understand you’re Theo’s father? I’m Jack.”

“You’re the one paying for Theo’s education?” Simon asked, shaking the offered hand.

“My parents, mostly. I’m his legal guardian and handle the other expenses. Theo is actually living with George,” Jack said, nodding at his boss.

“I owe you both quite a debt of gratitude,” Simon said. “For being there for Theo when I couldn’t be.”

“You didn’t know,” Suzanne said.

“Nonetheless,” Simon said. He looked at George and said, “I don’t want to step on any toes here, and I know Theo is staying with you. I just want to meet him, and find out if I can be part of his life. And Felix?”

George considered him for a long time, and then said, “Jack? I’m game if you are.”

“I trust Suzanne’s judgment implicitly,” Jack said.

“So I’m playing cameraman?” Shitty asked. “I’m totally okay with that, by the way.”

“Thank you, dear,” Suzanne said. “Jack, if we can do this slowly, I’d like to have Simon come in last.”

“You’re making a production of this, sweetheart,” Coach said.

Suzanne looked at him, and raised her eyebrows. “It’s a big deal.”

“Can I tell Bitty?” Jack asked.

“He’ll see soon enough,” Suzanne said. “Trust me.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

They filtered back to the picnic one at a time. Suzanne went to chat with Theo, and Georgia joined them a minute later. Jack came out with Shitty, and started talking to Bitty.

Bitty twigged very quickly to the fact that there was something going on, and then said, “Shitty? Why are you holding my mother’s phone? I’d recognize that case anywhere.”

“She asked me to hold it for her, bro,” Shitty said with a shrug. “Let me get a picture of you and Jack and the baby for her, as a surprise.”

He snapped the picture, and Coach, coming down into the backyard from the house, said to them, “Oh, you should get a little video, too.”

Coach held his own phone in his hand, casually.

Bitty stared long at his father, but then noticed his mother talking to Theo, and walked over to join them.

“Oh, good, darling. I was just telling Theo that I had a surprise for him.” Her voice was pitched just a little bit louder than seemed necessary, and she checked to make sure people had their phones up as she put an arm around Theo’s shoulders and gently turned him to see the back door.

Simon opened it. Theo’s hand came up to his mouth, and he tried to bury his head against Suzanne, but the height difference made it impossible. He turned the other way, and Georgia wrapped an arm around his shoulders, and said, “Gotcha, kiddo,” as Theo put his head against her shoulder, overwhelmed, and then looked back up to the back door.

“Oh my word,” Bitty whispered. “Is that him? You found him?”

“Theo, I think you’ve met Simon Tolver.”

“Hey, Theo,” Simon said, his voice light and friendly. “Missed you.”

“He knows the important things, sweetie,” Suzanne murmured up to Theo. “And he wants to be here for you, as you are.”

Theo took a step forward and Simon stepped forward onto the back stoop and held his arms open.

They connected when Theo was at the next to the stop step, as he flung his arms around his father’s middle, and sobbed.

“I didn’t know,” Simon said against the top of Theo’s head. “If I had, I would have moved Heaven and Earth to be with you. I’m so, so sorry it took so long.”

“I’m a boy, Simon,” Theo said. “And my mom threw me out.”

“I heard,” Simon said, still holding him tight. “When Suzanne told me about you, all I could think was, ‘I have a son.’ And then I realized it was you, and that I hadn’t missed everything, and that was the best thing of all. You’re you, no matter what, and I really want to get to know you. And I’m so, so sorry your mama hurt you.”

“She threw a lamp at me and kicked me out for getting pregnant. I was only pregnant because I was raped.”

“It wasn’t your fault. It could not ever be your fault,” Simon said. “I know your mother was deeply wounded, and that was partly my doing, but that’s not an excuse. You didn’t deserve that, and I’m so glad you found people to help you.”

“They’ve been great,” Theo said, finally pulling back a little, leaving an arm wrapped around Simon. “That’s Bitty there, the crying one. He saved me. And Jack has made sure that I have everything I need. And George took me in when I couldn’t be around Felix. Oh, that’s Felix.” Theo pointed to the baby on Bitty’s chest. “I guess he’s your grandbaby?”

“I’m 31 years old,” Simon said, smiling at the people who were gathered around them, with a low chuckle. “I’m not sure anything will ever get me used to that idea.”

“He kind of grows on you,” Theo said.

“I think he’s being pretty well looked after,” Simon said. “I’m really more worried about you right now.”

“I’m being well looked after, too,” Theo said. “How long can you stay? Where are you staying?”

“That’s an open question right now,” Simon said. “I am actually looking for work right now, and a place to stay, and I’m thinking that I want to do that here. I was in Boston, but everything’s been up in the air since the camp closed.”

Jack said, “You should stay at my apartment in Providence until you have something more permanent.”

“Jack, he can stay here,” Bitty said.

Suzanne looked at Simon and gave him an “I-told-you-so” shrug.

“I’m really not looking for a handout, sir,” Simon said to Jack. “I won’t pretend I can do all you’re doing for Theo financially, but I do want to stand on my own.”

“What’s your background?” Georgia asked.

“Nothing fancy. I did get my high school diploma, and I’ve done sixteen years of camp counseling and fourteen years of maintenance and such for the church.”

“You can pass a background check?” George asked.

“I can,” Simon said. “I couldn’t have worked at the camp if I didn’t.”

“Let me look at our openings, and do a little networking,” George said.

“Which basically means you’ll have a job by Monday,” Erin said.

“Monday’s a holiday,” Lardo said.

“I’d put money on tonight,” Jack said, laughing.

“It’s a holiday weekend,” Bitty said, his voice still rough. “Sunday.”

“Did you guys just make a betting pool for how fast I can get him a job?” George asked.

At least three people said “Yes” at once.

George raised her eyebrows.

Coach said, “He’ll have a job before supper.”

George pulled out her phone, and her thumbs flew for a minute. They watched, fascinated.

Suzanne grinned after another minute passed. “Oh, all y’all have so little faith. I’m guessing it will be in about, oh…. Three… two… one…”

“I’m with Suzanne,” Theo said.

George looked up, and said, “We’re currently hiring for the ice crew, daycare, and the facility is about three days from posting an opening on the grounds crew. But we’ve also been talking about doing more youth outreach, and that’s going to need someone with experience with kids from six to fourteen. Can you skate?”

“Holy fuck,” Shitty whispered.

“I can learn,” Simon said. “Which one would I have to skate for?”

“Ice crew,” George said.

“I’d rather do day care or outreach, but I’m happy doing maintenance, too,” Simon said. “I love kids, but I really just want to work.”

“Will there be any hiring conflict of interest?” Shitty asked.

George snorted. “We’ve currently got the owner’s son working in PR, and a good quarter of the support staff are somehow related to or connected to our team members. We don’t hire or keep people who aren’t qualified, and he’ll have to go through an interview process, but if everything checks out, the odds are he’ll be working for us or our facility within the next week and a half.”

“Well, until then, Simon, you’re welcome to stay here or in Providence, whichever you prefer,” Jack said.

“Which is closer to Theo?” Simon asked. “I really would like to catch up.”

“I’m in Providence,” Theo said. “With George.”

“Do you have things in storage somewhere?” Suzanne asked Simon.

“I have a few totes at my brother’s,” Simon said. “I’m not really a ‘things’ sort of guy. I lived on-site at the camp and at the church, so I’ve never had to get much furniture.”

“We’ll have some things sent over,” Jack said. “A few basics. It’s pretty empty right now, I just haven’t gotten around to giving them notice since the guardianship was filed.

Theo looked up at Simon. “I can’t believe you’re here. And you’re okay with…” He made a little gesture that seemed to encompass his whole body.

“You mean, am I okay with you? Of course I am, child.” Simon asked. “I don’t entirely understand yet, but that’s just because it’s new. Suzanne and Coach have been working on getting me up to speed. All I can say is that if I make a mistake, it’s just because I haven’t caught up, not because there’s a thing wrong with exactly who you are and who you want to be. You are fine. My brain is just old and slow.”

“Aren’t you, like, 31?” Shitty asked.

“Old, and slow,” Simon said again. “Look, I’m a Grandpappy.” He made a sweeping gesture in Felix’s direction.

Theo laughed.

Simon fondly curled his broad hand around the back of Theo’s head for a moment. “But really, listen. You are my son. I believe you. I got to know you with another name, but it is clear like crystal that you are happier now, that this is a more comfortable identity for you than the one we all squashed you into so long ago. We didn’t know. It might take me some time to sort it all out in my head, and good lord above it is a LOT to sort. But if I make a mistake, it’s not because I don’t support you, or that I think anything less of you. It’s just me making a silly mistake, and I will try so hard not to do that. You remind me if I mess up, okay? The only thing that matters to me is that this makes you happier and more comfortable. I don’t have to understand it perfectly in order to see how much it matters to you.”

Theo nodded. “Even though the church…”

“I will find myself a church that doesn’t tell so many lies,” Simon said, “And I’ll go there. Maybe we can share that? If you want?”

“If they’re okay with people like me existing,” Theo said, “I’ll give it a try.”

“Well, I’m not here to tell you what to do. I don’t suppose I’ve earned that privilege yet. You tell me what you’re ready for, and I’m there. I’m here for you, however you’ll have me. Maybe I’m Dad. Maybe I’m Simon. Maybe I’m your friend, or your mentor, or maybe sometime you decide to stay with me, or maybe we just end up neighbors for a while until you’re ready to go out into the world.”

“You always knew what to say to me,” Theo said.

“Hey, have you guys eaten?” Erin asked after a moment. “Bitty made an acre of pizza.”

“I don’t know if I can eat now,” Theo said. Then he looked at Suzanne, standing on the ground a few steps down, and let go of Simon. He moved over to Suzanne and said, “You did this, for me.”

She looked up at him, and smiled. “Of course I did. You needed him.”

“I think that gets a hug,” Theo said, and he wrapped his arms around her, and then lifted her up and swung her around. Suzanne squeaked, laughing.

He set her back down, and then looked at Coach. “Thank you, too.”

“Oh, I just came along for the ride,” Coach said, but gave a rough patting hug, nevertheless.

Theo turned back to Simon. “Well? I might not be hungry, but you’ve never had Bitty’s cooking. He made cheese.”

“Y’all, it takes me like twenty minutes,” Bitty said. “It’s not even hard.”

“Cheese, Bitty,” Theo said. “Come on, Simon, you’ve got to try this.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

They spent the afternoon between the house and the yard, talking, working on Theo’s art walls, passing the baby around.

Over an early supper around the long table in the dining area, Theo kept stealing glances at Simon, seated across from him, as if to check to make sure he was still really there.

Simon was less circumspect in his staring, his gaze resting on Theo more often than not, but going often to Felix.

Suzanne brought a large slab pie in from the kitchen and started it passing, and then sat down next to Simon. “Have you had enough to eat?”

“This is amazing, you might have to roll me back to wherever I’m staying tonight,” Simon said.

“Oh, we’re probably all staying here for the night, except maybe George and Erin,” Suzanne said.

“Theo’s staying?” Jack asked from across the table.

“If you don’t mi…” Theo started, and next to him, Bitty elbowed him gently.

“As if. We keep your bedroom for a reason.”

“You could actually put me and Simon in the bunk room,” Theo said. “That way Coach and Suzanne can have the big bed, and Simon and I can catch up.”

Shitty sighed. “I guess I’ll be in the couch room.”

“Yeah, you and Lardo can…” Bitty blinked. “Where is Lardo, anyway?”

Shitty put on a grin that didn’t reach his eyes and said, “Oh, she said something about hitting an art gallery with Ellie, so I could get some more time with Jack. And the sprog.”

Jack said, “Well, Bitty should get some time with his parents, so that sounds good to me. Shall we take Felix for a walk after dinner?”

A little while later, as they were standing up and clearing the table, Bitty said, “Jack, come help me find Felix’s blanket for the walk, will you?” Suzanne was holding the baby.

As Jack followed Bitty up the stairs, he said, “Okay, you don’t need me to find a blanket, what’s up?”

“He’s not happy,” Bitty said, grabbing a random receiving blanket from the nursery and then sitting on the rocking ottoman.

“Theo’s… Oh, you mean Shitty.” Jack sat down in the glider rocker.

“Lardo’s on a date with Ellie,” Bitty said.

“It’s not our business, Bits,” Jack said.

“Yeah, but I think he’s worried that Lardo’s going to, like, find her perfect lesbian romance and he’s being too enlightened to actually find out from her what her actual intentions are,” Bitty said.

“And you have some insight about her intentions?” Jack asked.

“There was literally no way to do the dishes any louder to drown them out,” Bitty said. “I was in the room. They knew I was in the room. We were all talking, and then they were talking, and then we were talking, so it’s not like I was eavesdropping,” Bitty said.

“No, you’re just gossiping,” Jack teased, gently.

“It’s important.” Bitty sighed. “Look, he’s your best friend. He likes me, but he still sees me as an underclassman.”

“I’m pretty sure that you’re my best friend, Bits. Shitty is an amazing friend, but we don’t tell each other everything and we never have. Lardo’s his best friend and has been pretty much since the day they met.”

“Which is why he needs to know…” Bitty said.

“What? That she’s on a date? Shitty’s the one who said…”

“No, that Lardo thinks of him as her person. That she’s, like, in it for the long haul, but kind of annoyed that he hasn’t, you know, actually verbalized things to her. Asked her out. That kind of thing,” Bitty twisted the receiving blanket in his hands.

“Yet she goes on dates,” Jack said.

“She’s poly. Bi. Ellie’s a fling, by mutual choice. I think Shitty knows the first two but not the other.”

“Just because she’s bi doesn’t automatically make all her relationships with women flings,” Jack said.

“I said Ellie, not all. She’s brutally honest and was really clear,” Bitty said. “I kind of think she wanted it to filter back to Shitty.”

“If she’s so brutally honest, then why isn’t she talking to him?” Jack said. “Why the tin can and string?”

“How good is Shitty at dodging conversations he doesn’t want to have?” Bitty asked. “How wrapped up does he get in the politics and doing the right thing, without actually seeing what’s going on in front of his face? How much of his intersectionality and feminism has been actually tested? And how fast does he dive in when he thinks he knows the answer? My guess is that she’s tried and he’s probably jumped in with something like, ‘I know, and I’m totally comfortable with being your bro,’ before she could get it out?”

“Bits, that’s a whole lot of guessing. This is really between them,” Jack said.

“Yeah, but I’m giving you the tools to ask leading questions,” Bitty said. “He’ll listen to you a lot longer than he’ll listen to anyone he feels like he has to explain things to or show off for.”

Jack sighed, and ran his hands through his hair, and then said, “We’ll see how our walk goes. I’m not going to promise anything. This really is between them.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Shitty was uncharacteristically silent as he and Jack walked, pushing Felix in the bugaboo.

“Okay, is it law school or Lardo?” Jack finally asked in spite of himself.

“Bitty put you up to that?” Shitty asked.

Jack snorted, glancing over. “What do you think?”

Shitty shook his head. “Both. Neither.”

Jack raised his eyebrows and kept walking.

Keeping up, Shitty said, “I think I’m losing her.”

“You’re really not,” Jack said.

Shitty stopped.

Jack got about ten feet ahead before he paused, looked back over his shoulder and asked, “Coming?”

“You sounded awfully sure of that. She’s out on a goddamn date. With someone else. On our weekend. And you…”

“Have a source,” Jack said. “Come on. Keep up.”

“Aye-aye, Cap’n,” Shitty said with a sloppy salute.

“I’m not your captain anymore,” Jack said.

“O Captain! My Captain! Tell me my fate,” Shitty said, jogging up to Jack’s side and then walking beside him as they turned down the wooded street.

“So I’m curious,” Jack said. “Have you ever even actually asked her out?”

“I don’t want to push her into some awkward… She’s not just some chick… I’m afraid it will seem like that’s all I’m there for, and that’s not fair to…” Shitty glanced at Jack, and then said, “No.”

“It’s not fair to her, what you’re doing, you know. Pretending that’s not what you want, when it is.” Jack said.

“You think I should let her go?” Shitty asked.

Jack carefully parked the stroller next to the nearest tree and then rested his forehead against it, closing his eyes and muttering in French.

“My Quebecois is utter crap,” Shitty said. “But I’m pretty sure you just said about sixteen different words for ‘fuck.’”

“What do you want from Lardo?” Jack asked, not opening his eyes. “Wait, don’t tell me. Why don’t you tell her?”

“I don’t want to be just another guy trying to control her sexuality,” Shitty said. “She’s bi. Leaning lesbian. She loves women. She shouldn’t have to set that aside for me.”

“Why would she have to?” Jack asked, standing up. Then he held up a hand. “No, I don’t want you to answer me, I just think you need to think about the answer.”

“I want to be there for her,” Shitty said quietly. “I don’t want to wonder if this is the time she’s not coming home because she finally found someone better for her.”

“I’m pretty sure you are home for her,” Jack said. “What about law school?”

Shitty shuddered. “That’s just straight up dire. You cannot believe how jealous I am of Bits for just saying fuck it and walking away.”

“You could,” Jack said.

“And prove my father right?” Shitty snorted. “Yeah, that would go over well.”

“What I don’t get is, for someone as enlightened as you are, why you still give two fucks about what they think,” Jack said. “Sorry, Felix,” he amended.

“Shit, sorry for swearing in front of the baby,” Shitty said.

“It’s kind of unavoidable around you, it’s either swear or call you Brian, and I’m not going to do that to you.”

“Shit. I mean, crap. Ugh,” Shitty said. “I should just take some completely new name, like ‘Moonfart’ or ‘Dweezle,’ and leave it all behind.

* end note referent point

Jack snorted. “Moonfart?”

“Jane. How about Jane?” Shitty said.

Jack raised an eyebrow. “Missing your flow that much?” he asked.

“Still stuck in the old gender binary?” Shitty shot back, his voice teasing.

“Are you?” Jack asked, dead serious.

Shitty stopped walking. “What.”

Jack tipped the jogging stroller back just enough to lift the front wheel, and turned it around in place, and walked back to Shitty. “It just seems to me for someone who rails about the whole idea of gender being ridiculously performative, you seem awfully hung up on the fact that you are a man and she isn’t straight, when she’s specifically never ruled you out. Or has she?”

“Fucking gender binary,” Shitty spat out.

“You know, they make pronouns for that,” Jack said.

“Are you, Jack Zimmermann, seriously going to lecture me on gender politics?” Shitty asked.

Jack snorted. “And how much time have you spent hanging out with gay and trans kids this summer? Not counting here?”

“I fucking majored in it,” Shitty said.

Jack rolled his eyes. “And I’m willing to bet money that your profs are at least five years behind Tumblr on this one. Do you know that at the youth center every person, every introduction, gives their pronouns? And a good third or more were using singular they. Also Xi/Xir, it/its, and one person who just didn’t like pronouns at all.”

“Since when do you Tumblr? No, don’t answer that. My grandparents flipped their shit over me having long hair,” Shitty said. “Just what the fuck do you think they would do with me declaring myself genderfluid and demanding they use they/them?”

“Why the hell do you care so much?” Jack asked. “Why on earth do you keep giving the time of day to people whose love is conditional on a haircut?”

“They’re paying for my education,” Shitty said.

“Which you hate.”

“What the fuck else am I supposed to do?” Shitty said. Then he let out a ragged breath. “I don’t know what the hell to do, Jack.”

Felix let out a grumbling, fussy cry from the stroller.

“Oh god, I’m sorry,” Shitty said, as Jack pulled Felix out of the stroller and started patting him on the back.

“Push that,” Jack said, nodding at the stroller. “Let’s keep walking, he’ll be happier if we’re moving.”

Shitty got the stroller turned back around, and they started walking again.

After a few minutes, Shitty said, “This guy in my employment discrimination class… we were having a group study session, and every time I opened my mouth to talk about gender discrimination, he would say, ‘Well, but you’re a cis straight guy, so…’ and inside every time he said that my stomach turned. Like, I can play any role my parents want me to, but…”

“But you’re not happy,” Jack said.

“It feels stupid to miss my hair that much,” Shitty said. “And the only fucking reason I grew the mustache in the first place was that my father kept bitching every time my hair got long in high school that I looked like a ‘goddamn girl.’ And then people gave me so much shit about the ’stache that I kept it as a point of honor to piss them off.”

“And what would make you happy?” Jack asked.

“My knee-jerk reaction is Lardo, but that’s not fair, my happiness shouldn’t be dependent on her. I can’t put that on her,” Shitty said.

Jack looked over at Shitty and stayed silent as they continued walking.

Shitty sighed. “I don’t know what would make me happy. But comfortable? I want my hair. I want to be naked. I want to cuddle my bros. I’m tired of being a man for my father. I’m tired of trying to conform to a binary I don’t even believe in. It’s fucking exhausting. I’m not a woman, but what he means when he says ‘be a man’ is nothing about what I want.”

“You spend so much time trying not to be that guy,” Jack said. “Were you ever that guy at all?”

“You haven’t seen me at law school,” Shitty said bitterly. “It feels like pulling a straightjacket on and there’s no space to breathe. The more I’m there, the more that guy I am. I mean, Christ, look at how I treated you. No fucking wonder Lardo needs to date girls.”

“Are you sure that’s about you?” Jack asked. “I mean, she’s polyamorous, so it might not matter.”

“Poly/mono is a negotiation in a relationship,” Shitty said. “Which we’ve never had, because I’ve never asked that of her.”

“Could you be in a relationship with her and deal with her having other relationships?” Jack asked. “Are you that jealous?”

“Jealousy is when you guard something you have,” Shitty said absently. “I’m envious.”

“You’re an idiot,” Jack said fondly.

“Ableist language,” Shitty said, reflexively.

“You said you felt stupid two minutes ago,” Jack said.

“Fuck,” Shitty muttered.

“You’re her person,” Jack said. “And you need to talk to her.”

“People don’t belong to people,” Shitty said.

“Of course we do. Bits owns me, body and soul. Tell me Lardo doesn’t own you. With a straight face.”

Shitty opened his mouth and then closed it again.

“Yeah. We don’t buy and sell people, but in the best relationships, we give ourselves freely and the return is infinite,” Jack said.

“Bro,” Shitty said.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Jack said.

“Do what?”

“Bro-off the meaningful stuff.”

“I spend all this time screaming about the gender binary and fuckall if I know how to step out of it,” Shitty said.

“I’m getting okay at singular they,” Jack said. “And you don’t have to wear the mustache if you don’t like it.”

“I don’t even know, man,” Shitty said. “I feel like I don’t know who I’ll be without it.”

“You know… Bitty was the first person Theo ever came out to, and Theo was so hesitant about asking for his pronouns and giving his name. You know what Bits said?”


Jack grinned. “That’s entirely up to you.”

“Who the fuck decided to give me decision-making authority?” Shitty said. “That just seems fundamentally unwise.”

“They taught us when we were learning how to staff the drop-in center… ‘The only one who gets to decide about your gender is you,’” Jack said.

“How the hell do you decide something like that?” Shitty asked. “I mean, how many people even think about that?”

Jack gave Shitty a bemused look. “It wasn’t a decision. I thought about gender identity, and labels, and I still don’t fucking know exactly what I’d call my sexuality, but gender was easy enough. I’m comfortable with ‘male’. He/him feels right. For better or worse, performing gender the way society expects a man to perform gender is pretty easy for me, and the areas when it’s bullshit and toxic, well, those I’m working on.”

“How did Bits come out on that one?” Shitty asked. “Not that it’s my business, I guess.”

“He wouldn’t care if I told you,” Jack said. “He told me he looked at the whole male/female thing a long time ago, decided most of it was a bullshit game, tried playing it ‘straight’ and yes, he used that word, for entirely too long, and then decided that society was fucked up but he wasn’t. He’s certainly gender nonconforming, but he definitely identifies as male, and he says he’s comfortable with that. That he’s done literally everything someone can possibly do to try to conform, and at this point, people can just fuck off if it’s not good enough.”

“I feel like the whole idea of maleness is just toxic,” Shitty said. “It’s not who I want to be. Someone says, ‘You’re a man,’ and I don’t feel pride, just a sick shame down in my gut like I’ll never reconcile that word with who I am. But I think about becoming a woman, and that doesn’t feel right, either. Like it would just be another rotten trap to cage myself in. And I think women are great. I love women. I effing majored in women, and not in the douchebro way. But it’s not a club I feel like I’d belong in, and aside from the Samwell team, I’m not sure I’ve ever really belonged anywhere.”

“So quit thinking about man and woman,” Jack said.

“I don’t even know how to be nonbinary,” Shitty said. “How does that get performed?”

“Maybe it’s not a performance,” Jack said. “I don’t get up and think, ‘I’m going to perform maleness today.’ I just… am. It’s who I am. It’s an identity, not a performance, for me. I mean, of course parts of it are performative, but mostly it just is. I am who I am, and I am who I’ve always been, and part of that has always been ‘male.’”

“You’ve giving a ridiculous amount of thought to this for a cis dude,” Shitty said.

Jack snorted. “Shouldn’t everyone? Shouldn’t you? The question isn’t who you want to perform, it’s ‘Who are you?’ Absent all social pressures, what feels the most like you?

“I don’t know if I can even imagine,” Shitty said.

“Try,” Jack said. “My counselor used to tell me to visualize my ideal future. I always looked pretty much like me, just with a lot more trophies than I had then, and a lot more love.”

“Livin’ the dream, bro,” Shitty said.

Jack grinned, “So much. But how about you? Dream big, what do you see?”

Shitty said instantly, “Nude beach, in the tropics, with my flow and ’stache and Lardo painting me like a French girl,”

“And how do you feel about your name?” Jack asked.

“Eff if I know,” Shitty said. “Maybe I can get away with Shitty for a little longer. Brian is a no-go. I hear ‘Brian’ and I hear my father’s voice, or bullies, and I never want to go back.”

“Shay might work,” Jack said. “It’s close, unisex… might be a reasonable compromise around the kids and parents. Or just B.”

“Oh god,” Shitty said. “My parents. I mean, Mom might get used to it eventually, but my father? My grandparents?”

“You don’t have to say a word to them,” Jack said. “This is about you, not about anyone else, or that’s what you’ve always told us.”

“But law school,” Shitty said.

“Maybe you need a semester, or a year. A gap, to figure things out. What if you gave yourself permission to take the time? And play with who you are?”

“Fuck. I mean, fudge,” Shitty said, looking at the baby on Jack’s shoulder. “And what the hell am I going to tell Lards?”

“The truth generally works,” Jack said dryly.

“I don’t even know what that is right now,” Shitty said.

“Tell her that.”

“I’m afraid it will seem like I’m doing it for her,” Shitty said.

“If you were doing it for her, you’d be trying to be a woman,” Jack said. “If she’s as invested as I think she is, she’ll be there regardless of where you come out in the process.”

Shitty looked up and shook his head. “I miss Samwell. This shit is just too real.”

“Samwell is just a bubble of acceptance,” Jack said. “You can build that where you are, given time.”

“I don’t want to be a lawyer,” Shitty said. “And I’m completely over the gender binary.”

“That’s a start. What do you want?” Jack asked.

“I want her. And I want me. And I want to help teenagers have a less crappy time with negotiating this stuff.”

“Can a law degree help you?” Jack asked.

“I don’t even fucking know,” Shitty said.

“You know where I live,” Jack said. “We’ve got room if you need a place to stay, whatever you decide.”

Shitty snorted. “I’d be a terrible influence.”

“Yeah, well.” Jack elbowed him fondly.

“Not fair, I can’t retaliate with the sprog on your shoulder,” Shitty said as they walked up the driveway. He stopped and stared. Lardo was just getting out of Ellie’s car.

She saw them, and leaned back against Ellie’s car, waiting. Ellie said something to her, and then laughed and went into the house.

“Short date?” Shitty asked when they got close enough.

“My spidey sense was tingling,” Lardo said. Her hair was spiked on one side and a little glittery, with subtle, gleaming deep blue and purple highlights, and she’d used her lips and eyes as a canvas for ornate swirls of deep pigmented color. She wore a simple black dress with astonishingly tall heels.

Shitty stared at her, mouth slightly agape.

“I’m just going to go inside,” Jack said.

“Fine, Spidey,” Lardo said, holding up her phone. “Thanks.”

Jack laughed. “No problem. Have fun, kids.”

Shitty said to Lardo, as Jack walked up the steps, “So I really want to take you to dinner. Like, on a date.”

As he opened the front door, Jack heard Lardo say, “Well, I’m certainly dressed for it.”

Shitty’s weak laughter disappeared as the door closed.

Jack smiled, and went to find Bitty.