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A Million Tiny Stones

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The flight down to Georgia seems like an utterly surreal concept in itself, even before Jack boards the plane. It’s almost like he’s been removed from his body and suddenly dropped, headfirst, into someone else’s. The body of someone who isn’t him, could never be him, because, obviously -- he’s Jack. Jack Zimmermann.

Nobody in the airport has noticed that, thankfully. Who he is. Because then someone would probably want to meet him, and it’s an unfortunate truth that most of the people he meets think that he’s a jerk, or a disappointment, or even a cocaine addict.

And this is the sort of thing that, for him… in most cases… could go so terribly wrong that he usually wouldn’t even touch the situation with the tip of the world’s longest hockey stick.

But here he is. Headed to Georgia.

Is Jack really traveling several hundred miles to visit his boyfriend?

Even though the question is nothing but an incredulous wisp of thought within his brain -- and a rhetorical one at that, given the fact that yes , he is most certainly traveling to visit his
“boyfriend” -- he winces to himself. The words, however inaudible to the soon-to-be fellow passengers around him, sound terrible. Like he doesn’t believe that Bitty is worth the trip.

He’s just surprised, is all. At himself. Because never before has the “ Is it worth it?” thought popped into Jack’s brain, only to be met by the far more imposing response, “of course it is.” He is worth it. Bitty is worth it.

Though the knowledge that he wants to be with Bitty -- badly, achingly wants to be with Bitty -- will never erase the cold fingers of anxiety grasping at the back of his neck and the base of his spine, their nails prodding for Jack to remember all that could go wrong. The difference, he now realizes, is that he actually cares for Bitty more than he cares about the consequences of something going wrong -- which is a rather unprecedented notion to him. Perhaps an entirely unprecedented notion to him.

There’s the ever-looming fact that this is his first year in the NHL, and that he’s a disposable rookie, and that professional athletics are rife with homophobia. So having a boyfriend, in all objectivity, is actually quite risky for his career. And then there’s the fact that Bitty might wake-up one day and realize, “ Oh. Jack’s a complete fuck-up,” and find someone else. (Samwell is a one-in-four campus, after all, and Bitty could really do so much better). And, of course, he shouldn’t forget the especially real possibility that he’ll screw up in Georgia, and make all of Bitty’s family hate his guts, and perhaps make them hate Bitty’s guts as well if he really, really fucks up.

And Jack is quite talented at fucking up, in general. He's a natural at it, even… his “fucking up” skills only rivaled by his ability to play hockey.

But...he wants to be with Bitty, despite himself. He wants to be with him right now, maybe even be with him… always ? Does that make sense? Is it even okay or normal to feel that way this soon?

And sure, Jack’s a coward and an idiot who can’t really figure out the best way to approach the whole “let’s be boyfriends” thing, because, in truth, they’re not even officially boyfriends yet, but... he knows that he likes this. He likes Bittle, likes him a lot, likes him so much that it even hurts sometimes. He misses him like hell when he’s not around, and their Skype calls always leave him with this strange, bubbling mix of warmth and loss at their end -- like finishing a really incredible novel, and having to adjust to the unexpected shift in reality that its conclusion caused.

It’s bizarre, the way he feels. He keeps having these strange little thoughts that he can’t explain or justify. Like his random, recurring, really, really fucking weird desire to count every freckle on Bitty’s body, or his desperate, constant curiosity regarding whether Bitty currently smells like cinnamon and pastries, like he so often did at Samwell.

(And the only way to find out would be to actually sniff Bittle, which is a really fucking weird and often impossible impulse, he knows).

Since that kiss at graduation, Jack has become absurdly and irrationally interested in Bitty all the time, in what he’s doing, in what he feels and looks and speaks and even smells like, and it’s foreign and strange yet somehow sort of liberating.

So liberating that, sitting here, in the airport, he can recognize that his excitement toward seeing Bittle -- in person -- overwhelms him far more than his fears do.

That’s never happened before. It means something, he’s pretty sure.

He should probably ask Bittle to be his boyfriend before he tries to act on either of those impulses, though.


During the first several months of Jack’s junior year at Samwell, Bittle was probably convinced that Jack despised him. His big brown eyes always displayed a degree of fear when looking his way. A twinge of indignation.

But… Bittle was wrong. Jack has never hated Bittle. In order for Jack to hate someone, he must dislike many things about that person, if not everything.

The problem with Bittle? He was too damn likeable .

Jack is bumbling and awkward, uncomfortable in his own shaking, anxiety-ridden skin. He is still in disbelief that people find him attractive ( thanks, pre-pubescent chubbiness ). He is moody and unsociable, bitter and cold, shoved deeply into the bisexual closet, and unhealthily devoted to hockey. Not to mention that everyone thought -- and still probably thinks -- that he was a ticking time bomb, constantly at risk for another overdose or related fuck-up.

So when Bittle strolled into the Samwell Hockey Team, with his pie and his southern charms and his skating skills and his friendly nature… well, it was no wonder that everyone -- upperclassmen and all -- immediately loved him. And Jack… Jack grew jealous. Irrationally but justifiably jealous (if that makes any sense).

Because when Jack had joined the team in his freshman year, all the upperclassmen had hated him. He was the son of a hockey legend, and that, in conjunction with his aforementioned negative traits, automatically rendered him intimidating and unapproachable. His name had been like a target for ridicule, sewn onto the back of his jersey in ten bold letters. He was Jack. Jack Zimmermann… the center of attention... the son of a big celebrity… the undeserving hockey star, here because of his rich, famous parents and his overdose, not because of his own merits.

He had known that. They had known that. They could sense how wary he had been of friends… how fearful he had been of himself… how little he forgave mistakes, even if they had been his own.

Plus, considering that he had been nearly the #1 NHL draft pick a few years prior, his superior skill had rendered him something of a shoe-in for the captain position in his sophomore year (and the rising seniors never forgave him for that theft).

They never even gave him a nickname. Shitty always claims that was because he never wanted one, or let one stick, but they both know the real reason. No one had liked him enough to give him one. He had been elected captain because it was the strategic choice, given his past, not because anyone had genuinely trusted him to lead them.

Truly, Shitty was the only person who willing to befriend him, and Jack suspects that it was a friendship rooted in pity more than anything else. Because Shitty had pitied him and his anxiety and his overdose and the quiet bitterness he always seemed to drag around with him, like an invisible shopping cart full of ugly, personal baggage.

And luckily or unluckily, most people on the team had thought Shitty was crazy, so perhaps he and Jack were made for one another. It wasn’t even until Ransom and Holster and Lardo arrived that Jack found a few more real friends who thought he was worth more than his dad and his hockey.

And eventually, of course, there was Bitty.

Bitty, who everyone absolutely loved from the start. Who rightfully received Johnson’s dibs without having to do shit . Who Ransom, Holster, Shitty, and Lardo hung around as much, if not more, than they ever had with Jack.

Bitty made friendliness -- from his abundant social media accounts to his ability to draw the entire Haus together in front of a pie -- seem painfully easy.

Plus, despite his height and his attitude, Bitty was actually a remarkably talented hockey player -- with speed and skating dexterity unlike anything that Jack had ever seen.

How was that fair, when Jack had spent years searing muscles and bulk into his own body? In fact, when he was little, he had actually feared the possibility of growing up to be too short, and it wasn’t until he hit six feet that he breathed (a little) easier.

There shouldn’t have been another way, there shouldn’t have been nothing to worry about… but there Bittle was, breaking the status quo that had suffocated Jack for years.

Of course, there was Bittle’s problem with checking, but he seemed to deal with that just as well. It hardly seemed to stress Bittle out off the ice, like it was just a small issue that he’d work out eventually. But it wasn’t a small issue --  not to Jack, anyway. It was the kind of fault that had to be fixed, immediately and permanently -- a major liability to Jack’s team and future in the NHL -- and he forced Bittle into those checking practices to correct it.

Still, it wasn't a big deal. Still, Jack was the obsessive one. Because hockey was just one tiny facet of Bittle’s life. He had baking and figure skating and friends and social media. His future was a big, open, beautiful mystery that he was free to discover, and whether it involved hockey was entirely up to him.

Jack, meanwhile, spent many sleepless nights obsessing over what faceless, menacing scouts would think of him. Spent nights furiously awake because of the tiny errors in his games, and met the morning sun while still frantically redrawing the plays in the air above his bed, his fingers shaking hopelessly.

Oh, and of course, he can’t forget that Bitty was out . Out of the closet. Gay. And no one cared . Everyone on the team loved him just the same, and Bittle dated who he pleased. He wore short-shorts and listened to Beyonce and baked pastries and figure skated and everyone was constantly, continuously, absolutely fine with it. Why wouldn’t they be?

Meanwhile, Jack still can’t find the guts to tell Shitty -- his best friend -- that he kissed a guy once, let alone hooked up with one on numerous occasions (and is now dating another one, possibly?)

The truth was… Bitty was essentially everything that Jack wished he could be. So, clearly, he never despised Bittle. How could he? No. He despised himself , and thus lashed out at the one person who absolutely proved that Jack had no right to be so awful:

Bitty.


 

On the plane, Jack sits next to a woman with a severe fear of flying. She brings a coffee with her, which is probably her first mistake. Anxiety and caffeine don’t mix very well (among many other things that don’t mix well with anxiety). But -- as always -- these thoughts only occur to him in retrospect.

Halfway through the flight, her breaths shallow considerably. He can hear them through his headphones, the ragged and unsteady rasps that they are. It’s an odd sensation for him, to actually hear someone else have a panic attack. Like an out-of-body experience. Because this flight wasn’t already surreal enough for him.

Usually, he doesn’t hear the breaths like this -- the thoughts in his brain are always far too loud for that, and cancel out all other noise. But he wonders if it’s different for her. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s exactly the same. Or maybe, in her eyes, this is no big deal at all. A small fluke in her life -- not something routine and indicative of a thousand and one bigger, more complicated problems.

Regardless… it must not feel good for her. It must feel awful. Like suffocating, because that's literally what your body tricks you into feeling. And that’s just fucking crazy, isn’t it? It’s crazy how difficult breathing can sometimes be, even when it’s supposed to be the easiest damn thing in the world. “Easy as breathing,” people always say. That’s bullshit. Absolute bullshit.

Experience has taught Jack that inhales and exhales can be tricky… can be fragile enough that a few extra pills can stop them -- and the life they permit -- in their tracks. They’re far too intertwined, it seems -- breathing and life. Frustratingly and unshakably connected, like the grout that holds tiles together on cold, unforgiving bathroom floors. The kind of floors that catch bottles and anxiety pills and sometimes whole bodies, if they’re unlucky enough.

Quietly, he tells the woman what he’s always been told. Closed eyes. Deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Keep them rhythmic, like clockwork. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five.

She doesn’t seem very inclined to listen to him, the stranger on the plane with her. What would he know, anyway? It’s her business, not his.

Of course, he doesn’t blame her. He wasn’t very inclined to listen to anyone either. Not when it mattered, anyway.


 

Jack remembers that the argument was justified.

The hockey team hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, it wasn’t even the whole hockey team. It was Shitty, Ransom, Holster, Lardo, Bitty, and himself, crowded onto a picnic blanket on the River Quad, collectively trying to cram for their upcoming exams. Bitty’s hair was still sort of long -- a mop of blonde strands curling down his neck  -- so it must have been his freshman year, and by extension, Jack’s junior year.

There were a few lacrosse players -- one dark haired, another with a shaved head, a third wearing sunglasses -- casually tossing a ball nearby, on the green. And despite their hatred for LAX bros, Jack and his friends had elected to ignore them entirely, instead focusing on their studies.

So when the first lacrosse ball smacked Shitty between the shoulder blades, they elected to ignore that too, deeming it an accident and throwing it back without much fuss. But it wasn’t an accident, they discovered a few minutes later. A second ball soon knocked into Ransom’s arm, and later, a third just missed Bitty’s head by a hair’s width -- passing so closely that it displaced one of his curls. The ball instead landed on Lardo’s coffee cup, spilling her drink everywhere.

And that was the last straw for all of them. Accidents can only happen so often.

Jack doesn’t exactly remember what he or his friends said when they stormed over to the lacrosse players. All he knows is that the conversation quickly descended into extreme hostility on both sides. A few seconds in, and Jack was already forced to stop a punch from Holster, thrown in the direction of the asshole with the sunglasses.

“They’re not worth it,” Jack warned, shooting the LAX bros a glare. “They’re not worth much of anything, actually.”

The bald one let out a cruel laugh. “Fuck off, Zimmermann. Why don’t you go snort some more crack? I mean, that is your thing, isn’t it? Doing coke and having your daddy buy your way into schools?”

With a sneer, the dark-haired guy began to pantomime snorting a line of cocaine while his other two buddies guffawed heartily. Jack’s friends fell silent. Heavily so.

Jack doesn’t know what actually set him off a few seconds later. The insult, the immature laughter, the silly imitation of doing drugs… or the cold speechlessness from his friends, the latter of which displaying what they really thought of him, deep down.

Maybe it was all of the above. A checklist of things that are just too fucking much for Jack to handle.

Next thing he knew, he was lunging at the guy with the shaved head, his full body weight thrown into the movement, his own hypocrisy entirely ignored. It was an attack far more serious and aggressive than Holster’s attempted punch, and required a joint struggle between Shitty, Ransom, Holster, Lardo, and Bitty to sufficiently hold him back.

“Jack!” Lardo yelled, her hands braced against his chest. “Jack, don’t! You said it yourself. They’re not worth it!”

“Calm the fuck down!” Shitty hissed, panicked fear in his eyes. Fear directed toward Jack, of all things. In fact, everyone looked quite afraid of him -- Bittle’s brown eyes were wider than Jack had ever seen them, little oceans of liquid apprehension .

He supposes it made sense. Them being afraid. To them, to everyone, he was a time-bomb. Always counting down. Five, four, three, two, one...

His friends managed to drag him back to the picnic blanket, but the sound of the guys’ sniggering and exaggerated snorting continued to echo in Jack’s head. He couldn’t stay there. Not after that. Not after what those assholes said… and not after what his friends didn’t say.

To this day, he doesn’t even know what he wanted from them -- from his friends. But their silence struck him nearly as much as his own parents’ speechlessness did, after the overdose. Like a pillow of uncomfortable disappointment, their quietude was a slow, smothering death, committed by the people he most needed to believe in him.

“Jack, are you--” Bittle began, but was cut off by Jack’s abrupt leap to a standing position, and his subsequent march back to the Haus. On the way there, his fury was like a monstrous, animated thing -- writhing and restless under the thin sheath of his skin.  

Jack spent the rest of his day in his room, seething and determinedly distracting himself with homework. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that he heard a knock at his door.

“Come in,” he called, exasperated. Past experience told him it was no use trying to ignore Shitty -- he would climb through the window to bother Jack if he had to.

But it wasn’t Shitty.

With the creaking of the opening door, Bittle shuffled his way into the room, his posture almost abashed. Jack indulged the intrusion and turned in his desk chair, staring expectantly.

“I just wanted to make sure you’re okay,” he said, shifting his feet with nervousness. “Y’know… after what happened. Those guys were jerks.”

“I’m fine,” was his response, uttered far too quickly and far too bitterly to be considered true or polite.

There was a beat of silence, like neither of them knew how to continue the conversation. They simply stared at one another, two deer caught in invisible headlights.

Finally, Bittle closed his eyes and nodded. “Okay,” he murmured. “Okay.”

More silence. Jack stared blankly, not quite urging him to leave and not quite urging him to stay.

Then, with a jerk of his head aimed in the general direction of the kitchen, Bittle added, “I just made pie. D’you want some?”

His gaze on Jack was calm and… not exactly unreadable , but not exactly heavy with implication. He knew that Bittle was probably here to talk Jack down from some nonexistent ledge, but in that moment, it actually seemed like he was only here to offer Jack some pie and some basic concern. You know. Like normal people receive.

Jack swallowed, suddenly more hungry than anticipated. But he floundered nonetheless, answering the question with a mumbled “I don’t know...”

“If you don’t grab some soon, it’ll be gone. Y’know how the boys in this Haus are.”

He knew those words were merely a strategy to make him leave his room -- to make him stop wallowing in his own fucked up thoughts -- but they were oh so gentle and effective. Bittle’s pies really did taste amazing, he hadn’t eaten anything for hours, and finally, he was starting to remember that he hated feeling and acting this way.

“Let me finish this chapter. Then I’ll come down.”

“Okay,” Bittle repeated yet again, turning toward the door with his arms folded behind his back. He was smiling softly, and was altogether too kind for someone who was addressing a rumored crack addict.

It was more than the fictional crack addict Jack deserved.

But that wasn’t Jack. And Bittle should understand that -- that he’s not just a fuck-up for the sake of fucking up. That it’s his brain ...that it won’t shut up , that he’s trying his best all the time and still feels like he’s failing miserably.

That when he overdosed, all those years ago, it wasn’t just because he was stupid . He was sick. That’s what he was told. That he was sick. And that he’s still sick, even if he’s better than he was.

For some reason, at that moment, it suddenly seemed immensely important that Jack explains himself.

“They were anxiety pills, you know,” Jack thus blurted, causing Bittle to stop short at the door. His turn back to Jack was slow and careful, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

“What?”

“When I overdosed,” Jack clarified, his voice very quiet and his eyes now trained on his own feet. “They were anxiety pills. I had… problems. I wasn’t right in the head. And yeah, there was alcohol involved too, and that probably made things worse, but I… I never did cocaine. That wasn’t why it happened.”

He looked up at Bittle, gauging his reaction. Jack was relieved by how even it was, displaying only the tiniest hint of surprise.

“I’m glad that you trusted me enough to tell me that,” he then replied sincerely, after a beat of consideration.

“Yeah, I…” Jack sighed heavily. “I just figured you should know the truth. I know what people say about me, about the drugs. But that’s not me. I never did cocaine.”

He kept saying that last part, like he was convinced Bittle wouldn’t believe him. Like he was pleading, frantic for him to understand. He shouldn't have been so worried, though, because it seemed like, maybe, Bittle did. A little, at least. Bittle’s nod seemed to indicate as much, and Jack felt his anxiety deflate slightly when Bittle eventually turned back to the door. Preparing to leave.

But not yet. He had something else to say.

“You know… even if you had,” Bittle begins -- slowly, quietly, like it might be a secret, “I wouldn’t have cared. It wouldn’t have mattered, or changed anything.”

With that, Bittle left the room, leaving Jack blinking at the stunningly empty spot where he just stood, desperately trying to imagine a world where a fuckup that large somehow wouldn’t change anything.

It was a fantasy beyond his comprehension or experience.


 

Bittle still smells like baked goods. It’s not a faint aroma, either. He was probably baking a few hours ago, with the scent lingering on his clothes and his skin throughout the drive to Atlanta. Stress baking, probably. Jack would bet money on it.

It’s the hug at the airport that allows Jack to press his nose into Bittle’s curly, blonde hair -- now much shorter than it was in Jack’s junior year -- and it’s fine. It’s okay. It’s an affectionate gesture, sure, but it’s passably discreet and seemingly straight… altogether too acceptable for public viewing. After all… he’s Jack Zimmermann, they’re currently standing in a Georgia airport, and -- as always -- people are idiotic jerks with a remarkable talent for saying the most advertently and inadvertently hurtful things if given the chance. And Jack won’t give them that chance.

To Jack, it seems like the whole damn world is one big, constant antagonist to this. To them. To whatever precious, precarious thing that they’re trying to maintain between themselves.

Bittle’s arms are firmly encircling his middle. Jack’s hands rest on his back, fruitlessly trying to achieve some unattainable level of infinite closeness. He presses them together as tightly as he possibly can, body heat overloading body heat in this unbearably torrid, sticky Georgia air… and it’s frustratingly not close enough.

Why? It doesn’t make scientific or logical sense (but then again… Jack’s brain never has).

“I’ve missed you,” Bittle mumbles into his chest, and Jack is flooded with the oddest, most satisfying sense of relief . He has to stop himself from saying “ Good , because that’s mean, isn’t it? To want someone to suffer in your absence? But he really is glad. He’s glad that he still means something to Bittle because, lately, Jack is finding that few things mean as much to him as Bittle does.

Bittle pulls away first. Jack knows it’s the right thing for him to do -- the hug is lingering a little too long for something that is meant to be platonic, but it’s still vaguely infuriating that they’re trying to please these random people -- these travelling strangers who have no right to judge them, in any sense.

There are already beads of sweat on Jack’s neck, attributable to either the hot weather or a thousand and one other things that exist solely in the expanse of Jack’s mind. Mysteries, mysteries.

“C’mon, let’s get you to the house,” Bittle says with a soft smile, his signature one, the kind of smile that produces a warmth in Jack that is somehow completely opposite to that in the air around him. The heat here is like a pot of boiling water, scalding and moist. But Bittle’s smile is something different… like light trickling through curtains on a weekend morning, sunshine carefully and sweetly weaving its way under sleeping eyelids.

Bittle makes a move to take Jack’s suitcase, and Jack actually laughs as he shifts it out of Bittle’s reach. It’s a gesture that’s so characteristically Bittle, like his baking or his accent or his extreme love for Beyonce. And oddly enough, all of these things of Bittle’s make Jack feel like he has helium in his ribs.

“Stealing my bag, eh? I can carry it just fine,” he teases, easily pulling the bag off the ground and swinging it over his shoulder -- simply to make a point. He’s been training for his debut in the NHL, after all, so he’s somewhere quite close to peak human fitness and strength.

Bittle crosses his arms and rolls his eyes, playfully unimpressed. “I’m trying to be a gentleman, Mr. Zimmermann -- not that you’d know anything about that.”

Jack laughs again. Since leaving Samwell, Jack has nearly forgotten what his own laugh sounds like. It has no place in his enormous, beautiful, terrifyingly empty and friendless Providence apartment. Not that his has ever been a particularly wonderful-sounding laugh. It’s monotonous and short, robotic in the way that Shitty always claims Jack is. But he likes it -- likes laughing, and absolutely misses it -- he just doesn’t like the way he sounds when he does it, and doesn't like how foreign it's become to him.

On the walk to the car, Jack slings an arm around Bittle’s shoulders, thinking that it also seems safely platonic. It’s comfortable. It’s good. It’s really fucking nice, just being here.

In the car, they kiss for the first time since graduation, slow and sweet and a little bit dirty. And that’s even better.


 

Bad Bob Zimmermann had always been rumored to be some sort of expert lady-charmer, and given how wonderful Jack’s mother is, he thinks it’s entirely believable. Whatever charisma Jack was supposed to inherit from either of them, however, must have gotten lost somewhere at the bottom of their gene pool, because Jack is absolutely terrible at relationships.

First...there was Parse. Kenny. His former best friend and boyfriend and now, his own personal demon. Their relationship all those years ago can only be remembered as a haze of alcohol, misplaced anxiety, unzipped jeans, confusion, and regret.

It was not without purpose, though. Jack wasn’t that wasted. He was just desperate and scared and a kid with too fucking much on his plate and no way out of his own head. Those nights had been devoted to achieving mindlessness -- to escaping the crushing expectations of his future and his last name in favor of something pleasurable and distracting.

He liked that Kenny made him feel valuable for something other than hockey and his father, even if that something was just a good hookup. And that was fine. That was good. Everything about it felt good , as long as he never thought too hard about just how complicating their actions were.

Parse needed him. Wanted him. Admired him -- and not because of his dad (thank fucking God someone did).

Looking back, he realizes that Parse might have been in love with him. He still doesn’t know for sure, but back then, he didn’t really care. He was too screwed up in the head to care about anything properly. Now he cares. Now he feels bad about it, and clearly, Parse wants him to feel bad about it too.

But it’s too late now. He knows better. He knows that he never felt that way about Kenny, not really. He loved Kenny like a best friend, and he liked the sensations of it all, maybe. Liked feeling important and necessary. Liked the distraction. But he’s grown up now. He can see where they made mistakes -- big mistakes. Jack might have been using Parse, but Parse knew just how to use him too. He always knew just what to say to make Jack feel awful enough to need an escape -- and that escape was often something only Kenny could provide. It was a fucked up give-and-take on both sides -- the kind that no apology will ever be able to fully rectify, for either of them.

He regrets it more than he can express... but regret is not the same thing as wanting to change the past. Today, Jack firmly believes that his life was meant to unravel the way that it did, even when he had been at his very worst, or at his most conflicted. 

And if he and Parse had never exchanged some choice words before the draft, Jack might not have ended up at Samwell. Instead, he might have been drafted into the NHL, just like his father always wanted.

But Jack’s father has never really known what’s best for him, ultimately.  

Later, Samwell brought new experiences. Girls, for one.

In Jack’s freshman year at Samwell, he attended Winter Screw with a girl named Kate from his Microeconomics class. With the way she always stared at him, eyes boring into his ass or the back of his head, it was clear that she had a crush on him all semester. So when she pulled him aside after class and asked him out, shaking with nervousness and tightly clutching her textbooks, he couldn’t find a good reason to say no. After all, Kate was quite nice and very pretty, with a subdued sort of demeanor that Jack was sure he could grow to like. Jack knew he was lucky, and that she was more than he deserved.

It was the first bit of “anything” he had tried since Parse.

The dance itself was fine, though with no real “screwing” involved. Their later dates were painfully awkward, however, to no fault of hers. Back then, Jack was simply an awkward mess who spent half his time wallowing in post-overdose self-pity. She deserved better, he thought so from the start, and he didn’t blame her at all when she stopped calling.

He probably shouldn’t have stopped calling first, he now realizes. But back then, he still needed time to grow out of who he used to be.

The next year, Ransom and Holster somehow set him up with a girl named Samantha, who, unlike Kate, was only interested in screwing, and Jack could get behind that (no pun intended in any way, of course). He liked her, liked the relationship. It was easy and unassuming, with zero attachment.

But the whole thing reached its natural end when she decided to transfer universities. It wasn’t easy anymore, wasn’t even convenient. She made no attempt to keep in contact once she left, and neither did he -- not because his feelings toward her changed, but because they were never that strong in the first place.

In the end, he really cared about Camilla, though. Ransom and Holster introduced them for winter screw, and she was something else. Charismatic and bubbly, the exact opposite of what he’d expect to like in a person. Beautiful too, with curly blond hair and bright hazel eyes. He liked her. He really did.

They only dated for two months, though -- and this time, it wasn’t Jack’s fault.

Samwell was a one in four school, after all, and it turned out that Camilla was also bisexual, and had fallen head-over-heels in love with one of her teammates on the tennis team. But -- as Camilla’s frantic, pillow-talk confession informed him -- the teammate had no idea, but Camilla felt like she had to tell someone , and she thought it wasn’t fair to continue lying to Jack about how she felt.

He doesn’t know how she expected him to react, but she probably never thought he’d respond to the words “I’m bi,” with “Me too.”

But that’s what he did. Camilla was probably the only person on campus who knew his secret, before… well… he kissed Bittle, which practically launched the proverbial cat out of the proverbial bag.  

The odd thing was, he kept seeing Camilla after that, though in a far less romantic capacity. Spending time and sleeping with someone who’s in love with someone else -- it was definitely odd, but he was surprised by how little it hurt. Surprised by how much he wanted her to be happy. And if her version of true happiness was unattainable at the moment, the least he could do was be her friend, or her friend with benefits, or whatever she asked him to be. That was fine with him.

But understandably not fine enough for Camilla.

One night, he received a text from her at three in the morning, with the words “I kissed her.”

Jack texted back “Good” and meant it wholeheartedly.

As expected, they stopped participating in anything beyond friendly talks after that, and Jack was amazingly and absolutely okay with it. Occasionally, Jack would spot her on campus, hand in hand with a very tall, dark-haired girl with a lovely, shy smile. He always waved to them both.

One time in his senior year, Jack met Camilla for lunch, and he asked how her relationship was going. Camilla grinned hugely, hugged him, and gleefully told him she was in love. Jack was really, truly happy for her, despite the strange bubble of wistfulness that seemed to inflate in his chest after hearing those three words. “ I’m in love .”

Camilla jokingly told him to find his own “special someone,”  so that they could double date. Jack laughed and rolled his eyes accordingly, to indicate just how ridiculous the notion was supposed to seem to him. But it didn’t seem that ridiculous, all of a sudden. For some reason, without his own permission, his imagination began to wander to curious places. He was suddenly picturing himself kissing someone with curly blonde hair -- someone who wasn’t Camilla. Someone different and familiar and important… but Jack refused to even consider who it was at the time, or what it meant.

Jack was an idiot, because really, he should have known. Jack saw that someone thirty minutes later, baking a pie in the Haus.

Camilla’s suggestion definitely doesn’t seem so ridiculous now. Not in the least.


 

Before now, Jack has never wanted to touch someone so badly that his nerves ached.

But now he’s in Georgia to visit Bittle. Georgia, where no one knows that Bittle is gay. Georgia, where it might even be dangerous to be out. Georgia, where Jack is just Bittle’s friend and teammate from college -- nothing more.

And just a friend Jack Zimmermann certainly wouldn’t want to hook up with Bittle in Bittle’s childhood bedroom. Just a friend Jack Zimmermann would never even consider such a thing.

But Jack is not just a friend , if his thoughts and wants indicate anything.

So that whole “aching nerves” thing? He knows what it feels like now. And it’s unbearable.

Suzanne treats him kindly enough, of course, offering him food and pastries in a way that Bittle must have inherited in its entirety. She’s a perfect host. Attending to him at all times, southern hospitality flowing from her so profusely it’s like a tsunami, compassionately crashing down upon Jack every minute of the day.

And that’s the problem. She’s frustratingly present all the time . And when she’s in the room, Jack’s feelings for Bittle can’t be.

Ache, ache, ache . No kissing, no hand-holding, no removing Bittle’s obscenely tiny, summer short-shorts -- the ones that literally seem to taunt him, their imaginary voice sounding suspiciously like Bitty’s southern lilt. (He tries his best to avoid staring at them too, but he’s only human, and red is a very attention-grabbing color).  

Just a friend Jack, wherever he may be (long, long, forever gone), is probably laughing at him.


 It took Jack many years to understand that he had never hated his father.

He’d hated someone with the last name Zimmermann.

But it wasn’t his father.


 People make Jack nervous. Everyone -- from his parents, to his friends, to strangers on the street -- produces their own unique brand of nibbling unease for Jack. Some brands are worse than others, some are barely detectable at all.

Coach Bittle’s might be one of the worst he’s ever encountered.

Jack is awkward, and appears just as awkward as he is, but Coach’s attitude borders on openly hostile. It’s entirely possible that Coach is just terrible at properly expressing himself, thus prompting Jack to misunderstand his personality -- but that doesn’t stop Jack from feeling like he’s slowly suffocating whenever he’s trapped in a room with Bitty’s father.

He does his best to talk about American football, painstakingly drudging his every memory of the sport from the most obscure, nearly forgotten recesses of his brain. And that seems to please the guy. But Jack’s afraid that he’ll run out of relevant info. What then? Is that when Coach Bittle will decide that he hates Jack?

It feels like an inevitability, is all.

Coach eventually asks Jack about hockey, about his career, about Bittle’s past performance on the team. The latter part frustrates him, because it seems like Coach is trying to draw complaints out of him -- complaints about Bittle’s skills, or Bittle’s attitude. Which isn’t fair, Bittle is right there, eyes downcast, and the whole damn conversation makes Jack horribly uncomfortable, unease gnawing at his skin with serrated teeth.

They’re climbing the stairs to Bittle’s room when Jack asks, in an extremely careful voice, “Is he always like--?”

“Yes,” Bittle interrupts stoically, not even turning around. The answer is far too quick to be considered characteristically polite, or for Jack to believe that it’s fine .

Jack’s father is a strong personality, sure, with his big belly laughs and his endless supply of ridiculous, jovial stories about hockey or other nonsense. His confidence and optimism are infuriatingly profuse, matched only by his vast refusal to acknowledge consequences or self-doubt. So yes, there are obvious differences that he and Jack share, but Jack’s father has never treated him like… like that . Like Coach treats Bittle, searching for nonexistent flaws in his son on which to latch and embitter himself (and incidentally, Bittle along the way).

It was Bad Bob’s legacy and Jack’s failures that tormented him, never his father himself. Even when he screamed insults at his father in his teens, or screwed up on the ice, or wound up in a rehab center, his father never made him feel unloved or like a disappointment. After the overdose, it was even like he made a special point to remind Jack that he did love him, that Jack’s mistakes didn’t make him any less important or worthwhile.

He wonders if Coach Bittle would do the same. Jack hopes he would, hopes that he’s just misunderstanding how this guy works… but he’s afraid for Bittle’s sake, and that might be the most upsetting thing he’s ever felt. Bittle deserves the world and more, deserves to be treated like he’s perfect, because he’s probably as close to perfect as a person can get.

But every break or holiday, Bitty comes home to his father’s disapproving eyes, and has to live with that like it’s normal or fine.

It’s not. It’s not normal and it’s not even remotely close to being fine. Even someone like Jack knows this with startling conviction, and Jack knows nothing of those two words -- he hasn’t been normal or fine for a single day in his goddamn life.

But he knows that Bittle deserves better, deserves everything, and it might even scare Jack how much he already hates Bitty’s father on Bitty’s behalf.


 Until graduation, Jack believed that only big events had the power to change the course of his life. Monumental events, critical milestones. The kind of things that they’ll talk about at his funeral, someday. Winning the Memorial Cup. Overdosing on the bathroom floor. Enrolling in a university. Picking a NHL team.

He had figured that his college graduation would be one of such events. Another crossroad in his life -- one for which he should have been grateful, considering how easily it could have not happened at all.  

At first, the ceremony played out like a movie scene. A cliche from someone else’s life, scripted and easy and predictable.

At daybreak, he donned his robes and his tie, the blue one that Bittle chose for him, and admired himself in the mirror -- considered how old he now looked, and all the ways he could have missed the coming moments.

At mid-morning, he received his degree and awards, all while pointedly ignoring the whispers of the people who recognized his name and recalled his mistakes.

At noon, he posed for photographs with friends, acquaintances, and family. He even found the will to smile at his new assistant general manager, George, so that it at least seemed like he was ready to leave Samwell for the NHL.

And he was excited -- don’t get him wrong. The NHL was his dream, has always been his dream, is still his dream. From the very start, Jack’s life has been a map, disorderly and complicated but with the Stanley Cup marked as a clear destination.

But Jack lost something significant that day, at graduation. Lost a lot of things, actually. Samwell had the greatest hand in shaping the reborn, reassembled person that sprung forth from his overdose. Samwell pushed him headfirst into a second chance, even when the rest of the world was ready to let him fester and atrophy in his failures -- like an old wound that doctors simply wouldn’t treat.

But not Samwell. Samwell picked him up, brushed him off, and told him to keep moving and growing. And that’s what he did.

It was Samwell that taught him unexpected things about himself -- that he loved history, photography, dining hall chicken tenders, and even certain Beyonce songs, given how often Bittle blasted them from his room. Saying goodbye to Samwell was like saying goodbye to his parents -- like turning his back on something that gave him everything, and having no way to properly express his gratitude.  

It’s almost funny. There had actually been a time when -- in Jack’s mind -- Samwell was just a long, corrective detour, solely intended to get him back on track. But that changed. Changed so subtly and completely that, at that moment, he was suddenly assaulted by an unprecedented, newfound nostalgia.

It was at graduation that he recognized that the word ‘home’ had become inextricably connected to the Haus, to Shitty’s lectures on heteronormativity, to Lardo’s paint-splattered fingers, to Ransom and Holster’s endless chirps, and to Bitty’s pies, their tantalizing scent constantly wafting from the kitchen.

At twelve-thirty, Jack realized that he might spend the rest of his life missing this place.

And at twelve-forty-five, Jack found himself standing between Bitty’s arms, curly blonde hair tickling his ear, the words “ Bye, Jack,” tremulously whispered into his robes. Bittle’s voice was brimming with a unique kind of despair -- a sort of misery that Jack had never before heard from him. The sound of it struck Jack in his core… echoed in the cavern between his ribs.

“Bye, Bittle,” he responded, tightening their embrace and trying his best to ignore the odd tension in his stomach, or the dryness in his throat. “It’s been great playing with you.”

Immediately, Jack’s words felt wrong. He only said them because that’s what people are supposed to say to old teammates before they leave. It was great playing with you . But saying them to Bittle was like leaving a debt unpaid, or an apology unsaid. They were imprecise. Inappropriate.

With a heavy sigh, Bittle pulled away, his hands still resting on Jack’s shoulders. He seemed to refuse to meet his gaze, which left Jack free to scrutinize his face -- to examine the inexpressible sadness contained in those big, brown eyes of his. Jack attempted to smile encouragingly, vainly trying to provide comfort. But Bittle wouldn’t look at him. Not directly.

“Jack, I…” he began, stumbling over the words. “I--”

There was a beat that stretched for centuries to Jack. A moment in which Jack heard words that were never said. Words that didn’t even come from Bittle’s mouth. Words that could’ve been, but decidedly weren’t.

I love you.”

Jack, I love you.

He could hear them perfectly, in his imagination. Uttered softly in that southern lilt. Sad, but sweet and pleading and genuine. Like they were something that Bittle meant, and something that Jack wanted to hear.

The mental fantasy so greatly disoriented Jack that he stood, frozen, as Bittle grabbed his tie -- the blue one that Bittle himself had picked out -- and continued to speak.

“I-I guess the next time I’ll see you will be on TV, huh?”

The completion of the sentence didn’t feel right to Jack. It might’ve been a disappointment, even -- the kind that seemed to join the echo of Bittle’s goodbye, floating in the hollow between Jack’s ribs. He didn’t know what to think of it, couldn’t decipher what it meant.

Something started to shift then, for Jack. It might’ve been the whole world shifting, rearranging itself around a new, desperately confusing question:

Did Jack... want to hear those words? The ones that weren’t said?

His seconds with Bittle suddenly felt like sand falling through a cracked hourglass. The friendship that they shared, the friendship that was once filled with surety and simplicity and ease, seemed now replaced by a thousand pounds of compelling, frenzied uncertainty.

And he didn’t want Bittle to let go of his tie, for some unfathomable reason.

“I’ll drive up before the season starts,” he assured Bittle and himself, trying to calm that frantic part of his brain -- the one that kept telling him that he was missing something, that he was about to lose that something forever. But what was he losing? Certainly not Bittle. Bittle was his friend, would always be his friend, just like the rest of his teammates at Samwell would be. 

And that was enough, wasn’t it?

No. It wasn't. There was an inexplicable wrongness contained within that fact... but Jack kept talking to Bittle like everything was fine, like everything was okay… even as something kept nudging Jack in the back of his mind. Nudging him insistently. Whatever it was, it seemed to know that this conversation would be ending soon, and it told Jack that neither of them were ready. That Jack still needed answers.

It was like he was staring through the lens of a camera that wouldn’t focus. Like he was trying to preserve something obvious, but unreachable and indistinguishable. Something that was right there, right in front of him, if he’d only blink and look with his own two--

Oh.

Bittle was walking away. And Jack didn’t want him to. Jack wanted him to keep holding onto his tie, wanted him to use it to pull Jack’s lips down onto his.

And that’s when the realization hit him, smacking into him with more force than any hockey check ever could, like being pushed off a ledge rather than being pushed into the glass around the rink. 

A million memories flashed before his eyes, in that moment. He could see Bittle during one of their checking practices, framed in the light of a sunrise at Faber, a rose-gold blush on his cheeks. Bittle biting his lip while writing a tweet or a Facebook post, or whatever. Bittle's playfully rueful smile throughout Jack's complaints about Pumpkin Spice lattes. Bittle at epikegster, with Jack at his side, and how easy and actually fun it was -- before Parse arrived, that is. 

A million memories. Bittle’s laugh, high and gleeful. Sharing headphones on the bus, their heads tipped toward each other. Grocery shopping, with Bittle teaching Jack the ingredients for pie baking. Perfect passes on the ice, each one evidencing how well they worked as a team. Late night conversations in the kitchen, when they were both plagued by insomnia. Euphoric cellies, with Jack’s arms encircling Bittle’s shoulders. Bittle’s soft smile, captured in a photograph and placed in Jack’s portfolio. Bittle holding Jack’s sobbing body, after their crushing playoff defeat. Bittle’s tearful face pressed into Jack’s chest, overwhelmed by the sight of the new oven.

Bittle, wearing Jack’s jacket, peacefully asleep on Jack’s shoulder, and a subconscious part of Jack (now conscious) recognizing that it might’ve been one of the most perfect things he’d ever seen.

A million memories. A million moments, like a million tiny stones -- none of them major, none of them monumental, none of them milestones. They were small and precious and private, worthless to the rest of the world but everything to Jack.

But a million tiny stones can block a road. And a million small moments can change the course of a life. Jack’s life.

The sound of Jack’s father’s voice finally broke him out of it -- out of that tailspin of disorienting memories and realizations. With a start, Jack realized that he was absentmindedly fingering his tie throughout it all -- like he was indirectly grasping for Bittle’s hand, the one that was just there, several minutes ago.

“I feel like… I haven’t really said goodbye to everyone,” he told his father desperately. Because he was. He was desperate. It was no wonder that his father saw right through him, saw that he was talking about something romantic in nature. Because it was romantic. Jack was in love with Bittle.

And Jack had been an idiot.

Thus, a few minutes later, Jack was sprinting back toward the Haus, the words “go really say goodbye” reverberating in his ears. He must have looked like a madman, running through the campus like that -- his graduation robes flapping wildly behind him. He knew his face was red and hot, his breaths were short, and truly, he didn’t know whether to blame the exertion for it… or the newly realized emotions that wouldn't stop smacking him in the face.

When he arrived at the Haus, he found Bittle crying and wailing to Beyonce, bent over Chowder’s nearly-unpacked boxes. Just a friend Jack would have probably chirped him for it. Just a friend Jack maybe would’ve asked him what's wrong, and provided meager comfort, and then left Bittle alone.

Just a friend Jack certainly wouldn't have grabbed Bittle by the shoulders and kissed him thoroughly.

But Jack did. He kissed Bittle and he loved it, and he might love Bittle too.

He hasn't seen just a friend Jack since.


It’s probably one of their first moments of privacy since the kiss in the car.

This time, however, they’re in Coach Bittle’s pickup truck -- because Jack might as well have the full, stereotypical, Southern experience. On the Fourth of July, of all things.

(But… Jack won’t complain about seeing Bittle drive a pickup truck. Because that … for Jack… was quite an experience).

Currently, Jack is staring out the windshield, marveling at their newfound seclusion. The surrounding field is empty and serene, animated only by the slight prod of a modest breeze. And, as always, the night is a wonderful change from the punishing Georgia sun, which has done little but beat down upon Jack’s pale, heat-despising skin.

Though… Bitty looks good in the sun, he’ll admit. Like he’s made of gold.

He hasn’t counted anything, doesn’t have any evidence, but Jack would swear -- bet money -- that Bitty’s freckles have multiplied beautifully over the last few months. Jack probably thinks about them too often, about how much they suit him.

But then again, Bitty looks good like this too, sitting in the driver’s seat (of a pickup truck , Crisse) , the moonlight blossoming over his skin. His fingers tap against the steering wheel like he’s anxious, and Jack’s hands might be shaking too, because all of this -- being close to one another, and being free to do what they want -- is very new to them both.  

Pop music is trickling lightly through the radio -- something soft. A love song, maybe? Jack doesn’t recognize the artist. He’s sure Bitty would, if he asked. But he’s not all that curious about it.

Jack’s hand is still shaking when he reaches out for Bittle’s, gently removing it from the surface of the steering wheel. He clutches Bittle’s fingers in his grasp, squeezes them, trying to seem casual about it. Trying to appear calm, like this small contact doesn’t set Jack’s nerves on fire in an inexplicably wonderful way, even though it totally does.

“I keep thinking that your mom’s going to pop up -- out of nowhere -- and catch us,” Jack remarks, smirking slightly and turning Bittle’s hand over in his.

Bittle shifts to look at Jack, his signature smile returning. It practically illuminates the whole truck. “Catch us doing what, honey? Holding hands?” he asks, raising both of their hands and waggling his eyebrows teasingly. “Downright scandalous , Mr. Zimmermann.”

It’s a joke, of course, and Jack laughs a bit a first. But as the seconds pass, a silence settles between them, and Jack realizes that it’s not as funny as he initially thought. Because really, it shouldn’t be a big deal. He should be able to hold hands with Bittle like this in front of his mother, in front of everyone, in front of the whole world, but he can’t .

If anything, Bittle’s joke fucking breaks Jack’s heart -- but he can’t even be mad about it, because Bittle appears to realize this just as Jack does. Thus, Bittle frowns -- visibly disheartened-- and squeezes his eyes shut, like he’s trying to block out the world.

When Bittle opens them again, Jack sees resignation, and he’s aware of what it means. It means that they both know what they’ll have to do, to stay together. It means that hiding is going to become the norm for them -- perhaps indefinitely. It means that things will never be easy for them. Not as easy as they should be, anyway.

“Let’s go outside,” Jack then blurts.

“Outside?” Bittle repeats, eyebrows raised questioningly.

“Yeah. We can stretch out in the back of the truck. If that’s okay, I mean,” Jack clarifies, feeling like he’s overstepping boundaries. Because that’d be just like him, assuming that something’s okay when it’s not, going too far and feeling things too strongly, like he always does--

But Bittle smiles again, in the way that Jack loves, and nods. “Okay,” he says, turning off the truck with a quick rotation of the car key. “Okay.”

The sound of the love song fades into nothingness, but Jack doesn’t notice its absence.

Soon enough, Bittle is yanking Jack out of the cab so forcefully and unexpectedly that it’s funny , and Bittle does the same thing to pull him up, onto the truck bed. They don’t let go of one another’s hands throughout all the tugging and pulling -- not until they’re both lying in the rear of the vehicle, faces pointed toward the stars and whole bodies laughing. Jack is still laughing on his back, unsuspecting, when Bittle leans over him. He cages Jack between his elbows, and kisses him.

Jack then realizes that you can taste laughter on someone else’s breath.

They stay like that -- Bittle draped over Jack’s body, lips practically glued together -- until the first firework whizzes into the sky, a sparkling blur of glowing red. Jack hears it rather than sees it, the high-pitched whistling followed by a rough crackle. At the sound, Bittle immediately disentangles himself, determined to make Jack watch a “ decent, American fireworks show.

Jack could care less about fireworks, in all truth. He’s seen them before. He’d much rather be distracted by the newfound feeling of Bittle tucked into his side, and his own arm slung around Bittle’s shoulders. They fit together too perfectly for it to be a coincidence, Jack thinks.

Not long after, Jack realizes that Bittle looks just as good bathed in the glowing reds and blues of the fireworks. Carefully, Jack begins to kiss the colors dancing across Bittle’s skin, as if he might be able to taste them. And even though he can’t, it’s fine. It’s good. It’s pretty damn close to perfect.

END