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They pick Bitty up on the curb of a Sleep Inn thirty minutes outside of Madison. Ransom and Holster tackle him. Shitty holds him for a solid five minutes. Lardo talks to him quietly. Jack waits in the car.

He knows that if he gets out he'll do something public and stupid, so he waits until Lardo's dumped his bag into the trunk and Bitty's slid into the passenger seat to lean in and kiss him over the gear shift. Jack tries to say everything he wants to in the kiss, in the way he grips Bitty's chin with both hands. When he pulls back, Bitty's crying, just a little, so he thinks maybe he gotten some of his point across.

"Thank you all so much for getting me," Bitty says, as everyone buckles back up and the car pulls away. His voice is soft and hoarse, and Jack flinches. "I know how inconvenient this was for y’all, lord-"

"Eric. You know that’s not true."

Bitty closes his eyes and rests his head against the window and stays there until they hit North Carolina.

*

It’s nighttime in Charlotte. The lights of the city remind Bitty of Boston. He won’t admit it, but he still feels like an imposter in big cities. He feels like he was born in a hospital room in the May heat of Georgia and should die in the same place.

He feels like there are a thousand times he should have died in Georgia- when he tried to kiss a boy and the boy leaned in halfway and laughed, when he was shoved in a utility closet and it immediately closed in on him like a coffin, when his mother was looking at his pinterest on his phone, and a text from Jack came in, and his life quite literally flashed before his eyes.

Now, Jack knocks his foot against Bitty’s beneath the table while they watch Shitty and Lardo shotgun slices of pizza. A camera flashes from another table and Jack instinctively slides a few inches away from him. Bitty winces.

Jack looks up and sees a table of 12 year olds, taking pictures of each other. They’re all dressed up for the concert that’s happening down the street tonight. Jack winces too.

“Ha!” Lardo slams a hand down on the table and grins up at Shitty. They both have gooey sets of eyes until they glance back at Bitty, frowning. “Sorry,” Lardo mutters.

“Now what are you apologizing for?” Bitty forces a smile, spins his ravioli in his sauce too many times.

“Bits—” Ransom starts.

“You’re allowed to have fun,” In a move of pure betrayal of his southern heritage, Bitty places his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands. “Look, if you really want to help, let’s just… make this the most ‘swawesome road trip of all time, okay?”

Shitty confers silently with Lardo. Ransom confers silently with Holster. Jack confers silently with Bitty. Bitty nods at him and hopes his eyes look at least remotely solid.

“Okay,” Jack nods back.

“Okay?”

“Okay yeah, let’s do this. I have to call George, but… okay. Okay?”

“Uh… chyeah!” Holster slams his palm against Ransom’s, “Dude, we’re gonna rock your fucking world.”

“Okay.”

Jack moves his foot back against Bitty’s and smiles.

*

Jack insists he can certainly afford three hotel rooms, not mentioning that he could really afford the whole hotel, but the others insist on one suite. Jack and Bitty take one bed, Lardo and Shitty take another, and Ransom and Holster take the pull out couch.

Jack walks in with his phone in hand and Bitty watches the way his face automatically stretches into a grin when he sees Bitty, curled in bed wearing an oversized Falconers shirt.

“Hi,” he whispers, pulling himself under the covers beside Bitty.

“Hi. What’d George say?”

“Hmm?” he glances down at his phone and back at Bitty, “Oh, no, I figured I’d wait til morning to call. That was, um… my dad, actually.”

“Oh,” Bitty nods, swallows down his jealousy, “Oh wait, aren’t they visiting soon?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he waves a hand, “They’re retired, they can come anytime.”

“But they already bought the plane tickets—”

“Bits,” he gives him a look that probably means I’m a literal multimillionaire. “It’s okay. They’d rather wait anyways. That way they get to see you.”

“Right… did you tell them—”

“Yeah. I mean, nothing too specific, just so they’d know why I was cancelling—”

“Right.”

Jack looks at Bitty, and Bitty looks back. Bitty’s phone pings in his pocket.

“That’s probably, uh, them.”

“Right,” Bitty repeats, pulling his phone out and unlocking it.

Alicia Zimmermann 11:53 P.M.

Bob and I are sending our love and support and eating some pie in your honor. Not as good as yours but still nice to think of you. Hope we see you soon!!

Bitty’s considering a response when his phone pings again.

Bob Zimmermann 11:54 P.M.

Hi Eric. Hope you’re doing okay. If it’s alright with you maybe Alicia and I could talk things out with them, help them come to their senses. Let me know. We love you! :) -Bob

Bitty sighs and locks his phone, throws it dramatically to the middle of the bed. Jack picks it up and plugs it in, knowing he’ll regret it in the morning if he doesn’t. “Tell your parents not to talk to my parents,” he whispers.

“What?”

“Just… tell them not to talk to my parents, okay? It’s awfully kind of them to offer, but...” He doesn’t offer more of an explanation, mostly because he doesn’t have an explanation. All of this is just sitting wrong in his stomach, and if Jack’s parents talk to his parents, he’ll be talking to them by some extended proxy, and he doesn’t want that.

He closes his eyes and immediately feels Jack’s arms around him. In everything that’s been going on, he’d almost forgotten that it’s been so long since they’ve been close like this.

“I’ve missed you,” Bitty whispers at the same time that Jack says, “I love you.”

He opens his eyes to see Jack smiling and smiles back. A moment later, a pillow lands between the two of them.

“Get a room,” Holster yells, “I mean, you guys are adorable and all, but we’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

“You literally didn’t let us get one,” Jack mutters, and Bitty falls asleep in his arms.

*

The next day, they go into the mountains. Georgia consists of flat landscape, so Bitty feels like he’s literally on top of the world.

“It is the highest point in the eastern United States,” Ransom points out when Bitty says so.

“It’s beautiful,” he breathes and closes his eyes, hoping that maybe when he opens them he’ll be able to look down and see his house from here, see his parents on the front porch, smiling, waiting for him to come home. He looks out and only sees trees.

He’s uncharacteristically relieved when they’re far enough into the mountains that he loses service. He uses his phone to take photos instead and when he lowers it, Jack’s beside him. He looks over his shoulder a few times, scanning the emptiness of the landscape like he’s afraid a literal bear will jump out with a camera.

Finally, he leans forward and kisses Bitty on the cheek. It’s so short and chaste, Bitty’s pretty sure the others blinked and missed it, but his heart doesn’t care. It beats faster and fills him with a warmth that stays with him all the way back down the mountain.

When they’re back to civilization, he checks his phone, mostly out of habit. He has six missed calls. He only returns one, the one he’s surprised to see on his contact list, while the others are inside a gas station buying snacks.

Dex picks up after two rings. “Bits, hey,” there’s the faint noise of what sounds like an ocean behind him and Bitty pulls the phone away from his ear, blinks at it a few times, before bringing it back.

“Uh, Dex, hey. Are you… busy?”

“Oh, no, just on the boat… it’s chill,” he adds with a laugh.

“What?”

“That was a joke. Sorry, I just, uh… I wanted to see if you were doing okay?”

“What?”

“I heard about what happened… with uh, your family? I wanted to call?” He phrases everything like a question. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but I just… wanted to check in?”

“Oh.”

“Look, I…” There’s a pause, and he can barely hear his breath over the sound of the ocean, but he knows it’s there, “I… I just really hope you’re doing okay. I wanted to say that.”

“Oh gosh, thanks Dex,” Bitty looks up to where Ransom and Holster are fighting over a bag of doritos, Shitty and Lardo are fighting over a scratch off ticket, and Jack’s filling the gas tank. He locks eyes with Jack and Jack smiles, gives him a little wave. Bitty smiles back. “That really means a lot. You sure know how to make a boy blush.”

“Oh. Uh, listen, I gotta go, but I’m going to New York with Nursey soon, so if your road trip leads to the city, let us know, okay?”

“I… sorry, you’re visiting Nursey?”

“Yeah, look, I really gotta go, Bitty. I hope everything works out,” There’s a click on the other end and the line goes dead. Bitty shakes his head, tucks his phone back into his pocket. Boys, he thinks to himself, just as Ransom and Holster pile into the car.

“I’m just saying,” Ransom’s whining, “Doritos taste like literal ass—”

“Look me in the eyes and say that again Justin Oluransi!”

“Oh my God, shut up,” Lardo rolls her eyes as the two pile into the back seat of the car, “Here, Bits, we got you a scratch off,” she grabs the ticket from Shitty, hands it to Bitty with a grim smile.

“Yeah, I mean, don’t really need it with the multimillionaire boyfriend and everything, but—”

Lardo elbows him in the stomach, and Bitty lets out a laugh, “Thanks, y’all.”

“Hey,” Jack slides into the driver’s seat beside him. “Uh, who was on the phone?”

“Oh, it was just Dex.”

“Dude! How’s that little gingersnap doing?!” Shitty shouts even though he’s only a row back.

“Good, I think,” Bitty turns around in his seat, faces the four of them, “He said he’s visiting Nursey soon? He wants us to join.”

“Forrealzies?” Ransom’s eyes go wide, “Does that mean the Nursey and Dex sexual tension is done?!”

“Thank God, bro. Like, no offense or anything, but I was getting kinda tired of that shit.”

“Seriously?” Lardo turns to face the two boys where they’re squished together beside her, “You could see that, but not Jack and Bits?”

Holster and Ransom give simultaneous solemn shakes of their heads, “Well,” Holster sighs, “We all make mistakes sometimes.”

“Some more than others,” Lardo mutters under her breath.

*

Chowder meets them in Virginia. He’s standing outside of the entrance to Busch Gardens, arms folded and grinning. “Bitty!” He holds him tight and Bitty feels an immediate sense of warmth. “Hi! Oh gosh, I’ve missed you so much. I mean, I’ve missed all of you, of course! Hi Jack!”

“Hi Chowder,” he smiles down at him. “You’re looking good.”

“Aww thanks!” Chowder grins widely, and Bitty gasps, seeing it then.

“Oh my sweet Jesus,” he whispers, “Your braces! You got your braces off!”

“Oh, yeah… surprise!” Chowder blushes, looking down at his feet, “My orthodontist back home said I’d need a few more weeks to be safe, but I broke a bracket here and went to see a friend of my aunt’s yesterday, and she said I was ready to go and just took them off! Can you believe it?! I was going to text you all but since I knew I’d be seeing you I figured it’d be fun to just show you!”

“Bro!” Holster claps a hand on Chowder’s shoulder, “You’re a fucking ladies’ man now!”

“Well,” he scuffles his shoes, “I already have a lady. I mean,” he looks up and his eyes go wide, “a Farmer! A woman! I mean she’s not mine, but—”

“Seriously dude, look at those chompers!” Ransom grabs the other shoulder not already dominated by Holster, “A regular shark.”

It doesn’t take long before tears well up in Chowder’s eyes.

After he wipes away the tears, Chowder gives them a personalized tour of the park. “I used to come here all the time when we visited my aunt when I was little!” he gushes, “The Elmo rides were my favorite then! Although, honestly,” he drops his voice to a whisper, “They’re still my favorite! The one that drops you is great!”

Bitty smiles. He always feels lighter around Chowder, listening to him gush about his new teeth and his old dog and the Sharks’ draft picks and Farmer. He gushes about visiting Virginia, and he gushes about missing Samwell, and at one point, most of the others are on a roller coaster and Jack’s in the bathroom, and Chowder stops gushing, cocks his head to the side.

“Are you alright Bitty? I mean… not that you don’t seem alright, you seem more than alright, oh gosh! I just heard what happened—”

“I’m…” fine, Chowder. He thinks the words but he can’t get them out. He’s said the lie over and over again during this trip, but looking Chowder in the eyes and telling him the same words is so different. “I’ll be okay,” he amends.

Chowder looks at him then, and Bitty waits for another rambling but instead he reaches his hand forward, presses it against Bitty’s softly. “You will be,” he whispers, and Bitty, for the first time since that kiss with Jack on the first day, begins to cry. “Oh, Bitty, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No, don’t be sorry,” Bitty shakes his head, wipes away a few tears with his free hand. “It’s just all… complicated, is all,” he says, and suddenly, it’s pouring out of him all at once. “It’s not like they disowned me officially,” he hears himself saying, “but it felt like it was coming? Or like they wanted to, but it was harder to just put into words, so they didn’t. They said they needed time to think things over, space, but I don’t know what that even means, you know? Space for what? What’s there to think about? Lord, you either love me or you don’t.”

He takes a choked inhale of air, “Um, Mama just kept saying that: space and processing and words like that. Coach wasn’t saying anything... so I left. Mama’s called me a few times. She cried when she found out, I think that was the worst part. I’m used to seeing Coach disappointed in me, but hearing her cry, it was…” he bites his lip, drops his gaze. “It was so much Chowder. I mean, sure, she cries when she’s proud of me, but it’s never been like that. It was just so much.”

Chowder drops his hand then and pulls Bitty into his arms so fast that Bitty lets out a startled laugh even through his tears. He tells Bitty it will be okay again, and Bitty nods, texts Jack and tells him to win Chowder a shark stuffed animal at one of the booths they passed. It’s the least he can do.

*

Jack brings it up in D.C.

They’re in the bathroom of the basement of Ransom’s aunt’s house, Bitty washing his face at Jack’s pushing (“I know you have a lot on your plate and don’t care now, but in a week you’ll get mad at me for your pores or whatever”) while Jack leans against the counter, flossing diligently.

“I’m thinking about coming out,” Jack says. Bitty drops his bottle of moisturizer. “Not now, but maybe at the end of next season? Obviously there’s a lot of details to work out, but I talked to George and if you’re on board—”

“Why?” Bitty’s voice comes out as a whisper. Jack sets down his toothpick.

“It’s not just… this,” Jack replies with a shrug. He doesn’t elaborate on what this means, doesn’t have to. “It’s a lot of things. It’s… when I’m at events without you, I feel like I can’t breathe, and when the press asks me who I’m dating, I feel like I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, Bitty. I can’t lie through my teeth and sleep at night, and if it ends my career…” he exhales sadly, “Oh God.”

He sits down on the closed toilet seat, buries his head in his hands, “I’m sorry, oh God, I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing honey?” Bitty sits on the edge of the bathtub beside him. “Hey, look at me.”

“It’s just… you have this going on, so much, and you shouldn’t have to take care of me, I’m so selfish—”

“Hey, no, c’mon, sweetie,” he grabs Jack’s hands, pulls them down so he’s holding them in his lap and looking Jack in the eyes. “Your life can’t just stop for mine, I don’t expect it to. And if you want to come out you… should. I mean, nothing’s really stopping me anymore. It’s all your call.”

“You’re… amazing, Bittle,” he says and then, he begins to cry. There aren’t many tears themselves, but he’s shaking and heaving and completely coming apart in front of him. Bitty puts his hands on his upper arms, whispers reminders to him to breathe. “I just… you deserve so much,” he looks up at him and looks back down, “I shouldn’t have sent that text.”

“Jack. That wasn’t your fault—”

“I know, I mean… logically, I know. It’s just,” he sees Jack’s neck bob as he swallows, “You should have been able to do things on your own terms. It’s not fair.”

Bitty shrugs and tightens his grip around Jack’s shoulders, pulls him closer. “What can we do about it now?” He bites his lip and when he releases it, Jack kisses him. Bitty closes his eyes and kisses him back for just a moment and thinks of Coach and his mom, sitting in the kitchen back home, kissing like this. It feels like a world away.

*

The driving is the best part. When it’s just him and Jack and his friends and the road, it all feels a little more doable.

They’re driving through Pennsylvania, with Georgia miles behind them and New York ahead of them. Lardo’s on Holster’s lap, doodling in her sketchbook. Ransom’s driving, so Jack’s shoved in the back seat with them, thumbing through the NHL app on his phone.

“I’m just saying,” Shitty grabs a twizzler from the pack on Lardo’s lap and takes a bite, “You could do it on homophobia in pie making… gay pies.”

“I don’t know about that, I think It’d be a pretty abstract thesis,” Bitty laughs and reaches over, folds his hands over Jack’s, and presses the lock button on his phone. “For your own good, honey. Your eyebrows were starting to merge together at a concerning rate.”

“You know if you make that face for too long it’ll get stuck,” Shitty grins, “and then what will ESPN have to photograph?!”

“They can just turn him around,” Ransom calls from the driver’s seat. “Right, Bits?”

“Why are you asking me?”

“ZOO!” Lardo calls out, settling her head deeper into Holster’s shoulder, “I win!”

“Dude! No fair!” Shitty whines, looking up from the compact mirror he’s using to examine his moustache, “I totally would have gotten that first—”

“Bro, we should totally go to that zoo though,” Holster calls out, “I wanna see those tigers.”

“How do you know they even have tigers?”

“Stop being a party pooper, Jack!” Shitty nudges him and then a moment later punches him harder, screams, “PUNCH BUGGY NO PUNCH BACKS!”

“Stop that,” Bitty scolds, “He has hockey to play.”

“He lived in the Haus for three years and didn’t die,” Lardo gestures at Jack with a twizzler to emphasize her point.

“Hey!” Holster yells, “The Haus is a beautiful place to live!”

“I think I still have marks from our graduation kegster,” Jack mutters.

“Oh yeah, the ones on your thighs?” Bitty hums nonchalantly, leaning forward and fussing with the air conditioner, “Those are still there.”

“Now hang on!” Shitty argues, “How do we know those are from the kegster and not from… ya know!”

“Ya know? Know what?” Jack does that dumb hot guy thing where he smirks and raises an eyebrow. Bitty kind of wants to lean over the seat and pull him in by the sleeve of his old Penguins t-shirt and kiss him, but there’s a lot of traffic right now because of an accident, and he’s too aware of how slowly the cars are cruising by. He rolls his eyes instead.

“Shitty B. Knight, don’t insult my memory, I did not give him those bruises.”

“I’m not saying you did…” Shitty’s smirk matches Jack’s.

“Oh shit, are we talking past loves?” Ransom whips around, “I want deets!”

“Keep your eyes on the road,” Lardo warns. “And let Jack live, man.”

“I’m just saying,” Shitty grabs another twizzler, having already eaten the first, and leans closer to Jack, waves it in his face, “It’s kinda fucked up he never told us where he was that night!”

“I was with you, Shitty. It was the last kegster, I didn’t want to miss it.”

“Don’t cute your way out of this with… cute lies, Zimmermann! Look,” there’s a pause as Shitty pulls out his phone, scrolling furiously. Jack flashes Bitty a smile in the silence, one of the only silences of the road trip. They’ve been blasting music constantly, playing road trip games, arguing about every insignificant thing that crosses their mind, reminiscing on their times together at Samwell.

Bitty appreciates the distraction, but he appreciates this too, the quiet as they drive down the highway, the traffic slowly beginning to lighten up and the sun starting to set, shifting the colors of the skies that Lardo’s started to draw in her sketchbook. Or she could be drawing an alien. It’s hard to tell.

“LOOK!” Shitty shoves his phone in Jack’s face. “3:36 A.M WHAT DOES THAT TWEET SAY?”

“I have honestly no idea.”

“IT SAYS ‘ZACK? GO!’ Well, it kinda says that.”

“Okay?”

“That is drunk me asking where you, Jack, went! 3:36 A.M Jack! I will die wondering where you disappeared to! Who were you with? What were you doing? Our last night and you were off with some—”

“Oh yeah. I was with Bitty.”

“What? No you weren’t.” Bitty frowns. “I don’t remember that.”

“Well do you remember anything from that night?”

“Uh rude. We weren’t together that night.”

“Yes we were. You slept in my bed Bits.”

“Oh shit!” Shitty calls out followed by hollering from the rest of the car.

“You threw up in my laundry basket.”

“Dude!” Holster shakes his head, “Not cool.”

“Hey, you throw up in our laundry basket like every kegster.”

“Don’t expose me like that!”

“Wait, seriously, what are you talking about Jack?” Bitty asks, “Why didn’t I just sleep in my room literally across the hallway?”

Jack lowers his eyes, “You were going to do something you would regret. I was just keeping an eye on you. And you said you wanted to spend time with me, so...”

“What was I going to do?” Jack doesn’t respond, keeps his eyes on the carpet of the car, stained in soda and covered in crumbs. “Jack.”

“It really doesn’t matter.”

“Jack…”

“You were going to come out to your parents,” he blurts it out quickly and then when he looks up to meet Bitty’s gaze, he looks sad. “You got really drunk and told me you were going to come out so I took your phone and made you… stay in my room and I watched you… all night.”

It’s somehow more silent than it was before.

“Jack,” he whispers, “We weren’t together then.”

“Yeah,” Jack says, “I know.”

Bitty turns back around, faces forward, watches exit signs float by and by. “We should get two rooms tonight.” His eyes go wide, “Oh wait, that’s not what I meant at all—”

There’s a moment of calm before the rest of the car loses it. Ransom’s laughing so hard he pulls into the nearest rest stop. “Just send a text next time dude,” Lardo shakes her head as they get out of the car.

“It’s not about that,” Bitty says quietly, a few minutes later. He’s sitting on top of a picnic table now, Jack and Lardo on either side of him, Holster and Ransom sprawled out on one of the benches of the table, Shitty lying on the grass. His cheeks are pink, and he’s holding a popsicle from a rest stop vending machine. “Y’all didn’t give me a moment to explain.”

“Explain what?” Shitty calls out from the ground. “You don’t have to explain your need for sex, dude! Especially not when that need is for sex with, like…” he glances to where a family is lingering nearby, walking a dog and pushing along a stroller. They’ve been casting glances for awhile, so they’re either annoyed or waiting to ask for autographs. “The most beautiful man in North America.”

“It’s not about… oh my Lord. That’s not even what I meant! I just… I was thinking about listening to the voicemails my mom left, and I didn’t want to bother y’all. It’s dumb.”

“Dude,” Shitty jumps up, grass stuck in his hair and somehow, his moustache. “Why would that be dumb?”

“Because… I don’t want to know what she has to say. Except I do. But I don’t want to want to hear what she has to say. God,” he buries his head in his hands, “Why is this so complicated?”

“I get it, dude,” Shitty nods, settling back onto the grass, “Parents are tough.”

“No offense bud, but you really don’t get it,” Lardo leans forward on her palms, elbows resting on the rips of her jeans. “Like, your parents are fucked up, and they’d probably react to this in the same sort of fucked up way, but they don’t have to.”

“Oh,” Shitty takes a moment to take it in. “Yeah. I just meant…”

“I know what you mean,” she jumps down between Ransom and Holster and lowers herself on the grass beside him, “I just mean that none of these assholes really know what you’re going through, Bits,” she says, looking up at him. “But we love you. Like, a lot. So if you want to listen to those voicemails or you don’t or you want all of us there for it or none of us or just Jack, we get it. Okay?”

Bitty’s a little teary-eyed now and about to respond, but the young family has finally started to make their way over.

“Sorry to interrupt,” the man starts, “but I—”

“Look.” Holster and Ransom, defensemen that they are, even post graduation, sit up simultaneously. “It’s nice that you’re a fan and all,” Holster says, “But we’re kind of having a moment here, so if you could just move along…”

“Jack really appreciates it though,” Ransom nods, “and your dog is adorable, by the way.”

“What? Jack?” The man looks at the woman beside him and back to Ransom and Holster. “Who’s Jack?”

“What?”

“You’re Eric Bittle, aren’t you?” the woman says, and Bitty perks up.

“Uh, yes?”

“I knew it was him, see, George?” she grins, “I told you it was him. You babysat for our little Addie a few times when we were visiting my sister in Madison!”

“Oh gosh!” Bitty wipes away a tear as quickly as he can, “What a small world,” he says through gritted teeth. “Addie was just the sweetest thing!”

“I cannot believe this!” The woman grins, “Your mother used to make the most amazing sweet tea.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Bitty feels his phone solid in his pocket. “I mean. Yes ma'am.”

“Ma’am!” She smiles, “That Southern charm. See George, I told you it was him, didn’t I—”

“You’re right, you’re right,” he concedes. “Tip for you son, women are always right.”

“I’m gay.” It’s dumb, he thinks. He doesn’t have to say it. It’s awkward, and this George guy who Bitty only vaguely remembers doesn’t care, but he says it because he can. Because it can get back to his mom now, and it won’t cause any more hurt than it has already. The night air at the rest stop is warm on his skin, there’s a phone in his pocket full of voicemails he still doesn’t know what to do with, Jack and all his best friends are beside him, and he hasn’t talked to his parents for a week now but he feels almost unstoppable, ignoring the tugging sensation that reminds him that he’s not.

“Oh,” the woman nods. “Well, that’s fine. I mean, I’m sure you can tell by our accents, but we’re not exactly from Georgia.”

“Massachusetts born and bred,” the man gestures to his Red Sox shirt with a grin.

That stings Bitty. A part of him had really wanted them to say something his parents would have said if they hadn’t been stunned into tears (his mom) and silence (his dad). He wanted them to say something so he could say something back, something about how wrong they were. He wanted the satisfaction of yelling at a straight couple who lived in his town, even if it was just for a little bit, a straight couple who went to the local church that preached vague sermons about sin and messages about a family he would never form, a type of man he would never grow into.

He wanted closure.

That night, he sits in the middle of the one bed room they got, hand hovering over the play button.

“Are you sure about this Bits?” Shitty asks, “We could go find a hotel with more rooms available, like, for real, I’m sure there’s one nearby.”

“Yeah, or we could just go hang out by the vending machines ‘til you’re done,” Ransom pipes up.

“We can have Jack buy out the whole machine again, that was ‘swawesome! Unless you want him here. Then we can just take his wallet—”

“Guys. I know what I said earlier about the room, but when we were with those people from my town…”

“They were weird,” Ransom mutters, “We should have totally stolen their dog.”

“For sure,” Holster mutters back.

“I realized I want you here. All of you, not just Jack and not just me. Because you’re my family. Okay?”

“Oh dude,” Shitty places a hand over his. “Stop, man, I’m gonna cry.”

“You got this,” Lardo adds her hand on top of his and Ransom and Holster do the same. Jack places his hand on Bitty’s back.

He gives each of them a nod as they pile onto the bed and presses play.

Most of them are from his mother. They’re hard to understand. A lot of crying. A lot of contradictory phrases like “your choice” and “this problem” and “I love you” and “maybe don’t buy your plane tickets for Christmas just yet.” Anytime she starts to say we, she stops herself. She seems unsure of how to act, what to say, how to say it, how to feel.

Towards the end of the messages there’s a butt dial from Jack from one of their days in the car. It’s hard to hear over their own current chirping of Jack, but it sounds about the same on the message, except you can tell that the window is down and the wind is blowing.

The laughter stops immediately when the next voice message comes in.

“Hi, Junior,” it starts. Every muscle in Bitty’s body tightens. “I don’t know what you’re off doing right now”— he clears his throat—“but you should call home,”—clears his throat—“Your mother is worried sick about you”—clears his throat—“And… that’s all,” he says. “Camp for the freshman starts up soon,” he laughs, “You should see how measly these kids are. Anyway,”—clears his throat—“Don’t forget. Call your mama when you get this.”

Bitty lowers the phone slowly onto the mattress.

“Hey,” Jack says. He looks sort of blurry in front of him. Blurry but cute. Bitty isn’t sure if this is what breathing is supposed to sound like. “Hey, Bits, look at me. Eric. C’mon, look at me.” He grabs both of Bitty’s wrists, and Bitty lets him have them. “Bitty. Are you okay?”

Yes, Bitty thinks.

“Bitty? Hey, c’mon talk to me.”

“I…” he opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again. “Do you think the pool’s open?”

“It’s like three a.m.—”

“No,” Lardo cuts Jack off, “But we can hop it.”

*

It turns out they can hop it fairly easily. It’s not long before Bitty finds himself sitting on the edge of the deep end, ankles in the water, Jack beside him.

“You can swim,” Bitty gestures to where the four others are doing just that, per Bitty’s request. Ransom and Holster have started some sort of synchronized diving contest with Shitty and Lardo.

“I’m good,” Jack shrugs, pushes his feet back and forth.

“I don’t need a lifeguard,” Bitty argues, eyebrows narrowing, because he’s starting to get angry, and he didn’t account for how the smell of this chlorine would remind him of summer camp and long, hot days in Georgia.

“I’m not your lifeguard,” Jack says with a shrug, “I’m your boyfriend. I love you. You know that, right?”

“Yeah…”

“I want to marry you. I can’t remember if I’ve said that before or not, but—”

“Jack,” Bitty looks up from where the lighting of the pool is casting weird shadows of their feet, “I know. I’m pretty sure you said that on our second date. Where is any of this coming from?”

“I just want you to know that I’m here. Even if things are complicated with your parents now or if they stay like this forever, I’m… here, okay? I’m not going to leave you for… for anything.”

“Oh, Jack,” Bitty smiles, leans in close, and plunges into the pool feet first. He sinks underneath and feels the way his legs and arms adjust to the water. He opens his eyes still under, a trick he learned at camp, and sees Jack right beside him.

He comes up for air a moment later, breathing hard, Jack coming up beside him.

“What was that about?!” Jack exclaims.

“I don’t know,” Bitty says, because he doesn’t. He doesn’t know, and he never knows, and honestly, he’s tired of having to know. He does know, however, that he feels kind of bad, so he leans in, and finally, he kisses Jack. He kisses Jack, and Jack kisses him back, and they both smell and taste like chlorine, and it’s so soft but passionate, and all Bitty can think is this is what my parents are so afraid of?

Their kissing gets broken up when they get splashed from multiple directions and then they’re completely distracted from it because they’re caught up in a three way chicken fight which is totally unfair because Ransom and Holster as a pairing completely overpower them in height and Bitty’s fighting the ethics of it from Jack’s shoulders and honestly, it’s the most he’s laughed and the most he’s meant it this entire trip.

An hour later, Bitty calls it quits, and Jack does too, but the others stay in.

“Just head back to the room,” Ransom says with a wink.

“Yeah,” Holster adds with another wink. “We’ll stay here for awhile.”

“Yeah,” Shitty gives a wink of his own. “A long while. Go get dry.”

“It’s almost five for pete’s sake guys,” Bitty protests. “You should really get some sleep.”

“We’ll be fine,” Lardo waves a hand. “We’ve got the keys, we can sleep in the car if we have to.”

“Fuck that!” Shitty yells, before calling out “All-nighter!” and ducking Lardo’s head underwater.

Jack and Bitty head back to the room, towels slung around their waists, and the second they get inside, Jack kisses him hard.

“Damn,” Bitty pauses for breath and Jack pulls off his towel as he does, “Slow down Zimmermann.”

“Can’t,” Jack says, pressing kisses against Bitty’s neck, “I love you.”

“So?”

“We don’t have time. Sun’s rising soon.”

“We have years and years Jack,” Bitty says, and it’s sappy, but he means it. Jack bites his collarbone, and his breath comes out sharp. “Years of sunrises.”

“Okay,” Jack nods and picks up Bitty, takes the quick stride to the bed and sets Bitty down on it. “We have years to go slow then.”

*

Bitty examines his neck using Shitty’s compact mirror. It’s night time, and they’ve all had sufficient time to nap. Shitty’s at the wheel, and Jack’s in the passenger seat, and Bitty’s shoved in the back, frowning. “Jesus H Christ,” he mutters, “This thing is the size of Texas.”

“I think it’s bigger,” Holster leans in close and pokes the hickey, causing Bitty to snap the mirror shut and push him away. “Definitely bigger, right?”

“Oh, for sure,” Ransom leans over on the other side of him. “Like, way bigger. How’d you even pull that off, Jack?”

Jack fiddles with the radio instead of responding. Bitty can’t see him, but he knows his face is definitely red. He can’t see himself either, but he knows his face probably matches.

“This isn’t fair!” Shitty groans, slamming a hand on the steering wheel. “You never give us deets!”

“Shitty!” Lardo calls out, and he switches lanes, almost grazing the bumper of another car.

“Crisse,” Jack presses a hand to his forehead as the cab they just barely cut off honks after them.

“What’s a guy gotta do to get deets?!” He continues.

“Don’t kill us, maybe,” Jack mutters as Shitty takes a sharp turn to the left.

“You try to drive here, Zimmermann!” Shitty yells, gesturing out the window, to the streets of the city. Bitty’s in awe of this, even though he’ll never say it. He’s in awe of the fact that he’s here, in this city with these people. Honestly, he’s in awe of the fact that he’s still alive to see a city like this.

“Okay. Just pull over and give me the wheel—”

“No! I got this.”

“I vote Jack taking the wheel!” Ransom shouts out, “Just saying my car sickness, like… doubles when Shitty takes the wheel.” This leads to Holster singing “Jesus Take the Wheel” and Lardo slapping both of them.

“Look! We’re here!” Shitty cuts them off. “This is it, right?” Jack confirms, and then, it’s just another hour of squabbling while they find parking before they’re walking into Nursey’s apartment building.

“Whoa,” Bitty mutters, and clutches onto Ransom’s arm, “This is…”

“‘Swawesome,” Ransom and Holster whisper in sync.

Bitty takes a moment to admire the lobby, the fierce looking doormen and the looming chandelier. It smells like money. A glance at Jack shows him that this is nothing to him.

“36th floor, eh?” Jack nods to the elevator and leads the way.

*

When they knock, it’s Dex who answers the door.

He’s standing there, barefoot, wearing a pair of gray sweatpants and a white t-shirt. There’s a hickey even bigger than Bitty’s on his neck that he’s attempting to cover but isn’t doing a good job.

“Holy shit,” Shitty speaks for all of them.

“Uh, hey guys,” Dex grins, rubbing his neck, “Long time no see?”

That’s all it takes to get Ransom and Holster to tackle him to the ground.

“Oh lord,” Bitty rolls his eyes and tugs Shitty (who’s still standing in the entryway, jaw dropped) around them by the wrist. Nursey’s apartment is even nicer than the lobby and unsurprisingly, messier.

“Hey!” Nursey calls as he walks into the room. He’s barefoot and wearing sweatpants too but with no shirt on and a partially eaten peach in hand. “Get your hands off my boyfriend,” he nods at Holster and Ransom, who are wrestling Dex on the floor now. They stop in an instant.

“Boyfriend?” Shitty squeals.

“Eh, well, labels are dumb,” Nursey shrugs at the same time that Dex mutters from the floor, “It’s been a long summer.”

“Glad you boys finally got your shit together,” Lardo says, “Now is there, like, a bathroom, or…”

Shitty whips his head around, “How are you so nonchalant about this?”

She shrugs, reaching a hand down to help Holster and Ransom off of the floor, “I have to pee, dude.”

Nursey shows her the way and when he comes back, takes a place beside Dex. “So…” he starts, “Bitty…”

“Oh my God,” Dex rolls his eyes, “You have no tact.”

“I haven’t even said anything yet!”

“It’s fine,” Bitty says, “Honestly. I’m fine, boys. Thank you for asking.”

“But we didn’t even technically—”

“Shut up, Nurse.”

“I’m fine,” he grits his teeth and hope it comes off somehow resembling a smile, “Now where’s your kitchen?”

*

Later that night, they’re all some level of drunk except Bitty, who’s terrified of making a drunk decision he’ll regret, and Nursey, who’s “not feeling it” although he did get high with Lardo and Shitty earlier.

Bitty sits at the window, looking between Nursey’s view of the city and his friends, doing really drunk karaoke that prevents them from sticking to one song for long.

“Sweet view, isn’t it?” Nursey sidles up beside him, slice of pie in hand.

“Yeah,” Bitty breathes, taking all the lights of the city in with it. “How’d it happen?” He asks, because they haven’t caved to any of the begging for deets all day, “You and Dex. I’m serious.”

“Oh, ya know,” he places the plate down and sits down beside him, folds his legs. They both turn for a moment to where a mostly sober Jack and a mostly drunk Dex are in a heated discussion, probably about one of their shared dad interests. “It just happened. Stars aligned.”

“Nursey, c’mon,” Bitty smiles, “I came out to my parents and the result was… well, a lot less than acceptance. I deserve a cute story of my cute frogs!”

“Hey!” He lifts his fork, “You can’t just play that card, man!”

“Uh, I absolutely can,” he grins and Nursey grins back.

“Okay,” Nursey nods, “Look, like the only reason we didn’t tell anyone deets, well besides Dex being embarrassed, is it kinda… has to do with that. And I didn’t want to upset you or anything.”

“To do with what?”

“You coming out.” Bitty furrows his eyebrows so he continues, “The other guys told us in a group text without you. And Dex was, like, upset. He wasn’t saying much, but I could tell he was, like, really upset? So I called him, and we ended up talking for like… hours.” He casts his eyes down shyly, “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all like butterflies and roses and shit, he still got pissed at me for random shit, but also he was vulnerable and stuff, like…”

He brings his eyes back up as he says, quieter, “He told me he was afraid of his parents treating him like yours treated you. He was really fucked up about it. And he really didn’t want to tell this story because he didn’t want the focus to be off of you, seriously, but like, he was sad and scared, so I went to him.”

“Wait, what do you mean you went to him?”

Nursey shrugs, “I got on a flight to Maine that night, after the call ended. I mean, we have the money, so it’s chill. Actually, he got mad at me for the money when I got there. He started going on and on about how fucked up it was that I could just get on a plane and go to him, so I like… kissed him, and I don’t know. Then we kissed a lot. And then, well…”

“Okay! You can stop there! I don’t want to hear about my sons getting… down to business.”

Nursey chuckles, “I wasn’t even gonna go there, man. I was just gonna say and then we started dating. I ended up getting a room at this inn near him and just like hanging out with him when he wasn’t on the boat and writing poems about him when he was. Wow, as I’m saying that, I’m realizing how sappy that is, shit. Anyways, he’s just, like, great, I don’t know. Growing up, I’d spend my summers alone a lot, and I’d always end up really existential, like why are we here and all that shit, but this summer… I mean, I still have a lot of like questions for the universe and stuff, but like, I’m getting it more. Why we’re here and all.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” Nursey sighs, leaning against the window, “Wow. That was like… really gay.”

“Yeah,” Bitty laughs and makes eye contact with Jack again, smiles, “I loved it.”

*

“Don’t come out,” Bitty says quietly the next day on the top of the Empire State Building. All their friends are hungover around them and Jack’s taking shots of the city with a furrowed brow. He lowers his camera at Bitty’s words. “I just mean… don’t do it because you want to do something drastic to fix this. Nothing can fix this. Besides me… calling them. And even that won’t fix it, but it could do something...”

“You don’t have to do that, Bits—”

“Hear me out,” he says, “I’ll hang up if it gets bad, I just… I just want to call, okay? I’m doing this because I want to. Just like you’ll only come out if you want to. Deal?”

Jack smiles and Bitty’s heart pounds at the sight of it. He’s in love with him. Sometimes Jack will do something small, like smile like that or pass him nutmeg just before Bitty asks for it and he’s reminded of it. He loves him.

“Deal.”

Bitty wants to call somewhere moderately quiet, off of the streets, before he loses his momentum, so he does it in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. It’s not ideal, but it works. His mom picks up after three rings, and the second she hears his voice begins to cry.

It’s not what he expected. It’s not a declaration of “Come back to stay” or one of “Come back to pack your bags.” It’s something quieter, somewhere in between. In the end, Coach doesn’t come to the phone, and Bitty elects to not come home for the rest of the summer.

He stays, sitting on the bathroom floor for a few minutes after. He’s angry. He’s angry that this isn’t easier, angry that there’s no way for this to be easier. He’s angry that his parents can do this, feel it and say it and hurt him like this. He’s sad too. He misses his mom, and he doesn’t want to, but he does. He misses summers in Georgia that were carefree, summers where he jumped off of docks into lakes and made pie at 5 a.m. and watched the fourth of July fireworks with his family. His family.

The word feels weird rattling in his brain now. Because the word is Jack on the fourth of July now, kissing him in the bed of his dad’s pickup truck, and the word is driving up the east coast with his best friends and knowing how loved he is because they’re telling him over and over again and they mean it everytime.

Bitty picks himself up off the floor and wipes his hands on his jeans. He looks in the grimy mirror and wonders to himself what 16 year old Bitty, who had never had a boyfriend, never been to a major city, never had a real group of friends, would think of him now. The thought makes him smile.

His friends are waiting for him outside of the bathroom, with bags of fries and McFlurries and chicken nuggets.

“Hey,” he says meekly, rubbing a hand behind his head. He looks to Jack, who looks simultaneously patient and distraught and asks, “Do you have any extra room in your apartment?”

*

They take a box of pizza onto the roof of Nursey’s building that night and watch the sunset.

Ransom and Holster are arguing about whether Chicago or New York pizza is better (although Ransom’s vote is Toronto), and Nursey and Dex are in this weird nudging/wrestling/cuddling fight, and Lardo’s drawing hearts in the crook of Shitty’s elbow when Jack clears his throat. They all instinctively stop what they’re doing.

“Shit,” Shitty mutters, dropping his arm to his side, “You’re not even our captain anymore!”

Jack smiles, “I have something to say.” There’s a moment of silence before he continues, “I’m bi.” The silence continues. “That’s all.”

“Can I be real dude?” Nursey speaks up, “I, like, totally thought you were straight, and Bitty was like your one exception, you know. What? Like, he’s really hot, it makes sense—”

“Oh my God, shut up,” Dex rolls his eyes, nudges him in his side.

“What! I can’t be biphobic when I’m bi! That’s not how it works, William! I’m just saying that Bits could turn any guy!”

“Shut up, Derek,” Dex grins and suddenly they’re back to their weird wrestling/cuddling.

“Hey,” Shitty grabs Jack’s hand, “Thanks for telling us, dude.You’re bi and we love it,” he kisses him on the cheek, “I really appreciate that, you telling us. And you. I really appreciate you. Both of you,” he leans over and plants a kiss on Bitty’s cheek too. “God I just,” he reaches a hand up to his eyes, wipes away a tear, “I just love you both SO MUCH.”

“Oh my God, c’mon,” Lardo rolls her eyes and pulls Shitty to his feet easily. “Let’s go beat Ransom and Holster’s asses at beer pong.”

When they’re on the other side of the rooftop, setting up the ping pong table and Nursey and Dex are in their own little world, Jack looks at Bitty, a sense of pride clear on his face. “See,” he says, “I wanted to do that.”

“Good,” Bitty grins and settles into Jack’s side.

It’s then that Jack asks, “What now?”

“Hmm?”

“What happens now? With your parents. Eventually, your dad’s going to want to talk right?”

“I don’t know. I mean to both of those questions, I don’t know,” Bitty shrugs as much as he can with Jack’s arm wrapped around him, “For now, we go back to Providence. And you start getting ready for next season and I’ll start getting ready for… senior year.” He shudders at the words but continues, “We can sleep in the same bed at night. Every night. And your parents can visit. And I’ll try out some new recipes. And we’ll you know… kiss a lot and—”

“Okay, okay, I get the point,” Jack grins, “And that all sounds amazing but isn’t that sort of just… ignoring reality?”

Bitty shakes his head, “I can’t force my parents to talk to me, and I can’t just sit still waiting for them to come around. I have to keep living, right? Besides, this summer can be practice, you know… for the future. It’s as real as we can get.”

“Okay,” Jack smiles, “Yeah. I like that. This future.” He leans down and kisses him, and Bitty kisses back again and again. It doesn’t feel like the end of everything or the beginning. It just feels like now. His friends and Jack and a rooftop overlooking a city he once could only dream of.

He pauses to look at the view and their friends before he turns back to Jack, smiling, “Yeah,” he says. “I like it too.”