If Eric Bittle had to talk about his time as an out, gay hockey player at Samwell University, he would be hard pressed to find any sob stories. He’d been welcomed by his teammates, they had accepted him as one of them (though bribes of baked goods were possibly a part of that, at least in the early days), and sometimes Shitty even tries to hook him up with cute boys who sing in the Glee Club. There are a few guys on the team who aren’t exactly friends with Eric, a few who still give him the side eye when he mentions Beyonce, or wrap their towels a little tighter around their waists when they see him in the locker room. But all-in-all, Eric’s time at Samwell has been as close to easy as it’s possible to get.
He should have known it wouldn’t last forever.
At first, Eric chalks up Dex’s thinly veiled hostility as your basic, run-of-the-mill homophobia, something he’s used to from locker rooms in Georgia. He doesn’t want the cookies Eric makes for the frogs as an after-practice treat. He sits as far away as possible from Eric at team dinners. He doesn’t talk to Eric at all if he can help it.
And that would be just fine, honestly. Eric is used to used guys just ignoring him, if they’re uncomfortable (Eric doesn’t let that get to him, he doesn’t). But Dex doesn’t ignore him. Dex watches him, in the kitchen, in the locker room, on the bus. Eric can feel Dex’s eyes on him all the time, and it’s not scary, not with a team full of Eric’s friends around. But it makes the hair stand up on the back of his neck sometimes. It makes Eric self-conscious in a way he hasn’t been at Samwell.
After a month of Dex’s weird staring, Eric almost goes to Shitty and Jack about it. He doesn’t want to stir up any trouble, but it’s getting intense, the way Dex watches him, like he’s waiting for something, like he can’t figure Eric out and it’s pissing him off. Some of the other guys have noticed, he’s sure, but Dex hasn’t ever said anything, at least not where Eric can hear. But Eric knows he’s not the only one walking on eggshells, not the only one thinking of Dex like he’s a powderkeg.
It’s causing strain, not just on Eric but on the team. It’s got to stop. It just makes Eric sick thinking about having that conversation, especially with Jack.
But then, one night after a team meeting at the Haus, when the frogs are still running around, Eric catches Dex doing more than creepy staring at Eric.
He catches him creepy staring at Nursey.
Chowder and Nursey are on the X-box, and Dex is sitting just behind them, waiting his turn. Eric sees them from the doorway and pauses - he’s not too keen on being a room with Dex when he doesn’t have to be these days - but Dex doesn’t seem to notice he’s there. He’s watching Nursey, his eyes skittering over his hands on the controller, his arms, his throat as he throws his head back, laughing. He licks his lips, fingers twisting in the fabric of his shirt like he’s trying to hold them still.
And when Eric shifts and Dex looks over, Eric can see the blush blooming on his cheeks, like he’s been caught doing something…
Suddenly, Dex makes a lot more sense.
Eric used to wish he was more like the other guys on the team - bigger, tougher, more able to blend in. He knows he’s a little flamboyant, but he came to terms with himself slowly, painfully over the last few years because he couldn’t hide as well as other guys. He felt the truth of who he was pushing on him from the inside, begging to get out and bake, and dance, and buy cute shoes, and belt along to Jessie J.
Eric wears the truth of himself on his flour-dusted sleeves these days, and he’s happier than he’s been since he gave up figure skating.
But Dex is the whole bro package - big and brawny and into keggers and video games - and Eric wonders, if he were more like Dex, if he’d have come out at all. Hiding always felt like it would be easier, and Dex, it seems, has managed to hide himself from the whole world.
So Eric doesn’t bring up Dex’s behavior with Jack. He spends more time watching Dex: the way he’s always the first guy into the showers and the first guy dressed, eyes downcast as the rest of the team wanders around shirtless; the fact that he never leaves Haus parties with girls, even when they’ve been chatting him up all night; the way he sticks to Nursey’s side, but flinches a little when Nursey’s actually touching him.
The way he seems angry at Eric just for existing, just for being out and proud and still successful at hockey.
Being around Dex hurts Eric now in a whole different way. He wants to gather him into a hug and make him a thousand rainbow cakes. He wants to pet his hair and take him shopping. He wants to shake him and yell that if there was any place in the world that Dex could be himself, it was here, at this school, on this team.
But Eric remembers the terror he felt when he was first dealing with his own sexuality, and he knows that Dex won’t accept any of those things until he’s ready to.
So Dex watches Eric, and Eric watches Dex, and he waits for the right moment.
He tells himself he’ll be ready for it, for having a serious talk with Dex as soon as he drops his guard long enough for Eric to get him to open up. He keeps an eye out for quiet moments when no one else is around, smiles whenever he sees Dex watching him and hopes one day his answer will be something other than a mortified scowl. Eric has whole speeches he’s composed in his head, watching Dex skate lines in the early morning hours. He imagines conversations over cocoa with marshmallows, or warm slices of apple crumble.
So when the shit finally hits the fan, Eric is totally blindsided.
It’s the tail end of a Haus party after a winning game - the boys are all in great spirits and Eric is splitting his time between watching the frogs do kegsters and making a few dozen snickerdoodles just for fun. He’s just brought a batch down, still warm from the oven, and Chowder and Nursey descend like locusts.
“Dex,” Chowder yells, his mouth full of cookie, “you want me to bring you a cookie?”
Dex has spent most of the night playing beer pong with Holster, Rans and Anderson. He’s legitimately bad at beer pong, so he’s also spent most of the night trashed and frustrated. He ignores Chowder just like he’s been ignoring Eric all night, and Eric is fine with that. But Chowder is, well, Chowder, and he’s not picking up on Dex’s ‘don’t fuck with me’ vibe.
“Dex, come on, Bitty made these ones just for us,” Chowder goads, grabbing a cookie and tossing it Dex’s way. “Heads up!” Unfortunately, Chowder’s toss is more like a fastball and Eric winces as the cookie smacks Dex right in the side of the head.
“I didn’t ask for any of his fucking faggot cookies,” Dex yells, wiping crumbs off his cheek, and Eric feels like he’s the one who’s just been hit in the head with something. The whole room stutters to a halt, silent except for the tinny sounds of Mario Kart from the TV in the corner. He hears someone, maybe Holster, let out a low ‘not okay, man’. Eric’s face colors before he can stop it, a reflex from years of high school taunts and not-so-quiet mutters in locker rooms. He opens his mouth to say something, to try to defuse the tension in the room, to just make it all go away before anything can make this worse. But before he can even manage a sound Jack is moving toward Dex so fast he’s almost a blur, just pale skin and dark hair and a murderous look on his face that Eric’s only seen once before, when Eric was taken off the ice during the playoffs, his ears still ringing.
Jack has Dex by the front of his shirt and he’s pushed him hard against the wall, like he’s going after someone against the boards. “What the fuck did you just say, Poindexter?”
“Jack, wait,” Dex gasps, scrabbling against Jack’s fingers. Jack slams him back into the wall again, and Eric can see the way Dex’s eyes go wide, the way he looks around for someone to help. No one rushes to his defence, which Eric feels good about, deep in his bones, but then Dex looks at him.
Dex doesn’t usually look at Eric like he hates him, not really. He’s usually just frowning, angry at something, but not at Eric specifically. Eric’s used to it. In fact, he’s happy to let Dex look all he wants, happy to let Dex see him smile and dance around the kitchen, to sing along to his ipod and joke with Shitty and chirp Ransom and Holster in the locker room. He’s used to Dex looking at him, he knows all Dex’s looks, but this one is a new one. This time Dex is terrified. It’s rolling off him in waves, and it’s not just the fear of getting his ass kicked by Jack Zimmermann. It’s deeper than that, and Eric looks at him and sighs.
“Let him go, Jack.” Eric says, loud and clear, his mother’s brook-no-argument voice. “I want to talk to him. Alone.” If anything, that makes Dex look more terrified. Eric’s stomach twists in sympathy.
“You don’t have to do that, Bits,” Jack says, “I’m more than happy to -”
“Jack,” Shitty says, his voice low and serious. He curls one hand around Jack’s shoulder, pulling him gently away from Dex. “Come on, let Bitty talk to the kid.”
Jack releases his hold on Dex’s shirt slowly, his eyes still fixed on Dex’s face. “You touch him, and I end you,” he says, and it’s a testament to how fucked up Eric is about Jack that Eric’s stomach gets inappropriate butterflies at that sentiment.
Shitty leads Jack out the door and up the basement steps. “Come on, everyone, Bitty has the room,” he calls out, and the team follow after them one by one. The frogs glare at Dex as they cross the room; Chowder looks like he’s on the verge of tears. Ransom catches Eric’s shoulder as he walks by.
“We’ll be right upstairs,” he says quietly. “Just yell if you need us.”
Eric smiles tightly at him. “Thanks, but we’ll be fine.”
When the last of his teammates have left, Eric closes the door and turns around. Dex is standing against the wall where Jack pushed him, his hands balled in fists at his sides, his face red - from too much beer, from anger, from embarrassment, probably from all three.
This isn’t how I wanted to do this, Eric thinks to himself, but here they are. He takes a deep breath.
He’s not scared, not per se. Dex is bigger than him but even if Dex was drunk and stupid enough to take a swing right now, Eric’s pretty sure he could get the fuck out of the way. Eric’s hands are still shaking. That one word from Dex has rocked the perfect little bubble Eric’s created for himself. “Why’d you come to Samwell?” Eric asks. He leans back on his hands, tucked behind him against the door.
Dex crosses his arms and looks resolutely at the poster of the Budweiser horses on the wall.
“Because you’re a great hockey player,” Eric continues. “You could have gone to a lot of places other than Samwell. Better places.”
“Samwell has a great team,” Dex says, almost like a reflex. The corner of Eric’s mouth twitches.
“I know. But I bet you could have gone to Minnesota, or Vermont. Nursey said you turned down a scholarship to Colgate.”
“Have you seen the rink in Vermont? It’s janky as shit,” Dex mutters, and Eric shakes his head.
“You had to know Samwell’s reputation,” Eric presses. “It’s the gayest ivy by a mile.” Dex pulls his shoulders in and Eric’s chest hurts just looking at him. “You’d been to campus, you’d seen the posters up for the Rainbow Dance - hell, Dex, you’d met me, and you still picked this place. You still chose this team.”
“Yeah, well, I guess I made a fucking mistake,” Dex grits out and Eric’s suddenly too tired to deal with this. Too tired to play nice with a guy who just called him… something he hasn’t been called in a long fucking time. Not even if that guy is struggling with demons Eric is all too familiar with.
“Yeah, maybe you did,” Eric tells him, turning to open the door. He hears Dex make a pained noise behind him and pauses. “You have something to say, Will?” He expects an apology, maybe. For Dex to be contrite enough that maybe Eric will let it go, so they can go back to the delicate dance of waiting-and-watching that they’ve set up. Instead, Dex curses and Eric can hear the sound of a red solo cup hitting the opposite wall, it’s contents sloshing over the floor.
“How is this so fucking easy for you?” Dex asks, angry and wounded all at once.
“Excuse me?” Eric says, turning around, hands on his hips. “You think my life is easy?”
“They all love you,” he says. “You walk around here in booty shorts and belt out Nicki Minaj and bake fucking apple pies, and they fall all over themselves to be friends with you. Even though they know what you are.”
“What am I?” Eric asks, and he feels the southern steel in his spine holding him upright. Dex glares at him. “What, come on, you said it just a minute ago. Why can’t you say it to my face?”
“Is it because you can’t say it to your own face? Can’t stand the sight of yourself in the mirror? Is that the word you think every time you see yourself?” Eric says the last bit in a rush and thinks for a second that he’s way overestimated how mad Dex is, or how fast he can move when Dex comes barreling toward him.
But he doesn’t touch Eric, just gets close enough to whisper “Stop, fuck, stop it,” all that terror back in his eyes. “I am not -” he chokes on the word and Eric leans toward him, his voice pitched low.
“Gay, Dex. The word is gay, and even if you are, you’re gonna be okay.”
“I am not,” Dex hisses, and Eric’s not sure he means ‘not gay’ or ‘not going to be okay’. Probably both. “That’s not - I am not like you, Bittle.”
“No, mostly you’re not,” Eric concedes. “Except for the big, pink elephant in the room.”
“God, just stop,” Dex pleads and Eric looks at him long and hard. He looks so young. Eric remembers how terrified he was last year to tell anyone, even Shitty, and Eric had had quite a few years to get used to the idea. He wants desperately to give Dex a hug, and stuffs his hands in his pockets to quell the urge. Instead, he leans back against the door and scuffs his shoes against the concrete floor.
“When I was a kid, I was on track to be a nationally ranked figure skater, did you know that? I mean, I was good. Not the best, but I could have maybe made it to junior nationals. My mom was so proud, drove me to 5am practices almost every day, even talked about relocating us north so I could get better coaching.”
“That’s great, Bittle, I’m sure you rocked the spangly tights.” Dex rolls his eyes and Eric grins at him.
“You bet your ass I did.” Man, sometimes he misses those outfits. “But when I was fourteen, I walked away from figure skating and took up hockey. I gave up a thing I loved for a thing I might have been terrible at. And do you know why?”
Dex doesn’t ask, but he’s watching Eric now, watching him like always, wary but oh-so-focused.
“My dad started… not exactly avoiding me, but it felt like it. He never asked me about competitions or practice or any of it. He stopped coming to watch me skate entirely. I heard him arguing with my mom about it one day, and it turns out he’d thought my skating was a phase, something I’d grow out of. But I wasn’t growing out of it, I was growing into it. I was growing into a person who liked baking pies and shoe shopping and spangly tights. And he just.” Eric’s throat closes up for a minute; it takes him three tries before he can speak again. “I gave up figure skating for hockey because I thought I’d lose my dad if I didn’t,” he manages, and he hates the tears that sting his eyes. “I’m still not out to my parents, and I don’t know if I ever will be, so. My life isn’t that easy, Dex. But I’m trying to be honest with myself, because if I’m not, I’m pretty sure it would kill me. You get that?”
“Yeah,” Dex says, his voice cracking on the word, and shit, Dex might not want a hug right now, but Eric sure needs one. He takes two steps forward and wraps his arms around Dex and pulls him close. It doesn’t take long, a few erratic heartbeats that Eric can hear where his face is smushed against Dex’s chest, and Dex is hugging Eric back, shaking in his skin. Eric rubs a soothing hand over Dex’s back, up and down and up and down like his momma used to when Eric woke up from a bad dream.
“We’re okay,” Eric tells him, over and over. Dex is crying now, and Eric holds on, holds them both up. “We’re gonna be okay.”
“I don’t know if I can do this, Bittle,” Dex says, his voice wet and scared in Eric’s ear.
“You don’t have to do anything, Dex, that’s the thing. You don’t have to hide, and you don’t have to be scared of us, and you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to, okay?” Eric can feel Dex nod and he just holds on tighter. “Nobody’s asking to you to learn the words to Lady Gaga songs, Dex, though if you wanted to, I’m totally your man.” Dex finally laughs, a shaky sound that makes Eric’s heart unclench.
When they finally pull apart, Dex is a mess, all red-faced and puffy-eyed. Eric sighs as he looks up. “If I look as bad as you do right now, we should probably stay down here for a little while longer.”
“They won’t come looking for us?”
“Not unless there’s a lot of yelling. You want to talk some more?”
Dex shakes his head. “Maybe later, though?”
Eric smiles at him, glad to feel he means it. “Sure. What do you want to do if you don’t want to talk?”
Dex gives a half-shrug and wipes his nose on his sleeve. “Mario Kart?”
“Oh lord, I am terrible at that game,” Eric grumbles, but they head over and plop on the couch.
Dex busies himself setting up the game so he won’t have to look at Eric when he asks, “You’re not going to tell anyone, right?”
“Not my secret to tell,” Eric replies, and Dex’s shoulders sag in relief. “Seriously, though, I’m happy to talk about it any time you want. I’ll even make you more of my faggoty cookies.”
Dex winces and half turns on the couch. “Bitty, you know I didn’t mean -”
“Yeah, you did, and no, you won’t do it again. Or I won’t pull Jack off you next time.”
“Yeah, got it.”
By the time Eric’s lost two lives (in an abysmally short amount of time, to be fair), the door to the basement creaks open and Shitty sticks his head in. “Everything cool, Bits?”
“Getting my ass handed to me in Mario Kart, but otherwise we’re good. Right, Dex?”
“Yeah, we’re good,” Dex says, his face turning red again, and Shitty gives Eric a wink and two thumbs up when Dex turns back around.
“Great. Party’s back on!” Shitty yells up the stairs, and the whole Haus descends in a clatter of huge feet. They all look at Eric and Dex when they come back in, but the two of them focus on the game in unspoken agreement. By the time Eric dies his last fiery death, the party is back in full swing behind them, and Chowder and Hols are sitting on the arms of the couch, discussing the merits of Seinfeld over their heads.
“Tough break, Bits,” Ransom shakes his head from the floor where he’s propped against the couch, legs crossed in front of him. He leans his head back. “You wanna go deal with that?” he murmurs, cutting his eyes over to the wall. Jack’s leaning there, staring daggers at Dex. Dex hasn’t noticed yet, or he’d be a quivering mess of frog on the floor.
Eric sighs and pushes himself off the couch. He swings by the makeshift bar and picks up two bottles of Molson before wandering over to hand one to Jack. “Here, drink this, it’ll make you look less like a serial killer.”
Jack’s frown deepens, but he takes the bottle by rote, lets it dangle between his long fingers. Eric forces his gaze up to Jack’s face. Jack’s gone back to glaring at Dex and Eric sighs.
“It’s fine. We worked it out.”
“You can stop trying to kill him with your eyes now.”
Jack’s eyes drop to Eric’s. “I can’t just - he shouldn’t have said that, Bittle.”
“No, he shouldn’t. He knows that.”
“I can’t just tolerate that kind of -”
“Captain, stand down. We’re working it out. It won’t affect the team.”
Jack’s frown gets that confused little wrinkle that Eric secretly adores. “Oh. That’s - good. But it’s not - I wasn’t worried about that.”
Eric blinks at him. Jack is always worried about the team. He’s worried about the team when Ransom stays up too late studying for a midterm, or when Shitty forgets his umbrella, or when Eric eats too much sugar before 8am, or after 10pm, or most times in the middle. For Jack, the team is everything. At least Eric always assumed that was true. “So, what -” Eric starts, and Jack is looking down at his beer bottle now, picking at the label with his fingernail.
“It’s about - I want you to feel like you belong here, Bittle. I mean, we all want you to feel that way, no matter what.” He looks up and his eyes are clear and serious and so blue Eric almost misses the next part. “What Dex said - I’m just not okay with that, not at all, and especially not here. This is your home, Bits. And if Dex can’t get over this -”
“He will,” Eric says, just a little breathless.
“Good,” Jack says again, smiling just a little, and squeezing Eric’s shoulder. “But you let me know if anything like that ever happens again, okay? I’ve got your back, Bitty. Always.”
For the second time in an hour, Eric feels like he’s about to cry. He tries to turn away before Jack can see it, but before he can get half a step, Shitty barrels into the back of him and presses him right up against Jack, smacking a kiss to the side of Eric’s head.
“Shitty, what are you -” Jack starts, but Shitty bellows right over him.
“GROUP HUG, MOTHERFUCKERS!”
Eric turns his head up and laughs out loud at the resigned look on Jack’s face as the whole Samwell hockey team piles into them. He can hear Chowder yelling “I love you guys!”, and Ransom’s “Who’s got their hand on my ass?” and even Dex’s breathless “ow, you fucker, that’s my foot.”
“You okay, Bitty?” Jack asks him as Eric gets pushed further into him, his face pressed against Jack’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” Eric gasps for air between bouts of giggles and the press of an entire hockey team at his literal, as well as metaphorical, back. “Yeah, Jack. I’m good. There’s no place like home, right?”
Jack grins down at him. “Hey, that’s the Wizard of Oz, right? I love that movie.”
Eric laughs so hard he pulls a muscle.
Jack glares at him for the rest of the week.