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Something Like This

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The practice rink’s locker room is even smaller than the one the Samwell team used at Faber, but none of the Falconers seem to mind. Jack pulls his t-shirt down over his head, then sits on the bench to put his shoes on.

“We still on for lunch?” Whits asks, toweling off his hair. He’s completely naked otherwise, one of a handful of guys on the team who never seem to be in a hurry to put their clothes back on after a shower.

“Sure.” Jack pulls his phone from his duffel and settles in to wait.

The home screen is full of text notifications: the Samwell group chat apparently blew up in the last couple of hours. He’s been trying to keep up with it, even if he doesn’t have much time to participate lately. He skims through, then frowns and scrolls back up to read again.

Holster: BITTY NO
Lardo: BITTY YES
Nurse: Sorry Bits shoulda kept my mouth shut
Bittle: It was NOT what it looked like y’all
Ransom: ET TU BITTY
Chowder: Wow what did I miss???
Lardo: The LAX frat sent one of their frogs over to “borrow a cup of sugar.”
Bittle: It was totally a hazing thing, ok? They were giving him a hard time.
Nurse: And you felt sorry for him?
Bittle: Yes. I let him in and talked to him.
Holster: Feeling sorry for =/= MAKING OUT WITH
Bittle: NO ONE WAS MAKING OUT WITH ANYONE
Nurse: Bro I walked in on you
Bittle: OMG we were just talking!
Bittle: He kissed me right before you came in. I was NOT expecting it!
Chowder: omg
Lardo: Surprise kiss ftw
Lardo: [thumbs up]
Bittle: Nursey came in like a minute later
Ransom: BRO
Ransom: You kissed him for at least a minute? That totally counts as making out.
Nurse: So you’re saying I cockblocked you, basically?
Bittle: OMFG STOP
Bittle: Do any of you ever want pie again?
Bittle: I am not even kidding rn
Holster: Bitty I will find you a boyfriend ISTG
Holster: You can literally date anyone in the universe except for one of the LAX asshats
Holster: BITTY
Holster: BITS
Holster: HELP ME HELP YOU
Bittle: I’m turning my phone off

“Everything okay?”

Jack blinks at his phone, then looks up to see Whits tying a shoe. “Um. Yeah.” He thumbs the phone off and puts it in his pocket. “Just catching up on the group text from my old team. Habit, I guess.”

“It’s pretty cool that they’re not far away. They gonna come to a game?”

“I think so.” Jack leans back in his stall. “Did any of your old teammates manage to come see a game last year?”

“Yeah, some of the guys drove over when we played the Blackhawks.” Whits snorts. “Always good for your friends to see you get your ass kicked.”

Jack nods and looks away. He hasn’t let himself think about that possibility just yet. “You still close with any of them?”

Whits shrugs. “Not really? I mean, I thought we would all keep up with each other, but it was harder than I expected. Michigan is a long way from here, yanno? There’s only so much you can do with Skype and texting. The guys still in school are busy, and the ones who graduated are getting on with their lives.”

“Yeah.” Jack tries to ignore the stab of panic in his chest. He knows this is how it goes, that you move on and lose touch with people who were once so important in your life, but he doesn’t have to like it.

“One of the other guys signed with the Avs, and I thought we’d at least be able to—” Whits stops, his expression suddenly unreadable. “Well, you know how it is.”

Jack thinks about Parse for a moment, how they’d once sworn they’d stay best friends no matter where they ended up playing. Parse had said they’d get a beach house together even, spend the summers hanging out. He sighs and rubs his hand over the back of his neck. “Yeah, I know.”

Whits shrugs. “Anyway, here I am. And Providence is great.”

“Yeah.” Jack’s only been here a few months, but he likes it well enough. The guys on the team are pretty cool, and he feels like they’re playing well together. There isn’t the same sort of camaraderie he’d experienced at Samwell, but he hadn’t expected it so early in the season.

“Ready to bounce?” Whits asks. He glances in a mirror by the door and tucks his hair behind his ears. He’s got flow that would have put Shitty’s to shame, almost to his shoulders.

Jacks stands. “Sure.”

*****

“Swear to fucking god, bro, if one more douchebag in a fedora tries to tell me white privilege doesn’t exist, I’m gonna fuckin’ get violent.”

Jack grins at the screen. “I’d kinda like to see that.”

“I’m just up the road, man.” Shitty disappears from view for a moment. Jack’s pretty sure he’s toking up. “You know where to find me.”

“Like I’ve got that kind of free time.”

“It’s still the preseason, man. I know for a fact you’ve got more free time than I do.” Shitty reappears. Even after six months, Jack’s still getting used to seeing him with short hair. “You been back to the Haus yet?”

Jack’s insides twist. “No. I haven’t.”

“Nah, man, I know. I thought I’d go down for the Back-to-the-Grind Kegster, but I had a metric fuck-ton of reading to do, right? I can’t afford to lose a weekend day to a hangover.”

Jack raises his eyebrows. “You could go and not get schwasted.”

“Naw, man. Not possible.” Shitty grins at him. “You still on the group text?”

“Yeah. I keep meaning to reply, but.” Jack shrugs. “It feels weird. I text some of the guys, though. Holster and Bittle, mostly. Lardo sometimes.”

Shitty smirks. “So whose side are you on in all of that?”

“All of what?”

“Bitty and the Lacrosse frog. Lardo told me his name, but I forgot it immediately. Hayden or Caiden or Braden, whatever the fuck.”

Jack sighs and slides down in his chair. “I dunno. Holster thinks they’re hooking up, but Bittle hasn’t said a word about it to me.”

Shitty takes drink from a bottle of beer. “You think he’d tell you if he was?”

“I dunno.” Jack frowns. He hadn’t wanted to ask, to be honest, and he’d been relieved when Bittle didn’t bring it up either. It’s not like he has a right to an opinion one way or the other about who Bittle dates. Or who he… does whatever with.

“Hunh.” Shitty sets the bottle down again. “You going to the home opener?”

“I’m planning to. We’re at home Thursday and Saturday that week, so I think I should be able to swing it. Probably can’t stay too late after, though.”

“You could get up at the asscrack of dawn and make it back for morning skate, man.”

Jack snorts. “Nope. Not risking it on a game day.”

“So basically, the NHL hasn’t changed you at all.” Shitty grins at him.

“If you say so.”

*****

Jack feels his phone buzz in his pocket a dozen times while he’s running, but he waits until he gets home to look. He leans against his kitchen counter, drinking water, and thumbs through the texts he’s missed. A few are from the Falconers group text — those are always easy to pick out because of the atrocious spelling — but the others are from Bittle.

I’ve been put in charge of organizing those of us going to your game on the 24th.
There’ll be 12 of us, including Shitty.
I don’t know if you can get that many tickets or not?
If I need to call somebody else, lmk?
Oh, and I hope you had a good run! [smiley]

Jack can’t help smiling. He taps out Yeah, that should be fine. I’ll set it up.

The reply comes a few seconds later: Great! What are you up to right now?

Shower, then lunch. I have some PR stuff today. You?

Just studying for now. I have two lectures this afternoon. Trying to get ahead.

Jack smirks at the phone. Bittle always says that at the beginning of the semester, and it never happens. Everything else good?

Yeah! The team’s doing fine. We really miss you, though. Ransom and Holster are doing a great job, but

The dots appear and then vanish.

Jack waits, and Bittle doesn’t continue. Jack thinks for a moment, then writes, I miss Samwell. It’s different here than I expected.

There isn’t a response for a full minute. Jack goes into his bedroom and strips off his clothes. The phone buzzes from the nightstand.

Do you have time to talk?

Jack picks it up and replies, Yes.

He taps the voice call notification as soon as he sees it. “Hey, Bittle.”

“Hey. You okay?”

Jack crosses to his bed and lies back across the duvet, closing his eyes. “Yeah.”

“It’s so weird not having you here. I knew it would be, but god, the Haus without you and Shitty is a different place.”

Jack chuckles. “I can imagine.”

“But I’m sure you’re enjoying having your own place. Lord, I can’t even remember what it’s like to have privacy, and no one trying to hook up in your room on Saturday nights.”

“Yeah.” Jack smiles at the ceiling. “It’s weird not to have school to think about, though. I didn’t think I’d miss having something that took my time away from hockey, but I kind of do.”

“You seriously miss taking classes?” Bittle sounds incredulous. “You sure you’re okay?”

“It was nice having the distraction. And always having people around. It’s so quiet here, you know?”

“The Haus is kind of the opposite of quiet, especially now that Dex and Nursey are always here. They haven’t exactly moved into your old room, but Chowder got a huge air mattress and that’s where they sleep on the weekends.”

Jack tries to imagine it, and can’t. He sighs. “I should probably have some people over or something.”

“But then you’d have to make an actual effort to be social. I know you better than that, Mr. Zimmermann.”

“Whatever. You should come visit.”

“Really?” Bittle sounds pleased.

“Yeah. I’ve got a really nice oven here. Someone ought to use it.”

“I’ve got a really nice oven here too, you know.”

“I know.” Jack stretches, feeling the pull of muscles sore from his morning workout. One hand trails circles on his bare abdomen. “I miss your pies, though.”

“I’m guessing they wouldn’t be nutritionist-approved.”

“Probably not, but it’d be worth it.” An image of Bittle standing in his kitchen floods his mind, and he smiles. He hears the sound of Bittle shifting on his mattress on the other end of the line.

“I baked an apple pie last night. Something about September always makes me want to do appley things.”

“I love your apple pie.” Jack inhales slowly, releases it. Talking to Bittle always makes him feel weirdly relaxed. “And those turnovers you did last fall. Those were amazing.”

“You really do need to eat lunch, don’t you?” Bittle laughs.

“Yeah. So how are you, really?”

“Good, fine,” Bittle replies, quickly.

Jack opens his eyes. He doesn’t want to ask, but the question is buzzing in the back of his head now. “So, uh… Is Holster still mad at you?”

Bittle sighs. “Probably. I don’t know. It’s not…” He’s silent for a moment before he continues. “Braden is nice, you know? And it’s not like I’m… I mean.” Bittle sounds like he’s taking a deep breath. “It’s not, like, a thing.”

“Hunh.” Jack is already regretting bringing it up. He doesn’t want to hear about whatever the thing is between Bittle and… Braden. He hadn’t even wanted to know the guy’s name. He fervently hopes he’ll never have to meet him. “You know how he and Ransom are about the Lacrosse team.”

“Did he have some sort of traumatic childhood experience with a Lacrosse stick or something?”

“Heh, maybe. So, when you say it’s not a thing…”

“Jack Zimmermann, are you seriously asking for deets right now?”

“No! God, no.” Jack winces. “You’re my friend, eh? I guess I’m curious if you’re actually dating this guy or not.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it… dating, to be honest?” Bittle sighs. “I’m not really sure what the line is between hooking up and dating.”

Wow, too much information. Jack grits his teeth. The idea of Bittle hooking up with some random guy makes him feel… uncomfortable, which makes no sense. It’s not like he finds the idea of it distasteful. He’d be a damn hypocrite if he did.

“So it’s more of a…” sex thing. God, Jack doesn’t want to say that out loud. He has a sudden mental image of Bittle on his knees in front of some faceless guy in a Samwell Lacrosse jersey, and he flinches.

“Jack…” Bittle’s voice sounds strained.

“No, yeah. Let’s talk about something else. How’s practice going?”

Bittle launches into a detailed update of every member of the team, including the frogs Jack hasn’t met, and Jack can finally relax again. The rhythm of Bittle’s voice is comfortable and familiar, even soothing. Jack closes his eyes, offers comments when he can get a word in, and feels better than he has in days.

*****

Curtis Janssen groans as he settles into his stall. “God-fucking-dammit, Zimms, why you have to make the rest of us look bad?”

Jack leans over to unlace his skates. “It was in my contract. Skate harder than Janssen in particular.

The other guys within earshot chuckle. There’s more good-natured chirping after that, but none of it is directed at Jack. They still seem a little wary of him, and he’s not sure what to make of that.

Whits squeezes Jack’s shoulder when the others make their way to the showers. “Janssen and Rolly and I are heading to lunch after this. You wanna come with?”

“Yeah, sure.” Jack smiles at him. Whits had volunteered to be his unofficial team mentor at camp a few weeks back, and he’s taken the task to heart. Jack isn’t eighteen by any stretch, so he hardly needs the kind of babysitting most rookies do. He definitely appreciates the way Whits has tried to make him feel included, though. Left to his own devices, Jack probably wouldn’t have socialized with the team much at all.

They pile into Brad Rollins’ giant SUV (he unlatches two car seats and tosses them in the back first) and head to some burger joint Janssen had read about. The menu isn’t really what they ought to be eating this close to the start of the season, but no one says anything.

“Rolly, what crawled up your ass this morning?” Janssen asks after the server takes their orders.

Rolly takes a deep breath and looks down at his hands. “Carrie’s pregnant.”

“Whoa, shit. Congratulations!” Janssen grins at him.

Rolly’s smile is tight. “Thanks, man.”

“Wait, didn’t she just have a baby?” Whits asks.

“Yeah, Melanie’ll be 6 months next week.”

Janssen shakes his head. “How did you even have time to make another one? We’ve just got the one and I’m lucky if I get some once a week.”

“It was an accident.” Rolly scrubs at his face with one hand. “Shit, I’m gonna have three kids.”

“Three kids in three years, man.” Janssen elbows him. “You do know what causes that, right?”

“Fuck you.”

The server returns with their drinks, and they all fall silent until she walks away again.

“So like, tell me to fuck off if this is too personal,” Whits says, looking at Rolly from across the table, “but you were over the moon about Melanie. You don’t sound so excited this time.”

Rolly shrugs. “I dunno. It’s just scary, you know? I mean, I’m not gonna play hockey for the next twenty years. At some point I have to get a real job, and I can’t do anything else. God, I shoulda taken that scholarship to New Hampshire. At least I’d have a degree then.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Janssen says. He looks over at Jack and Whits. “You two at least have something to fall back on. Rolly and I are gonna have to buy a damn food truck to put our kids through college.”

“What did you study anyway, Zimms?” Rolly asks.

“History.”

Rolly and Janssen crack up laughing, and Jack flushes.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Janssen shakes his head. “Of all the practical shit you could’ve done, you picked history?”

“It’s not like he’s ever gonna have to use that degree,” Whits says, grinning.

Jack shrugs. He has no idea how to reply to that in a way that won’t make him look like an asshole.

“I’ll bet you got mad pussy at that college.” Rolly grins at him. “Sorority girls lined up around the block n’shit.”

Jack pokes at the ice in his drink with the straw. “Not really.”

“Don’t be modest, dude! C’mon, give us some deets. We gotta live vicariously here.”

Jack looks up again to see them both grinning at him expectantly. “I didn’t really do much other than play hockey and study a lot.”

“Bro, you can’t be serious.” Rolly looks disappointed. “Didn’t you live in some kind of frat house?”

“Yeah, but… Well, there were parties, but I usually didn’t…” Jack presses his lips together, uncertain what he should say. He barely knows Rolly and Janssen. “I hung out with my teammates a lot, I guess.”

“Look, y’all don’t get how much fucking hard work it is to be a college athlete,” Whits says. “You do a lot of what we do during the season, but you have, like, a full time job on top of it. You have to miss classes for a roadie, do homework on the bus, go straight from a hard practice to an exam you were up half the night studying for, then play in a game that night. That doesn’t leave you much time to chase skirts.”

“Huh.” Janssen looks skeptical, but he’s listening. “So what did you study, Whits?”

Jack turns to look at Whits, surprised. He knows the answer to this question; it was one of the first things he’d asked Whits back in camp. These guys have been playing with him for a year and it hasn’t come up?

Whits leans back in the booth and pushes his hair back out of his face with his fingers. “Mathematics.”

“Shit, man, are you serious?” Janssen’s eyes widen almost comically.

Rolly shakes his head. “I had no idea you were a fuckin’ brainiac.”

Whits rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Point is, college isn’t actually like Animal House.” He considers for a moment and then grins. “Well, maybe every now and then it is, but not every weekend.”

“That how you met Dani? She a brainiac too?” Rolly asks.

Whits’ expression tightens almost immediately, and Janssen punches Rolly in the shoulder.

“Fuck, man, they broke up this summer.”

“Shit, sorry.” Rolly winces. “I didn’t hear about that.”

Whits shrugs, but the tension is still visible in his shoulders. “Ah, you know. The long distance thing was never gonna work.”

“She’s in Colorado, right?”

Whits looks down at his hands. “We thought we’d be able to see each other more, but our work schedules didn’t exactly coincide. And by the summer… well, it turns out there are a lot of guys hotter than me in Denver.”

“That sucks, bro.” Rolly shakes his head. “Cause I know for a fact you didn’t cheat on her. You didn’t so much as look at a hot chick last year. Not while we were out with the team, anyway.”

Whits flushes slightly. “Yeah, well. I’m an idiot.”

The server arrives with their food, and they all fall silent. Whits still looks tense even after she leaves, and Jack’s stomach twists.

“Sorry about the breakup,” Jack says quietly. He doesn't know Whits well enough to have noticed anything was off. He hasn’t exactly been paying attention to anything other than hockey, anyway.

Whits looks over at him and smiles. “Whatcha gonna do, you know? You graduate, you move on with your life. Things change. People change.”

A cold wave washes over Jack. He looks away, stares down at his food. Is that what’s going to happen now? He texts Bittle and Shitty every day, Skypes with each of them a couple of times a week. In some ways, he feels closer to them now than he did while they were at Samwell, even though their lives are all completely different. Is he going to be like Whits in a year, sadly remembering friendships that have long since faded?

“Zimms,” Whits says quietly, and Jack turns to see him watching Jack with a worried expression. “You okay?”

Jack takes a deep breath and forces a tight smile. “Yeah. Fine.”

“Oh my god,” Rolly groans from across the table, drawing their attention. “I just realized this means Carrie’s tits are gonna be off-limits for, like, another two years. Fuck me.”

Janssen snickers around a mouthful of burger. “I just got my clearance back, bro. I feel for you.”

Jack casts Whits a confused glance, but Whits is shaking his head and grinning at them. Jack forces a small smile, but he’s completely out of his element here. He’s just a few years younger than Rolly and Janssen, but he has very little in common with them. They went from Juniors to the AHL, and spent years working their way onto an NHL roster. Outside of hockey, their lives revolve around their wives and kids, not endorsement deals and maintaining a media presence. They’re solid, respected players, but they’ve never been under the sort of scrutiny Jack has been his whole life, and never will be.

Jack almost envies them.

*****

Chapter Text

“You see your crew out there?” Whits asks when they file off the ice after warmups.

“Yeah.” Jack points in the general direction of the group from Samwell, though he knows Whits won’t be able to pick them out of the sea of blue and white. They’d jumped up and shouted when he’d first spotted them, and his heart had leapt in his chest.

“Sweet,” Whits says, bumping his shoulder. “You going out with them after?”

“Most of them have to go back tonight, but a couple of the guys are staying with me. We’re just gonna hang out.” Jack hesitates for a moment, then looks back at Whits. “You want to come over?”

Whits’ face lights up. “Yeah, man, that’d be awesome. Thanks.”

Jack ducks his head and smiles. “Great.”

He and Whits have been playing on the same line in practice the last few weeks, and they’re on the number one line with Kratz tonight. Whits had been centering the second line before, but Radley has him on Jack’s left wing now, and it works. Their playing styles are remarkably compatible, and everyone seems to think they’re forming a great partnership on the ice. In Jack’s experience, getting to know each other better off the ice helps that along, and so he’s making a serious effort.

He even asked Bittle about it on Skype last week, at a loss for how to proceed.

Bittle had grinned at him through the screen. “Ask him questions about himself. Find out what he likes to do, and then invite him to go do it with you.”

Jack had frowned at him. “I’m not trying to date him. I just want to be friends with him.”

“There’s not as much a difference as you’d think,” Bittle had replied with a smirk. “Okay, pretend he’s me, then. Ask him to do the stuff you used to do with me.”

“He doesn’t bake or drink fancy coffee, as far as I know.”

“So I’m not the most typical example of a hockey bro, fine.” Bittle rolled his eyes, and Jack felt a flood of warmth for him. “So maybe think about Ransom or Holster, then. What would you ask them to do?”

“Practice more?” Jack had tried valiantly to keep a straight face. “Drink less, definitely.”

“I’m trying to help you here. Work with me.”

“Sorry. Uh… Maybe play Mario Kart or something?”

Bittle had nodded at him. “Yeah, that sounds good. Invite him over to play games with you one night.”

“I don’t have a console.”

“I’m not much of a math person, but I’m pretty sure you could afford to pick one up.” Bittle had raised his eyebrows and smiled, and Jack had laughed.

“Okay, fine. I’ll do that.”

So Jack had bought a Wii, and then he’d bought a pool table, which is a little more his speed. Whits lives in the same building as Jack, four floors down, and once Jack had extended the invitation, Whits started coming over at random times to hang out. Whits has similar taste in TV to Holster, Jack was amused to learn, and he’s a huge fan of Michigan football. He’s different from any friend Jack’s ever had, but it’s good. It’s comfortable.

*****

Jack's had a lot of two-plus-point games in his life, but it's especially sweet to score a goal ten minutes into his NHL debut. The fact that so many of his Samwell teammates are there to see it is just icing on the cake. He manages a slick toe drag past Malkin and chips it right under the glove. Whits is barreling toward Jack before he’s even sure the puck went in, wrapping his arms around him and running him into his teammates.

"Fuckin’ beaut, man," Kratz says in his ear, and the crowd roars around them.

Jack skates up the bench and fist-bumps all the guys, and plays the rest of his shift like it never happened. He can't let himself think too hard about it during the game.

The pace is crazy, even more intense than he’d been expecting. He skates hard and his shifts seem ridiculously short, but even so he’s struggling to catch his breath at the end of every one. He has another chance on a power play in the second period, but Fleury is damn good and everything Jack fires at the net after that gets knocked away. He gets an assist on Kratz’s goal early in the third to tie the score, but he can’t make anything else happen.

They lose in OT. Jack’s not even on the ice when it happens, but he feels gutted just the same.

"We got a point, though," Rolly says in the locker room afterward. "Besides, the Pens kicked our asses last season. They beat us by at least two goals every time we faced them. This is a big fucking improvement, man."

Jack gets pulled for press after he gets dressed.

“How did it feel to score your first NHL goal tonight?” someone asks.

Jack shrugs. “It was good, but they outplayed us in the third period. We had a lot of chances to score, and we just couldn't make it happen."

The reporters stare at him like they don’t quite know what to make of him.

George pats him on the back and tells him he did fine, and the coaches beam at him. But despite putting up two points, he doesn't feel remotely successful. He feels like he failed everyone. The fact that they all seem weirdly pleased that they put up a good fight is hard for him to swallow.

Whits walks out with him after and laughs when Jack is instantly swarmed by fans. He’s used to a certain amount of that, but the sheer numbers catch him off guard. There are a lot of young women vying for his autograph, more than there ever were after NCAA games, and he can’t help but be a little freaked out by it.

Whits steers him away from the door after ten minutes, making apologies for him, and towards the guys from Samwell. Jack doesn't know how Whits knew it was them, but the moment he sees them standing there, something untwists in his chest. It's like he can breathe again. They all shout and rush toward him. Ransom gets there first, then Holster, and they sandwich him between them for a few seconds before backing off to let others have a chance.

"Zimmermann, you glorious fucker," Shitty says, wrapping himself around Jack. Lardo gets her arms around his waist and he hugs her back tightly.

"God, it's good to see all of you," he says, but he's sure no one can hear him over the constant stream of congratulations.

Nurse and Dex and Chowder attack him as a unit, followed by Wicks and Ollie, and then he looks up and sees Bittle standing in front of him.

Jack’s breath catches in his throat. He hasn't seen Bittle since July when he went to Madison. He looks different now, sharper around the edges, more tired than Jack remembers. He looks happy, though, and his eyes are bright when he launches himself at Jack.

Jack wraps his arms around Bittle and hugs him so tightly that he actually lifts him off the ground. Bittle makes a squeaking sound, and Jack laughs and releases him. "Sorry."

"S'okay. I don't need to breathe constantly." Bittle smiles at him, then flushes and looks away.

"Uh, this is Whits." Jack turns and gestures to Whits, who smiles and waves one hand.

"Taylor Whitton," Whits says. “I’ve heard a lot about y’all.”

Jack introduces them one by one, and by the time he gets to Bittle, Whits looks overwhelmed.

"There'll be a test later," Lardo quips, and they all grin.

They chat about the game for a while, chirping Jack here and there, but mostly they smile at him. His friends are all so happy for him, even though the team didn’t win tonight. Jack feels warm all over.

Most of the guys have to head back to Samwell, so when the stadium parking lot clears out, they say their goodbyes.

"We'll see you in a week, eh?" Ransom asks, hugging Jack tightly.

"Wouldn't miss it," Jack replies.

*****

Bittle brought pie, of course — two kinds — and they dig into that before anything else.

“I think I’ve missed this more than anything,” Shitty says, grinning at Bittle from across Jack’s barely-used dining table. He takes a bite of pie and groans. “Goddamn, Bits, what do I have to do to get some fuckin’ pie every now and then?”

“Come visit,” Bittle says, and Jack doesn’t miss the way he glances over at Lardo when he says it. She rolls her eyes at him in response.

“I’ll be at the home opener,” Shitty says. “And then you won’t be able to get rid of me for the whole weekend.”

“My goodness, Shitty at a kegster. It’ll be like the old days.” Bittle’s cheeks are pink, and he looks so much happier than he’s looked on Skype in the last month. Bittle turns to Jack. “Oh, and Coach Murray wants to know if you can come a little early that day. I think he wants to introduce you to the new frogs and generally embarrass you.”

“As long as I don’t have to make a speech.” Jack feigns annoyance, but honestly, he’s thrilled. He hadn’t wanted to get in the way, but the idea of spending a little time with the team sounds fantastic.

“Nah, I think they know you better than that.” Lardo rests her chin in her hand and grins at him.

“So Taylor, Jack says you played hockey for Michigan?” Bittle asks, turning toward him. Jack feels a stab of guilt that he hasn’t actually paid much attention to his teammate, but Whits doesn’t seem to mind.

“Yeah. We never had a season like the one y’all had last year, though.” He winks at Jack, and Jack looks away. The loss still stings, all these months later.

“That’s a pretty big school, isn’t it?” Bittle asks.

“Yeah, like forty-three thousand?”

Bittle shakes his head. “Goodness, that’s bigger than the town I’m from. What is that even like?”

“It’s not that bad. I mean, no one’s gonna hold your hand or watch out for you when there are hundreds of people in every lecture. The profs are there to do research primarily, so you have to stand out to get their attention. It gets better when you get to your major courses.” He shrugs. “I liked it, to be honest.”

“God, I don’t think I would’ve lasted a month at a place like that.” Bittle looks incredulous. “My parents wanted me to go to the University of Georgia, but I didn’t really want to go anywhere other than Samwell.”

“Michigan wasn’t my first choice, but I couldn’t say no to the scholarship they offered me.”

Bittle nods. “Where did you want to go?”

Whits hesitates, and Jack realizes he doesn’t know the answer to this question. “Well, my dream school since I was a kid was the University of Chicago.”

Shitty whistles appreciatively, and Whits laughs.

“Yeah, that was never gonna happen. Even if I’d gotten in, my parents couldn’t have afforded it.”

“Do they have a hockey team there?” Bittle asks.

“No, just an intramural club team. But they have a great math department. It’s just as well I went to Michigan, though. I don’t think I would’ve made much of a mathematician, but I turned out to be pretty decent at hockey.” Whits flushes a little and ducks his head, smiling softly. His light brown hair falls down over his face, and he reaches up to tuck it behind his ear again.

“Wow,” Bittle says, staring at him. Whits looks up at Bittle and seems almost startled.

Jack shifts in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable. He bites down on a strange impulse to ask Bittle about the Lacrosse player he’s seeing. Hayden? Jaden? Jack can’t remember. He can’t think of anything to say, so instead, he asks Shitty how his classes are going.

“Oh, fuck man, today the absolute cockstain that calls himself a criminal law prof went off about Ferguson and—” Shitty continues from there and Jack pretends to listen, but he can’t help paying attention to the quiet conversation happening to his left.

“Jack said you made amazing pie, but I thought he was exaggerating.”

“He said that? That’s sweet.”

“Seriously, bro, that was better than my Nana’s. And she won a blue ribbon at the Texas State Fair once.”

“Goodness!”

“But she passed away when I was ten, so honestly, I don’t remember it all that well.”

“You’re from Texas?”

“Yeah, Arlington. Dallas, basically. You?”

“Georgia. It’s actually nice to meet another hockey player from the south.”

“Shit, man — Texas ain’t the south.” Whits drags out the accent in a way Jack has never heard before, and Bittle laughs.

“Lord, don’t I know it.”

Jack can hear the grin in Bittle’s voice, along with the lengthening of his vowels.

Shitty says something then that makes Lardo laugh, and Jack shifts his attention back to the two of them.

“I fuck you not, those were his exact words.”

“Oh, shit,” Lardo says, nearly doubled over with laughter.

Jack can only smile blankly at them.

“I’m gonna carry these dishes to the kitchen,” Bittle says behind him.

“I’ll help,” Whits says.

Jack almost flinches at the sound of two chairs sliding across the floor behind him. “You don’t have to clean up,” he says when Bittle gathers up the empty plates.

Bittle rolls his eyes. “Honestly, Jack, I clean up after a whole hockey team on a daily basis. A few plates and forks are nothing.”

He and Whits disappear from view. Jack turns back to Shitty and Lardo, who are now arguing animatedly about something. Jack’s knee bounces and he clenches his jaw.

“I’m gonna go grab a beer. Want one?”

“Sure, man,” Shitty says, and Lardo nods.

Bittle is sliding plates into the dishwasher when Jack turns the corner, apparently in the middle of telling Whits about the Haus. “And I love all of them, honestly, but those are some of the most disgusting boys I’ve ever known.”

“I dunno, some of my old roommates were pretty bad. Once there was this awful smell coming from the couch, for like, months. I finally pulled the cushions off, and there were rotten Easter eggs in there from this drunken egg hunt party they’d had.”

“Oh my god,” Bittle says, closing the dishwasher.

“It was October.”

“Shit,” Jack says. “That beats the mousetrap story.”

“Mousetrap story?” Whits asks.

“No,” Bittle says, holding one hand up. He gives Jack a sharp look. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

Jack leans in the doorway and grins. “It wasn’t the smell so much as—”

“NO.” Bittle says, stepping forward to clamp a hand over Jack’s mouth. “Jack Laurent Zimmermann, don’t you fucking dare!”

“Oooh, whole names. You’re in trouble now.” Whits leans against the counter and smirks at Jack.

Jack pries Bittle’s hands off of him and gets him in a headlock. “Fine, I’ll tell him later.” He ruffles Bittle’s hair, and Bittle wriggles away.

“Ugh, go wrestle with someone your own size.” Bittle’s grinning, though.

“Want a beer?” Jack asks Whits.

“Sure.”

“Bittle, I’ve got wine too.”

“I’m listening,” Bittle says, leaning back against the counter. His usually-perfect hair is sticking out adorably. Jack steps toward him, faux-menacingly. Bittle ducks, then laughs when Jack reaches over his head to open a cabinet.

“I’ve even got real wine glasses.”

“That’s it, I’m moving in.” Bittle grins up at him. “I can commute to campus from here, right?”

“If you’re okay with me getting you up early.”

Bittle snorts. “I’ve really missed the sound of you pounding on my door at four am.”

“Do you actually make it to practice on time these days?” Jack opens the bottle and pours two glasses. It's something his mom bought when she visited a month back, and they'd never got around to drinking it.

“Usually.” Bittle reaches over to snag one of the glasses.

"Lardo!" Jack calls. "You want wine?"

"Fuck wine, bro. You said you had beer."

Jack offers a glass to Whits, who holds up the beer he just opened. "I'm good."

Jack turns to Bittle, glass in hand. "Just you and me, then."

Bittle smiles and clinks his glass against Jack's. "Congrats on the goal. I'm glad I got to be here to see it."

"Me too."

"Me three," Shitty says, and they all look over and grin at him where he's leaning in the doorway to the dining room. "Hey, man — are we gonna get you in trouble if we smoke outside?"

"I don't think so," Jack says. The people that live above him seem to be out of town, and he doubts anyone else will be outside this time of night.

"Sweet. Brewskis?"

Jack points to the fridge and Shitty grabs two beers.

Shitty gives Whits a speculative look. “You’re welcome to join us, bro.”

Whits shrugs. "Sure."

Jack raises his eyebrows when Whits follows Shitty, and Whits gives him a sheepish smile.

"I saw that," Bittle says when the door to the balcony slides closed.

"Saw what?"

"You tried to pull rank on him. That was totally the patented 'Captain Jack doesn't approve' look."

Jack winces. "I'm not judging."

"Mmm hmm." Bittle gives him a long look over the rim of his wine glass.

“Seriously, l don’t care. He can do what he wants.” Jack slings an arm around Bittle’s shoulders. "Come pick out some music I'll hate."

"Hate?" Bittle shoves at his chest. "You like my music!"

"Sometimes." Jack steers him toward the living room.

He sits on the couch while Bittle hooks his phone up to the sound bar in front of the television. Bittle gets something dancey-sounding going, and adjusts the volume until it's not obnoxiously loud. He plucks his wine glass from the coffee table and sits next to Jack on the couch, body turned toward him.

"I like your place."

"Me too. It's more my mom's taste than mine, though."

Bittle laughs. "I like your mom’s taste, then." He pauses to take a sip of wine. "You seem pretty happy here."

"Yeah. I guess? I mean, I'd be happier if we’d won tonight."

"Y'all played really well. It could have gone either way in OT."

"Yeah, but it didn't." Jack's shoulders tense up.

"Hell, it was the Pens, Jack. And it's not like the Falconers are coming off of an amazing season. They're trying to build something here, with you."

Jack sighs. "That's what everyone keeps telling me."

"You've got 81 more games to go. You're not going to win all of them."

"Okay, now you sound like my dad."

"Sorry." Bittle sounds slightly chagrined, and Jack turns to look at him.

"Don't be. It's easier to hear it from you."

Bittle stares back at him for a full second. "Good."

The door to the balcony slides open and Bittle shifts his position, moving away from Jack. Shitty, Lardo, and Whits come through, laughing. Shitty leans over the back of the couch and plants a sloppy kiss on Jack's forehead.

"You gorgeous motherfucker. I have missed the sight of your perfect ass every day."

Whits laughs so hard he nearly chokes on his beer. He settles on the other end of the couch next to Bittle, red-faced.

"S'true, though." Shitty climbs over the back of the couch and lands in Jack's lap. Bittle grabs the wine glass out of Jack's hand just in time. "I miss you, bro. I miss your terrible taste in music--"

"Hey!" Jack protests.

"--and your old man hours. I even miss your dad jokes.”

“My jokes are funny.”

“Keep telling yourself that, man.”

"Rude," Jack mutters, and Shitty laughs. "Bro, you reek. Seriously, get off me."

"You miss my snuggles. Admit it."

"No." Jack can’t help laughing, though.

"Fine, don't admit it. See if I put out for you tonight." Shitty pinches Jack's cheeks and winks at him.

Lardo laughs so hard she nearly trips down the steps into the living room.

"Is this normal?" Whits asks.

"Pretty much," Bittle replies. "Well, when Shitty's high, anyway. Which is most of the time, honestly. Or was. So... yeah?"

"Biiiits," Shitty says, and leans over to pull him into a hug. He overbalances and pushes Bittle back against Whits, who laughs and takes both wine glasses from Bittle. He manages to set them on the coffee table without much spillage.

"Bitty. Bro. I think I miss you more than Jack." Shitty's voice is muffled against Bittle's neck, and Bittle winds his arms around him.

"I miss you too, Shitty. Both of you, so much."

"I miss your pies. I miss your singing in the shower."

"Even I miss that," Jack says, reaching over to reclaim his wine glass.

"Shitty, you're squashing me. And probably Taylor too."

Whits grins down at both of them. "I don't mind. This is pretty damn entertaining."

"Can I sleep with you tonight?" Shitty mumbles. "You're so cuddly. Jack, is he always this cuddly?"

"No comment," Jack says, but he doesn't miss the sharp look of surprise Whits gives him. He ignores it and takes another drink.

Lardo crosses to the couch and climbs into Jack's lap. "My turn. The boys have been monopolizing you."

Jack grins at her. "It's so great to have you guys here."

She smooths his hair back and smiles at him. "It's not the same without you and Shitty."

"I know." He puts his arm around her and pulls her into a hug. “I’m sorry.”

“Nah, bro. It’d suck more if you were freeloading and sleeping on the couch, honestly. This way we all get to be proud of you.”

"Y'all, I think Shitty just went to sleep."

Everyone turns to to look. Shitty's mouth is open and he's drooling on Bittle's shirt. They all burst into quiet giggles.

"Oh my god, Shitty, wake up!" Bittle pushes at his shoulder and he mumbles something.

"I don’t think he’s been sleeping much. L1 year is hell, apparently." Lardo sighs. "If you can get him up, I'll make him go to bed."

Jack gets him up with an arm under his shoulder and walks him to the guest room, then dumps him unceremoniously on the bed.

“Broooooo,” Shitty says, his voice slightly muffled by the duvet. “This is so fuckin’ soft. Jus’ gonna lay here for a few.”

“Thanks,” Lardo says, smiling at Jack. She nods her head towards Shitty’s prone form. “I’m kinda beat. Think I’m gonna chill with Shits for a while.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jack replies. “I know who you’re really here to visit.”

She blushes, to his surprise, and punches him lightly on the shoulder. “Go, loser. Hang with Bitty. He misses you more than the rest of us put together.”

Jack smiles and backs out of the room. He doesn't exactly know what the deal is with Lardo and Shitty, but he's glad they get to spend a little time together. Shitty talks about her a lot, and Lardo complains about him to Jack every chance she gets. He’s not always good at reading people, but even he can see that they care about each other more than seems typical for friends.

He walks back down the short hallway and hears Bittle's laughter before he rounds the corner. Whits seems to be in the middle of telling Bittle a story that requires some rather elaborate hand gestures. Bittle is sitting sideways on the sofa, facing him, nearly doubled over with laughter.

"That is complete bullshit!" Bittle says, shaking his head incredulously. "I don't believe a word coming out of your mouth."

"No, I swear, it was exactly like that! It was insane." Whits looks up and grins at Jack. "Hey, is your friend okay?"

“Yeah. Want another beer?” He expects Whits to say no — he’s always stuck to just one when he’s hung out with Jack before — but he nods. “Sure. Thanks, man.”

Jack returns from the kitchen with another beer and the wine bottle, and refills his and Bittle’s glasses. He settles on the other side of the couch.

Bittle looks over at him. “Thanks for letting us stay over.”

“I think it’s the first break Shitty’s had since classes started.” Jack rests his arm across the back of the couch and sips his wine. “How did you get out of practice tomorrow?”

“Coach Murray made it optional. He knew a bunch of us were coming tonight.” Bittle lets his head fall back against the cushions. Jack can’t help sliding his fingers into Bittle’s hair to ruffle it, just a little. Bittle closes his eyes.

Whits turns sideways to face them, thighs splayed open with one foot still on the floor. “Y’all are making me nostalgic for my old team.”

Bittle turns to look at him. “Do you get to see them much?”

Whits shakes his head. “No. I mean, we tried to keep in touch, but… People move on, you know?”

Bittle sighs and presses his head back against Jack’s hand. “Yeah.”

Whits looks up again. “Y’all all seem really close though. And you’re not halfway across the country from each other.”

“Seems like it sometimes,” Bittle says.

“We text each other almost every day,” Jack says, ruffling his hair again. “I watched you bake a pie on Skype two days ago.”

“Seriously?” Whits laughs. “Damn, Zimms, you gotta get out more.”

“Hey!” Bittle says. “I’ll have you know I am fascinating to watch when I bake.”

“He’s got a vlog,” Jack says. “With like a thousand followers.”

“Seriously? I need to see this.”

Jack laughs. “If you can get the URL out of him. None of us has ever been able to find it.”

“There’s this thing called Google.” Whits pulls his phone out of his pocket and taps at the screen.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Jack says, grinning at Bittle.

Whits scrolls down the screen, then looks up at Bittle with narrowed eyes. “Come on, Eric, I won’t tell Zimms. Send me the URL.”

“Never gonna happen,” Bittle says, laughing. “None of y’all are gonna find it.”

Whits wriggles his toes under Bittle’s thighs, and Bittle yelps. “Does this vlog even exist? I mean, if no one’s seen it—”

“Oh, plenty of people have seen it,” Bittle replies. “Just no hockey players.”

“He said he’d cut off our pie if we found it.” Jack’s hand slides down to the back of Bittle’s neck and squeezes lightly. “Nobody wanted to risk it.”

Bittle huffs out a sound almost like a nervous laugh, then sits forward to reach for his wine glass. “Jack, can you point me to the bathroom?”

When he goes, Jack turns to see Whits looking at him thoughtfully at him. “What?”

“I like your friends.” Whits takes a long drink from his beer bottle.

Jack smiles. “I think they like you too.”

“Thanks for inviting me. I know you don’t get to see them that often, and you probably wanted to just hang with them tonight.”

Jack shrugs. “No, it’s cool. You remind me a lot of them, actually.”

“Yeah?” Whits smiles even wider. He reaches up to tuck his hair behind his ear.

Jack feels a flush of affection for him. Whits is probably the only friend he has in Providence, and is definitely the only person he’d call a friend on the team. It’s not the same as it is with Shitty or Bittle, or even with Ransom and Holster — but it’s getting there.

Whits yawns. “Oh, man. It’s after midnight, and I got up at five. I should get to bed.” He stands and finds his shoes.

“It was nice to meet you,” Bittle says when he comes back.

“Yeah, definitely. Next time you’re down here for a game, maybe Zimms can let me know.” He grins at Jack.

“You’re gonna steal all of my friends, aren’t you?” Jack gives him a playful shove.

“I’m so much cooler than you, man.”

“You are, actually. That’s what worries me.”

Whits grins as he walks away, and Jack turns back to see Bittle yawning.

“Sorry,” Bittle says. “I guess I’m tired too.”

“You sure you’re okay with the couch?”

“I actually fit on it, you know.”

Jack goes in search of an extra pillow and blanket, and when he returns, Bittle has changed into an old t-shirt and pajama pants. They’re the same ones Jack has seen more times than he can count, and it makes him smile.

“What?” Bittle asks. He takes the pillow and drops it on the couch, then shakes the blanket out. “You’re not planning to wake me up at some ungodly hour to work out or anything, are you?”

“Not unless you want me to.”

“I’m on vacation, thanks. I plan to sleep until one of y’all threatens to make breakfast and I have to take over.”

Jack backs toward the hallway leading to the bedrooms, grinning. “Good night, Bittle.”

“Good night, Jack.”

*****

The apartment is quiet when Jack wakes at 7:00. Bittle is bundled up on the couch, face burrowed into the pillow. Jack smiles fondly at him before slipping out to go for a run. When he returns, Bittle is in the kitchen with Shitty and Lardo. Lardo waves at Jack from where she sits at the kitchen bar, nursing a cup of coffee. Shitty is tending pancakes while Bittle mixes something in a bowl.

“Good run?” Bittle asks.

“Yeah. Find everything you need?”

“So far. Thanks for getting everything on the list.” Bittle smiles warmly at him.

Jack wants nothing more than to stand there and watch him cook, to soak up the sight of his friends here in this space that is usually so empty and quiet. He really needs to shower, though, so he excuses himself. He showers so quickly that he’s still sweating when he gets dressed, but he doesn’t want to waste a moment.

He heads back out to the kitchen with bare feet and still-wet hair, his t-shirt clinging to him. Bittle puts a cup of coffee in his hands and points to the empty seat next to Lardo.

“Sit. We’ve got it under control.”

Jack sits and smiles at Lardo, and sips his coffee.

“Sooooo,” Shitty says, turning to face them all with a smirk. “It’s time, Bits. Spill.”

“About what?” Bittle’s tone is one of innocence, but his cheeks flush.

“The boyfriend. You haven’t said a word about him, and Lardo is giving me nothing.”

Bittle groans. “He’s not my boyfriend.” He finishes layering ingredients in a baking dish, then pours what looks like an egg mixture over the top. He looks like he does not want to talk about this. Jack is pretty sure he doesn’t want to hear it.

“Okay, so not-a-boyfriend. Whatever. Deets, bro.”

“There’s nothing to tell.” Bittle slides the baking dish in the oven, then turns to lean against the counter. “We just hang out every now and then.”

Lardo makes a strangled sound into her coffee, and Jack and Shitty turn to look at her.

Bittle shoots her a warning look and she holds her hands up. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Biiiits,” Shitty says, outright leering at him now. “Bro. Dude.”

“It’s not a big deal. He’s just… I don’t know.”

“A guy you’re fucking on the regular?”

Bitty presses his hands over his face. “Oh my god.”

“Leave him alone, Shits,” Jack says. He’s not sure who is more uncomfortable with the direction the conversation has taken.

“No, it’s fine.” Bittle drops his hands and turns to look at Shitty. “He’s just someone I hook up with every now and then. There’s not really much more to it than that.”

“Every now and then?” Lardo says, grinning.

“Okay, so it was a lot that first week or so. Until…” Bittle goes even redder.

“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Fuck, the pancakes!” They’re blackened on one side when Shitty flips them. He turns off the burner. “Okay, so fuck the pancakes. Until what?”

Bittle winces. “There may have been a night that we were… a little loud.”

Lardo bursts into giggles. “So loud, oh my god. Everyone camped out in the hall to listen. Chowder was traumatized.”

Bittle whines and leans over to press his forehead against the counter. “It wasn’t me — it was him.”

“Apparently Bitty gives amazing head,” Lardo manages through her laughter. “At least, that’s what Braden kept saying.”

It’s a moment before Jack’s brain processes the words, and another before he realizes he’s half-hard in his sweats. A strange combination of terror and surprise washes over him, and it somehow manifests as laughter. His face grows warm, and he’s grateful for the counter he’s sitting behind.

“He would not shut up.” Bittle looks pained. “I didn’t know everyone heard us until later. God, it was mortifying.”

Jack doesn’t want to imagine what that would sound like, but his brain does it anyway — which doesn’t help the situation in his pants. He leans over the counter a little more, burying his face in his hands. “Jesus, you guys, can we not?”

Shitty is utterly delighted. “Please tell me Ransom and Holster were witness to this.”

“They tried to record audio,” Lardo says, almost wheezing the words. “They wanted to make fucking vines. Dex and Nursey had to take their phones away.”

“I still owe them pies for that,” Bittle says. Jack looks up at him again to see the expression on his face is one of resignation.

“Oh, but the next morning,” Lardo starts, and then loses it.

“That was awful,” Bittle says, hands over his face again. “That was the most uncomfortable team breakfast I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

“But it was so fucking funny!” Lardo seems to catch her breath again.

“It’s gonna be a long time before I can so much as look at a banana again,” Bittle says, and then Lardo bursts into laughter all over again. Bittle grins at her and shakes his head.

“Oh, fuck, is that why there were all those banana emojis in the group chat for a few days?” Shitty turns a surprised face to Lardo. “Bro! I asked you about that and you said you didn’t know!”

“It’s not her fault,” Bittle says. “I just wanted it to go away, so I begged her not to say anything.”

“Sorry, man,” Lardo says, grinning. “Bitty really was pissed off for a couple of days there.”

“I wasn’t pissed off, I was embarrassed!”

“And then he baked for two solid days and gave every one of those pies away so none of us could have any. It calmed down pretty quickly after that.”

“Shit, Lardo. I’m wounded here.” Shitty is smiling, but Jack knows him well enough to see there’s real hurt underneath it.

Lardo’s expression softens. She looks down into her coffee cup.

Shitty was the heart and soul of the Haus, the source of so many of the team’s inside jokes. But Shitty isn’t part of the team anymore, and neither is Jack, and this sort of thing is going to happen more often. It’s to be expected, Jack knows, but that doesn’t mean it either of them has to like it. He looks up to see Shitty looking back at him, eyebrows raised. Jack can only shrug at him.

At least he doesn’t have an awkward semi anymore.

Bittle takes a deep breath and releases it, collecting himself. “So anyway, that put a damper on things with Braden. Well, that and the fact that he’s not out to his team. It’s just… yeah, whatever.”

“But you’re still fucking him?” Shitty asks, smirking.

“That’s none of your business, mister.” Bittle folds his arms over his chest and smirks right back at Shitty.

Shitty laughs and turns back to making pancakes. “Good for you, Bits.”

Jack watches Bittle for several minutes after that, but Bittle doesn’t look at him.

*****

Bittle chatters easily on the drive back to Samwell. Jack finds himself wanting to just listen, to soak up the sound of his voice while he can. Bittle asks him questions about things that have nothing to do with hockey or school or the guy Bittle is seeing, and it’s so easy. Jack misses having this in his life, this kind of friendship he doesn’t have to work hard at or feel anxious about. He can be himself around people like Bittle and Shitty. He hadn’t realized how much he missed it until this weekend.

“Thanks for the ride,” Bittle says when they stop in front of the Haus. He turns to Jack and hesitates for a moment, then leans over and hugs him.

Jack exhales and closes his eyes, and hugs Bittle tightly. “Anytime.”

Bittle sits back and smiles at him. “I didn’t know Lardo was gonna ditch me to go spend the weekend at Harvard, or I would have had a plan B.”

“I don’t mind,” Jack says. He looks past Bittle, out at the familiar building. “It’s kind of nice to see this place again.”

“You want to come in?”

Jack bites his lip. He does, he really does — but there’s a strange twist in his stomach at the thought. “I need to get back, actually. I want to get in a workout before that PR thing this afternoon.”

“You’ll be back in here a week anyway, right?”

“Yeah.” The tightness releases. It’s just a week, and then he’ll be back, and he’ll see everyone again.

“I know you won’t be able to stay late, but Ransom and Holster have plans for something epic after the game.” Bittle raises his eyebrows.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Jack says. Bittle’s returning smile is warm and wide, and for a brief moment, Jack feels inexplicably happy.

Bittle hops out and grabs his bag from the back. He waves at Jack from the front porch of the Haus as Jack pulls away.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack’s phone lights up with a text from Bittle: How is Miami? [palm tree] [martini glass]

He tilts the phone to show it to Whits, who smiles and tugs his shirt over his head. “Ask him to look up a bar we can hit after the game.”

“I’m afraid to,” Jack replies.

“One of these days, I’m gonna get you to relax, Zimms. Just kick back, have two entire beers, maybe talk to a hot girl.”

“Good luck with that,” Treat says from a couple of stalls down. “I don’t think I’ve ever even seen Zimms smile off the ice.”

“It’s not in my programming,” Jack replies, deadpan, and everyone laughs.

“No, I’ve seen it,” Whits says. “You just have to catch him at the right time.”

Hot, Jack replies to Bitty. You have a game tonight? He sets his phone face-down on the bench while he unties his shoes; it buzzes again within seconds.

Yep. They keep moving me around in the lines. Tonight I’m with Becks and James.

Jack frowns at the unfamiliar names. Frogs?

Yep. Coach has me playing center. Haven’t done that since high school.

Jack is still composing a response to that when the next message pops up: I miss playing with you. [sad face]

He stares at the phone for a few seconds before replying. I miss playing with you too. Got used to having you on my line, always where I knew you’d be.

You and Taylor seem to be drift compatible.

Jack isn’t exactly sure what that means, but he can guess. Yeah, he’s great. But Coach keeps trying different guys on the right wing, so it’s all over the place.

They’ll figure it out. [smiley]
I subbed the Falconers’ twitter account so I’ll get updates on your game tonight. Good luck!

Jack smiles at his phone. You can catch highlights later, Bittle. Focus on your own damn game.

I’ll have you know I am completely capable of multitasking

Jack has to choke back a laugh at that. No, you really aren’t.

Whatever. Go earn that paycheck.

“I take it back,” Treat says, his voice cutting through the buzz of the locker room. “Who the fuck are you texting to make you light up like that, Zimms?”

“Just your mom.” Jack locks his phone and tucks it away in his duffel as everyone laughs.

*****

The Panthers go down 6-2, and Jack scores his first NHL hat trick. His phone is full of congratulatory texts and voice messages by the time he gets back to it, but he doesn’t have a chance to check them all until after he’s showered and done press. The guys want to take him out to celebrate and, even though he’d rather go hole up in his hotel room, he can’t really say no.

He calls his parents long enough to promise to call them back later, and replies with a bunch of smiley face emojis to the Samwell hockey group text. There’s a separate text from Bittle that says, So proud of you!!!, to which Jack replies with a blushy emoji and a Thanks.

The bar they end up at is insane. Jack hasn’t ever been much for the club scene, but this place is pretty much the wildest thing he can imagine. There are bright flashing lights, scantily-clad people gyrating on every available surface, and drinks with names so complicated he has no idea what they might contain. Many of them are designed to glow under blacklights. They’re sitting behind a white velvet rope in some exclusive section with everyone staring at them, which is only marginally better than having to fend off well-wishers.

He limits himself to just one of the drinks his teammates buy for him and sneaks the rest to Whits, who seems more than happy to take them off his hands. Rolly and Sandy send women his way one after another. He talks to each of them long enough not to be rude, then buys them a drink and politely sends them on their way. He directs the first two at Whits until it becomes clear that Whits isn’t interested either. After an awkward twenty minutes of this, he pulls Rolly aside and says he doesn’t want to pick up. Rolly nods and calls off the effort, and to Jack’s relief, that’s the end of it.

Whits is leaning hard against him by the end of the evening. “Dude,” he says around midnight, head on Jack’s shoulder, “you totally deserve to get your dick wet tonight. What gives?”

“Not interested,” Jack says quietly.

Whits stares at him for a long moment, then looks away. “Right, so… is there something else you’re interested in?”

“Going back to the hotel?” Jack asks, though he doubts that’s going to happen anytime soon. Whits stares back at him, a little surprised crinkle appearing between his eyebrows, and Jack sighs and look away. “Seriously, man, I just wanna watch some NHL highlights and go to sleep.”

Whits makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. “Bro, you’re gonna be the NHL highlight. You know that, right?”

Jack turns to look at him. Whits has big brown eyes, almost like… Jack blinks at him for a moment, then looks away and reaches for his glass, drains the rest of the liquid from it. “Shit, I hadn’t thought about that.”

He’s not sure he wants to watch that, to hear what they have to say about him, how they’re all waiting for him to disappoint everyone, like he always does. He closes his eyes. It went well tonight, but he got lucky on two of those goals. One was even an empty netter, a clear, easy shot from his own blue line. It could have gone differently if he hadn’t been in the right place at the right time by sheer fucking luck. He’s still adjusting to the pace of the NHL, to playing against professionals with years of experience. He has to be better, to learn to read the guys on his line better, to—

He needs to go to sleep, to stop himself from spiraling down this sinkhole of thinking this was a fluke, that he isn’t really good enough to be here, that after the next game they’re going to realize they made a mistake in offering him a contract and trade him for a fucking third round draft pick as soon as they can.

“Zimms?”

He realizes he’s been staring off into space for a full minute. “I… sorry.”

Whits squeezes Jack’s shoulder. “No, man, s’fine. We’re done here. Let’s go.” Whits makes excuses for them, then leads Jack outside and hails a cab. They’re back at the hotel ten minutes later, and Jack is so grateful he doesn’t know what to say.

Whits keys open the door and gestures Jack through. “You want the bathroom first?”

“No, go ahead,” Jack says. He opens the minibar, but there’s nothing in it he wants. He pockets a room key and heads downstairs to the sundries shop in the lobby. He feels silly buying chocolate milk, but it sounds nice, so he does.

Whits is sitting up in bed watching something on his laptop when Jack gets back. Jack sits on the bed and drinks his milk, thumbing through the messages on his phone again. He looks up to see Whits giving his empty chocolate milk container a speculative look.

Jack shrugs. “More my speed.”

“I’m not judging.”

Jack strips out of his suit and changes into the old Samwell t-shirt he’s taken to sleeping in on the road. He brushes his teeth, then sits on his bed and yawns. The music coming from Whits’ laptop is a pop song of some sort, but there are voices layered over it. The volume is low enough that Jack can’t quite make out what they’re saying, but it’s definitely some sort of commentary.

“What’re you watching?”

Whits looks over at him. “You didn’t tell me your friend Eric used to be a figure skater.”

Jack blinks, surprised. It’s not something he’s thought about much. He’s only ever known Bittle as a hockey player, so it hadn’t really occurred to him to—

“Wait, are you watching Bittle?”

“I was looking for that baking vlog of his and I found this instead. Southern Junior Regional Figure Skating Competition, 2010.” He’s slurring his words, but it’s weirdly adorable. “He was pretty good.”

Jack is on his feet and crossing over to look at the screen before he quite realizes he’s doing it. Whits pauses the video and scoots over to make room for him on the bed, then drags the slider back to the beginning of the performance. Bittle skates out to the center of the ice and poses. The music starts and he begins to move, and Jack is transfixed. Bittle looks impossibly young in the video, but his skating is as strong and graceful as ever.

“I’ve never seen this,” Jack says, leaning in closer to stare at the screen.

“Seriously? He’s one of your best friends and you’ve never watched this stuff?” Whits looks at Jack like he’s a horrible person, or possibly an idiot.

Jack frowns. “I don’t know. It didn’t seem… He plays hockey now.”

On the screen, Bittle does a complicated series of jumps, followed by a leg extension that looks impossible.

“Damn,” Whits says under his breath. “Can he still do this stuff?”

“He did jumps every now and then at practice, just to make us laugh.”

“In hockey skates?”

“Yeah.” Jack shrugs. He knew Bittle had reserved the ice a few times last year and taught the some of the frogs to do some basic jumps and spins, just for fun. Jack hadn’t ever gone to watch, and he’s regretting that now.

“I knew a couple of guys who switched from figure skating to hockey. They were all fast as hell. Good edge control, you know?”

Jack smiles. “That sounds like Bittle. He played on my wing most of the last two years.”

“So you’re saying I’m a poor replacement, then?” Whits leans against him, warm and comfortable.

“You’re all right.” Jack watches the screen for a moment. “Bittle thinks you and I are drift compatible.” He’d finally looked up the reference a few days ago.

“Nice.” Whits chuckles, apparently pleased by that remark. They watch the rest of the program, then Whits starts another video from a different competition. “So why’d he quit competing?”

Jack has to think for a moment to dredge up that particular conversation. “I think it was a combination of things. His dad got a new job and they had to move, and it was gonna be stupid expensive for him to keep training. And he’d kinda hit the top of what he could do without having to leave home and make a lot of sacrifices. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go the pro route, so it didn’t make sense to keep going.”

Whits sighs. “Yeah, I get that. I spent two years playing on a NAHL team outside of Fort Worth, so I got to live at home with my family and go to school with my friends. If I’d had to go halfway across the country and live with a billet family, I’m not sure I would’ve done it. I had a hard enough time going off to college.”

Jack spent a good amount of his teen years living with billet families, but he just nods. Hockey was all he ever wanted to do, and leaving his family at 16 was just part of the deal. He’d never considered it a sacrifice.

“Hey, we’re back.” They look up to see Rolly frowning at them from the doorway connecting their rooms. “You two watching porn or something?”

“Figure skating, actually,” Jack says, and Rolly snorts.

“Seriously, you’re snuggling up and watching figure skating together? That’s kinda gay.”

“It’s hella gay,” Whits says, smirking at him. “You wanna come join us? It’s a big bed.”

“Dude, you know I’m a happily married man.” Rolly holds up his left hand and wiggles his fingers. “I’ll leave you lovebirds to it, then. Pound on the door if we’re not up in time for breakfast.”

“Will do.”

Jack frowns, not entirely sure what just happened. He sits up and stretches. “I’m going to sleep.”

“Good idea.” Whits pauses the video and closes his laptop. “You’re gonna go watch your team’s season opener this weekend, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So, like — would it be okay if I tagged along? I mean, unless you just want time to hang out with your friends and all. I don’t mean to be a leech.”

“No, that’d be cool. I’ll text Lardo, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem.” He sits on the bed and looks over at Whits. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For being interested. I mean, it’s just a college hockey game, but it’s important to me.”

Whits gives him an incredulous look. “I watched y’all play in the Frozen Four last year. I’m gonna geek out a little.”

Jack laughs. “Okay, then. Yeah.”

*****

They get their asses kicked by the Hurricanes two days later, which is fairly humiliating. Jack and Whits both had two-point games, each assisting the other on a goal, but that was all the team managed to put on the board. The Canes tied the game at the end of the second, and went on to score three more in the third, the last one an empty netter after the coach finally pulled Treat to get a sixth man on the ice.

Jack spends a long time in the shower afterward, trying to get his head together before he has to go face the press. They fell apart in the third period, somehow. They couldn’t get anything going, and it was beyond frustrating.

“You drowning in here?” Whits turns on the shower next to him.

“Something like that.”

“That last period really sucked.” Whits steps under the spray and tilts his face up into it.

Jack watches him for a moment, then turns away. “Yeah.”

“Sweet wrister, though.”

“Thanks.” Jack sighs. “Uh… you too.”

“Nah, man, that goal was garbage and you know it. Still, I’m not gonna say no to the point.”

Jack turns off the spray and reaches for a towel. He knows he’s dropping his end of this conversation, but talking to anyone, even Whits, is the last thing he wants to do right now.

He manages not to sound too much like a robot when he talks to the press, though it’s a close thing. His phone is going off like crazy, but he can’t bring himself to look. It’ll be full of commiserating messages from his friends, and he’s not really in a good place to read those. Moments keep sliding through his mind, one after the other: if he’d just skated harder, he could’ve intercepted that pass. If he’d been in the right position when Sandy had fired the puck off the point, he could’ve knocked it into a wide open net. If he hadn’t gotten his stick tangled in Staal’s skates, he wouldn’t have had to watch helplessly from the box while the Canes scored on the power play.

He sits on the bench with his head in his hands and takes deep, slow breaths, trying to calm the storm in his head.

“Hey.” He feels Whits’ hand on his shoulder. “You ready?”

Jack sighs. “Yeah.”

Whits goes to hang out with Rolly and Janssen when they first get back to the hotel. He seems to recognize when Jack needs to be alone, and Jack appreciates that more than he can express.

He settles back on the bed with his phone to finally read through his messages. His parents left a voice mail that he’ll listen to in the morning. Bittle sent him a string of emojis — a sad face, a smiley face doing… jazz hands?, and some other ones he’s not sure about, but he thinks are meant to be funny. He replies with a sad face of his own.

Bittle texts back almost immediately: Want to hear a joke?

Jack blinks at the phone, then types back ok.

Two goldfish are in a tank. One says to the other, “Do you know how to drive this thing?”

Jack stares at his phone for three full seconds. That’s awful.

What do you call a fish with no eye?

Jack bites his lip. What?

Fsssshhh.

“Oh my god,” Jack mutters.

How does a Roman order five beers at the bar?

How?

He holds up 2 fingers.

Jack snickers. How many of these do you have?

As many as it takes. [smiley]

Something in Jack’s chest melts pleasantly. He slides under the covers and curls up with the phone. Keep going.

Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom? Because the p is silent.

Jack sends back a laughing emoji.

He falls asleep about fifteen jokes later, his chest lighter than it’s been since the game ended, fingers still curved around the phone.

*****

Chapter Text

At 4:00 on Friday afternoon, Whits knocks on Jack’s door. He’s wearing a University of Michigan hockey t-shirt that has to be a size too small, considering the way it stretches over his shoulders, and faded jeans with artful tears over his thighs. Jack’s gaze slides over him appreciatively before he quite realizes he’s doing it.

Whits raises his eyebrows and smirks. “What?”

“You look like you’re planning to hook up with a sorority girl tonight.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say no.” Whits grins. “It’s been a while since anybody else touched my dick.”

“That’s no one’s fault but your own.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been babysitting this rookie for the last couple of months, so—”

Jack reaches up to flick the Falconers snapback off his head.

“Hey!” Whits swipes it off the floor and tilts his head back, shaking that flow away from his face. Jack feels a pang of longing for the hair Shitty cut off a few months ago. Whits slides the snapback on again, brim backwards so that it holds the hair away from his face. “I see you’re playing the prodigal son tonight.”

Jack shrugs. He’d decided to go full alum tonight and wear his old jersey. “C’mon, let’s beat the traffic out of town.”

Whits is happy to let Jack choose music for the drive, and he doesn’t even chirp him for it. “My dad was a huge classic rock fan,” he says, drumming his fingers along to Carry on my Wayward Son. “He took me to so many concerts when I was little. I think I was the only kid in my first grade class who knew what weed smelled like.”

“Who did you see?”

“Oh, man — REO Speedwagon and Styx did this co-headlining tour for years, and we saw them three or four times. God, who else? Journey, Foreigner, Aerosmith, Sammy Hagar — he was so wasted he kept forgetting the lyrics.” He laughs and shakes his head. “I’m sure my dad had fun explaining that one. Oh, and I saw KISS in full makeup twice.”

“Oh, shit,” Jack says, grinning. “What was that like?”

“Fucking amazing. There’s nothing like being eight years old and watching Gene Simmons spit up blood right in front of you.” Whits turns to look at him. “Did you ever do shit like that with your dad, or was it all hockey, all the time?”

“He was still playing when I was little, so he was gone a lot. After he retired, hockey was kind of the only thing we had in common. And he was always doing all-star stuff, so there was that.”

“You must have known a lot of famous hockey players when you were a kid.”

Jack half-laughs, half-sighs. “Yeah, you could say that.” He doesn’t really want to talk about his dad or his childhood, though, because that inevitably leads to talking about what happened later. “How did you get into hockey, living in Texas?”

“My mom played in college, and she wanted us to learn to skate. I guess it kind of started there. My brother and I both played as kids, but he was bigger than me and eventually got sucked into football. He went to Texas State on a scholarship, but he tore up his knee junior year.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.” They’re both quiet for a moment. “He got married a couple of years ago and has a baby now. I’m looking forward to seeing them when we’re there in November.” Whits chatters on about his family and growing up in Dallas, and it’s easy for Jack to sit back and listen. He reminds Jack of Bittle in that way. Bittle has somehow become his barometer for measuring friendship in the last year, and he isn’t quite sure how that happened. It works, though, so he’s not going to question it.

Jack texts Bittle when they get to Samwell, and he’s waiting by the door to the locker rooms when they get to Faber. Bittle hugs Jack tightly, saying, “God, it’s good to see you in person.”

Jack dips his head and whispers, “Yeah,” because Skype and texting really haven’t been enough lately.

Bittle stands back to smile up at him, then turns and pulls Whits into a quick hug. “Nice to see you again, Taylor.”

“Yeah, you too.” Whits looks a little flustered, as if he hadn’t expected that sort of greeting at all.

“Come on, the guys are gonna be so excited to see y’all.”

They follow Bittle down to the meeting room, where the team is gathered for strategy. Whits hesitates outside the door, but Bittle gives him a push forward. “They’re expecting Jack, but they’re gonna flip out over you.”

The team breaks into applause and whoops when they walk in. Ransom and Holster get to Jack first, followed by the rest of the guys he played with. He gets warm hugs from Murray and Hall, both of whom tell him how proud they are of him. The new frogs hang back, looking starstruck until Bittle shoves them forward and makes them introduce themselves. Jack smiles at all of them and asks them what positions they play, which makes some of them stammer adorably. Whits hangs back and smiles, happy to let Jack be in the spotlight, but he gets his fair share of attention too.

Just as Jack is starting to feel overwhelmed, Lardo comes to the rescue. She shoos everyone away and escorts Jack and Whits back to the front of the building. She gives them both full access passes on lanyards.

“You two should go eat. Text me when you get back and I’ll let you in the side door and walk you up to the box.”

“Okay.” Jack stares down at the lanyard in his hand. It’s beyond weird to be treated like a guest in this place that used to be home, the place where he was the captain for years. There’s a sudden prickling in the corners of his eyes, and he doesn’t know what to do. He pulls Lardo into a hug.

“What’s got into you, bro? It’s like you haven’t seen me in a week.” She winks at him and gives him a shove, then walks away.

Whits is carefully inspecting the fine print on the back of the pass, and doesn’t look up at Jack. “Ready?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

Jack takes Whits to one of his favorite spots on campus. They’re almost immediately swarmed by students and fans, but the excitement settles down quickly and they’re able to order food.

“So you’re some kind of campus hero, huh?” Whits asks when they finally have a chance to talk.

“It’s a small school,” Jack says, shrugging. “And the hockey team did really well last year.”

“Okay — seriously, Zimms? You’re kind of a big deal.”

“Shut up.” Jack throws a breadstick at him. He shouldn’t really be eating them anyway.

They go straight to the team box when they get to Faber. Shitty is already there, wearing his old jersey and drinking a ridiculously large beer.

“Jaaaack!” Shitty jumps up and folds him into a hug, then turns to Whits. “Fuckin’ clutch shot the other night, bro.” He offers a fist and Whits bumps it, grinning.

“Thanks, man.”

“You two know you’re all over Twitter right now, right?”

Whits reaches for his phone. “Seriously?”

“The Falconers’ dynamic duo, here to cheer for the Wellies. How many selfies did you take with people over at Donatello’s?”

Jack groans. The last thing he wants is to overshadow the team tonight. He’s here to support them, not to hog the spotlight.

Shitty slings an arm around his shoulders. “Bro, stop that shit right now. Enjoy yourself. You deserve it.” He pulls out his phone. “But while I’ve got you here — selfie!”

The stands begin to fill around them, and Jack sees people snapping photos of the three of them. It’s something he’s used to, but it’s still weird, especially here. The teams come out for warmups, and that finally gives Jack something else to focus on. Shitty and Whits chat over his back as he leans forward in his seat, elbows on his knees.

He’s not sure why his chest feels so tight at the sight of the familiar red jerseys circling on the ice below. He hasn’t been back here in six months, but it feels like years. So much has happened. So much has changed.

“I was gonna ask which one is Eric, but I really don’t have to.”

Jack looks up to see Whits watching the guys below. “He makes up for his size with speed. That was what made him great to have on my line. He got something like seventy percent of his points in assists on my goals last year. He beats everyone to the puck, every time.”

“He’s a speedy little fucker,” Shitty says from Jack’s other side. “Where do they have him tonight?”

Jack blinks. He has no idea. He ought to know that, right? He should’ve asked.

“You two staying for the party?” Shitty asks, plowing right on to the next subject.

“We have a game tomorrow night, so we can’t stay too late.” Jack shrugs and looks over at Whits, who grins at him.

“Bruh, I haven’t been to a college party in a long time.”

Jack sits back and smiles. “Then I guess we’re going.”

*****

The team plays sloppily, but they still manage to win by a single goal. One of the frogs is a strong power forward, someone Shitty says elected to play NCAA hockey after getting drafted as a prospect by Edmonton. His name isn’t familiar, but Jack makes a note to find him later and talk to him. The kid has serious potential.

Jack and Whits get big cheers when they show up on the monitor, and that leads to them getting swamped with fans during both intermissions and after the game. A young woman from the Daily corners them for an impromptu interview after they finally make their way down to the locker room to congratulate the team. Jack is polite and doesn’t say much of substance, and she finally smiles tightly and walks away.

“How do you do that?” Whits says when she’s out of earshot.

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Jack replies. “C’mon, let’s head over.”

They move Jack’s truck to a side street by the Haus. The party has already started, even though not everyone is back yet. Ransom greets Jack and Whits with open arms, then drags them to the back porch where the keg is on ice.

“Bitty won’t let us keep it in the Haus anymore, not after The Incident.”

“Incident?” Whits asks.

Jack winces. “I’ve never seen Bittle so mad.”

“And we all agreed we never wanted to see it again.” Ransom shudders. “Anyways, here.” He hands them each a red solo cup. Whits fills his and holds his hand out for Jack’s.

Jack shakes his head. “I’m driving us back tonight.” Not that he would’ve been interested in drinking tonight anyway; Haus parties plus alcohol equal a world of no.

Whits nods. “Thanks. And don’t let me overdo it. No matter how much I think I want to.”

Jack smirks. “Yeah, well. I’ll try.”

There are another 30 people in the Haus when they walk back in. It’s nowhere near normal kegster levels of rowdy, but Whits seems impressed.

He grins at Jack. “This fuckin’ takes me back.”

Jack leaves him by the Haus noticeboard to go search for a soda in the kitchen. He comes back out to find Whits talking to Chowder.

“Jack!” Chowder says, grinning widely at him.

Chowder holds out his hand, but Jack pulls him into a quick hug. “That was an amazing save at the end of the second.”

Chowder flushes, looking pleased. “Thanks, Jack. I’ve been working a lot on the paddle down, like we did last year. Oh! So I don’t know if you’re staying over tonight, but if you are, you can totally sleep in my room. I mean your room. You know, your old room? I can crash on the couch or something. I don’t mind!”

Jack shakes his head and smiles. “Thanks, but we have to head back tonight. Tomorrow’s game day. I see you’ve met Whits?”

Whits turns out to be fantastic at making small talk with strangers, and Jack is happy to hang back and watch. They’re standing right on the main path to the keg, and eventually everyone files past, stopping to chat or just gawk, and sometimes a mixture of both. Jack has a ten-minute conversation with Zach Beckham, the frog who’d stood out to him in the game, who looks at him all starry-eyed and says he’d chosen Samwell over Harvard because he’d wanted to play for the same team as Jack did.

Jack kind of wishes he had a drink in his hand when he processes that.

They take more selfies than Jack can keep track of, and he’s sure they’re going to end up featured in the Swallow, but it’s all good. After half an hour of this, yet another unfamiliar inebriated kid comes up to them.

“So you’re the famous Jack Zimmerman?” the kid says. He’s already schwasted, and the party’s just getting started.

“Apparently,” Jack says, forcing himself to be polite.

“Hunh. You’re not as tall as I expected.”

Jack hears Whits snicker next to him. He shrugs. “Sorry to disappoint.”

“Nah,” the kid makes a strange face and sways a little. “Jus’, Eric talks about you aaaalll the time. Like, all the time, and I guess I was expecting. I dunno.” He frowns and looks at Jack again. “Your eyes are really fuckin’ blue, man.”

Jack laughs. “Sorry, did you say you’re a friend of Eric’s?”

The kid’s smile widens then, and he holds up his red cup. “I’m Braden. His boyfriend.” He lets the word hang there between them, almost sneering at Jack.

“Oh, right,” Jack says. He takes a sip from his soda to cover the way his jaw wants to clench. Braden is smaller than Jack, but in that way that suggests he’s not done growing. He’s wearing a polo shirt and cargo shorts, and the hair peeking out from under his backwards snapback is buzzed short. He looks like a total douche. “Hayden, you said?”

“Braden.” Braden’s smirk falters. “So like, I’ve heard a lot about you, and shit.”

“Really?” Jack smiles blandly at him. This guy’s dick has been in Bittle’s mouth. Jack kind of wants to punch him.

“I play Lacrosse,” Braden says, as if this explains something.

“Yeah?” Jack can barely restrain himself from smirking. “How do your teammates feel about you dating a hockey player? I thought they all hated us.”

Braden blanches slightly and looks away. “Yeah, whatever. I don’ care. Eric’s like, wicked awesome boots. Nice ass an’ all that shit. Bro, you feel?”

Jack isn’t sure if that was English. He and Whits exchange a glance and Whits raises his eyebrows, clearly trying not to laugh.

“Sure,” is all Jack can manage to say. He looks past Braden’s shoulder and sees Bittle across the room, walking toward them. He can spot the moment Bittle realizes Braden is talking to him: his expression changes to one of embarrassed horror.

“Here comes your boy now,” Jack says, and Braden goes from cocky to chagrined in an instant.

“Hey Jack, Taylor.” Bittle stops next to Braden and shoots a pointed look at him. “Braden, I thought you were—”

“Heeeey,” Braden says, and wraps an arm around Bittle’s shoulders. He plants a sloppy kiss high on his cheek, then tries to kiss his mouth.

Bittle twists away from him. “Oh my god, you’re so drunk.” He mouths sorry at Jack, who just shrugs.

“I wanted to meet the famous Jack,” Braden says, leaning heavily on Bittle now. “Cause you, like, fuckin’ talk about him all the time, dude, even when—”

“Okay, you’ve met him,” Bittle snaps, and drags Braden away. They have what seems to be a tense conversation by the front door. Braden looks back at Jack, then jerks his arm out of Bittle’s grasp and leaves. Bittle presses his hands over his face for a moment, then walks back to where Jack and Whits are standing.

“You okay?” Jack asks.

“Yeah.” Bittle sighs. “Sorry. That was not how I wanted that to go.”

“How did you want it to go?” Jack sounds snide even to his own ears.

“Well, not with him being a drunk idiot.”

“You didn’t have to kick him out.”

“I didn’t.” Bittle presses a hand to his forehead and sighs. “He just… Damn, I need a drink.”

Lardo slides up beside them, casting a worried glance at Bittle. “Heeey, I need a partner for beer pong.” She elbows Whits. “You up for it, Whitton? I kicked Kent Parson’s ass last year.”

Whits looks at Jack, then back to Lardo. “Yeah, sure.” He follows her away, saying, “But I’ve got a game tomorrow, so I’m not gonna—”

Jack pats Bittle on the shoulder. “Let’s get you a drink.”

They head to the kitchen. Bittle rifles through the fridge for the bottle of wine he always keeps stashed in the back, and also comes out with half of a pie. He sits across from Jack at the kitchen table with a tumbler of chardonnay and two forks. He hands one to Jack, then sets the pie plate between them.

Jack frowns down at the pie — this situation is not unfamiliar. Is he missing something here?

Oh.

He looks up at Bittle. “Did you just break up with your boyfriend?”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Bittle says, digging into the pie.

“Was he your boyfriend until five minutes ago?”

Bittle sighs. “I didn’t think so, but… maybe he does. We haven’t exactly talked about it.”

Jack takes a bite of pie and watches Bittle’s face, waiting.

“He’s mad because I told him not to come tonight.”

Jack looks back at him, startled. “Why didn’t you want him to come?”

Bittle groans. “I just didn’t want to deal with it. I mean, I wanted to hang out with you, and not have him being all” —he waves his fork in the air— “clingy and weird.”

“Clingy and weird,” Jack repeats.

“And then he was, which was exactly why I didn’t want him to come and, oh, god, I sound like an asshole, don’t I?”

Jack thinks Bittle sounds perfectly reasonable, actually. Which… okay. “I think you’re asking the wrong person for relationship advice.”

Bittle laughs. “You can’t be any worse at this than me.”

“Have you met me? I’ve only been in one relationship ever.” Maybe two, Jack thinks, depending on how one defines it.

“Seriously?” Bittle’s eyes are suddenly huge.

Jack flushes and looks down at the pie. “Yeah.”

Bittle goes quiet, possibly hoping Jack is going to elaborate. Which he’s absolutely not.

Jack sighs. “So do you like him?”

“I guess? Well, sometimes. I mean, he’s cute. He likes me.” Bittle bites his lip. “He’s pretty good in bed.”

Too much information. Jack winces.

“Sorry.” Bittle smirks at him. “I guess I imagined having a… a boyfriend differently, you know?”

Jack sets the fork down and leans back in his chair. “What did you imagine?”

“That we’d be friends, I guess? That we’d talk about stuff, do things together. Have friends in common. Text each other things that aren’t dick pics.” Bittle frowns, and Jack resolves never to look at Bittle’s phone again.

The door opens and Shitty’s head pops through. “Hey, are you — am I interrupting something?”

“We’re talking about Bittle’s boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Bittle says, groaning.

Jack raises his eyebrows at Shitty.

“Damn, I think I need to hear this. Oooh, pie.” Shitty sits next to Jack and reaches over to pick up his discarded fork. He reeks of pot, but that just makes Jack feel a warm sort of nostalgia for him. Shitty scoops out a bite of pie and shoves it in his mouth. “Ahhmm guh,” he says through his mouthful. He waves his hand at them in a clear gesture of continue.

“So I guess the big thing is that, if we weren’t hooking up, he and I would never be friends.” Bittle sighs. “He doesn’t give a shit about hockey. He’ll go on about lacrosse forever, but god forbid I talk about how practice went.”

“Well, fuck that asshole,” Jack says. Shitty snickers and slaps him on the back, and Jack cringes. “Shit, not literally. You know what I mean.”

Bittle snorts. “Yeah, well, he made it pretty clear that was never gonna happen. He’s too much of a bro, or something.”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Shitty says, pointing the fork at Bittle. “Are you saying he thinks there’s something wrong with him taking it up the ass, but not you?”

Jack groans and presses his forehead on the table. He really doesn’t want to know what Bittle did in bed with this guy.

“I think we’re traumatizing Jack,” Bittle says.

“Jack can cover his innocent fucking ears. That is some fucked up homophobic shit, Bitty.”

“Look, it’s not… Braden’s got some hangups about being gay. Y’all know what guys in locker rooms say, how awful they can be.”

Jack sighs and looks up. He does know. He hears it in his own locker room, and he never says a word. A wave of guilt washes over him.

“He’s never been with a guy before me. He hasn’t even come out to his team yet. This is all new for him, and it’s fucking hard, all right?”

“Fuck, sorry.” Shitty sits back, deflated. “Look, Bits, it’s none of my business, but—”

“Don’t let that stop you,” Jack mutters, but Shitty ignores him.

“—you don’t have to be his gay fairy godmother, or whatever. You don’t owe him anything. If you’re not feeling it, move on. You deserve to get exactly what you want.”

“I know, I know. I just… it’s nice to have somebody want me like that.” Bittle sighs and looks up at Jack for a moment, then looks away again. “It’s not like I’ve dated a lot.”

“Look, I gotta be honest with you, Bits." Shitty leans across the table and takes Bittle’s hand. "You’re fuckin’ hot, okay? Like, I’m probably 85 percent straight, but if I thought it wouldn’t ruin our friendship, I’d totally be down for it.”

Bitty laughs and jerks his hand away. “Shut up!”

“I’m serious! I’ve never had a dick in my ass, but millions of people seem to like it, dudes especially. So you know, it’s on the bucket list.”

Jack bursts into laughter. “How high are you, Shits?”

“I’m extending that offer to you too, Jay-Z. And your super-hot linemate. I’m just sayin’. Any of you get a free pass to tap this whenever you want. Providing any partner I may have at the time is willing, consent is given, et cetera.”

Bittle slides down in his chair, laughing. “Oh, lord. I can’t breathe.”

The door opens and Holster walks in with Whits close behind him. Holster grins down at them. “Looks like we’re missing the fun.”

Jack wipes his eyes. “Shitty just propositioned us.”

“Oh, that’s all,” Holster replies.

Shitty grins at Holster. “I extend the invitation to you fine gentlemen as well. But not tonight. I haven’t taken a dump for two days, so.”

Everyone dissolves into laughter. Whits shakes his head incredulously at Jack, but he’s grinning. Jack figures that if this doesn’t scare him off, they’re really going to be friends.

Bittle produces more pie from somewhere, and Whits and Holster sit on the other side of the table. Bittle stands until Holster pulls him close enough to lean against his thighs, almost sitting in his lap. Jack watches Holster wrap one arm around Bittle’s waist and hook his chin over Bittle’s shoulder, and he feels something twist in his belly. He looks away, and forces himself to smile as Shitty goes on about a legendary kegster back in their sophomore year at which Shitty swears an orgy occurred. (It didn’t.)

The thing is, Bittle isn’t Jack’s friend alone. Jack knows that, and he shouldn’t be selfish. Just because Jack’s here visiting doesn’t mean Bittle has to ignore everyone else for the night. Still, he can’t help wishing Bittle was leaning on him right now instead of Holster, warm and solid against Jack’s side.

He looks up to see Whits watching him, and he sighs.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack’s alarm goes off at 5:30. He picks up his phone to thumb it off, then unlocks the screen. As usual, there is a text from Bittle.

5 miles today. Playlist number 4. You up for it, Zimmermann?

Jack smiles and pushes himself to sitting. You’re on.

He gets dressed, chugs some water, and then pulls up playlist number 4. Bittle talked him through installing Spotify on his phone over Skype a couple of weeks back, and they’ve been sharing playlists for their morning runs ever since. It started out as Bittle trying to help Jack with technology, and quickly became a friendly competition between them. Jack heads out the door, starting the playlist as soon as he hits the stairs. He smiles at the first measure of Beyoncé. She’s kind of grown on him, much to his surprise.

After his run, he texts Bittle his distance and time, then strips down and showers. He makes his way to the kitchen once he’s dried off, and sips a protein shake while he scrolls through texts on his phone. Three more from Bittle, one from Shitty, one from Whits asking if they can ride together to morning skate, and two from his mom about his plans for Christmas.

It’s weirdly warm today, Bittle texts. Feels more like Georgia than Mass.

It was cool here when I ran, Jack replies.

And now?

How should I know?

You have a balcony. Open the door and walk out there. The eyeroll is heavily implied.

Jack takes a sip of his protein shake. I’m naked at the moment. Give me 5 minutes.

Several minutes pass. Jack is making coffee when his phone buzzes again.

You dressed yet?

Nope.

Jack can’t interpret the string of emojis he gets in response.

*****

“Bro, thirty miles this week?” Whits is standing next to Jack’s truck when he gets down to the parking garage. “Maybe I should start running with you instead of on a treadmill.”

Jack slings his duffel into the back and frowns at him. “How’d you know that?”

“I follow Eric on Twitter.” Whits climbs in when Jack unlocks the doors.

“And he… tweeted about that?”

Whits sighs. “Seriously, dude, you have a verified Twitter account. You should use it.”

Jack frowns. “I really don’t want the world to know any more stuff about me than necessary.” He’s kind of annoyed that Bittle’s tweeting about their running, actually.

“Just team-related stuff. It doesn’t have to be all personal. Think of it as PR.”

Jack backs out of the parking space. “I really hate PR.”

Whits chuckles and taps at the screen of his phone. “Yeah, well, it’s part of your job now, rookie.”

“I dunno, I think maybe Instagram is more my style.” Less crafting of words required.

They’re stopped at a light a few minutes later, and Whits says, “Hey, look at me.” Jack looks over and Whits snaps a photo of him.

“What’re you—”

“Ugh, not that one. Just trust me here, Zimms. Smile or something.”

Jack shakes his head and reaches for his coffee.

“Work it, baby.”

“Shut up,” Jack says, but he can’t help grinning a little.

“The rare Zimmermann smile,” Whits says, looking at his screen. “That’s the one. Do you have an Instagram account?”

“I think it’s the same as Twitter, but — wait, are you posting that?”

“Yep. On our way to morning skate. Coffee required.” He taps at the screen as rapidly as Bittle does. “And tagging you and the Falconers. There. You can retweet when we get there.” He looks up at Jack with a smug smile.

Jack shakes his head. “I don’t understand why people care about stuff like that. Isn’t it boring?”

“Not when it’s you. Oh, look, thirty likes already. Heh, Eric already retweeted it. And replied.” He taps at his phone for a bit, smiling, and doesn’t say anything more for the rest of the drive to the practice facility.

Jack waits until he gets to the locker room before he pulls out his phone and opens Twitter. He has to stare at the app for a moment before he figures out where to look for Whits’ post. The number of likes and retweets has already hit a number that makes his head spin, but he sighs and taps the symbol to retweet it. He really prefers texting.

Whits has a point, though. This is part of what he signed up for with this team, face of the franchise and all that. He turns to look at his practice jersey hanging in the stall, his stick propped up next to it. He straightens out the fabric so that the first four letters of his name are clear, then opens the camera app and carefully frames the shot. The light isn’t great, but maybe he can do something with a filter. He fiddles with it bit before he’s satisfied, then posts it to Instagram with the caption Time to get to work.

There.

When he checks again after practice, his photo has 5000 likes. It’s been posted to Twitter by the Falconers’ official account, and retweeted and liked there more times than he wants to think about.

He also has a series of texts from Bittle, most of which consist of the exclamation point emoji. Jack shakes his head and smiles.

*****

Jack carries his laptop into the kitchen and sets it on the counter. He pauses to adjust it so he can see Bittle on the screen.

“So anyway, I think I’m gonna do it,” Bittle says.

“Really?” Jack perches on a barstool. “That’s… I mean, you deserve to be happy. So.”

“So everyone keeps saying.” Bittle gives him a sardonic look. “But yeah, it’s pretty clear it’s not going anywhere. Not for me, anyway. He seems into it, but I’m… I’m not.”

Jack can’t pretend he isn’t happy about this turn of events. He never liked Braden. “When are you gonna tell him?”

“Ugh, I dunno. We’re supposed to get together tomorrow tonight. He’s coming over. Maybe I should just call him.” He frowns. “Or should I wait until I see him? I’ve never broken up with someone before. I don’t know how this is supposed to go.”

Jack shrugs. “I have no idea.”

Bittle bites his lip. “So you, uh… You’ve been in a relationship. How did it end?”

I overdosed, is the first thing that pops into Jack’s head. That’s a sure way to derail the conversation, though, and Jack’s not up for talking about Parse anyway. “Camilla just sort of said she was too busy and we stopped hanging out. I didn’t realize it was over until Shitty told me that meant I’d been dumped.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.” Jack rubs his hands over his face for a moment. “Honestly, I didn’t even realize we were dating for a while there. I thought she just wanted to hang out. I was completely surprised the first time she kissed me.”

Bittle’s expression is pained for a moment. “You’re right. You’re no help at all.”

“Sorry.” Jack smiles sheepishly at him.

Bittle sighs. “Ugh, I can’t deal with this right now. I’m gonna bake a pie. Do you need to run or…?”

Jack smiles. “It’s Sunday night. I have nowhere else to be.”

The background shifts as Bittle carries his laptop downstairs. Jack goes to get a glass of water, and when he comes back, the view is of the Haus kitchen. The sound of Bittle rummaging around offscreen is strangely comforting. It reminds him of evenings spent in the kitchen, watching Bittle create something out of flour and butter while he worked on plays or studied off and on. Doing it via Skype isn’t the same, but it eases the sharp ache in his chest.

“You should come visit,” Jack says. “I’ve got a nice oven that’s barely been used.”

Bittle reappears on the screen, smiling. “If we can ever get our schedules aligned, I will.”

The Falconers seem to be on the road whenever Samwell is playing at home, and vice versa. It’s been three weeks since Jack has seen any of his old friends. Samwell and Providence aren’t that far apart, but it still seems impossible to find a time that works for everyone.

Jack’s phone pings and he glances down at it. “Whits wants to come hang out.”

“Sweet. I’ve been meaning to thank him anyway.”

“For what?”

“For accomplishing what I never could and getting you on social media.” Bittle grins at the screen, then disappears from view.

Jack texts Whits back, and a few minutes later, the door swings open after a cursory knock.

“I brought beer,” Whits says by way of greeting. “Oh, sorry — I didn’t realize you were talking to someone.”

“It’s Bittle,” Jack says, turning toward him.

“Eric, hey!” Whits leans over Jack’s shoulder to look at the screen. “Whoa, are you baking?”

“Yeah.” Bittle grins shyly at the screen. “Y’all don’t have to keep me company. You probably have better things to do than—”

“We really don’t.” Whits squeezes Jack’s shoulder. “It’s either this or talk about hockey, and today is my day off.” He takes two bottles from the carton and sets them on the counter, then takes the rest of the beer to the fridge. When he returns, Bittle is cutting butter into flour on the screen. “Whoa, you actually make the crust yourself?”

Bittle looks up to stare at them through the Skype connection. “What did you think I did?”

“I dunno, use a mix?” Jack can feel Whits shrug next to him. “I didn’t know people still made crust from scratch.”

“Bless your heart,” Bittle says, shaking his head.

“Hey!” Whits replies, sounding indignant.

“Even Jack knows how to make pie crust,” Bittle says.

Whits turns to look at Jack, clearly surprised. “Seriously?”

“Bittle taught me,” Jack says, shrugging. “It’s not actually that hard.”

Whits leans against Jack and laughs. “Zimms, you are full of surprises.”

Bittle makes quick work of the dough as they talk about the struggles of Samwell’s team this year. “I knew we’d miss you,” Bittle says, pinching the edges of the dough around the edge of a pie dish, “but I don’t think I really understood what a great captain you were until you were gone.”

Jack feels Whits’ warm gaze on him and flushes. “I’m sure Ransom and Holster are doing fine.”

“Yeah, but it’s been a big shift for them. You know how they are. And the new frogs are great, but lord, there are some egos there.” Bittle rolls his eyes. “And of course, there was the requisite shock over having an openly gay guy on the team for them to deal with.”

Jack frowns. “What happened?”

“It was no big deal. Just some mildly homophobic shit in the locker room, you know. Dex and Nursey took care of it.”

“Good.” Jack remembers having to have a similar talk with Dex early last year.

Whits shift next to him. “It’s awesome that your teammates are cool about it.”

“Yeah, it really is. I mean, it’s Samwell, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, but still.”

“Yeah.” Whits looks thoughtful.

Bittle looks up at them from the pie crust and bites his lip. “So… would y’all mind if I took a screenshot of you two and posted it?”

Jack glances at Whits, who shrugs. “Yeah, okay.”

Whits leans over Jack’s shoulder to frame himself in the Skype window. His hair falls down around his face and he pushes it back, then spends almost a minute arranging it with his fingers.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Bittle says, smirking.

“We’ll be here all night,” Jack says. “Take the damn picture.”

Bittle grins at them. “Perfect. It’s okay if I tag both of you, right?”

“Go for it,” Whits says, standing up again to pick up his beer bottle.

A moment later, both of their phones buzz with the notification. Whits opens it and shows Jack the tweet. The screenshot turned out well, with Whits on the verge of laughing and Jack looking directly at the camera with a soft smile. Bittle had written Just skyping with some friends tonight @twhitton22 @jzimmsofficial. Whits raises his eyebrows at Jack and leans back against the counter, out of Bittle’s view. Jack feels like he’s missed something, but he isn’t exactly sure what.

*****

The tweet blows up. By the next morning, it has several thousand likes and retweets. Jack also gets a notification that Parse is now following him. He scrolls over to his feed to see that he retweeted the screencap from Bittle and captioned it Feel the bromance, to which Bittle replied with a laughing emoji. Jack has no idea how long Parse has been following Bittle on Twitter. He isn’t sure he wants to know.

They have Monday off, so it isn’t until Tuesday morning that the rest of the team has a chance to chirp them about it.

“Where’s your BFF?” Rolly asks as soon as Jack drops his bag on the bench.

“Sorry?”

“We all know you and Whits are trying to be the next Benn and Seguin,” Treat says from across the room. “Now if you could just start playing like it—”

“Shut up,” Jack says, but he can’t help smiling. He likes Whits, and they do play well together. If pics of them being buddies off the ice get the team some extra attention, it’s probably a good thing. As long as everyone avoids certain areas of the internet, anyway.

The chirping starts up again when Whits arrives, sunglasses perched on top of his head and bag slung over his shoulder.

“Don’t be jealous, boys,” he says.

“Hey, whatever you two do in private is none of our business,” Janssen says, and everyone snickers.

Jack snorts and shakes his head, but he doesn’t miss the way Whits’ jaw clenches.

*****

They’re on the road the weekend of Halloween. Jack watches the Samwell group text light up with discussion of what everyone is wearing to the huge party they’re having after they play Harvard at home on Saturday night, and he can’t help but feel a twinge in his chest. It’s not like he ever really got into the Halloween thing — at least not until last year — but now he wishes he’d enjoyed it more while he was there.

He feels that way about a lot of his time at Samwell, lately.

They’re playing the Blues that afternoon and flying on to Chicago the next morning, so Jack assumed he’d spend Halloween hanging out in the hotel room. It turns out that Rolly played in the OHL with one of the Blues’ defensemen, and there’s a party at his house that night at which the Falconers are welcome. Jack is pretty sure he’d rather watch the Haus party on Skype and feel sorry for himself than be in a house full of drunk and possibly hostile NHL players, but Whits corners him with a costume idea and Jack decides it’s easier to go along with it than protest.

The game is rough and they play hard, finally squeaking out a win in overtime. Jack scores the winning goal himself. The crowd groans as his teammates pile on him, sticks in the air, but all Jack feels is relief. He kept it together and did his job, despite all the missed opportunities in the last period.

He’s tired and cranky and not in the mood to go anywhere, but Whits pesters him until he gives in. Their costumes are pretty low-key — Whits has Jack wear a t-shirt under his suit jacket and then stipples a goatee on him with shoe polish he found in the hotel room’s closet. Jack really wants to complain, but Whits seems excited about the whole thing, so Jack stays still and lets him do it. Whits wears a white lab coat over a dress shirt and puts on glasses, then grins at Jack.

“I don’t get it,” Jack says.

“Dude, seriously?”

Jack shrugs.

“We’re Bruce Banner and Tony Stark.”

Jack blinks at him.

“Oh my god.” Whits looks for a moment like he’s in physical pain. “Never mind. Let’s go.”

Rolly, Janssen, Treat, and Kratz are going too, and they Uber to the house where the party is happening. It’s in a nice neighborhood, and the guy has clearly gone all out with the decorations. Jack feels ridiculously self-conscious walking in. Rolly and Janssen head off to chat with Rolly’s friend, and Treat drags Kratz off to wingman for him while he talks to some girls in skimpy costumes. Whits goes to find drinks for the two of them, which is how Jack finds himself all alone, standing awkwardly in a stranger’s living room while the party swirls around him.

“Great costume,” someone says from Jack’s right. Everyone seems to know who he’s supposed to be, which is sort of bewildering.

“Thanks.” Jack turns to see one of the Blues’ D-men standing next to him. Broward, he thinks. The guy looks different when he’s not covered in sweat and snarling.

“Congrats on making it to the Frozen Four finals last year.” Broward lifts a cup of something that smells extremely alcoholic in an approximation of a toast. “That was a great game.”

Jack smiles tightly. “Not from where I was standing, but yeah. Thanks.”

Broward turns to look at him then. “Dude, you led your team to the finals. That’s like, fucking amazing. And you had two clutch goals. Everyone I know watched that game, just to see what we’d be playing against this year.”

Jack stares back at him, genuinely surprised. “Really?”

“Shyeah. C’mon, man — you had to know that game was a big deal.”

Jack shrugs. “Yeah, I guess.” He feels his face go warm. “Uh… thanks, man.”

Broward slaps him on the shoulder and walks away.

Whits returns a moment later and hands Jack a plastic cup of beer. “What was that all about?”

“He was being… nice.” Jack frowns even as he says it. Broward is known for being a massive asshole.

“Maybe he has to be nice on his people’s holy day,” Whits says, and Jack laughs so hard he almost spills his drink.

More people come over to chat with them as the party goes on, and most of them are friendly, despite the outcome of the game. They take a lot of selfies, and the crowd gets drunker and louder. If it weren’t for the wide range of ages present (and the huge, expensive, well-decorated house), it would be a hell of a lot like the Haus parties Jack has experienced. Of course, if it were a Haus party, he would’ve fled to the quiet of his room long before now. The solid presence of Whits beside him is a relief, though. Whits leaves to refills his drink every now and then, but otherwise seems content to hang out by Jack’s side.

Their teammates seem to be having fun. Treat is across the room talking to a woman in a vampire costume. He says something that makes her laugh, and she pretends to bite his neck. Or possibly actually bites it, considering his reaction. Jack glances over to see Whits is watching them too.

He bumps Whits’ shoulder with his own. “If you want to go talk to somebody else, it’s fine. You don’t have to babysit me.”

“Actually, I do,” Whits replies, smirking at him. “No telling what kind of trouble you might get into if I left you alone too long.”

“I’m probably the most boring person here.”

“Which is a great reason to stand next to you, man. I’m like, the life of the party in comparison.”

Jack rolls his eyes and takes another small sip of his beer. Still, it’s nice to know Whits isn’t just hanging out with him out of a sense of obligation.

It’s close to midnight when Jack sees Rolly walking toward them with a pair of young women. Jack thinks they’re twins at first, but then realizes they’re just wearing the same costume. Rolly is nearly gleeful when he introduces them to Jack and Whits (their names are apparently Anna and Haley), and then backs away with a lascivious wink.

One of the girls steps forward and wraps herself around Jack before he has time to say a word. “I don’t usually like to reward the team that beat our guys, but you’re so hot I don’t care.” She leans up and presses her mouth against Jack’s, and it’s all he can do not to flinch away. She’s drunk, tastes like a weird mix of sweet and tequila, and Jack is so, so not interested.

“Okay, wow,” he says, pushing her away as gently as he can. She has a shoe polish mustache now, which he probably ought to tell her about. He looks to his left to see Whits is in a similar situation.

Whits’ expression is one of shock for a moment before something like a mask slides over his face. His arms settles on — Haley’s? — back and he smiles at her. “You’re gonna get me in trouble with my girlfriend.”

“We can go somewhere with less cameras,” Haley replies, pressing himself up against his side. She leans up to whisper something in his ear, and Whits laughs.

Jack frowns at him. He’s glad Whits likes hanging out with him, but lying to a woman he’d probably otherwise hook up with is more sacrifice than Jack is comfortable with.

“She’s gonna blow him in the bathroom,” Anna whispers to Jack. Her breasts press against his side and her breath is warm and moist against his ear. “But I really wanna ride your dick.” She punctuates that by sucking his earlobe into her mouth.

Jack takes a big drink of beer and turns out of her grasp as much as he can manage, bumping up against Whits in the process. He takes a deep breath and catches her hand in his. “Look, you seem really… nice, but I didn’t come here to hook up.”

“What?” Anna stares back at him, shocked. She’s clearly not used to being refused.

“Sorry,” Jack repeats. He smiles at her as politely as he can. “But no.”

“Your friend said you hadn’t gotten laid in ages and that you like blondes,” she says, her tone growing more acidic with every word. She jerks her hand out of his.

“I don’t know why he said that.” Jack is going to fucking kill Rolly.

“What the fuck is your problem?” She puts her hands on her hips and glares up at him. “Are you gay or something?”

Jack gapes at her for a full second. “I’m not interested in hooking up tonight, okay? I’m sorry that my friend told you I was.”

Whits and Haley are staring at them now, as are quite a few of the people around them.

“What an asshole,” she spits and grabs Haley’s arm. “Come on. They’d probably rather fuck each other anyway.”

The women walk away, shooting glares over their shoulders.

“Shit,” Whits hisses, and Jack realizes he probably just fucked up whatever chance Whits had to get laid.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “Go after them and tell them I’m an asshole or whatever. They’d probably be up for it.”

“Not worth the hassle.” Whits clenches his jaw and looks across the room. “I’m gonna rip Rolly a new one though. Jesus.”

Jack groans. This is why he hates parties, hates this kind of scene. He doesn’t want to explain why he doesn’t drink that much, why he’s not into casual sex with strangers. He just wants to hang out with his friends and relax, and that doesn’t seem to be the point of parties like this.

And worse, he fucks it up for everyone around him. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes. “I’m done for the night. You stay and have fun. I’m going back to the hotel.”

“No, I’m calling us an Uber,” Whits says. “I’ve had enough to drink, and we’ve got a plane to get on tomorrow morning anyway.”

Jack opens his eyes just as Whits is putting his phone back in his pocket. Whits tilts his head toward the door and Jack nods, relieved.

*****

Jack washes the shoe polish off of his face, then falls face-down on the bed and groans.

“You all right?”

“Yeah.” He will be, anyway. Jack sighs into the comforter.

Whits disappears into the bathroom for a bit, and Jack closes his eyes, listening to the sounds of water running and Whits moving around. During the first roadie, Jack had regretted not negotiating for a single room, but now he’s kind of glad not to be alone. Whits is a lot like Shitty in that he seems to sense when Jack needs to be distracted from himself and when he just needs to be left alone. Jack appreciates it, so much.

His phone buzzes with a notification. He rolls onto his back and digs it out of his pocket. There’s a thumbnail of a photo on the lockscreen, and at first he assumes it’s something from the party he just left. He’s kind of dreading looking at his Twitter notifications. But when he looks closer, he realizes it was sent to the Samwell group text. He swipes on it and has to type in his code twice to get it right. He stares at the photo for several seconds before his brain begins to process what he’s seeing.

Bittle is dressed as a rabbit, for one thing. Well, half a rabbit — there’s an awful lot of skin showing. His arms are wrapped around Holster’s neck, and Holster’s carrying him like he’s a prize Holster just won. Whether he’s taking him somewhere or is just holding him is unclear, but there is a level of casual intimacy in the image that makes the back of Jack’s neck prickle uncomfortably.

The phone buzzes in his hand again — Shitty just replied to the picture. Jack realizes he and Shitty are probably the only ones on the chat who aren’t at this party. He taps the text box and the keyboard pops up, and it takes him a full minute to decide what to write. Jesus Christ, Bittle seems a bit extreme, as does, where’s the rest of your costume?. Or watch where you put your hands there, Holster, or I might have to punch you. He blinks and takes a deep breath. What the hell is wrong with him?

He finally goes for a neutral-sounding Haha. Nice. and hits send. Then he stares at the photo until Whits comes out of the bathroom, yawning.

Whits strips off his shirt and rustles around a bit, then sits next to Jack on the bed. “Don’t tell me there’s already shit on Twitter about— oh.”

Jack tilts the phone so that he can see the photo better.

Whits blinks at it for a moment, then snickers. “Is he supposed to be, like… a puck bunny?”

“Maybe?” Jack feels his face heat. That hadn’t even occurred to him. He suddenly imagines Bittle flirting shamelessly with Holster, and Holster scooping him up, carrying him upstairs.

“He’s got a lot of balls, I’ll say that much.”

Jack makes a sound that is sort of half-bewilderment, half agreement.

“I mean, I’ve seen the kid play hockey. He’s good, and he’s fast, and he totally brings it. And then he can pull off a sexy bunny outfit like…” Whits trails off and goes quiet.

“Like what?” Jack looks up to see Whits has a strange, almost distressed expression.

“Like he doesn’t care what people think about him.”

“He doesn’t hide who he is.” That’s one of a long list of things Jack likes about Bittle.

“I mean, Jesus, that’s like the gayest costume I’ve ever seen on a guy, right? And his friends don’t care. They aren’t giving him shit about it.”

“Why would they?”

Whits turns to look at him. They’re so close together Jack feels a bit self-conscious, but he doesn’t move. He just stares back at Whits, waiting for him to respond. After a moment, Whits pushes to his feet and walks over to his own bed.

“Do I really have to answer that?”

It seems to be a rhetorical question. Jack looks back at the photo on his phone, studies the curve of Bittle’s thigh, the way the bunny ears flop over his head. His expression is open and joyous, and he seems to be the only one who knows the photo is being taken; everyone else is looking in other directions. It’s the sort of photo Jack would have taken, of Bittle in the center of everything, glowing, pulling everyone’s gaze to him without even trying.

Jack is half-hard before he quite knows what happened. He pulls his knees up and presses his lips together, and turns off the phone. He stares up at the ceiling for a long time, his mind whirling. When Whits slides under the covers, Jack heads to the bathroom and locks the door behind him.

He leans against the counter and stares down at the photo again. His cock is aching, and it’s just… it’s weird, because Bittle is his friend, one of his best friends. He slides a hand inside his underwear and strokes once, and tries not to think about how creepy he’s being. The thing is, it’s not like Bittle hasn’t popped up in his mind before when he jerks off. A lot of people have. He’s never really seen the appeal of porn, and he forbid himself from thinking about Parse a long time ago, so his mind wanders. It just happens, and he knows it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But this is the first time in years that he’s gotten hard just from thinking about one person.

God, he’s not going to be able to look Bittle in the eye if he actually does this. He should take a cold shower, put it out of his mind, and go to sleep.

He looks at the photo again. Jesus.

He strokes himself slowly, letting his gaze drag over the expanse of skin, the way the costume rides high on Bittle’s thighs. It’s easy to imagine he’s the one holding Bittle instead of Holster, that his own fingers are curling against the underside of Bittle’s knees, that Bittle’s arms are around his neck. He lets his mind go from there, imagines carrying Bittle upstairs and peeling that skimpy costume off of him.

He comes over his own fist less than a minute later, jaw clenched and eyes squeezed shut. He looks up at the ceiling and waits for his breathing and heartbeat to slow back down. It’s another minute before he can face himself in the mirror.

He’s not going to freak out about this. It’s pretty weird to chub up over a picture of a friend in a bunny suit, sure — but it’s not like anyone has to know.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack wakes up to a text from Bittle: Loved your Halloween costume.

Jack still hasn’t checked Twitter, but he doesn’t doubt that’s where Bittle saw it. Yeah?

You two, IDEK.

Jack isn’t quite sure what that means, but he’ll look it up later. I liked yours too.

He gets a blushy face emoji in response. His mind is flooded with the memory of what he did the night before, looking at that photo, and he winces.

The flight to Chicago is quiet; apparently they weren’t the only ones who made a night of it. Whits glares daggers at Rolly when he passes, and Rolly rolls his eyes in response.

“What was that all about?” Jack asks quietly when they’re settled into their seats.

Whits taps at the screen of his Kindle. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

Which means, of course, that Jack spends the first half of the flight worrying that Whits laid into Rolly for trying to hook Jack up the night before. If that’s why they’re not speaking to each other, Jack should say something. Rolly means well — Jack really believes that — and Whits is just trying to take care of Jack, even though Jack is older than him and more experienced in a lot of ways.

Sooner or later, though, they’re all going to find out what a fucking mess of a human being Jack is. He’d like to get through a whole season before that happens, so maybe it’s best to say nothing, for now, and let them be pissed at each other.

He spends the second half of the flight worrying about the Blackhawks’ forecheck game, which is actually worth worrying about.

The bus takes them from the airport directly to the United Center, where they have the ice for two hours to practice. Jack gets pulled aside by one of the coaches for a quick chat about a PR thing he’s doing later, so by the time he gets to the locker room, most of the guys are already suited up.

Rolly gives him a sharp look when he sits on the bench to take off his shoes.

Jack frowns at him. “What?”

Rolly looks away. “Just can’t figure you out, Zimms.”

“Most people stop trying after a while.”

“Yeah, I can see why.” Rolly shakes his head, then gets up and walks away, skates in hand.

Jack sighs and tries to shrug it off. In the last month, he’s started to feel like some of the guys are his friends, but maybe he’s being naive. These guys don’t have to like him to play hockey with him. They have a job to do, one they’re all paid well for, and that’s that. They can’t let personal shit get in the way.

Despite the previous night’s debauchery, everyone is focused and professional at morning skate, and they come off the ice feeling solid. There’s a team lunch at the hotel, during which Jack mostly keeps to himself, then everyone goes their separate ways to rest and prepare for the game.

They get their asses kicked that night. It’s not even close. Jack’s one-timer finds the back of the net late in the second on a five-on-three power play, but that’s all they manage. The Falcs’ defense finds its stride halfway through the second, so it could’ve been a lot worse, but they still go down 5-1. It fucking sucks.

Jack changes quickly, showers and does press, then heads back into the locker room to pack up his duffel. The sooner he gets the fuck out of this place, the better.

“—such fuckin’ assholes,” Rolly is saying to Janssen. “If the refs had called half the shit they called on us, I’d at least feel like we deserved to lose.”

Jack swallows down the urge to argue. Even if they hadn’t spent so much of the first period short-handed, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Nothing they did tonight was fast enough or good enough. Nothing he did was good enough. Jack takes a deep breath and presses his face over his hands. His teammates aren’t blaming him, but they have every right to.

“Thank fuck they’re not in our division,” Janssen says.

Jack sighs and starts packing up his stuff. There’ll be plenty of time to stew on it all on the plane ride home tonight.

Whits comes in from the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist. He drops it on the bench next to Jack and starts getting dressed. “Well, that was a fuckin’ travesty.”

Jack nods. He’s slowly getting better at dealing with losses. Partly because Bittle pelts him with jokes afterward, but mostly because they play so many damn games that he’s starting to get some perspective. This one’s gonna sting for a while, though.

“Hey, Zimms, that was a sweet goal,” Janssen says.

Jack looks up at him. “Thanks.”

“We just needed four more like it.” Janssen smirks. “So, you know, get on that.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “I could use a little help from the blue line, you know. Especially with Kane racking up points like he’s the only one in the Art Ross race.”

“Ugh,” Rolly groans. “I don’t even want to hear that name. I fuckin’ hate that cocksucker.”

Jack bristles and looks away. The thing is, he knows this is just casual homophobia on Rolly’s part, that he doesn’t really mean anything by it. But Jack had promised himself that he’d start speaking up when he hears this sort of thing in his own locker room, that he wouldn’t just sit there and ignore it. Despite the tension over the Halloween party, Rolly is a fundamentally decent guy. If Jack can’t get through to him, he’s not sure he can do it at all.

Jack takes a long, smooth breath, then turns to look at him. “Jesus, Rolly. What have you got against getting your dick sucked?”

Rolly stares blankly at him. “What?”

“Do you call your wife a cocksucker?”

“The fuck? No, of course not.”

“So why do you say it like it’s an insult?”

Rolly gapes at him for a full second. “It’s not like that, it’s—”

“No, I see how it is,” Jack says, and zips up his duffel. “It’s okay if a woman sucks dick, but not a guy? That’s pretty damn homophobic.”

“I… I don’t…” Rolly flushes and looks away.

“Seriously, man,” Janssen says, whacking the back of Rolly’s head. “What, like, one in ten people are gay? Statistically speaking, we have at least two gay dudes on this team. Don’t be an asshole.”

“I’m not,” Rolly says, though he’s looking at his shoes now. “I wouldn’t. I’m not — I have a gay cousin, all right?”

“Would you call him a cocksucker?” Janssen asks.

“Jesus, I get it. Shut the fuck up.”

Jack looks over at Whits, who is now packing his duffel like his life depends on it. Jack feels like he should say something, but Whits slings the bag over his shoulder and leaves the locker room without a word.

Jack looks over at Rolly one more time to see him packing his own duffel, his face bright red. Janssen catches Jack’s eye and gives him a small smile, then looks away.

Jack exhales. He made his point, and that’s the important thing.

*****

Jack texts Bittle his time after his morning run, then grabs his usual protein shake out of the fridge.

It’s as warm here as it is in Madison, Bittle writes.

Global warming, Jack writes back.

At this rate, I’ll be able to wear booty shorts to Winter Screw.

Jack almost chokes on his shake at the image his brain conjures in response.

A new alert pops up, a text from Whits: Want to meet for breakfast?

Jack exhales, relieved. Whits has barely said two words to him since they left Chicago Sunday night. It’s not unusual for Jack to piss people off and not realize it for days, but he’s honestly not sure what he did this time.

I need to shower, he writes back. Meet downstairs in 15?

Whits is standing in the lobby of their apartment building with wet hair and a strained expression. He smiles tightly at Jack. “Hey.”

“Want to go to Armand’s?” Jack says by way of greeting.

“Sure.”

They walk an entire block in silence before Whits finally makes some small talk about the warm weather. Jack nods, and says that he had a similar conversation with Bittle this morning. Whits looks over at Jack, thoughtful, and is quiet the rest of the walk to the cafe.

They order food and coffee at the counter. They come here enough that they don’t garner a lot of attention, though Jack still sees a few heads turn when they wind their way back to a quiet corner table. Whits looks even more tense than he did before, and Jack is at a loss. Whits always seems to know what Jack needs when he’s upset, but right now, Jack can only guess.

He finally settles on the direct approach. “So what’s up?”

Whits takes a deep breath and digs his phone out of his pocket. “So, uh, I’ve been meaning to tell you something.”

“Okay.”

Whits taps at the screen a bit and stares down at it for a moment before handing it over to Jack. The screen displays a photo of Whits with a friend, a man Jack doesn’t recognize. Whits’ hair is short in the photo and he looks younger, happier. The other man has bright blue eyes, spiked hair, and a good week’s worth of blond stubble. They have their arms around each other and they look like they’re laughing.

Jack looks back up at Whits, whose gaze is now focused on the contents of his coffee cup.

“That’s Dani. My ex.” He pauses, pressing his lips together. “The one who broke it off with me after we tried to do the long distance thing for a year. We were at Michigan together, and… well, he’s in Colorado now.”

Jack looks back at the photo. He’s surprised, but at the same time, quite a few things fall into place in his head.

“The guys assumed he was a girl and… it was easier to let them keep thinking that. Doesn’t really matter now anyway.”

Jack nods. “And you’re still not over him?”

Whits stares at Jack for a full second, then huffs out a laugh. “I honestly have no idea. Sometimes I think I am, and then he’ll post something on Facebook out of the blue and I just… god.”

Jack thinks of the years he spent watching NHL highlights and cringing at every mention of Parse. “Yeah.”

Whits runs his fingers through his flow. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. That I’m gay. I knew you’d be cool with it and all. I mean, I’ve met your friends. But I just…”

Jack picks up his coffee and tries to think about what Shitty would say. “No, it’s cool. You have to do that stuff in your own time.”

“Yeah.” Whits looks like he wants to say something else, but doesn’t.

“Does anyone else on the team know?”

“No. I’ve never… I wasn’t even out to my college team. I mean, I think some of them knew, but…” Whits exhales slowly, almost like a whistle. “Shit, this is… I’ve never really done this before, come out to somebody other than my family.”

Jack can’t help smiling at that. “Thanks for trusting me with it. I’m honored, seriously.”

The server delivers their food then, and Whits digs in immediately. He looks infinitely more relaxed than he did before. He swallows, then looks up at Jack. “I also wanted to thank you for the other day. In the locker room after the game, with Rolly. I mean, that was mild as shit like that goes, but still, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody get called on it.”

Jack shrugs. “It was getting to me. Nobody at Samwell said shit like that, for obvious reasons. If they did, it got shut down pretty quickly.”

Whits takes a sip of coffee. “So, uh… Janssen asked me later if you were gay. I told him that not tolerating homophobic bullshit doesn’t automatically mean a dude is gay, yanno?”

Jack nods, then takes a bite of his eggs and chews slowly.

“So, like, tell me to fuck off if you want, but… you kinda do the same avoiding shit I do, and… I don’t want to assume anything.”

Jack swallows and looks up at him. He wasn’t prepared to have this conversation today. “But you’re assuming anyway.”

“Yeah. Or maybe just hoping.” Whits looks away.

It’s not that Jack doesn’t want to answer the question; it’s more that he’s not exactly sure what to say. “I don’t… I don’t, I guess? I mean, I do, but… I don’t know how to explain it.”

“You don’t…” Whits hesitates. “You always say you’re not interested.”

“Sometimes I am, but not like other people seem to be.”

“Okay.” Whits takes a drink of coffee and frowns. “Sorry, but I have no fuckin’ clue what you’re saying.”

Jack glances around the restaurant, but no one seems to be paying them any attention. He lowers his voice. “Sex isn’t… it’s not, like, a priority. For me. At all.”

“Okay.” Whits still looks confused. “So… I know you don’t do hookups.”

“No. Well, I have, but… yeah, no.” Never again.

“But you still… Jesus, I feel like a dick right now. Tell me to shut up if you don’t want to talk about this.”

“No, it’s fine.” Jack sighs. “I’ve only been in one serious relationship that involved sex, I guess? A long time ago. I was really into it at the time, but nothing like that has happened since… not since I overdosed.”

Whits’ eyebrows go up.

Jack looks away and tries to swallow down his embarrassment. “I hooked up with a handful of people over the last few years, but I wasn’t interested in any of them. I just… I don’t know. It was easier to focus on hockey.”

Between school and hockey and general survival in his own head, he’s had enough to deal with. He has occasional flashes of desire for some of his friends, sure — first Shitty and then Bittle, and even Whits, once or twice — but he isn’t sure what to do with those feelings. They come up quickly and then vanish again, like they never happened.

It occurs to him that he’s only felt that way about his male friends, which… okay, maybe that means something. Or maybe it’s just because he’s only been around guys for most of his life. He hasn’t given women much of a chance. There was Camilla, but… yeah.

He realizes he’s been quiet for a while and looks up.

Whits gives him a speculative look. “I thought maybe you and your friend Eric were… well, you two seem close.”

“We’re friends,” Jack says. “Bittle is… he’s one of my best friends.” It’s true, more true every day. He texts and Skypes with Bittle more than he does with Shitty. He sees Whits more often, but he probably talks to Bittle more than anyone else. “I think he’s gonna break up with his boyfriend.”

Whits’ smile turns sly. “The one who was so jealous of you?

“What?”

“Dude, he was totally trying to mark his territory at that party. How did you not see that?”

Jack shrugs. “I was too busy being pissed on Bittle’s behalf, I guess. That guy was an asshole.”

“Yeah, Eric can do a hell of a lot better.” Whits gives Jack a pointed look.

Jack tries to think about Bittle with someone else, a faceless boyfriend Jack would approve of. He can’t imagine it, though. Just thinking about it makes him feel distinctly uncomfortable in a way he can’t really quantify.

He looks back at Whits, who shoves a large bite of omelet into his mouth and smiles.

“I guess.” Jack shrugs. “What about you?”

Whits swallows his food and sighs. “I’ve been doing the anon sexting thing on Grindr, but that’s getting old.”

“So what would you rather be doing?” Jack immediately holds up a hand when Whits smirks. “Not like that. I mean, are you interested in dating somebody or just hooking up or what?”

“I haven’t thought that much about it, to be honest. Dani and I were together through a lot of college and then last year, so I never really did the whole hookup scene.”

“Do you want to?”

Whits opens his mouth and closes it again. “Maybe? I mean, I haven’t actually slept with that many people. It sounds kind of fun — sex with no strings. But I don’t know if it’s a good idea to do that around here. Not if I want to stay in the closet, yanno?”

“Yeah.” Jack does know.

Whits drags his teeth over his lower lip. “We are on the road a lot, though.”

“And you have a very understanding roommate.” Jack smiles at him, and Whits laughs.

“Yeah, I guess I do.” He sits back and runs his fingers through his hair, and grins. “Are you offering to be my wingman?”

“I don’t know about that,” Jack says. “But I could be convinced to cover for you if you need it.”

“All right, then. Deal.”

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with your game, anyway.” Jack takes a bite of eggs and smiles.

*****

Chapter Text

They’re on the road Tuesday and Thursday, though it’s not far — Philadelphia and Boston.

Philly turns out to be an unusually rough game. Jack’s put up with a lot of chirping on the ice over the years, but it’s been a while since he’s had such seriously vile shit hurled at him. He lets it roll off his back, but his teammates are seeing red by the third period. Rolly gets five for fighting after overhearing a particularly nasty comment involving Jack and a broken hockey stick. His gloves hit the ice before Jack even gets his stick down in the face-off. Whits is on the verge of joining the fray before Jack pulls him aside.

“I need you out here on my line, man.”

“But—”

“I’d rather ram a puck into their net, okay?”

They do just that two minutes later, and again three minutes after that. It feels really fucking good.

They go out afterward as a group, as much out of defiance as from any particular need to blow off steam. Jack sits in a corner booth with Whits and Janssen, sipping his diet coke and listening to the two of them talk shit about the Flyers. Jack prefers to leave it all on the ice, but it’s entertaining to listen to anyway.

Whits suddenly trails off mid-sentence, and Jack hears a low chuckle from Janssen. He looks up to see a group of young men standing not far from their booth, looking over at the three of them with obvious interest.

Whits turns to Jack and smirks. “I think I’m gonna go get another drink.”

“Sure you are,” Janssen says.

“Shut up,” Whits says, but he’s smiling. He slides out of the booth and walks past the group, letting his gaze linger on one of the guys before he heads to the bar. The guy’s friends exchange sly grins as he goes to follow Whits.

Janssen sighs. “At least somebody’s gonna get some tonight.”

Jack clinks his glass against Janssen’s and smiles. He didn’t know Janssen knew, but he’s glad someone else on the team has Whits’ back.

“What about you?” Janssen says quietly, sliding closer to Jack. “I may be an old married guy, but I make a decent wingman.”

Jack takes a drink of his soda. “Nah. Not really interested tonight.”

Janssen nods, then changes the subject back to the game.

Whits texts Jack a few minutes later to let him know not to wait up. Jack sends back an eggplant emoji — after seeing it in the SMH group text a few hundred times, he’s pretty sure he’s using it correctly — and drains his glass.

“I’m wiped. I think I’ll head back.” Jack sits forward to slide out of the booth.

Janssen moves to follow him. “Oh, thank god. I didn’t want to be the first to call it a night.”

Back in the room, Jack spends a few minutes replying to texts on his phone. His dad congratulates him on playing a clean game despite the circumstances, and Shitty asks if there are any asses that still require kicking. Bittle sent a frowny face and asks if Jack is okay.

He starts tapping out a long message to Bittle, then realizes that he probably has the room to himself for a while.

Can you talk? he replies, and Bittle says, Give me two minutes.

Jack’s phone rings not long after. He stretches out on the bed. “Hey.”

“Oh my god, that was horrifying. I mean, you were great, but they were going after you hard. What the hell?”

Jack shrugs, though he knows Bittle can’t see it. “It’s fine, Bittle. I’m pretty good at not letting that shit get to me.”

“I know, but… It feels different when you’re on TV and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Jack smiles up at the ceiling. “What, you’d take down some goons if you were here?”

“You don’t think I could?”

“Will I ever get pie again if I answer that?”

Bittle laughs. “I could send poisoned cookies to their locker room.”

“Aw, you’d do that for me?” Jack closes his eyes.

“Oh, honey. You just say the word.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” Jack yawns and stretches. Talking to Bittle always settles him down; he feels more relaxed than he has all day.

“Tired?”

“Yeah. I’ve been sleeping like shit. I need to rest up for Boston on Thursday.”

Bittle groans. “It’s killing me that I can’t be there.”

“I know.” Jack is disappointed too, but Bittle’s exam on Friday morning is definitely a priority. “Thanksgiving is next week, though.”

“Are you still coming to the Haus?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” Jack’s hand slides up under his shirt to stroke his stomach. “You should come back to Providence with me after.”

“Should I?” He hears the smile in Bittle’s voice.

“You could stay the weekend if you want, go to the game on Saturday.”

“Hmmmm.” He hears Bittle yawn. “I’d probably have to come home Sunday morning. I have a project due the next week that I haven’t even started on.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Jack yawns too. “I could get you up early that morning to run with me, then drive you back.”

Bittle chuckles. “Only if I can make breakfast first.”

“Deal.”

They’re both quiet for a moment.

“Are you alone right now?” Bittle asks.

“Yeah. Whits hooked up, so he ditched me.” Jack’s skin tingles where his fingers trail over it. His little finger slides just under the waistband of his sweats, draws a horizontal line low across his hips.

“I’m gonna have to have a talk with that boy.” Bittle’s voice is lower now, lazy.

“Leave him alone. He’s finally rebounding from his breakup.”

“Well, good for him, then. Speaking of breakups, guess who’s single again?”

Jack smiles, and instantly feels guilty about it. “How did he take it?”

Bittle makes a sound like he’s sucking air through his teeth. “He pretended he didn’t care, like usual.”

“So are we happy or sad about it?”

“Happy, maybe?” Bittle sighs. “I mean, I guess I could be getting my dick sucked right now instead of talking on the phone to an NHL star, but whatever.”

Jack can’t breathe for a moment. The words send a spark down his spine, one that goes right to his balls. “Ummm…”

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s… fine.” Jack’s fingers trail lower, fingertips brushing against his pubic hair now. “Keep talking.”

“I guess there are some things I’m gonna miss about him.”

“Like what?”

“Like his mouth. I mean…” Bittle pauses for a moment. “Are you sure I’m not freaking you out right now?”

Frank talk about sex usually weirds him out, but right now, all he wants is for Bittle to keep going. “Was he any good at it?”

Bittle chuckles low in his throat. “Are you asking for deets?”

“No.” Jack closes his eyes. “Well, maybe.”

“He was okay.” Bittle sounds slightly breathless, and Jack’s dick is suddenly, completely hard. “I mean, I don’t know if there’s really such a thing as a bad blow job, but…”

“If you say so.” Jack slides his palm over his erection and bites his lip. It wouldn’t take much, and he’s good at being quiet. Bittle would never have to know.

Shit.

Jack pulls his hand out of his sweats and lets it fall to his side. He opens his eyes and stares up at the ceiling. “It’s late. I should probably go brush my teeth and get out of these clothes before I fall asleep in them.”

Bittle sighs. “Are you implying I’m boring?”

“Never.” Jack’s dick aches, but he’s not going to be creepy about this. Creepier. “Can I call you back in a few minutes?”

“Sure.”

He ends the call, sets the phone on the bedside table, and shoves his pants and underwear down to his knees. He wraps one hand around his dick and pulls up once, slowly, letting his eyes fall closed. He tries not to think about anything or anyone in particular, but it’s impossible after that conversation. He can’t help imagining Bittle on his knees, lips wrapped around Jack’s cock, brown eyes looking up at him. His right hand is a blur after that, his left gripping the comforter beside him, and his hips arch up off the bed when he comes.

Okay, so that’s the second time he’s jerked off thinking about Bittle. He’s not stupid: there’s a pattern here, one he probably shouldn’t ignore, but also one he’s terrified to examine too closely. This isn’t normal for him at all, and he’s not sure what to make of it. It’s just… weird and creepy that he’s getting off thinking about Bittle, and Bittle has no idea.

So yeah, he needs to think about this — but not right now. Instead, he washes off, brushes his teeth, and pulls his favorite pajama pants out of his duffel. He finally slides under the covers and calls Bittle back, trying to tamp down on the guilt filling his chest.

“Feel better?” Bittle says in greeting, and Jack nearly chokes.

“Yeah, my teeth were gross.”

“Mine too,” Bittle says.

Jack presses his lips together and takes a deep breath. “Tell me about the team, what’s been going on at practice.”

“Aw, do you need a bedtime story?”

“Maybe. I might fall asleep on you, but tell me anyway.”

Bittle chatters about practice, the drills he’s been doing, the different lines he’s been floating around on the last few weeks, and the upcoming game against Quinnipiac. Jack closes his eyes and listens, lets the timbre of Bittle’s voice fill his head.

“You still there?” Bittle asks.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“You sure you’re okay?”

Jack closes his eyes. “I am now.”

Bittle sighs and is quiet for a moment. “I miss you.”

Jack misses him too, so much. “You’re gonna see me next week.”

“It’s not the same as you living across the hall.”

Jack thinks about Whits’ sadness at slowly losing touch with all of his college friends. “I know.”

“Go to sleep, Jack.”

“Goodnight, Bittle.”

*****

They lose to Boston. It’s not even as close as it should be, mostly because they can’t stop turning the puck over in their own zone. Jack’s nine-game point streak is broken. The entire ordeal is so frustrating and exhausting that the end of the game is a relief.

Jack only has a few minutes to say hello to Shitty and the pair of L1s he’d brought with him. It’s beyond humiliating to have to be introduced to strangers under the circumstances, but Shitty just pulls Jack into a hug and says, “That looked rough, bro.”

“It sucked,” Jack replies, and clings to him for a moment.

Whits comes out too and walks over to give Shitty a quick hug. Jack thinks Shitty’s friends’ eyes might bug out of their heads.

“You takin’ good care of my boy?” Shitty asks him, and Whits shrugs.

“To the extent that he lets me.”

They have to say goodbye much too soon, but Jack will see Shitty at the Haus next week. He’ll probably Skype him three times between now and then anyway.

Everyone is quiet when they file onto the bus for the drive to the airport. Whits sits next to him and presses his shoulder into Jack’s, and it feels good. Jack doesn’t get to touch people all that much these days, not like he did at Samwell where Shitty was always draped over him and Ransom and Holster would wrestle him into the floor as soon as look at him. He hadn’t realized he was so touch-starved.

He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, then thumbs on his phone. He scans until he sees the standard post-loss text from Bittle.

You okay?

He considers saying yes — Bittle has an exam at 8:00 am and Jack knows he hasn’t studied nearly enough. But Bittle would know he was lying and would spend precious study time worrying about him, probably.

Not really. But I have to get on a plane to Dallas in an hour and try to get some sleep. Not much time to dwell.

Bittle sends back a sad face.

Next to him, Whits is on his phone too, tapping at the screen. He looks up. “Eric says I’m on ‘Jack duty’ tonight. What the hell does that mean?”

Jack leans over and squints at the screen of Whits’ phone, where this message is part of what’s clearly an ongoing chat. “How long have you two been texting each other?”

“A few weeks. We DM’d on Twitter for a while, then I asked him for his number.”

Jack swallows down a strange feeling of uneasiness. “Why?”

Whits’ phone buzzes with a new text and he half-laughs. “Do I seriously have to tell you a bedtime story, because bro—”

“What do you two even talk about?” Jack can’t keep a note of irritation from his voice.

Whits turns to look at him. “Whoa, back up. Are you actually pissed right now?”

“No.” Jack frowns and looks away, which contradicts his verbal response, but he can’t stop himself.

“You are, Christ.” Whits makes a sound of exasperation. “We just talk. School, hockey, et cetera. He asks me for help with his stats homework sometimes.”

“You have time to tutor one of my friends over text, seriously?”

“Actually, we mostly talk about you and what a dick you are.”

“Yeah, right.” If Jack is sure of anything, it’s that Bittle does not think he’s a dick. Anymore. “It would’ve been nice to know, is all.”

Whits snorts. “So what, I’m not allowed to talk to your friends without your explicit permission?”

Jack clenches his jaw. He knows he’s being an asshole right now, but he’s not sure why this is pissing him off. “It’s not… fuck, never mind.”

Bittle texts Jack all the time — first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and sometimes in the middle of the day too. Jack’s been more active on Twitter just so he can keep up with whatever Bittle posts there. Most of the photos he posts on Instagram are taken with Bittle in mind, even. Including social media, he talks to Bittle more than any other person he knows, and he’d thought it was… special, or something. But maybe Bittle is like that with all of his friends. Something twists unpleasantly in Jack’s belly.

Whits is quiet for a full minute. Finally he says, “Am I allowed to tell him ‘Jack duty’ isn’t in my contract, or do I have to go through your agent?”

Jack slumps against the window. “Fuck, just… text him all you want, okay? It’s none of my business.”

Neither of them says a word to each other for the rest of the bus ride. Jack wants nothing more than to be alone right now, but they’re in the middle of a four-game road trip. They’ll be living in each other’s pockets for the next few days. Sleeping in the same room, and sitting next to each other on the damn plane, even. Jack winces: this tension between them is completely his fault, so it’s up to him to do something about it. He hates this part.

He waits until they board the plane and settle into their usual seats. He stares straight ahead and takes a calming breath.

“Sorry,” Jack says at the same time Whits says, “Look—”

They turn to face each other, and Whits plows ahead, his voice low and quiet. “I’m not trying to steal your friends, okay? If you want me to back off, I will, but you’re kind of the only friend I have around here. I mean, everyone is either married with kids or nineteen and straight, right? And we play so fucking great together, but I also like hanging out with you. I guess I wanted to be friends with the people who are important to you so that I could… Shit, tell me to shut up anytime now. What were you gonna say?”

“Sorry.”

Whits stares at him for a full three seconds.

“That was it,” Jack adds.

“Sorry,” Whits repeats. “After all of that.”

Jack shrugs.

“Oh my god.” Whits looks incredulous. “You are such a dick sometimes.”

Jack sighs. “Yeah, I am. You sure you want to be friends with me? Cause this is what I’m like.”

Whits sighs, his expression somewhere between exasperation and amusement. “I’ve had my doubts, but a lot of pretty cool people seem to be able to put up with your shit. I guess I can too.”

The corners of Jack’s lips turn up at that, and Whits smiles and shakes his head.

“Hey, look — a rare Zimmermann post-loss smile, and I didn’t have my phone ready to take a picture.”

Jack plasters on a fake smile and holds up his middle finger. “Want to get it out now?”

“Fuck you,” Whits says, and laughs.

Jack shakes his head and laughs too. “Are we good, then?”

“Yeah, we’re good.” Whits gets up to grab something from the overhead bin, then sits down again. “You sure you’re okay? I don’t want Eric pissed at me too.”

“No, you really don’t.” Jack reclines his seat a bit and yawns.

Whits reclines his seat and shakes out a blanket over himself. “Then get some sleep, rookie.”

Jack snorts. “Yeah, gotta rest up for the big visit to your homeland.”

“Texas isn’t really a country, you know.”

“What language do they speak there, again?”

“Spanglish. And a little German.”

“I think I can manage.”

Whits chuckles. “Zimms, you like country music and you drive a truck.”

Jack turns to look at him. “What’re you saying?”

“You’re gonna feel right at home, bro. Repeat after me: Hey, y’all.”

Jack snags the corner of the blanket and yanks it off of him. “You think Bittle hasn’t tried that already?”

“Hey!” Whits makes a grab for the blanket, which starts a tussling sort of tug-of-war. “Or how about, Tell yew whut, them Cowboys is havin’ a rough year..”

“How about no?” Jack is half on top of him when they hear a snicker from the seat in front of them.

They turn to see Janssen peeking at them over the top of his seat, his phone in his hand. “Aw, did you two kiss and make up?”

“Shut up,” Whits says, giving Jack one more shove for good measure. Jack balls up the blanket and throws it at his head.

Rolly pops up beside Janssen and leans over to look at the screen of his phone. “Oh, that’s not compromising at all.”

“I know, right?”

Rolly tilts his head, squinting at the photo. “You should tweet that. You’d probably get a thousand new followers.”

Janssen raises his eyebrows at Whits. “That’s not a bad idea.”

Whits smirks right back at him. “You tweet that and I’ll tell your wife about the girl in Tampa.”

There is a chorus of oooohs all around them.

“Oh my god, are we talking about this?” Treat peeks over the back of Jack’s seat. “Has the ban been lifted?”

“What girl in Tampa?” Jack asks, frowning.

“Shut up,” Janssen says, glaring at Whits. “Nothing happened with the girl in Tampa!”

“So last season, we got our asses kicked by the Lightning,” Whits says, sitting up and grinning at Jack.

“Here we go,” says Kratz from somewhere in front of them. The guys across the aisle laugh.

“A group of us went down to the hotel bar after the game, and there was this girl who really wanted Janssen to sign her boobs.”

“Okay, fine, I’m deleting it,” Janssen says, tapping at the screen of his phone. “See? No more picture of you and Zimms snuggling.”

“Thank you.” Whits sits back and closes his eyes.

Everyone groans, but that seems to be the end of it. They all settle back into their seats again.

Once they’re in the air, Whits nudges Jack’s shoulder. Jack turns to look at him, and Whits mouths I’ll tell you later.

Jack grins.

*****

Chapter Text

They land in Dallas in the middle of the night, a full day early for their game. Everyone stumbles groggily onto the bus and then to their hotel rooms to get some sleep. There’s a combination team lunch/strategy meeting the next day, practice time at Frisco, and then they have the rest of the afternoon and evening off. Most of the guys are checking out the restaurants and bars downtown Dallas has to offer, but Jack and Whits have other plans.

“I got a car for the night,” Whits says when the bus drops them off at the hotel.

“Seriously?” Jack turns to look at him.

Whits shrugs. “Dad really wanted to come pick us up, but it’s a ways to Arlington from here, and I didn’t want any of them to have to drive us back.”

The car is waiting in front of the hotel for them an hour later. Jack had assumed one of them would be driving, but there is a young woman in a sharp suit sitting behind the wheel.

“You got a driver too?” Jack asks.

Whits elbows him. “That way neither of us has to worry about drinking tonight.”

“I thought we were going to a family gathering, not a frat party.”

“With my family, there’s not much difference.”

The neighborhood where Whits’ parents live reminds Jack of the Montreal suburb he grew up in. The houses are large and the lawns manicured, and they have to slow down several times to carefully make their way past children playing in the street. Jack spent all of his free time as a kid in local ice rinks — not riding a bike or throwing a football around with his dad. He wonders how different Whits’ childhood was from his own.

The car drops them off in front of a large two-story brick house with a perfectly landscaped yard. The street is lined with trucks and SUVs; the driver says she’ll find a place to park nearby and they should text her when they’re ready to be picked up.

“Brace yourself,” Whits says as the walk up to the ornate front door. Jack doesn’t have time to respond to that before Whits opens it.

The cacophony that greets them nearly sends Jack running the other way, but Whits’ anticipatory firm grasp on his arm keeps him in place. People Jack can only assume are relatives rush over to greet them, whooping and cheering variations on, “They’re here!”

Five minutes later, Jack is pretty sure he’s met twenty people without having left the foyer. It’s an impressive foyer too, once he has a chance to look up at it. It’s open to the second floor with a sweeping staircase and a chandelier Jack knows his mom would love.

A man Jack recognizes as Whits’ brother waits for the crowd to dissipate before he makes his way over. His grin is exactly the same as Whits’, though his hair is darker and shorter. He’s taller than Jack and ridiculously broad-shouldered, and when Jack shakes his hand, he feels small.

“Great to meet you at last, man,” the brother — Mark, Jack remembers — says. “Nice to see someone give this asshole a run for his money up there.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Whits says, feigning annoyance. “Where’s my nephew?”

“I think they’ve got all the kids out back, but Mom’ll kick your ass and mine if you don’t go see her first. She’s making drinks.”

They find her standing behind a large granite-topped island in the middle of a huge kitchen. She’s operating three blenders while surrounded by bowls of fresh fruit and liquor bottles, and laughing at something someone else has just said. Jack has seen a photo of her in Whits’ apartment, one in which she was standing proudly next to Whits after a game, but she looks even more like a force of nature now than Jack had anticipated. Her highlighted hair is twisted into a clip at the back of her head, and she’s wearing one of the women’s line of Falconers shirts Jack is used to seeing on the young women who greet them outside the arena after games. The moment she spots them, she squeals and launches herself at Whits. He’s not much taller than she is, but he lifts her up and swings her around anyway.

“Oh my god, look at you,” she says, her eyes suddenly moist. “I swear you got bigger since the summer.” She takes a step back, then turns to Jack and enfolds him in a hug before he quite knows what happened. “I’m so happy to meet you, Jack!”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs.—”

“Call me Amanda,” she says before he can finish. She steps back quickly and grins at both of them. “Okay, let me get y’all drinks. Margarita or daiquiri?”

She pelts them with questions about their trip and the upcoming game while she dumps ingredients in the blender, and Jack is immediately impressed with her knowledge of hockey.

“She played for the University of Wisconsin,” Whits reminds Jack. “They won the women’s NCAA championship her junior year.”

“Wow,” Jack says. “That must have been amazing.”

She smiles and pours something golden and fruity into a large plastic cup. “Your team made it to the final last year, right?”

Jack nods and takes the cup she hands over. “That was a tough loss.”

“I’ll bet it was,” she says with a commiserating look. Jack immediately decides he likes her a lot.

She shoos them out to the backyard with drinks in hand, and along the way they meet a dozen more people.

“How many relatives do you have?” Jack asks, shaking his head.

“Honestly, most of these people are my parents’ friends,” Whits replies. “I’ve been gone so much the last few years that I don’t know who half of them are, to be honest. Oh, there’s my dad.”

Whits’ father looks nothing like Jack would have expected. He’s slight, balding, and shorter than both his sons. When Taylor hugs him, he looks even smaller.

“Call me Alex,” he says when Jack shakes his hand. “We’ve heard a lot about you.”

They’re standing on a multi-level deck that leads down to a large, fenced-in yard. A swimming pool fills half the space, while the rest is manicured and green. The weather is unseasonably warm today, so despite the fact that it’s November, there are several children splashing around in the pool.

“Almost 80 degrees today, so we decided to heat it up,” Alex says when he notices Jack’s surprise.

“Sweet,” Whits says, grinning at Jack. “You wanna go swimming?”

“Uhh,” Jack replies, but Whits is already tugging him back inside. They wind their way toward a bedroom on the first floor, and Whits closes the door behind them. He crosses to a large dresser and opens the top drawer.

“My mom keeps all the swimsuits in here.” He rifles through it for a moment, then produces two pairs of swimming trunks. He tosses one to Jack and strips off his shirt. “Those are Mark’s. They might fit over your ass.”

Jack rolls his eyes and starts taking off his clothes. The swim trunks do fit, barely, and a few minutes later, they cannonball into the pool, to the delight of the kids.

“Taylor!”

Jack turns to see a teenage girl jump into Whits’ arms. Her dark hair is pulled into a messy knot on top of her head, and she’s wearing a very tiny bikini.

“Jesus, does Mom know you’re wearing that?” Whits tries to shove her underwater, but she twists away from him. “This is family event, you know. No one wants to see your — oh my GOD, who let you pierce your belly button?” Whits looks horrified, but the girl — Blake, Jack remembers from the briefing he got in the car on the way over — just laughs and splashes him.

“I’m not a baby, dumbass. I got my driver’s license months ago.”

“Yeah, but I remember changing your diapers, so.”

“Gross!” she says, and then catches sight of Jack. She makes a squeaking sound and turns bright red.

“Oh, yeah,” Whits says, apparently taking great delight in teasing his sister. “This is Jack Zimmermann. The one you said—”

“Shut up!” she hisses, slapping his shoulder. “Oh my god.”

“Hi,” Jack says. He considers extending his hand to her, but she looks like she wants to hide behind Whits as it is. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she says, then looks over to the side of the pool. Jack follows her gaze to see two other girls sitting on the edge of the pool, giggling furiously.

Jack ducks under the water for a moment, then comes back up again. He looks over at Whits, who smirks at him and leans closer.

“I forgot to mention you’d be ogled by teenage girls today.”

“Yeah, you could’ve said something before I put on a swimsuit two sizes two small.”

Whits grins wickedly at him. “I’d sure hate for anything to… happen to it.”

Jack tackles him under the water and holds him there for a count of ten.

They take selfies with the girls, then play with the younger kids, who are delighted to be tossed in the air and taken for piggyback dives. They end up in the jacuzzi once the sun goes down and the air grows cool. Mark sits in a nearby lounge chair with his infant son in his lap, and he and Whits talk about the Cowboys’ season and the Falconers’ chances against the Stars the next day. His wife comes to sit with them when the baby begins to fuss; she nurses him while Mark goes to get more beer.

“I’m Hannah, by the way,” she says, smiling at Jack.

“Shit, sorry,” Whits says. “I thought I’d introduced y’all already.”

“I know where I rank these days,” Hannah says with a laugh. “I’m glad you could come out and meet everyone, Jack. I hope they haven’t been too overbearing.”

“No, everyone’s been great,” Jack says. “My family get-togethers are tiny in comparison to this.”

“They just get excited when Taylor brings a guy around,” she says with a wink.

Jack glances at Whits, who looks mildly horrified.

“Sorry,” he says when she leaves to put the baby to bed. “I have no clue where they got that idea.”

Jack nudges Whits’ knee under the water with his own. “You must have talked about me a lot for them to think that.”

“Nah, they just want everyone paired up. Every time I bring a cute guy around, my mom starts making wedding plans.”

“You think I’m cute?” Jack asks, grinning.

“No! Well, I mean, yeah, obviously you are, but…” Whits looks skyward for a moment. “Fuck. I’m gonna shut up now.”

Jack can't resist chirping him, just a little. “Well, we’re all alone out here. If you’re gonna make a move, now’s your chance.”

“Ugh, shut up.” Whits splashes him. Jack retaliates, and by the time Mark gets back with their beer, they’re outright wrestling.

“Hey, there’s kids watching, you know,” Mark says, smirking at them.

Whits groans and slides under the surface of the water.

Later, there’s food — Alex spent the day smoking the largest piece of meat Jack has ever seen — and more drinks, and then people finally start to head out. Most of them stop by to wish Jack and Whits luck and assure them they’ll be there to cheer for the Falconers. One of the younger boys quietly asks Whits if he can get Tyler Seguin’s autograph, and Whits laughs and says he’ll try. By ten o’clock, just Jack and Whits and Amanda and Alex are left sitting in the living room amidst the remains of the party.

“No liquor luge this time?” Whits says, grinning at Alex.

Amanda snickers, and Alex shrugs. “Y’all have a game tomorrow. I figured it wasn’t really appropriate.”

“So you toned it down just for us?” Whits shakes his head. “You know it’s supposed to be the other way around, right?”

Amanda drains her wine glass. “You know my philosophy. What better way to make your teenage kids think partying is uncool than to do it yourself?”

Whits snorts. “I’d tell you that worked, but I’d be lying.”

“First time in Dallas, Jack?”

Jack nods at Alex. “First time in Texas, actually. I haven’t seen much other than the practice arena and your house, though.”

“You should come visit us this summer. Taylor can play tour guide.” Alex winks at Whits, whose jaw tenses.

“You really do look like your father,” Amanda says, gazing at Jack now.

“Do I?” Jack grins. Amanda passed tipsy a while back, but he finds it charming. She reminds him of his own mother, who gets sweet and giggly and slurs her words after a few glasses of wine.

“What she’s not telling you,” Whits says, leaning into Jack, “is that she had a poster of your dad in her college dorm room.”

Amanda gasps and throws a pillow at Whits. “You were not supposed to tell him that!”

Whits laughs. “How many times did you remind me of that in the week after Jack signed?”

“That was a long time ago.” Amanda’s cheeks are a little pink now.

“Does that mean we can’t tell Jack that there’s a poster of him in Blake’s room right now?” Alex asks, faux-innocent.

“Oh, god,” Whits groans. “I did not need to know that.”

Jack feels his face heat. He takes a swig from the water bottle he’s been nursing for the last hour and fishes around for a different subject. “So did you two meet at Wisconsin?”

Alex and Amanda exchange a glance.

“No,” Amanda says, her gaze still fixed on her husband.

“Oh, this should be good.” Whits leans back against the sofa cushions, shoulder pressing into Jack’s comfortably. “All my family’s dirty laundry is comin’ out tonight.”

Amanda shoots him a look. “Alex and I met at work, actually.”

“That’s one way to put it,” Whits says, smirking at his mother.

“It worked out well for all of us, didn’t it?” She raises her eyebrows, then turns to Jack. “I married Mark and Taylor’s biological father right out of college. I didn’t intend to get married so soon, but—”

“She got knocked up,” Whits says.

“Jesus, that’s your mom you’re talking about,” Jack says, giving him a shove.

“Thank you,” Amanda says, nodding at Jack. “It’s true, though. We had Mark, and a few years later, we had Taylor, and I was fucking miserable.”

“Mo-om.” Whits grimaces.

“He hates it when I swear.” She sticks her tongue out at Whits. “So anyway, Taylor’s dad played football at Wisconsin, but he didn’t get drafted into the NFL. I got a job at Intel in Phoenix and we all moved there, and he ended up playing arena football. He hated it and was generally bitter and awful. I was an engineer and making four times what he was making, and he was too much of an insecure asshole to deal with that, basically.”

“She was on the team that developed the Pentium processor,” Whits says, elbowing Jack. Jack nods and pretends he understands what that means. “And that’s where she met Dad.”

Alex looks at his wife. “She was the only woman in our group, and god, she was so hot.”

Whits puts his hands over his eyes. “And they had a wild and crazy affair, basically. Ugh, can we skip the part where you did each other on every surface in the office?”

Amanda laughs and presses her face into her husband’s shoulder.

“Not inaccurate, though,” Alex says, grinning.

“And so I left my husband,” Amanda says. “Or, well, he left once I told him I was in love with someone else.”

“I was what, two at the time?” Whits asks.

“Almost three.” Amanda smiles wistfully at him. “Alex and I were both from the Metroplex and we decided to come back here. We got jobs at TI, and raised the boys around family. A few years later, Blake came along.”

“She was an accident,” Whits stage-whispers. “We used to call her ‘broken condom baby’ when she was being a pain in the ass.”

“You did not!” Amanda says, looking shocked.

“Do you have any kind of relationship with him, your…” Jack trails off, unsure how to finish the question.

“My sperm donor?” Whits asks. “Not really. He came to watch Mark play football a few times, but” —he chuckles bitterly— “I was a big disappointment.”

“You reminded him too much of me,” Amanda says.

“In more ways than one,” Whits adds, raising his eyebrows at his mother.

“He’s a homophobic prick,” Alex says by way of explanation.

Jack knocks his knee against Whits’ thigh. “That sucks.”

Whits shrugs. “It doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve proved him wrong.”

Jack smiles at him. “Yeah, you have.”

*****

Jack scrolls through the dozens of texts and twitter notifications on his phone on the ride back to the hotel. Whits had earlier tweeted one of the photos of the two of them in the pool, dripping wet with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and that image in particular has more retweets and comments than Jack wants to think about. He has a text from Bittle that consists entirely of exclamation point emojis, to which he can only think to respond with a winky face. Both the Samwell and Falconers group chats are chirping them about the sheer number of wet, shirtless pics of the two of them that are currently flying around on the internet.

He knows he ought to find it flattering, but instead, there is a gnawing pit of anxiety in his stomach. He doesn’t want to be a sex symbol, though he’s aware that’s part of the job. He’s not stupid — he knows what he looks like and how photogenic he is these days — but he’d prefer to get attention for what he does on the ice, not what he looks like off it. And he always disappoints people when his personality doesn’t live up to their high expectations. Jack sighs and slides down in the seat.

“What?” Whits asks, gaze fixed on his own phone.

“Nothing.”

Whits hums in reply, but doesn’t push. Jack likes that about him.

“Thanks for inviting me tonight,” Jack says. “It was fun.”

“Sure, bro.” He’s still looking down at his phone, but he’s smiling. “Thanks for coming.”

*****

They do local press on Saturday afternoon, during which Whits is questioned endlessly about what it’s like to play in his hometown. Jack mostly sits next to him and smiles and talks about what a great player Whits is, and it makes a nice change. They shrug off comparisons to Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, and keep saying that they’re just happy to be there and hope to bring a good game.

The crowd at the American Airlines Center is huge and loud. The sea of green is interrupted by a surprising amount of Falconers blue, though, and the guys chirp Whits endlessly with jokes about how many cousins he must have.

“I get it, I’m a hick, shut the fuck up,” Whits says at the end of warmups. He’s smiling, though, and clearly excited to play in front of family and friends.

They briefly lead in the first on a power play goal by Whits, but it’s all downhill from there. Rolly gets into a fight with Roussel in the third and gets five for it, but they’re already down by three, so it doesn’t do much to rile the team up. Whits finds the back of the net once more off of a saucer pass from Jack, and they lose 4-2. The Stars have been strong this season so far, so it’s not like they expected to come in and dominate, but it stings that they couldn’t put up more of a fight.

“Hey, Zimmermann,” Jack hears after the horn sounds and the crowd erupts. He turns to see Jamie Benn standing next to him. “Good game.”

“Yeah, you too,” Jack replies, hoping he doesn’t sound like he’s lying through his teeth. “It’s been a while, eh?”

“The Memorial Cup,” Benn holds up his glove and Jack bumps it with his own. “Anyway, it’s good to see you playing in the league, finally.”

Jack can’t help smiling a little. He remembers Benn all those years ago, a lot younger and just as hungry as Jack had been to prove himself. “Thanks.”

“You’re going to Vegas next, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Tell Parse he still owes me a hundred bucks.”

Jack blinks at him. “Uhhh… okay.”

“Later.” Benn smiles and skates away.

Jack exhales slowly and heads off the ice. The loss stings like hell, but he’s getting better at moving forward. It’s a long season and they have to take it one game at a time — and tomorrow is one he’s been anticipating and dreading in equal parts for a long, long while.

Whits corners him in the locker room after he’s showered and done press. “I’m gonna catch a cab back to the hotel later. Cover for me if I’m late?”

Jack frowns at him. “Why?”

Whits gives him a long look. Oh.

“We’ve been going all day,” Jack whispers. “When did you find time to pick up?”

The corners of Whits’ lips turn up in a sly grin, and Jack closes his eyes.

“Oh god, don’t tell me.”

“You sure you don’t want to know which dude on the Stars’ roster is down for—”

“No,” Jack retorts, more sharply than he intended. “Just don’t be stupid, okay? We have an early flight, and you know tomorrow is important to me.”

Whits looks chagrined. “Yeah, okay. I won’t be too late.” He slaps Jack on the shoulder and slips out the door. Jack watches him go, and sighs.

*****

“Again?” Bittle says, his brown eyes wide on the computer screen. “Damn, that boy is busy.”

“At least I get a little time to myself,” Jack says. He’s shirtless and stretched out on his stomach on the bed. Bittle is sitting crosslegged on his own bed. He’s a little drunk, and Jack can hear the background buzz of a party in the Haus through his computer’s speakers. “You sure I’m not keeping you from having fun?”

Bittle makes a show of rolling his eyes. “I’ve had enough fun for one night. Holster is determined to get me laid, apparently. He invited half the swim team to this party, I swear.”

Jack frowns. “Half the swim team is gay?”

Bittle shrugs. “Or bi, whatever. Honestly, I’m not in the mood. Casual sex is not really what I’m looking for right now, you know?”

“Yeah.” Jack knows. God, Jack knows.

“What about you?” Bittle asks. He shifts the laptop with him as he leans back against his pillow. The effect is like Jack is looking down at him. Over him. Bittle wets his lips with the tip of his tongue, and Jack feels a familiar twinge in his groin.

“What?” It takes two tries to get the word out.

“Goodness, I must have drunk more than I realized. The room is spinning.” Bittle closes his eyes, opens them again. “So, like, I’ve seen all those pictures of you on Twitter and Instagram. All those selfies with girls fawning all over you.” He pauses. “The ones of you shirtless in the pool with Taylor.”

“Not my fault.”

“Hey, m’not complaining.” Bittle laughs. “The two of you make a nice pair.”

Jack’s cheeks warm. “We play well together,” he says, though he knows that’s not what Bittle’s implying.

“So, like, I know hooking up is not your thing, but lord knows you’ve got opportunities. You could let loose every once in a while, if you wanted to.”

Jack doesn’t want to, is the thing. But he knows better than to say that out loud. Shitty pestered him for a solid week last time the subject came up. “No, I really couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

He looks up to see Bittle gazing at him thoughtfully through the computer screen. Jack wishes he could reach out and touch him right now. “Hockey is more important.” He shrugs. “I can’t afford to be distracted this year.”

“And getting your dick sucked in a bathroom would be a distraction?”

Jack’s heard Bittle talk like this before, but only on the phone. Never when he was looking right at Jack, looking up at him, lying back in bed, his eyes dark and inviting and…

Jack is suddenly half-hard in his pajama pants. He blinks and looks away from the screen. “Yeah, well, my right hand is good enough for now.”

He hears a sharp intake of breath and looks back at the screen again. Even in the dim light, he can see how pink Bittle’s cheeks are.

Jack rests his chin on his forearms, and lets himself imagine Bittle is hard right now too. “Even hockey robots need to get off every now and then.”

“Good to know.” Bittle bites his lip and releases it again, and Jack can see the slight indentation his teeth made before the skins plumps up once more. “Just now and then?”

Jack wets his bottom lip with his tongue. “Usually after a game. It kind of helps me settle down.”

“Are you telling me you’re gonna go jerk off after this call?”

Jack’s dick is so hard it’s starting to ache. He’s resisting the urge to shift his hips against the mattress, but only because Bittle would know exactly what he was doing. He stares right back at Bittle and smiles. “Probably.”

Bittle’s eyes are wide and dark. “Well. Okay. Good luck, I guess? Or. Yeah.”

“What about you?” Jack asks before he can stop himself. He bites down hard on his lower lip as soon as the words leave his mouth. God, what is he doing?

Bittle exhales shakily and looks up at the ceiling. “I think I’m gonna make a pie tonight.”

“I never realized that was a euphemism.”

Bittle bursts into giggles and the screen goes sideways. There’s a loud thunk, and then, “Shit!” The image rights itself again to reveal Bittle still laughing.

Jack smiles at the screen. “How drunk are you?”

“Not nearly drunk enough for this conversation, Mr. Zimmermann.” The view on the screen moves once more, and then Bittle is sitting up, a little further away from the computer than he was before. “I should let you get yourself… taken care of so you can go to sleep. You’ve got a big day tomorrow. Kent Parson, wow.”

“Yeah.” Jack presses his lips together. It’s been years since he was on the ice with Parse. In fact, the last time the two of them played together, Jack had stood across the face-off circle from Jamie Benn. “He messaged me on Twitter a couple of days ago, actually. He wants to go out after the game and get a drink.”

“Hmmm,” Bittle replies. “You sure that’s a good idea?”

“Nope.” Jack shrugs. “But I’m not sure it’s a bad one either.”

“You should take Taylor with you.” Bittle tries to keep a straight face. “As your second.”

Jack snorts. “Maybe I will.”

“Good night, Jack.”

“Go bake that pie.”

“Oh my god, Jack.” Bittle laughs and ends the call.

If he jerks off in the dark thinking about Bittle biting his lip, no one has to know.

*****

Chapter Text

The moment the wheels of the plane leave the runway in Dallas, Whits leans over and says, “So, Kent Parson.”

Jack tries very hard not to react, but he’s pretty sure Whits knows his tells by now. “What about him?”

“Some of the guys have been pestering me to ask you what the deal is.”

Jack looks up from the biography he’s reading. “What deal?”

“Everyone knows the story of y’all in Juniors, and what happened after that.” Whits’ gaze focuses on Jack’s face, and Jack swallows down a surge of panic. They don’t know the whole story — they can’t. “They want to be ready for anything that might come up tonight. So if there’s some bad blood there, if people are gonna be gunning for you or—”

“No, it’s not—” Jack takes a calming breath, and forces his face into a neutral expression. “It’s not like that. He and I have things to say to each other, but we won’t do that on the ice.”

Whits nods and is quiet for a moment. “If you need anything—”

“I’ll let you know.” Jack turns back to his book as pointedly as he can manage.

“All right.” Whits sighs and settles back in his seat.

Jack reads the same paragraph three times before he gives up. His heart is pounding in his chest, so he stares at the page and lets his mind wander, picking out images in the text’s negative space.

Looking forward to it

That was the message he’d woken up to that morning, and he’s been thinking about it ever since. It’s been a year since the night Parse randomly showed up at the Haus and pushed his way back into Jack’s head, stormed into the safe space Jack had carefully constructed around himself, just to show that he could. It had taken Jack weeks to get his head back together. It had been terrifying to realize that even after all that time, Parse could still push Jack’s buttons like no one else, even the ones he’d buried deep.

Worse, Jack can’t escape the thought that he deserves it. He knows he hurt Parse, and he can’t blame him for wanting to twist that blade every now and then.

*****

Everyone had expected Las Vegas to be warm, so of course it isn’t. Instead, it’s pleasantly cool, cooler than it was in Dallas. It feels like the autumn they didn’t have in Providence. They arrive ridiculously early on a Sunday morning, but the sounds of slots machines fill the airport all the same. Some of the younger guys look around and grin in anticipation, but all Jack can think about is the game tonight and seeing Parse again.

The bus takes them straight to the hotel, which is also filled with slot machines. The coaching staff have warned them all they should save Vegas for later and rest up for the game, and though the guys are taking that warning seriously, it doesn’t stop them from exploring their surroundings. Whits heads out shortly after check-in to go poke around the hotel casino with Rolly and Janssen. Jack, on the other hand, is not planning to leave the room until the bus comes back to take them to the arena.

He takes off his shoes, stretches out on the bed, and takes a deep breath. Exhaustion is beginning to creep in at the edges, fueled by the intense pace of their recent schedule. They’ll get a brief break over the Thanksgiving holiday, and Jack is looking forward to it.

His phone rings. He knows who it is before he even picks it up. He stares at the screen and almost lets it go to voicemail, but he finally sighs and accepts the call.

“What?”

“I’m coming over. Which hotel are you in?”

Jack winces. “I thought we were doing this after the game tonight.”

Parse sighs and Jack hears something that sounds like a car door closing. “I don’t want this shit still hanging between us when we get on the ice. Just give me ten minutes, okay? I have something to say.”

“So fucking say it.”

“Not on the phone.”

Jack stares up at the ceiling for several seconds. He’s so tired, and he’s not ready for this. But maybe if they get it over with, he’ll be able to take a nap and focus on the game. “No more than ten minutes, and you’re going to leave the second I ask you to.”

“Of course. Jesus, Zimms.”

Jack cuts the call, and texts him the name of the hotel. After a moment’s thought, he texts the room number too.

Twenty minutes later, he’s jolted awake by a knock on the door. Parse leans against the door jamb when he opens it, wearing his trademark backwards snapback. His eyes are just as big and grey-green as Jack remembers. Parse smiles sweetly and bats his eyelashes.

“Don’t,” Jack warns, and steps back to let him in.

Parse crosses to the bed Jack was just napping on and falls back onto it. He kicks off his shoes and props himself up on his elbows. “Nice. You got a roommate?”

“He’s in the casino.”

“You should request a single next season.” Parse waggles his eyebrows. “More privacy.”

Jack stands at the foot of his bed and crosses his arms over his chest. “You’ve got nine and a half minutes left.”

Parse groans and flops onto his back. “Sit down, at least.”

“Get off my bed first.”

Parse sits up and scoots back until he’s leaning against the headboard, crosslegged. “Better?”

Jack already regrets opening the door. “What do you want?”

“To tell you I’m happy for you,” Parse says, simply. “I know you’ve been through a lot of difficult shit, but here you are, finally playing in the NHL.” It sounds rehearsed. “I wish you’d considered the Aces, but still, you earned every bit of it, and I’m really proud of you, okay?”

Jack narrows his eyes at him. “Is that all?”

“Yes. No.” Parse deflates right before Jack’s eyes. “Fuck, Zimms. What do you want me to say?”

“Why you’re here. Why you…” Jack swallows and looks down at the foot of the bed. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about what he wants to say to Parse, and now that he has a chance, he’s finding it easier to slip back into resentment. “Why’d you come to Samwell last year? Was it just to shit on everything I’d managed to accomplish?”

“No, fuck, I…” Parse lets his head fall back against the headboard with a thunk. “Look, I’m sorry. Okay? I thought maybe I could talk you into…” He makes a sound that’s half-laugh and half frustrated groan. “I was stupid. I missed you, and… I was so fucking jealous, god.”

Jack’s mouth falls open. “Jealous? Of what?”

“Jesus, of… everything. I mean, come on, you got to go to college and have friends and live in a frat house and still play damn good hockey. Good enough that everyone knew you’d get signed as a free agent.” Parse presses his hands over his face and sighs. “You were supposed to do this with me, okay? I wasn’t supposed to be all alone.”

Jack exhales and looks away. Apparently the grass really does look greener on the other side. “You won the Cup. And the Calder. And you’ve—”

“Yeah, and all that’s great, but that can’t be all there is. What’s the point if I’m still…” Parse presses his lips together for a moment, like he hadn’t meant to say so much. “Hockey isn’t everything, you know?”

Jack blinks at him for a moment, stunned. He knows that’s true, intellectually, but living it is a whole other matter. Hockey is all he has time for, all he can focus on. Anything else and he’d fall apart, like he did before. He’s only let himself focus on hockey; even his coursework at Samwell was carefully, methodically approached to keep it well out of the way of the real reason he was there. His years at Samwell were meant to give him space to pull his life together, to play hockey in a lower-stress environment for a few years, to see if it was what he really wanted to do and not just what was expected of him.

Parse had done everything Jack was supposed to do, had accomplished Jack’s dreams while Jack watched on his laptop, full of misery and jealousy. And now here he was, saying it wasn’t all Jack had imagined it to be.

Jack sits on the bed next to Parse, his head spinning.

“Did I just overload your circuits or something?” Parse’s tone is light, but Jack hears the real concern beneath it.

“No. I just… I’m surprised. I thought you felt sorry for me, for being too weak to—”

“No,” Parse says, so sharply that Jack turns to look at him. “Shit. That’s not it at all.” Parse runs a hand over his face and takes a slow breath. “Okay, I want to ask you something, and I want you to answer it honestly.”

Jack frowns. “Okay.”

“Was it my fault? The overdose, I mean. Was it because of me being so… I know I pushed you into it and—”

“It wasn’t your fault, Kenny.”

“But—”

“I can’t say it had nothing to do with you. There was a lot going on and I didn’t handle any of it well. But I made my own choices.” He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “It says it right on the damn bottle, you know? Don’t mix with alcohol. But I was seventeen and stupid, and I fucked up.” He shrugs. “I didn’t think about what could go wrong. All I knew was that it made everything easier to deal with. The hockey and the expectations, and the whole not-being-straight thing.”

“You think I didn’t have to deal with that too?”

“You don’t have anxiety disorder.”

“No, I… fuck.” Parse shakes his head and looks up at the ceiling. “Sorry.”

“You didn’t know how fucked up I was. No one did. Not the coaches or my doctors, not even my parents. I was really good at hiding it, because I knew that if anyone found out, I’d lose hockey.”

“You almost did lose hockey.”

“Not just hockey.” Jack turns to look at him. “I flatlined. Did you know that?”

Parse closes his eyes. “There’s a lot I don’t know, apparently.”

Jack nods, even though Parse isn’t looking at him.

“I just… Jesus, your dad had to tell me to stop calling, that you didn’t want to talk to me. You fucking shut me out, like I meant nothing to you.”

“I’m sorry. It was what I thought I needed at the time. I didn’t think about what you needed. I couldn’t.” Jack takes a deep breath and releases it slowly. “I know how much I fucked up. I know I can’t make it better.”

“Your therapist tell you to say that?”

“You think I’d come up with that on my own?”

Parse opens his eyes and turns to look at him. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?”

Jack shrugs in response.

“I loved you, so fucking much.”

Jack stares back at him. “I know.”

“Are you seriously going Han Solo on me right now?”

It’s a reference Parse knows he’ll get, and Jack can’t help smiling. “Me too. I thought you knew that.” Parse is pretty much the only person Jack’s ever been in love with.

Parse presses his hands over his face for a moment, then drops them away again. His eyes are bright, and Jack looks away. Parse exhales shakily. “I was so fucking angry at you. I spent years trying to think up ways to hurt you, and then I’d see you and just…”

Jack nods. “I deserved it.”

“Yes, you did.” Parse groans in frustration. “God, stop agreeing with me! How can you be so fucking… sensible about this?”

“Therapy. Years of therapy.”

Parse snorts. “Hunh. Maybe I should give it a try.”

“Look, I know I fucked up. I’m sorry about that, and about a lot of things. But it’s all going pretty well now, for both of us.” Jack looks at him, really looks, and sees Parse’s expression soften. “Do you think we can just… stop being assholes to each other? Be friends again?”

Parse takes a deep breath and releases it slowly. “Sure. Fuck it. I’m tired of hating you, anyway.”

“Good.”

“I never could say no to you.”

“I know.” Jack gives him a small smile, and something sparks behind Parse’s eyes. His expression changes then, to one Jack knows well but hasn’t seen in a long time, a smile that’s genuine and warm and full of hope. Jack waits for it, for the feeling of his heart clenching in his chest and the floor dropping out from beneath him. He already hears the mantra of don’t be stupid, don’t be stupid in his head — but nothing happens. Parse is stretched out on his bed, looking up at him like he’d give Jack anything, and Jack… doesn’t want anything.

The realization hits him so hard he grins, huffs out a small laugh.

“What?” Parse sits up and stretches, and just like that, the moment passes. “Has it been ten minutes?”

“Yes. We still on for tonight?”

Parse climbs to his feet. “You sure you’re gonna be up for it after you get your ass kicked?”

“Yeah, I’m not too worried. I might bring a friend along.”

“Is he hot?” Parse smirks, and leans over to tug his shoes back on.

“Irrelevant.”

“Not to me.”

Jack makes a sound of exasperation, though he doesn’t really feel it. He opens the door and gestures Parse through. “I’d wish you luck tonight, but…”

“You’re gonna need it more than me.” Parse looks once over his shoulder, then adjusts the snapback as he walks away.

Jack closes the door, and leans back against it. The tightness that had been in his shoulders for days is gone now, melted away. He smiles, then laughs. That was so not the way he expected that to go.

*****

Standing across the face-off dot from Parse is something Jack has imagined dozens of times, but the reality of it is so much different. Jack finds that what he remembers about him doesn’t really apply anymore. Parse has leveled up in so many ways, plays with so much more finesse that he could be any of the handful of highly skilled players Jack’s met this season. Jack should have expected it, but it still catches him by surprise that he can no longer read Parse the way he used to.

The Aces pull ahead in the first, and stay a goal ahead for most of the game. Kratz nets a slick wrister midway through the third to tie them up, but then Jack goes out on a stupid hooking penalty, and Parse scores on the power play with three minutes to go. They fight hard for two more minutes, and Jack can see his teammates losing hope as the clock winds down. With one minute to go, one of the Aces’ D-men goes out on a tripping penalty, and just like that, the momentum shifts. The Falcs control the puck, all their passes connect, and all the Aces’ attempts at forechecking fumble. With 30 seconds left in the frame, Whits wheels behind the net and wraps it around. The goalie somehow deflects the puck right onto Jack’s stick, and he shoots without even thinking. It goes in.

Whits practically leaps into Jack’s arms, and it’s all Jack can do not to fall over. Their line skates off, and there’s ten more seconds before the end of regulation. They managed to tie it, and now they’re going into overtime.

Jack’s out on the first OT shift, facing off against Parse once again.

“Fucking sweet shot,” Parse says, grinning at him from across the dot.

“Thanks,” Jack replies.

“Too bad it won’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter, in the end. The Aces rally and score two minutes in, and the game is over. Jack looks up to see Parse skating toward him instead of celebrating with his team. He isn’t quite sure what Parse’s intention is, but he opens his arms on impulse and Parse skates right into them.

“God, that was fun,” Parse says, and Jack can feel the pressure of Parse’s arms around his waist even through his pads.

“Until that last goal, yeah,” Jack replies.

Parse squeezes him more tightly, then pulls back to look up at him. “You always were a shitty loser.”

“Is there any other way to be a loser?”

Parse shrugs. “I’ll text you the name of the bar. See you there?”

They finally let go of each other and skate back to their respective benches.

“Awwww,” Janssen says, slapping Jack on the shoulder when they get to the locker room. “That was touching, bro. You made Rolly cry.”

Rolly snorts and shakes his head. “Nice to see you two make up, is all.”

“Make up? That was more like making out,” Sandy says, and there is a chorus of “ooooh”.

“You gonna invite us to the wedding?” Kratz says, and there is a round of snickers.

“Nah,” Jack replies. “He lives in Vegas. We’re gonna elope.”

Whits grins at Jack. “Should I be jealous?”

“Absolutely. Did you see his ESPN photoshoot?” Jack’s deadpan delivery triggers another round of laughter, though a few of the younger guys exchange glances.

Whits shakes his head and goes back to taking off his pads.

Jack showers and dresses again, and checks his phone while he’s waiting on the bus. He has a handful of texts from family and friends, including the standard sad face from Bittle. He blinks at it for a moment, and realizes that he’s not upset, even though they lost. They played hard and well. Just getting to OT felt like an accomplishment against the Aces. And he and Parse seem to have made their peace with each other, which is somehow more important than the rest of it.

Jack drops his phone to his lap and whispers, “Damn.”

“What?” Whits drops into the seat next to him.

“Nothing, I just…” Jack turns to look at him. “Good game, eh?”

“Yeah, it was. We did better than I expected.”

Jack’s phone pings and he picks it up to glance at the screen. “You up for going out tonight?”

Whits makes a strangled sound. “What the fuck?”

“If you don’t, it’s not—”

“No, I do, but dude — you never want to go out after a loss. You hardly want to go out after wins.”

“It’s a special occasion, I guess.” Jack tilts the phone so that Whits can see the message from Parse.

Sky Bar. We’re heading there now. Tell the doorman you’re meeting me.

“Sweet,” Whits says, grinning. “Yeah, I’d be up for that.”

Another message pops up while they’re both looking at the screen.

Please tell me you’re bringing Whitton. He is hot AF. [smirky face]

Whits makes a sound like a teenage girl.

“Oops,” Jack says, trying hard not to laugh. He lowers his voice. “Should I text him back and tell him you think he’s cute too, or?”

“Shut up,” Whits says, blushing furiously, then grips Jack’s wrist. “Wait, does that mean he…”

Jack opens his mouth to say yes, but then thinks better of it. That’s Parse’s information to give, not Jack’s. He taps out a quick reply on his phone — See you there. And yes, he’s coming — and then scrolls over to the SMH group text.

“I mean, I’ve heard rumors, but—” Whits’ phone pings and he looks down at his screen. “Whoa. Have you looked at your Twitter notifications?”

“I turned them off.” It had been a little much.

“Take a look at the Falcs’ account.”

The top tweet is a photo of him and Parse hugging it out at the end of the game. It’s captioned Hockey hugs are the best hugs and has several thousand likes and retweets even though it’s been up less than an hour. Jack scrolls over to Parse’s account to see that he’s already retweeted it with the comment Bros for life. Even Bittle retweeted it with a little heart emoji, which is a surprise, considering how bristly he usually gets when the subject of Parse comes up.

“I gotta retweet that,” Whits says, and Jack sees him smirking at his phone as he types. Jack waits a moment before scrolling over to see that Whits replied, Should I be jealous?

“You dick,” Jack says, but replies to that with Probably.

“Jesus, you two,” someone calls from the back of the bus less than a minute later. “Get a fuckin’ room!”

Whits raises one hand with his middle finger extended, and everyone laughs. Jack shakes his head in disbelief that his teammates don’t have better things to do right now than stalk them on Twitter.

*****

They arrive at Sky Bar to find there’s a line, but when Jack mentions they’re with Kent Parson, they’re ushered straight through.

“Must be nice,” Whits says.

Jack doesn’t reply: he’s gotten more special treatment in his life than he deserves because of his last name. At least Parse earned it.

They find Parse sitting in a corner in a roped-off zone with one of the guys from his line.

“Zimms,” Parse says by way of greeting. “And you are Taylor Whitton.” He gives Whits such an obvious onceover that the man sitting beside him rolls his eyes.

“It’s Beaulieu, right?” Jack asks him, ignoring the spectacle of Parse and Whits making eyes at each other.

Beaulieu looks startled. “Oh! I am. Yes.”

“Jack Zimmermann.” Jack slides into a seat across from him and extends his hand.

“Yeah, I know who you are,” Beaulieu says, grinning as he shakes Jack’s hand. His accent is thick, and Jack wonders if that’s typical, or if he’s just nervous.

Jack switches to French. “How do you like Las Vegas?”

“It’s crazy,” Beaulieu tells him. “I mean, I’m technically still underage, but if I’m out with one of the guys from the team, it doesn’t matter. It’s a good thing I’m not inclined to do crazy shit, because you can get in a lot of trouble here.”

“I can imagine,” Jack replies. He wonders how Parse managed to avoid trouble in his rookie year, considering how inclined to crazy shit Parse could be. “So you played for Rimouski last year, right?”

“Yeah,” Beaulieu says, clearly surprised. “How did you know that?”

“You’re on Parse’s line. I watched a lot of video of you in the last week.” Jack smiles at him, then says in English, “You’ve got a fucking sick backhand.”

Beaulieu ducks his head, smiling. “Ah, thanks.”

The server comes by and they all order drinks. Parse chats with her, full flirt mode on, and Whits leans in close to Jack.

“This is gonna sound weird, but I’ve never actually heard you speak French before.”

Jack turns to look at him. “Really?”

Whits grins and moves so close his mouth nearly touches Jack’s ear. “Not gonna lie; it’s pretty damn hot.”

Jack snorts out a laugh and shakes his head. He looks up to see Parse watching the two of them.

Whits stands and pats him on the shoulder. “Back in a sec.” He stands and heads off, presumably in search of the bathroom.

Two seconds later, Parse is sliding into Whits’ empty seat. “So,” he says.

“Oh god,” Jack mutters.

Parse leans in and lowers his voice. “I gotta ask. You and Whitton?”

“Me and Whitton what?”

Parse gives him a long look.

“Oh!” Jack glances over at Beaulieu, whose nose is suddenly buried in his phone. “No, we’re just friends.”

Parse smiles a little wider. “Okay, cool. He’s not really your type, but I thought I should ask first.”

There is a lot of presumption in the word first, but Jack doesn’t comment on that. “How do you know he’s not my type?”

Parse’s smile goes full-on smirk. “Because I’m your type, dumbass. You like ‘em smaller than you and blond. Like that Bittle kid from your team at Samwell — you can’t tell me you two weren’t hooking up on the regular.”

Jack gapes at him. “Bittle? I…”

Parse rolls his eyes. “You don’t have to front, Zimms. He fawns all over you on Twitter.” He turns to look at Jack again, and his eyes widen. “Wait, you didn’t?”

Jack fakes a laugh and looks away. “No comment.”

“Fine, be all private. Like I care. Spoiler: I actually do.”

The server brings their drinks before Jack can reply to that.

“So if I put the moves on your boy Whitton, you’re not gonna be pissed at me or anything?”

“Of course not.” Jack’s eyes narrow. “Wait — you’re not trying to set me up with Beaulieu, are you?”

“Nah, he’s straight,” Parse says. “Though he was so geeked about meeting you that he might give it a try.” Jack snorts, and Parse leans in to whisper, “Like that hasn’t happened before.”

Jack elbows him. “Shut up.”

“Anyway, he’s my rookie, and I trust him.” Parse waggles his eyebrows. “And it doesn’t hurt that I’ve gotten him mad pussy this season. You would not believe.”

Jack snorts. “So that’s why he hangs out with you.”

“Hey, I have a lot of good qualities. Just because I also give amazing head doesn’t mean—”

“Okay, I’m gonna go piss.” Jack stands and walks away, Parse’s laughter trailing behind him. He meets Whits on his way back, and smirks at him.

“What?” Whits asks, but Jack just waves a hand at him and keeps going.

When he gets back, Parse and Whits are deep in conversation. Jack sits next to Beaulieu, who looks relieved to be able to put his phone away at last. They talk hockey for half an hour, then decide to head over to the bar to get a closer look at the television screen that just started playing NHL highlights. They order another round and watch highlights of their own game in the middle of a crowd of people who have no idea who they are. It’s strange, but also kind of nice. Jack hasn’t had many opportunities to feel anonymous in the last decade.

A pair of women sitting a few spaces down the bar keep looking over and smiling, though, and Jack can’t tell if it’s interest or recognition. He looks over to see that Beaulieu is looking at them too. He’s not used to being a wingman, but he can at least give it a shot.

“You should buy them drinks,” Jack tells him.

“Those two? Out of my reach,” Beaulieu says, and flushes. He’s actually kind of adorable, with large green eyes and soft brown curls that fall around his face. He has dimples when he smiles, which has the effect of making his slightly crooked teeth look almost charming. He’s not Jack’s type at all, but Jack can definitely see why the women might be interested.

“No, seriously. Here’s the bartender. Do it.”

Beaulieu waves at the bartender, then orders two more of what the ladies are drinking and sends it their way.

“Thanks,” Beaulieu says when he sits back again. “I’m terrible at this.”

“That’s not what Parse said.”

Beaulieu rolls his eyes. “Parse fucks everything that moves.” He shakes his head, and Jack can’t tell if his expression is one of disgust or admiration.

“He hasn’t changed much since Juniors, then.” Jack watches the bartender deliver the women their drinks and gesture up the bar towards the two of them. “They’re looking this way. You should go talk to them.”

“Oh god, no.” Beaulieu grips his glass so tightly his knuckles turn white.

The women talk quietly, and then one slides off her stool.

“Never mind, she’s coming to you.” Jack elbows him.

“Ah, shit. Okay.” Beaulieu takes a deep breath. “So which one do you like?”

“Uhhh…” Jack hesitates and drains the rest of his drink. “I’m not available, actually, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, right,” Beaulieu says, nodding in apparent understanding. His eyes widen almost comically. “Wait, so what do I—”

Both of the women come over then, all smiles, and one thanks them for the drinks in fairly bad French. It’s charming, though, and Jack lets her off the hook quickly. He thickens his accent and talks about being in town to watch his friend Justin play hockey. They clearly have no idea who either of them are, so it’s easy to play up the Aces and Justin’s assist on the game-winning goal.

Finally, Jack pulls out his phone to check the time. He says he has an early flight to the east coast in the morning and needs to go, but would they mind keeping his friend Justin company a little longer, so he doesn’t have to celebrate alone? They look a little disappointed that Jack’s leaving, but when Beaulieu’s cheeks flush and he looks down into his beer, they both smile at him and say, “Awww.” If Jack didn’t know better, he’d think Beaulieu was doing it on purpose.

Jack leans in to give him a “goodbye” hug and a kiss on the cheek, and the women giggle.

“Thank you,” Beaulieu whispers.

“Have fun,” Jack replies. He pauses by the door to text Whits that he’s heading out.

OK if I stay? is Whits’ immediate reply.

Don’t miss the bus in the morning.

It’s too late to text Bittle or Shitty, so Jack entertains himself in the cab by catching up with the SMH group chat. He usually texts or Skypes with Bittle after a game, and it feels weird not to have done so tonight. He’s not superstitious at all, but he likes routine. He checks his messages again and sees there was a new one from Bittle, sent several hours ago:

Hope it goes well with Parse tonight. [smiley face]

Jack’s stomach flips pleasantly. He switches off his phone and watches Las Vegas go by, and is suddenly very glad he signed with Providence.

*****

Jack’s alarm goes off at 7:00, which feels early considering how late they were out last night. He looks over to the room’s other bed and sees a blanket-covered lump there. He has no idea what time Whits got in, but at least he’s not going to have to hunt him down this morning.

Jack heads to the bathroom, shaves and showers, and comes back out to find Whits sitting up in bed, shirtless, cup of coffee from the room’s tiny coffeemaker in hand. He looks exhausted.

“You must’ve had a quite a night,” Jack says. He pulls clean clothes out of his suitcase and drops his towel.

Whits stares down at his coffee cup. “Yeah, so about that.”

Jack pauses to frown at him. “Are you okay?”

“I’m such an asshole. I swear I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know—” Jack starts, and then says, “Oh.”

“He didn’t say anything until later, when I was about to go, and I—”

“It’s fine,” Jack says. “Really.”

“No, it’s not. I slept with your ex. Like, your only ex. I mean, I knew you were freaked out about this game and seeing him again, and I should’ve put two and two together. You probably wanted to talk to him, at least, and I just… god, I was thinking with my dick.”

Jack sighs and crosses to sit next to him on the bed. “We talked earlier in the day, before the game, and worked out our shit. Really, it’s fine.”

“Still, it’s not cool to fuck your best bro’s ex.”

Jack blinks at him. “I’m your best bro?”

Whits looks back at him. “Well… yeah. I guess.”

Warmth blooms in Jack’s chest, and he smiles. “Thanks, man.” He knows he should say me too, but he isn’t sure it’s completely true. Of all of his friends, he spends the most time with Whits, but he has a long, intense history with Shitty, and… he doesn’t quite know how to classify his friendship with Bittle, which runs deep in a way he can’t really quantify. The point is, he feels differently about each of them, but they’re all important.

Whits sighs. “Anyway, I’m sorry if I made things weird.”

“You didn’t. I don’t care about shit like that anyway.” He shrugs. “You know it’s not really my thing.”

“So what is your thing? I mean…” Whits’ expression seems carefully blank. “Are you gay?”

Jack stares back at him for a moment. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t…” Whits hesitates, frowning. “Then are you bi?”

“Maybe?” Jack shrugs. “I haven’t been interested either way in the last couple of years, so… I don’t really know what to call myself.”

Well, that’s not entirely true, but he’s not ready to think about that, much less talk about it. Time to change the subject.

He smirks at Whits. “So did you sleep at all last night?”

Whits’ eyebrows go up. “What the fuck, man? You never want deets.”

Jack tilts his head and leans in closer. “Is that a bite mark on your—”

Whits blushes and shoves Jack’s shoulder. “Jesus, enough! And get some fucking clothes on if you’re gonna hang out in my bed. As much as I’ve been slutting it up lately, I might get the wrong idea.”

“Like you haven’t seen my dick before.” Jack takes the coffee cup out of Whits’ hand and takes a swig. Whits puts in more sugar than he likes, but it’s tolerable.

“Hey!” Whits says, and reaches to take it back. “You don’t know where my mouth’s been.”

“Nowhere mine hasn’t,” Jack replies.

Whits nearly spills coffee on himself laughing.

*****

On the bus to the airport, Jack’s phone pings with a text from Parse:

You fucking broke my rookie. TWO girls, srsly?

Jack texts back a winky face, then tucks his phone away and smiles.

Chapter Text

Samwell empties out for Thanksgiving, which means Jack manages to find a parking spot reasonably close to the Haus.

“I should probably warn you it’s not like regular Thanksgiving,” Jack says. “Well, unless your family’s Thanksgiving involves a lot of alcohol and weed.” He raises his eyebrows at Whits, who’s got a backpack slung over one shoulder and a case of beer in his arms.

“That’s not far off, honestly,” Whits replies. “But my main goal is to steal all your friends, so.”

Jack laughs. “Yeah, good luck with that.” He’s grateful that it’s a joke between them now, that his horrible jealousy seems to have faded.

He hoists the box of wine bottles out of the bed of the truck, and they make their way up the sidewalk. It’s so unseasonably warm today that neither of them bothered with jackets. The sun is low and bright in the sky, casting long shadows across the front lawns of frat row. The Haus itself looks as delightfully decrepit as ever, its crooked shutters and slightly angled roof almost jaunty in the autumn light.

Jack’s hands are full, so he kicks at the front door in lieu of knocking. A moment later, it opens to reveal Nurse’s smiling face.

“Jaaack! Bro, let me take that for you.” Nurse makes off with the wine, and Jack holds the door open for Whits.

“We come bearing alcohol,” Whits says by way of greeting.

“It’s not Thanksgiving without it,” Shitty says, and Jack turns to look for him in the group of people who’ve flooded the living room at their arrival.

“Shits! You said you couldn’t make it!” Jack has his arms full of Shitty before he quite knows what happened.

Shitty plants a bristly kiss on each of his cheeks. “Like I’m gonna miss this shit? Nah, man, I told my family I had to study all weekend.” He smells like weed and beer already.

“You lied to your parents to get out of Thanksgiving?”

“Nah, I lied to the asshole who claims he’s my father. There’s a difference.” Shitty releases Jack and turns to Whits. “Whitton, my man! C’mere and let me get my hands in that sweet sexy flow.” Shitty does exactly that, then kisses him square on the mouth.

Whits’ cheeks flush pink. “Uhh… Where should I put this beer?”

“Out back. Come say hi to Lardo. She’s got plans for you, man.” He lowers his voice to a stage whisper. “You’re not planning to operate any machinery in the next 24 hours, right?”

“Um,” Whits says as Shitty steers him away, which leaves Jack free to make his way to the kitchen. His heart leaps in his chest at the sight of Bittle standing at the counter, apron tied around his waist and directing Chowder and two frogs through food prep. It’s been weeks since Jack’s seen him in person, and he immediately begins to catalog all the little things that are different: his hair is shorter on the sides, his shoulders look broad in the polo shirt he’s wearing, and he looks a little haggard, like he’s been on his feet since dawn — which he probably has. Jack leans in the doorway, smiling fondly, and waits for Bittle to notice him.

Chowder sees him first and gasps, “Jack!” The frogs turn and gape at him, and Bittle lights up like it’s Christmas.

“You’re here,” Bittle says, and launches himself toward Jack. Jack hugs him tightly, lifting him up high enough to bury his nose in the soft curve of Bittle’s neck. He inhales, and yeah, there it is: Bittle smells like coffee and cinnamon and sweat, and everything that makes Jack miss living here. Bittle squirms against him, and Jack realizes he’s held on a little too long.

“Sorry,” Jack says, and releases him, oddly breathless.

Bittle grins up at him, eyes wide and brown. “We can catch up later. Right now, I’m gonna put you to work, Mister NHL Star.”

He has Jack peeling and slicing potatoes a minute later, and Jack is happy to do it.

“Beckham, right?” Jack says to the frog he recognizes from the kegster a few weeks ago.

“Yeah. The guys call me Becks.” He flushes and grins.

“Bittle says you’re leading the team in points right now.”

Becks glances over at Bittle, clearly surprised, then back to Jack. “Uh, yeah. I am.”

“He’s just ten points behind your best ever,” Bittle says, winking at Jack.

“Pretty impressive for a frog,” Jack says.

“Yeah, for sure,” Becks replies, grinning.

The other frog — Fizzy, Jack will eventually hear someone call him — gapes at the two of them until Bittle chastises him to pick his jaw up off the floor and get over it. Jack manages to get them talking about how their season is going and how they’re adjusting to playing in the NCAA. Bittle stands by the stove, managing four different pans and occasionally looking up to beam at them and say something along the lines of “always the captain.”

When it’s finally time to eat, Shitty and Nurse drag up dusty folding tables from the basement. Chowder wipes them down while everyone scrounges for chairs, Bittle produces a long tablecloth from somewhere, and soon the table is set for twelve. Becks and Fizzy are tasked with setting all the food out, and Jack pours wine, and they all settle down to a huge meal. Bittle’s outdone himself — everything is amazing, as always. Bittle’s clearly in his element, so happy that he’s practically glowing as he looks around at the assortment of people he’s brought together with the promise of good company and better food.

After seconds and thirds, and pie and more wine and finally coffee, everyone admits defeat. They clear the table, and Jack and Chowder ban Bittle from helping with cleanup. Chowder ropes the frogs into helping, and they all make short work of the mountain of dishes and pans and leftovers.

“There are plastic containers for everyone to take food home in,” Bittle says the one time he dares to open the kitchen door.

“Out!” Jack warns, pointing a pair of greasy tongs at him. “It’s under control.”

Bittle rolls his eyes and slinks away again, muttering about how someone had better be taking good care of his kitchen.

Half an hour later, the dishwasher is humming and all the pots and pans have been dried and put away. Everyone gathers around the TV in a motley collection of chairs to watch the Lions and Eagles game, alternately chirping each other and arguing about their favorite football teams. Jack watches them all with a detached sort of melancholy: the scene is so familiar and comfortable that it’s almost disorienting, as if no time has passed since the spring. It has, though: this isn’t his home anymore, and though he can visit, he’ll never really belong here again.

Eventually, the light fades and the frogs wander back to their dorms, and everyone settles into laziness. Shitty heads out back to smoke up with Lardo, Nurse, and Whits. Jack and Chowder sit on the couch and talk football until Bittle comes out of the kitchen with more pie and wine and hands each of them a plate.

“I don’t know if cheat day covers this,” Jack says with a sigh, but he digs into a slice of pumpkin custard anyway. He makes an appreciative moan around the fork. “Oh my god, Bittle. I miss your pie so much.”

Bittle perches on the arm of the couch next to him. “You could come around more often, you know.”

“I know.” He’d intended to back at the beginning of the semester, but it hasn’t happened. His schedule is crazy, of course, but it’s been more than that.

“Mind if I tweet pictures?” Bittle asks, thumbing through the photo album on his phone. Jack hadn’t realized he’d taken so many: there are photos of Jack and the frogs in the kitchen, photos of the set table, the food before it was devoured, and shots of the group of them laughing and talking while they ate.

“Selfie first,” Jack says, leaning into Bittle. “With pie.”

Bittle laughs and switches to the front camera. He snaps a shot of the two of them with Jack’s half-eaten piece of pie between them. He opens Twitter and gets started. “Your mentions are about to blow up, watch.”

Jack sets his phone to do not disturb and tucks it carefully into his pocket.

Everyone’s pleasantly sated with wine and other things by the time the next game begins. Shitty and Lardo take over the end of the couch opposite Jack, and Chowder ends up on the floor, leaning his head back against Nurse in the armchair. Bittle returns from the kitchen with the last bottle of wine, which he pours all around, then sits on the arm of the couch next to Jack. Jack slides an arm around behind him, only barely stopping himself from pressing his fingers into Bittle’s hip. The desire to touch him is weirdly strong, and he isn’t sure if it’s because he’s had a few glasses of wine or if it’s because he just misses touching people in general. He was never particularly touch-starved while he was at Samwell, but now the only contact he has with other people is when they’re trying to slam him into the boards.

Shitty’s drunk enough now that he’s providing a ridiculous running commentary on the football game, and everyone’s laughing. Bittle laughs so hard he leans precariously to the side, and Jack tugs him down into his lap before he has a chance to fall. Bittle turns sideways and slings an arm around Jack’s shoulders, laughing into his hair. Jack allows himself to curl one arm around Bittle’s back, fingers stroking one time over the curve of his hip before settling on the arm of the couch. He hadn’t expected Bittle to stay, but he does, pressing his side against Jack’s chest, and it’s better — so much better.

Whits comes back from the bathroom and sits on the floor in front of them. He leans his head against Jack’s thigh and looks up at him, smiling loopily. Jack reaches down to ruffle his hair.

“Bro, I’m seriously gonna cry,” Shitty says, and leans over Lardo’s lap to sink his fingers into Whits’ hair.

“You were the one who decided to cut it off,” Lardo says. “You can grow it back anytime you want.”

“Fuck yeah,” Shitty says. “I’m never fucking cutting it again. You watch. Me and Whits’ll have the sickest flow you’ve ever seen.”

“You can be flow bros,” Lardo says, and for some reason, this sets Nurse and Chowder to hysterics.

“Damn straight, man. Les’ do it.” Whits raises a fist and Shitty valiantly tries — and fails — to bump it. They both burst into giggles, and Shitty falls off the couch and lands in Whits’ lap.

Lardo rolls her eyes. “Fuckin’ lightweights.”

Half an hour later, the alcohol is finally gone. They’re all some degree of drunk and lethargic, and ready to call it a night. Bittle is asleep on Jack’s shoulder, his breath a warm, damp rhythm against Jack’s collarbone. Jack thinks about waking him, but the chirping rights alone are worth the effort of carrying him upstairs. He almost drops him when Bittle startles awake halfway up and insists he can walk his own damn self upstairs, thank you very much. But he doesn’t seem to mind that much; he continues to cling to Jack’s neck until Jack stops at the door of his room.

Bittle slides to his feet and presses his forehead against Jack’s chest. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” Jack winds his arms around Bittle’s back and hugs him. He’s somehow both soft and solid against Jack’s chest. Jack can’t resist resting his cheek on the top of Bittle’s head.

Bittle makes a soft sound into Jack’s shirt, then takes a step back. He looks up and smiles sleepily. “G’night, Jack.”

“Good night.”

Bittle opens the door and backs through it, and waves sort of awkwardly before closing it. Jack feels a strange twinge in his chest. He frowns at the closed door.

“Where we sleeping again?” Whits emerges from the hallway bathroom, yawning.

Jack points toward the stairs to the attic. Ransom and Holster are visiting Holster’s family for the holiday, and had offered up the attic to whoever needed a place to sleep. He’s pretty sure Shitty is bunking with Lardo and that Nurse is sleeping on the ever-present air mattress in Chowder’s room, which leaves the two of them the attic all to themselves.

“Top or bottom?” Jack asks when the door closes behind them, and Whits smirks at him.

“Wouldn’t you like t’know?”

Jack rolls his eyes and gestures messily toward the bunks behind them. “You know what I mean.”

Whits crosses to peer up at the top bunk. “Dunno if I’m coordinated enough t’get up there at the moment.”

“I could give you a push.”

Whits turns a sly smile to Jack. “Or we could jus’ crowd in t’gether down here.”

Jack snorts. “Yeah, right.”

“Could be fun.” Whits takes a step towards Jack, close enough to reach out and hook his fingers into the waist of Jack’s jeans.

Jack freezes: Whits can be handsy when he’s drunk, but it’s usually in ways that fit under the general umbrella of bro-ey. This, though, is new. Jack stares at him for a moment, sure he’s reading this wrong. “What are you doing?”

“What d’you think?” Whits looks up at him with an expression Jack’s seen before, but never directed at him.

Okay, he wasn’t reading this wrong. Jack frowns. “You’re hitting on me, seriously?”

“Yeah.” Whits leans closer, slides his hands up Jack’s sides. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s distinctly weird.

“Why?”

“Why not?”

Jack blinks at him. He doesn’t know how to begin to answer that.

Whits’ arms slide over Jack’s shoulders and around his neck. He’s so close Jack can barely focus on his face. “Can’t tell me you’ve never thought about it.”

“No, but—”

Jack’s words are cut off by a press of lips against his. Whits’ mouth is warm and wet, and his tongue slides against Jack’s with delicate, hot intent. Jack goes completely still for a moment, uncertain how to respond. It’s not that Jack hasn’t thought about this — he has, though in a detached, theoretical sort of way. He’s always liked kissing, though, and Whits is… okay, yeah, he’s actually really good at it. There’s a pleasant sort of swooping sensation in Jack’s stomach, one he hasn’t felt in a while.

He relaxes into it then and kisses Whits back, lips tingling and heat rising in his belly. It might be the wine going to his head, or it might be the fact that Jack has jerked off more in the last month than he did in the last year, so his body is kind of primed for something like this — but he’s finding it a lot more interesting than he would have imagined even a few minutes ago. Whits’ fingers trail up the back of Jack’s neck and stay there, almost possessively. Jack isn’t sure what to do with his hands, so he settles them on Whits’ sides, holding lightly. His thumbs stroke up under the hem of Whits’ t-shirt, and there under his fingers is soft, warm skin over hard muscle. He pushes Whits’ shirt up, smooths his hands across the plane of his abs, and oh, that — he could do with more of that.

He’d forgotten the way it feels to have a warm body pressed against him like this, another person licking into his mouth and breathing the same air. He hasn’t done this in a long time, not since Camilla — and she didn’t kiss anything like this, with such aggressive confidence. Her body had felt so different under his own: strong and lean, but rounder and softer in places where boys are neither. Whits is just a few centimeters shorter than Jack, but he’s broader in the shoulders, so much that Jack is momentarily disoriented by the sheer size of his body.

Jack’s hands slide around to Whits’ back, fingertips pressed into his spine, and down until his palms cup Whits’ ass. Whits makes a desperate sound and presses even closer, fingers sliding into Jack’s hair. He’s hard against Jack’s hip now, and he slips a thigh between Jack’s legs, pushing them apart and rocking up against his groin. Jack’s not hard, but he’s getting there, and that…

That isn’t what Jack wants.

“Wait,” Jack says, and turns his head out of the kiss. “I can’t.”

Whits groans and presses his forehead against Jack’s shoulder. “Shit, m’sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry I—”

“I jus’ totally pushed myself on you, didn’t I?” Whits takes a step back, wincing. “Ah, fuck, I’m such an asshole.”

Jack doesn’t know what to say. He likes Whits and, under other circumstances, he probably would have enjoyed it. But it’d be just another casual fuck for Whits, maybe a friends-with-benefits kind of thing, and Jack doesn’t do that — can’t do that. Even if Whits wanted more than that, Jack couldn’t give it to him. He can’t keep it together enough to have a functional relationship with anyone, let alone a teammate, a liney — one of his best friends. He’s made that mistake before, and it was disastrous.

He doesn’t know how to explain all of that, so he just says, “It’s fine.”

Whits groans. “No, s’not.”

Jack puts his hands on Whits’ shoulders and looks him straight in the eye. “Look, if I wanted to fuck anyone, you’d be near the top of the list.”

Whits looks both flattered and confused. “Okay.”

“But I don’t — I’m not—”

“You don’ have to explain,” Whits says. “I get it.”

Jack nods, and Whits sways a little. He’s a lot drunker than Jack had even realized, which is another reason it’s just as well they stopped when they did. “Are you okay?”

Whits waves a hand. “Shyeah. M’fine.” He pauses a moment and blinks unsteadily. “Actually, m’pretty fucked up right now.”

Jack gives him a firm pat on the shoulder and steps back. “Go to sleep, Whits.”

“Yeah, I…” He sways again, then reaches back to steady himself on the side of the bunk. “Good idea.”

“I’ll take the top bunk, since your drunk ass can’t climb that high.”

Whits snickers. “Hey, I don’ mind bein’ on th’ bottom.”

Jack hauls himself up to the top bunk with a groan. “Do you ever stop?”

“Stop what?” Whits looks up at him with a faux-innocent smile, and Jack rolls his eyes.

*****

Jack’s phone goes off at 7:00. He blinks his eyes open.

It’s a moment before he remembers where he is. His phone is in the pocket of his jeans somewhere down on the floor. He yawns and climbs down from the top bunk to find it.

There is a groan from the lower bunk, but the pile of blankets there doesn’t move. “Wha’time’sit?

“Seven,” Jack says. “We have practice at ten, so we’d better get moving.”

“That’s three hours from now. It’s less than an hour to drive.” The whine in Whits’ tone is almost endearing.

“You want to risk hitting traffic and getting scratched from the game tomorrow night?”

The pile of blankets shifts, and Whits emerges. His hair is a riot around his face, and there are lines from the pillow across his cheek. “Oh my god, what the hell.”

“You look like shit,” Jack says.

“I feel worse.” Whits pulls a pillow over his head and groans again, then goes completely quiet for a long moment. “Uh… Zimms?”

Jack’s already pulling his clothes on. “What?”

“Did I… did we kiss last night?” His voice is slightly muffled by the pillow.

“We did.” Jack pulls his shirt on over his head. “But nothing else happened.”

Whits makes a sound not unlike a dying whale. He pushes himself to sitting and squints at Jack. “I made an ass of myself, didn’t I?”

“You were pretty schwasted.”

“Oh my god.” He winces and pinches the bridge of his nose. “I am never mixing alcohol and recreationals again.”

“I’ve heard that before,” Jack says with a snort.

“No, I mean it this time.” He pushes to his feet and grabs the side of the bunk to steady himself.

These are the moments when Jack is really glad he doesn’t party like that anymore. He grabs his toiletry bag from his backpack and heads down to the bathroom to piss and brush his teeth. He scratches at his stubbled chin in the mirror afterward, and considers just letting it grow for a while. Maybe.

Whits is dressed when he gets back upstairs, but he’s sitting on the bottom bunk with his elbows on his knees like that’s the most upright he can manage being at the moment.

He looks up at Jack. “I kind of remember throwing myself at you.”

“Yeah.” Jack closes the door behind him and goes to stand next to the bunk beds. “You did.”

Whits sighs. “I am so, so sorry.”

“You apologized last night.”

“No, I mean… You’re not… you don’t…” He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry I put you in that position, to have to say no to me.”

“You make it sound like I wasn’t kissing you back.”

“Until I started humping your leg.”

“It wasn’t that bad.” Jack shrugs.

“No, I just…” Whits looks up at him. “The last thing I want to do is fuck up our friendship, okay?”

“I know.” Jack ruffles his hair. “But it’s fine. We were drunk and we made out a little, and that was it. No big deal.”

“Okay.” Whits looks unconvinced.

Jack extends a hand. “We’re good. Promise.”

“All right. Yeah.” Whits lets Jack pull him to his feet. He pushes his hair back from his face and smiles, just a little. “Thanks, man.”

Jack turns him toward the door and gives him a light shove. “Let’s get moving.”

They go downstairs, where Bittle’s already got coffee and eggs going. He takes one look at Whits and says, “Oh, honey,” and steers him to the table. Whits looks a little green when Bittle puts scrambled eggs on toast in front of him, but he does his best.

Half an hour later, they’re coffeed and fed and ready to go. Whits stretches out in the back seat while Bittle climbs in the front, happily chattering about his baking plans for the weekend.

“Could we not talk about food?” Whits says pitifully from the back. “Or actually, anything?”

“Bless your heart,” Bittle says, and Whits whimpers.

Fifteen minutes later, Whits sits up abruptly. “Pull over.”

“What?” Jack looks at him in the rear view mirror. He’s gone kind of gray.

“Pull over, Jack,” Bittle says in a panicked voice, and Jack does.

He’s barely stopped the truck before Whits opens the door and vomits onto the side of the road. Jack and Bittle exchange a pained look.

“I didn’t realize he was that drunk last night,” Bittle says quietly.

“It wasn’t just alcohol,” Jack says.

Whits closes the door and sinks down into the seat. “Okay, I feel a little better now.”

Bittle hands back a bottle of water, and Whits mumbles his thanks.

Jack tries to meet Whits’ eyes in the mirror. “Are you going to be able to handle practice?”

“It’s gonna suck, but I’ll manage.” Whits closes his eyes and leans his head back against the seat. Jack shifts his focus back to the road.

“I’m gonna have a talk with Lardo,” Bittle says, shaking his head.

He’s even mother-henning Jack’s teammates now, and Jack kind of loves it.

He flashes Bittle a grin. “You can try.”

*****

Chapter Text

“I’m here today with the Providence Falconers’ dynamic duo of forwards, Jack Zimmermann and Taylor Whitton.” Dave Fitzgerald gestures to the PA watching them through the glass door of the sound booth, then turns back to Jack and Whits. “Thanks for joining me today, guys.”

“Thanks for having us,” Whits says. He’s still a little green around the gills, but he’s powering through the day.

“So let’s talk about that game against the Aces.” Dave recaps some of the highlights of the game, including Jack’s dramatic goal in the last seconds of the third. “That was just an incredible shot, Jack. Can you tell me about it? What were you thinking there?”

“Ah, you know, we’re always looking for opportunities to connect with the puck and make shots. I got a little lucky with the rebound on that one.”

Whits smirks next to him, and Jack resists the urge to roll his eyes. He always gets chirped relentlessly for sounding like a robot during these things, but he can’t help it.

“Jack’s being modest,” Whits says. “He saw where the puck was going and got himself in the right spot to put it away. He makes it look easy, but it isn’t. That’s what makes him one of the best rookies in the league.”

“And widely regarded as one of the top contenders for the Calder Memorial Trophy this year,” Dave adds. “Is that something you think about when you’ve had a good game?”

Jack only barely manages not to wince. “Ah, no. I don’t think about that at all. I just try to play the best I can, every game, just like the rest of the team.”

“Speaking of teams, Jack, you led the Samwell University team all the way to the Frozen Four last year. What has the transition to the NHL been like?”

“It’s been good. The NHL is different, obviously, so it was an adjustment. But Whits — ah, Taylor — was a great help, since he did the same thing the year before. He’s been kind of a mentor, I guess.”

Whits takes pity on him then and talks about his own experience for a minute before turning the conversation back around to Jack again. “We knew he was considering the Falconers last spring so we all followed his team through the playoffs and the Frozen Four. I think I had a dozen guys over to watch the final.”

Jack turns to look at him. “Really?”

Whits grins. “Yeah.”

“Have you had a chance to go back and watch the Samwell team play this year?” Dave asks.

“Yeah, for the opener. Taylor came with me, even.”

“I wanted to get autographs,” Whits adds. “And a Samwell t-shirt with Jack’s name on it.”

“He wears it on game days when we’re traveling,” Jack says, unable to keep the groan out of his voice. “The guys give me so much crap about it.”

Dave laughs. “I can imagine. We’re here in the studio with Jack Zimmermann and Taylor Whitton of the Providence Falconers, if you’re just joining us. So, you two are all over Twitter with selfies and such. Is that all just a show for the media, or are you really buddies off the ice as much as on?”

Jack nudges Whits and shoots him a you take this one look.

Whits grins. “Well, yeah. I mean, we live in the same building, so we’re kinda always at each other’s places. Jack actually knows how to cook, unlike me, so I invite myself over a lot. He’s kind of a quiet guy, but he puts up with me.”

“And you did Thanksgiving together yesterday,” Dave adds. Jack and Whits look at each other in surprise.

“Yeah… how did you know that?” Whits asks.

“It was all over Twitter,” Dave replies. “C’mon, man, get with it!”

“Oh, yeah. My family couldn’t make it out from Texas this year, so Jack was nice enough to let me tag along to his friends’ get-together at Samwell.”

“One of the guys on the team has a dinner for everyone who can’t make it home,” Jack explains.

“It looked like fun,” Dave says. “Has all that turkey and pie settled yet?”

“Almost.” Jack shoots a glance over at Whits.

“Getting there.” Whits grimaces a little.

“I always overdo it on Thanksgiving and pay for it afterwards,” Dave says with a chuckle. “Well, let’s talk about tomorrow night’s matchup against the Oilers.”

It’s all hockey from there on out, to Jack’s relief.

*****

The scent of cinnamon hits Jack even before the elevator opens on his floor. It gets stronger every step he takes closer to his door, and by the time he keys it open, he’s smiling.

“Hey.” Bittle is curled up on the sofa with his laptop, several open books strewn around him. The lamps cast a soft glow around the room, and the lights of Providence’s skyline are almost visible in the darkness beyond the sliding glass door to the balcony. Seeing Bittle here in this space that’s usually dark and empty makes something flutter pleasantly in Jack’s belly.

“You baked?”

“Banana bread.” Bittle yawns. “It was all you had the stuff for, and I needed a study break.”

Jack drops his gear bag next to the door and toes off his shoes. “Did you get a lot done today?”

“More or less.” Bittle grins sheepishly. “Maybe less than more, but not nothing.”

Jack crosses to sit on the opposite end of the couch, shaking his head. How Bittle has survived two years of college is beyond him.

“How was practice?”

“Good. We ran some new drills and mixed up the lines a little.”

“Don’t tell me they split up you and Taylor. The internet will have a fit.”

Jack snorts. “We do have to be able to play with other people, you know.”

“Yeah, but you’re like, Benn and Seguin now. A thing. Speaking of which, that interview was cute.”

The interview had come up late in the day, and Jack had mentioned it when he texted Bittle to let him know he’d be late getting back. He probably shouldn’t be surprised that Bittle listened to it. “What do you mean, cute?”

“You’re just… I don’t know. Kind of adorable together.” Bittle closes his laptop and starts packing his books back into his bag.

“We’re not supposed to be adorable. We’re supposed to be big scary hockey players.”

“Well, everyone thinks you’re adorable. You should see the responses I get when I post pictures of you two on Twitter.” Bittle frowns. “Actually, never mind. You probably shouldn’t see that.”

Jack snorts. “Yeah, well, there’s a reason I turned off notifications. So are you wearing that to dinner or do I have to change?”

“Oh, honey, you know me better than that.” Bittle’s smile is almost a smirk. “You said nice. I packed accordingly.”

“So I have to change too, eh?”

“Do I need to pick out your clothes?”

Jack pushes to his feet and heads to his bedroom. “I can dress myself, thanks.”

“I’ll be the judge of that!” Bittle calls after him.

Fifteen minutes later, they’re both dressed and ready. Jack decided to wear one of his nicer game day suits, something he knows Bittle hasn’t seen before. His mom helped him pick it out back in August, and it’s far more stylish than what he would have chosen otherwise.

Bittle’s eyes widen at the sight of him. “Tell your mother thanks from me.”

“How did you—”

“I lived across the hall from you for a year. I know your mom’s taste when I see it.”

“Fair enough.” Jack chuckles. “Ready to go?”

The elevator stops on the fourth floor, where the doors open on Whits in mismatched sweats. He steps on the elevator and whistles in admiration. “What is this, date night?”

Bittle’s eyebrows go up, but Jack knows a chirp when he hears one.

“Something like that. What are you up to?”

“Gonna go get some take-out, then probably Netflix and chill with myself.” He turns a pouty face to Bittle. “Since I so obviously rank below you on the Zimmermann friend scale.”

Bittle snorts. “Hey, you get him a lot more than I do.”

“Not really. Half the time I’m around, he’s Skyping you.”

Bittle’s cheeks go a little pink at that. “You look like you’re feeling better.”

Whits exhales and nods. “Finally.” The elevator doors open on the lobby level and Whits steps off, grinning at them over his shoulder. “Have fun, kids!”

Bittle doesn’t say anything until they’re in the truck. “He’s a character, isn’t he?”

Jack shrugs. “You get used to him after a while.”

“I like him. He’s good for you.”

Jack looks over to see Bittle smiling at him. “You think so?”

“Yeah. He would have been a good fit at Samwell, you know?”

In more ways than one, Jack thinks.

Jack had made a reservation at a steakhouse on the other side of town, and they’re early enough for their reservation that they end up sitting in the bar for a while. The bartender recognizes Jack and is gracious enough not to card Bittle when he orders a cocktail, which eases things considerably.

By the time they’re seated for dinner, Jack is thoroughly caught up on team gossip and the drama of the season so far. He finally gets Bittle talking about himself: new recipes he’s trying out, how he’s faring on his new line, and how his classes are going.

“And I have no idea how I’m gonna survive finals, lord.” Bittle presses his fingertips into his temples as if even the thought of it is giving him a headache. “I may not be able to bake my way through this one. I told Kevin he’s not gonna see me for a solid week.”

Jack blinks, realizing he’s now heard that name a couple of times. At first he’d thought it was one of the frogs, but now he’s not so sure. “Ah… who’s Kevin again?”

Bittle’s head jerks up in surprise. “He’s… uh… a friend.”

“A friend,” Jack repeats.

“Yeah.” Bittle suddenly looks uncomfortable. “I mean… we’ve kind of been going out.”

Jack’s stomach twists like the floor just dropped out from under him. “You’re seeing someone?”

“I… sort of. It’s not a big deal.”

Jack stares at Bittle for a full second. “It is a big deal.”

Bittle’s eyes narrow. “Jack…”

“Sorry, I just...” Jack takes a large sip of his drink and tries to calm the sudden spike of panic he feels. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It just happened last week and things have been busy. I guess I didn’t think it was that important.”

“You didn’t think it was important to mention your new boyfriend?” It comes out far harsher than Jack intends.

“He’s not my boyfriend.” Bittle’s expression looks strained. “We’ve had coffee a few times, dinner once, and then he went home for Thanksgiving.”

“And that’s it?”

Bittle flushes and looks away, and Jack realizes he’s being an asshole. Again.

“Shit. Sorry, it’s none of my business.”

“I’m sorry,” Bittle says softly. “I guess I’ve been avoiding saying anything, just in case it doesn’t go anywhere. The whole Braden situation was kind of embarrassing.”

“For him,” Jack says, archly, but Bittle doesn’t look up. Jack watches him for a moment, trying to work out if Bittle is embarrassed or annoyed. The idea of a new guy in Bittle’s life makes Jack want to throw things, but he shouldn’t be a dick about this. He takes a deep breath. “So tell me about him. Kevin.”

“Well…” Bittle looks like he wants to talk about anything other than this. “He’s an econ major? Holster has a class with him this semester, actually. And he’s on the swim team.”

“The swim team?”

“Uhhh… yeah.”

Realization dawns, and Jack has to press his lips together for a full second. “So… was he one of the guys Holster was trying to hook you up with last weekend?”

Bittle looks like a kid caught coloring on the walls. “Maybe?”

“So after we Skyped—”

“I didn’t plan to, I swear. I was just gonna…” Bittle presses his hands over his face. “Oh god, you’re gonna think I’m a total slut or something.”

“No, I… Jesus, Bittle.” Something tightens in Jack’s belly. He’s fucking this up, but he can’t seem to stop himself.

“I went back downstairs after I talked to you, and he was there, and… Holster keeps saying that I deserve to let myself have a cute boy every now and then, that I can’t keep waiting around for…” His jaw clenches and he looks away, takes a large sip of his drink. “That I shouldn’t deny myself the chance to have fun just because I can’t have what I really want.”

“What is it you really want?”

Bittle looks up at him, his eyes liquid brown, and Jack couldn’t look away if he tried.

“It’s stupid.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“Don’t laugh.” Bittle looks down, clearly embarrassed, then says, “Love.” He shrugs, and his lips twitch into a small smile. “I want to be in love with someone who loves me back, like I’m the only thing that matters. That’s what I’ve always wanted. But sitting around and wishing for it isn’t going to make it happen. I’ve spent too much time doing that already.”

Jack stares back at him helplessly. His heart is pounding in his chest so loudly he’s sure Bittle can hear it.

“I told you it was stupid.”

Jack shakes his head. “No, it’s not.”

“I’m a twenty-year-old, semi-closeted gay boy from Georgia, and a mediocre student-slash-hockey player. I have zero idea what I want to do with my life, but hey, I have a baking vlog!” He shakes his head and there, under the self-deprecation, is a flash of deep sadness. “I’m not exactly anyone’s Prince Charming right now.”

Jack wants to reach across the table for him, wants to hug him so badly it’s almost a physical ache. “Bittle—”

“Are you gentlemen ready to order?”

They both turn to see the server smiling down at them.

“Sure,” Bittle says with a sigh, and flips open his menu.

The server runs through the specials and takes their orders, and by the time he walks away, the moment is long gone. The conversation stays firmly on hockey after that. Jack isn’t sure if he’s disappointed or relieved.

They’re both quiet in the car on the way back to Jack’s apartment. Jack can’t stop thinking about the fact that Bittle is dating someone. After Braden, he’d thought that was it, that Bittle had got it out of his system and… and what? That he’d keep texting Jack at all hours of the day, and coordinating workouts with Jack, and Skyping with Jack after games as if... as if Jack was his boyfriend.

Jack tries the word on for a moment, weighs it in his mind. They’re kind of halfway there, if he’s honest with himself. He doesn’t have enough experience with relationships to know one way or the other, but he has to admit that his friendship with Bittle crosses that line in more ways than one. Is that what he wants?

But it doesn’t matter what Jack wants, not anymore. Bittle is dating someone new, and so everything is about to change.

He waits until they’re settled on the couch with Sportscenter on the TV before he brings the subject up again.

“So do you like him? Kevin?”

Bittle’s mouth opens and closes before he finally manages to speak. “Yeah, I do. I mean, I don’t know him very well yet.”

“Do you want to?”

Bittle shrugs. “Maybe. He’s nice.”

“Got a picture of him?”

Bittle seems to hold his breath for a moment, then pulls his phone from his pocket. He flips through his photos for a moment before handing it over. The screen shows a selfie of Bittle with a dark-haired guy who looks to be about 20. Their faces are close together and Kevin has an arm around Bittle’s shoulders. His hair is wavy and combed back, a little on the long side. He’s reasonably good-looking, even though he doesn’t hold a candle to Bittle, who’s practically glowing in the photo.

Jack hands the phone back. “He’s pretty cute, I guess.”

Bittle snorts. “You guess?”

Make an effort, Jack tells himself. “A swimmer, eh?”

“Yeah.” Bittle bites his lips and smiles, then scrolls through the photos and tilts the screen toward Jack. Kevin is shirtless in this one. A tattoo winds around his ridiculously ripped upper arm, and he appears to be wrestling with Holster. Who is also shirtless.

Bittle clears his throat and Jack realizes he’s been staring at a photo of two half-naked men grappling with each other for a good thirty seconds.

“And he…” Jack hesitates. “He makes you happy?”

“I… yeah. He’s smart and funny, and he’s kind of an activist, you know? He’s been out for years. I think he was the president of his high school’s GSA, even.”

“That’s good.”

“The guys like him already. I mean, they don’t really know we’re dating yet, but he’s been over to hang out with Holster a couple of times before. I’m gonna go out with his teammates one night next week.”

Jack looks away. “Holster’s right, you know. You deserve to be happy.”

Bittle smiles at his phone. “I know.”

“And the fact that he’s out means you don’t have to hide.”

“Absolutely. God, that’s a relief.”

Jack’s stomach sinks. “Just don’t traumatize the frogs this time around, eh?” He tries to force a smirk, and fails completely. He lifts his water glass to his lips instead.

“So far, so good.” Bittle giggles and knocks his knee against Jack’s. “Not gonna lie, it’s kinda nice to get dick on the regular again.”

It’s only through pure effort that Jack doesn’t spew a mouthful of water all over his living room. He finally manages to swallow, then sinks down into the sofa cushions. “Oh my god, Bittle.”

Bittle pokes him in the ribs, catching the spots he knows are ticklish from years of watching Shitty do the same. “Oooh, did I shock you?”

“No, I — stop, I’m gonna spill this.” Jack squirms away enough to set the glass on the coffee table.

“I did, I totally shocked you!” Bittle turns sideways and settles back against the arm of the couch. He extends his legs on the sofa and presses his bare feet against Jack’s thigh.

“I spent fours years hanging out with Shitty. It takes a little more than that to shock me.”

“Lord knows I can’t compete with Shitty in that area,” Bittle says, eyes sparkling.

“Who’d want to?” Jack’s hand settles on one of Bittle’s ankles and strokes down the length of his foot. Bittle presses that foot a little more firmly into Jack’s hand, and Jack smiles. He can take a hint. He presses his thumbs into the soles, then kneads the ball of Bittle’s foot in small circles.

Bittle sighs and sinks a little further into the couch. “Your hands are huge.”

“Not really. Your feet are just small.”

Bittle makes a small sound of annoyance, but it’s tempered by the expression of pleasure on his face. “I’m normal-sized.”

“For a pre-industrial human, maybe.”

“I’m taller than Martin Freeman!”

Jack frowns. “Who?”

Bittle looks slightly exasperated. “Whatever. I make up for it in personality.”

“That you do.” Jack presses into the arch of Bittle’s foot, feeling the small bones move beneath his fingers. “I’ve always liked that about you.”

“Even when you hated me?” Bittle is slowly turning into a puddle on the couch, to Jack’s amusement.

“I never hated you.”

“Well, I kinda had that impression my frog year.”

“I didn’t, though.” Jack picks up Bittle’s other foot. “I’m not very good at things like… friends.” Bittle doesn’t reply, and Jack looks over to see him watching the motions of Jack’s hands with a clouded expression. “I mean,” Jack continues, “I can be a real dick sometimes. A lot of the time. I’m amazed anyone puts up with me for more than a few months.”

“Why?” Bittle asks.

Jack shrugs. “I’m going to disappoint people eventually. I guess it’s easier to disappoint them right away and get it over with.”

“No, I meant, why are you amazed someone would want to be your friend?”

“That’s not what I said.” Jack frowns and tries to formulate a way to explain it. “But sometimes I feel more like a commodity than a person. People think they want to know me, but they don’t. They want the idea of me. It’s always been that way, even when I was a kid.” He releases Bittle’s foot and reaches for his glass again. “It’s never as good as they imagined, and they end up resenting me for it. So what’s the point in trying?”

“But…” Bittle looks away, stricken. “You do try. I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”

“You’re different.” Jack feels the corners of his lips turn up, almost against his will. “You thought I hated you for almost a year, but you were nice to me anyway, no matter how much of a dick I was. Shitty was like that too, and Lardo, and… I don’t know. Until Samwell, no one had stuck around that long before.”

There is a sudden a jolt of panic in his belly: he’s terrified of losing them, of growing apart from them, because he knows he’ll never be able to forge friendships like that again. For the rest of his life, his relationships will be based on circumstances beyond his control: teammates who could get traded away, people who’ll pretend to like him as long as he plays hockey well enough, yet other people who’ll only want to be around him because he’s famous. None of it is real.

But people like Bittle and Shitty and Ransom and Holster and Lardo are real. They like Jack for himself, even though they’ve seen him at his worst. They’ve seen him fuck up miserably and be a total asshole, and they didn’t leave or turn on him, or try to make him something he could never be. He can’t lose them. He can’t.

“Jack,” Bittle says, his voice full of emotion.

“I am trying. With you and Shitty and…” Jack takes a shaky breath and looks up at him. “I’m still probably going to fuck it up, but I’m trying.”

There is a blur of movement, then Bittle is kneeling next to him on the couch, arms going around Jack’s shoulders. Jack exhales and wraps his arms around him, and smiles into his hair.

“Thank you,” Bittle says, and then, softer, “You know I’ve always got your back, right?”

“Yeah,” Jack says, and hugs him tighter.

Bittle pulls back a minute later, his eyes bright, and Jack is momentarily thunderstruck. Bittle’s expression is warm and affectionate, as it always is, but there is a raw edge there, something that sears Jack’s nerve endings, winds its way down into his chest. He suddenly wants to close the distance between them, to crush his lips against Bittle’s, to pull him close and keep him there, devour him. It’s not an unfamiliar impulse, but it’s so strong that it’s almost shocking.

Bittle’s expression shifts, like he’s not sure what he’s seeing, and Jack forces himself to take a breath.

Bittle is already dating someone, a guy who can be all the things Jack can’t right now. Jack can be pretty fucking selfish, but he can’t ask Bittle for this, not when it’s taken Bittle two years to feel comfortable enough in his own skin to meet new people and learn who he is and what he wants. And Jack knows, he knows this wouldn’t be just a kiss, or making out, or a hook-up, for either of them. There is too much between them for it not to mean something. Jack wants it to mean something, desperately, but he’s barely capable of being a good friend to Bittle right now, let alone anything more. He’d ruin everything, like he did with Kent, and that — he can’t lose Bittle.

He looks away and exhales, reeling. He can’t remember the last time he wanted someone like this. But he can’t have him. He can’t.

Shit.

He gives Bittle’s shoulder a playful shove and pushes to his feet. “I think I’m gonna turn in. I have to be at the rink early.”

“I’d offer to make you breakfast, but we both know I’m not gonna be awake.”

Jack looks down to see Bittle looking up at him with a smile that’s tinged with sadness. “It’s not like I was expecting it.” He hesitates a moment, then reaches out to ruffle Bittle’s hair. “Sorry in advance that I won’t be great company tomorrow. Game day and all.”

“You say that like I didn’t play with you for two years.” Bittle gives him a long look. “Don’t worry, I’ve already got plans for tomorrow.”

“Like what?”

“Like introducing myself to your oven properly.”

Jack can’t help smiling a little at that. “You going to name it too?”

“You’d better believe it, sweetheart.”

The word slices through Jack’s skin, and it hurts. He takes a shaky breath. “Okay. Well… good night.”

“Good night, Jack.”

Jack backs away, then manages an awkward little wave before turning to go down the hall. He shuts his bedroom door behind him and closes his eyes.

He can’t dwell on this or feel sorry for himself, or worse, fantasize about what it would be like to walk back out there right now and kiss Bittle senseless. No — he’s going to do the right thing and put some distance between them, even though it’s going to hurt.

He strips off his clothes and brushes his teeth, and spends a long time staring at his ceiling before he manages to go to sleep.

*****

Chapter Text

The door to the guest bedroom is firmly closed when Jack leaves for morning skate. He sticks a post-it note next to the Keurig telling Bittle when he’ll be back. Next to that he leaves an extra set of keys, in case Bittle wants to go out that morning. And then he puts Bittle out of his mind.

Or that’s the plan, anyway.

“Soooo.” Whits is leaning against the truck when Jack gets downstairs, travel mug in hand. “What did y’all do last night?”

Jack unlocks the truck. “Not much. We had dinner and hung out.”

“Hung out?” Whits smirks.

“Yeah, you know.” Jack tosses his gear bag in the back and opens the door, and Whits climbs in the other side. “We talked about hockey.”

Whits’ smirk disappears. “You… hockey?”

Jack shrugs. “What else would we talk about?”

“Zimms.” Whits gives him a long look. “Seriously.”

Jack really doesn’t want to think about the rest of his conversation with Bittle right now. “Yeah. What about you?”

Whits stares at him another moment before apparently deciding to roll with the change of topic. “Not much. Watched some episodes of this weird cooking competition show. Then I flirted with this dude on Grindr until he sent me a dick pic. Oh my god, he seriously had the biggest dick I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean, I don’t know how he—”

Jack swears in French and presses his forehead against the steering wheel. “I haven’t even had coffee yet.”

Whits snickers and taps at the screen of his phone. “I saved the pic. Wanna see?”

“God, no.”

“Your loss. Eric still asleep?”

Jack sits back and starts the engine. “I didn’t see him this morning, so probably.”

“Hmmm.”

Jack glances over at him. Whits looks away and takes a sip of his coffee.

Once Jack hits the ice, everything else fades away. They skate and shoot pucks for about half an hour, not enough to work up a sweat, but enough to get everyone focused on the game against the Oilers. After that there are meetings with assistant coaches and trainers, and some local press. They’re done by 11:00, and it isn’t until Jack starts the engine of the truck to head home that he remembers his apartment isn’t empty today.

“You still giving me a ride this afternoon?” Whits asks when they get back to their building.

“Yeah, for sure.”

The elevator doors open and Jack and Whits are hit with the scent of fruit, baking butter, and spices.

“Wow, it smells like a bakery in here.”

Jack smiles. “That’s probably Bittle’s doing.”

Whits elbows Jack. “If you need someone to help finish off any leftovers, I’m around. Just sayin’.”

Jack shrugs and presses the buttons for their respective floors.

He finds Bittle in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on a pie and humming along with a pop song playing on his phone. He looks like he fits here, like he’s spent months in this kitchen instead of hours. Jack can’t help thinking about what it would be like to have this all the time, to come home and find someone there, sharing his space and his life. He stands in the doorway, heart in his throat, for almost a minute before Bittle finally looks up.

“Goodness, you — when did you get home?”

“Just now.” He surveys the scene in amazement. Two other pies are cooling on the range. “I was only gone a few hours. How the hell did you do all of this?”

Bittle grins. “Haven’t you learned not to ask that question by now?”

“I know for a fact I didn’t have any butter. Or fruit, since you used all my bananas yesterday.”

“Ah, but there are three grocery stores within a five-mile radius that deliver.” Bittle slides the third pie into the oven and turns back to Jack. “I’ve got stuff to do a stir-fry for lunch, if you’re interested. I mean, you probably have a routine you like to stick to, so it’s no big deal if—”

“That’d be great, actually. Chicken?”

“So much goddamn chicken. Your nutritionist will want to kiss me.”

“Can I keep you?” The words leave Jack’s lips before he’s had a chance to filter them.

Bittle laughs and turns toward the refrigerator, busying himself with lunch preparations, but Jack can’t help noticing the way his ears have turned pink.

Jack leans over the bar on his elbows to watch as Bittle piles fresh vegetables on the counter. “Are you planning to feed me for a week?”

Bittle rolls his eyes. “You know I’m used to cooking for a crowd.”

“Delivery, eh? They just knock on the door?”

“Well, they brought it to the lobby. Your neighbor Mark helped me bring it all up, actually.”

Jack frowns. “Who?”

Bittle looks up from his prep, surprised. “Mark. The lawyer, lives on seven?”

Jack shrugs.

“Do you seriously not know any of your neighbors?” Bittle looks incredulous.

“I know Whits.”

“He doesn’t count.”

“I’m not around a lot, and when I am, I’m tired and cranky.”

Bittle points at Jack with a carrot. “You forgot antisocial.”

Jack’s phone buzzes with a text; he glances at the screen. “Oh, look at that. My neighbor Whits is trying to invite himself over.”

“Well, there’s enough for three if he wants to join us for lunch.”

Jack hesitates: he doesn’t really want to share Bittle with anyone else right now. He gets so little time with him as it is. It’s just lunch, though, and Whits will head back to his own apartment for a nap after. And besides, if Jack says no, Bittle will have even more ammunition to chirp him about his utter lack of a social life.

He taps a reply to Whits and says, “Okay.”

Three minutes later, Whits opens the door after a single perfunctory knock and calls, “It smells fucking amazing in here.”

“In the kitchen,” Jack replies.

“Wow,” Whits says when he spots the pies. “I don’t usually let myself cheat on game day, but that is a fuckton of temptation right there. Where’s Eric?”

“He went to change his shirt.” Jack goes back to carefully slicing chicken breast into small chunks. “He didn’t want you to see him covered in flour, I guess.”

“Or maybe my mama taught me to look nice for company,” Bittle says archly. He turns to Whits and immediately huffs out a laugh. “Oh my god. Please let me take a picture of you in that shirt.”

Jack looks up and realizes Whits is wearing the Samwell shirsey with Jack’s name and number. He frowns. “Really?”

“I’m tempting fate, I know.” Whits grins at Bittle. “I usually only wear this on the road.”

Bittle already has his phone out, clearly delighted. “You two kill me, I swear. I don’t even know.”

“You can’t tell me that you don’t own this shirt.” Whits raises his eyebrows, and Bittle chuckles.

“I’m gonna plead the fifth on that.”

Jack bites back a smile and keeps slicing the chicken.

Bittle shows him the photo later, after they’ve finished lunch and Whits has headed back downstairs for a nap. In it, Whits is grinning cheekily over his shoulder. The back of the shirt prominently displays Jack’s name and number 1.

“I can’t believe he let you tweet that.” Jack rinses the last plate and slots it into the dishwasher.

“Oooh, the Falconers’ twitter account just retweeted it.” Bittle smirks at his phone. “And so did Kent Parson, along with an obnoxious comment.”

Jack looks up. “How obnoxious?”

What do I have to do to get you to wear my number?” Bittle frowns. “Do they know each other?”

Jack hesitates a moment too long before saying, “They’ve, uh, met.”

Bittle looks up at him. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing.” Jack tries to smile innocently.

“Oh my god!” Bittle looks scandalized. “They did not!”

Jack bites his lip, uncertain how to respond. He trusts Bittle, but it’s not his information to give.

Bittle waves a hand impatiently. “I know Taylor’s gay; he told me a while ago. But he hooked up with Kent Parson, seriously?”

“Apparently.” Jack holds his hands up in front of him when Bittle looks ready to pounce. “And you now know exactly as much about it as I do.”

“And that’s not… I mean, considering that Kent…” Bittle looks down at his phone again. “You’re okay with that?”

Jack takes a deep breath, and exhales slowly. He’s never talked to Bittle about Parse, not really. Bittle’s probably figured it out by now, but this doesn’t feel like the time or place to dig into that subject.

Jack shrugs. “They’re both grown-ups.”

“I’m gonna have to have a talk with that boy,” Bittle says, thumb swiping up the screen of his phone. “Goodness, this one’s kinda blowing up fast.”

Jack starts the dishwasher, then crosses to where Bittle is sitting at the bar. “Do I want to know?”

“Uhhhh…” Bittle bites his lip and tilts the screen enough that Jack can’t get a clear view.

“Come on, at least give me an idea of what I’m gonna get chirped about tonight.” Before he even thinks about what he’s doing, Jack steps in behind him and brackets him against the bar with both arms. Bittle leans back against him, shoulders pressing into Jack’s chest, and it’s all Jack can do to stop himself from wrapping his arms around him in response. He closes his eyes for a moment and tries to ignore the way it feels to be this close to him. “Do people think we’re sleeping together?”

“You and Taylor?” Bittle asks, and Jack feels a jolt in his belly at the idea that Bittle had needed to clarify who he’d meant by we. “Well, you know how that goes. Most people think y’all’re just playing up the bromance.”

“Our PR people seem to like it.” A heavily-tattooed woman named Tasha had pulled him aside after a meeting the week before just to make a point of telling him he was doing a good job with his social media presence. “They encourage it, anyway.”

“What about you?” Bittle’s head drops back to Jack’s shoulder to look up at him. “Do you mind it?”

“People have always made assumptions about me, and they’re almost always wrong. As long as it helps the club and doesn’t interfere with our game, I don’t really care.”

He wants to trace the tip of his nose across Bittle’s cheekbone, and brush his lips along the curve of Bittle’s jaw. He’s so warm and solid pressed against Jack that it’s intoxicating. Jack counts down slowly from from five, letting himself savor the contact just a bit longer, then steps away.

Bittle swivels to look at him. “You can tell me to stop, okay? I mean, if I ever tweet something that crosses the line or makes things weird for you, just tell me.”

“Okay.” Jack shrugs. “I trust you, though. You have a better sense of how that stuff works than I do.”

“There’s my future career,” Bittle says with a laugh. “I could be in charge of your social media presence.”

“That’s not a terrible idea, actually.” Jack takes another step back, suddenly needing to put some distance between them. Talking about the future, a future where they might have a real reason to spend time together, is… It’s game day, and he can’t think about this right now. Jack takes a deep breath. “Sorry, but it’s time for me to disappear on you.”

“Go,” Bittle says. “I’ll keep myself busy.”

Jack retreats to his bedroom and spends ten minutes face down on the bed, trying to keep his breathing even.

*****

“So,” Whits says when Jack starts the engine.

Jack turns to look at him. “Hmmm?”

“You and Eric.”

“What about us?”

“Okay, so I know you say you don’t do relationships and all, but I watched y’all at lunch.” Whits raises his eyebrows. “You can’t tell me there’s nothing going on there.”

Is his crush on Bittle that obvious? Jack swallows down a stab of panic. “We’re just friends.”

“Zimms, come on. You don’t have to lie to me about this shit.”

“No, he has a boyfriend.”

Whits makes a choking sound. “A boyfriend? Seriously?”

“Yes.” Jack manages to insert a little indignation into his tone, on Bittle’s behalf. “His name is Kevin. He’s on the swim team.”

“Kevin,” Whits repeats, his expression blank.

“Yeah.” Jack shrugs in a way he hopes exudes casual indifference.

“And Kevin is okay with his boyfriend spending the weekend all alone with a hot NHL star?”

There are a lot of things to parse in that statement, but Jack goes for the low-hanging fruit. “You think I’m hot?”

“I threw myself at you like a cheap slut. Of course I think you’re hot.” Whits reaches across the front seat to give Jack’s shoulder a shove.

“Hey, I’m driving!”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

Jack keeps his eyes focused straight ahead. “I have no idea what Kevin thinks.”

Whits hums skeptically, but he buries his nose in his phone for the rest of the drive.

*****

It goes like this: Jack is putting on his pads and Whits is chattering on about something or other with Beaker in the next stall over when Borky says, “Whits, you wear Zimms’ jersey tonight?”

Whits looks over at him. “What, you think no one would notice if we switched?”

Borky snorts and says, “Nah. But would be even gayer than the shit you tweet.”

The whole locker room goes silent. Jack sits up, brow furrowed, but before he can say anything, Whits leans back and laughs.

“Well, since I actually am gay, maybe we should go for it.”

Rolly and Janssen exchange a look, Kratz winces and turns away, and the third and fourth line forwards collectively gape in astonishment. There is a rumble of whispering around the room, all along the lines of the fuck did he just say?

Whits doesn’t take his eyes off of Borky. “Whaddya says, Zimms? Should we try it?”

Jack forces down the panic in his chest and shakes his head. “You really think people would confuse me for your sorry ass, just because we switched jerseys?”

“It could happen.” Whits’ tone is mock-indignant, but Jack can hear the slight tremor underneath. He’s just come out to the whole team, and he’s terrified.

“Better chance of getting laid,” Borky says. “Zimms prettier than you.” His tone is light, but his expression is tense. He clearly wasn’t expecting the conversation to take this turn.

Jack goes back to strapping on his shinguards. “I had no idea I was your type, Borky.”

The locker room erupts in nervous laughter, and Borky retorts, “Nah, your tits not big enough for me.”

There is another rumble of laughter. When it’s clear the conversation is over, everyone goes back to getting ready. Some of the younger guys keep looking over at Whits and whispering to each other, but they stop the moment they catch Jack’s eye. Janssen and Rolly stay close and chirp Whits lightly about unrelated shit, and that’s the end of the discussion.

Jack reaches over and squeezes Whits’ shoulder. Whits tries to smile, but it comes off as more of a grimace.

After that there’s pre-game media in the locker room, then the coaches come in for a brief strategy meeting, and Jack doesn’t have a chance to talk to Whits alone until they’re on the ice warming up. He skates over while Whits is stretching out, and squats down to stretch beside him.

“That was really brave, man.”

“It was fucking stupid,” Whits retorts. “But I just… I dunno, I’m tired of hiding around these guys. I don’t wanna make a public statement, but it’d be nice not to have to pretend to like pussy around the people I see every day.”

Jack nods. “I think they got that part, yeah.”

“And I know it’s not the same, but… I keep thinking about Eric, you know? How he’s out on his team and it’s fine.”

“Completely fine. Everyone adores him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets the C next year.”

They both know it’s not the same, though neither of them says it.

Whits takes a deep breath, and Jack can see the moment the magnitude of it hits him, can see the blood draining from his face. “Shit. Shit. I just make a huge fucking mistake, didn’t I? I haven’t even talked to George or to the coaching staff yet. I was going to soon, but… I just threw my biggest fucking secret out there like it was nothing.”

Jack’s had enough panic attacks in his life to recognize the start of one on Whits’ face.

“It’s gonna be fine.” Jack tugs him up and steers him toward the bench. “These are your teammates. They’ve got your back.”

“Oh my god.” Whits looks incredibly pale. “I’ve fucked up everything.”

“No, you haven’t. Sit. Breathe.” Jack stands in front of him and takes a deep breath, releases, it, and waves his hands at Whits to encourage him to follow. Whits does, elbows on his knees. “And right now, I’m betting the TV commentators are wondering if you’re about to puke on your skates,” Jack says lightly. “You’re not, are you?”

“No.” Whits sits up again and forces his expression into something more neutral.

“Do you need to talk to someone? Take some time to pull yourself together?”

Whits takes another deep breath. “No, no, I… I just want to get out on the ice.”

Jack nods. “So you’re gonna pull it together and play some fucking good hockey tonight, because we need you. I need you.”

Whits reaches up for him and grabs Jack’s hand. “Zimms—”

“I’ve got your back,” Jack says, and squeezes his fingers. “Now let go of my hand before people start taking more pictures than they already are and tweeting about how we’re having a romantic moment.”

Whits laughs and drops Jack’s hand, pushes his hair out of his face. “Half the internet thinks we’re fucking each other already.”

Jack smirks at him and steps back onto the ice. “Not half.”

He skates over to Rolly and Janssen, who’ve apparently been watching the whole exchange.

“He freaking out?” Rolly asks.

“A little,” Jack says.

Kratz skates over to join them, concern on his face. “We should tell the guys that this is confidential. Nobody outside the team needs to know.”

“We’re on it,” Janssen says. He and Rolly skate towards the line of guys shooting pucks.

“The fuck was he thinking?” Kratz says, shaking his head. “And right before a game, fuck me.”

“It’s not like he planned it.” Jack doesn’t disagree, but Whits is his friend, and Jack’s got his back even in this.

“I know, I just… shit.” Kratz slaps Jack on the shoulder and turns away.

Jack takes a deep breath and skates a large circle around their end of the ice. He passes the section where he knows Bittle is sitting with Shitty and Lardo, but he can’t find them in the crowd.

He could’ve said more in the locker room. He could have supported Whits by saying he’s not the only queer guy on this team. But then he’d have had to explain himself. If he can barely do that with his closest friends, then he’s damn sure not going to be able to explain his own weird sexuality to a group of guys he’s only just getting to know.

At the last possible second, he sees Shitty waving at him, then sees Bittle next to him. Jack raises his stick and they stand up and shout “Jaaaaack!” He can see Lardo lean in and say something to Bittle that makes him laugh and give her a shove. Bittle’s eyes never leave Jack’s, though, and something about that settles Jack’s nerves.

*****

Whits pulls it together, with style.

He scores two minutes in, and the team erupts as if he’d just scored his first goal ever. The guys on the ice pile on him, and there’s a cacophony of stick taps over by the bench. Whits skates down the line for fist bumps and gets half a dozen ass swats along the way. He’s still grinning when he gets back to the dot.

“The fuck was that all about?” Nuge asks Whits across the faceoff circle.

Whits grins. “It’s my birthday.”

“Oh.” Nuge nods. “Happy birthday, eh?”

Jack huffs out a laugh, and they both turn and look at him.

It feels like a quick frame, and the Falconers are up by two when the horn sounds. Jack files off the ice near the end of the line and sees Coach Radley waiting for him in the tunnel.

“A word, son.”

Jack nods and they wait for the rest of the guys to clear out.

“What’s up with Whitton? All I know is that something went down in the locker room right before warmups.”

Jack is momentarily speechless. Kratz is the captain and there are two other guys wearing As, but for some reason, Radley decided to ask Jack first. Jack presses his lips together for a moment. “Whits is the one you should ask. It’s not really mine to tell.”

Radley looks surprised, but he nods and gestures Jack past him. A few minutes later, Jack sees him talking quietly with Whits in a corner of the locker room. Radley’s expression is impassive, but he nods and pats Whits on the shoulder before he walks away.

Whits flashes Jack a smile, and Jack exhales in relief. It’s going to be fine.

And it is fine. By the time Whits scores his third of the night and the hats rain down, it’s clear that he’s playing the game of his life. The crowd is on its feet at the end, chanting his name, and it’s a joy to watch.

The mood in the locker room afterward is jubilant, even ecstatic. Every guy on the team makes a point of congratulating Whits, and the message in their eyes is clear: It doesn’t matter. We’ve got your back.

Jack watches from his stall, and takes a deep breath. Whits came out, and the guys are cool about it, and it’s fine. He got a damn hat trick, and that’s more important to the team than who he fucks.

Jack exhales, slowly, feeling the tension he’s been carrying for the last few hours seep away. Whits looks over him, grinning, and Jack smiles.

Chapter Text

The guys who don’t have family in town for the holiday had already planned to go out after the game, but after Whits’ hat trick, it’s pretty much a given that everyone is going.

Jack texts Bittle the new plan after he showers, and gets an enthusiastic set of emojis in response. Whits is utterly cool while being interviewed by their in-house reporter Lara, deflecting every bit of praise back to his teammates. Rolly and Janssen sneak up behind him while he’s on camera to ruffle his hair, and Whits laughs and gives them both a shove. He looks as happy and relaxed as Jack has ever seen him.

There’s a mob of fans outside the arena when they emerge, and Jack is happy to stand back and watch Whits soak it up. Shitty, Lardo, and Bittle are waiting near the edge of the crowd, and Jack finally gets impatient and steers Whits toward them.

“Heeeey,” Whits says, and the three of them pile on him, shouting in excitement.

“First NHL hat trick, man,” Shitty says, holding out his fist for a bump. “You coulda warned us.”

“Bro, we were woefully unprepared,” Lardo says.

Whits beams at them. “God, you don’t even know the half of it.” He chatters about the game as they make their way to Jack’s truck, then climbs in the front next to Jack while the other three get in the back. The moment the doors close, he turns around and says, “The big news is that I came out to the team right before the game tonight.”

All three of them gasp. Lardo and Shitty say, “Brooooo,” pretty much simultaneously.

Bittle says, “Oh, Taylor!” and launches himself over the seat back. Whits has a lapful of Bittle before he quite knows what happened. Jack can’t help smiling — he knows that of any of them, Bittle is the one who most knows what Whits is feeling.

“But I thought you weren’t going to—” Bittle begins.

“I don’t know what happened,” Whits says. “I didn’t really think about it. I was just done, you know?”

“Oh, god,” Bittle says, and buries his face in Whits’ neck so much that his next words are muffled. “M’ so proud of you.”

“Thanks.” Whits hugs him tight, eyes closed and cheeks flushed, and it looks startlingly intimate.

A long moment passes, and Jack’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. “You riding up front, Bittle?”

“Ah, no.” Bittle sits back and looks pointedly at Whits. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

Bittle sighs and climbs off of him, and back over the seat. “We are talking tonight, mister, no matter how drunk we get.”

“Sure,” Whits says, laughing. He looks over at Jack, who is trying very hard to have no facial expression at all. “Frog and Cricket, right?”

“Yeah.” Jack starts the engine and tries to let his uneasiness settle.

The Frog and Cricket is a British-themed sports bar on the edge of downtown that’s popular with the team, mostly because the staff tend not to card the underage players. It’s a middling sort of spot, neither terribly nice nor a total dump, but perfect for rowdy groups of fans to get together and scream at their favorite teams on multiple big screens. Jack’s been there with some of the guys a few times — most recently during the Rugby World Cup, which was, frankly, insane — and he’d be happy never to see the place again. Tonight is special, though, so he swallows down his annoyance and tries to get in the spirit of the night.

Half the guys are already there, and they cheer when they see Whits. He goes over to talk with him and accept fist bumps and offers of drinks. Jack gestures toward an empty booth on the edge of the action. Bittle slides in and Jack sits beside him.

“Round one, ding-ding,” Shitty says, and heads to the bar.

Lardo sits on the other side of the booth across from Bittle. “You hanging in there, Bits?”

“Yeah, I just… I can’t believe he did it.” Bittle shakes his head. “He said he was thinking about coming out this year, but not until after the season.”

Jack tenses: he hadn’t realized the extent to which Whits and Bittle have discussed this, completely independently of him. He knows they’re friends, of course, but for all Whits’ talk of him and Jack being best friends, he’s never mentioned a timeline for coming out. “I don’t think he has any plans to make it public outside the team anytime soon.”

“No, but Jack, you have to understand how big this is. I mean, I was terrified to come out to y’all, and I knew I was at a really LGBT-friendly school.”

“I know it’s a big deal,” Jack says, unable to keep the annoyance out of his tone.

“Yeah, but…” Bittle says quietly, then looks over at Lardo, who raises her eyebrows.

Jack stares down at the table in front of him, suddenly uncertain. Does Bittle think he’s straight? Or does he think Jack is so far removed from having to deal with prejudice about sexuality that he couldn’t possibly understand? Or is it that Jack has always been so focused on hockey that no one really expects him to admit to being whatever special brand of queer he is? He wants to ask, but that would open the door to talking about it — and this is neither the time nor the place. It’s Whits’ party, after all.

Jack sighs and looks over to where Whits is standing with Treat and Beaker. His free hand is moving expressively while he recounts something from the game tonight. Whits is always friendly and outgoing, but tonight it’s like his dials have been turned all the way up. He looks genuinely happy, like a weight has been lifted off of him. Jack wishes he could relate.

“The team seems pretty cool about it,” Bittle says.

Jack turns to see he’s watching Whits too. “I wasn’t sure at first, but he proved it doesn’t matter on the ice.”

“That he did.” Bittle grins and nudges Jack with his elbow.

Shitty returns with a pitcher of beer and four glasses. Jack wasn’t planning to drink at all tonight, but they are celebrating, so he accepts half a glass. The four of them clink their glasses together, and Jack’s mood lightens a bit. Bittle presses warm against his side, and it’s so easy for Jack to slide his arm across the back of the booth. Bittle leans forward to say something to Lardo, and when he sits back again, he tucks himself snugly under Jack’s arm.

Jack knows he shouldn’t let himself do this, not when his feelings about Bittle are so raw. He should pull away and put some space between them, and not let himself pretend he gets to have this. He should and he’s going to, he really is — but then Bittle laughs at something and his head falls back against Jack’s shoulder, and his hair brushes against Jack’s neck, and Jack just can’t.

It’s just for tonight. Bittle will go back to Samwell tomorrow and Jack will get his head on straight, and even if he never gets to sit here with his arm around Bittle like this ever again, he can at least have it right now.

He’s going to hate himself tomorrow.

Half an hour and a lot of storytelling by Shitty later, Bittle is two beers in, loose and warm, and using Jack’s thigh as an armrest. His fingertips trail over Jack’s knee, and Jack has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from making an inappropriate noise. He’s managed to keep his hands to himself so far, but he’s honestly not sure how much more of this he can take.

Across the booth, Shitty and Lardo are similarly entwined, and Jack realizes with a start what the four of them must look like. He’s seen several of his teammates walk by and give him long looks that he hadn’t thought much about, but even now, he can’t bring himself to care. He knows what it is and what it isn’t. And hell, if they can handle Whits being gay, they can handle Jack being… whatever.

When the pitcher is finally empty, along with everyone’s glasses, Jack goes to get the next round. He returns a few minutes later, a pitcher of beer in one hand and a glass of club soda in the other, to see Whits is sitting in his place. He’s deep in conversation with Bittle, and Jack tenses up all over again. He knows, of course, that they haven’t had a chance to talk tonight, that this is something they should talk about, that they have in common. He sets the pitcher down, then resignedly pulls a chair over from a nearby table.

“Jaaaaack,” Shitty says, already reaching for it. “Who’s ready for a refill?” Four glasses are pushed to the center of the table, and Shitty pours all around.

Whits and Bittle take their newly-filled glasses without even looking up. Jack takes a calming breath. He’s not going to be a dick about this. He’s going to be a good, understanding, supportive friend. For both of them. He sits at the end of the booth with his club soda and tries not to look as awkward as he feels.

He listens to Shitty and Lardo, and tries to ignore the quiet conversation happening on the other side of the booth. He recognizes that he’s jealous, and he knows the feeling is irrational. Bittle and Whits are friends. Friends carve out time to talk to each other, and they sit close to each other, and smile and laugh. Maybe there’s a little more touching going on than Jack is accustomed to seeing between two dudes in public, but that doesn’t mean anything. Bittle does that with Jack too, and—

Bittle’s fingers slide down Whits’ forearm, and Jack suddenly wishes he was drinking something a hell of a lot stronger than club soda.

“I’ll be right back,” he says, standing, but no one at the table acknowledges him. He can feel his mood shifting, can feel something dark and unpleasant curling its way up his chest.

He splashes cold water on his face in the bathroom, and stares at himself in the mirror. He is jealous and obsessive by nature, which is why he’s better off alone. This is exactly how he was with Kent. Of course, Kent flirted with everything that moved, and it was pure torture. Bittle is different: he’s earnest and kind, and he doesn’t flirt for the sake of getting attention; he’s genuinely that sweet and friendly. That makes it worse, though, because Jack has a hard enough time just maintaining friendships. Adding stronger emotions to the mix is a recipe for disaster.

And that’s the thing: Bittle is better off with practically anyone else. Even if Bittle were interested — and Jack can’t be sure how much of it is the affectionate charm Bittle showers on his closest friends and how much of it is aimed just at Jack — it would inevitably end badly, and it would be Jack’s fault.

And anyway, Bittle isn’t available, so there’s no point in dwelling on it.

Jack takes a deep breath and heads back out. The bar is significantly more crowded now; apparently some fans figured out where the team was tonight and spread the word.

Bittle is sitting alone when he returns; he smiles sleepily up at Jack. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Jack lies. “Just tired.”

“We don’t have to stay,” Bittle says.

“I can hang out in bar anytime,” Shitty says. “The idea was to hang out with you fuckers in particular, so.”

Jack shrugs. “Then let’s go. I’ll tell Whits.”

“He said he’s staying a little while longer,” Bittle says as he slides out of the booth. “But if he thinks he’s gonna pick up, he’s gonna be disappointed.”

Jack snorts. “Yeah, not really so gay in here, is it?”

“Even more reason to head out,” Bittle says, tugging Jack’s sleeve.

Jack catches his hand when he starts to walk away, saying, “Hang on, Lardo’s looking for something under the table.”

Bittle turns and presses his forehead into Jack’s shoulder and laughs. “Ugh, I didn’t mean t’get this schwasted tonight.”

Jack wants to wrap his arms around Bittle and pull him close, but he just squeezes Bittle’s fingers instead. “You haven’t had that much to drink.”

Bittle snickers against Jack’s shirt. “I have, actually. We drank before the game. And during the game.”

Several things click all at once, and Jack’s stomach sinks. He’d been so focused on his own petty jealousy tonight that he’d barely noticed that Bittle was slurring his words more than he usually would after a few beers. Bittle gets affectionate when he drinks, and Jack had been so eager to read it as flirting that he hadn’t considered any other possibility.

The weight of disappointment is suddenly heavy on his shoulders. “Shitty’s a bad influence on you.”

“Nope, I did this to myself.” Bittle pushes back a little and smiles up at Jack. “Well, Shitty bought the beer for me, so he’s maybe a little to blame.”

“Six more months ‘til you’re legal, eh?” Jack wants to touch him, to stroke his thumb up the line of Bittle’s jaw.

“Can’t get here soon enough.”

Shitty and Lardo appear next to them, arms around each other. “Alrighty then, Jack-a -boo,” Shitty says, and Lardo snickers.

Bittle laughs too, and Jack lets his fingers slip away as they head toward the door.

*****

“I hope y’all don’t mind,” Bittle says, the moment they walk in the door of Jack’s apartment, “but I’m gonna to slip into something more comfortable.” He disappears into the guest bedroom.

Jack turns to Lardo. “How much has he had tonight?”

“About what he usually has on a Saturday night.” She raises her eyebrows at him. “Why?”

Jack considers the myriad ways he could answer that why, and finally shrugs. “Just wondering. I think there’s more beer if you want.”

She fake-punches his shoulder. “Chyeah.”

Shitty and Lardo rifle through Jack’s meager collection of games before settling on one that’s still wrapped in plastic. Jack brings them each a beer and stretches out on the other couch to watch them play. Bittle emerges a few minutes later dressed in a faded long-sleeve t-shirt and pajama pants. He ignores the empty space next to Jack in favor of perching on the arm of the sofa right next to him.

Jack smiles and hands him a bottle of water.

“You cutting me off?” Bittle takes the bottle and drinks a good fourth of it in one go.

“You’ll thank me in the morning.”

Bittle smirks. “I’m thanking you now. Scootch your big ass on over.”

“There is literally an entire couch here. You just have to walk a meter.”

“You know I don’t do metric,” Bittle says with an exaggerated sigh. He climbs over Jack and settles next to him, closer than is strictly necessary. Jack closes his eyes and takes a steadying breath, then stretches one arm along the back of the couch behind Bittle. Bittle yawns and then turns sideways, pressing his back along Jack’s side. He pulls Jack’s arm down and across his chest, and pillows his head on Jack’s bicep.

“This okay?”

It’s not okay. It’s actually miles from okay, but Jack still says, “Yeah.” He keeps his gaze focused on the game onscreen and breathes. It’s just Bittle being cuddly after a night of drinking. Jack might as well enjoy it for what it is and not worry about what it isn’t.

But he can’t stop his fingers from moving, just a little. They brush against the fabric at Bittle’s hip, and then it’s so easy to slide them under the hem of his t-shirt to stroke the warm skin underneath.

Bittle goes completely still, and Jack presses his lips together. He’s pushing it, and he knows he shouldn’t. Bittle is drunk and Jack is taking advantage, and it isn’t fair to either of them. Bittle sighs then and snuggles in more closely, one hand sliding up Jack’s forearm. His face presses into Jack’s sleeve, and Jack feels the steady warmth of his breath seeping through the fabric, almost stinging his skin. He could stay in this moment forever, where he can pretend he has this and it’s the most important thing in his life, more important than hockey or what people expect of him. He lets his mind spin out possibilities for a long moment. What would it be like if Bittle didn’t have to leave in the morning, if he was always here, with Jack?

“Brah.”

Jack turns to look at Shitty, who is still intently focused on the game. “What?”

“Somebody’s knocking on your door.”

Jack frowns and glances over. A second later, there’s another series of knocks. The deadbolt is turned, of course, so he can’t just shout for them to come in.

“Sorry, Bitty,” he says. Bittle yawns and lets go of Jack’s arm.

He opens the door to see Whits in the process of walking away. “Hey.”

Whits looks relieved when he turns around. “Hey. Sorry if I’m bugging y’all.”

“Nah, you’re not. Come in.” Jack steps back and gestures Whits through the door. “We’re just hanging out.”

Shitty and Lardo briefly look up from their game to wave in greeting. Whits leans over the back of the sofa to where Bittle is curled up in the warm spot Jack just vacated, and ruffles his hair.

“Hey, Taylor.” Bittle smiles up at him and yawns.

“You want a beer?” Jack asks.

“No, I’ve had enough tonight.” Whits frowns. “Water, maybe?”

Jack heads to the kitchen, and to his surprise, Whits follows. Jack fills a glass from the fridge’s tap and hands it to him, and Whits leans back against the countertop.

“You okay?” Jack asks.

Whits looks thoughtful for a moment, then nods. “Yeah. Just a crazy night, you know?”

“I thought you were gonna stay out longer. Celebrate.”

Whits shrugs and glances over his shoulder to where Shitty and Lardo are laughing on the couch. “Want some fresh air?”

It’s still ridiculously warm out, so they sit in the cafe chairs on Jack’s balcony. It’s almost quiet; the city is starting to slow down now that it’s nearly 1:00 am.

“I guess I thought it would feel different,” Whits says at last.

“Getting a hat trick?”

Whits snorts. “Well, yeah, that too. It would’ve been nice not to be too preoccupied with other shit to enjoy it.”

Jack nods; he can relate.

“I always thought I’d at least get laid the night of my first NHL hat trick, yanno?”

“You picked the wrong bar for that.”

“Seriously. That place wouldn’t have been my first choice.” Whits snickers. “Though Pashy propositioned me in the bathroom, so I guess that’s something.”

Jack nearly chokes on the sip of water he’d just taken. “Pashy? But he’s—”

“A homophobic dick, I know.” Whits shakes his head. “He was totally wasted, and he cornered me by the urinals — you know how fuckin’ huge he is — and he was all, I’m not into dudes, but you can suck me off.”

“Fucking…” Jack shakes his head. “What did you say?”

“That I’d suck literally every other dick on the team before coming anywhere near his fugly ass. I thought he was gonna punch me.”

“What happened?”

“I shoved him away and he laughed it off, and left.” Whits shrugs like it was no big deal, but Jack sees the uneasiness underneath.

Jack’s jaw clenches. “Are you gonna tell anybody?”

“I told you.”

“I know, but—”

“He was so drunk he probably won’t remember it anyway.” Whits shrugs and reaches for his glass of water. “I figured it was probably time to go after that.”

Jack scowls: that kind of shit is unacceptable, but he’s not going to push the point now. He can talk to Kratz later. Or George, even. “Yeah.”

Whits exhales heavily and slides down in his chair. “Sorry I’m having a fuckin’ pity party on you. You’ve got friends here and all.”

“You’re my friend.”

“Bro,” Whits says, smiling out at the skyline. “You know what I mean.”

“They’re your friends too.”

“And I appreciate that, but… Dude, it’s kind of sad that my social life revolves around my rookie and his college buddies.”

Jack chuckles. “It’s pathetic.”

“Fuck you, man.”

“No, I get it. We’re so much cooler than anyone else you could hope to hang out with.”

Whits groans and leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Whatever. Maybe I should go try my luck on Grindr, see if I can find someone to suck my dick.”

“Tonight? Are you that desperate?”

“Maybe?” Whits laughs. “Fuck, who am I kidding? I’m exhausted. I’m probably just gonna watch porn and jerk off.”

“We’ll be back in New York soon. If you can’t get your dick sucked there—”

“Shut up.” Whits looks over at him and grins. “You up for being my wingman?”

“Only if you get a goal against the Rangers.”

“All right, I’ll take that deal.” Whits leans back in the chair, balancing on its back legs. He takes a sip of water and looks out over the night-lit skyline.

Ten minutes later, they’re both yawning and chilly, so they head back inside. Whits says goodbye to Lardo and Shitty, who are now intertwined on the couch and watching what looks like a documentary about street artists.

“Did Eric turn in?”

“He was snoring,” Lardo says. “We put him in bed.”

“Tell him I said thanks, yeah? See y’all later.” Whits closes the door behind him.

Jack turns the deadbolt and yawns again. He can feel his exhaustion pushing in at the edges, and suddenly all he wants is to be horizontal. He heads toward his bedroom with a mumbled, “good night” to Shitty and Lardo.

He closes his bedroom door and strips down to his boxers before heading to the en suite bathroom to piss and brush his teeth. It isn’t until he crosses over to the bed to plug in his phone that he realizes his bed isn’t empty. Bittle is curled up on the side Jack usually sleeps on, his face pressed into Jack’s pillow. Jack has to take a deep breath to quell the sudden thrill that courses through him.

Bittle. In his bed.

Jack stares down at him for a moment, uncertain what to do. When Lardo said they’d put him to bed, he hadn’t thought they meant his bed. Of course, it makes sense — Shitty and Lardo have to sleep somewhere. And besides, it’s not like Jack’s never shared a bed with a friend before. It’s a big damn bed. Even if the person currently in it has been starring more and more frequently in Jack’s masturbation fantasies.

Fuck.

He should go sleep on the couch and let Bittle have the bed. He really should.

Or he could let himself have this, just this once.

Jack walks around to the other side of the bed and slides carefully under the covers. He curls onto his side and watches the rise and fall of the duvet over Bittle’s chest until his eyes finally close.

*****

Jack had meant to get up early and go running. He’d forgotten to set an alarm, though, and, well, sleep is a slightly higher priority at the moment, so it’s nearly 8:00 when he finally awakens to the sound of a stifled groan from Bittle.

He opens his eyes and turns to see Bittle staring at him, red-faced.

“Ummm,” Bittle says.

“G’morning,” Jack replies, shifting onto his side to face him. “You feel okay?”

“Better than I deserve to,” Bittle mumbles.

Jack stretches and the duvet slides down to his waist. He hears Bittle make a strange sound into the pillow. “You sure about that?”

“Yeah,” Bittle says weakly. “I’ll be fine. How did I… uh…” He gestures vaguely between them.

“I think Shitty and Lardo walked you in here? You fell asleep on the couch.”

“Ah.” Bittle buries his face in the pillow again.

Jack gets up and heads to the bathroom. Bittle makes a strange sound, something between a laugh and a sigh, but when Jack looks back, he has the pillow pulled over his face. Jack shaves and brushes his teeth, and Bittle is still curled up in the bed when he comes out again. Bittle’s eyes follow him as he heads over to the closet, and Jack can’t resist dropping his boxers while still in the line of Bittle’s sight. A few seconds later, he hears a rustling sound from the bed, followed by the bathroom door closing.

Jack is in the kitchen with Shitty and Lardo by the time Bittle emerges, clean and smelling like Jack’s shampoo. Jack feels his cheeks heat, and he turns away to make Bittle a cup of coffee. Bittle takes over breakfast preparation, only grudgingly allowing Jack to help once Jack points out that it’s actually his kitchen.

“You say that,” Bittle retorts, “but your oven and I came to an understanding yesterday.”

“I hope that means you’re leaving me pie.”

“Among other things.” Bittle winks at him. “You’re not allowed to look in the freezer until I’m gone.”

Jack smiles so wide it almost hurts.

“It’s been a blast, kiddos,” Shitty says after they’ve eaten and cleaned up and lingered over coffee as long as possible. “But I have a study group this afternoon, so we gotta hit the road.”

Jack doesn’t realize Bittle is leaving with Shitty and Lardo until he comes out of the guest room with his bag over his shoulder. Jack had intended to drive him back to Samwell, had been looking forward to it. He feels a stab of disappointment.

He hugs Shitty and Lardo, and promises he’ll Skype soon. When he hugs Bittle, though, he has a hard time letting go.

“Thanks for everything,” he says into Bittle’s hair.

Bittle squeezes him tightly and then steps away. He looks sad, but there’s something else in his expression too, something like determination. It reminds Jack of the way he always looked right before he stepped onto the ice last year, like he didn’t want to let the team down. “Good luck on the road this week.”

“Good luck next weekend.” Their schedules are going to be off until Bittle’s semester ends, and then Bittle is going back to Georgia for a week, and Jack probably won’t see him until January.

The thought of not seeing him for more than a month makes Jack’s stomach clench.

He walks them down to the parking garage in his bare feet, and stands waving while they drive away. When he gets back upstairs, his apartment feels overwhelmingly empty, so much that he he can’t bear to spend the rest of the morning there. He has a session with the trainer at 2:00, but that’s still a few hours away. He heads to the fridge to see if he can justify going grocery shopping, and then he remembers.

He opens the freezer, and gasps. It’s half-full of baked goods now, each wrapped up and labeled in Bittle’s careful, loopy handwriting. Something twists pleasantly in Jack’s chest and he feels warm all over.

Oh, no. No, no, no.

Jack closes the freezer and presses his forehead against the door. He can’t do this to himself, not when he’s about to head into a three-game road trip and a stretch of important games in the Metropolitan division. He has to have his head in the right place. He can’t afford to be distracted by this, whatever this is. He doesn’t let himself put a name on it, because that would make it even more of a distraction.

It takes a while, but he carefully tucks his feelings away, one at a time, until the only thing left in his head is hockey. He pushes off the fridge and goes to change into his workout clothes. He has some video to review before his training session, and that is — has to be — the most important thing.

*****

Chapter Text

A long time ago, Jack called Montreal home. He stands at center ice for a long moment during warmups, looking up at the banners and his dad’s retired number, thinking about how much he’d wanted to play here as a child.

It’s funny how much dreams can change.

It goes all the way to a shootout with the Habs, but the Falconers squeak out a win. To say the crowd is unhappy is an understatement, especially considering that it’s Jack’s shot on Price that clinched it. So much for being a hometown hero.

Jack pushes open the locker room door and steps out into the secured backstage area. He spots his parents immediately, standing across the room. They’re talking to someone Jack doesn’t recognize, but what makes him stop short is the sight of them both wearing Falconers gear, here at the Centre Bell. His dad is even wearing Jack’s jersey. Jack wonders how much shit he endured for it tonight.

The door swings closed behind him, and a firm hand lands on his shoulder. “It’s okay if you’d rather just spend time with them alone. I can go back to the hotel with—”

“Hey, I did your family thing.”

Whits sighs. “I know, and I appreciate it. I’m just offering, okay?”

Jack turns to smirk at him. “You know, it’s not gonna fall off if you go one night without getting laid.”

“That’s not—” Whits sputters. “Christ, Zimms. I know you don’t get to see them much, that’s all.”

“They’re coming to Providence for Christmas. I’ll get my fill then.” He looks over at Alicia, who’s laughing now, her arm looped through Bob’s. “Besides, my mom would kill me if you didn’t come over. She’s been asking about you.”

“Seriously?”

Before Jack can say anything else, his mom catches sight of them. She’s there a moment later with arms around his neck, and he closes his eyes, presses his nose into her hair, and breathes. He always forgets how small she is. She looms so large in his memory, the person who wrapped him in her arms and held him tight more times than he can count.

“Oh, sweetie, I’m so proud of you.” She pulls back enough to smile up at him, and plants a quick kiss on his cheek. He used to flinch away when she did things like that, but he doesn’t now. He just looks back at her, taking her in. She tilts her head, her expression shifting to one of mild concern. “What is it?”

Jack shakes his head. “Nothing. Just tired.”

She wipes at the spot where she kissed him with her thumb, then turns to Whits. “Taylor, it’s so nice to see you again!”

“Hi,” he hears Whits say, a touch of awe in his voice.

Jack turns to his dad. “Nice jersey.”

Bob steps forward and pulls Jack into a tight hug. “I’ve never been prouder to wear one.” His voice is unexpectedly full of emotion.

Jack laughs to cover the sudden tightness in his throat. “I’m surprised it isn’t soaked in beer, honestly.”

“We were in the box, so they didn’t have a chance.” He steps back and slings an arm around Jack’s shoulders. “You’re staying tonight, yes?” he asks in French. “Both of you?”

Jack nods. “We just have to get our stuff.”

“Good. Your mother has been plotting for weeks.”

“Plotting?”

Bob grins. “Did I say plotting? I meant anticipating.”

“That’s not much better.”

“Let her have fun. It’s rare that you bring anyone home these days, and she can’t help getting excited.”

Jack looks over to where his mom is talking animatedly with Whits, and frowns. “Wait… does she think Whits and I are together?”

Bob chuckles. “You know how she is. Always hopeful that you’ll meet someone who makes you happy.”

“If only it were so easy,” Jack replies.

“Huh.”

Jack turns to see him looking back with a surprised expression. “What?”

“That’s a new one from you.” When Jack frowns, Bob gives his shoulder another squeeze. “You usually say hockey is all you need to be happy.”

Jack’s cheeks warm and he looks away. He’s been thinking about life outside of hockey more and more lately.

Bob sighs and drops his hand from Jack’s shoulder. He switches back to English. “Anyway, great game. That shorty was some sick sauce.”

Jack can’t help groaning. “Papa, really?”

“Oh, am I embarrassing you?” Bob gets him in a headlock and plants a few sloppy kisses on Jack’s forehead. “I can do better than that.”

Jack wriggles away, laughing, and they wrestle until they start to attract attention.

“All right, you boys get your things. There’s a media gauntlet to run before we can leave.” Bob gives Jack a push in the direction of the locker room.

*****

Jack isn’t sure how his mother managed to have quite so much food prepared, considering she spent the last few hours at the game, but he’s not complaining. It brings back hazy memories from his early childhood in Pittsburgh, of his dad’s teammates coming over after home games. Jack would inevitably be sent to bed early on those nights, but he’d sneak out of his room and watch the party from the top of the stairs. Every once in a while, Uncle Mario would catch him, and sneak him a treat before shooing him back to bed.

At least it’s just the four of them tonight. Jack is grateful for that; he probably would’ve locked himself in his room if his parents had made this into a party. They sit in the living room, hors d’oeuvres artfully arranged on small plates on the coffee table. Alicia pours wine all around, then tucks herself into Bob’s side.

“This is amazing,” Whits says. He’d been intimidated for a total of about fifteen minutes before he seemed to get over it. Jack envies his ability to fit in so easily everywhere he goes. Whits spears some little meatballs with a fork. “My mom makes something like this.”

“I hope I can meet her sometime,” Alicia says, and Whits grins.

“God, she’d probably flip out.”

“His mom played hockey in college,” Jack says. “Defense, right?”

“Yeah. She’s an engineer now.”

Alicia swirls the wine in her glass. “It looked like you boys had fun when you visited them in Texas.”

“Since when are you on Twitter?” Jack asks.

“I don’t have an account, but I keep up.” She winks at him. “Your friend Eric is a great source of information.”

Whits chuckles at that. “He’s got a ridiculous amount of followers right now from all the stuff he tweets about us. The Falconers PR team should hire him.”

Alicia leans forward to refill their glasses. “Suzanne said Eric spent Thanksgiving weekend with you.” Her tone is one of innocence, but Jack can see the wheels turning behind her eyes.

“Yeah, he did. We had a game, but he kept himself busy. He baked so much. You should see my freezer.”

“It’s stuffed. Jack won’t let me anywhere it.” Whits nudges him with an elbow. “You can’t tell me you’re gonna eat all of that yourself.”

Jack shrugs. He knows it’s ridiculous, but he can’t explain his reluctance to share. “You still talk to Bittle’s parents?”

Alicia smiles. “Every now and then, when his mother hasn’t heard from him. She seems to think I have information on her son that she doesn’t.”

Whits actually chokes on his wine at that.

Jack frowns. “Do you?”

Alicia holds up her hands. “It’s not my place to tell her anything he doesn’t want her to know. Or that she couldn’t find out herself by looking at what he tweets.”

“Doesn’t stop you from fishing for information, though,” Bob says.

“I do not fish!”

Bob smirks. “Like hell you don’t.”

“Excuse me?” Alicia’s eyebrows go up, and Bob’s smirk fades.

Jack snickers and pats the couch cushion beside him. “This couch looks pretty comfy, Papa. Just sayin’.”

Bob looks mildly chagrined. “Ah, so… anyone want more wine?”

“There’s a bottle chilling in the fridge,” Alicia says, pointedly, and he climbs to his feet.

Jack grins at her across the coffee table, and she winks at him. She’s always had Bob wrapped around her little finger.

“So how is Eric, anyway?” she asks.

Jack’s mouth opens and closes again. “I haven’t heard much from him lately.” Jack’s only received a handful of texts from Bittle in the two weeks since Thanksgiving, and he’s tried very hard not to read too much into that. “They had a tough schedule for a couple of weekends, with Harvard and BU. Finals are going on this week, too.” Bittle procrastinates like it’s his job, to Jack’s endless consternation.

“And I think he’s been spending his free time with Kevin,” Whits adds.

Jack shoots him a sharp look and Whits tenses, realizing his mistake.

“Who’s Kevin?” Alicia asks.

“A friend,” Jack says, going for nonchalance, but knowing he’s failing miserably. “I’ve never met him, but he and Bittle have been hanging out a lot lately.”

Which is an understatement, if Bittle’s fairly Kevin-centric Instagram is anything to go by. Jack knows more about the guy’s tattoos than he ever wanted to. He takes a very large sip of wine.

“You don’t sound happy about that,” she says.

“It’s none of my business who he spends time with.”

Jack,” she says, giving him a long look.

“It’s not.” He looks away.

“Um, so the bathroom is down that hall?” Whits stands awkwardly.

Alicia points him in the right direction, then turns back to Jack with clear determination in her eyes. “So Eric has a boyfriend?”

“Maybe. I don’t know if it’s that serious.”

“It must be a little serious if Taylor knows about it.”

Jack shrugs. “I dunno. Bittle seems to date pretty casually.”

“Oh?”

She’s reeling him in, but he can’t seem to stop himself. He hasn’t been able to talk to anyone about this, and it actually feels good to say the words out loud. He looks down into his glass. “At least this one’s an improvement over the last one.”

“How so?”

“He’s a little older than the last one, for one thing. He seems like he’s got his act together.” He pauses, trying to choose his words carefully. “And he’s not in the closet.” He stares down into his wine glass.

Alicia hmmms thoughtfully. “Is he good for Eric?”

“I haven’t met him, but Holster introduced them, so he can’t be that awful.” Of course, Holster’s primary goal was to get Bittle laid, so all bets may be off.

“You’re jealous.” She says it with an air of finality, like she’s deduced it out of thin air, Sherlock Holmes-style.

“Mom,” Jack groans. “I am not.”

“Oooh, what did I miss?” Bob says, settling next to her on the couch. He sets the new bottle of wine on the table, cork half-pressed back into the neck.

“Eric has a boyfriend,” Alicia says.

“Mom, just…” Jack looks up. “His parents don’t know he’s gay. You can’t say anything to them.”

“I wouldn’t, you know that.” She leans forward. “It’s you I’m worried about.”

Jack looks to his dad for support, but Bob just looks thoughtful.

“Come on, sweetie. I’d have to be blind not to see the way you look at that boy,” she continues. “When Suzanne said he went to visit you, I thought maybe—”

“It’s not like that.” Jack twirls his wine glass between his fingers, watching the way the light catches the liquid. “We’re just friends.”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t want more,” Bob says.

They’re both looking at him encouragingly, and Jack gives up. “He lives almost an hour away, and our schedules hardly ever line up. Even if he was interested, it wouldn’t work.”

“How do you know he isn’t interested? Have you asked him?” Bob leans forward.

“It’s never going to be easy as long as you’re playing,” Alicia adds, “but you make it work, like your dad and I did.”

Jack groans and lets his head fall back against the sofa. This was the last conversation he’d wanted to have tonight. “Can we please talk about something else? Like the game? I scored a fucking goal, can’t we just—”

“Jack!” Alicia says, mock-offended. “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“I think he’d rather kiss someone else,” Bob says, his voice low and slightly muffled. Jack looks up to see him nuzzling her hair.

Jack glares up at the ceiling and says in French, “And you wonder why I don’t visit you more often.”

Alicia frowns, but before she can reply, Bob laughs and says, “All right, enough tormenting of our son.” He tops off their wine glasses. “We all know Jack’s true love is hockey, anyway.”

Jack stuffs a slice of cheese in his mouth before he can say anything stupid.

Whits returns and the conversation shifts to hockey and the season and the team. Bob tells stories Jack’s heard a hundred times, but he laughs along with them all the same. Whits hangs on Bob’s every word, and Jack can’t help smiling at that. By midnight, they’ve gone through quite a few bottles of wine. Jack’s nursed two glasses while everyone else has gone a few clicks past tipsy, but he doesn’t mind. His parents are genuinely happy to have them there, and despite the earlier conversation, Jack feels relaxed.

He shows Whits to the guest room while his parents put the food away, then he returns to the kitchen to help. They’re talking quietly when he turns the corner, so he stops in the doorway and watches them for a moment. Bob steps in behind Alicia, hands sliding down to her hips as she fastens lids on plastic containers one by one. He says something low that makes her giggle.

“You are so — let me finish this!”

“I’m not stopping you.” He leans down to brush a kiss just below her ear.

They look so comfortable together, so at ease, anticipating each other’s movements as they move around the kitchen. He’s seen it a thousand times before, but something about this moment feels different, like he’s seeing it from a new perspective.

And suddenly, there it is: that is what he wants. The future has always been sort of amorphous in his mind, little more than a blur of hockey and anxiety, and maybe friends, though he’s learned that friendships outside the team can be difficult to maintain. A relationship like this, though, something true and lasting — he’s never really believed he could have that. But now, standing here, seeing how happy his parents are together, he can’t imagine his life without it.

He swallows hard, blinks, and takes a long, steady breath before saying, “Good night.”

They both look up and smile at him. His mom crosses to give him a hug and a kiss while his dad stacks the containers of leftovers in the refrigerator.

“Sleep well, honey. We’ll see you in the morning.”

“Good night, Jack.”

Jack heads upstairs, his mind whirling. He doesn’t quite know what to do with this feeling. It’s new and big and strange, and it doesn’t fit well with everything else in his head. Dark clouds are already pushing in at the edges of his thoughts, shards of anxiety conjured out of nowhere. He pushes it all down with every step he takes, hoping to set it aside until tomorrow, at least.

He steps into his room and closes the door behind him, and breathes. This room hasn’t really been his for a decade; the posters of his sports heroes came down years ago. The bed is big enough, though, and the decor is spartan, simple. He feels comfortable here.

He puts on an old Samwell t-shirt and pajama pants, and brushes his teeth before settling into bed with his phone. The SMH group text seems to be full of final exam angst and pleas for Bittle to bake something. He has some congratulatory texts on his phone for tonight’s game, including one from Parse, who’s been texting him a lot lately. It’s mostly chirping, and Jack doesn’t quite know what to make of it. At least his stomach doesn’t plummet at the sight of that name on his lock screen anymore.

He scrolls down a bit more until he sees a text from Bittle.

Congrats on the win! [smiley]

Jack taps out Thanks, and spends several minutes scrolling through the emoji keyboard in hopes of finding something that looks like a pie before he gives up. He writes, Whits and I are at my parents’ house tonight.

He waits to see if Bittle will respond, but nothing happens. It’s late, of course, nearly 1:00 am on a week night, and Bittle will have practice in the morning ahead of their post-finals weekend roadie. He takes a deep breath and releases it again, and lets himself tap at the keyboard without thinking.

I’ve been a shitty friend lately and I’m sorry. I miss talking to you. Good luck on your finals. Tell the guys (and Lardo) I said hi.

He hits send, switches on do not disturb, and plugs the phone in. He closes his eyes and tries to quiet his mind in the darkness. The sounds of this house are familiar, comforting. It’s far enough from the city and the road that there isn’t much traffic noise, just the whirring of the heating system. It lulls him into a light doze, then suddenly shuts off. There is another sound then, one that wrenches him awake: a soft gasping.

Oh, god.

He winces and pulls his pillow over his head. He tries to block it out, to think of something else, but when it’s joined by a rhythmic thumping, he nopes right out of bed and heads down the stairs.

He’s only here one night, and they can’t just… not?

He’s tired and his knees ache, and now he’s cold and grumpy to boot. He stares contemplatively at the couch for a moment. He doesn’t know where they keep the extra pillows and blankets, and he’s sure as hell not going back upstairs to look. Besides, he played a hard game tonight and freaking deserves to sleep on a bed. He’ll just have to wait them out. Or…

He heads down the hall to the guest bedroom and knocks softly on the door.

“Come in,” he hears, and sighs in relief.

He steps through and closes the door behind him. Whits is sitting up in bed, phone in his hand. At least Jack didn’t wake him up.

“Everything all right?”

“Yeah.” Jack frowns and crosses to sit on the other side of the bed. “It’s fine, it’s just... My parents are…” He rolls his eyes and makes a vague hand gesture.

“They gave you shit about being” —Whits tilts his head in a way Jack has come to understand as code for whatever you are— “and now you can’t sleep?”

“No.” Jack grimaces. “They’re… having sex. It’s kind of loud.”

Whits stares at him for a full second before bursting into laughter.

“Shut the fuck up,” Jack hisses, and swats him with a pillow. “It’s not funny.”

“It’s not funny when it’s your own parents, but it’s sure as fuck funny when it’s someone else’s.” Whits puts his finger to his lips. “Shhh, listen. Maybe they’re still going at it.”

“Oh my god,” Jack whines.

“I’m kidding, geez. Here, climb in. Hang out until it’s safe again.”

Jack scowls at him, but slides under the covers just the same. He stretches out on his back and looks up at the ceiling. A minute later, Whits turns his phone off, and the room is plunged into darkness. The mattress shifts as Whits settles down.

“Thanks for inviting me tonight. It’s been fun.”

Jack yawns. “Thanks for coming.”

“I have to say it was totally surreal to hang out and drink with Bad Bob, though.”

“I know.” It’s never not weird that people are so star-struck by his dad, but Jack’s used to it.

“At least somebody got laid tonight,” Whits says, snickering. “I mean, if it couldn’t be me, then—”

Jack reaches out in the darkness to pinch the soft skin on the back of his arm.

“Ow, fuck!” Whits shoves him in retaliation.

Jack pushes back, and Whits laughs. Jack considers pinning him to the mattress until he promises to never speak of it again, but… well, considering they’re in a bed, in the dark, that could get awkward. He stares up at the ceiling instead, letting silence stretch out between them.

Whits turns onto his side. “You’re thinking so loud I can almost make out the words, bro.”

“Sorry. I can go. It’s probably safe now.”

“Nah, talk to me. I might fall asleep on you, but it’ll still be good for you to get that shit off your chest, whatever it is.”

Jack purses his lips and looks up at the ceiling. He can make out the shape of the light fixture above him, just barely. “Do you ever think about getting married?”

Whits is quiet for a moment. “Sometimes? I mean, it’s been legal everywhere less than a year, so it’s still kind of a new idea. But I’d have to actually date someone first, long enough that I could think about wanting to spend the rest of my life with them. That doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.”

“Yeah.”

“What about you?”

Jack hesitates: he’s the one who started this conversation, but he’s not sure how much he wants to tell Whits. “Not until recently. I guess living on my own has made me think about what it would be like to have someone like that. And seeing my parents together… I guess… yeah.”

“I can see it now. Model-hot wife, adorable kids who wear your jersey to games and skate before they can walk.”

Jack frowns. “Maybe. But when I imagine it… it’s usually a guy.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Is that… new?”

“It’s completely new. That’s kind of the point.”

Whits draws in a breath, then hesitates before speaking again. “It’s interesting that you see yourself settling down with a guy when… you’re also into girls, right?”

Jack frowns at the ceiling. “I don’t really know if I’m bi or gay, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No, I mean… is it the idea of a guy, or like, a particular guy?”

Jack closes his eyes, suddenly grateful for the darkness. “No one in particular.” He barrels on before Whits has a chance to work out the lie. “And that’s the thing that makes it hard, right? I can’t have a serious boyfriend, let alone marry a guy and also play in the NHL.”

“Yeah. I mean, you could, but… I don’t want to be the poster boy for that shit.”

“Me either.” Jack’s spent his whole life staying as far away from unwanted attention as he could. The idea of actively inviting it makes his skin crawl.

Whits is quiet for a moment. “I think about the guys with wives and kids sometimes, you know? How they have someone at home, a family to go back to after we’ve been on the road. And I think about how much this league, or hell, the world would have to change before I could have something even close to that.”

“Yeah.” Jack turns onto his side and looks at Whits.

“It’s not like I want to get married anytime soon. I mean, I’m 23, you know? But it would be nice to know I could have a boyfriend I wouldn’t have to hide. It’d be hard enough to be in a relationship with someone who lives the way we do, but to have to be in the closet on top of that is just… yeah.”

Jack’s stomach clenches — that’s exactly the issue. He can’t ask anyone to do that for him, to live the way they’d have to. And he can’t ask that of Bittle, especially. He sighs and rolls onto his back, hands over his face. “Shit.”

“Hey,” Whits says, and moves closer to Jack. Jack tenses automatically, and Whits laughs. “Chill, dude, I’m not making a move on you. You just… seem like you need to be the little spoon for a while.”

Whits pushes at his shoulder and Jack turns, and Whits presses up against his back, warm and solid. He drapes one arm across Jack’s chest and sighs into the back of his neck. It’s nice, Jack has to admit. He hasn’t been held like this in a long time.

“There, not so bad, is it?”

Jack smiles. “And Shitty always said no one in the NHL would snuggle with me.”

“You tell Shitty I got your back.” Whits gives him a little squeeze. “I bet your mom would have snuggled with you if she wasn’t getting some serious dick tonight.”

“Shut the fuck up about my mom.” He’s too sleepy to put much venom into it, though.

Whits yawns and tugs the covers up around their shoulders. “You can stay if you want. I don’t mind.”

“Okay.” Jack pats his arm. “Thanks.”

Warmth and comfort and exhaustion supersede anxiety after a few minutes, and Jack sleeps more soundly than he’s slept in a long time.

*****

Jack wakes up alone in the guest bedroom. And that's fine, honestly: platonic snuggling with a friend in the middle of the night is one thing, but doing it in the bright light of morning would add a whole new layer of awkward.

He makes his way to the bathroom and then down the hallway towards the kitchen. His mom and Whits are chatting at the small kitchen table over quiche and coffee.

"Morning," he says, and heads straight for the coffeemaker.

"You slept late," Alicia says.

Jack shrugs and pours himself a cup of coffee. “Went to sleep late too.”

Alicia has a slice of quiche plated for him when he sits, and he manages a mumbled "thanks" before he starts digging in.

"Always a ray of sunshine first thing in the morning," Whits says, leaning back in his chair.

Jack glares at him.

Alicia laughs and kisses the top of Jack's head like she did when he was five years old, then goes to refill her coffee.

"What time do we need to drop you off?"

Jack looks over at Whits, who says, "Noon, right?"

Jack nods and takes another bite.

"It's a short flight to Ottawa.” Whits lifts his coffee mug to his lips. “Nice of them to let us have a morning off.” He raises his eyebrows at Jack.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Jack says. “But I definitely appreciate it.”

After breakfast he heads upstairs to take a quick shower and pack up his things. His phone, abandoned since last night, has a few dozen new text messages. He scrolls through the SMH chat alerts, and then sees a series of texts from Bittle. His stomach flips.

You haven’t been a shitty friend! You’re a great friend.

Sorry I haven’t been texted much lately. It’s been crazy here.

Soooo I have something to tell you. When’s a good time to call?

Jack stares at the screen of the phone. He’d like to reply, Now, now is good, but… If it’s good news, his parents will read it on his face immediately, and he’s not sure he’s up to any more discussion of Bittle. If it’s bad news, he’ll have to spend the rest of the day dwelling on it, in addition to facing the possibility of talking about it. So yeah, now is probably not good.

We’re flying to Ottawa this afternoon. Maybe later tonight?

He waits, but there doesn’t seem to be a response imminent.

“Jack?”

He looks up to see his father standing in the open doorway.

“Can I come in?” He’s speaking French, which Jack takes to mean he has something serious to say. His father is fluent in three languages, but he always uses French when he has a delicate point to express.

Jack nods, and Bob crosses to sit on the bed beside him.

“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry if your mother and I made you uncomfortable last night.”

Jack gapes at him. That is definitely not what he was expecting. “I… ahhh…”

“We didn’t intend to do that. It just sort of… happened.”

“We don’t have to discuss this. It’s fine.” Jack wills himself not to blush, and fails miserably.

“It’s not fine,” Bob says, and runs a hand through his hair. “It’s—”

“No, Papa, it really is.”

“I need to say this, all right? Your professional career is just starting and you have plenty of time to figure it out, but… you’ve never dated anyone for more than a month or so. Not that we know of, anyway.” He pauses to give Jack a speculative look.

Jack blinks at him.

“We can’t help worrying about you. We want you to be happy, to have people who love you in your life.”

Jack exhales smoothly, relief flooding him as he catches the thread of the conversation. “I do. I have you and Mom.”

“And when we’re gone?”

“Papa—”

“I’m serious, Jack.” Bob’s expression is carefully neutral. “Your mother wasn’t terribly subtle about it last night, but… you know it doesn’t matter to us whether you date boys or girls, right? It never has.”

“I know. There hasn’t really been anyone, though.” Not since Parse, really, and Jack appreciates that his parents never mention that.

Bob nods. “When you went to Samwell, we thought maybe… But four years is a long time not to...” He winces. “I’m fucking this up.”

Jack looks down at his hands. He hasn’t had this conversation with his parents, and he’s not sure he wants to have it now. He’s already disappointed them in so many ways. Why add a new one to the list?

“Not that there’s anything wrong with not dating. Or… whatever. I just hope that you would feel comfortable telling us.”

Jack smiles. “If I do date anyone, I’ll tell you, okay? I have no reason to keep it a secret from you and Mom.”

“Okay, good.” Bob presses his lips together for a moment. “So you and Whitton really aren’t…?”

“Definitely not. He’s a teammate, and that… no.” Jack shakes his head.

“I think that’s wise.” Bob hesitates a moment more. “I know you didn’t sleep in your own bed last night — and that’s fine — but I thought maybe there was something you didn’t feel like you could tell us.”

Jack laughs and presses one hand over his eyes. “No, it wasn’t like that at all. I ended up sleeping in the guest room because…” He hesitates and then thinks, fuck it. “It was a little loud up here.”

Bob frowns at him in confusion. “Loud?”

Jack gives him a long look. “Very loud.”

Bob stares at him a moment more before realization dawns on his face. “Oh, we… you…” His cheeks flush, which Jack has only seen a handful of times in his life. Bob looks up at the ceiling and laughs, then presses his lips together for a moment. “My god. You heard that?”

“Yeah.” This would be a lovely time for the floor to open up and swallow Jack whole, but sadly, it doesn’t.

Bob laughs and shakes his head, his initial embarrassment apparently gone. “Well, I’d say I’m sorry, but—”

“I only visit a few times a year,“ Jack says, unable to keep a whine out of his tone. “Couldn’t you just wait until I left?”

“No, not really.” Bob’s smirk is epic. “You know, son, when two people love each other very much—”

“Oh my god, stop right there.”

“You have to understand that your mother—”

Papa—”

“—is so incredibly—”

“I’m serious!”

“—hot that I—”

“Unless you want a detailed account of the last time I gave a blowjob, stop talking!”

Bob’s eyes widen, and Jack replays the words that just came out of his mouth. The blood drains out of his face.

Fuck.

“Um.”

Bob holds his hands up in surrender, his expression unreadable. “Okay, okay.”

They stare at each other awkwardly for a few seconds before Bob snickers, breaking the tension.

“Your mother is going to be mortified that you overheard.”

“Don’t tell her!”

Bob grins and pats Jack on the shoulder. “I’m glad we had this talk, son.”

Jack snorts. “That makes one of us.”

The moment Bob closes the door behind him, Jack flops back on the bed and groans. He loves his parents, but the sooner he gets out of here, the better.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack has just set his duffel on the bed when his phone buzzes with a text alert: Is this a good time?

He glances over at Whits, who is plugging in his electronics. “I’m gonna go get a drink.”

Whits looks up and nods, and Jack grabs a keycard and heads out the door. He texts back a letter Y and heads down the hallway toward the stairwell.

His phone buzzes in his hand almost immediately. He lets it ring three times before he swipes on the call.

“Hey, Bittle.”

“Hey. How was the flight?”

“Short.” Jack pushes open the door of the stairwell. “It would’ve been quicker to drive us, but the plane was already there, I guess.”

“You’re gonna have a hard time ever flying coach again.”

Jack can count on one hand the number of times he’s flown coach, but he knows better than to say that aloud. “So what’s up?”

“So I didn’t think I’d make it back to Providence before I head home for Christmas, but it looks like I’m going to be at the game next Thursday.”

There is a twinge of excitement in Jack’s chest, and he’s glad no one can see the stupid grin on his face. “That’s great! Do you need me to get you a seat or—”

“No, it’s fine. I, uh… It’s a date, actually.”

“A date,” Jack repeats.

“Kevin’s not really much of a hockey fan, but he got us tickets. As a Christmas present.” Bittle sounds a little embarrassed. “They’re terrible seats, but I don’t want to make him feel bad by telling him I could ask you for better ones, you know?”

Jack sits on the cold concrete steps, not smiling anymore. “Yeah. So… did you want to hang out after the game or…”

“The bus leaves pretty early the next morning for the roadie, so I kinda need to get back.”

“Right.”

“But I’d like to say hi, at least. And introduce you to Kevin.”

Jack’s chest is suddenly tight. “Yeah, sure. I’d… yeah.”

“Great. I guess I’ll see you then?”

Jack nods, even though Bittle can’t see it. “So it’s going well, then? With Kevin?”

“Yeah, it is. He’s… he’s really great. And his teammates are super cool. Well, I made them pie, so I expected that to go well.”

Jack laughs, though his heart isn’t really in it. “Yeah.”

“He’s crazy busy with swim practice and all the campus stuff he does, so he’s been really understanding with my schedule. That’s been nice.”

“Good, yeah.”

“And he’s… really sweet, you know? He texts me all the time and just asks about my day, what I’m doing, if I’m baking, if he can bring me a PSL.”

“Yeah.” Jack frowns. It wasn’t so long ago that he texted Bittle like that.

“He’s the only guy I’ve ever met who knows as much about Beyoncé as I do, lord.”

Jack can’t even manage a reply to that.

“Oh! He’s organizing the campus LGBT brunch this spring, and he’s trying to talk me into being in charge of catering.”

“That sounds like something you’d be good at.”

“It’s the weekend the playoffs start, though. And it’s not like we’ve clinched a spot yet, but I still—”

“No, I get it. Don’t tempt fate.”

Bittle snickers. “Not superstitious, my ass.”

Jack smiles. “I’m not.”

“But anyway, he’s… I like him. I told the guys I was dating him, so I guess that makes it official.”

Jack’s smile fades. “Yeah, that’s… that’s great.” God, he can’t take another minute of hearing what a perfect boyfriend Kevin is. “How is everything else going?”

Bittle talks about final exams and early morning practices, and Jack forces himself to listen. He’s going to have plenty of time to drown in his own self-pity, but at least for now, he has Bittle’s full attention.

*****

Jack’s mood doesn’t improve. He’s pissy at morning skate, so much that even Whits gives up trying to make him smile. He pushes everything else away until he’s thinking only about hockey, and what is and isn’t working on the ice. It’s not the best coping mechanism, but there are worse ones.

Whits doesn’t come back to their hotel room that afternoon, for which Jack is grateful. He watches game video and takes a nap, and keeps himself focused on the night ahead. So many things in his life are out of his control, but his performance on the ice is not going to be one of them.

Everyone avoids him in the locker room that night, talking over and around him as if he’s projecting an aura of no. It isn’t until they’re about to head out for warmups that Whits punches him in the shoulder and says, “Zimms.”

Jack looks up at him, expecting him to make a comment about Jack’s mood, but instead, Whits holds out his gloved fist and gives him a crooked smile.

“Ready to light it up?”

Jack bumps his fist and almost manages to smile. “Absolutely.”

It goes to shit in the second period.

The Falcs are up by one thanks to Jack’s one-timer off Janssen’s centering pass from almost behind the net, but the Senators come back from intermission with fire in their veins. They’re hitting hard and trying to draw penalties, and the refs aren’t calling anything. The tension mounts steadily as the minutes tick on. Every time Jack touches the puck, he gets knocked into the boards and called every name in the book. It’s not like he isn’t used to teams gunning for him, but it seems especially vindictive tonight. It’s not just him; they’re going after Whits too, and Jack can see that it’s taking a toll.

Halfway through the period, Jack picks the puck off in the Falcs’ zone and wheels it down on a breakaway. Whits is on his heels, but so are the two D-men who’d misjudged the direction of the pass from their teammate. A stick catches Jack’s ankle by the top of the circle, and he manages to dump the puck behind the net before he goes down. It doesn’t get called — of course it doesn’t — but he gets to his feet and scrambles toward the corner, where Whits is battling for the puck. Whits finally manages to knock it around the back of the net, but before he can go after it, Ottawa’s other D-man, Middleton, slams him into the boards from behind, hard. Whits never saw him coming.

Jack is there a second later, just in time to hear Middleton spit the word “faggot” before turning away. The crowd is roaring their approval, and Jack just fucking snaps. Middleton’s got fifty pounds and nearly a head of height on him, but Jack’s gloves hit the ice before he even realizes what he’s doing.

The thing is, he’s never been much of a fighter. Fights weren’t allowed in the NCAA, and he learned at an early age that it was in his best interests to let go of the shit opponents hurled at him in an attempt to rile him up. But this — he can’t ignore this. It wasn’t directed at him, but it might as well have been, and it’s fucking unacceptable.

He launches himself at Middleton, who grins like it’s Christmas morning. Middleton gets in a good right hook, enough to knock Jack’s helmet off and make him see stars. Before Jack can do anything else, Rolly gets between them and pummels Middleton. Kratz gets Jack around the shoulders and pulls him back, and they both watch Rolly and Middleton swing at each other. The crowd is on its feet, cheering the fight on, and the guys are tapping their sticks on the boards at both benches. Rolly manages to knock Middleton’s helmet off, then gets in a good enough punch to knock him off-balance. He goes down hard on his back. Rolly goes with him, still swinging, and the refs finally step in to pull them apart.

Middleton gets to his feet, blood dripping from his lip. He sneers at Jack. “What, did I hurt your boyfriend?”

“Watch it,” the linesman says to Middleton, at the same time Rolly hisses, “Shut the fuck up,” and goes after Middleton again.

The linesman lets them go at it for another minute, during which time a few more of the Sens come over to watch.

“All right, enough,” the linesman says, getting between them again. Rolly turns to argue with him, gesturing wildly toward Middleton, whose teammates pull him away from Rolly.

“Bunch of fucking faggots,” Middleton says, glaring at Jack with his voice pitched low enough that the refs won’t hear.

It’s not the first time someone’s hurled that word at Jack, but this doesn’t feel like a chirp — it feels personal. He glares at Middleton and skates as close as Kratz will let him. “You got something to say? Say it.”

“You take it up the ass from Whitton like you did from Parson? Or did you find a new boyfriend at that faggot college?”

The two guys on either side of Middleton exchange an uncomfortable glance, but neither of them seems inclined to say anything to rein him in.

There are dozens of ways Jack could respond — including, that yeah, he actually did take it up the ass from Parse, and what of it? — but he has a bizarre impulse to laugh instead. He shakes his head. “That was fucking weak, man. You can do better than that.”

Middleton frowns at him, clearly surprised.

“If you’re gonna speculate about what I do with my dick, at least be creative.”

Kratz huffs out a laugh, and Middleton scowls. His teammates skate backwards and whisper at each other furiously.

“Leave it, boys,” the ref says, moving to stand between Jack and Middleton.

“You gonna call that one?” Kratz gestures to where Whits is struggling to get to his feet, with the help of Janssen and one of the assistant coaches. “Or pretend you didn’t see it like everything else tonight?”

“You do your job and I’ll do mine,” the ref replies, visibly annoyed.

Jack is relieved to see Whits skating back to the bench under his own power, though he’s still grimacing in pain.

Middleton chuckles darkly, apparently not ready to let it go. “Don’t worry. He’ll probably suck dick better with a few teeth missing.”

“Speaking from personal experience?” Jack retorts, staring pointedly at the gaps in Middleton’s mouth. Middleton lurches toward him again, so suddenly that the refs holding his arms get pulled forward with him.

“You’re the cocksucker,” Middleton spits, and grabs his crotch. “You wanna suck this one?”

“Fuck you,” Jack spits and skates away. By the time Jack gets back to the bench, the call is made: a four-minute major for boarding and ten more for misconduct. The crowd boos, and people sitting behind the bench shout vile shit at Jack, but he’s used to tuning that out.

Whits gets taken back and evaluated, and Jack gets benched for the rest of the period. The Senators tie it up at the end of the second, but the guys in the locker room seem spirited at intermission.

Janssen stops Jack before he can cross to his stall. “What the fuck were you thinking, taking on Middleton like that?”

“I wasn’t,” Jack replies. “I was fucking pissed. He’s a homophobic prick.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty fuckin’ clear,” Beck says. “But that’s not your job. You shoot the damn puck and let us handle that shit.”

“Yeah,” Pashy says, appearing suddenly by Beck’s side. “Jesus, Zimms, your face is too pretty to be going after fuckin’ goons.”

Jack raises his eyebrows at the utter lack of a no homo from Pashy. Maybe he’s coming around.

“Get this man an icepack,” Beck calls.

One of the trainers corners Jack in short order. He has a few scrapes and an ugly bruise is blooming on his cheek, but it could’ve been a lot worse. The adrenaline high is starting to wear off now, and the aches in his joints are making themselves known. He settles on the bench and stifles a grimace.

“I had money on you, Zimms!” Beaker says, shaking his head. “You weren’t supposed to drop your gloves before the playoffs.”

“Sorry.” Jack shifts the icepack on his cheek and smiles.

“Was dirty hit,” Borko says. “I’m do same as Zimms if I see.”

“Fuck, yeah,” Beaker says, and fist bumps him. “And you better believe I’m gonna hit that fucker hard if they let him on the ice again tonight.”

Rolly sits next to Jack and claps a hand on his shoulder. “You all right?”

Jack nods.

Rolly leans in closer and lowers his voice. “You handled that really well. I mean, he went after you with some really personal shit, and you let it slide right off.”

Jack shrugs. “It’s not like I’ve never heard it before.”

“Yeah, but…” Rolly presses his lips together and gives Jack a pointed look.

“What?” Jack asks, though he knows perfectly well what.

Rolly shrugs. “You know we’ve got your back, so if there’s something you think we need to know...”

Jack looks back at him for a moment, then looks away. “There isn’t.”

Rolly squeezes his shoulder and sits back. “Okay then.”

There’s a buzz across the room. Jack looks up to see Whits standing in the middle of a group of guys. He’s back in his sweats and there’s an icepack strapped to his shoulder, but he’s smiling. He looks over at Jack and winks, and Jack exhales in relief.

They turn it around in the third period. Jack scores another goal and assists on Kratz’s half-slapper. The Senators pull their goalie with two minutes to go, and after Sandy sends it back for an empty netter, the crowd starts to head out. Middleton doesn’t set foot on the ice for the rest of the game, and anyone who says a word to Jack gets slammed into the boards by the Falconers’ D-men.

Winning feels really damn good.

*****

Kratz bumps Jack’s shoulder when they’re getting off the bus. “We need to talk. Can you come by my room in fifteen?”

“Sure thing, Cap,” Jack replies, his stomach twisting slightly. Kratz gives him a tight smile and keeps walking.

“He asked me, too,” Whits says when Jack tells him about it. “And that’s not all.”

“Yeah?”

“Let’s go put our stuff down.”

Whits waits until the door of the room closes before he says anything more. “Rolly asked me point blank tonight if we were fucking each other.”

Jack turns to look at him. “What did you tell him?”

“The truth, of course. Well, I left out the fact that we occasionally snuggle up in bed together.”

“That was once.”

Whits smiles slyly. “Yeah, but it was nice. I’d be up for it again.”

“Even if we were, it’d be none of their damn business.” Jack sits on the bed and sighs. “Well, maybe it would be.”

“Yeah. I got pissed and asked him if he’d care who I was fucking if I was straight, and he said he’d care if I was fucking George.”

Jack nods. It’s about the team dynamic, he knows. “So what does Kratz want to talk to us about?”

“Let’s go find out.”

Rolly and Janssen are in Kratz’s room too — so whatever this is about, it involves the whole number one line. Jack and Whits sit on one of the beds, careful to put some space between them. Jack feels a spike of annoyance that he’s having to even think about shit like that around his own team.

“So I’ll get to the point,” Kratz says. “It’s starting to get around that Whits is gay.”

“What?” Whits goes slightly pale.

“Oh, come on, what did you expect?” Kratz replies. “Hockey players gossip like little old ladies at church on Sunday. I’ve even gotten a couple of emails from guys I used to play with asking me if it’s true. So somebody talked, and now it’s out there.”

“Shit.” Whits groans and puts his hands over his face.

Kratz looks at Jack. “You should know they’re talking about you too, Zimms. I don’t give a shit about what you and Kent Parson got up to in Juniors, but a lot of guys do.”

Jack purses his lips. He’s going to call Parse first thing in the morning and ask him how the hell he’s managed to stay in the closet all this time.

“The point is,” Kratz continues, “people think our two most productive players are gay. Which, on the one hand, is cool. Representation and all that shit, right? Most of it’s harmless, just guys wanting to know what’s going on, but like we saw tonight, there are some assholes who are gonna bring it to the ice.”

Jack and Whits exchange a look.

“What do you want us to do about it?” Whits asks.

“That’s what I was going to ask you, actually.” Kratz looks at Jack. “You handled yourself really well tonight, though we obviously don’t want you to drop your gloves if you don’t have to.”

Jack nods. “Me either.”

“I can only speak for myself, but it’d be great to know the guys have our backs,” Whits says. “And that they mean it, and aren’t just keeping their mouths shut.”

“Most of them do,” Rolly says. “The others are getting there. Every guy on this team respects you two a hell of a lot.”

Jack looks down at his hands. He appreciates that his captain is so supportive, but it’s frustrating as hell that they have to have this conversation. This isn’t what he wanted his first year in the NHL to be about.

And as much as he doesn’t feel ready to label himself, it’s probably time to give his friends one they’ll understand. He makes a decision and looks up.

“I haven’t said anything about it before, but since it seems to matter — I’m bisexual. I’m not seeing anyone right now and I don’t do casual hookups, so none of this is actually relevant to the team.” He hears the bitterness in his own voice, but can’t seem to dial it back. “And I’m not going to talk about my past relationships, so don’t bother asking.”

Whits reaches over and squeezes Jack’s shoulder, and the others smile at him.

“Thanks, Zimms,” Kratz says. “It goes without saying that stays in this room.”

Rolly and Janssen nod.

“If anything happens, if anyone on this team or any other starts shit, I need to know, okay?” Kratz looks at each of them in turn. “And I will deal with it.”

“Okay,” Jack says.

Whits smiles. “Thanks, Cap.”

Kratz pulls Jack aside once the others have left the room. “If you haven’t already, you should tell George. She’s cool, obviously, and she could probably give you some advice.”

Jack nods and smiles tightly. That’s another conversation he was hoping to put off, but Kratz is right.

*****

Jack has approximately 100 texts on his phone. He scrolls through them when he gets back to the hotel room, but there’s really only one person he wants to talk to. He texts Bittle to ask if he can Skype. Bittle’s reply is instantaneous, so Jack grabs his laptop.

“Jack, oh my god!” Bittle says before his face even shows up on the screen. “What the hell happened? Are you okay? How is Taylor?”

“Hey, Bittle,” Jack says, already smiling. “I’m fine. Whits wrenched his shoulder. He’s gonna be out for a few games, but he’ll be okay.”

“Lord, you have no idea how scary that looked on TV. How’s your face?”

Jack turns his bruised cheek toward the camera, and Bittle sucks in air through his teeth. “It looks worse than it feels,” Jack tells him.

Bittle shakes his head. “God, Jack, you… I’m proud of you for sticking up for Taylor, okay? But that guy was huge!”

“Trust me, I’ve been getting that from all sides tonight.” Jack looks across the room to where Whits is grinning at him.

“He’s there, isn’t he?” Bittle says. “Taylor, get your ass on camera so I can see for myself that you’re okay.”

Whits sits on the bed beside Jack and waves at the screen with his good arm. “Hey, Eric.”

There is a lot of noise on Bittle’s end, and then the faces of half the Samwell hockey team appear on the screen. They all start talking at once, and Jack grins. He misses all of them, so much.

Whits tells them about the hit and his wrenched shoulder, and how “fucking amazing” it had been to look up and see Jack going after Middleton. “Like, seriously, that dude is a fucking goon, you know? He probably would’ve crushed Jack’s skull if Rolly hadn’t got in there.”

“Goddamn, bro,” Holster says, grinning widely. “I knew you had it in you.”

“Don’t listen to him, Jack,” Bittle says, scowling.

“Don’t worry,” Whits says, “the guys gave him shit about that already.”

"What the hell did you say to fire Middleton up like that?" Nurse asks, and they all look through the screen expectantly.

Jack hesitates. He doesn’t want to repeat what Middleton said in front of Bittle, and he’s not sure he can explain the situation without outing Whits and himself. And they don't know this about him, because he’s never told them. He can’t say it now, not like this. He especially can’t spring it on Bittle in front of everyone.

He shrugs and says, "I think I insulted his parentage; I don’t know."

Whits finds Jack’s hand and squeezes, and Jack doesn't turn to look at him. His heart starts to pound wildly in his chest.

"Jack?" Bittle is watching him through the screen with concern in his eyes.

Jack forces a smile. "Sorry, just tired. We're heading to Buffalo tomorrow and then back home on Sunday. Maybe we can Skype then?"

"Of course," Bittle says.

"Thanks for the support, guys. I really appreciate it.”

They all chorus their goodbyes and Jack cuts the call. He closes the laptop and sighs.

Whits pats his shoulder. "If you need to talk—"

"I know."

"I'm meeting Rolly and Janssen in the bar, if you want to join us." Whits stands and rubs at his injured shoulder. "Not that I can drink with these painkillers, but I’m not ready to settle in just yet."

"I'm good. Just gonna chill."

Whits nods, and slides a key card into his pocket before heading out.

Jack curls up on the bed and tries to calm his racing heart, but nothing works. No amount of breathing or focusing techniques quell the rising panic. All he can think about is what might happen in Buffalo, and then in Providence, and on and on. It's going to overshadow his rookie year, which is exactly the thing he didn't want to happen. And the worst thing is that he hasn’t even done anything worth gossiping about. Whits has had some fun, but Jack’s been keeping his head down and working hard and denying himself the one person he really wants, and it doesn’t even fucking matter.

His hands are shaking, and he can’t stop them.

He finally stands and rifles through his duffel for his toiletry bag. He takes it to the bathroom and pulls out the bottle he hasn’t touched in months: Lorazepam, 1 mg. He only ever has a few pills at once, for obvious reasons. He hears his doctor’s voice in his head — take it if you need it, no need to suffer alone — and he shakes out one pill. He swallows it with a mouthful of tap water, then gets ready for bed. He can feel it start working within 15 minutes. It doesn’t make it all better, but it takes the edge off, allows him to corral his chaotic thoughts and push them aside. It’s a relief, though he feels guilty for needing it. And then he feels guilty for feeling guilty, because anxiety is a part of him, and always will be. He’s allowed to medicate when he needs it.

He sleeps, hard.

*****

They lose in Buffalo, which is fairly humiliating, but no one says a word to Jack about what he and Whits do with their dicks, so that’s a silver lining. Funny how quickly Jack’s expectations have changed.

*****

On Sunday night, Jack sits on his couch staring at his phone for a solid ten minutes before he pulls up his favorites and taps Bittle’s name.

Bittle picks it up on the third ring. “Hey. Did you wanna Skype?”

“Nah, this is good,” Jack says. “How are you?”

"I made three pies today, if that tells you anything."

Jack laughs. “What time is the exam?”

“Nine.” Bittle sighs. “I’m as ready as I’m gonna be, which is not at all.”

“Is this a bad time? Cause I don’t wanna—”

"No, please. I need to think about something else for a while.”

Jack takes a deep breath. "I need to tell you something. I don’t think it's going to be a surprise, but... I want you to hear it from me."

"Okay. Uh… is it bad? Cause if it's bad, I'm gonna sit down."

"No, not bad.” Jack leans back into the couch cushions. “Are you alone?"

There is a soft click as Bittle apparently closes a door. “Yeah, I’m in my room. So what’s up?”

Jack inhales, exhales again. "I'm... bisexual, I guess?"

Bittle is silent for what feels like an eternity. "You…" He makes a strangled sound. "What do you mean, you guess?"

Jack is momentarily taken aback. “I picked a label. Sorry if it’s one you don’t like.”

“Oh god, no — I’m sorry! That’s not what I…” Bittle takes a deep breath. “You’d think I’d be better at this, considering.”

"It's fine,” Jack says, though he lets his annoyance bleed through. “Basically, I’m… not straight? But I haven't had a lot of experience with sex, or relationships or even… wanting any of that, so I don’t know what else to call it."

"Okay," Bittle says. Jack suddenly wishes they’d done this over Skype so he could see Bittle’s expression. "I’m just, I dunno, not surprised so much as… Why are you telling me this now?"

Jack bites his lip. "I don't hook up or date or anything, and after a while, people start to make assumptions."

"Yeah, but people say all sorts of shit about you that isn't true, like the cocaine thing. Why do you care about this when you didn't—"

"Because this one is true," Jack says. "I actually have had sex with both men and women.”

“Okay.” Bittle sounds a little shaky. “Okay, but—”

“And I’m starting to get some shit about it on the ice. That was what happened in Ottawa.”

“Oh, god,” Bittle says. “Was that the reason for that huge hit on Whits?”

“I don’t know, but the talk about me and Parse in Juniors is still out there, and it’s getting around that Whits is gay. People know we’re close, so there’s going to be more of it. Anyway, I didn't want you to find out from... well, not me."

"Okay." Bittle pauses, and when he continues, his voice wavers. "I’m sorry you had to… I mean, it’s not fair that you have to do it like this.”

“I should’ve told you a long time ago. I’m sorry.”

“Jack…” Bittle sounds almost broken for a moment. “I wish I could hug you right now. I feel like you need it."

"Me too." Jack sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. "You can give me that hug after the game Thursday. If Kevin doesn't mind, I guess."

"I don't give a fuck what Kevin thinks," Bittle says. He sounds almost breathless.

"He's your boyfriend."

“And he knows you’re one of my best friends.”

The lack of denial makes Jack's heart sink in his chest. “Right.”

"Have you told Shitty yet?"

"No. I wanted to tell you first."

"What about Taylor?"

Jack closes his eyes. "He knows."

"Right." There is an intake of breath, like Bittle is going to say something else, but he hesitates.

"What?" Jack asks, though he has a good idea what Bittle is going to say.

"I’m sorry if I… I think this is a little bit my fault."

“Bitty, no.” Jack winces.

“I tweeted all those pictures of y’all, even when I knew people were reading into it.”

“And so did a lot of other people, including our PR team. It’s not about that; it’s about this league being so homophobic that we feel like we can’t be out and play.”

“I know.” Bittle’s voice sounds strained. “Okay.”

“Okay.” Jack wants to see him so badly that he briefly calculates how quickly he could get to Samwell if he left now. But Bittle has an exam tomorrow, and Jack has an early practice and a meeting with George, and then a PR event. And really, what does he expect would happen? He closes his eyes, and exhales. “Whits says hi.”

“How’s he taking all of this?”

Jack snorts. “He was upset about it until he realized how much he was going to get laid on the road. There are apparently more closeted players in the NHL than anyone knows.”

“He’s probably right.” Bittle's laugh sounds half-hearted. "Thanks for trusting me with this, Jack."

“Yeah.” Jack sighs. “Go study for that exam.”

“I’ll see you Thursday, okay?”

“Looking forward to it,” Jack says, and if he sounds a little desperate, he can’t really bring himself to care.

*****

“Jack, sit down,” George says, gesturing to the chair across from her desk.

“Thanks,” he says, and closes the door behind him before he goes to sit. His heart is in his throat.

“What’s up?” Her expression is neutral, but she looks more tense than she did a moment ago.

“So I…” Jack pauses, swallows. “I’m bisexual. And I’m thinking about a timeline for coming out.”

George’s expression doesn’t change. She nods. “What kind of timeline are you thinking?”

“I don’t know, I… I’m not dating anyone right now and don’t really see that happening anytime soon.”

George presses her lips together for a moment. “So why now?”

Jack takes a deep breath and releases it. “I want to start telling some of the team and the staff. Not that it’s any of their business, but… I’ve kept that secret for ten years. I’m tired of constantly hiding it, trying to decide if every stupid remark some guy makes is about me or—” He pauses, clenches his jaw. “It has nothing to do with hockey or the way I play, but I can’t pretend it doesn’t affect the way people see me.”

George sighs. “Jack, do you know how many female assistant GMs there are in the NHL?”

Jack nods. “One.”

“Yeah. So I know what it’s like to be a minority in this business. Every move I make is second-guessed. Every outfit I wear is analyzed. Hell, if I trade someone, they say it’s because I was on my period.” She shakes her head. “Some people are never going to accept me in this position, and it’s a waste of my time to worry about them. The rest, though — as long as I work hard and do the best I can to prove I deserve to be here, they’ll come around. They are coming around.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t have to tell that it’s not going to be easy. It’s not fair that you have to deal with that on top of everything else, but you have to do what’s right for you This organization will stand behind you 100 percent.”

“Okay.” Jack nods, exhales again.

She leans forward on her elbows. “So let’s talk about what we can do to support you.”

*****

The game goes as expected, which is not well. The Caps are having an amazing season, and though no one had said it aloud, the team was really just hoping to put up a good fight. Their defense works hard, but the offense can’t get it together. It’s the third game in a row without Whits on his line, and Jack is quickly growing frustrated with himself. He’d practiced with Sandy on his left wing earlier in the season, but they can’t seem to make passes connect in the game. Whits is always exactly where Jack expects him to be, and can read Jack so well that they can switch up plays at a moment’s notice. It’s humbling to realize that so much of his success this season was because of Whits’ skill.

They lose by two, mostly because their special teams are all off without Whits. The PP unit has an especially bad night, allowing a shorty just after Jack had finally managed to get them on the board. Treat had a stellar night between the pipes, so it could’ve been a lot worse, but still, it sucks.

The last thing Jack wants to do is meet Bittle’s new boyfriend after a game like that, but it’s better than not getting to see Bittle at all. He begs off doing press (Treat deserves the spotlight tonight anyway), and showers and slips out of the locker room as quickly as he can. He’d put “Eric Bittle +1” on the list to be allowed into the backstage area, and Bittle had texted him a few minutes ago that they’d gotten through with no problems.

He sees them first, standing near the far wall. Bittle is wearing a Falconers jersey with Jack’s number on it, which Jack can’t help but take a bit of spiteful glee in. Kevin is dressed casually, but Jack would have to be blind not to see why Bittle likes him. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, and intensely athletic in build. His hair is buzzed short on the sides now, different from the photos Jack saw of the two of them at Winter Screw. He’s somehow more good-looking in person than he is in any of the photos Jack’s seen.

Jack takes a steadying breath and makes his way toward them. A few people try to stop him along the way for autographs, but he apologizes and moves on as politely as he can. Bittle spots him then, and sprints toward him with a grin. Jack had intended just to give him a quick bro-hug, but Bittle’s arms go around his neck and he presses his face into Jack’s shoulder, and Jack can’t stop himself from holding him tight. It feels good, amazing really, to have Bittle pressed against him like this. For a moment he lets everything else fall away, and imagines what it would be like to go home on a night like this one and fall into Bittle’s arms for an hour or two.

“Jack,” Bittle says, and the sound pulls him back into awareness of where he is.

He lets go and steps back, trying his best to smile. “Thanks for coming. Sorry if it wasn’t much fun to watch.”

“Don’t even start,” Bittle says, then looks over his shoulder to where Kevin is standing and waves him closer. “This is Kevin. Kevin, Jack.”

Kevin steps forward and holds out his hand. “Hey, man, nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Yeah, same,” Jack says, shaking his hand.

They smile awkwardly at each other for a moment.

“Thanks for coming,” Jack manages at last. “It’s always nice to know there are friends in the crowd.”

Bittle raises his eyebrows, clearly aware that Jack has gone into media mode. “That goes both ways, you know.”

“I know.” Jack shrugs. “I’m gonna make it to a home game in January. Maybe during the All Star break.”

Bittle grins. “Honey, you’re gonna be in the All Star Game. Haven’t you looked at the voting numbers?”

Jack winces. As much as he knows it’s rude and unprofessional to say he hopes he isn’t selected, he’d still love to be able to say it to someone other than George. “We’ll see.”

They talk about the game for a few minutes, and though Jack can tell they lost Kevin somewhere in the middle of all the hockey-speak, he doesn’t really care. If Kevin’s going to be around for a while, he might as well get used to it. He looks up once to see Kevin watching him with a wary expression. Jack might feel guilty about that later, but at the moment, he just feels vindictively pleased to be the center of Bittle’s attention.

Bittle hugs him one more time before they go. Jack closes his eyes and lets his lips brush against Bittle’s temple, and doesn’t miss the cool smile he gets from Kevin before they walk away. It doesn’t ease the emptiness in his chest when he goes home alone, but it’s better than nothing.

*****

Chapter Text

“Broooo.” Shitty’s face grins at him through the computer screen. “You have no fuckin’ idea how good it is to see your face right now.”

“That bad, eh?” Jack asks.

Shitty waves a hand dismissively. “Nah, just normal levels of Knight family douchebaggery. I brought a shit-ton of reading, so I have an excuse to escape.”

“You’re studying on Christmas Eve?”

“Fuckin’ exclusionary zoning case law, man. Makes me want to spork my eyeballs out, but it beats listening to my dad proselytize about Trump.”

Jack makes a face. “You can always come down here if you need a break.”

“You beautiful Canadian temptress. Your parents still there?”

“Yeah. You wanna say hi?”

“Fuck yeah.”

Jack carries his laptop down the hallway. His parents are in the kitchen: Alicia is putting together a complex-looking casserole and Bob is peeling potatoes. They both look up, and Jack turns the laptop screen toward them. “Here they are.”

“Merry Christmas, my honorary parents!” Shitty says.

“Shitty!” Bob grins. “Merry Christmas. How’s school?”

Jack takes over the potatoes while Bob asks questions about the courses Shitty’s taking. Jack listens to the rhythm of the conversation more than the words, keeping his focus on the movement of his hands.

It’s been a relief to have his parents here these last few days. He’d been in a pissy mood on the road trip, so much that his teammates finally stopped chirping him about it and just gave him a wide berth. Whits is still on IR, and the guy they’d called up from the AHL is struggling to click with the line. Jack is frustrated with himself more than anything else. Losing one of their top players shouldn’t fuck with his game to this extent.

“You can slice those next,” Alicia says. He looks up to see her holding her thumb and forefinger a few millimeters apart. “Like that.”

He nods and finishes peeling.

“Whatcha making, Mrs. Z?” Shitty asks.

“Sausage and white bean casserole,” she says, then gives Jack a sly look. “Eric sent me the recipe.”

“Nice,” Shitty says.

Jack smiles and starts slicing the potatoes.

“Here, Jack, I’ll finish that,” Bob says. “Go talk to your friend.”

“Merry Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Z!” Shitty calls as Bob hands the laptop back to Jack.

“Tell your mother Merry Christmas from us,” Alicia says. Jack doesn’t miss the fact that she didn’t extend the greeting to Shitty’s father.

“Your mom really likes Bittle,” Shitty says once Jack has closed the bedroom door behind him. “I’m starting to get jealous, bro.”

“Don’t worry, you’re still my dad’s favorite.”

“Yeah, but your mom is the gatekeeper. If I’m ever gonna get adopted, I need to do something to impress her.”

“Finish law school, and we’ll talk.” Jack grins. “So I’m thinking about having a thing on New Year’s Eve. Can you come?”

“Fuck, yeah. There’s nowhere I’d rather be, man.”

“I thought I’d invite a bunch of the guys from Samwell and a some of the local guys I hang out with.”

“Sweet. Lardo’s coming down on Monday to hang with me for a few days. I’ll let her know.”

Jack doesn’t miss the way Shitty’s smile goes a little soft. “How’s that going?”

“Fiiine.” Shitty’s smile melts into a smirk. “And if I say anything more than that she won’t touch my dick until next year.”

Jack chuckles. “Next year isn’t that far away.”

“Yeah, but that’s still four fuckin’ days without getting any.” Shitty waggles his eyebrows. “Speaking of which, there’s a fuck-ton of rumors about what you might be getting up to.”

Jack snorts. “Unless they’re about me jerking off all alone every night, they’re not true.”

Shitty chuckles and shakes his head. “Bro, you gotta know… Okay, first, I’m not judging, obviously. You do you and all that shit. But I know you could be gettin’ hella laid if that’s what you—”

“Not you too, Shits.” Jack groans and flops back on the bed.

“Whoa, shit. Sorry, man. Not tryna be a dick here.”

Jack exhales. Now is as good a time as any. He turns the laptop so he can see the screen. “So I should tell you something.”

Shitty’s eyebrows go up very slightly. “Yeah, sure. Shoot.”

“I’m bisexual.” Jack takes a deep breath. “Probably. I’m still working that out, actually.”

“Okay.” Shitty’s poker face is a thing of beauty. “You wanna talk about it?”

Jack swallows down the automatic no and considers. Shitty is probably the best person to talk to about this. “Okay, so… I’ve only had sex with a few people ever. Two guys, three girls. Most of those were one-time hookups and… I dunno, it didn’t do much for me. I thought maybe I would get into it once we got going, but it was just kind of… nothing.”

“Okay, gotcha.” Shitty nods. “And the others?”

Jack looks down at the keyboard. “One of them… I thought I was in love with him. I was really into the sex at the time, but after…” He swallows, clenches his hands into fists. “After I overdosed, it wasn’t ever like that again. I wasn’t interested in sex with anyone else. I… think I broke myself.” He’s never said the words aloud before, though he’s thought them often enough.

“No, I… Okay, wait, I gotta ask: where does Camilla fit into this?”

“I had sex with her once.” They’d made out a few times on her couch, and then one night she’d slid to the floor and unzipped his jeans. Her mouth on him had felt good, and he’d returned the favor, making her come with his tongue and his fingers. It had been nice enough, but nothing like his memories of sex with Kent, and not something he felt particularly compelled to do again. “I liked her, but I wasn’t as into it as she was, and… I dunno, it felt dishonest to keep having sex with her after that, so I didn’t.”

“Jack,” Shitty says, and sighs. “I think I owe you an apology.”

“No, you really don’t.”

“Brah, seriously. You’re like, demisexual or something, and I shoulda picked up on that a long time ago. I’ve been pretty fucking insensitive.”

“Demisexual,” Jack repeats, ignoring the rest of it for the moment.

“That a new one for you? It means you don’t experience sexual attraction the way most people do, and… okay, so like, the one guy, you were really close to him, right? Before you started fucking him, I mean.”

Jack blushes and nods. “Yeah, he was my best friend.”

Shitty’s mouth twitches in a small smile, and Jack’s sure Shitty knows they’re talking about Kent. “Other than that, who else have you had pants feelings for?”

Jack opens his mouth and closes it again, hesitating. “Uh…”

“I don’t need names, man. My point is, if you’re demisexual, you’ve probably only ever been sexually attracted to people you were really close to. Like, how often do you spot a random hottie on the street and fantasize about doing them in a bathroom?”

“People do that?”

“Chyeah.” Shitty grins.

Jack thinks about the ridiculous number of casual sexual encounters Whits has had in the last few months. Okay, maybe that’s not so far-fetched.

“So like, don’t worry about the label if that’s not your jam, but I’d put some serious Hamiltons on you being demisexual.”

Jack stares at the keyboard of his laptop, turning the word over in his mind. It hadn’t occurred to him that there might be a name for it. For years now, he’s thought he was broken, that his particular cocktail of anxiety and hockey-obsessiveness precluded everything else. But when he looks over the handful of people he’s had fleeting, terrifying feelings of attraction for, the list is short: Kent, Shitty, Bittle, and Whits. Shitty and Whits had been occasional subjects of fantasy, but he hadn’t felt this sort of steady desire to do anything about it with anyone other than Kent — and now Bittle. He’s been fond of Bittle for a long time, but in the last few months, those feelings have shifted into something much more prurient.

Maybe he isn’t broken after all.

“You look a little freaked, man. You okay?”

“Yeah, I… Yeah. Thanks, Shits.”

“Anytime, bro. Seriously, text me if you want to talk more. Until Lardo gets here, all I’ve got are property law textbooks to distract me from the Cruz versus Trump bullshit. Oh, hey — what time can we roll in on New Year’s Eve?”

Jack takes a deep breath and releases it, tries to hang with the shift in the conversation. “Whenever. We have games on the thirtieth and the second, but I’m off those two days between.”

“Sweet. And thanks for sharing, man. It means a lot.”

Jack manages to smile, though his head is still spinning. “Yeah, sure.”

After the call, he lies back on his bed with the laptop propped up on his stomach and does some googling. Everything he finds, from articles on HuffPo to the AVEN wiki, resonates. It’s all familiar, even comforting, and by the time he closes the laptop again, he feels lighter than he has in years.

Maybe he could actually do this — be a good partner for someone. The only person he can imagine having a relationship with is Bittle, and he imagines everything: living with him, sharing his life with him, having crazy-hot sex with him. He’s definitely thought about that last one a lot lately, so much that it’s sent him down a whirlpool of sexual frustration. That’s not something he’s felt in a long time, and it’s a feeling he associates with anxiety, with being close to the edge of losing control.

But maybe not. Maybe it’s actually something good. Maybe he could have that someday, if the stars align and he and Bittle are both at a point where…

He closes his eyes. For one thing, Bittle already has a boyfriend, and for another, all Jack has to offer anytime soon is a closeted long-distance relationship. Even if they were both on the same page, it would still be a terrible idea for so many reasons.

He takes a deep breath and tries to push the thought out of his mind. He can’t have this right now, and there’s no point in tormenting himself.

*****

“Morning.” Bittle smiles sleepily at him through the screen and curls back into his pillow, the laptop on the bed next to him.

Jack is still in bed too, propped up on pillows against the headboard. “Do you need to go back to sleep? We could talk later.”

“Nah, now is good. It’s gonna get crazy around here in half an hour. I’m just comfy.”

“You look it.” He looks soft and warm, and Jack wants to reach through the screen and ruffle his hair.

“You too,” Bittle says, staring back at him with wide brown eyes.

Jack runs his fingers over the rough stubble on his chin, then stretches. “Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah… Merry Christmas.” Bittle looks a little dazed. “Is it still warm there?”

“Yeah, and I hate it. It doesn’t feel like Christmas if I can wear shorts.”

“I know.” Bittle is quiet for a moment. “How are your parents?”

“Great. My mom cooked the white bean casserole you sent her the recipe for. It was really good.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one.” Bittle’s cheeks look pink in the soft light of his room. “It was really sweet of her to ask.”

“She adores you, you know. Shitty’s so jealous.”

Bittle laughs. “Shitty wants your dad to adopt him. He seems to think I’m competition.”

Jack has to bite his tongue to stop himself from saying that there is no competition as far as he’s concerned. “When do you get back to Samwell?”

“In just a few days. We have a home game on the thirtieth.”

“So do we, or otherwise I’d come up for it. I’m having a thing on New Year’s Eve, if you’re free. Shitty and Lardo are coming, and I’m hoping to invite some of the other Samwell guys and a few of my teammates.”

“Oh, yeah, that’d be fun.”

Jack hesitates half a second. “You can bring Kevin.”

Bittle shrugs. “I don’t think he’s planning to come back to campus until the weekend, but I’ll ask him.”

“Okay.” Jack exhales smoothly to cover the thrill of relief that he might not have to endure watching Bittle and his boyfriend together the entire evening. “So how has your Christmas been so far?”

Bittle talks about cousins and presents and all the food he’s made, along with the awkward comments he always has to endure from family members about his love life. “I did tell them I dated a few people off and on, but that it’s hard during hockey season. Played the pronoun game like a pro.”

“And no one noticed?”

“They were much more interested in telling me to keep my chin up, because there’s a girl out there for me and so on.” He rolls his eyes.

“My parents haven’t brought it up yet this visit, but I’m sure it’s coming.”

“Do they know you’re bi?”

Jack nods. “They knew about my first boyfriend, and they knew about Camilla. And they thought I was dating Whits for a while there.”

Bittle presses his lips together and looks away from the screen. “So… you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but—”

“It was Kent. I mean, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

Bittle looks at the camera, and it’s like he’s looking right into Jack’s eyes. “Yeah, but you’d never actually said it. Can I ask you about it?”

Jack sighs. “Maybe some other time? Right now I just…” want to be with you. He presses his lips together. “Hey, thanks for the box. I wasn’t actually out of pie from the last time, but we all really enjoyed it last night.”

“I’m glad it got there okay.” Bittle smiles. “I haven’t opened your present yet. It’s still under the tree.”

“Text me when you do.” Jack grins at him.

“Okay, now I’m nervous.”

Jack hears a clanking noise from the direction of his kitchen. “I think my parents are up. I should get going.”

“Me too. Merry Christmas, Jack.” His smile is so radiant that Jack feels his heart swell.

“Merry Christmas, Bittle.”

*****

Christmas feels like a blur after that. Whits’ parents and sister are in Providence for the holiday, and they come over for dinner that afternoon. Amanda is flustered by Bob for exactly five minutes, and then, just like her son, she’s as comfortable as if they’d been friends for years. She and Bob end up talking about 1980s hockey memories for a solid hour while Alex and Alicia team up against Jack and Blake in a game of 8-ball. Whits leans back against the couch and chirps them all relentlessly until Jack puts him on drink duty.

“You know,” Whits says half an hour later while Jack is opening a bottle of wine, “our parents are looking pretty friendly.”

Jack looks up from the corkscrew he’s struggling with — the bottle is old and the wet cork broke off in the neck — to see that Bob and Amanda are talking quietly on one of the couches while Alicia and Alex sit out on the balcony, enjoying the ridiculously warm weather. He shrugs. “Yeah, I guess.”

Whits frowns and lowers his voice to a whisper. “Your parents aren’t, like, swingers, are they?”

Jack turns to stare at him. “No. Are yours?”

“How should I know?”

Jack groans. “Could we not talk about our parents’ sex lives, for once?”

“Ew,” Blake says, appearing behind them suddenly. “What’s a swinger?”

“What you do on a playground,” Whits replies. Across the room, Amanda laughs at something Bob says and touches his arm. He smiles back at her, and Whits and Jack exchange a strained look.

“Oh my god.” They turn to see Blake frowning at her phone. “I didn’t know people did that!”

Whits makes a grab for her phone, but she tucks it into her pocket. He frowns at her. “You shouldn’t be looking at things like that.”

She rolls her eyes and lowers her voice to a whisper. “Jesus, Taylor. I’m not a kid. Hell, I’m not even a virgin anymore.”

“What?” He looks utterly horrified.

Blake tosses her hair over her shoulder. “I’ve been going out with Lucas since Homecoming. Did you honestly think—”

“Okay, you and I are going to have a talk, right now.” He takes her by the elbow and marches her down the hall towards the guest bedroom. She rolls her eyes, but goes without much of a fuss.

Jack stares after them for a moment, then goes back to digging the cork out of the bottle. He finally manages it, and pours glasses for everyone.

Ten minutes later, Whits and Blake reappear. Blake sits on the couch next to her mother and smiles sweetly at Jack before pulling out her phone and tapping rapidly at the screen. Whits, on the other hand, looks shell-shocked.

Jack follows him into the kitchen. “You all right?”

Whits opens the cabinet where he knows Jack keeps the wine glasses. “Not really.” He sighs and turns to look at Jack. “I can’t believe she’s having sex already.”

Jack pushes the open wine bottle toward him. “How old were you?”

“Sixteen, probably younger than her. I know I’m being a hypocrite, okay?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“And I also know I’m being stupid and sexist. I just…” He shrugs. “She’s almost grown up, and I missed it. I was busy playing hockey all through high school and college, and now I’m here. She was a little girl, like, yesterday, and now she’s on birth control.” He shakes his head. “Jesus, if I can’t handle this, how am I ever going to be a parent?”

Jack smiles at him. “You want kids?”

“Shyeah. Don’t you?”

Jack blinks and looks away.

“Shit, sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s a fair question.” Jack shrugs. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Well, it’s a long ways off, so it’s all pretty theoretical at this point.” He pours himself a glass of wine and looks out to where everyone else is sitting. “I can’t believe they’re letting her sleep with her boyfriend.”

“I guess it’s cool that she doesn’t have to sneak around.”

His “yeah” is more a sound of resignation than agreement.

Jack thinks about the awkward discussions Bob would have with him every time he came home during his years in Juniors, and the boxes of condoms he’d find shoved in his duffel when he got back to his billet family’s house again. No amount of him saying that he wasn’t having sex seemed to register. It wasn’t until later that he realized his father wasn’t being overzealous, but rather that most of the guys he played with were hooking up with girls on the regular. They constantly talked about girls, and what they liked to do with girls, and what girls had done to them. Jack had been astonished, because it hadn’t even occurred to him to think about anything other than hockey. And then he’d gotten worried, because he hadn’t ever thought about girls that way at all. Or boys, for that matter. He wasn’t even gay, he was just… nothing.

But then the thing with Parse had hit him like some sort of sexual hurricane, and Jack hadn’t known whether to be terrified or relieved that sex and relationships might be a thing in his life after all.

Blake pops back into the kitchen then and badgers Whits into slipping her a glass of wine. He gives in after a few minutes and pours her some, then clinks their glasses together. She smiles at him, and he shakes his head.

“You know I love you, Squirt.”

“I know.” She beams at him, then swirls her wine glass and lifts it to her nose like a sommelier before taking a measured sip.

Whits’ jaw clenches, and Jack steps in to change the subject to Blake’s plans for college before Whits has a chance to freak out on her again.

To Whits’ visible relief, his parents part ways from the Zimmermanns at the end of the night. There’s a game the next day and they’ll all be sitting together. Jack’s already looking forward to chirping Whits about his mom’s obvious crush on Bob, but mostly he’s looking forward to Whits playing on his line again, for the first time in weeks.

He settles on the couch with his parents for their annual viewing of White Christmas, and checks his phone for text messages.

OH MY GOD
Why did you not warn me to open that one ALONE?
I HATE YOU

Jack grins at the phone. It’s just the team charity calendar.

Bittle’s response is immediate.

Just???
Full of ridiculously good-looking and well-dressed hockey players?
My face was like [wide-eyed emoji]
YOU ARE RUDE
What the hell were you wearing in that one shot?
And you HAVE to know what that one of you and Whits looks like.
I srsly had to rip it out of Moomaw’s hands. She was making INAPPROPRIATE NOISES

“What are you grinning about over there?” his mom asks.

“Just texting with Bittle.” He looks up to see her smiling warmly at him.

“Tell him hi.” She winks, then snuggles more deeply into Bob’s shoulder before turning to the television again.

Jack watches them both until his phone buzzes with even more chirping from Bittle about the Lego minifigures of himself and Whits he’d included in the package. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing old standards in the background, and Jack feels more content than he has in a long time.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack’s phone has three new text messages from Shitty when he gets out of the shower.

Brooooooo we’re on the way
Got our asses up EARLY AF
Got a surprise for you [winky emoji]

Jack smiles at the phone. He wasn’t expecting Shitty and Lardo until the afternoon, so he’s excited about the prospect of getting to spend the day with them.

Shitty texts him when they arrive, and Jack buzzes them into the parking garage. When the doorbell sounds a few minutes later, Jack sprints to the door and opens it, then freezes in place: Bittle is standing between Shitty and Lardo. Jack’s pretty sure there are actual butterflies in his stomach, all taking off at once.

“Hey,” Bittle says, smiling almost shyly.

“Hey.” Jack is sure everyone can hear the pounding of his heart, but he powers on anyway. “I thought you were coming with Ransom and Holster tonight.”

Bittle shrugs. “I was gonna bake today, but these two kidnapped me.”

“You can bake anytime, bro.” Shitty says. “You don’t get to hang out with your favorite NHL star every day.”

“I guess not.” Bittle bites his lip and smiles, and it’s so adorable Jack can barely stand it. They stare at each other awkwardly for a few interminable seconds.

“Fuck’s sake,” Lardo says with a groan, and gives Bittle a shove towards Jack. “It’s just Jack. Get in there.”

The weird tension finally snaps when Bittle collides with Jack’s chest. He buries his face in Jack’s shoulder, and Jack pulls him in tight and exhales in relief. Shitty and Lardo slide through the door past them.

“Congrats on the win last night.” Shitty has a backpack on each shoulder; one of them Jack recognizes as Bittle’s. “Forty points in forty games, bro. Sick as fuck.”

“We’re crazy proud of you, man.” Lardo beams at him. “It’s like a club record for a rookie, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Jack ducks his head, glad that the change of subject can be blamed for the warmth in his cheeks.

Bittle shifts to his side, keeping one arm around Jack’s waist, and smiles up at him. “I hope it’s okay that I tagged along?”

“Of course.” Jack squeezes his shoulders. “I mean, these two are okay, I guess, but—”

“Hey!” Lardo gives Bittle a shove. “Dude, your turn is up. Let somebody else get in there.”

“No,” Bittle says, and turns his face into Jack’s shoulder. “He owes me.”

“I owe you?” Jack pulls him in tight, though, and grins over his head at Lardo. She winks at him, and the corners of her lips quirk into a sly smile.

They go to lunch at a cafe along the waterfront, a place that’s become a favorite of Jack’s. Almost two hours later, they’re lingering over dessert and coffee, and talking about everything from their common friends to the circus of the American presidential race. It’s not like they haven’t done this dozens of times before, hanging out in the Haus kitchen or in Jack’s or Shitty’s room, but this time, it feels different. It’s like they’re real grownups now, out in the world and living their lives, rather than waiting for them to begin.

More than that, though, is the way it feels like a double date, with Shitty and Lardo on one side of the table and Jack and Bittle on the other. Jack’s arm found its way around the back of Bittle’s chair at one point, and he hasn’t bothered to move it. His fingers brush against Bittle’s shoulder every now and then, and he’s pretty sure Bittle has been inching his chair closer over the last half-hour. Their knees bump under the table a handful of times before they both give up and press them together instead. It’s warm and easy, and Jack can almost pretend it’s real.

But it isn’t, of course. Even with all of this comfortable affection between them, there’s still Kevin — to whom Jack has already been an asshole. Bittle hasn’t mentioned him once, though, and Jack’s curiosity eats at him until he can’t stand it anymore.

“So Kevin couldn’t make it back in time to come with you tonight?”

“He’s not coming back until Saturday.” Bittle picks up his coffee cup and takes a sip. “His parents are bringing him down, and I think we’re all going out to dinner that night.”

“Meeting the parents?” Shitty raises his eyebrows. “Bro, that’s like, a thing.”

“I know. But it’s gonna be weird.” Bittle makes a pained face. “We got in this stupid argument a couple of days ago and we haven’t really talked since.”

“Ooooh, deets,” Lardo says. “Is it the same shit as before?”

The spark of hope that had risen in Jack’s chest is instantly quelled by the realization that he knows next to nothing about Bittle’s personal life. They’ve been talking a little more in the last week, but they’re nowhere near as close as they were before Thanksgiving. Jack isn’t sure what to make of that.

“Yeah, basically.” Bittle sighs. “He wants me to spend all of my free time hanging out with him. It’s kind of annoying.”

“Huh.” Jack’s not an expert, but he’s pretty sure that’s what couples usually do.

“We had this huge fight during finals week. He wanted me to come study with him at the library, but I wanted to study at the Haus so I could do some baking too. He wouldn’t let it go and made it sound like I was choosing baking over him.”

“You choose baking over a lot of things,” Shitty points out.

Lardo shoots him a look. “He did come hang out at one point, though.”

“And he whined constantly about how I would take a break to bake a pie but not to make out with him.”

Jack thinks about watching Bittle working in his own kitchen, and imagines wrapping his arms around Bittle from behind, kissing the back of his neck, and doing other things to distract him thoroughly. He smirks. “He wasn’t trying hard enough, then.”

Everyone turns to stare at him.

“What?” Jack asks. “It’s not like baking and making out have to be mutually exclusive.”

Shitty laughs, shaking his head. Bittle laughs too, grinning into his coffee, and Lardo grins at Jack.

“If you say so,” Bittle says. His cheeks are pink, and Jack’s stomach swoops for an entirely different reason.

*****

“Yooooooooo!!!” Holster wraps Jack up in a hug the moment he steps through the door, then steps back to look over him. “Bro, you look kind of lean. Do I really need to make a protein joke here?”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Nice to see you too.” It’s true, though: the pace of playing in the NHL has been an adjustment, and he’s had trouble keeping weight on the last few months. Maybe he should eat more of Bittle’s pies after all.

Ransom is next, followed by Dex and Nurse, who pounce on Jack as a single unit.

“Where’s Chowder?” Jack asks when he can breathe again.

“Ditched us at the last minute,” Dex says.

“It’s his one year anniversary with Farmer,” Bittle tells Jack later. “I think he had better things to do tonight than hang out with us.”

“Couples tend to do that.” Jack raises his eyebrows at Bittle, who frowns and looks away. Jack sighs and touches his shoulder. “Sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No, you did.” Bittle’s expression is tight. “And you’re not wrong. I just don’t want to talk about it tonight, okay?”

“Okay.” Jack gives his shoulder a squeeze and watches him a moment more before turning away. He knows it’s kind of gross to hope Bittle and Kevin are having problems, but he also knows he’s not above being a dick about it. It’s best if he keeps his opinions to himself from here on out.

More people arrive: Kratz, Rolly, and Janssen with their wives, Sandy with his girlfriend, and Treat and Whits solo. Jack’s apartment has never been so full of people. It’s strange to see it like this, considering how much time he spends here lounging around half-naked, alone, and quiet. It’s anything but quiet now, and it’s nearly overwhelming. He warned and/or bribed all of his neighbors, though, so he’s cautiously optimistic that no one will call the police. There’s plenty to eat — Bittle got them all involved in food prep that afternoon, resulting in a ridiculous spread on the dining room table — and enough alcohol to rival a Haus party.

Not that Jack is planning on drinking much tonight: he doesn’t trust himself not to do something stupid where Bittle is concerned. He keeps his distance from Bittle for most of the night, moving from group to group, and taking the occasional break to his bedroom when the crowd gets to be too much. He’s grateful that everyone knows him well enough that no one says anything about it when he reappears again.

Bittle can hold his alcohol, but he’s definitely swaying on his feet by the time 11:00 rolls around. He’s is in the middle of an animated conversation with Rolly’s wife, Carrie when Jack spots him. She’s sitting at the bar, one hand absently running over her pregnant belly, and she flashes Jack a grin when he steps in behind Bittle.

Bittle groans when Jack puts a glass of water in his hand. “Lord, Jack — it’s New Year’s Eve.”

“And there’s one more hour to midnight,” Jack says. “You might want to remember it.”

“M’not that drunk.” Bittle tries to hop up on the other barstool and misses; Jack catches him under the arms just in time and gets sloshed with water in the process.

“You sure?”

Bittle tilts his head back to look up at Jack. “I’ve been waaaay drunker.”

“That’s not the point.”

Bittle gives him a look that clearly says fine. He pushes to his feet and drinks what’s left of the water.

Carrie laughs. “I had no idea you were such a mother hen, Jack.”

“He’s not,” Rolly says, appearing at Carrie’s side. He slides an arm around her and smiles at Jack. “I wasn’t actually sure he was human for a while there.”

“Yeah, he seems like a hockey robot ‘til you get to know him.” Bittle grins at him. “And then you realize he’s just a big awkward dork.”

Jack puts a hand over his chest, mock hurt. “I thought we were friends, Bittle.”

“It’s part of your charm, Zimms.” Rolly grins at him. “You’re like our very own Sidney Crosby.”

Bittle laughs and looks up at him, his expression warm and fond. “He really is.”

There is a spark of something almost like heat in his eyes then, so much like an invitation that Jack forces himself to look away. Bittle is drunk and also not available, and no matter how much he wants to, Jack is not going to be that guy. He reaches across the counter for his own drink and looks over at Rolly. “Can I get you anything?”

Rolly and Carrie shake their heads, and Jack excuses himself to go get some fresh air. The air on the balcony isn’t all that fresh, though: Shitty is sitting out there with Whits and Treat, and the three of them are passing a joint around.

“Nah, Harvard kinda sucks, man,” Shitty says. “Too fuckin’ many rich white dudes who know fuck-all about how their own privilege has fueled their success.”

“So wait,” Whits says, pausing to exhale a stream of smoke above his head. “Doesn’t that, like, include you?”

“Fuck yeah, it includes me.” Shitty takes the joint from his fingers. “Why do you think I went to Samwell for undergrad? Fuckin’ baller gender studies program, queer-friendly campus, one of the most liberal towns in Mass — which is saying something.”

“And damn good hockey,” Jack adds, smiling at him.

“Fuck, yeah,” Shitty says, holding out his fist to Jack. “I flipped my shit when I found out Jack fuckin’ Zimmerman was gonna be there. Bro, you remember the first time we met?”

Jack snorts. “Yeah.”

Shitty leans back and grins. “Our dorm rooms were across the hall from each other, and I decided to introduce myself the night before our first practice. So I like, knock on the door—”

“No, wait,” Jack says, holding up a hand. “You’re leaving out the part where you were wearing nothing but Wonder Woman underwear — women’s underwear, I think — and holding a bong in one hand and a bag of Doritos in the other.”

“Ruin the whole fuckin’ story, bro!” Shitty swats at him. “But yeah, that’s true. And I’m like, ‘Yo, I’m Shitty and I play right wing,’ and swear to god, Jack here goes fuckin’ pale. Like he’s gonna hurl or faint or some shit like that.”

Whits and Treat laugh so hard they nearly fall out of their chairs.

“And he just barreled into my room and sat on my bed and lit the bong,” Jack says, shaking his head. “All I could think was that I’d made a huge mistake coming to Samwell, and that my hockey career was going to end right there.”

“He didn’t kick me out, though. We ended up talking for hours. I was so fuckin’ stoned.” Shitty squints at him. “Did I offer to suck your dick that night?”

“Yes.” Jack winces at the memory, and Whits and Treat crack up laughing all over again. “How did we ever become friends?”

“Fuckin’ destiny, brah. That and you didn’t have a choice. I was the only person on the team who would sit next to you on the bus.”

Jack sighs. “I was kind of an asshole that first year.”

“Yeah, but you slayed on the ice, man. They all had to respect that.” Shitty clasps Jack’s arm and squeezes. “Best years I ever played, bro. It was an honor.”

“Thanks, Shits.” Shitty looks a little watery at that, and Jack looks away. “Where’s Lardo?”

“Probs teaching the boys a thing or two.” Shitty lifts the joint to his lips.

Jack finds Lardo with Kratz’s wife (Sara) and Sandy’s girlfriend (Ingrid). Their heads are bent together in a way that makes Jack think they’re plotting something, so he leaves them to it. There is a roar of laughter from the living room, where Ransom and Holster are telling a story. Jack briefly considers joining in, but there isn’t anywhere to sit, so he’d have to awkwardly hang back and pretend like he’d followed the whole time and… The flare of anxiety in his chest turns him toward the kitchen instead. There’s plenty to do, anyway: more food to set out, an ice bucket to be refilled, and a mess to clean up where people have been making drinks.

He’s wiping down the countertops for the second time when Bittle finds him. “Jack, stop. People are gonna think you’re not having fun at your own party.” He points Jack toward the nearest bar stool. “Sit. I’m getting you a drink.”

Jack sighs and goes to sit. There is another round of raucous laughter from the large group surrounding Ransom and Holster. Rolly is laughing so hard he’s wiping his eyes. Jack hopes to hell the story doesn’t involve him.

Bittle brings him a glass of wine and leans against the bar beside him. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” Jack picks up the glass and nods in thanks. “Everyone seems to be having a good time.”

Bittle gives him a look that suggests he isn’t getting off that easily. “Yeah, but… are you?”

Jack nods, looking out across the room. He can’t really explain why he’s been so on edge tonight. Almost every person he calls a friend is in his apartment right now, all of them drinking and laughing and talking. The fact that he can so easily disappear unnoticed is both a relief and a disappointment.

“Hey,” Bittle says, and Jack turns to look at him. Bittle’s eyes are warm, and Jack loses himself in them for a moment. “I’m proud of you, okay?”

“Thanks.” Jack blinks. “Ah, what for?”

Bittle laughs. “I’ll tell you later. It’ll be easier to talk tomorrow.”

“Five minutes to midnight!” someone shouts, and everyone cheers.

Bittle nudges Jack with an elbow. “Ten bucks says Ransom and Holster kiss at midnight.”

“Seriously?” Jack grins. “Okay, you’re on.”

Everyone gets to their feet and gathers in the center of the room, excitement building for midnight. The television has been playing the live feed from Times Square all night, and someone unmutes the volume. Whits, Shitty and Treat stumble in from the balcony, laughing. Shitty makes a beeline for Lardo and kisses her. Whits stares at them for a moment before crossing the room to stand in front of Jack.

“What?” Jack asks.

“You’re kissing me at midnight,” Whits says, like it’s already settled.

Jack rolls his eyes. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious! You have to kiss someone at midnight on New Year’s, for luck.” He pouts at Jack. It’s weirdly charming.

“Maybe you do,” Jack tells him, leaning back against the bar. Bittle snorts beside him, apparently in agreement.

“Somebody has to fuckin’ kiss me!” This earns a round of laughter from the room. Whits turns to look at Treat, who immediately takes a step backward.

“No fuckin’ way, bro. No offense, but I do not swing that way at all.”

There is another round of laughter, and Whits turns back to Jack.

Zimms. You’re my only hope.”

“No.” Jack laughs and shakes his head.

Whits takes a step closer, his smile suddenly sly. “Come on, it’s not like you haven’t kissed me before.”

“Wait, what?” Janssen says, suddenly standing behind Whits.

Jack looks up to see Rolly and Janssen gaping at him, their expressions a blend of shock and delight.

“Whoa, whoa, hang on.” Rolly lowers his voice to a whisper. “Did you two hook up? Cuz you told me—”

“No!” Jack shoots a warning look at Whits, but he’s already turning to grin at Rolly.

“Nah, we just made out once when we were drunk, that’s it.”

“Holy shit.” Rolly punches Whits lightly on the shoulder. “When did this happen?”

“A while back. Not gonna lie, it was pretty hot.”

“Shut up, Whits,” Jack groans. Rolly and Janssen know he’s not straight, but that doesn’t mean he wants everyone to know the details. Especially not…

Jack’s stomach plummets. He turns to Bittle, afraid of what he’s going to see.

Bittle’s expression is carefully blank. He looks away from Jack, his jaw clenching.

“So whatta ya say, Zimms?” Whits looks utterly delighted with himself.

“God, no. Once was enough.” Jack manages to make it sound like a chirp, but just barely.

“Fine, be that way.”

“One minute!” someone shouts, and everyone buzzes.

Jack takes a deep breath and releases it slowly. He’s going to kill Whits tomorrow.

Whits’ gaze shifts to Bittle then. “So Eric—”

“Oh god,” Bittle says.

Whits slides over to him and drapes one arm over his shoulder. “C’mon. Kiss me at midnight.”

“I’m what, your fifth choice?” Bittle asks flatly.

“No, not even. Second, maybe.” He leans in and whispers something Jack can’t make out.

Bittle rolls his eyes and glances over at Jack. He looks mildly annoyed for a moment, but then Whits says something else, one hand curling around the back of Bittle’s neck, and Bittle huffs out a laugh. “Okay, fine, just… ugh, you’re such a pest.”

“I really am,” Whits says, grinning. He winks at Jack. “You’re off the hook, bro.”

Jack’s mouth falls open, but Bittle steps forward and wraps his arms around Whits’ shoulders. They look at each other for a few seconds, trying to keep their expressions neutral, and then burst out laughing.

“This is ridiculous,” Bittle says, grinning now.

“Shut up; it’s for luck. If you laugh, you’ll ruin it.”

“Then don’t make me laugh.”

“Okay.” Whits sets his drink on the bar next to Jack and pulls Bittle in close with hands on his waist. His smile changes then to one that’s all too familiar: Jack’s seen it directed at guys Whits wants to pick up, more times than he can count. There are twenty seconds to midnight, and all Jack can do is stand there and watch while Whits gazes at Bittle like he wants to fuck him up against the kitchen counter. Worse, Bittle’s staring back at him like he might be amenable to the idea.

The seconds tick by incredibly slowly. Jack is vaguely aware of everyone counting down around him, but he can’t look away from Bittle and Whits. Then it’s three, two, and one, and everyone cheers. Whits leans forward and presses his mouth against Bittle’s.

Everything else becomes a dull roar. Bittle’s eyes close and he tilts his face up, and Jack can see the moment the kiss deepens. The whole room fades into a swirl of light and sound and color, and the only thing in sharp focus is the way Whits and Bittle are falling into each other.

A round of whoops and whistles shakes Jack back into awareness — people around him are watching, cheering this kiss on. Jack wants to turn away, to put as much distance as he can between himself and this, but he’d just draw more attention to his pathetic crush if he did. He just has to stand here and take it, so he tries to look amused and forces himself to laugh along with the others. It’s just a kiss — more of a stunt, really. Even though there’s clearly a lot of tongue involved, it doesn’t mean anything.

Bittle and Whits finally break apart and look around them in surprise, as if they’d forgotten where they were. They stare at each other for a moment, then grin like they’re both in on the same joke. Whits leans in to kiss him again, and Bittle laughs against his lips before winding his arms more tightly around Whits’ shoulders and kissing him back.

“Get a room!” Treat yells, and everyone laughs.

Jack’s stomach sinks.

There is more celebration all around, but Jack’s ears are ringing. He can’t watch any more of this, can’t bear to see the way his two best friends are so into each other.

He takes one step backward and another, then slips away, down the hall to his bedroom, where he presses his forehead against the closed door and breathes deeply for several minutes. He’s not going to freak out about this. It doesn’t mean anything. He’s just paranoid and jealous and so ridiculously gone on Bittle that he can barely look at him without feeling flayed open.

He finally returns to the kitchen and straightens up, finds ways to keep his hands and his mind busy. He refills drinks and reorganizes the food, and carefully avoids the worried looks Shitty and Lardo keep giving him. Ten minutes later, everyone is settling down again, breaking into groups to continue earlier conversations. Rolly and Janssen and their wives head out — they have babysitters at home waiting — and the party starts to quiet down. It’s only then that Jack realizes Bittle and Whits are nowhere to be seen. He does a round of his apartment, looking out on the balcony and in the guest bedroom and even the bathroom, but they aren’t there.

There’s only one place he can imagine they would’ve gone: four floors down to Whits’ apartment.

He makes his way back to his bedroom and closes the door. He slides down the back of it, eyes closed, and drops his head between his knees.

There were so many moments today when Jack could have said something. He’d wanted to, but he didn’t, because as much as he knows how he feels about Bittle, he also knows that asking Bittle to choose between him and Kevin isn’t what he wants to do. He doesn’t want to give Bittle a reason to resent him later, not when he knows it would be difficult for them anyway. He’d told himself he could wait until Bittle was ready.

Apparently Bittle was ready.

Jack presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. For a moment, he considers going downstairs and knocking on Whits’ door. He has a key, even — he could just go in and… and what? Whits and Bittle are both adults. Even though they’d both been drinking, whatever they’re doing right now, they’re both willing participants. And if Jack is honest with himself, he knows this has been coming for a while. He hasn’t missed the way they’ve looked at each other, since the moment they met. Hell, maybe they’ve been flirting with each other behind Jack’s back all this time. It’s not like Jack knows much about Bittle’s life of late. All he gets are the crumbs Bittle throws him. That’s probably all he’s ever going to get, and now…

What if this isn’t just a hookup? What if Bittle and Whits actually start dating and Jack has to endure the two of them talking about each other, to him? He imagines himself having to listen to Skype conversations while rooming with Whits on the road, imagines Bittle coming to Providence to visit Whits instead of him, imagines the three of them hanging out with Jack as the miserable, jealous third wheel. He feels like he might throw up.

He’s shaking now, spiraling down, his heart pounding. He takes long, deep breaths, and empties his mind, but it’s not helping. He’s had too much alcohol, so he can’t take anything for this. He’s just going to have to deal with it.

He sits on the floor for what feels like hours, the din of the party ebbing and flowing in the rooms beyond. His body finally starts to calm, enough that he can get up and stagger to the bathroom to splash water on his face. He looks like a wreck. He can’t go back out there now; everyone will know he’s upset and they’ll put two and two together, and that’s just… no, that would be even worse.

He curls up on his bed fully clothed and turns out the light. He’ll just lie here for a while. The party will go on without him, and everyone will have fun. He’ll go back in a bit, when he’s ready. He closes his eyes.

*****

The house is quiet when he wakes up. Sunlight is streaming in through the windows, making him squint miserably. He fell asleep in his clothes and forgot to brush his teeth, and his eyes are achy and dry. Worse, the image of Bittle and Whits kissing each other at midnight is right there, in the front of his mind.

Well, shit. Happy fucking New Year.

He brushes his teeth and doesn’t bother shaving. He dresses in something casual and comfy and heads to the kitchen to survey the damage.

It’s not as bad as he’d imagined it might be, but there’s still a mess. He starts a cup of coffee for himself and crosses to the living room to see if there are any stray bottles or glasses to pick up. What he finds instead is Bittle wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, his face pressed into a pillow, sound asleep. Jack has no idea what it means that Bittle slept on his couch instead of in Whits’ bed, but he doesn’t have the bandwidth to think about it. He’s already squashed everything Bittle-related down into a box and locked it up tight, and he’s not going there again anytime soon.

He can’t just stand here and watch Bittle sleep, and the idea of being here when he wakes up, with the weight of what happened last night still between them — no, not now. They’ll have time to get through the awkward details later, when Shitty and Lardo leave. Jack’s not sure he can bear the idea of spending an evening with just Bittle and Whits, knowing they hooked up the night before, but he’s going to have to find a way to do it.

In the meantime, he needs to get out of here for a little while. He goes back to his bedroom, changes into his running gear, and heads out.

Everyone is up by the time he gets back. They’re sitting at the kitchen bar, bleary-eyed, clutching cups of coffee and eating toast. Bittle looks particularly green, and a small, ugly part of Jack wants to say good. He doesn’t say a word to any of them, though; he goes to take a long, hot shower and clear his head as best he can.

“Happy New Year,” he says with forced brightness when he emerges again. He crosses to the balcony doors and opens the shades, letting the late-morning light stream in.

They all groan in unison. It’s moments like these that Jack is really glad his days of getting schwasted are behind him.

“Bro,” Shitty says, rubbing a hand over his forehead. “Don’t be a dick.”

“It’s not my fault you’re all hung over this morning.” Jack opens the refrigerator and digs through the leftovers for a protein shake.

“You’re don’t have to sound so happy about it,” Bittle says, pressing his forehead against the counter.

“Who said I was happy,” Jack mutters. He unloads the dishwasher, not bothering to be quiet about it, and eventually the three of them migrate over to the couch.

Jack knows he’s being a jerk, but he can’t really bring himself to care. He wishes he could ask them to leave so he could wallow in self-pity for the rest of the day, but none of them are in any shape to drive. He’s not so awful a host that he’d just go out and leave them alone, though it’s tempting. There are just a couple of hours before the Winter Classic starts, though, so he parks the TV on the pre-game and heads back to his bedroom to watch game video for their home-and-away against the Flyers this weekend.

When he comes out again, Whits has joined the group, sitting next to Bittle. They aren’t snuggled up together, but there isn’t much space between them either. Jack clenches his jaw and takes a slow, calming breath before crossing over.

“Should I order pizza?”

They all groan and make faces. Jack orders it anyway.

He ends up sitting with Shitty and Lardo during the game, and does his best not to look at Whits and Bittle at all. Everyone leaves him alone to stew in silence — they all know from experience that it’s the only thing they can really do.

When it’s clear that the Bruins are going to get their asses handed to them, Shitty leans forward on his elbows. “Bits, Lardo — you want to head out? I have a study group tonight.”

“I thought you were gonna blow that off,” Lardo says, and looks over at him. Jack can’t see Shitty’s face, but something in his expression makes Lardo’s eyebrows go up. She shrugs. “Yeah, okay. Bits, you riding with us?”

Bittle hesitates for a moment before saying, “Yeah.”

Jack stares straight at the TV and doesn’t let himself react. The original plan had been for Bittle to stay tonight too. Jack was going to take him back to Samwell in the morning. Any hope he’d been holding about having a chance to talk to Bittle alone slips quietly away.

Bittle sighs and pushes to his feet, and heads toward the guest bedroom. Lardo and Shitty follow him.

“Habs look good,” Whits says a minute later.

“Yeah.” Jack doesn’t look at him.

Whits makes a few other non-specific comments about the game, to which Jack responds with noncommittal shrugs. Whits finally gives up, and they sit in silence until the others emerge from the bedroom with their bags.

“Thanks, brother,” Shitty says, leaning over the couch to smile softly at Jack. “It was a trip.”

Jack isn’t so much of an asshole that he doesn’t get up to walk them out, but it’s a close thing. He gives Lardo a hug and then steps back, hands shoved awkwardly in his pockets.

Bittle blinks at him for a few seconds, then looks away. “Bye, Jack.”

“Drive safely,” Jack says.

“I’ll walk y’all out,” Whits says, giving Jack a sideways glance. He slides an arm around Bittle’s shoulders and steers him out the door.

Jack looks away, his stomach twisting. He can’t bear another moment of this, but he doesn’t want to watch them all walk away either. It’s awful, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to throw up the moment the door closes behind them.

Lardo is the last one out. She hesitates in the doorway, like she’s going to say something. Jack shakes his head slightly and then can’t keep up the pretense anymore. He presses his lips together and looks away, feeling emotion flood his chest. He’s angry and hurt and jealous, and he’s sure it’s written all over his face.

“I’ll text you later,” Lardo says at last.

Jack nods and keeps his gaze on the floor. If he so much as looks at another person right now, he’s going to lose it.

He turns the deadbolt after she goes, and gets back into bed. He hears a knock a few minutes later, but he ignores it. His phone lights up with a text from Whits, but he doesn’t read it. He puts his phone in do not disturb mode, then curls into himself and closes his eyes.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack pushes away everything that isn’t hockey.

Nothing else gets in; nothing else matters. He eats, sleeps, and breathes it, and when he sleeps, he’s so exhausted that he barely even dreams. It’s not a joke that he becomes a machine on the ice.

And the thing is, it works. He sublimates everything, channels it all into practice, working out, drills, and production. He doesn’t smile, or laugh, or say more words than necessary to get through the next practice or the next game. He executes plays, he shoots the puck, he hits hard, and pulls his team along on back-to-back wins against the Flyers almost by sheer will. His teammates know something is wrong, but they seem not to want to mess with the results, so they say nothing. They chirp him mildly about being a robot, call him a beast, but they keep their distance otherwise.

On the first two mornings, Whits is waiting by Jack’s truck when he comes downstairs. Jack doesn’t say anything, barely even smiles as he unlocks the doors. Whits chatters at Jack during the drives to and from the arena like nothing has changed between them. Jack shrugs and offers single-word responses, and mostly doesn’t listen.

On the third morning, Whits isn’t waiting by the truck.

Bittle texts him a string of exclamation points after each game. Jack replies Thanks.

Whits tries to get him to go out for a drink to celebrate after the second win, and when Jack declines, he knocks on the door with a six-pack of beer and a hopeful smile. Jack doesn’t say no, so they talk about hockey and Whits gives him shit about the sheer number of points he’s accumulating. Neither of them mentions Bittle. Whits hugs him tightly before he leaves, and Jack lets him, but he doesn’t hug him back.

They go to New York and win against the Islanders, then go to Boston two days later and beat the Bruins. Jack’s heartbreak and misery power a five-game win streak, along with a point streak for himself. He makes his 50th point on an assist in Boston, but when his teammates crowd around him to congratulate him, he barely cracks a smile.

His mother calls him that night, worried. He tells her he’s tired. She doesn’t believe him, but she doesn’t press it either.

Bittle texts Congratulations!, and Jack texts back Thanks. His thumbs hover over the keyboard for a few more seconds, his mind spinning out all the things he wants to say. He turns the phone off, though, and puts it away, and pushes everything that isn’t hockey out of his mind.

They fly to Denver for the first of two regular season games against the Avs. Most of the guys spend the plane ride making jokes about legal weed and wishing they had time to go skiing. Whits is uncharacteristically quiet, though, so much that Jack wonders if something happened between him and Bittle. He hasn’t asked what their deal is, but he figures he’ll find out at some point. Maybe by then it won’t feel so much like he’s being stabbed in the gut.

They have an hour of ice time at the Pepsi Center, during which they run some drills and try to adjust to the altitude. Whits is even quieter, and has his phone in his hand again the moment they get off the ice.

“Oooh, texting a special someone?” Rolly asks him when they file onto the bus.

Whits flinches and says, “Yeah, right,” and tucks the phone in his pocket. It buzzes half a dozen more times during the ride to the hotel, but he ignores it.

“I’m gonna go get some lunch,” Whits says after they check in. “You wanna come with?” He smiles hopefully.

Jack hesitates: he hasn’t spent much time with Whits since New Year’s, and even though he knows he should say yes, he’s not really up for it. “I think I’m gonna do room service and take a nap.”

Whits looks disappointed, but he nods and heads out. Jack orders lunch and settles into his gameday routine, and it’s easy not to think about Whits and Bittle at all.

*****

Kratz pulls Jack aside when they get out of strategy. “Look, I’ve been staying out of this shit, but it’s getting weird. What the fuck is up with you two?”

Jack can’t pretend he doesn’t know what Kratz is talking about. “Mine is personal and I’m dealing with it. I have no idea what’s up with Whits.”

“At least you don’t let it affect your game.” Kratz looks over to where Whits is staring down at the screen of his phone. “If there’s anything I need to know—”

“Nothing I know about,” Jack says, with complete honesty. “You should ask him.”

Kratz nods and slaps Jack on the shoulder before walking away.

*****

Whits leaves his phone face-up on the bench while he pulls his pads on. Jack doesn’t mean to be nosy, but he can’t help looking down when the screen lights up with a new text.

Eric: Good luck tonight!

Jack looks away again. Bittle used to text him before games like that, and after. Sometimes he’d get texts during intermission, when Bittle knew he was in the locker room. That hasn’t really happened since before Thanksgiving, though. In fact, he’s only heard from Bittle a few times in the last week.

Whits picks up the phone and smiles at the screen, then taps out a reply before tucking the phone into his bag.

Jack inhales, exhales again, and tries to let his jealousy go. If they’re dating, he has to find a way to accept it. It’s either that or not be friends with them. Despite the pain he feels at the thought of having to see them together, the idea of not having either of them in his life is worse.

“Hey,” Jack says when they’re about to step out on the ice. Whits turns to look at him, surprised, and Jack manages a small smile. “Let’s light it up, yeah?”

Whits almost smiles back. He holds out his gloved hand for a fist bump. “Yeah, okay.”

The Avs have a three-game winning streak going, and they’re clearly not planning to lie back and give one up on their home ice. It’s a tough first period, and they’re still locked up 0-0 by the end. The coaches talk strategy in the locker room at intermission and they come out with a new plan: force turnovers, even if it means drawing penalties, and take better advantage of their opponents’ loose defense.

It pays off two minutes in when Jack intercepts the puck in front of the Falcs’ net and knocks it out to center ice. Rolly gets it and the whole line wheels down to the other end right behind him. Rolly drops it back for Whits, who passes to Jack, who sends it over to Kratz to complete the tic-tac-toe. Kratz shoots it so high it nicks the crossbar, but it goes in. The Falcs have a good win record in games when they score first, so everyone is recharged by the goal. It gets even better when Jack scores on the power play four minutes later. Whits actually jumps onto him in celebration, almost knocking them both over. It’s enough to get Jack smiling on the ice for the first time in a week. The Avs score one not long after, but the Falcs hang onto their lead into the second intermission.

The Avs come out blazing in the third; their new plan seems to be to shut Jack down every chance they get. He’s got two men on him every time he gets near the puck, and they do a solid job of blocking all of his shot lanes. He has little choice but to pass the puck on as quickly as he can and try not to turn it over.

One of the D-men, a tall Swede named Anderberg, is practically glued to Jack’s side. By the second shift, Jack is annoyed enough to give him a hard shove when the ref isn’t looking. That starts it, and Anderberg takes it as an invitation to ramp shit up. He knocks Jack hard into the boards right after Jack passes to Whits, and then leans against him, pinning him there.

“So you’re Whitton’s new boyfriend.” He smirks darkly and skates away.

Jack clenches his jaw: he hasn’t gotten this shit in weeks. Or if he has, he’d barely noticed, but he’s damn sure not in the mood for it tonight. He scrambles for the crease and tries to stay open for a pass, but Anderberg stays on top of him. He shoves Jack from behind, jamming his stick right up against Jack’s and trapping it between them.

“Fucking—” Jack mutters under his breath, and pushes back, finally maneuvering away enough to get his stick free. Whits fires a shot, but it goes wide. Kratz is after it, and Jack backs off the goal, holding the center. Kratz wheels it around and passes it to Jack, and he shoots — right into Berra’s pads. It bounces back and there’s a scrum for it. Anderberg tries to knock it away, but Jack gets his stick back on it again. He shoots one more time, but Berra makes the save, then covers it up before anyone else can get to it. The ref blows the whistle, and then Anderberg shoves Jack hard from behind. Jack reaches back for a handful of sweater and and manages to take Anderberg down with him, ending up flat on his stomach with Anderberg sprawled on top of him.

“Does he fuck you like this?” Anderberg says, his mouth right next to Jack’s ear.

“Fuck off,” Jack spits.

Anderberg has the weight advantage, though, and he presses down harder. “Yeah, I bet you like it rough.”

Jack arches up and rolls, and Anderberg scrambles back. Jack’s gloves hit the ice before he’s even on his feet, but before he can get to Anderberg, Kratz is between them, practically breathing fire.

“Shut your fucking mouth,” Kratz says, and gives Anderberg a hard shove. Anderberg drops his gloves and they go at it. Rolly is there a second later and gets right in the mix, shoving at the other Avs defenseman who looks ready to join in the fray.

There is a blur of white jersey and then Whits is in the middle of it too, going after Anderberg with a fierce expression on his face. “Don’t do this.”

“Stay the fuck out of it,” Anderberg tells him, and tries to shove him off, but Whits hangs on.

“Dani, stop!”

Everyone freezes. The entire Falcs line gapes at the two of them, and it all clicks into place. Daniel Anderberg — Dani. Jack hadn’t put two and two together, but now that he looks, he recognizes Dani from the one photo he’s seen of the two of them together. Dani, who’d gone to Denver when Whits went to Providence. Whits’ hands are balled up in Anderberg’s jersey, and he’s staring at him and shaking his head, silently pleading with him. Anderberg’s expression is impassive, carefully neutral.

“So you’re Dani,” Rolly says, his voice tight. “Holy shit.”

“The one who couldn’t fucking keep it in his pants last year,” Janssen adds, glaring at him.

“Jesus Christ,” Kratz says. “You asshole.”

Anderberg turns to look at the four of them and goes completely pale. The rest of the Avs line is skating closer now, watching with interest. It’s utterly clear that that every one of the Falcs knows exactly who Daniel Anderberg is and what he was to their teammate — and that they all have Whits’ back. Anderberg looks back at Whits with an expression of sheer panic, then twists violently away. He skates to his bench, leaving the rest of his line staring after him.

“The fuck was that?” Jarome Iginla asks, turning to Kratz.

Kratz shakes his head. “You should ask him. But I’ll tell you this: if he runs his mouth at Zimms or Whits again, he’s gonna regret it.”

Iginla frowns, but the ref whistles again, and they slowly skate over to the circle for the faceoff.

“I can’t believe that fucker had the balls to say that shit to Zimms.” Rolly shakes his head. “Swear to fuck, Whits, if he comes anywhere near—”

“He’s not out to his team,” Whits says, his expression pained. “I know he’s being a dick, but just let it go, please?”

“Yeah, okay.” Rolly nods, then punches Whits lightly on the shoulder.

Jack smirks. “Did you see his face? I don’t think he’s gonna be a problem.”

Whits shoots him a dark look, but Jack just raises his eyebrows. Anderberg’s comments were way out of line, and Jack’s not going to let that go just because Whits apparently still carries a torch for him.

Anderberg doesn’t even make eye contact with Jack the next time they’re on the ice together. Jack braces himself for a hit when Anderberg wheels toward him, but it doesn’t come.

On the next shift, Jack gets kicked out of the face-off. He changes places with Kratz, who smirks at him, and he takes position next to Anderberg.

“What’s good, Dani?” he says.

Anderberg swears under his breath and looks straight ahead.

They hold the lead for the rest of the period and win in regulation. It’s a solid victory, but the group who were on the ice when Anderberg went after Jack are subdued afterward.

Jack pulls Whits into a hug out on center ice. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Whits says, casting a glance over at the Avs’ bench. “I will be, anyway.”

“Motherfucker,” Rolly says. “You shoulda warned us, Whits.”

Whits shakes his head. “I didn’t think he’d start shit.”

“Well, we finished it,” Janssen says, fist-bumping Rolly. “Seriously, Whits, he’s an asshole. You can do a hell of a lot better.” He casts a meaningful glance at Jack.

Jack groans. “Don’t even start.”

“What?” Janssen feigns innocence. “I didn’t say anything.”

*****

They’re in the hotel room for one minute before Whits’ phone rings. He glances at the screen and looks up at Jack guiltily before disappearing into the bathroom. Jack sits on the bed and sighs. It’s Bittle; it has to be. He probably watched the game tonight and saw what happened, and of course his first concern is for Whits.

The bathroom door opens and Whits runs a hand through his hair. “I’m gonna go out.”

Jack blinks at him. “Seriously?”

“I need to talk to him. To Dani. We’re gonna meet for a drink.”

“Oh. Right.” Jack nods: this he understands. He needed to talk to Parse to get past their issues, and he was glad to have the space to do it. “Text me if you need anything, okay?”

Whits sighs. “I’m sorry he was such an asshole tonight. He’s not… I mean—”

“You don’t have to explain. Just go.”

“Thanks, man.” Whits picks up his wallet and a room key, grabs his coat, and heads out.

Jack changes into his pajamas and brushes his teeth, and settles in bed with his phone. He has several dozen new text messages, which isn’t unusual after a game. He scans through them all, pathetically hoping there’s one from Bittle. Even more pathetic is the way his stomach flips when he finds one: Are you okay?

Jack presses his lips together. He hasn’t given Bittle more than a one-word response in a week. He’s been an asshole, and he has to do better. He taps out a reply.

Yeah. I’m fine.

There are dots almost immediately. I cannot BELIEVE he went after you like that.

Jack frowns at the screen. Anderberg?

Taylor was so worried about seeing him tonight, but he didn’t think he’d do anything like that.

Jack inhales sharply. He shouldn’t be surprised Bittle knew who Anderberg was when none of Whits’ teammates did, but it still stings. He was kind of a dick but it’s fine.

I hope they can work it out tonight.

Jack groans and lets his head fall back against the headboard. Of course Bittle knows. Of course he does. Me too.

He lets it drop after that; he can’t really stomach the idea of talking about Whits with Bittle anymore. It feels like progress, though, considering he could barely say more than a word to Bittle a couple of days ago. He’s going to have to work his way back up to actual conversation.

He settles on his side and scrolls through instagram, and posts a picture he took of the empty ice earlier in the day.

He’s not sure what time it is when Whits gets back, but it’s late, way past curfew. Jack’s covered for Whits on more nights than he can count, but from the careful way he’s moving, it seems clear that Whits was hoping not to be caught even by Jack tonight.

“What time is it?” Jack asks, squinting.

“Ah… three?” Whits pauses in the door of the bathroom. He looks fairly ruffled in the dim light. “Sorry I’m so late. I fell asleep.”

It’s a moment before Jack’s sleepy brain catches up. He stares at him for another second, wanting desperately to be wrong despite the evidence right in front of him. “Did you… You hooked up with Anderberg?”

Whits makes a sound like a laugh. “Yeah. I’m probably gonna regret it, but—”

Jack is on his feet and halfway across the room before he quite knows what he’s doing. He pushes Whits into the wall so hard his head knocks back against it.

“You fucking asshole!”

Whits stares back at him, wide-eyed. “What the hell?”

Jack is furious. He can only glare at Whits now, can barely form words.

“Jesus, Zimms—”

“Tell him,” Jack manages. “Fucking tell him.”

“I did, I told him,” Whits says, trying to wriggle out of Jack’s grasp. “What do you think I—”

“Bittle.” Jack’s voice is gravelly now. “Tell Bittle.”

Whits stares back at him like he’s grown a second head. “Tell him what?”

Jack tightens his grip on Whits’ shirt. “You don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself, do you? He likes you, and you just… fucking…” Jack can’t even finish the sentence. He releases Whits’ shirt, drops his hands and turns away.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Whits moves closer, gets back into Jack’s space. “What the hell does Eric have to do with this?”

Jack sits on the bed and buries his face in his hands. He’s tired and he’s angry, and he’s so fucking jealous he can barely think straight, but he never actually asked, did he? He has no idea what’s going on between Whits and Bittle.

He takes a slow breath and drops his hands to his lap. “Are you dating him or not?”

“Dani?”

“Bittle.”

Whits doesn’t reply for a moment, and Jack looks up at him.

“Oh my god,” Whits says at last, staring at him with an expression of shock. “You—” He presses his lips together and looks up at the ceiling.

“Because if you’re fucking around on him—”

“Jesus Christ, Zimms.” Whits presses his hands over his face. “Eric and I are not dating!”

Jack frowns. That ought to be good news, but somehow it doesn’t make him feel any better. “So you just… hooked up with him on New Year’s Eve and… that’s it?”

“No!” He crosses to stand in front of Jack. “Oh my god — that’s what this has been about? You thought we hooked up that night?”

Jack makes a sound of exasperation. “You kissed him, and then you both left together. What was I supposed to think?”

“Fuck.” Whits blows out a long breath. “Christ, where do I even… Look, the kiss was a joke. It was stupid, but you’ve been jerking him around for months, okay? He doesn’t know what to think.”

Jack turns to stare at him. “Wait, what?”

“Don’t you dare fucking deny it.” Whits gives him a sharp look. “You act jealous as fuck when he’s dating someone, but you keep him at arm’s length when he isn’t. He knows you’re not seriously interested in him and that you don’t do relationships, but you keep sending him mixed signals. It’s making him crazy.”

Jack grabs handfuls of the sheets on either side of him, clenches his fists tight. “I… I don’t…”

Whits stares at him in astonishment. “Jesus Christ, Zimms. You can’t be that fucking clueless.”

Jack opens his mouth and closes it again. He has no idea what to say. His head is spinning, and he’s sure the sound of his heart pounding is audible in the room.

“Oh my god. You actually are that clueless.” Whits presses one hand against his forehead like this whole ordeal is making his head hurt. He sits heavily on the bed next to Jack. “It was stupid, okay? We were both pretty drunk, and I told him you’d probably get jealous if he kissed me, and maybe you’d… I don’t know, it made sense at the time.” He shrugs and look over at Jack. “And okay, I was pretty into it. Eric is hot as fuck, and I’d have to be dead not to want to hit that. But then you fucked off to god knows where, and he freaked out. We went for a walk, and he… shit, it’s not my place to tell you this.”

“No, tell me.” Jack can hear the desperation in his own voice. “Please.”

Whits’ eyes narrow. “First, you have to answer me, honestly. Do you have feelings for him or not?”

“Feelings,” Jack repeats, staring back at Whits blankly, his head spinning. He’s not even sure what that word means right now.

“Oh, for—” Whits’ sigh is long-suffering. “Are you, like, I dunno — in love with him?”

Oh. Jack’s known the answer to that question for a while, even though he’s never said it aloud. But this seems like the moment to do it. He closes his eyes, then opens them again, and nods.

“Oh, my fucking—” Whits makes a sound of frustration. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Jack shakes his head. “What’s the point? You tried, with Dani, and it made you both miserable. And I can’t come out right now, so we’d have to keep it a secret, and he doesn’t deserve that.”

“Holy shit,” Whits says, and his expression softens. “Wait, are you saying you actually want to? With Eric?”

“I…” Jack inhales, exhales. “Yeah.”

“But… you don’t do this. You told me. And you told him, that you don’t—”

“I know,” Jack groans. “I know, and I can’t really explain it, but he’s… shit, what does it even matter?”

“What does it matter? Oh my god.” Whits looks like he wants to shake Jack. “Okay, listen to me — you need to call him.”

Jack frowns. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“He won’t care. Trust me.”

Jack stares helplessly at him, panic of a sort he’s never felt before rising in his chest. “I can’t, I—”

“Fine, call him in the morning, then. The point is that you need to tell him how you feel about him.”

“It’s not that simple.”

Whits reaches out and puts his hands on either side of Jack’s face, like he’s talking to a small child. “Yes. It is. Fucking tell him, oh my god.”

“Shit.” Jack closes his eyes. It’s too late for this; it has to be. It can’t be as easy as Whits is making it sound. “I don’t know what I’d even say.”

“God, just… that you love him and want to have lots of filthy sex and maybe marry him and get a dog, whatever.”

“I can’t tell him that!”

“But it’s the truth, isn’t it?”

Jack opens his eyes and stares back at him. It is the truth, and it’s terrifying. He nods.

“Holy shit!” Whits laughs and plants a sloppy kiss on Jack’s forehead.

“Ugh, get off me.” Jack pushes him away. His heart is still pounding, but he feels lighter than he has in a week. Whits and Bittle aren’t dating. Bittle might even… “But wait, is he still dating Kevin?”

“Oh my god. Let him make up his own damn mind about what he wants, for once!”

“But—”

“How can you be such an asshole and a total gentleman at the same damn time?” Whits shakes his head. “Fuck Kevin, okay? He’s not what Eric wants, and you know it.”

“Oh my god.” Jack flops back on the bed and stares up at the ceiling. His head is spinning and his chest is tight, but at the same time, there’s a flicker of hope, a flame burning hotly in his belly, spreading warmth outwards. Maybe it’s not too late after all. “Shit, I… What am I going to say?”

Whits looks down at him, eyebrows raised. “I’d start with an apology if I were you.”

“Yeah, okay.” Jack presses his hands over his face. “But what if—”

“Good lord.” Whits’ voice shifts into a whine. “Just say you’re sorry you’ve been such a dick and please will he fuck you a lot. Easy.”

“But how do I—”

“Enough. It’s my turn to talk about my boy problems, so shut up and be sympathetic.” Whits stretches out beside him on the bed.

Jack blinks. “Okay.”

Whits prattles on about Anderberg for a while, but Jack misses most of it. His brain keeps coming back to the realization that Bittle and Whits aren’t dating, and that nothing happened between them. He’s wasted a whole week being angry and jealous, but somehow that just sharpens everything.

He has another chance. They’re flying to St. Louis tomorrow, and then back to Providence after that, and—

“You’re not hearing a word of this, are you?”

Jack looks up to see Whits glaring at him. “Sorry.”

Whits groans and sits up. “Some best friend you are.”

Jack gives him a shove. “I’ll make it up to you.”

Whits smiles and shakes his head. “You’d better.”

*****

Chapter Text

Jack’s alarm blares, jolting him awake. Across the room, Whits groans and pulls the covers up over his head. He won’t bother getting up until Jack is out of the shower, as usual.

Jack’s stomach is in knots while he shaves and showers, brushes his teeth and gets dressed. When Whits disappears into the bathroom, Jack sits on the bed and takes a deep breath. This is important, maybe the most important text message he’ll ever send in his life. He can’t afford to fuck it up. His thumbs hover over the keyboard for a solid minute before he bites the bullet and just goes for it.

Hey

He presses send.

And then he waits.

A response doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. That probably shouldn’t be surprising. Classes started this week and he has no idea what Bittle’s new schedule is. Not like last fall, when Bittle texted him endlessly for his advice about how best to balance his courses with study, baking, and practice time.

Jack flops back in the bed, his phone clutched tightly in his hand, and stares up at the ceiling. It’s probably too late for Jack to have any hope that Bittle might be interested. It’s been more than a week since the awful events of New Year’s, and god, what does Bittle even think about him right now? Jack was an asshole about Bittle kissing Whits, which — okay, Bittle had just found out Jack had kissed Whits that one time and he was probably pissed, wondering why the hell Jack would kiss Whits and not him and—

Bittle was supposed to meet Kevin’s parents last weekend. Jack hasn’t heard a word about that either way, but Whits would know if they’d broken up, right? He’d have said so last night. What if Bittle and Kevin made up after Jack was a total dick and sent Bittle off without even saying goodbye? What if he spent the night with Kevin last night and is actually naked in bed with him right now? Jack groans and closes his eyes.

“You okay?” Whits asks when he emerges from the shower, smelling like the body wash he likes.

“No.” Jack presses his hands over his face. He’s so fucking not okay.

The mattress dips, and when Jack opens his eyes, Whits is stretched out next to him. “Do you need a hug?”

Jack swats at him, and gets a handful of warm skin somewhere below Whits’ waist. He winces. “Why are you naked?”

“I just took a shower.” Whits grins at him. “A few inches over and you’d have finally touched my dick.”

Jack groans and rolls away from him.

*****

They’re boarding the plane for St. Louis when Jack’s phone buzzes.

Bittle: Hey

He has to bite his tongue to stop himself from making an embarrassing noise. He shoves his bag into the overhead compartment and sits as quickly as he can, then taps out a reply. He deletes and retypes, and finally goes with:

Classes going ok?

Why is this so hard?

I haven’t decided what I’m taking yet. Less than last semester tho. OMG that was insane.

Hockey. Jack can talk about hockey, for sure. When’s your next home game?

Friday, against Syracuse.

Jack takes a deep breath. We get back to Providence Friday afternoon.

Three dots appear, and then vanish. Jack waits, but a response doesn’t come, and then it’s time to turn off phones for the flight. He shoves his phone in his pocket and sighs.

“Did you do it?” Whits asks, casually scrolling down the screen of his Kindle.

“Working on it.”

*****

He turns his phone on when they land in St. Louis.

Bittle: Great

Jack frowns at the phone. What the hell does that mean?

He exchanges a few more texts with Bittle that day, but the responses are all short and don’t convey much of anything. Jack isn’t sure if Bittle’s just busy or if he’s trying to tell Jack something. He considers asking Whits about it, but Whits is preoccupied with his own drama.

“I think I made a mistake,” Whits says when they’re back at the hotel after an afternoon practice at the Scottrade Center.

“What?”

“I wasn’t going to hook up with him, you know? I was pissed at him for a dozen different reasons, not the least of which was the shit he pulled on you.” Whits sighs. “But then he just looked at me, and goddammit.”

“Yeah.” Jack knows how that feels, actually.

“We didn’t even make back to his apartment. I blew him in the car.”

“Okay, I really don’t need to know—”

“And when we did get there, oh my god. He fucked me for a solid hour, I swear.”

Jack blinks. “How are you even walking today?”

“Okay, maybe not an hour. But I’m definitely feeling it. God, he does this thing where he—”

“Nope,” Jack says, holding up a hand.

Whits smirks at him, then his expression shifts to something more serious. “And we talked, a lot. He wants to try again, and… I don’t know if I’m up for that.”

Jack turns to look at him. “Do you still love him?”

Whits takes a shaky breath. “Fuck, I don’t know. I did last night. Right now, I’m not so sure.”

“Yeah.” Jack can identify with that feeling too.

“He wants me to go somewhere with him for the All-Star break, and maybe we can see how it goes.”

“Are you going to?”

Whits exhales. “I don’t know. I mean, last night was fun. I’d forgotten what it’s like to have sex with somebody who knows exactly how to get you off in ten different ways. Not gonna lie, I could do with a few days of that.”

Jack thinks about Bittle, about what that would be like, and his stomach flips. “Yeah.”

“But that’s not all it would be. Not for me, at least. And I don’t think he’s changed that much, you know?”

Jack is in no position to give him advice, but he doesn’t see how it’s going to be any different between them. They still live a continent apart. At least Jack could drive to see Bittle — if Bittle wanted him to, anyway.

He picks up his phone to see if there’s been a response to his last text. There hasn’t.

*****

Jack pulls the truck into his usual parking space in the garage and cuts the engine. He sits there, hands clenching the steering wheel, and doesn’t move.

“Hey, you okay?” Whits is already out of his seatbelt and halfway out the door.

“Yeah.” Jack blinks, then turns to look at him. “I’m gonna go.”

“Now?”

“Yeah.”

Whits jumps out of the front seat and grabs his bag from the back. “Then get the fuck outta here.” He grins and closes the door, and steps back.

Jack’s stomach is in knots for the entire drive. By the time he sees the familiar buildings of Samwell’s campus, he’s on the verge of throwing up. He’s not sure what he was thinking, coming to a game unannounced like this. He finds a place to park and sits paralyzed behind the wheel for three solid minutes, second guessing himself.

He’s texted Bittle a handful of times in the last couple of days, but hasn’t heard anything from him since that last Great. If Bittle couldn’t even bring himself to type out a few words to Jack, what’s he going to do when Jack’s standing in front of him?

Jack presses his forehead against the steering wheel. He doesn’t have to do this now. He could start the engine, turn around, and go home. Then call Bittle later, after the game tonight, see if Bittle wants to talk to him. Maybe Jack could come to campus on Sunday, take him out for coffee, test out the waters a little. Try to rebuild their friendship before he springs anything bigger on him.

So, it turns out I’m in love with you. Crazy, eh?

Jack groans.

There’s a sound outside the truck; a group of fans are walking by, talking excitedly as they head towards Faber. One is wearing Jack’s old Samwell jersey.

It seems like years ago that he was here, playing in this building, captaining this team. His life has changed so much since then. Mostly for the better, but there are so many things he misses about his time here. Everything seemed so much simpler: play hockey, go to class, work hard, hang out with his teammates.

And listen to Bittle’s music, chirp Bittle about his study habits and his fancy coffee drinks and his stress baking. And walk with Bittle to class and study in the kitchen while he bakes. And play hockey with Bittle on his wing, always right where Jack knew he’d be.

What was it Uncle Wayne always said? Something about missing all the shots you don’t take.

Jack takes a deep breath, then picks up his phone and texts Lardo.

It rings ten seconds later. “Bro! Holy fuck, no one told me you were coming!”

“I didn’t know either. I just got off the plane and came straight here.”

“Hey, no prob. Come to the side entrance and I’ll meet you there.”

“Thanks. And hey, Lards? Don’t tell anyone I’m here, okay?”

She hugs him tight at the door, then punches him hard in the shoulder. “I’m still fucking pissed at you, so don’t think you’re off the hook.”

“I’ve been an asshole, I know.”

She steps back and gives him a once-over. “You’re a little overdressed for a hockey game.”

He shrugs. It hadn’t occurred to him to change out of his suit first; he’d just wanted to get here. “Do you think I could sit up in the press box? I don’t want to be a distraction.”

She loops her arm through his. “Exactly what I was gonna suggest. You’ve been enough trouble lately as it is.”

He doesn’t ask her what she means by that.

They take the staff elevator up to the top level. A few people do double-takes at him along the way, but no one tries to talk to him, for which Jack is grateful.

The guys in the press box light up when they see him. Lardo chuckles darkly as she walks away, but this is the least of what Jack deserves.

“Jack Zimmermann, wow,” one of the men says, holding out a hand. “They didn’t tell us you’d be coming tonight.”

“Yeah, uh, trying to keep it a little quiet, you know.” Jack forces a smile. “It’s Dave and Dean, right?”

Both of them beam at him, like they’re amazed he remembers their names.

“Since you’re here,” Dean says, and Jack stifles a groan, “we’d love to have you do some color commentary for us on the broadcast.”

“We’ve got an extra headset,” Dave adds, and turns to signal at their tech, who scrambles out of the room. “What a great surprise for our listeners.”

Jack really wants to say no, but it’s too late. He nods helplessly and resigns himself to a really long evening.

He’s never actually done this before, and it’s a strange experience. Happily, they only ask him to talk during breaks in play, and he manages not to embarrass himself too much.

“So Eric Bittle, who’s centering the second line this year, played on your wing last year,” Dave says sometime near the end of the second period.

“Uh, yeah.” Jack doesn’t take his eyes from the red jerseys heading down for a face-off after an icing call. “Bittle’s a fantastic player. He’s crazy fast, and he has great hands. We had good chemistry on the ice. I’ve only experienced that a few times in all my years of playing, and it’s something I don’t take for granted.”

“You’ve got that going now with your Providence linemate, Taylor Whitton,” Dean adds.

“Yeah, he’s an amazing player. The NHL is different, of course, but I had four great years playing here at Samwell. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had here and to the fans who are following my career with the Falconers.”

“Aaaand Samwell wins the face-off,” Dave says, redirecting the conversation back to the game.

They win by a single goal in the last few minutes of regulation, a hard slapper from the line by Holster. Dean and Dave thank him effusively for joining the broadcast, and Jack makes a mental note to text Tasha in the Falcs’ PR department and give her fair warning.

He has a moment of panic when he realizes he’s going to have to brave the crowds to get out of the building, but Lardo comes to rescue him.

“You staying to say hello to the guys?” Her expression indicates that there’s only one correct answer.

“Sort of.” He exhales and shoves his hands in his pockets. “I need to ask another favor, actually.”

Her lips twist into a smile. “Bro, if it’s what I think it is, I’m already on it.”

*****

He lets himself into the Haus with Lardo’s key and makes his way upstairs. Lardo had given him her room key just in case, but Bittle’s door is unlocked. Jack closes the door behind him and takes a few deep, soothing breaths. He isn’t sure what he’s going to say, but he figures he has a little time to think about it.

He toes off his shoes by the door and looks around the room. He hasn’t been in here for more than a minute or two in a long time. Bittle’s desk is a mess, as usual, but his bed is made and the room is otherwise neat. The stuffed bunny they all pretend not to know about is haphazardly positioned on his pillow, its beady black eyes glaring up at Jack.

He crosses to Bittle’s desk and switches on the lamp there so he can look at the photos and notes pinned to the corkboard. There are a few photos of Bittle and Kevin, which send a jolt of anxiety through him. Lardo had said there would be a low-key party to celebrate the win, and it occurs to Jack now that Kevin might be coming. He doesn’t like the idea of putting Bittle on the spot in front of his boyfriend, but Whits is right: it’s time for Jack to be honest with Bittle, and then let him make his own choices.

There are other photos, including a shaggy-looking team shot before the last game of the Frozen Four, and some of Jack’s own photos from last spring. There’s one of Bittle at Spring C, posing with Shitty and Lardo, his bare legs ridiculously long in those shorts he’d worn. Jack’s mouth goes dry at the memory. It had then too, but he hadn’t processed what it meant. He’s wasted so damn much time.

And he’s so nervous he’s starting to sweat. He takes off his suit jacket and drapes it over the back of Bittle’s chair, then sits on the bed. He picks up the stuffed rabbit and settles in to wait.

Finally, his phone buzzes with a text from Lardo: We’re on the way. Do you want me to send him up?

Yes. He hesitates a moment more, and then sends Thanks.

Don’t fuck this up or I WILL END YOU.

He laughs out loud. He doesn’t doubt it.

The Haus is quiet for ten more minutes before he hears voices downstairs. There is a lot of cheering and laughter, and then some banging around as the party gets started. Jack’s nerves are nearly shot by the time he hears footsteps on the stairs. The first set go past Bittle’s door and continue on. The second and third sets seem to disappear into Jack’s old room across the hall. Jack groans and presses his hands over his face. This is going to kill him.

And then he hears Bittle’s voice in the hall: “All right, fine. But if anyone touches a thing in my kitchen—”

“Just go, Bits.” Lardo sounds slightly exasperated. “I’ll keep an eye on it, I promise.”

The knob turns and the door opens. “I know y’all are up to something because that lamp was not on when I—” Bittle freezes in the doorway, his eyes wide.

“Hey.” Jack swallows, takes a soothing breath. His heart is pounding.

“Hey,” Bittle says softly. He’s clearly startled, but he recovers quickly. He closes the door behind him. “What are you doing here?”

“I went to the game tonight.”

“Oh.” Bittle blinks at him, clearly confused. “Why didn’t you say you were coming?”

“I didn’t know I was going to. I got off the plane and I just… kept driving.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to see you.”

Bittle’s expression is tight, like that’s not the answer he wanted to hear. He takes a few steps forward, then stops in the middle of the room, arms folded over his chest. He takes a shaky breath. “Jack, I don’t think—”

“No, wait.” Jack scoots forward to sit on the edge of the bed. “I need to say this, okay?”

Bittle stares back at him for a long moment, then nods. His expression is almost broken, and Jack’s stomach clenches.

“I’m an idiot.” Jack pauses and takes a breath. “And I’m so sorry.”

Bittle’s jaw clenches. “Go on.”

“You deserve to be happy and I keep fucking that up.”

Bittle nods and looks down at the floor.

“I don’t mean to be an asshole, but I…” Jack sighs and grips the sides of the bed. “I am an asshole. I’m not good at this, and I never will be. I know it’s not fair to ask you to give me another chance, but—”

“Jack, stop.” Bittle takes another step forward, and another, and he’s so close that Jack can almost touch him. “I know this is hard for you, okay? I’m glad to be your friend, I really am. I just… I can’t…” He looks up at the ceiling, and Jack realizes he’s trying very hard not to cry.

“Bitty.” Jack reaches out and takes his hand, and pulls him closer. Bittle resists for a moment, then lets him. He looks so deeply sad that Jack’s breath catches in his throat. He did that — it’s all his fault that Bittle is hurting, and he wants… God, he wants so much, and he doesn’t know how to explain it. I love you seems too sudden, and I want to date you doesn’t quite cover it. Jack stares into Bittle’s big brown eyes, and does the only thing he can think to do. He reaches for Bittle’s other hand and tugs him closer until he’s standing between Jack’s spread thighs. He stares at him a moment longer, then leans forward.

At the very last moment, Bittle turns his head. “Jack…”

Jack freezes with their lips inches apart, and panics. He’s read this all wrong. Bittle doesn’t want him, and he’s going to push Jack away. Somehow Jack hadn’t seriously considered that possibility tonight, but of course he should have. He’s putting Bittle in a terrible position.

Bittle pulls his hands out of Jack’s, then places one on each side of Jack’s face. He takes a deep breath and touches his forehead to Jack’s. “Please… I can’t kiss you and then get pushed away again. I don’t think I could handle that, so if you don’t mean it…”

Jack’s arms slide around his waist. “No, I mean it, I swear, I— Please.”

Bittle takes a shaky breath. He’s so close Jack can’t focus on his face, so he doesn’t even try. He brushes his nose against Bittle’s.

“I thought you didn’t do this,” Bittle says, soft and breathless. “Every time I thought there was a chance, you’d say that you don’t date, that you’re not interested in relationships or—”

“I know, but it’s you.” Jack’s heart nearly beats its way out of his chest. “You’re… I don’t know, I want everything with you. I’ve tried to get over it, but I can’t, and not being able to do anything about it is killing me.”

“God, Jack.” Bittle’s hands are shaking.

“I’m not an easy person to be with. I think you know that.” Jack tilts his head enough to brush his lips against the corner of Bittle’s mouth. “But I want to try, if you’ll have me.”

Bittle makes a soft, desperate sound and crushes his mouth against Jack’s.

There’s a beat then, a moment where there’s only the sensation of Bittle’s lips against Jack’s own, soft and warm and pliant. Jack closes his eyes, breathes, feels, and then something breaks inside him. Fear and tension and anxiety melt away in one bracing moment: Bittle is kissing him, and it’s overwhelming and intoxicating, and god.

None of the cliches Jack’s ever heard about first kisses comes close. He loses himself in the press of Bittle’s lips, the whole world contracting down to the points where they’re connected: Bittle’s hands in Jack’s hair, his hips bracketed between Jack’s thighs, the fabric of his t-shirt under Jack’s hands. It’s already more than Jack ever thought he’d have, and it’s just the first time.

“Wow.” Bittle pulls back enough to rest his forehead against Jack’s. He’s breathing hard and his hands are shaking. “Oh my god.”

Even though they’re touching, he’s somehow still too far away. Jack tilts his head and leans in to kiss him again.

Bittle whimpers and melts against him, then turns his head out of the kiss. “So we, uh…”

Jack presses his lips along the underside of Bittle’s jaw, and trails kisses down his neck. He can’t get close enough. His head is spinning.

“Okay, so…” Bittle’s fingers slide up into Jack’s hair again, tilting Jack’s face up, forcing Jack to look at him. Bittle’s eyes are wide and dark, and his cheeks are flushed. His expression is one of astonishment. “Is this… are you…?”

“Yes,” Jack says, and stares up at him.

“You don’t even know the question.”

“Whatever it is, the answer is yes.”

Bittle’s mouth curves into a smile. “You sure about that?”

“Yes.”

Bittle’s smile is radiant now, full-on sunshine, and Jack’s hope spikes. “You’re really here.”

“I am.”

“And you kissed me.”

“Can I do it again?”

Bittle laughs, light and musical, and Jack’s sure he’s never seen him look this happy. “Honey, you can kiss me all you want.”

The anxiety Jack’s been carrying about this moment, weeks and months of fear and tension — all of it melts away. He smiles up at Bittle. “C’mere then.”

Bittle laughs and leans in, arms going around Jack’s shoulders.

The second kiss is even better, and it starts to sink in that this is real. Jack is really here, in Bittle’s room, and Bittle is kissing him and pressing tightly against him, and wants him.

“Jack,” Bittle says a minute later, turning his head out of the kiss. Jack presses his mouth against Bittle’s throat, and Bittle’s head falls back. “Ahhh…”

God, that sound. Jack exhales against his skin, barely holding himself back from biting, anything to get closer. “Yeah?”

Bittle shifts between Jack’s thighs, putting a little space between them. “Do you want to… I mean, you’re staying, right?”

“Yes, please.” Jack can’t imagine leaving now, not after the night he’s had. Hell, the week he’s had. “I’ve been thinking about this for months.”

“Months,” Bittle repeats, his voice shaky now. He reaches between them and wraps his fingers around Jack’s tie, then tugs on it lightly to pull Jack’s face closer. “I wish you'd said something. I’ve thought about this for more than a year.”

“A year?” Jack thinks of all the moments when Bittle had looked at him with such open affection. And every time, Jack had convinced himself it didn’t mean anything. “God, I’m sorry. I’ve been so—”

“Hush.” Bittle’s lips touch Jack’s lightly. “You’re here now. Just kiss me.”

Jack does, hands sliding up under Bittle’s shirt, over his back. Bittle makes a soft sound against his lips, and all Jack can do is hold on. They lose a good five minutes like that, floating together, until Bittle finally leans into Jack and pushes him backwards onto the bed. Jack’s been half-hard for a while now, but the feeling of Bittle’s weight pressing down against him gets him the rest of the way there, so suddenly he gasps against Bittle’s lips. Bittle rocks into him, grinding their erections together, and Jack’s brain nearly goes offline.

“God, Bitty.” His hands slide down Bittle’s back and over his ass, fingers digging into firm muscle, and Bittle groans into his mouth. Jack’s not sure he’s felt this level of sheer want in his life.

“Okay, so.” Bittle pulls back and presses his forehead against Jack’s shoulder, panting. “Are we on the same page here? Cause I really want to do more than kiss you, but we don’t have to do anything that—”

“Yeah, same page.” Jack tilts his head up and presses his open mouth against Bittle’s neck.

“I’m just… just sayin’… oh my god.” Bittle pushes up on his hands and knees. “I gotta lock the door.” He sprints over to the door, and when he turns back around again, Jack’s breath catches at the sight of him. His hair is wild and his mouth is wet, and he’s looking at Jack like he can’t believe this is happening. He stops at the side of the bed and pulls his shirt up and off. He looks golden in the dim light of the desk lamp. His body is compact, but strong, and the cut of his abs is insane. Jack hasn’t ever really let himself look before, but now that he can, he wants to lick him. And then rub off on the hard plane of his stomach. And then—

“Your turn.” Bittle’s eyebrows are raised when Jack looks up again. “You’ve tortured me for years, you know.”

“Yeah?”

“Not being able to look at you in the locker room, lord.”

Jack grins, almost giddy as he sits up and loosens his tie. His fingers fumble with the knot, so he finally just pulls it off over his head. He unbuttons his shirt, watching the way Bittle’s eyes follow the movement of his hands, growing wider with every new bit of skin exposed. Jack shrugs the shirt off at last and tosses it aside, and Bittle looks like he wants to devour him. Jack wants more of that look, more of everything, so he unfastens his pants and tugs those off too, underwear and all. Bittle’s gaze drags down to where Jack’s cock is hard against his belly, and he bites his lip and takes a step forward. Jack ought to feel self-conscious sitting there, naked but for his socks, completely aroused and on display, but all he can think about is how overwhelming this feels. His lips are tingling where Bittle kissed him, his skin is over-sensitized, his dick is so hard it’s aching — and Bittle is still too far away.

“Bitty.” It comes out like a whine, and Bittle smiles, steps closer until he’s standing between Jack’s thighs.

“I’ve got you,” he whispers, then reaches between them to wrap his fingers lightly around Jack’s dick.

Jack’s mouth falls open at that touch; it’s all he can do not to arch up into his hand. Bittle leans in to kiss him again, and traces the tip of his tongue just inside Jack’s upper lip. Jack reaches up to capture his lips, and Bittle pulls away teasingly. His hand strokes slowly up the length of Jack’s cock and stops there, fingers teasing the head.

“God, I’ve thought about this a lot, what I’d do if I could get you naked.” His lips brush against Jack’s again, and he exhales shakily. “I really want to make you come.”

Jack’s cock pulses at the words. “I… yeah, sure.”

Yeah, sure,” Bittle repeats, copying Jack’s accent. “But… what do you want?” His fingers keep teasing lightly, maddeningly. He kisses Jack again, slow and filthy, and it’s a solid minute before Jack has enough presence of mind to answer the question.

“Suck me,” he whispers, feeling his cheeks grow warm. Bittle’s mouth on him has been his go-to fantasy for a while now. “I mean, if that’s — if you want—”

Bittle grins against Jack’s lips. “Oh, honey — I’ve wanted to do that for so long. You have no idea.” Bittle grabs the pillow off the bed and drops it on the floor in front of Jack, then goes to his knees.

“Oh fuck, you’re gorgeous,” Jack says. It isn’t until Bittle gives him a quizzical look that he realizes he said it in French. “Sorry.”

“If I can make you forget English, I’ll take it as a compliment.” Bittle’s eyes are wide and dark, and he keeps them focused on Jack’s as he leans forward to lick up the shaft from root to tip.

Jack’s breath shudders out in a pathetic sort of “Ahhhhh.” He’s jerked off thinking about this so many times that he can hardly believe this is real.

“So, uh… you can come in my mouth.” Bittle presses a soft kiss to the tip. “I mean, I’d like that.”

“Uhhh…” Jack has to close his eyes for a moment, because holy shit.

“Just warn me, okay?”

“Okay.” Jack would literally promise him anything right now.

He almost loses it at the sight of Bittle’s lips opening to stretch around the head of his cock. It’s somehow better than any of his fantasies when Bittle works the shaft into his mouth slowly, and then it’s all glorious, wet heat. Jack slides one hand into Bittle’s hair and closes his eyes again.

“God, you feel good. I can’t even… You have no idea how much I’ve thought about this.” He’s not sure what language that was in, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Bittle makes a soft sound, almost like a whimper, and slides one hand up Jack’s side. Jack catches it and intertwines their fingers.

Bittle keeps going, his tongue sliding up along the shaft. Jack opens his eyes and looks down again, watches Bittle work him in even deeper. The head of his dick hits the back of Bittle’s throat before he comes back up again, and that just… fuck. He does it again, and again, and Jack’s breath comes in short pants. He’s not going to be able to last.

Bittle pulls off and presses his forehead against Jack’s thigh with a strangled laugh. “Lord, I’m gonna come in my pants.”

“Don’t you dare.” Jack tightens his fingers around Bittle’s and looks down at him. “Please let me do that.”

Bittle’s lips are pink and wet, and his face is flushed, and Jack has never seen anything hotter in his life.

“Okay.” He stares up at Jack and takes his dick in his mouth again, a hint of a smirk at the corners of his lips.

He does incredible things with his tongue and his lips as he moves, and Jack’s back on the edge embarrassingly quickly. Bittle is making little desperate sounds in his throat now, and as much as Jack doesn’t want it to be over, he really, really wants to come. He manages to choke out a warning, then Bittle takes him in deeper, and Jack can’t stop himself from arching up into Bittle’s mouth. Bittle makes a muffled sound of surprise, but Jack can’t do anything other than ride it out. He’s shaking by the time Bittle pulls off and sits back on his heels.

“Sorry, sorry,” Jack pants.

Bittle laughs and looks up at him, and wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. “Do not apologize for that, good lord. That was hot.”

Jack flops back against the mattress. “Oh, god. Okay, I’m gonna… Just give me a minute.”

Bittle pushes to his feet with his hands on Jack’s knees. There’s a rustling of cloth, and he’s naked when he climbs up to straddle Jack’s hips.

Jack’s eyes fly open and he looks down, tries to take in the sight of Bittle braced over him, all sleek lines of muscle. He hasn’t had a chance to properly look yet.

“You don’t have to do a thing, actually, just stay right there and—” Bittle bends down to kiss him, and Jack can feel his hand moving between them, stroking himself.

Jack reaches down to grasp his wrist and pull his hand away. “No, you promised.”

“I did no such thing.” Bittle’s indignant smirk turns into a completely different expression when Jack’s fingers wrap around his dick. “But yeah, okay, you go right ahead.”

Bittle’s dick is in his Jack’s hand, hot and hard and, fuck — Jack has to remember to keep breathing. He slides his fingers up, over soft skin, trails his thumb through the fluid leaking from the tip and back down again. The lack of a foreskin throws him for a moment, and he hesitates. He wants this to be good, and he’s not too proud to ask for help.

“Tell me how you like it.”

“Ahh… wetter than that.”

“You have lube?”

Bittle does, and it’s even within easy reach. Bittle blushes a little when he hands it over. “Shut up, I’ve been jerking off a lot lately.”

Jack can’t help smirking at him. “I’m not judging.”

“It’s all your fault, anyway.”

“Then let me make it up to you.”

Jack strokes him slowly with a slick hand, marveling at the way Bittle’s erection fits so perfectly against his palm. Bittle whimpers and squeezes his eyes shut when Jack’s fingers twist on the upstroke. His arms start to shake where he’s holding himself up, and his mouth opens a little, like he’s getting close. Jack backs off, and Bittle groans.

“Ugh, you’re evil.” Bittle presses his face into Jack’s shoulder.

“Am I?” Jack pushes him over onto his back and leans over him. He kisses him, a slow slide of lips, and moves his hand, slowly at first, finding the rhythm again.

“Yeah,” Bittle breathes. “Yeah, like that, but… tighter…”

Jack watches his face, taking in every detail: the way Bittle’s eyelashes flutter against his cheeks, the way his brow furrows and his mouth opens, his head tilting back. His cheeks are flushed and there are freckles on his nose, and Jack doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything more beautiful in his life. He leans over Bittle and kisses him again, and keeps stroking until Bittle pulses over his hand, his cries muffled by Jack’s mouth. There’s a party going on downstairs, so they probably don’t have to worry about noise, but it’s still better not to attract attention.

Bittle gets tissues to clean them off, and they slide under the covers and press against each other from chest to thigh, kissing lazily.

“This bed is too small,” Jack says at last, trailing kisses down Bittle’s throat and over his chest.

“Next time we’ll do it in your bed, then.”

Jack thinks about having Bittle spread out in his big bed — or in his shower, or on the kitchen island — and shivers in anticipation. “Definitely.”

“Won’t have to be quiet.”

“Mmm, no.” Jack pauses to suck a mark on Bittle’s collarbone, suddenly thrilled that he can. This is something he can do: he can touch Bittle and kiss him and mark him up and… well, maybe he should ask first. He looks up. “Is this okay?”

“Yeah, just don’t go nuts. Otherwise I’ll have to figure out how to explain it in the locker room.”

Right.

Jack sighs, then presses one more kiss to Bittle’s skin before pulling away a little bit. “We should talk about this.”

Bittle turns onto his side and looks at him, his expression suddenly tense. “So we’re doing this, right? We’re, like, dating, not just hooking up when we can or seeing other people?”

“Well, yeah. If that’s what you—”

“Yes! God, yes.” Bittle’s expression is a mix of hope and relief, and Jack can’t resist kissing him again. “That’s definitely what I want.”

“Good,” Jack says against his lips.

Bittle sighs against his mouth and kisses him back for a solid minute, then pulls away with wide eyes. “Shit. Kevin.”

Jack had forgotten all about him. “He’s not here right now, is he?” Jack kind of hopes he is.

Bittle groans. “He said he might try to stop by. Oh my god.”

Jack studies Bittle’s face for a moment, trying to work out exactly how distressed Bittle is feeling about this. “Then we should stay right here, eh? Just in case.”

“Does this mean I cheated on him? Oh god, it does, doesn’t it?”

Jack doesn’t know what to say to that. Yes seems honest, but not particularly helpful at the moment. Bittle sighs against his lips, the tip of his nose brushing against Jack’s cheekbone.

“I guess I’m gonna break up with him tomorrow.”

“You’d better.” Jack tilts his head and kisses him until they’re both breathless.

Bittle finally turns out of the kiss and shifts onto his back. “We were gonna talk.”

“Right, yeah.” Jack can barely think of anything other than pressing himself against Bittle everywhere he can manage. He takes a deep breath. “So… I know it’s not going to be easy doing this long distance and… well, quietly.”

“I figured you’d want to keep it a secret.”

“Yeah. It’s not fair to ask you to pretend we’re just friends, but—”

“We are friends.” Bittle’s smile is rueful. “I’ve kind of been a dating disaster anyway. If I say I’m too busy this semester, everyone’ll buy it.”

“Just for the rest of the season.” Jack can’t resist nuzzling his forehead. “I just… Maybe we could think about making it more public after that.”

Bittle turns to stare at him. “You mean like, come out?”

“Yeah.” Jack breathes in, out. “If Whits comes out too, like he says he might, it wouldn’t be just me, you know?”

“Do it right after you lift the Stanley Cup and no one will care.”

Jack snorts. “Yeah, right. We’ll be lucky to get a wild card spot in the playoffs.”

“The season’s only half over.”

Jack closes his eyes. “That is so not the point here.”

“Six months of keeping it a secret.” Bittle hesitates a moment, then sighs. “I guess I can handle that.”

“Thank you.” Jack kisses him again, a soft brush of dry lips. “I know it sucks.”

“Well, as long as you do, I won’t complain.”

“Jesus, Bittle.” Jack laughs, though the thought sends a spark through him.

“I’d like to tell Lardo, though. Someone around here should have my back.”

“I think she already knows. I’d like to tell Whits. And my parents.”

Bittle hisses a breath through his teeth. “Oh god, my parents.”

“You don’t have to tell them anything.”

“But I’d have to tell them before the summer.” Bittle kisses Jack’s shoulder. “If you decide to come out, I’m not gonna let the world think you’re single for even a minute.”

Jack smiles against his temple. “Okay.”

“They’re gonna find out sometime. Maybe the fact I’m dating you would take the sting out of it.” Bittle snuggles his head under Jack’s chin, and then makes a small, almost hysterical giggle. “Oh my god, Jack.”

“What?”

“I just… this is not what I expected when Lardo made me come up here. I thought they’d done something to my room.”

“Surprise?”

“The best one ever.” Bittle tilts his head up and kisses Jack softly. “Second best, maybe. The oven is still the best.”

“Nice to know where I rank.” Jack could float here forever, curled around Bittle and kissing him. Bittle’s hands slide against his skin, warm and gentle. Jack nudges one of his thighs between Bittle’s, and Bittle nearly wraps himself around Jack in response.

It’s been a long time since Jack has been intertwined with someone like this and hasn’t been freaked out by it. If anything, he can’t quite get close enough. He presses his nose into Bittle’s hair and inhales. He smells like the generic shampoo from the showers at Faber, mingled with sweat and something else Jack can’t quite place. It’s familiar and warm and perfect.

“Are you staying?” Bittle asks.

Jack briefly weighs the options of trying to head out now while everyone is so drunk it would be easy to convince them he’d just stopped by the party, or doing it in the morning when a stealthy exit would be much more incriminating. Bittle is warm and cuddly, though, and might be up for another round tonight. Jack feels a pleasant twinge at the thought.

“Yeah. I probably shouldn’t leave while the party’s still going.”

“Good lord, no. Can you imagine that headline in The Swallow?”

Jack closes his eyes and pushes down a sudden wave of anxiety. This is going to be hard to keep secret, but they have to. He can’t come out now; it would overshadow everything his team has worked for this season, and that’s not fair to any of them. He doesn’t want to subject Bittle to that sort of media scrutiny either.

Shit.

“We’ll have to sneak you out somehow,” Bittle says, fingers trailing over Jack’s collarbone. “I’m gonna owe Lardo so many favors.”

Jack takes a deep breath, and gets up long enough to dig his phone out of his pants pocket. “We’ll figure it out in the morning.” He sets the alarm for 5:00, and hopes the Haus will be empty enough for him to slip away by then. Morning skate isn’t until 9:30 anyway.

He wraps his arms around Bittle and kisses him again, and lets himself sink into the sheer pleasure of being close to him like this.

“If I wake up in the morning and find out this was just a dream, I’m gonna be so pissed.”

Jack chuckles against his skin. “Me too.”

“It just… it feels so easy. Is that weird?”

“I don’t know.” He has no idea how any of this is supposed to go.

“Thank you, okay?”

“For what?”

“For coming here, for telling me how you feel. I mean, it’s been weird lately. I just… thanks for asking me, you know?”

“Thank you for saying yes.” Jack smiles into Bittle’s hair.

“Like I was gonna say anything else. Lord, Jack.” Bittle yawns and snuggles against his shoulder.

“Good night, Bitty.”

“Good night, Jack.”

*****

Chapter Text

Jack’s alarm goes off, and he has to climb over Bittle to get to it. He’s halfway off the bed, fumbling with his phone, and then there’s a hand on his ass.

“G’morning,” Bittle says in a sleepy voice. The hand on Jack’s ass squeezes.

Jack pushes himself back onto the bed and stretches out alongside Bittle. “Good morning.”

Bittle blinks sleepily at him. “You’re really here.”

“Yeah I am.” Jack stifles a yawn and tries valiantly to keep his eyes open. God, what he wouldn’t give to stay right here and go back to sleep. “But I have to go.”

Bittle whines and snuggles closer. Jack kisses his forehead, and then feels Bittle’s lips against his collarbone, his hand sliding down Jack’s side and over his ass again. “Just a few more minutes.” Bittle shifts closer and his erection brushes against Jack’s thigh. “Please?”

Jack draws in a breath. “Okay, yeah.”

Bittle writhes against him, sleep-warm and needy, his mouth open against Jack’s chest. He’s probably leaving a mark, but Jack can’t bring himself to mind. It’s just too delicious, this quiet, stolen moment in the sleeping Haus, still hours away from dawn. He reaches between them, presses Bittle’s erection against his own, and manages to stroke them both together. He’d like to take his time with it, to draw it out and go slow, but he can’t stay here much longer without risking getting caught. He pauses long enough to fumble for the lube on the floor and slick his hand, and that’s better, so much better. He comes, gasping, with Bittle’s fingers digging into his hip. Bittle goes over the edge a minute later, making soft, broken sounds into Jack’s skin as Jack jerks him off.

They clean off the mess between them, then kiss lazily until Jack forces himself to get up and dressed. Bittle stays in bed, curled up on his side, watching him.

“I’m gonna hate this part, every time.” There’s a trace of a pout on his lips, and Jack leans over to kiss it away. Bittle almost manages to pull him back into bed.

“I gotta go,” Jack says, groaning. “I don’t want to.”

“I know.” Bittle kisses him once more and gives him a little shove.

Jack pulls his shirt on and starts buttoning it. He lowers his voice to a whisper, suddenly conscious of the fact that half the Samwell team is asleep in the rooms around them. “I’m off tomorrow. I could come pick you up and we could do something.”

“Honey, all I’m gonna want to do is get you naked.”

Jack grins. “Or we could do that. I don’t actually live that far away.”

Bittle sits up and stretches; the sheets pool around him. “And you do have a big, comfortable bed.”

“Which you’ve already slept in.”

“Oh, god, waking up next to you that morning…” Bittle shakes his head. “You looked over and smiled at me, and I got hard on the spot.”

“Really?” Jack fastens his pants. It’s the opposite of what he wants to do right now, but he really does have to go.

“Yes, and then you dropped your boxers, you asshole.” Bittle presses his hands over his face. “I jerked off in your shower.”

Jack’s breath catches. “Really?”

Bittle looks up and smiles sheepishly. “It’s not like it was the only time I did that, thinking about you.”

“Yeah, I…” Jack swallows. “You in the bunny costume. From Halloween.” Half a dozen times, though he’s not going to tell Bittle that.

“Seriously?” Bittle grins slyly. “Want me to wear it for you sometime?”

Jack’s face heats.

“Mmm, that’s a yes.” Bittle slides off the bed and steps forward to kiss him again, all warm, bare skin over taut muscle. “I usually study and bake on Sundays, but I’ll say I have a group project or something. I can meet you somewhere.”

“Okay, yeah.” Jack’s hands slide down over his back, down to cup his ass, and Bittle grins up at him, almost leers. Jack glances at the time and swears softly. “I have to go.”

“I know.”

“I’ll text you.”

Bittle kisses him one more time, going up on his toes. “You’d better.”

*****

The elevator door opens on the garage level, and — of course — Whits steps out. He takes one look at Jack in his rumpled suit and bursts into a huge grin.

“Holy shit, is this is a walk of shame?” He looks positively gleeful.

Jack takes a step backward. “Uhhh…”

“Oh my god, it is.” Whits takes a step back into the elevator. “Okay, fuck working out. I’m gonna make you breakfast, bro.”

Jack steps into the elevator after him, stifling a groan. “You don’t have to do that.”

Whits grins. “No, I really do.”

Jack’s learned from experience that there’s really no point in arguing when Whits gets an idea like this. He sighs. “Fine, but I need to take a shower first.”

“Heh, I’ll bet.” Whits presses the button for Jack’s floor. “You get cleaned up and I’ll make you eggs. You have eggs, right? If not, I can bring some up. Oh my god, there should be celebratory waffles.”

“No waffles.” Jack tries to glare, but he’s in too good a mood to pull it off.

The elevator doors open on Jack’s floor and Whits gives Jack a shove through them. “You just got laid. That means you can carb-load.”

Jack frowns. “That makes no sense.” He opens the door of his apartment and Whits follows him in.

“Go, clean up,” he says, and heads to Jack’s kitchen.

Jack can already smell coffee by the time he starts the shower.

He dries off and dresses, and when he goes to plug his phone in on the nightstand, there’s a text from Bittle on the screen.

You already told Taylor???

Jack winces and quickly taps out a reply. He caught me coming in and figured it out. He realizes that he hasn’t told Bittle about the conversation he’d had with Whits the night before last, or about how he’d thought Whits and Bittle were dating. That seems like a week ago now.

Ha. Enjoy your breakfast. [winky face]

Whits hands him a cup of coffee as soon as he emerges from the bedroom, and points at the bar. “Okay, spill. I want details.”

Jack’s face flushes. “What?”

Whits grins. “Not those details. Well, not that I’d mind, if you wanted to tell me that, but I meant like, what happened when you got there, what did you say, what did he say?” He sets a messy-looking plate of scrambled eggs in front of Jack. There are onions and some leftover ham and chunks of red pepper in there too, but it looks edible.

“How much do you know already?” Jack asks with a meaningful glance at Whits’ phone.

Whits has the decency to look chagrined. “Not as much as you might think.”

Jack downs half the coffee and lets Whits stew a bit before telling him the story, how he went to the game and then waited in Bittle’s room until he came back, and they talked.

“And then?” Whits takes Jack’s coffee cup and refills it, then adds a splash of milk.

“And then I kissed him. Or maybe he kissed me? I actually don’t remember. And then we just kind of… went from there.”

“Mmm hmm.” Whits hands him the refilled coffee cup. “Just so we’re clear, y’all did actually touch each other’s dicks, right?”

Jack laughs and looks up at him, his lips quirking into a smile. “Yeah.”

Whits lights up like it’s Christmas. “And how was it?”

“Good.” Jack shovels in a big spoonful of scrambled eggs.

“Okay, seriously, that was the first time you’ve gotten laid in like, ages, and the two of you have been pining after each other for a stupidly long time. You expect me to believe it was just good?”

Jack smiles into his cup of coffee, and shrugs.

“I’m gonna assume that’s Zimms-speak for some mind-blowing sex.”

“Something-blowing, anyway,” Jack says.

Whits makes a sound almost like a whine and presses his forehead against the countertop. “Y’all are gonna kill me, oh my god.”

They’re halfway to the practice rink for morning skate before Jack remembers to tell him that they’re keeping it a secret.

“Just you, Lardo, my parents, maybe his.”

“He still hasn’t come out to his parents?” Jack shakes his head and Whits sighs. “God, I have no idea what that’d be like. I told my mom I was gay when I was thirteen.”

“That’s not really typical, though.”

“I know.” Whits sighs and looks out the window.

Jack never really told his parents anything, but that was because there wasn’t anything to tell for a long time. And when there finally was, it was overshadowed by everything else.

“You should tell George.”

Jack takes a deep breath. He’s not worried about how the organization will react; they’ve been completely supportive so far. But Jack’s situation is suddenly very different: in addition to his history, his name, and the weight of expectations the team has placed on him, he now actually has a boyfriend who lives close enough to be around a lot.

A boyfriend.

“It’s green,” Whits says, poking his arm.

“Sorry.” Jack eases the truck through the intersection.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, just… I guess it’s starting to sink in.” Jack’s mind is whirling now, because this is not something he’s really thought through. He’s simultaneously terrified and exhilarated.

The thing is, Jack is terrible at relationships. It could all go horribly wrong between them, and he could lose Bittle as a friend forever. Or it could be amazing, but still go horribly wrong when the secret inevitably comes out and Jack reacts badly, because he will.

“Shit.”

Whits reaches over and squeezes Jack’s knee. “It’s gonna be great. Y’all are really good together. You’re already good friends, right?”

“Yeah.”

“He knows you can be a raging asshole, and he’s still here, right?”

Jack scowls, but yeah, Whits has a point.

“Just keep doing what you’ve been doing. But like, with more sex.”

“Yeah,” Jack says again, because that sounds doable. He can probably handle that much. Maybe.

Both of their phones start buzzing with notifications at the same time. Whits picks his up and Jack looks over at him.

“Holy shit.” Whits stares down at his phone for several seconds, then looks over at Jack, eyes wide. “We made the All-Star roster.”

Jack blinks at him, and Whits gestures frantically forward.

“Jesus, fuck, just drive!”

“Shit,” Jack hisses, panic rising in his throat. They’re almost there, thankfully; a minute later he stops the truck just inside the practice rink’s parking lot, then turns to look at Whits. “Say that again.”

“We’re going to Nashville, bro. You and me. Holy shit!” Whits shakes his head, still staring at his phone. “I knew it was a possibility, but, god… I didn’t really think it would happen. I thought it would be you, but not both of us. Oh my god.”

Jack closes his eyes and sinks down in the seat. He doesn’t want to go — this is exactly the sort of thing he hates, the sort of attention he doesn’t want. He’d been clinging to the hope that someone else would get chosen, one of the more experienced guys, but he knows he shouldn’t be surprised. And of course, this is the absolute worst time for him to have to be under that sort of microscope, with this new thing with Bittle. Jack groans miserably.

Whits huffs. “Are you shitting me? How are you not excited about this?”

Jack doesn’t know how to begin to answer that.

“Fuck, I…” Whits makes a pained face. “Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say.”

Jack sighs heavily and knocks his forehead against the steering wheel.

“Zimms, listen to me. I know you’d rather not, and I get why. Sort of. But this is like, a fucking dream come true for me, okay? I never even thought I’d get a chance to play in the NHL, much less do something like this. And I’m not stupid — I know it’s because people associate me with you.”

Jack looks up at him, momentarily pulled out of his own misery by sheer surprise. “Whits, come on — you’re a fucking good player. I wouldn’t have gotten half the points I did this year without you on my wing.”

Whits stares back at him, surprised. “What, really?”

“I played like shit when you were on IR. Didn’t you notice that winning streak we went on when you came back?”

“Bro, c’mon — that was you going all hockey robot on us.”

“I couldn’t have done that without you and you know it.”

“You… okay. Thanks, man.” Whits looks a little dazed.

Jack takes a deep breath, releases it. “I was hoping I could do something with Bittle that weekend, you know?”

“Shit, that’s right.” Whits pushes his hair out of his face and takes a deep breath. “I guess that settles my plans.” He hesitates, biting his lip. “Is it terrible that my first thought is how much I might be able to get laid while we’re there? I mean” —He looks down at the screen of his phone and scrolls with his thumb— “look at the names of the guys who’re going. I’ve heard rumors about half a dozen of them.”

“Is Dani going?” Not like Jack really has to ask, but.

Whits’ face tightens. “No.”

“You could invite him.” Jack doesn’t actually want Whits to invite him; he’d rather Whits told Anderberg to fuck off for good.

“Or,” Whits says with a smirk, “I could consider it an opportunity to continue my quest to fuck a guy on every team in the league.”

“Is there a trophy for that?”

“For a player? There should be.”

Jack shakes his head. “You’re up to what, three?”

“Five.”

Jack starts to ask who, but then realizes he doesn’t actually want to know.

“Are you gonna be able to put on a good face for the guys today? Cause they’re gonna chirp the shit out of us.”

“I can,” Jack says, trying to convince himself more than Whits. “I will.”

Jack’s phone has been buzzing all this time, and now it buzzes again. There’s only one person he really wants to talk to, and he suddenly wants to talk to him very much.

He sits up and starts the engine again, and parks the truck properly. He picks up his phone and gestures at it. “I’m gonna make a few calls before I go in.”

“Me too.” Whits claps him on the shoulder, then gets out of the truck. Before he closes the door, he turns and grins at Jack, holding his arms out, Titanic-style. “Holy shit, Zimms. We’re going to Nashville!”

Jack smiles at him, and it almost feels genuine. “Yeah.”

He already has a ridiculous number of texts and missed calls, but he pulls up his favorites and touches Bittle’s number the moment the door of the truck slams shut.

It only rings twice before Bittle answers, breathless: “Jack, oh my god!”

“I want you to come with me,” Jack says in a rush of words. “I need you to be there.”

“To the All-Star Game? Are you serious?”

“Yes.” Jack presses one hand over his eyes. “I know you have games that weekend, but if you could come for part of it, maybe? I just…” He can’t imagine doing this without Bittle there, though he knows it’s a lot to ask.

“Yeah, hang on. Let me look at our schedule.” Bittle is quiet for a moment, and Jack just breathes. “Okay. Oh! So we’re home that weekend, and we play Friday and Saturday. I can talk to Coach Hall. They can at least scratch me for Saturday, maybe both.”

“No, you shouldn’t—”

“Jack, it’s the All-Star Game! They’ll understand.”

Jack wants to argue that Bittle’s obligation to his team is more important, that he should come after his game on Saturday, but he’s feeling just selfish enough to take Bittle up on the offer.

“Let me know, I guess? I’ll get you a flight out of Boston.” Jack exhales, relieved.

“I’ll be there, okay? It’ll be fine.” Bittle exhales too. “Are you all right?”

“I will be. I really didn’t want to do this, not this year.”

“I know. You’re gonna be fine, though. You can keep your head down and not make a big deal out of it. Let the guys who like that kind of attention get it, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.” He has to make a solid showing for the Falconers, but he doesn’t have to showboat. “I think Whits’ll have that covered.”

“Oh my god, the two of you!” Bittle makes a sound almost like a squeak. “I know you’re not thrilled, but seriously, Jack — this is going to be amazing.”

Jack’s phone beeps with a call notification. He pulls it away to glance at the screen.

“That’s my dad. I should take this.”

“Yeah, of course. Call me later?”

“Okay.” He switches the call and the language too. “Papa, hi. You heard?”

“I did. Are you okay with this? Because if you aren’t, if it’s going to be too much—”

“I’m fine,” Jack says, and takes a deep breath. “But I have something else to tell you.”

It all spills out then: Bittle and the way they’d danced around each other for months, Jack’s jealousy over Bittle’s boyfriends and even Whits, and then Jack going to Samwell last night to finally tell Bittle how he felt.

“Jack, oh my god,” Bob says at the end of it, and he sounds as breathless as Jack feels.

“I love him, Papa, and I’m terrified I’m going to fuck this up.” He winces. “Sorry.”

“Jack, it’s going to be fine. I’m happy for you, okay? More than you know.”

“He’s coming to Nashville with me. Will you and mom come?”

“We wouldn’t miss it. Here, your mother wants to talk to you.”

Jack switches back to English and repeats the same story to her — with a bit more detail thrown in to fend off some of the questions he knows she’ll want to ask.

“Oh, sweetie! You know how much I adore Eric. I’m so happy for you both.” She sounds emotional, which makes Jack feel emotional, and dammit, he does not need to head into practice red-eyed.

“I have to go before I’m late for morning skate. I just wanted you to know, okay?”

“I love you, baby. And I’m so happy for you, for everything.”

*****

Jack is the last one on the ice for morning skate. He’s not technically late, but the guys chirp him anyway about being too big a star to get his ass out there on time. He laughs it off and manages to dish it right back, to their clear amazement.

“It’s like someone flipped a switch,” Kratz says, squinting at him.

“If I didn’t know better,” Rolly says when they’re heading down the ice, “I’d think he got laid.”

Jack looks over at him, surprised, then flushes and looks away again.

“Holy shit,” Janssen says, punching Rolly in the arm. “He fucking did!”

Rolly hoots, then says, “C’mon, Zimms, tell us about her.”

“Or him,” Janssen says, giving him a sharp look. “Don’t be so fuckin’ heteronormative, geesh.”

“That’s a big word for a guy who barely finished high school.”

“Yeah, fuck you. At least I can spell.”

Rolly holds up three fingers. “Sure, but can you read between the lines?”

Kratz groans. “Shut the fuck up, both of you. Zimms, you take the face-off. We’re running the same-side press.”

The five guys doing the power play drill skate towards them, led by Sandy. Whits takes the face-off opposite Jack, grinning at him over the circle. Jack grins back.

“Whoa, fuck,” Rolly says. “It wasn’t Whits, was it?”

Jack groans. “Drop the damn puck.”

“Wasn’t me what?” Whits asks.

“We think Zimms got laid,” Janssen says. “We’re digging for deets.”

“Nah, we’re just excited about making the All-Star roster,” Whits says, and there’s a chorus of gasps and exclamations. Whits looks up. “Shit, y’all didn’t know?”

Kratz sighs and says, “Fuck it,” and everyone spends the next few minutes chirping the hell out of them.

Jack grins and takes it, and it’s actually a relief. He knows he’s been a scary fucker for the last week or so, and it’s nice to see the guys treating him like normal again. He’d worried that there might be some hard feelings about their selection, but they all seem to be happy for him and Whits. Besides, most of them have made plans to take their wives and girlfriends to the Caribbean for the break, so it’s all good.

*****

He sleeps in on Sunday morning after staying up too late the night before. The guys had insisted on taking him and Whits out to celebrate both the win and the ASG selection, and he’d ended up having a better time than he’d expected.

And of course, he’d come home and called Bittle, who’d been a little tipsy after celebrating his own team’s win. This had led to an awkward and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at phone sex, and they’d ended up laughing at each other and talking until they fell asleep.

The phone is still in Jack’s hand when it rings him awake at 8:00 am. He holds it up and squints at the screen. “Bittle. G’morning.”

“Hey, so, Lardo is driving up to spend the day with Shitty. She can drop me off in Norwood, if you want to come pick me up?”

Jack sits up in bed, suddenly completely awake. “Yeah, for sure. What time?”

An hour and a half later, he meets Lardo and Bittle at a Starbucks along I-95. He gives Bittle a quick hug when he sees them, but they’re still in public, so he doesn’t feel like he can do much more than that. Bittle gives him a warm smile and raises his eyebrows, but it seems like he understands. They all get coffee and huddle in a corner for ten minutes, talking about the All-Star Game and the way the Haus erupted in excitement when the news hit.

“Seriously, bro, I thought Chowder was gonna pass out.” Lardo shakes her head. “But then, he still says he sleeps in ‘Jack’s room,’ so.”

Jack shakes his head, and Bittle takes his hand under the table.

“They’re all so proud of you,” Bittle says, smiling at him. “So am I.”

Jack squeezes his hand and smiles back at him. It’s only been a day since they last saw each other, but it feels like a week. Bittle looks flushed and happy, happier than Jack remembers seeing him in months.

“Okaaaay,” Lardo says after a long, quiet moment during which Jack and Bittle get lost staring at each other. “I think I’m gonna hit the road. I’ll text when I’m ready to head back this evening.”

Bittle blinks, then turns to look at her. “What?”

Lardo grins and reaches over to ruffle his hair. “Oh my god, you two. Get outta here.”

*****

By the time Jack parks the truck in the garage, he’s about to jump out of his skin. Bittle did his best to make small talk during the drive, but he hadn’t been able to resist reaching over and touching Jack — first intertwining their fingers, then sliding the back of his hand along the outside of Jack’s thigh, and then stroking up the inside.

When his fingers cupped the erection pressing against Jack’s sweats, Jack had nearly driven off the road.

“Can I—” Bittle had asked, almost breathless.

Jack had caught his hand, reluctantly, and squeezed it. “I’m gonna have a wreck if you do that.”

When the elevator door closes, Jack pulls Bittle against him. His slides his hands down over Bittle’s ass and squeezes, and Bittle’s forehead falls against his shoulder with a soft groan.

“Almost there,” Jack says, and trails his lips over Bittle’s forehead. He’s almost dizzy with need now, and it’s a completely bizarre feeling. He’s not sure if he ever felt this way with Parse, like if he doesn’t get his mouth and his hands on Bittle’s bare skin soon he’ll just fucking explode. Bittle seems to be right there with him, his breathing coming in short, hot bursts against Jack’s chest.

The elevator chimes when the door opens. The hallway is mercifully empty.

Jack wraps an arm around Bittle and steers him toward the door of his apartment. He fumbles with his keys — his fingers don’t want to fucking work, why — and Bittle presses against him from behind, already hard and… fuck.

Jack takes a shaky breath and tries again, and this time the key goes in the slot.

The second they’re through the door, Jack turns around, pushes Bittle back against it, and absolutely devours him. Bittle’s arms go around Jack’s shoulders and he whimpers into Jack’s mouth, and oh, god. It’s not enough, not even close. Jack’s hands slide under Bittle’s ass and he lifts him up, presses him back against the door, and grinds against him.

Bittle whimpers and wraps his legs around Jack’s waist. “Oh my god,” he says, and his head falls back against the door.

Jack can’t resist that long stretch of neck. He mouths under Bittle’s jaw and presses him against the door even harder.

“You… fuck, Jack.” He sounds as desperate as Jack feels. He ducks his head to catch Jack’s lips again.

They’re both completely dressed, coats and all, and it suddenly feels like there’s way too much between them. Jack eases Bittle back to the floor, then roughly pushes the coat off his shoulders.

“Yeah,” Bittle says against his lips, and pushes off the door just enough to let the coat slide the rest of the way off.

Jack frantically tugs his own coat off without breaking the kiss, then slides his hands up under Bittle’s shirt. Oh god, his abs — Jack drops to his knees and pushes Bittle’s shirt up.

Bittle squeaks out a laugh. “Are you licking — that tickles!”

Jack’s fingers hook into the waistband of Bittle’s khakis. He wants — god, he wants, everything. He looks up at Bittle and can’t even form the words to ask for it; he just gives him a pleading look, unfastens the button, and tugs his pants down to his knees.

“Oh my god,” Bittle says, eyes wide.

Later today, Jack will take his time with this. He’ll lick and tease, and learn exactly how much pressure Bittle likes, and bring him to the edge and pull back again. But not right now.

Right now he just needs Bittle’s dick in his mouth, and he needs to suck it until Bittle comes so hard he screams.

Bittle gasps, his hands tangling in Jack’s hair, and the sound sends a jolt down Jack’s spine. He wants to hear that again, wants more, to hear all the sounds Bittle makes when he’s on the edge, wants to make him come so hard he can’t make a sound at all. He wants all of it, right now, so he pins Bittle’s hips to the door with his hands, closes his eyes, and breathes in the scent of him. He takes him in as far as he can and swallows around him, pulls up until just the head of Bittle’s dick is pressed against the roof of his mouth, then does it again. And again, until Bittle is making desperate, startled noises above him, his fingers tightening in Jack’s hair. It’s somehow still not enough; Jack needs more, closer, deeper, and—

“Jack,” Bittle pants, tugging on Jack’s hair. “I’m—”

Jack pulls off, presses his forehead into Bittle’s stomach and strokes furiously. Bittle’s hips jerk forward when he comes, and Jack fucking feels it, feels the way his dick gets a little harder, the way his body tenses under Jack’s hands. Warmth spills over his fist and splashes onto his cheek, and god. How did he go so long without this?

He doesn’t let go until Bittle whimpers and pushes at his forehead. Jack sits back on his heels and presses one hand against his own erection, and looks up at Bittle almost desperately. He’s so close, and—

“Oh, honey,” Bittle says, and sinks to his knees. He pushes at Jack’s shoulders until Jack goes over onto his back on the floor. Bittle reaches between them, slides his hand under the waistband of Jack’s sweats, and jerks him hard and fast.

“Fuck,” Jack moans, looking up at him, and Bittle leans down, his lips brushing against Jack’s in feathery not-quite kisses. They pant into each other’s mouths and Jack is close, so close he can barely think about anything but how much he needs to come.

Bittle whispers, “Jack, god,” against his lips, and Jack gasps, eyes squeezing shut. Bittle swallows Jack’s moan, kissing him hard, and Jack comes all over himself.

His head buzzes right after, and his limbs are heavy. He can’t remember the last time he came that hard. Maybe he never has.

“God, Bitty.”

Bittle chuckles into Jack’s open mouth. “Oh honey. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Bittle’s tongue is hot and precise against his own, and Jack can only lie there and let Bittle kiss him.

“Promise?” Jack says, breathy and sated.

“Yeah.” Bittle’s mouth trails across Jack’s jaw, down to suck one earlobe into his mouth. “How soon can you go again?”

Jack laughs, slides a hand around the back of Bittle’s head. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Bittle grins down at him. “Um, you’ve got…” He pokes at Jack’s hair.

Jack reaches up and comes away with sticky fingers. “Guess I should take a shower.”

“Want some company?”

They eventually get off the floor and make their way to the bedroom, where they strip off the rest of their clothes, take a very distracted shower, and finally curl up together under Jack’s cool sheets. They kiss and smooth hands over each other’s skin, and Jack marvels at the way he just wants to keep doing this. He could do nothing but touch and kiss Bittle all day, continuously, and it’s weird and wonderful all at once.

Minutes pass, or maybe hours, and there’s a series of pinging sounds. Bittle pulls his lips away from Jack’s long enough to say, “I think that’s… my phone.” He sounds as dazed as Jack feels.

“Yeah, you should…”

“Yeah.” He kisses Jack once more, then goes to dig it out of the pocket of his pants, still on the floor in the other room. He reappears a moment later, his expression stricken.

“What is it?” Jack asks.

“Kevin.” Bittle frowns. “We were going to hang out tonight. I totally forgot.”

“So you haven’t—”

“No.” Bittle sighs and looks up. “I wanted to tell him in person, and I haven’t had a chance.”

Jack pushes himself to sitting. “He has no idea, really?”

“No, he… he’s been busy this weekend. He texted me yesterday, actually, to tell me he was sorry he couldn’t make it to the games this weekend or come by after.”

Bittle’s forehead is furrowed, and Jack feels a sudden stab of insecurity. “You really like him, don’t you?”

Bittle is quiet for a moment. “Yeah, well… I mean, he’s a great guy.”

Jack’s stomach sinks. “Right.”

“Jack.” Bittle sits on the bed next to him, and touches his shoulder. “He’s just a guy. He’s not you.”

And that’s what worries Jack the most: Bittle is always going to choose Jack, even when he shouldn’t, and Jack knows he doesn’t deserve it. “But he’s… You wouldn’t have to pretend you’re single and be my dirty little secret. Or wait until I’m in town, or—”

“Jack,” Bittle says, and Jack looks up at him. “You’re worth it. I’d wait as long as I had to for you.”

“I… me too.” Jack pulls Bittle against him and kisses him. The dark swirl of anxiety doesn’t disappear completely, but he can live with it for now.

Bittle draws in a breath and wraps his arms around Jack’s shoulders. “Good.”

Jack kisses him, and pulls Bittle back down on top of him, grinds his hips up so Bittle can feel him getting hard again. There’s a strange, new sort of desperation tingeing his desire now, like he’s not sure he should let himself have this.

“Lord, you’re insatiable,” Bittle says, grinning.

“Maybe I am.” Jack touches his forehead to Bittle’s and closes his eyes. It’s still making his head spin, this complete one-eighty from celibacy. “Making up for lost time, I guess.”

Bittle shifts down Jack’s body, lips and tongue mapping out the sensitive spots on Jack’s neck and chest. Jack likes teeth grazing against his throat, it seems, along with light flicks of Bittle’s tongue across his nipples. Bittle’s tongue dips into his navel and an unpleasant sensation spears through Jack’s gut. He flinches and curls away from it.

“No?” Bittle looks up at him, grinning.

“No,” Jack says, making a face, and Bittle moves on, mouthing over Jack’s hipbones, slowly making his way lower. He feels greedy just lying here while Bittle touches and kisses him, but it’s nice too. He’s not sure anyone’s ever taken the time to explore his body like this. He takes a deep breath, and sighs, then reaches down to ruffle Bittle’s hair. “But everything else is yours, I promise.”

“Everything?” Bittle holds Jack’s gaze and slides his hands under Jack’s ass. Jack raises his eyebrows, and Bittle turns a little pink. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to get my hands on this.”

Jack smirks, and then rolls over onto his stomach. “Then go right ahead.”

“Lord, I… Jack.” One warm hand presses against Jack’s ass, then Bittle sits up and swings one leg over to straddle his thighs. He slides his hands up Jack’s ass, thumbs spreading the cheeks a little, then keeps going up, palms smoothing up to Jack’s shoulders.

“You’ve lost weight since the fall.”

“I know.”

Bittle leans forward to drop a kiss between Jack’s shoulder blades. He’s hard again too, and his dick presses into the cleft of Jack’s ass. Bittle makes a soft sound and shifts his hips, grinding against Jack’s ass, and god, it’s hot.

“Is this okay?” Bittle sounds a little breathless.

Jack imagines the wet slide of Bittle’s dick against him, and yeah — more than okay. He reaches off the side of the bed and fumbles for a bottle of lube in the nightstand, then drops it next to Bittle’s knee without a word.

“You’re so dirty,” Bittle says, and kisses the back of his neck. “I love it.” Bittle drags his tongue down Jack’s spine, slowly, then goes lower, stopping just short of dipping between Jack’s cheeks. He drops a kiss at the base of Jack’s spine, then bites Jack’s ass playfully.

Jack yelps, and he does it again, and again until Jack wriggles out from under him. “Ugh, that tickles!”

Bittle laughs. “Okay, I’m stopping, come back here.” He waits for Jack to settle down, then runs his palms over the cheeks of Jack’s ass again. He kisses the spots he just bit, then pries the cheeks apart and dips his tongue between.

Jack hopes the sound he makes is muffled by the duvet. So okay: he knows this is a thing people do, but it’s not something he’s ever done before, and god. Bittle’s tongue is wet and cool and barely there, just feather-light flicks against his asshole that send jolts straight to his cock. It’s filthy and hot, all at once, and it’s not nearly enough. Bittle’s tongue goes lower, to the sensitive skin just behind Jack’s balls. Jack spreads his thighs wantonly, his face flaming now, but he doesn’t care. Bittle’s tongue swipes back up again and then there’s warm wet pressure, right where Jack wants it. He groans into the mattress.

Bittle sits up, taking his wicked mouth with him, and Jack only barely stops himself from whimpering in protest. He stretches a little and reaches under himself to adjust his erection, and tries not to squirm too much. A few seconds later, Bittle’s dick slides between his ass cheeks again, slick now.

“Oh, fuck,” Bittle says, and the tone of it sends a shiver down Jack’s spine.

Bittle keeps his movements slow and controlled as he rubs off on Jack’s ass, and it’s a lot hotter than Jack would have expected. He doesn’t mean to shift his hips back against Bittle, but he can’t help it. Bittle pulls back a little farther at the same time, and the head of his dick brushes against Jack’s hole on the upstroke.

“Sorry,” Bittle says, his voice strained.

“Ah, no, that’s…” Jack inhales, exhales again. It’s been a long time since anyone has fucked him, but it’s suddenly all he can think about. “You can, you know. If you want.”

“What?”

“You can fuck me.”

“I…” Bittle says, and gasps. He presses his forehead against Jack’s shoulder and thrusts forward one more time. There’s a sudden wet warmth on his back, followed by, “Jack, fuck.” Bittle stays there for a long moment, slumped against Jack’s back. He presses an open-mouthed kiss against Jack’s shoulder. “Okay, I was not expecting that.”

“Hmmm?” Jack’s still wound tight, his dick aching, but he can wait.

Bittle leans over the side to fish a tissue out of the box on Jack’s nightstand, and cleans Jack off. “I guess… I thought that if we did that, it’d be the other way around.”

Jack turns over and looks up at him. “There aren’t rules, you know.”

“I know.” Bittle’s face is flushed in a way Jack finds utterly adorable. His gaze slides down to Jack’s dick, still hard against his belly. Bittle bites his lip through a smile, then ducks down to take it in his mouth.

“You really are good at that,” Jack says, and threads his fingers into Bittle’s hair.

Bittle comes off and looks up at him. “If you can still form sentences, I need do it better.”

He does, and Jack doesn’t manage a coherent thought for a while after that.

*****

They take a break to eat, though it’s just sandwiches with whatever Jack happened to have in the fridge. They can barely keep their hands off each other long enough to finish, and wind up back in bed soon after.

“Is this normal?” Bittle asks, tucking his head into Jack’s shoulder. “I mean, the sex marathon?”

Jack kisses his forehead. “I was gonna ask you the same thing.” He has no idea, but he’s not complaining.

“So can I ask you something?” Bittle hesitates a moment, and seems to take Jack’s silence as assent. “How long have you been… Okay, I’ve had a stupid crush on you since we took that food and culture class together, but I really didn’t think you were interested until—”

“Thanksgiving,” Jack tells him. “When you were here. I think I’d felt that way for a while, but I didn’t realize it until then.”

“Oh, god.” Bittle presses his face into Jack’s chest. “The night we went to dinner?”

“Yeah.”

Bittle groans. “That weekend was torture. I drank too much and flirted with you like an idiot, and I didn’t think…” He looks up at Jack, frowning. “So why didn’t you say anything?”

Jack strokes his shoulder. “You were dating someone.”

“Someone I would’ve broken up with in a heartbeat!”

“I didn’t know that.” Jack sighs, and tugs Bittle up for a kiss. “My head wasn’t in a good place then. I didn’t think this was something I could do.”

Bittle blinks at him, and Jack tells him everything, how he was sure there was something wrong with him for years, and hadn’t figured out until recently there there was a word for it. How just knowing that made it seem like maybe he could do this, could be a good partner for someone and not end up wrecking everything again.

“Oh, honey,” Bittle says, and kisses him, and it’s so full of acceptance and affection that Jack feels like he might burst.

They kiss and kiss, then Jack rolls them over and spends half an hour exploring every inch of Bittle’s skin. It’s another twenty minutes before he lets Bittle come, on his fingers, one hand wrapped around his dick, sucking a mark into Bittle’s hip.

He’s pretty sure he’s going to have to apologize to his neighbors the next time he sees them.

*****

Jack’s phone pings with a text around 9:00 pm. He’s curled up on the couch with a book, not quite ready to face his empty bed just yet. He picks up the phone and smiles.

Can you Facetime?

He replies yes, and opens the app. It rings a few seconds later. Jack’s smile drops away the moment he sees Bittle’s face.

“What’s wrong?”

Bittle sighs and sits back on his bed. His eyes are puffy and his face is flushed. “I broke up with Kevin.”

“Oh.” Jack runs a hand through his hair and exhales smoothly. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I mean… It just sucked that I couldn’t really give him a good reason and…” Bittle closes his eyes for a moment. “I feel like an asshole, you know?”

“I’m sorry.” Jack looks away from the phone for a moment. It’s not fair that he’s put Bittle in this position, and this is just the beginning. “What did you tell him?”

“That I’m stressed out and busy with hockey and school, and that it’s only going to get worse this semester. I said I couldn’t really be a good boyfriend for him right now and he…” Bittle takes a deep breath. “He said he could deal with it, that I was worth it. That he… well. He said a lot of things that I would have loved to hear, under other circumstances.”

Jack’s chest aches. “Bitty—”

“Please don’t.” Bittle shakes his head sadly. “I don’t feel that way about him, not even close. If we’d kept going, maybe I would’ve gotten there, but…”

Jack takes a shaky breath. Bittle is going to have to sacrifice so much to be with him, and Jack isn’t sure he’s worth it. He knows he isn’t. “I’m sorry.”

“It was pretty fucking awful to stand there and break his heart, and then have to walk away. You know?”

Jack doesn’t know, not really. But he says, “Yeah,” anyway.

“Sorry, I’m a mess.” Bittle wipes his eyes.

Jack’s head swirls with thoughts he can’t wrangle: that this is all his fault, that Kevin is probably a better boyfriend for Bittle than Jack could ever be, and that if it weren’t for Jack, Bittle might have a shot at having a normal relationship. Instead, he’s got a secret long-distance relationship with an anxiety-ridden, closeted professional athlete. They can’t even go on proper dates, for fuck’s sake.

“Hey, are you okay?”

Jack looks at the screen again. Bittle is watching him, his expression one of concern, and Jack feels like an asshole sitting here wallowing in his own anxiety when Bittle is the one who needs support.

“Yeah. I just… I’m sorry.”

“Anyway, it’s over.” Bittle takes a deep breath and releases it, and smiles, just a little. “I really wish I was there right now. We could snuggle up on the couch, watch a movie.”

“Yeah.”

Bittle laughs and wipes his eyes. “Oh, who am I kidding? We’d just have more sex.”

Jack tries valiantly to smile. “Yeah, probably.”

“So, uh… I think I’m gonna take French this semester. I mean, between cooking and, well, you, I figured it’d be at least as useful as the Spanish I took in high school.”

Jack’s smile comes easier now, to his relief. “Too bad you don’t know anyone who could help you with that.”

“Yeah, you’d probably just teach me dirty stuff.” Bittle smirks at him.

“And hockey terms. You know, the important things.”

“Add in some baking words and that’s pretty much all I’d need.”

“It’d make for an awkward conversation with my mémé, but okay.”

“With your what?”

“Never mind.” Jack settles back into the couch cushions. “Wanna watch the first period of the Sharks and Schooners game with me?”

Bittle smiles at him, and it’s beautifully genuine. “Sure, sweetheart.”

It’s only been two days and Bittle’s already calling him pet names. It’s the sort of thing Parse would never have done, would have mocked Jack for even trying. As he does with everything else in this new wonderful thing with Bittle, Jack really, really likes it.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack stops outside the door of a small conference room and double-checks the time of the meeting. The room is empty, but he’s early, as usual. He flips on the lights, then sits and pulls his phone out of his pocket.

He has a new snap from Bittle: a selfie in which he’s smiling sweetly at the camera. The text on the photo says Miss you. Jack taps out a quick Miss you too.

Bittle had downloaded Snapchat on his phone while they were lounging in bed on Sunday afternoon, and spent a good half an hour showing him how to use it. Jack’s still not finding it very intuitive, but he likes that it feels more private than Twitter and Instagram. Of course, once Shitty, Ransom, and Holster found out he had an account, he’d started getting a ridiculous number of bizarre snaps from them. It turns out that half the guys on his team use Snapchat too, so it’s quickly become the center of his virtual social life.

“Jack?”

He looks up to see George in the doorway, watching him with raised eyebrows. He blushes and puts his phone away. “Sorry.”

“No problem. I just wanted to let you know that Tasha is going to join us in a couple of minutes. I hope that’s okay?”

“Yeah, of course.” Jack hasn’t actually come out to many people other than George and a few of the guys on the team, but he supposes Tasha is as good a person to tell next as any, considering she’s the club’s social media manager. “Whits is running late anyway.”

“I’m here.” Whits appears in the doorway behind George. “Sorry, got stuck talking to one of the trainers.”

George smiles at him, then turns away. “I’ll be right back.”

Whits sits next to Jack. “You’re in a good mood today.”

Jack wants to ask if that’s really so unusual, but then thinks better of it. He shrugs.

“So I should tell you I popped by on Sunday afternoon.” Whits leans back in his chair with a sly grin on his face. “I texted you a couple of times and you didn’t reply, so I went up to see if you wanted to hang out.”

Jack winces. “Oh god.”

“Your door was unlocked, bro.” Whits raises his eyebrows. “And I think your bedroom door was open too, because—”

“Shit,” Jack groans and presses his hands over his face.

“Hey, I turned right around and booked it outta there when I realized.” Whits snickers. “But you know, you should probably lock your door if you’ve got company.”

“Or maybe you could knock first?” Jack tries to glare at him, but he’s pretty sure the way he’s blushing completely negates the effect.

“Dude, I did. And then opened the door anyway, like I always do.” He has the decency to look chagrined. “It sounded like y’all were having fun, though.”

Before Jack can come up with a reply to that, George walks into the room, mug of coffee in one hand and her tablet in the other. She’s followed by her PA Jason Martinez, who always dresses like he works for a bank instead of a sports organization. He nods at Jack and Whits in greeting.

A few seconds later, Tasha pops through the door with her typical cheery “Heeeeeey.” She sits across from Jack and Whits and sets her own tablet on the table, along with a tall bottle of murky liquid. Her hair is mostly blue this week, to Jack’s relief. He’d found the previous shade of bright green a little jarring. “Congrats on making the All-Star roster, you two. I mean, I tweeted about it and all, but it’s cool to be able to say it in person.”

“Thanks.” Whits grins at her. “It’s pretty crazy, I gotta say.”

“It’s the first year in the history of this club that we’ve had two players make the roster,” George says, beaming at both of them. “And it’s the first time we’ve ever sent a rookie. So we want to make sure we do a solid job of promoting your appearance there.”

Jack’s stomach twists, but he nods. This is part of the job, whether he likes it or not.

“We’ll get your travel arrangements made as soon as possible, so if you have any commitments around the event dates, get those to Jason.” She glances over at Jason, who’s tapping at the screen of the tablet in his lap. “I assume your parents are planning to come?”

“Yeah,” Whits says. “And my sister, and maybe my brother and his wife. At least for the game on Sunday.”

Jason taps furiously at the screen of his tablet. “If you can get me their full names, I’ll make sure they have the correct passes. I can also make reservations for them at the official hotel.”

“Thanks.” Whits grins, and Jack wishes he could feel as excited about the whole thing as Whits clearly does.

“Jack?” George prompts.

Jack shifts in his chair. “Yeah, my parents are coming. And uh…” He swallows down the nervous tension that’s suddenly rising in his throat and looks over at George. “My boyfriend is coming too.”

He glances over at Tasha and Jason. Both of them look utterly surprised.

“Nice.” Whits knocks his knee against Jack’s under the table, completely casual. “Is he coming for the whole thing?”

“Maybe, if they’ll scratch him from his games that weekend.”

“Sweet, bro.” Whits smiles warmly at him, and Jack is suddenly, ridiculously grateful to him for making it not a big deal at all.

“So how do you want us to handle that?” Tasha asks, her expression more serious than he’s ever seen before. “I mean… he’s going to be noticed. People are going to speculate about who he is and why he’s there.” She glances at George. “Unless you’re planning to be open about that?”

“No,” Jack says, a little too quickly. He looks down at the phone in his hands and presses his lips together for a moment.

“It’s your choice, Jack.” George’s voice is soft, but still somehow commands the attention of everyone in the room. “The organization will support you either way.”

Jack takes a deep breath. “I’m not ready to come out. And I know that puts the organization in a weird position, but I… I really want him there.”

“We could say he’s a family friend,” Jason offers. “Would anyone buy that he’s a cousin?”

“That’d be too easy to figure out.” Tasha looks like she’s trying very hard not to roll her eyes.

“Just say he’s a friend, period.” Whits shrugs. “I mean, you’re all over each other’s twitters anyway, and you played on the same line for two years. It’s not like people don’t already know you’re close.”

Tasha sits forward, her blue eyebrows furrowing. “Wait, what’s his name?”

“Eric Bittle,” Jack says after a moment’s hesitation. It’s the first time he’s said it to someone other than Whits or his parents. He frowns — he probably should have asked Bittle’s permission before outing him to people he doesn’t know, but it’s too late now. Jack exhales. “He’s a teammate from Samwell.”

“Oh my god, Eric is your boyfriend?” Tasha laughs and glances over at George. “Okay, I’m an idiot. He’s the one we’re always retweeting, who posts all the cute photos of these two.” She gestures at Jack and Whits. “I’ve chatted with him on Twitter a lot in the last couple of months, and I had no idea.”

Jack feels his face heat. Even though he and Bittle have only been officially dating for a few days, they’ve been intertwined in each other’s lives for a long time. “Yeah, he… yeah.”

Tasha sits forward and steeples her fingers in front of her. “Well, that’s even better, because I have an idea.” She grins at Jack. “And I think everyone is gonna like it.”

George glances at Jack, and smiles. “I think I already know what you’re going to say, and yeah, I agree.”

Jack exhales, and something unwinds in his chest, just a little. “Okay. Shoot.”

*****

Jack settles on the couch with his laptop and opens Skype. Bittle’s already logged in, and he calls Jack a few seconds later.

“Hey,” Jack says when Bittle’s face appears on the screen.

“Holy shit!” Bittle grins at him and presses his palms over his cheeks. “Was that your idea?”

“No, it was Tasha’s. What did she tell you?”

“I’m gonna cover all the social media from the All-Star weekend for the Falcs. I’m doing Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr. They’re giving me a phone to use so I can keep it separate from mine, and an all-access pass, and they’re even gonna pay me!”

“That’s fantastic.” Jack grins at him. “So you’re gonna be able to come for the whole thing?”

Bittle nods. “I just got off the phone with Coach Hall. I told him what they’d offered me and what an amazing opportunity it was, and he agreed. I should probably be a little insulted by how easy it was to convince him the Falcs need me more than the team that weekend, but whatever.”

“You’re gonna be busier than I am.”

“I’m gonna spend the whole weekend trying to make you and Taylor look cool and interesting, so yeah, probably.” Bittle’s smirk softens. “But I have a reason to hang around without it looking suspicious, so that’s good.”

“Yeah, it is.” Jack smiles, and then feels guilty. “It won’t always be like that, you know?”

“I know. But it really is a fantastic opportunity. Whatever I end up doing with my life, that’s gonna look good on my resume.” He sits back and stretches, and Jack realizes he’s on his bed. A little spark ignites in Jack’s belly.

“So… what’re you doing right now?”

Onscreen, Bittle bites his lip through a smile. “Nothing much. Why?”

“I miss you.”

“God, me too. It’s only been a couple of days, but I’m going crazy thinking about you.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Bittle’s smile gets a little wider.

Jack stares back at him for a moment, then shifts his laptop to his knees so he can tug his t-shirt up and over his head. He hears Bittle’s intake of breath, and grins.

“What are you thinking about that’s making you so crazy?”

They haven’t tried this since the time a few nights before, but Jack’s been thinking about it. A lot, to the point of distraction. He’s half-hard already, and he’s not even sure if this is where the conversation is going yet.

“You pushing me up against the door and sucking me off,” Bittle says, his voice distinctly rougher now.

So okay, it’s going there.

“Yeah?” Jack slides a hand into his sweats.

“Yeah.” The view on Bittle’s end shifts, and when it settles again, Bittle is leaning back against his pillows with the laptop perched on his knees. “I don’t know what I expected that day, but it wasn’t that.”

“Was it okay?”

Bittle’s cheeks are slightly flushed, and his brown eyes are dark and wide. “It was hot and you know it.”

This is hot too, even though they’re miles apart. It reminds Jack of the Skype calls after games when he’d only barely resisted touching himself, and had imagined Bittle felt the same way.

“I’m a little rusty at giving head.” Jack’s hand slides lower, down to his balls. “I should practice more.”

“I volunteer as tribute.” Bittle stares at him through the screen. His tongue slides over his lower lip, and Jack nearly groans at the sight of his mouth so wet.

“God, Bits… Can I see more of you?”

“Mmmm, like this?”

The view goes blurry and sideways for a moment, then refocuses on Bittle taking off his shirt. His face is out of view of the screen, but Jack can see his erection pressing up against the thin sweats he’s wearing. Jack’s dick is so hard it hurts.

“Wanna lose the pants too?” He sounds breathless even to his own ears.

Bittle giggles. “If you’re touching yourself, I wanna see.”

Jack sets the laptop on the coffee table and raises his hips enough to push his sweats down and off. He sits back on the couch and lets his thighs fall open, and takes his dick in his hand. It’s weird to see himself like that in the small window in the corner of the screen, slowly jerking off while someone else watches.

“Oh my god, Jack.” Bittle sets the laptop on the bed in front of him, between his thighs, then leans back against his pillows. His fingers wrap around the base of his dick and slide up.

Jack whimpers and strokes himself, slowly.

“So when we’re in Nashville, we’ll have what, three nights together?” Bittle’s voice hitches a little on the last word.

“Yeah.” Jack’s hand moves down to his balls, then back up again, twisting the foreskin a little against the head.

“God, I can’t wait.”

“Me either.” Jack watches the movement of Bittle’s hand on the screen. He wishes he could see Bittle’s face too.

“So you did this a lot, thinking about me?”

Jack smiles, though he knows Bittle can’t see it. “Yeah. Almost did it while we were Skyping a couple of times, last fall.”

“Really?” Bittle leans to the side, almost disappearing from view.

“Yeah.”

“I totally had my hand down my pants a few of those nights when we were talking on the phone.” Bittle’s dick is back in the frame now, and the hand stroking it is slick with lube.

Jack’s brain gets stuck on the visual for a good five seconds before he processes Bittle’s words. “Wait, what?”

Bittle’s hand is moving a little faster now. “There were a few times I thought maybe… you sounded like you were flirting with me, you know?”

“I was flirting with you.” Jack’s grip tightens on the head of his cock, matching Bittle’s rhythm. “I couldn’t help it.”

“And I touched myself, lying on my bed, listening to your voice.”

“Jesus, Bitty.” He can almost imagine it: Bittle holding the phone in one hand, the other between his thighs, stroking his dick like he is now, slick and fast and—

“Are you close?” Bittle pants, and Jack says, “Yeah,” and they come within a minute of each other.

“I want to do that in person,” Bittle says after they aim the cameras at their faces again. “You sure you can’t sneak over here before you have to go on the road again?”

Jack has never been more tempted than he is right now. “We have to be at the airport at nine tomorrow.”

“And then you won’t have any privacy for five days.” Bittle pouts.

“Not unless Whits hooks up.” Which is likely, so there’s that.

Bittle moves the laptop closer and settles on his side on the bed. His face is squashed into a pillow. “Well, maybe it won’t be so hard to get a little alone time after all. Tampa Bay first, right?”

“Yeah, then back to New York. I’m pretty sure he hooked up with a guy from the Isles last time we played them.”

Bittle laughs. “Is he seriously trying to fuck his way through the league?”

“Probably. More power to him, I guess.” Jack cleans himself off with a tissue and pulls his sweats back up, then picks the laptop up and carries it back to the bedroom. “So what else did you do today?”

Bittle talks about the chemistry class he’s taking and something one of the frogs did at team breakfast, and Jack curls up on his bed to listen. It’s the closest they can get to pillow talk right now, but Jack will take it.

*****

Jack’s driving to morning skate when his phone buzzes with a text.

“Give me that,” Whits says, plucking it from his hand. “You drive, I’ll text for you.” He taps at the screen of Jack’s phone. “Eric says he’s coming to the game tonight. He’s taking the train and he’ll get an Uber to the arena. What do you want to reply?”

Jack exhales in relief. They haven’t seen each other in person in ten days. Bittle had been hoping to make it to this home game tonight before the Samwell team goes on the road in the morning. But he’d had a paper due tonight at midnight, and they’d agreed he would only come if he turned it in. Jack is so excited about the prospect of getting to touch Bittle again that he’s not going to bother asking him if he actually finished it.

“Tell him to come to the press door and and I’ll make sure Tasha has a pass for him. She told me to let her know the next time he comes anyway. She wants to go over some stuff with him.”

Whits nods and starts typing that out.

Jack frowns. “Wait, since when do you know the passcode for my phone?”

Whits grins. “I have my ways. And you’re not very creative.” A minute passes, and then, “Okay, he says he’ll try to come earlier. He’s gonna message Tasha.” Whits snickers. “And oooh, he says he can’t wait to get his mouth on your—”

“Okay, that’s enough!” Jack snatches the phone out of his hand and shoves it into his pocket.

“You’re so getting laid tonight.”

“Yeah,” Jack says, and smirks at him. “I am.”

Whits’ head falls back against the seat. “I’m so fucking jealous I can barely stand it.”

“Hey, you’re the one who had a threesome with those two wingers when we were in Tampa Bay.”

“And you said I was never to speak of it.” Whits chuckles darkly. “But I think this counts as asking for deets, so—”

“Whits,” Jack warns.

“God, it was amazing. I’d always wondered what it would be like to get fucked and sucked at the same time.”

“Oh, for— I will pull this truck over.”

Whits’ grin threatens to bubble out into laughter. “Oooh, are you gonna spank me too? Cause I think I’d like that.”

Whits’ phone rings then, and Jack shakes his head. “Please answer that.”

“Fine, fine, I—” He stares at the screen and his expression changes. He frowns and answers the call. “Hey… Yeah, I…” Whits sighs and looks out the window. “Fine, whatever, just…” He’s silent for nearly a minute. “Okay, Jesus, I get it! If you change your mind, let me know. Call me later.” He drops the phone into his lap. “Shit.”

Jack pulls into the athletes’ lot at the arena and parks, then looks over at him. “You okay?”

Whits shrugs, all of his earlier spirit gone. “I invited Dani to come to Nashville.”

“I thought you weren’t going to.”

“Yeah, me either, and then I had too much to drink a few nights ago and…” He sighs. “I called him and, god, I was a total idiot. We had phone sex and it was pretty hot, and… well, I asked him if he’d come and spend that weekend with me.”

“Ah.” Jack unfastens his seatbelt and shifts to face him. “So is he coming?”

“No.” Whits scrubs at his forehead with one hand. “He says he’s made other plans and I’d be too busy running around being some big shot hockey star anyway, whatever the fuck.”

“Sounds like he’s jealous.”

“As fuck, yeah. He never even texted or called to congratulate me, you know? I had to call him. And then he made it all about him, so of course I felt like shit and—” Whits groans. “God, why do I even care?”

Jack sighs. “He’s an asshole. You know that, right?”

“He can be, sometimes. But then…” Whits shakes his head. “No matter how many other guys I hook up with, he’s always the one I…” He clenches his jaw and looks away, and for one terrifying moment, Jack thinks Whits is going to cry.

“It’s weird how you can love and hate someone at the same time, isn’t it?”

Whits huffs out a broken sort of laugh at that. “It’s so fucked up, oh my god.”

“Well, I’m glad he’s not going,” Jack says, honestly. “You’re gonna have a lot more fun without him.”

“I know. I’d spend the entire weekend worrying that he wasn’t having a good time and I’d miss the whole thing.” Whits makes a sound of frustration, then turns a determined face to Jack. “Okay. You know what? We’re gonna play a fucking good game tonight.”

“Yeah.” Jack grins at him.

“And then we’re both gonna get laid afterward. Deal?”

“Deal.” Jack raises a fist, and Whits bumps it.

*****

Jack’s just changed from his warmup clothes into his Under Armour when his phone buzzes with a text from Tasha.

Got your boy. Ok if I bring him down?

Jack’s stomach does a flip, and he almost drops his phone in his haste to reply Yes. He steps out of the locker room to wait, because he really doesn’t want to be surrounded by the guys when he sees his boyfriend for the first time in more than a week. Fortunately, the hallway is deserted when Tasha turns the corner with Bittle in tow. They’re chattering about something, but Bittle stops talking the moment he spots Jack.

He’s somehow even more perfect than Jack’s mental image of him, standing there wearing Jack’s jersey with his brown eyes wide. The sight of him makes Jack’s insides melt.

“Bitty,” he says, and closes the distance between them in a matter of seconds.

Bittle opens his mouth to say something, but before he can, Jack pulls him into his arms. Bittle hugs him tightly, tucks his forehead into Jack’s neck, and god, it feels good. Jack turns his head, presses his nose into Bittle’s hair, and takes a deep breath. He suddenly hates the fact that he can’t have this every day, that this is only the third time he’s been able to touch Bittle since they started this almost two weeks ago.

“God, I missed you.” His voice is suddenly full of emotion and he doesn’t understand why.

Bittle looks up at him, and for a few wild seconds, Jack doesn’t care that Tasha is standing there, that they’re in a hallway and someone could come around the corner at any moment. He leans down and kisses Bittle, soft and close-mouthed, and as full of feeling as he can make it. Bittle makes a happy noise against Jack’s lips and goes up on his toes to kiss him back. His fingers dig into Jack’s hips, and Jack is suddenly very aware of the way Bittle’s body fits against his — and that Jack isn’t wearing much more than spandex.

He puts a little space between them and smiles. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Bittle replies, a little breathless.

“God, you two are gonna give me cavities.” Jack looks over Bittle’s shoulder to see Tasha grinning at him. “All right, I gotta get Eric a staff shirt and get him going.”

“Yeah, she’s gonna train me tonight. I’m gonna do Snapchat and Instagram.” He grins at Jack, clearly excited.

Jack can’t imagine Bittle requires much training on either of those, but he’s hardly the expert. “Sounds like fun.”

“Have a great game, okay?” He steps forward and kisses Jack once more before Tasha leads him away. He looks back over his shoulder once and winks at Jack, then disappears around the corner.

Jack has to lean against the wall for a long moment and collect himself before he can head back to the locker room.

It’s kind of surreal catching occasional glimpses of Bittle during the game. Jack worried for about 3.5 seconds that it would be a distraction, but it isn’t. He’s associated Bittle with hockey for years, so seeing him with a phone aimed at Jack when Jack steps off the ice at the end of a shift isn’t actually that weird. He even pops into the locker room during first intermission to grab a few shots of the guys for the Falcs’ snap story. Jack’s sure his eyes have hearts in them when he looks at Bittle, but he can’t help it.

“Hey, is that your friend from college?” Janssen asks.

“Yeah,” Jack says, and ducks down to adjust the laces on his skates.

“Didn’t he and Whits go out for a while?”

Jack huffs out a laugh. “No, that was… The New Year’s thing was just a joke.”

“Didn’t look like one,” Janssen says, elbowing Jack. “They still look pretty cozy.”

Jack looks up to see Whits chatting with Bittle by the locker room door. Bittle laughs at something Whits says, and looks up at him with a smile that makes something twist in Jack’s chest.

“Whits got serious game, damn.” Janssen pulls a clean jersey over his head. “So your friend… Eric, right? Does he like, work here now?”

“He’s kind of interning. He’s gonna cover social media for the All-Star Game, so Tasha’s got him doing some stuff tonight.”

“Shit, really? He’s going to Nashville with you and Whits?” Janssen slaps Jack on the shoulder and laughs low in his throat. “Looks like you’re gonna be a third wheel that weekend, bro.”

Jack’s jaw clenches. He’s not ready to tell people about his relationship with Bittle, but at the same time, it’s hard to hear a friend assume Bittle and Whits are a couple. He watches them for another minute, anxiety starting to swirl darkly in the center of his chest. When Bittle finally looks over at Jack, his expression shifts instantly into something almost like confusion. He says something to Whits that makes Whits look over at Jack too.

Jack looks away again. He knows his jealousy is irrational, but he can’t help it. When he looks up again, Bittle is gone.

Whits sits next to Jack and pulls his skates back on. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Jack gives him a tight smile.

Whits rolls his eyes. “Don’t fuckin’ lie to me, bro. You’re pissed. I can tell.”

“It’s nothing.” Jack unties his left skate and starts again, pulling the laces across the boot a little tighter.

“No, this is how you acted when—” Whits leans back in his stall and groans. “Shit. If you think—”

“Just leave it, okay?” Jack can’t even bring himself to look at Whits. “It’s my issue, and I’ll deal with it. I know it’s not…” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “I know I don’t have anything to worry about there. I’m just being stupid.”

The problem is that he can’t just turn his anxiety off. It’s always there, just under the surface, waiting to undermine him. He thinks he could spend years with Bittle and it would still be there, this dark feeling that he’s not really good enough for Bittle, that he doesn’t deserve him.

He takes a deep breath and presses his hands over his face. “Shit.”

Whits sighs. “If you don’t want me to be friends with him, I won’t. I mean, that’s not fucking fair, but—”

“No, god.” Jack drops his hands. “That is not what I want. I just need some time, okay? I’ll get there.”

Whits squeezes his shoulder and goes back to tying his skates.

Jack channels the rest of his frustration into his game. They were the favorites tonight anyway — the Canucks have had a fairly shitty season — but Jack scores his second goal of the night on the power play at the beginning of the third. Kratz scores on a centering pass from Jack a couple of shifts later, and when the Canucks pull their goalie with two minutes to go, Jack feeds it to Whits, who shoots it into the empty net. They win 5-1, and Jack has a four-point game.

Bittle is waiting for him outside the locker room, tapping at the screen of his phone. He looks up and smiles when Jack stops in front of him.

“Great game. God, that wrister at the beginning of the third was filthy.”

“Yeah, got a little lucky on that one.” Jack glances around, but no one seems to be paying attention to them. “When do you have to be back?”

“Last train’s in less than an hour.” Bittle makes a face.

“I can drive you back to campus.” Jack raises his eyebrows. “If you can stay a little longer.”

A sly smile spreads over Bittle’s face before he catches himself and schools his expression into something more casual. “Okay. What did you have in mind?”

Jack glances around one more time, then leans in and says, “Come with me.” He doesn’t look back to see if Bittle is following him until they round a corner and are alone in the hallway. Jack uses his pass to open a door that leads into the training rooms, then waves Bittle through.

“Where are you taking me?” Bittle asks, but Jack just smiles in response.

He keeps walking, winding his way down a corridor, then keys open the door to the small conference room. It’s completely dark inside, so Jack flicks the light on, and closes and locks the door behind them. He sets his gear bag on the floor by the door, blocking it from being easily opened. He sits in one of the chairs and swivels toward Bittle, letting his thighs fall open.

Bittle’s lips quirk into a smile. “Oh, I see. This is how it’s gonna be?”

“If you want.” Jack reaches between his legs and presses his palm against the swell of his dick through the fabric. God, he’s already half-hard and they haven’t even touched each other.

Bittle steps forward, grinning, until he’s standing between Jack’s thighs. He leans down and kisses Jack, slow and dirty, and Jack melts into the chair.

“Please,” he whispers against Bittle’s lips.

Bittle pulls back a few millimeters. “Please what?”

“Anything.” Jack tilts his head up and kisses Bittle again.

Bittle climbs over him to straddle his thighs, and then hesitates. “Hey, are you okay?”

Jack looks up at him, confused. “Yeah. Why?”

“You looked mad in the locker room.” Bittle brushes hair back from Jack’s forehead. “When I was talking to Taylor.”

Oh.

“I’m sorry.” Jack lets his head fall back against the chair.

“So, wait… you were mad?”

“It was nothing, okay? It was stupid.”

“Oh.” Bittle’s expression falls a little, and Jack realizes that was probably the wrong thing to say.

“No, I… “ Jack sighs. “I thought you and Whits hooked up on New Year’s Eve. I know you didn’t, but I thought you did for almost a week, and now when I see the two of you together I… I know it’s stupid.”

“Oh, honey.” Bittle kisses him softly, hands on either side of Jack’s face.

“I’m sorry,” Jack says again.

“You have nothing to worry about, okay?” Bittle leans down, touches his lips to Jack’s. “Lord, don’t you know by now how crazy I am about you?”

Jack wraps his arms around him and kisses him again, holds him close. “Yeah, I think I’m getting that.”

“Good.” Bittle brushes the tip of his nose against Jack’s, presses a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I still can’t believe I get to do this.”

“Do what?”

“This.” Bittle traces the seal of Jack’s lips with the tip of his tongue.

It tickles, and Jack smiles. “That?”

“And this.” Bittle leans in closer and sucks lightly at Jack’s lower lip.

Jack hums, tilts his head up and kisses him, open-mouthed, slow.

“This too,” Bittle whispers, and grinds his hips against Jack’s.

Jack groans and pulls Bittle in closer with hands on his hips. “I like that. Can we do that some more?”

“Fuck yeah,” Bittle whispers. He moves against Jack in a steady rhythm, and kisses him until they’re both breathing hard.

“Wait, stop,” Jack says at last, “or I’m gonna come in my pants.”

Bittle grins and Jack pushes him to his feet, then backwards into the adjacent chair. A pout starts to form on Bittle’s lips, but it fades the moment Jack slides out of his chair and goes to his knees between Bittle’s spread thighs. Jack slides his hands up from Bittle’s knees, relishing the feel of so much firm muscle under the fabric. He looks up and smiles as he undoes the snap of Bittle’s pants, wets his lips as pulls the zipper down.

“God,” Bittle whispers when Jack tugs those khakis down enough to free his erection.

“This okay?” Jack leans forward and draws the tip of his nose up the underside of the shaft.

Bittle grins and slides fingers into Jack’s hair. “I appreciate your asking, but the answer is pretty much always going to be yes.”

Jack keeps his gaze fixed on Bittle’s as he opens his mouth and takes him in. Bittle’s eyes close briefly when the head hits the back of Jack’s throat, and then open again when Jack slides up, tongue wriggling against soft skin.

“You are a menace, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Jack’s hands grip Bittle’s hips in the chair, and he starts to work Bittle’s dick in earnest. Bittle slides down even more, thighs splayed as wide as possible with his pants still half-on. Jack takes his time, pulling back twice when Bittle’s on the edge of coming, and chuckling when Bittle swats at his shoulder in frustration.

“Wait til it’s your turn,” Bittle whines. “We’ll see how you like it.”

Jack actually does like it, which is the point, but they can talk about that later. He pulls off long enough to say, “Then show me what you want.”

Bittle stares at him for a moment, wide-eyed, then slides the fingers of one hand into Jack’s hair again. “Like this?”

“Yeah.” Jack kisses the tip of his dick and waits.

Bittle’s hand moves to the back of Jack’s head and pushes, and Jack takes him all the way in. “Jack, god, you… like that, don’t stop.”

Jack loses himself in the feeling of his mouth being filled, of the scent and sound of Bittle’s arousal, of the way Bittle’s hands are in his hair, controlling the pace.

“Jack, Jack,” Bittle says, and pushes at Jack’s forehead with one hand. “I’m gonna…”

Jack has no intention of pulling off this time. He’s never let anyone come in his mouth before, but Bittle does it every time, so he wants to try it.

“Jack,” Bittle gasps, and Jack keeps his lips around the head and strokes the wet shaft with his hand until Bittle shakes apart beneath him.

And then Jack’s mouth is full, more full than he expected, somehow. He’s not sure he can swallow all of that in one go.

Maybe he didn’t think this through.

“Oh my god,” Bittle says, melting into the chair. “Wait, don’t swallow — spit in your hand.”

Jack is embarrassed that his dilemma is so obvious to Bittle, but he does it. And then feels even more awkward, because he has no idea what to do with his handful.

Bittle pushes to his feet and turns around, bends over with his hands on the table. “Come on.”

Jack is momentarily stunned. They’d had an awkward phone conversation the week before about previous partners and test results, and what they were and weren’t comfortable doing unprotected. He’s pretty sure they covered this.

“Bittle, I—”

“No, not like—” Bittle blushes and shakes his head. “My thighs.”

“Oh. Okay.” Jack scrambles to his feet, then stares down at his hand. “Ummm.”

“And use that to…” Bittle raises his eyebrows.

“Right.” Jack tries to shove his sweats and underwear down with his left hand, but it’s a little more difficult than he expected.

Bittle giggles and turns around long enough to help him, then leans over the table and looks back over his shoulder, grinning. “You gonna fuck me or not?”

Jack swears softly, and slicks himself with his wet hand. He pushes his dick into the space just below Bittle’s ass, and feels Bittle’s thighs clench around him. It’s — god, it’s good, better than he would have expected. He pulls back and pushes forward again, and oh — the view from this angle, of Bittle’s ass and his dick disappearing beneath it over and over — Jack wants to fuck him like that, wants to sink into him, to feel Bittle’s body clenching around him. He holds Bittle’s hips, thumbs pressing into his ass cheeks and tugging them apart a little, just enough to get a glimpse of what lies between, and fucks his thighs with short quick strokes.

Bittle makes encouraging sounds beneath him, his head turned to the side and his chest flat against the varnished wood. He seems to be holding on for dear life as Jack rocks against him, thrusting between his thighs over and over. He slides one hand up the length of Bittle’s spine to his shoulder, and pushes him down against the table.

Jack collapses against Bittle’s back when he comes, mouth open on his shoulder, panting endearments in French that he hopes Bittle won’t understand.

“God, Jack.” Bittle wriggles beneath him and Jack kisses his shoulder once before pulling back. Bittle turns around and grins at him. “That was fun.”

Jack glances down at the mess he just made of the conference room table and winces. “I have meetings in here once a week.”

“Well, now you’ll be good and distracted during them.” Bittle slides his arms around Jack’s shoulders and kisses him.

Jack pulls Bittle tightly against him. “I wish you could spend the night.”

“Me too.”

Jack has a towel stashed in his bag and they use it to clean up — including the table — and get redressed. Jack takes Bittle’s hand in his and doesn’t let go until they reach a hallway with people, where they reluctantly take a step apart.

Bittle follows Jack out through the remains of the crowd seeking autographs. He stands a distance away, tapping casually at the screen of his phone while Jack signs jerseys, takes selfies with fans, and politely declines one young woman’s not-so-subtle offer of her number. By the time Jack’s ready to head for the parking lot, Bittle has made his way to the other side of the crowd.

“Wanna see the snap story?” Bittle asks when they get in the truck. He hands over his phone.

It’s actually a lot of fun to watch. Bittle got lots of great shots of the team and the crowd, and most are annotated with clever comments. There are a lot of shots of Jack in it, but also of Whits and Janssen and Kratz. There are shots of the guys on the bench reacting to Jack’s goal, and then of Jack’s line skating down for fistbumps. Jack had winked at Bittle as he passed him, and though it was intended as a private gesture, it works well in the short bit of video Bittle captured. There is video from the locker room, and of fans mugging for the camera, turning around to show off their jerseys. There’s video taken of the ice from the top of the arena, and of the fans erupting when a fight broke out. The snap story ends with videos of the guys circling on the ice after the win, the announcements of the stars of the game, and finally a shot of the empty ice with a note about the time and date of the next home game.

It’s really good, and Jack feels a stab of regret that it’s only going to be around for a day.

“Bittle, this is fantastic.” He hands the phone back and smiles at him.

“I don’t know how many people will see it, though.” Bittle sighs. “They haven’t done a lot with Snapchat yet, so it will take some time to build an audience.”

“So does that mean you’re gonna keep doing it?”

“We’ll see. Tasha didn’t say that, but if I can impress them with what I do during the All-Star weekend, maybe.”

Jack’s stomach does a flip at the thought of Bittle having a legitimate reason to spend more time in Providence, to come to games and hang around the arena — when he’s not busy with school and his own team, anyway.

When they get to Samwell, he parks a few blocks away from the Haus. Neither of them is ready to say goodbye, and a goodnight kiss turns into making out, which gets heavy enough that they climb into the backseat for a while.

“I’ve never done this before,” Jack says against Bittle’s neck.

“Me either,” Bittle says, and slides a hand into Jack’s pants.

They grind against each other until the windows of the truck are fogged up and the air inside is stifling. Jack comes first, rubbing off against the vee of Bittle’s iliac crest. Bittle follows a minute later, arching up with his legs wrapped around Jack’s hips, kissing him fiercely. Jack uses his shirt to clean them both off — the odds of him facing a walk of shame are a lot lower than Bittle’s, after all.

“God, I’m gonna miss you,” Bittle whispers against his lips. It will be more than a week until they’ll see each other in Nashville, and it feels like a long way off.

“Me too.” They kiss until Bittle groans and says he really needs to go.

Watching him walk away is hard, and Jack waits until he can’t see him anymore before he starts the engine again.

Eight days, a pair of roadies for each of them, and then they’ll have a whole weekend together… at an internationally televised event, during which millions of people will watching Jack’s every move, waiting for him to fuck up in a multitude of ways.

Jack has to press his forehead against the steering wheel and breathe for a while before he can finally drive away.

*****

Chapter Text

The greenroom is a huge, mostly empty space. There’s a long table covered with snack and drinks along one wall, and several tables with folding chairs placed around them. There are a few people sitting at the tables, but Jack doesn’t recognize any of them as players. They keep glancing over at Whits and Jack, and it’s making Jack feel fidgety.

Whits takes a sip of water. “You ready for this?”

“Not really.”

Whits laughs, surprised, but before he can respond, a young woman walks into the room and makes a beeline for them. She’s wearing a shirt that declares her as Staff and has both a phone and a walkie talkie in her hand

“Mr. Zimmermann? Mr. Whitton?” She holds her free hand out to each of them in turn. “I’m Kavya, and I’ll be assisting you this afternoon. I can walk you to the signing table, if you’re ready?”

“Let’s roll,” Whits says, grinning. He’s much more excited about this than Jack is.

Kavya smiles brightly and gestures for them to follow her out of the greenroom and down a busy corridor. Everyone they see is wearing the same staff shirt, and most of them are in a rush, talking into hand-held radios or staring intently at the screens of their phones as they walk.

Kavya stops before a large set of industrial-looking doors marked TO THE FLOOR. She turns to look at Jack and Whits one more time, then pushes a door open.

The cacophony that hits Jack’s ears makes him freeze in place for a full second. Whits gives him a shove from behind, and then Jack is walking out onto the huge main floor of the Music City Center, into the craziness that is the All-Star Weekend Fan Fair.

His first impulse is to turn around, go back to his hotel room, and not come out again. The Fan Fair stretches on forever, across the entire space of the convention center. There are merch stands, large game setups, small stages, and team and league displays, all of it in rows and rows under bright lights. The place is swarming with hundreds of people, most wearing the jerseys of their favorite teams.

It’s loud, and it’s crowded, and even though Jack knew it would be exactly like this, the reality of it is still a lot.

Kavya turns back to look at them, flashing a bright smile. “This way!”

“You okay?” Whits has a firm grip on Jack’s arm and keeps him moving.

“No.” Jack exhales and reaches into his pocket for his phone. He thumbs it on, more for something to focus on than anything else.

Whits releases his arm and pats his shoulder. “It’s just for a couple of hours, and then you can go hide until Eric gets here.”

Jack starts to protest that he doesn’t want to hide, but actually, he does. He doesn’t want to be here, in the middle of all of this. It’s part of the job, of course, but he spends so much time and effort pretending this part of it doesn’t exist so that he can focus on playing hockey that the reminder is nearly overwhelming. He can think of a hundred places he’d rather be right now than sitting at a table, getting stared at and signing autographs and trying to put on a good face for fans while they take endless photos of him that will be plastered all over the internet and commented on and speculated about.

Like lounging around his hotel room half-naked until Bittle arrives from the airport, for one.

Kavya gets them settled at the signing table, which has been decked out in the Falconers’ colors and logo. Jared McNamara is already there in the Falconer mascot costume, taking photos with the waiting fans. He gives them two big, exaggerated thumbs up when he spots them, then turns back to the line. He’s been busier than Jack and Whits so far.

Despite her sweet demeanor, Kavya has no trouble organizing the waiting fans and clearly telling them what they can and can’t do. Selfies and autographs are fine (no body parts and only tasteful items, please), they can ask one or two questions, and if they take too long, she’ll cut them off for the sake of the line. Jack forces a smile and settles in for a long afternoon.

A few hours later, Jack is ready to crawl into a hole and never come out. He’s taken more selfies than he can count, signed dozens of jerseys, at least a hundred photos, and one fairly awkward artistic rendering of him and Whits. He also was surreptitiously given a lot of phone numbers: eight from women and two from men. (Whits didn’t get any from men, to his endless annoyance.)

They end up staying an hour later than they were scheduled so that everyone can get through the line, but they’re finally done. Once Kavya walks them back to the green room, Jack feels like he can breathe again. There are a stream of texts on his phone, most of them from Bittle, updating Jack on his progress:

Landed!
Waiting for my bag. UGGH.
In the taxi line.
STILL IN THE FUCKING TAXI LINE
On my way!
Wow, Nashville reminds me a lot of Georgia
I’m here!
Aw, your mom was so sweet to come meet me.
Currently in the bar with your parents. They’re buying me alcohol. [smirky face]

And then one from his mom:
We’ve got Eric. Text us when you’re done.

Jack’s stomach flips pleasantly.

“He’s here, then?” Whits bumps Jack’s shoulder with his own.

“My parents have him in the bar.”

“Mind if I come say hello?”

“To Bittle or my parents?”

“Dude. All of the above.” Whits’ cheeks are flushed and he’s still vibrating with the energy of the afternoon. He genuinely enjoyed talking with all the fans and taking photos, while Jack had struggled every moment to appear enthusiastic and interested. It had been exhausting.

He texts On my way to both Bittle and then his mom. His phone buzzes almost instantly with a kissy emoji from Bittle.

“Aw,” Whits says, peeking over Jack’s shoulder.

Jack rolls his eyes and tucks the phone back in his pocket.

The hotel the players are staying in is a short ride away, and Jack spends all of it nearly bouncing with anticipation.

“God, you’re a dork.” Whits shakes his head, but his tone is affectionate.

“Shut up.”

“So, like, don’t take this the wrong way, but you might want to take it down a notch if you really want to keep this thing with Eric on the DL.” Whits raises his eyebrows.

Jack frowns. He couldn’t manage to do that with Parse all those years ago, and the rumors are still swirling. If he’s going to stay in the closet, he’s going to have to make a serious effort not to go all hearteyes every time he’s in Bittle’s presence this weekend. “Yeah, for sure.”

That doesn’t mean his heart doesn’t try to pound its way out of his chest when he sees Bittle tucked into a semi-circular booth with his parents in the hotel bar. Bittle is in the middle of explaining something that requires a lot of hand gestures, and both Bob and Alicia seem enraptured. Jack has to stop and watch them together for a moment. His parents are sitting right there with his boyfriend, and they all look happy. Bittle looks like he belongs.

Whits gives him a little shove from behind. “You’re doing the thing.”

“I am not,” Jack retorts, but he schools his expression into something more relaxed as they approach. “Hey, Bittle.”

“Jack!” Bittle smiles at him, eyes lighting up, but his demeanor is casual otherwise.

Bob gets up to shake hands with Whits, and pointedly waits for Jack to slide into the booth next to Bittle before he sits again. Jack shoots him a grateful smile and slides across the seat.

“Hey,” he says again, and presses his thigh against Bittle’s. Bittle reaches for his hand under the table and intertwines their fingers, and they stare at each other for a long moment. Bittle looks tired, but excited too. Jack squeezes his hand, lightly traces a circle on the inside of Bittle’s wrist with his thumb. Bittle’s lips twitch a little, and he presses his thigh a little more snugly against Jack’s. Jack wants to wrap himself around Bittle, pull him close, just breathe him in for a while. It’s been more than a week, and this — it’s so much, but still not enough, and Jack aches.

“Jack?”

Jack had been vaguely aware that Bob was talking, but it isn’t until he hears his name that he realizes he was supposed to be listening. “Ah… sorry?”

Bob glances at Alicia, who’s smiling wider than Jack has seen in a long time. Next to her, Whits rolls his eyes.

Bob smiles and switches to French. “Why don’t you go get Eric settled in? Your mother and I have a reception in a couple of hours, and we’ll meet up with you later.”

“No, it’s fine. We can hang out for a while.”

Bob looks mildly exasperated. He leans in close enough to whisper, “Just go. You’re practically glowing, the both of you.”

“What?”

Bob gives him a long look.

Oh. Jack’s face heats. “Uh. Right.”

He glances over at Bittle, who just looks back at him quizzically, having missed the entire exchange. Jack squeezes Bittle’s hand under the table.

Où sont…” He winces and tries again, and ignores his father’s snicker beside him. “Where’s your stuff?”

They walk casually to the elevator bank, careful to keep a half a meter between them. Bittle chatters about how crazy the Nashville airport was and the conversation he had with the taxi driver, and Jack channels every bit of patience he has into not looking at the curve of Bittle’s neck or the way his lips soften when he smiles.

There’s no one else waiting for the elevator, so when the doors close, they’re finally alone. Bittle closes the distance between them, his expression almost giddy. Jack leans down to kiss him and Bittle looks up at him with so much pure affection that Jack has to pause and take it in for a moment.

“Bitty,” he whispers, then Bittle’s arms go around his neck and their mouths are too busy to say anything else.

They have an entire nine seconds of bliss before the elevator slows to a stop — not yet on their floor. They jump apart as the doors begin to open, and Jack realizes with a jolt that they’re both fairly rumpled. It’s probably obvious what they were just doing.

And of course, the doors open on someone he knows: Jamie Benn, with a tall, beautiful blonde.

“Zimmermann, hey.” He and the woman step in. He gives Jack and Bittle a curious look. “Nice to see you again, man. Oh, this is Katie. Katie, Jack Zimmermann.”

Katie smiles and holds out her hand. “Yeah, I know who you are. Nice to meet you.”

“Yeah, same.” Jack blinks, and shakes her hand. “This is Bittle. Eric. My—” Oh god. He has no idea what to say.

“Friend,” Bittle finishes, smiling at her, and Jack exhales.

Katie's eyes dart to Jack and back to Bittle again. She and Benn exchange a look, and Jack’s stomach twists. He couldn’t be more obvious if he tried.

Benn reaches behind her to press the button for the lobby, but as soon as the doors close, the elevator continues to rise. He looks up, surprised. “Huh.”

“Looks like you’re not going down,” Bittle says.

Benn gives him a sharp look, but Bittle just smiles sweetly at him.

A few seconds later, the elevator stops on their floor. Jack and Bittle step off, Bittle pulling his suitcase behind him.

“Hey, see you later, man,” Benn says.

“Yeah, for sure.” Jack gives him a small wave, and the elevator doors close. He takes a deep breath. “Shit.”

Bittle snickers. “I can’t believe I said that. Shitty is gonna be so proud.” Jack gives him a quizzical look, and Bittle’s smile turns into something more like a leer. “Speaking of, where’s our room?”

Jack’s stomach twists for an entirely different reason.

Once they’re inside, Jack pulls Bittle into his arms and holds him for a solid minute. “God, I missed you.”

“Me too.” Bittle’s face presses into Jack’s neck, and he sighs. “I’m so glad I’m here. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Thank you for coming. Was your flight okay?”

“It was great. I still can’t believe you put me in first class.”

“It was all that was available,” Jack replies. That’s not really true — the price difference between coach and first class wasn’t big enough to justify putting Bittle in coach — as if he’d actually put Bittle in coach anyway — but Jack doesn’t really want to explain that right now. “I can’t believe you’re missing games to be here.”

Bittle tilts his head up and smiles. “Would you be mad at me if I said this was more important to me than hockey?”

Jack blinks at him, uncertain how to answer that.

Bittle laughs and hooks his fingers in the waist of Jack’s jeans. “Or maybe this is more important.” He pulls Jack backward toward the bed, grinning.

“Oh, really?” Jack smirks.

“Yes, really.” Bittle turns him around so Jack’s back is to the bed, then unfastens Jack’s pants. “I’ve had weeks to think about this, you know.”

He pushes Jack’s pants and underwear down off his hips, and they pool at his ankles. Jack steps out them and grabs Bittle’s hand, tugs him backwards. They fall onto the bed together, laughing. Jack pulls Bittle against him and just holds him for a moment, enjoying the feeling of Bittle’s weight over him. He takes a deep breath and releases it, and kisses Bittle’s forehead.

Bittle shifts up enough to kiss him properly. “How much time do you have?”

“All night. No dinner plans. There’s a reception for the players in the bar later, but it’s not like I have to go.”

Bittle kisses his nose. “Your parents aren’t expecting you?”

Jack huffs out a laugh. “Probably not? My dad basically told me to take you back to the room and fuck you, so.”

Bittle’s eyes widen. “Oh my god, he did not.”

“Well, he didn’t say it like that.”

“Your dad is such a troll.”

Bittle kisses him, softly, and Jack slides a hand around the back of his head and to pull him closer. Bittle’s mouth is warm and pliable, and Jack loses himself in the sensation of it for a while. He’s missed this closeness, the feeling of Bittle’s body against him — it’s comforting, grounding in a way he’d never expected. Bittle wedges one thigh between Jack’s, and his hands slide up inside Jack’s shirt, slightly cool on Jack’s overheated skin. His fingertips skim across a nipple and Jack draws in a sharp breath through his nose, his low-thrumming arousal suddenly shifting into a higher gear.

Bittle turns his head out of the kiss, his face flushed. “So we have all night. What do you want?”

Jack ducks down to kiss his throat. “You. Naked.”

“Okay.” Bittle sits up and pulls his shirt off, then unfastens his jeans. He gets off the bed and wriggles out of them gracefully. It’s been a while since Jack’s had a chance to look at him, to take in the lines of his body. Bittle waits, lets him look. He slides one hand up his belly, over his chest, then around the back of his neck, stretching a little. He smiles slyly at Jack. “You too.”

Jack strips off the rest of his clothes, and after a moment’s thought, pulls the bed covers back too; the sheets are probably cleaner than any other surface in the room. He sits back on the bed and watches as Bittle rummages in his suitcase. With the exception of that one glorious Sunday afternoon, they’ve only had a few hours together, here and there as their schedules allow. Having three entire nights seems almost decadent.

“So,” Bittle says, and tosses something small at Jack.

He catches it, opens his hand to look: it’s a condom. Oh. “So you want to…”

“Yeah. I mean, if you want.” Bittle climbs back on the bed and settles next to him, cheeks going a little pink. He sets a small bottle of lube on the mattress next to Jack’s shoulder, then leans in close enough to nuzzle Jack’s ear and whispers, “I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and… I’d really like you to fuck me.”

Jack inhales sharply. They haven’t done that yet, and have only really talked about it in vague terms. He closes his eyes and tilts his head back as Bittle starts to suck a small spot beneath his ear. “So you’ve… done that before, right?”

Bittle nods and buries his face against Jack’s shoulder. “Yeah.”

Jack feels a strange mix of jealousy and relief at that admission. He kisses the top of Bittle’s head, his temple, his cheek, and then Bittle tilts his face up again. Jack takes a deep breath. “It’s been a while. For me.”

“Oh.” Bittle looks genuinely surprised for a moment, then his expression shifts into something more like concern. “Are you okay with it? We don’t have to. We’ve got all weekend. Or… I mean.”

Jack runs a hand down Bittle’s side, his gaze settling on the sparse blond hair scattered across Bittle’s chest. He’s imagined burying himself in Bittle’s body on more occasions than he can count.

So yeah, he’s okay with it. More than okay. “No, I want to. Definitely.”

“Okay.” Bittle leans in to kiss him again, and Jack pulls Bittle on top of him.

He gets lost in the feeling of Bittle’s body stretched out over his, warm skin pressing into him, slightly damp with sweat as they move against each other. It’s a delicate torture, with hot, open-mouthed kisses and hands and hips, everything not quite enough but still so good Jack almost forgets what the plan is.

“So if we’re gonna—” Bittle says just as Jack says, “So should I—”

They grin at each other. Bittle reaches out for the lube and presses it into Jack’s hand. Jack stares at it for a full second.

“Do you need a map?”

“You’re seriously chirping me right now?” Jack rolls his eyes and flips open the lube with one hand. Bittle is already straddling his hips, so it’s easy enough to reach down and work slick fingers between his ass cheeks, circle his hole slowly with one finger.

Bittle stares down at him, and when Jack presses in, Bittle’s eyes fall closed.

“Kiss me,” Jack says, and Bittle does, so slow and filthy that Jack loses focus again.

“You still with me?” Bittle asks.

“Sorry.” Jack adds more lube, slowly works another finger in, and soon Bittle is making little whimpering sounds into Jack’s mouth. Jack likes being fingered, likes this way it feels, so he takes his time, twisting his fingers and sliding them in and out the way he does to himself. “Is that okay?”

“Wetter,” Bittle says, and reaches between them to press their erections together. “You’re a little bigger than—”

Jack kisses him again before he can finish the sentence. When he pulls his fingers out to add more lube, Bittle leans over to the side to pick up the condom. He sits on Jack’s thighs and takes Jack’s dick in his hand.

“Can I?” Bittle holds up the condom, now out of its package, and Jack nods. Bittle looks down at Jack’s erection and hesitates a moment, then reaches for the lube. He dribbles a little into the tip of the condom before sliding Jack’s foreskin down with one hand. When he rolls the condom on, Jack has to bite his lip to keep himself from making an embarrassing sound. Then Bittle slides Jack’s foreskin up again and the condom moves with it, to Jack’s amazement. Which… okay, yeah, that’s going to work for him.

“How do you know how to…? I mean, considering.” He glances pointedly at Bittle’s groin.

Bittle looks up at him and grins, still stroking him with a tight hand. “Kevin. He’s also—”

“Right.” Jack really doesn’t want to think about Kevin, or about what other tricks Bittle might have picked up from him, not when Bittle’s hand slicking him with lube feels so good, even through a layer of latex. Too good, actually. He reaches down to still the movement. “I’m not going to last very long if you keep doing that.”

Bittle crawls forward and leans down to kiss him, and Jack melts into the mattress beneath him. Just as he’s about to ask what happens next, Bittle’s hand is on his dick again, angling it up. Bittle pushes back onto it, slowly, his gaze locked with Jack’s. Jack can’t see anything but Bittle’s eyes, but what he feels, god. The urge to thrust up into that tight heat is almost overwhelming. Bittle moves slowly, his expression strained, and by the time his ass is flush against Jack’s thighs, Jack can feel his arms shaking. Bittle leans forward and touches his forehead to Jack’s chest, and exhales.

It’s been a long time since Jack was inside another person like this, so long that he can only vaguely picture her face. Before that it was Parse, who generally preferred it the other way around, so Jack’s only actually done this a handful of times in his life.

Bittle starts to move, and Jack’s mouth falls open. “Oh my god, Bitty,” he says, and Bittle leans forward, smiling against his lips.

He lets Bittle control the pace for the first few minutes, hands clenched into fists at his sides, but he finally can’t stay still anymore.

“Can I? Please?” He grips Bittle’s hips with his hands and arches up into him in quick, short thrusts.

“Okay, yeah. Let me just—” Bittle shifts his position, tilting his hips, and then his expression changes to one of near-astonishment. “Yeah, that’s… there, oh my god, Jack.”

That’s all the motivation Jack needs to keep moving: watching Bittle’s face, the movement of his hand as he jerks himself off, the sounds he’s making. And suddenly, it’s not enough — Jack wants to be closer, deeper, more. He pushes up into Bittle until he bottoms out, then carefully rolls them over.

Bittle makes a sound of surprise, but he goes with the movement. He pulls his knees up to his chest as Jack leans forward to kiss him. Bittle is nearly bent in half beneath him when Jack starts moving again, slow and deliberate. He changes the angle until he finds the one that makes Bittle dig his fingers into Jack’s ass and groan.

“Yeah yeah, like that, but harder,” Bittle says, breathless, and Jack laughs.

“Why’m I not surprised you’re bossy in bed?”

Bittle grins and slaps Jack’s ass. “Shut up and fuck me harder.”

The words go right to Jack’s balls, so he does, hard enough that he’s actually worried he’s going to hurt Bittle. Bittle urges him on, though, one hand working his dick between them, and soon Jack is so close to coming he’s not sure how much longer he can hang on.

“Are you…?” he manages, and Bittle whines, “Almost, almost, ohhhh,” and then Jack can feel Bittle’s body contracting around him. Bittle’s fingernails dig into Jack’s hips hard enough to break the skin, but in that moment it feels weirdly good, part of a sudden, intense crescendo of sensation. He presses his face into Bittle’s neck and groans, then tumbles over the edge, thrusting hard a few more times before stilling completely.

It’s a moment before they both catch their breath. Jack’s sweating like he just came off a hard shift, and his glutes are burning like it too. He collapses onto Bittle, and Bittle wraps his arms around Jack’s shoulders.

“Oh my god,” Bittle says after a moment. One hand comes up to ruffle through Jack’s hair, and he brushes a kiss to Jack’s sweaty forehead. “Okay, that was…” He makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh.

“Was what?” Jack can’t lift his head. He might just sleep here.

“Worth waiting for.” Bittle sounds dazed.

“Good.”

“Good? That was probably the best sex I’ve ever had.” Bittle laughs. “Good lord, I’m shaking. Can you feel it?”

Jack can feel it. He’d thought it was him shaking, actually. He takes a deep breath and releases it, feeling as content as he can remember feeling in a long time. “We can do that whenever you want, okay?”

“Okay.” Bittle laughs again, and the sound is light and musical. Jack grins against the soft, warm skin of his neck.

They stay like that for a while, just breathing each other in, until the persistent buzzing of their phones finally becomes too much to ignore.

“Noooo,” Jack whines when Bittle reads him the string of texts from Whits, his parents, a couple of other players asking if he’s around and would he like to have a drink, meet someone, have dinner, and so on. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

“I know, honey, but you gotta make an appearance, at least.” He smooths Jack’s hair off his forehead and leans down to kiss him. “We can just stay for a bit, get something to eat, and then go back to bed.”

Jack pulls Bittle down on top of him and kisses him properly. “Or we could order room service and stay in bed.”

Bittle smiles against his lips. “Then you’re gonna need to answer all these texts and explain why you’re hiding out for the evening.”

“Fucking my hot boyfriend isn’t a good enough reason?”

“Well, it would be for Taylor, I guess.”

“He owes me, after all the times I’ve covered for him.”

Bittle snuggles down against Jack’s chest, and swirls his fingertips through the dark hair there. “Yeah, but it’d probably be easier to just go down there for a little while, you know? I could take some pictures, start the snap story.” He looks up at Jack and smiles hopefully, his big brown eyes wide.

Jack sighs. “All right.”

Bittle kisses him lightly, then hops up and heads for the bathroom. “I’m gonna rinse off. You wanna join me?” He looks back over his shoulder with a cheeky smile. Jack watches him disappear into the bathroom, then scrambles to follow.

It’s barely been a month, but Bittle has him wrapped around his little finger already.

*****

The bar is busy, full of hockey players, team staff, and stylishly-dressed women. Jack pauses in the entryway and takes a deep breath, trying to quell the uneasiness in his stomach. He isn’t good at this part, the shallow socializing — but he’s been to enough of these events in his life to know it’s part of the deal. He just has to psych himself up for it.

Bittle brushes his fingers against the small of Jack’s back once, then gives him a reassuring smile and walks ahead of him. It ought to make Jack feel better that he’s not alone this time, that he has a trusted partner to cling to. But of course, no one can know that, which adds a whole new layer of stress to the evening.

They wind their way through the crowd slowly. Jack gets stopped half a dozen times by players he barely recognizes — especially out of gear — all of whom are half-drunk already and want to tell him how much they idolized his dad (”He’s actually here this weekend, so you could, you know, tell him that”) and that they’re following Jack’s highly successful rookie year (”Eh, you know, it’s a great team”).

Bittle stands next to him and waits patiently through all of it, occasionally taking photos and tapping at the screen of his phone. Hardly anyone gives him a second look; Jack’s not sure whether to be relieved or disturbed by that. They finally spot Whits in a booth on the edge of the lounge area, talking with a couple of guys. Jack has to stop himself from reaching for Bittle’s hand as they squeeze through the crowd.

He hears Bittle suck in a breath when they get closer. The guys Whits is talking with are Tyler Seguin and Johnny Gaudreau.

“Hey!” Whits says when he sees them, and the other two turn to look. “Look who’s finally joining the party.”

Jack shoots him a warning look, but Whits misses it, turning to Bittle instead. “Hey, so, Eric — this is Tyler and Johnny.” He turns back to the others. “Eric was on Zimms’ team at Samwell.”

Gaudreau grins. “Yeah, I remember you. You played on Zimms’ line, right? Wicked fast.”

“Ha, yeah.” Bittle smiles and ducks his head.

Whits turns a surprised face to Gaudreau. “Shit, I forgot you went to college in Boston. Y’all played against each other, really?”

“Yeah, for a couple of years.” Jack shoves his hands in his pockets and smiles.

Gaudreau is still focused on Bittle, though, his expression shifting to one of curiosity. “So you’re just, like, hanging out this weekend, or what?”

Jack’s stomach clenches, but before he can say anything, Bittle replies, “Working, actually. Doing some social media stuff for the Falcs.”

“Sweet,” Gaudreau says. “Nice gig, if you get to do shit like this, eh? I was just about to go to the bar. You guys want anything?”

Jack hesitates and looks at Bittle, who shrugs and says, “A beer’d be cool.”

“Same,” Jack says, turning back to Gaudreau. “Thanks, man.”

“Sure, no problem. Seggy?”

Seguin raises his almost-empty glass and nods, and Gaudreau slides out of the booth and heads to the bar.

“Come on, sit,” Whits says, and Bittle slides in to sit next to him. Jack can’t help noticing he’s moving a little carefully, and unfortunately, Whits doesn’t miss it either.

He raises his eyebrows, then flashes Jack a grin. “So what’ve you two been doing?”

“Not much,” Bittle replies, deflecting the innuendo like a pro. Jack, on the other hand, feels a wave of panic rising. Whits tends to run his mouth when he’s been drinking, and that’s the last thing Jack needs right now. He glances over at Seguin, who’s currently scanning the crowd, probably looking for someone more interesting to hang out with.

Whits leans in to whisper something to Bittle, and Bittle gives his shoulder a shove in response.

“Don’t you even start, mister.”

Seguin turns to look at the two of them, his interest apparently piqued now. “Eric, right? So you play?”

“Yeah.” Bittle settles back in the booth and smiles, cool and confident in a way Jack has never managed while sober. “NCAA. I know I don’t look the part.”

Seguin grins. “Hey, Johnny’s not much bigger than you. And if you were on Zimmermann’s wing, you musta been pretty fuckin’ good.”

“He is,” Jack says, unable to keep the warmth out of his voice. Everyone turns to look at him, and his face heats a little. Luckily, the bar is dark.

“Pretty tight that the Falcs sent a social media guy this weekend.” Seguin shakes his head. “I mean, makes sense, right? Our social media people are back at home watching it on TV like everyone else.”

“Speaking of,” Bittle says, and pulls out his phone. “I gotta earn my keep.”

By the time Gaudreau gets back with the round of drinks, they’ve got a small crowd gathered around their booth. Bittle is directing all of it, sitting on the top of the seat next to Jack’s shoulder and using his southern charm to convince a group of drunk hockey players to get into ridiculous poses. Jack would prefer to stay out of it altogether, but Bittle finally cajoles him into joining in.

“If you’re not in these, Tasha’ll have my hide!”

Jack sighs and moves closer to Whits, who immediately slings an arm around his neck and pulls him back against his chest. He hooks his chin over Jack’s shoulder.

“C’mon, we gotta keep this bromance vibe going. Put little hearts around us or something.”

Bittle grins, and next to Whits, Seguin nearly chokes on his drink laughing. “Dude, be careful what you wish for.”

Whits laughs too, and Bittle flashes Jack a warm smile. Jack can’t help grinning back.

PK Subban climbs over the back of the booth then and lands in Jack’s lap, and everyone laughs so hard they nearly fall onto the floor. Bittle’s fingers are flying on the screen of his phone. Jack is already looking forward to the snap story.

“Well, this is cute.” Jack looks up to see Parse standing just behind Bittle, looking over his shoulder at the phone’s display.

Bittle startles at the sound of his voice, then gives him a cool look and goes back to taking photos.

Parse smirks at Jack. “And Zimms in the middle of the pile. Never thought I’d see that.”

Jack smiles and holds up his middle finger, and Parse rolls his eyes.

PK snickers. “You jealous, Parse?”

“Fuck, no.” Parse laughs, but Jack knows him better than that.

A few minutes later, the group disperses, off to the next shiny thing, and Jack, Bittle, and Whits have the booth to themselves. Parse seems to consider his options for a moment before sliding in next to Whits. He bumps Whits’ shoulder and, to Jack’s amazement, Whits looks flustered.

Bittle taps furiously at the screen of his phone, probably updating three different social media accounts. Jack presses his thigh against Bittle’s under the table, then reaches for his beer and takes a sip. Bittle doesn’t look up from his phone, but he presses back.

“So,” Parse says, sliding an arm along the seat behind Whits. “What’s the plan?”

“Nothing lined up for tonight yet.” Whits shrugs, then leans back against Parse’s arm. “You gonna wingman for me?”

Parse’s gaze slides down Whits’ torso and back up again. “Maybe.”

Whits frowns at him. “I helped you out last night.”

Parse raises his eyebrows. “Like you didn’t benefit?”

“Shut up.”

Jack glances over at Bittle, who’s now staring at Parse and Whits like they’ve got tentacles growing out of their heads. Jack is relieved he’s not the only one who isn’t following this conversation.

“But seriously,” Parse says, leaning closer to Whits, “I’m up for whatever. I’ve had everyone here worth having. No offense, Bittle.”

Bittle snorts and goes back to tapping at the screen of his phone.

Whits frowns at him. “Other than the obvious, who?”

Parse leans in and whispers in his ear for several seconds.

Whits turns to look at him when he’s done. “Bullshit.”

Parse’s smile borders on a leer. “Well, you’ll just have to find out for yourself, huh?” Parse lowers his voice. “I’ve fucked every guy who even remotely swings that way in the entire western conference.”

Whits laughs. “I seriously doubt that.”

“Okay, fine. Name a team.”

Whits’ eyebrows shoot up. “Okaaaay… The Schooners.”

Parse doesn’t even hesitate. “Backup goalie. Finnish, huge dick.” He waggles his eyebrows. “And crazy flexible.”

Jack glances over at Bittle to see he’s gaping at Parse.

Whits makes a sound of surprise and shakes his head. Jack imagines he’s filing that information away for future reference.

“Okay, the Ducks.”

Parse slides in a little closer. “He got traded at the end of last year, but there was this a fourth line winger from Vancouver. He wanted me to tie him up with stick tape.”

Whits looks a little dazed now. “The Blackhawks.”

Parse shoots a glance over at Jack, then leans in to whisper in Whits’ ear.

“Oh fuck, no. You’re lying out of your ass!”

Parse shrugs. “Fine, don’t believe me. But next time you play them, mention my name to him and see what happens.”

“Whatever.” Whits rolls his eyes. “Okay… the Stars.”

Parse gives him a long look, and Whits laughs.

“Okay, yeah, I know that one already. Who else? Surprise me.”

Parse looks thoughtful for a moment. “The Avs.”

Jack and Bittle exchange a glance, then look at Whits, whose poker face is fairly impressive.

“Go on,” Whits says, his tone forcibly neutral.

Parse leans into the center of the table and lowers his voice even more. “So we play them like five times a season, right? Last year they got this rookie, a big D-man, Swedish, I think. He’s a massive asshole, you know? Called me every name he can think of on the ice. But after?” Parse’s grin turns positively feral. “He fucking begged to suck my dick.”

Bittle grabs Jack’s knee under the table. Whits’ face has gone a little pale.

“Seriously, how fucked up is that?” Parse shakes his head. “Dude called me a fag half a dozen times, then shoved me in a closet and dropped to his knees.”

Jack winces. “Shut up, Parse.”

“And that was just the first time we played them. The second time—”

“Excuse me,” Whits says, and slides up in the booth. He parkours over the back and walks away.

“Shit,” Jack hisses.

“I’ll go,” Bittle says, and shoots a glare at Parse, then climbs out of the booth, mumbling something that sounds a lot like asshole.

“What the hell is going on?” Parse looks utterly baffled.

Jack frowns at him. “You honestly don’t know?” Parse shakes his head, and Jack sighs. “The guy from the Avs was Anderberg, right?” Parse nods, so Jack continues, “He and Whits were dating last year. Whits thought they were exclusive.”

To Jack’s amazement, Parse goes gray. “Oh, shit.”

“Yeah.”

Parse slumps in the booth. “That’s just… fuck me.”

“Pretty fucked up, yeah.” Jack watches him, not sure exactly what he’s seeing.

“He really didn’t know?” The earnestness in Parse’s voice throws Jack for a moment.

“Well, he knew Anderberg cheated on him, but not the extent of it.”

“Fuck.” Parse presses his hands over his face for a few seconds, then takes a deep breath and sits up. “Look, I know you think this makes me a huge asshole—”

“I don’t,” Jack says, gently. “That’s on Anderberg, not you.”

Parse nods, but his face is still tight. “But it was just… it didn’t mean anything. None of it ever does. It’s just sex.”

“Kenny…” Jack presses his lips together, and Parse looks up at him. “Whits is one of my best friends.”

“I know.”

“And he… there’s baggage there, okay?”

Parse snorts and scrubs a hand over his face. “Yeah, well, he’s not the only one.”

“Not everyone is like you.” It comes out harsher than Jack intended, but he lets it hang between them for a moment. “Whits is still figuring out what he wants.”

“You don’t know what I want.” Parse’s gray eyes narrow. “Maybe you did a long time ago, but you lost the right. So fuck you, Zimms.”

Jack stares back at him, unflinching. “I probably deserve that, but Whits doesn’t.”

“You think I don’t give a shit about anything but myself.”

“No, I think you give a lot of shits. You just don’t want anyone to know it.”

Parse looks startled, but before he can respond to that, Bittle and Whits come back to the table. Bittle settles next to Jack again, and Whits slides into the booth next to Parse, his expression taut.

Parse stares at him, then leans in close and whispers in his ear for half a minute. Whits closes his eyes and nods, and Parse leans back. They look at each other for a moment, and Whits shrugs. Parse’s expression relaxes into something almost soft for half a second before his usual mask of snide indifference slides back into place.

“Well, it’s been a trip. Thanks for the chat and all.” Parse moves to stand, and Whits slides out of the booth to let him. Parse turns to look at Whits. “You coming with?”

Whits glances over at Jack and Bittle, then nods. “Yeah, sure. Later, y’all.”

Jack nods in response, and without another word, Whits and Parse disappear into the crowd, together.

“Okay.” Bittle stares after them. “I have no idea what just happened.”

“I’m sure we’ll find out later. You hungry?”

“Yeah. Wanna get room service?”

Jack groans. “We could’ve done that in the first place.”

“But then I wouldn’t have this all these fucking amazing pictures to post.” Bittle holds up his phone, then tucks it in his pocket.

“So you probably want to go up and get to work on that, eh?”

“I’m sure I can get it done before dinner gets there.”

Jack smirks at him. “I can think of some ways to motivate you.”

“Distract me, is more likely.” Bittle’s tone implies he wouldn’t mind.

Jack’s mind spins with possibilities, some fairly dirty, others as simple as curling around Bittle under the covers. They’ve only spent the night together once before, so even just getting to sleep next to Bittle sounds amazing. He takes one more sip of his beer and pushes it toward the center of the table. “Then let’s go.”

He stands, and Bittle tucks his phone in his pocket and follows.

*****

Chapter Text

The sun peeks in through the gap in the hotel room’s blackout drapes, striping Jack’s face.

“Yeah… ah, right there…” Jack closes his eyes and draws in a breath.

Bittle hums around Jack’s dick and shifts between his thighs, two fingers twisting inside him. His other hand is wrapped around the base of Jack’s dick, steadying it as his mouth works the head. Bittle’s fingers brush against his prostate over and over, with just enough pressure, and his tongue feels like it’s everywhere at once.

“Bits,” Jack warns, breathless, and Bittle pulls off. He stills his fingers, strokes Jack’s dick idly, just enough to keep him there, but not enough to push him over.

“Okay?” Bittle asks a minute later, and Jack nods.

He’s been riding this wave for more than ten minutes now, and he’s not sure how much longer he can hang on. It’s shifted from pleasure into something edging toward pain, but it’s so good, and going to be even better.

Bittle’s mouth closes around him again, and he moves his fingers, and Jack bites his lip through a groan. He’s right on the edge again less than a minute later, and he needs it so badly he almost can’t breathe.

“Don’t stop, I’m gonna—”

Bittle doesn’t stop, keeps his movements steady and precise, and there, there

His vision sparks at the edges and he arches his hips up. Bittle pushes him down again, takes him in as far as he can, and Jack’s gone, everything white hot, so much more intense than he’s ever managed by himself.

His chest heaves when it’s over. He lies starfished on the bed, his body utterly limp. He can barely open his eyes.

Bittle disappears for a few moments, then settles against Jack’s side and kisses his shoulder.

“Lord, that was hot. You okay?”

Jack can only manage an incoherent mumble in response. He’s not sure he could move if he tried.

Bittle laughs and snuggles against him, pulls the covers back over them both. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Jack manages to kiss Bittle’s forehead.

It’s nearly a minute before his brain comes back online enough to string together a sentence. “I can’t feel my toes.”

Bittle giggles, then shifts up onto one elbow. He smiles down at Jack. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Only bad if it stays like that.” Jack drinks in the sight of him: eyes wide, cheeks flushed, forehead damp with sweat, lips red from twenty minutes of effort. Jack is momentarily overwhelmed. He reaches up to touch Bittle’s face. “How’s your jaw?”

Bittle grins. “Kinda hurts, but it was worth it.” He leans down and kisses Jack, a gentle brush of lips. He shifts to lie down beside him again. “Just like my ass this morning.”

Jack snickers. “I’ll bet. I had no idea you liked to be pounded like that.”

Bittle kisses him again, and Jack traces his swollen lower lip with the tip of his tongue.

“And I had no idea that you were into orgasm denial.” Bittle smiles against Jack’s lips. “Actually, no — that one makes total sense.”

“Shut up.” Jack lightly swats Bittle’s ass. He’s always liked to take his time, but it’s apparently something considered mildly kinky? “I’ve never done that with another person before.”

“Really?” Bittle pulls away enough to look down at him, and Jack shrugs. “Then thanks for trusting me with it.”

“Thank you for doing it. I know it’s kind of a lot to ask.”

Bittle raises his eyebrows. “You make it sound like sucking your dick is a chore.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “No, I mean—”

“Oh god, I have to suck Jack Zimmermann’s dick again? What even is my life?”

Jack tickles him, and Bittle wriggles away, laughing. Jack half-tackles him, presses him into the mattress. “Seriously, thank you.”

Bittle smiles up at him, hair wild and eyes practically sparkling. “You’re welcome.”

Jack kisses him for a long time after that.

An hour later they’re showered and dressed, and are digging into their room service breakfast.

“So what’s on your schedule for today?” Bittle asks.

“Team meeting at ten, then we get an hour on the ice to practice for the skills competition.”

“You’re gonna be amazing.” Bittle grins at him. “You and Taylor both.”

Jack snorts. “Yeah, well. I’m just glad Jags didn’t put me in the breakaway.” This is a rare instance in which he’s perfectly happy to blend in with the rest of the crowd. “What about you?”

“I’m gonna call Tasha after you go and get my marching orders.”

“She really loved the stuff you posted last night.”

“Oh!” Bittle grabs his phone. “I forgot to tell you. Look, the NHL account retweeted a bunch of my pictures.”

Jack saw them all last night, but hadn’t had a chance to check the numbers. The pics of the group of guys all piled up in one booth seem particularly popular. “Too bad it’s all from the Falcs’ account. No one knows it’s you.”

Bittle shrugs. “The people who matter know. And besides, I don’t need that kind of scrutiny of my personal Twitter account. I’ve had to back off on tweeting as it is.”

“You have? Why?”

Bittle gives him a long look. “I’m being careful. Don’t want to slip up and say something that might make people suspicious, you know?”

“Oh, right.” It’s just another way Bittle’s had to reorganize his life around Jack’s closeted existence. Jack frowns. “Sorry.”

“Don’t you start.” Bittle takes Jack’s hand and squeezes his fingers. “I knew what I was signing up for. Hey, your mom invited me to lunch.”

“Really?”

“I guess your dad has a lunch thing and she didn’t want to go.”

Which is interesting — his mom usually adores that kind of thing. Jack smiles. “Hanging out with my mom, eh?”

“She’s gonna tell me so many embarrassing stories about you. I’ll have chirping material for years.”

Jack snorts. “Watch out. She’ll have you telling her your life story.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Bittle grins. “So you’ve got that team lunch today, right?”

“Yeah, and then I have to get ready for the red carpet.” He winces; that’s not something he’s looking forward to.

Bittle’s grin is sly. “Need help getting dressed for that?”

“Maybe.” Jack lifts Bittle’s hand to his mouth and kisses it. “Help getting undressed, definitely.”

Bittle leans in to kiss him. “That’s what I’ll tell your mom. Sorry to run off, Mrs. Zimmermann, but I have to get back to the room and take your son’s clothes off.”

“Yeah, you do that.” Jack tilts his head and presses closer, trying to deepen the kiss.

Bittle melts against him for nearly a minute before he pulls back. “You’re gonna be late, sweetheart.”

Jack groans, but Bittle’s right. “I’ll see you around, I guess?”

“Definitely.” Bittle kisses him one more time, then pours himself another cup of coffee.

*****

The first person Jack spots when he and Whits get to the locker room is his father, talking to Jaromir Jágr.

“Fucking pinch me,” Whits whispers, and Jack rolls his eyes. Whits elbows him. “I’m serious, man. This is like, crazy. Look around at all these famous guys.”

Jack smirks. “Hey, how many of these famous guys did you have a drink with last night?”

“A lot of them.” Whits chuckles. “But, dude — you’re asking the wrong question.”

Before Jack can reply to that, Bob calls his name. “Jack. Have a good night last night?”

Jack doesn’t miss the twinkle in Bob’s eyes, but he doesn’t rise to the bait. He just smiles and says, “Yeah.”

“Little Zimmermann!” Jágr says, slapping Jack on the shoulder. “The last time I saw you, you pooped in the Stanley Cup!”

Whits bursts into astonished laughter, and Bob grins.

Jack shrugs. “Yeah, well. I’ve been toilet-trained since.”

“Is that true?” Whits asks him when they find their stalls an awkward minute later.

“Apparently. I mean, I don’t remember, but there are pictures of it, so.”

“That beats my embarrassing kid stories.”

Jack can only nod in agreement. Because seriously, it doesn’t get much worse than pooping in the Stanley Cup.

Whits pulls his shirt over his head. “Jags played with your dad, seriously?”

“Yeah, they won the Cup with the Pens his rookie year. And he’s still playing.”

“More power to him.” Whits shakes his head.

The other guys on the Atlantic division team roll in and start getting into their gear. They’re all wearing their home jerseys today, so the locker room is soon a riot of color. Erik Karlsson comes in a little late, and smiles awkwardly at Jack as he slides into the empty stall next to him. Jack nods at him, and goes back to taping his socks.

There’s a hell of a lot of good-natured chirping flying around the room, and it only slows down nominally when Coach Gallant comes in to talk to them. He briefly goes over the preliminary lines he’s set up for the tournament the next day, and then sends them out to the ice to warm up.

“Hey, Zimmermann, Whitton, wait up.” Karlsson is still lacing his skates, even as the rest of the guys are heading out.

Jack and Whits exchange a glance, and Whits shrugs at Jack.

As soon as the room empties out, Karlsson looks up at them. “So I just wanted to say, you know. About what happened when when you were in Ottawa back in December.” He hesitates a moment. “I don’t agree with or condone anything Middy said, you know? I mean, he’s my teammate, but…” He frowns, then stands. “The guys who were on the ice when it happened told me what he said and. I mean. I know guys say that shit all the time, but… “ He pauses, runs a hand through his hair. “Anyway, I wanted you to know we had a team meeting about it, and then we brought in someone from You Can Play to help us get better about stuff like that and how not to, like…” He flushes, clearly at a loss for how to continue.

“Be homophobic dicks?” Whits says, pointedly.

Karlsson looks startled, but he huffs an awkward laugh. “Yeah, basically. So anyway, I just… I’m sorry that happened.” He looks up and smiles tightly.

“Wow. Okay, thanks. Good to know.” Whits’ expression is a little strained — he clearly wasn’t expecting this. He reaches out and claps Karlsson on the shoulder.

Jack’s stomach twists into knots. There’s only one conclusion he can draw here: the entire Senators roster thinks he and Whits aren’t straight. And if they think that, it’s likely a lot of other guys do too. He forces a smile back at Karlsson and manages to nod.

Karlsson nods at them and turns to head out to the ice.

“You okay?” Whits asks the moment he’s out of earshot. “You look a little pale, dude.”

Jack sits heavily on the bench and tries to focus on breathing. “They all know, don’t they?”

Whits shrugs. “Maybe. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of this, it’s that the best response is to give zero fucks and slay on the ice. They can’t argue with the way you play.”

Jack doesn’t sink into a swirl of panic, but it’s a close thing. He takes a deep breath. “We should get out there.”

Once Jack’s blades cut into the ice, everything else fades away. Out here between the blue lines, with a stick in his hand, he knows who he is. Even better is that everyone else knows too.

They divide into two groups and run three-on-three scrimmages. Jack manages to knock one in five-hole on Bishop on his first shift. Larkin and Karlsson skate over for fist bumps, and the guys on the other side shake their heads and grin.

“Zimmy got game,” Jágr says, and everyone laughs.

Jack glances over at the bench and sees Bittle standing next to Whits. He’s showing Whits something on the phone in his hand, and whatever it is makes Whits gasp and then grin. Bittle elbows him and laughs, and then looks up at Jack. Bittle smiles at him, radiating happiness, and Jack is so in love he can barely stand it.

“Yo, Earth to Zimmerman.”

Jack turns to see the rest of the guys are waiting for him. He skates back into position. “Sorry.”

Karlsson glances in the direction of Bitty and Whits, then raises his eyebrows at Jack.

Jack’s face heats. He’s got to be more careful. The guys are going to think what they want to think, but Jack could at least not dig the hole any deeper.

Jack smiles at Bittle when he steps back in the box, but otherwise keeps his distance. If Bittle minds, he doesn’t show it. He takes a few more shots of Jack and Whits, and some of the other guys (after charming them all into smiling), then heads up into the stands to get some more photos.

“He got a great snap of your goal,” Whits says when he sits next to Jack.

“Do you always travel with your own personal paparazzo?” Larkin asks from Jack’s other side.

“He’s the face of the franchise,” Whits says, leaning around Jack to grin at Larkin. “So basically, yeah.”

Larkin rolls his eyes. “With a mug like that, he needs all the help he can get.”

Jack shakes his head and laughs.

*****

Bittle’s not back in the room when Jack returns, so he brushes his teeth and strips down to his underwear, and stretches out on the bed with his phone. He checks all the Falconers’ accounts: Bittle’s definitely been busy, and all of it’s really good. Jack’s pretty sure Bittle’s never had any training in photography or PR, but he seems to have a knack for capturing moments and framing them in ways that are visually appealing. The short video of Jack’s goal in practice is posted in multiple places and seems to have gotten the most attention. Bittle had a good view of it and even slowed it down, so it looks more dramatic.

The door lock whirs, startlingly loud in the quiet room. Bittle steps through, and stops in his tracks when he spots Jack stretched out on the bed, nearly naked.

“How was lunch?” Jack asks, setting his phone on the nightstand.

Bittle blinks at him. “Ah… fine. Nice.”

“Did my mom grill you for information?”

“A little, but… she… Lord, Jack, you expect me to have a conversation when you’re all laid out like…” He gestures at Jack, wide-eyed.

Jack smiles at him in a way he hopes looks inviting. “Like what?”

Bittle grins and steps forward, tugging his shirt over his head. “Like you’re my dessert.”

Jack slides a hand down his bare chest and over the growing bulge in his underwear. “You’re the expert on dessert.”

“You got that right.” Bittle steps out of his jeans and climbs over Jack, and pouts a little. “You started without me.”

“Not really.” Jack reaches up and slides a hand around the back of Bittle’s neck, pulls him down into a kiss. “I didn’t get hard until you walked in.”

Bittle moans against Jack’s lips, then slides down to settle between his thighs. He stares down at the outline of Jack’s erection, and fucking licks his lips.

Jack’s completely hard now, and Bittle’s barely touched him.

Bittle drags the tip of his nose up the length of Jack’s dick, and kisses the cloth-covered head. He looks up at Jack with a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Do you know how many times I’ve had to stop myself from getting involved in the boxers or briefs debate on your twitter hashtag?”

“No idea.” Jack lets his head fall back to the mattress and reaches down to pet Bittle’s hair. “Not to be pushy, but the red carpet starts in an hour.”

Bittle laughs and tugs the waistband of Jack’s briefs down. “Guess I’d better get to it, then.”

*****

Whits swears softly at his phone.

“Everything all right?” Jack asks.

“My parents were supposed to have gotten in an hour ago, but they’re still in Dallas. Fucking weather delays.”

“Shit.” Jack frowns.

“It’s a short flight, but they might miss the skills competition.” He sighs.

“Sorry.”

Whits shrugs and shoves his phone in his pocket. “They’ll get here when they get here, I guess. Me worrying about it’s not gonna change the weather.”

Jack blinks at him. He understands that in theory, but in practice, he tends to worry himself into the ground. He’d be nearly frantic by this point if Bittle or his parents were still trying to get here.

“You ready for this?” Whits asks.

Jack exhales and stares at the crowds outside the car window. “Not really. But I don’t have a choice, do I?”

“Nope.” Whits punches him lightly on the shoulder. “At least smile, geez.”

The car door opens and they’re waved out by a woman in a dark suit. She gets them in the right place and introduces them to their handlers, who’ll be walking with them and making sure it all goes smoothly.

“There’s designated press stops where you’ll answer questions for a few minutes,” she tells them, her Tennessee accent unusual to Jack’s ears. “If you want to stop for fans along the way, you can, but try not to hold up the line.” She looks up at Jack and almost laughs at his expression. “Smile, sweetheart! They’re not gonna bite.”

“Promise?” Jack retorts, and she does laugh then.

It’s unnerving to step out onto the red carpet and see a tunnel of fans and press waiting. Jack’s never really done anything like this before, though he’s watched his parents do it on TV lots of times — the ASG and various sporting events for his dad and the Golden Globes and Emmys for his mom.

“Just smile and keep going,” Bob had told him earlier that day. “It’s not as long a walk as you might think.”

It seems like a very long walk right now, and Jack’s at least grateful he’s not doing it alone. Whits is staring wide-eyed at the crowd around them, like he’s having trouble believing it.

“You’re enjoying this,” Jack says, bumping Whits’ shoulder.

Whits grins. “I’m enjoying the fuck out of this, yeah.”

Jack and Whits are in the middle of the line of players, and despite their social media presence, they’re not getting the same amount of attention that the more well-known guys are. Jack’s relieved for that; he feels enough like an impostor as it is. They get waved over by their fair share of fans, though, most of whom want either autographs or selfies. The press scattered along the way seem to ask the same inane questions over and over again, and by the fourth media stop, it’s become automatic.

“It’s an amazing experience, absolutely. So grateful to be here.”
“Nashville is fantastic, yeah. Great food, great music.”
“Just hoping to put on a good show for the fans this weekend.”

And for Jack, of course: “Yeah, it’s great having my dad here, especially since he did this as a player so many times.”

Some interviewers try to get them to chirp each other, and they oblige, because it’s fun and easy. Jack goes after Whits’ hair and Whits expresses jealousy over Jack’s movie star looks, and everyone laughs. It’s going to fuel the twitter flames, but that’s to be expected.

They finally reach the end and make their way into the Bridgestone Arena. Jack’s phone buzzes with a text from Bittle almost immediately: he wants to take a picture of them all dressed up for the various social media accounts. They meet him in a hallway near the players’ lounge, where he’s deep in conversation with Erik Lindhof from the Houston Aeros.

“Jack, Taylor, hey,” Bittle says when he spots them. He gestures at Lindhof. “Y’all probably know each other, right?”

“We do,” Whits says, grinning.

“Dude.” Lindhof bumps Whits’ fist, then holds out his hand to Jack. “We haven’t met, but I know who you are, obviously.”

“Yeah.” Jack shakes his hand.

Lindhof turns back to Bittle, slightly flustered now. “So, ah… it was nice to meet you, Eric. I hope I’ll see you around?”

“Sure.” Bittle smiles at him as he walks away, then turns to grin at Jack. “You two clean up well.”

“As if you had nothing to do with this,” Jack says, his voice pitched low. Bittle had fastened every button himself, which had been its own special brand of torture.

Bittle blushes at that, and Whits snickers.

“All right, you. Let me get a picture, and then I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Should we recreate the one from the calendar?” Whits smirks at Jack and reaches over to tug at the knot of his tie.

Jack bats his hand away. “You want to cause a meltdown on Instagram?”

“I thought you didn’t pay attention to any of that.” Whits raises his eyebrows.

“It’s kind of hard to miss.”

“Perfect.” Bittle’s got the phone pointed at them, and has apparently already taken several photos. He looks up and winks at Jack.

When Jack had finally forced himself out the door of the room an hour ago, Bittle was curled up in bed, still naked and rumpled, a red welt from Jack’s mouth low on his throat. The collared shirt he’s wearing now hides it, but Jack knows it’s there, and it makes his head spin a little.

“We should get moving,” Whits says, elbowing him. “Warmups are in an hour.”

Jack blinks. “Ah, yeah.”

Bittle looks for a moment like he’s going to step forward and hug Jack, but he doesn’t. He nods instead and waves with the phone in his hand. “I’m gonna be running around a lot tonight. Text me after and we can make a plan, I guess?”

“Yeah, for sure.” Jack forces himself to look the other direction when Bittle walks away.

He and Whits head into the players’ lounge, where a buffet of healthy snacks has been set out. They each grab a small plate and a bottle of water and find a quiet corner table to stand and eat at.

“You were doing the thing again, by the way,” Whits says, quietly.

“What thing?”

“The thing where you turn into the hearteyes emoji whenever you look at him.”

Jack winces. As happy as he is to have Bittle here, he’s starting to wonder if bringing him this weekend was the best idea. “Sorry.”

“Hey, man — I’m happy for you, okay? I’m also pretty damn jealous, but I’m not trying to tell you what to do here.”

“I know.” Jack hesitates. “Jealous?”

“Yeah, I mean… I wish someone would look at me the way you look at him.” He sighs, a little wistful.

“Heeeey.” They look up to see Parse walking towards them, John Scott in tow. They actually make an odd picture; Scott is nearly a foot taller than Parse. “Sup, boys?” Parse holds up a fist and Whits bumps it, grinning. “Scott, have you met these losers yet?”

Scott looks mildly horrified. “No, but I—”

“I’m Jack.” Jack holds a hand out, and Scott shakes it. Even his hands are huge. “Zimmermann.”

“Yeah, I know.” Scott grins at him. “God, your dad was my idol. I hope that’s not too weird to say.”

Jack forces a smile, and swallows down the sinking feeling in his chest. “He’s here this weekend. Have you met him yet?”

Scott’s eyes widen. “Ah, shit. I mean, no, I haven’t. Wow.”

“And this is Taylor Whitton,” Parse says, “but you’re gonna have to talk to him later, ‘cause I need to borrow him for a sec.”

Whits looks surprised, but lets Parse lead him away.

“So, uh…” Jack tries to keep his focus on Scott and not the way Parse and Whits are huddled together and whispering as they walk to the other side of the room. “How’s it going, this weekend?”

Scott grins again. “Pretty fucking amazing, I gotta say. I mean, I don’t know what I really expected after everything that happened.” He waves his hand, and Jack imagines he doesn’t want to say with the fan vote and the league trying to block me coming and then fucking trading me and sending me down to the minors. “I thought maybe some of the guys here would be dicks about it, but they haven’t, not at all.” He shrugs and shakes his head.

“The article you wrote for the Tribune was amazing.” Everyone on the team had talked about it for days afterward. Rolly even got teary-eyed over it, so much that Janssen quietly threatened everyone who even looked like they wanted to chirp him for it. “I think a lot of guys saw themselves in it, you know? It meant a lot.”

“I’ve heard that a lot this weekend.” Scott smiles, wide and genuine. “It was kind of cathartic to get it all out there after feeling like I had to put on a good face and keep my mouth shut, you know?”

“Yeah.” Jack presses his lips together. He doesn’t actually know that kind of catharsis, but god, he can dream.

“I mean, I’m not stupid. I know I don’t belong here. But the guys and the staff — they’ve all gone out of their way to make sure I feel welcome.”

Jack stares at him for a moment, and thinks, wildly, of saying, God, me too. I mean, I’m only here because of my last name, right? Every single person here is just waiting to watch me fail. And Christ, if they knew I was queer on top of all that—

He takes a calming breath and nods. “I’m glad. Hey, if you’re around tonight, I’ll make sure to introduce you to my dad.”

“Wow, that’d be great, thanks. I’m not staying planning to stay out late or anything. My wife is like, miserably pregnant, and she’d murder me in my sleep if I did.”

Jack half-smiles, and makes a note to ask his mom to seek Scott’s wife out. “Okay.”

“Hey, it was nice to meet you, Jack. Sorry, I gotta go do the captain thing now.”

“Yeah, later man. Good luck, eh?” Jack shakes his hand again, and watches him walk away.

He takes another sip from his bottle of water and looks around. Whits and Parse have fucked off somewhere, apparently, and now Jack’s standing here alone in a room full of the best hockey players in the league. Guys keep glancing over at him, their faces utterly unreadable, and Jack’s throat tightens.

The room suddenly feels way too small.

He abandons his half-eaten plate of food and heads out the door as if he’s got somewhere important to be. He walks down the hallway, phone in hand, staring down at the blank screen so he doesn’t have to make eye contact with anyone he passes. He rounds a corner and it’s a little quieter there, so he stops, leans against the wall. His heart is pounding in his chest.

Shit.

He taps out a quick text to Bittle — Where are you? — and counts the seconds until he gets a response.

Media lounge. Press pass ftw!

Jack stares blankly at the screen for a moment, not sure what to do. He can’t really ask—

His phone buzzes: What’s up?

Jack closes his eyes, breathes. He’s being stupid. Bittle is here doing a job too, and—

His phone buzzes again. You okay?

Jack takes a deep breath, releases it. It doesn’t help. He slides down the wall until he’s sitting on the floor, knees pulled to his chest.

Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt.

He glances down at the screen of his phone, then swipes on the call.

“Hey.”

“Are you okay?” Just the sound of Bittle’s voice helps, to his relief.

Jack exhales and lets his head fall back against the wall behind him. “Better now.”

“Where are you?”

“I… uh…” Jack opens his eyes and glances down the hallway. It’s lined with doors that appear to lead to small meeting rooms or offices. At the end, the larger hallway he just left is bustling with people. “In a hallway.”

“You need to give me more than that, sweetheart.” Bittle sounds worried, which is the opposite of what Jack wants.

“Near the players’ lounge. I just… it was a little much in there. I needed a break.”

“Okay.” The background noise on Bittle’s end fades, like he’s found a quiet place to talk. “Do you want me to come find you?”

Jack considers. What he really wants is to lie down with his head in Bittle’s lap and close his eyes for a while, but that’s not going to happen. He couldn’t even hug Bittle, not really, not with all these people and press around.

“No, it’s fine. Talking to you is good.”

“Are you sure? Because I can—”

“I have to head to the locker room soon anyway. Just… talk to me. What are you doing now?”

“Okay. Uh… I’ve got a good plan for the skills competition, I guess? I did some scouting around and figured out where I can go and where I can’t. I got some good behind-the-scenes stuff posted too. Tasha says we’ve already started picking up new followers at a crazy rate, so I have to up my game tonight.”

Jack closes his eyes and smiles. “That’s great, Bits.”

“I’ve even got your dad doing some stuff for me tonight. He’s gonna do some snapchat videos from the box.”

“That sounds like something he’d be good at.”

“He said he was gonna be salty as fuck. I swear, those were his exact words.”

“God, really?” Jack laughs, and just like that, the tension in his body starts to melt away. “I don’t know if I’m gonna want to watch that or not.”

“It’s gonna be great. And you’re gonna be great too, okay?”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Just have fun. It’s not like your season is riding on the outcome of the challenge relay.”

Jack smiles. “I know.”

They talk for a few more minutes, until Jack really does need to go get changed for warmups.

“I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks, Bits.” Jack glances up the hallway, but there’s no one within earshot. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” Jack can hear the smile in Bittle’s voice. “Now go kick some ass, baby.”

*****

In the end, the skills competition is a lot more fun than Jack expected. It starts with the Fastest Skater event, which is a lot of fun to watch. The crowd erupts during Dylan Larkin’s record-breaking turn around the rink.

Jack leans into Whits. “Didn’t he go to Michigan?”

“Yeah, but just for last year and then he left for Detroit, so we didn’t overlap.” He turns to Jack. “Did you ever think of leaving early?”

“And miss out on being part of a college team?” Jack shakes his head. “No way. Samwell was amazing, and those guys… It’ll never be like that again, you know?”

Whits turns a small smile to him. “Yeah, I know. But the money’s a hell of a lot better.”

Jack can’t argue with that.

The Breakaway Challenge is up next, and they all get to move out onto the ice for it. The entire event is sort of ridiculously entertaining. Jack has zero interest in doing the sort of showboating the guys do as they skate down the ice toward the goal, but it’s still fun to watch. The staff let some press into the box while the players are out on the ice, and Jack spots Bittle among them. He’s talking to a man holding an expensive-looking camera, who gestures out toward the ice, like he’s explaining something. Bittle smiles and glances over at Jack, and Jack holds his gaze for a few moments.

A cheer goes up in the arena, and next to Jack, Karlsson says, “Hey, Zimmermann.”

Jack’s stomach twists: he’s been caught again. He’s really got to be more careful.

“Your dad’s on the screen,” Karlsson says, pointing up.

It’s both of his parents, actually, sitting up in one of the boxes. They’ve just realized they’re on the screen, and they wave, smiling. They’re both wearing Falconers’ gear. Jack shifts his expression into a bland smile almost without thinking, and sure enough, the camera finds him next. He waits a few seconds, then ducks his head and pretends his skates need adjusting.

“It’s safe,” Whits says, leaning down to poke at his own skates too.

“Thanks,” Jack replies, and takes a deep breath.

“Hey, Zimmermann, didn’t your dad win the Hardest Shot like, three years in a row?”

Jack’s not even sure who said it, but he looks up, shrugs, and forces a smile.

“Dude, I’m intimidated skating in front of him, and he probably doesn’t even know my name,” someone else says.

Jack blanches, looks away. He’s been trying not to think about it, but he can feel the weight of expectations settling around his shoulders, pressing down. Everyone’s going to judge his every move on the ice this weekend, and compare him to his father. Worse, they’ll be comparing Jack in his rookie year to Bob in his prime. There’s no way Jack can live up to that, but it doesn’t matter.

He’s going to fuck this up. He’s going to fuck up, and the cameras will cut to his dad, and his dad will fake a smile, and Jack will have a fucking nervous breakdown, because—

“God, Zimms, your mom is fuckin’ hot.”

Jack blinks and looks over at Whits, stunned. Whits looks pointedly up at the screen, where the Bob and Alicia appear once more. Everyone around them breaks into laughter and hoots of approval. Whits glances over at Jack again, his eyebrows raised.

Jack nods, suddenly grateful, and finds his voice again. “Shut up, Whits.”

“Dude, she totally is.” Aaron Ekblad leans over to grin at Jack across three guys.

A Week in Paradise,” Kris Letang says, and half a dozen guys say, “Oooooh.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Don’t even start about the—”

“The bikini, Jesus.” Letang shakes his head and laughs. “I had a poster of her in that bikini when I was 13.”

Braden Holtby snorts and makes a crude gesture with his hand. “I’ll bet you did.”

Jack sputters and glares down the line at them.

“Wait, what’s A Week in Paradise?” Larkin asks.

“It was a movie, in the late 80s.” Letang tells him. “Two complete strangers get stranded on an island for a week. Who was the guy, Tom Cruise?”

“Yeah,” Holtby says. “Super hot sex scenes. I think it got an X rating originally, and then they edited a lot of that out, or something?”

Jack has never seen A Week in Paradise and never intends to.

“Oh shit, I think I’ve seen clips from that on YouTube,” Larkin says. “That was Zimmermann’s mom?”

“Shyeah! Smokin’ hot, right? I mean—”

Jack groans. “Shut the fuck up about my mom.”

Jágr laughs and slaps Jack on the shoulder, but before anyone can say another word, the lights dim and then Brent Burns is skating around in a Chewbacca mask, and that’s the end of it. Jack’s panic attack seems to have faded, though, so that’s something.

Jack leans into Whits and says, “Thanks. I think.”

Whits bumps his shoulder. “Anytime.”

Jack doesn’t have long to relax, because the next event is Accuracy Shooting, the one individual event he’s competing in. He skates up to the line and looks up to where Jágr and Bäckström are standing, ready to pass to him. He takes a deep breath and tunes out everything else, lets his focus narrow down to the puck and his stick and the net.

The official blows the whistle to start. Jágr slides the first puck over, and the moment it hits his tape, Jack lets muscle memory take over. He nails three targets in a row, then misses on the next two shots before he finally hits the fourth one, just under the 15-second mark. It’s not the best showing, but it’s pretty damn good, and he breathes a sigh of relief when he skates back over to the bench.

Tavares wins, of course, but they all get upstaged by a 13-year-old kid in the end, so it’s all fine.

He feels better going into the Challenge Relay: it’s a team event and there won’t be a lot of time for anyone to focus on him. He’s in the one-timers group, shooting from the corner. It’s a tough position, but both of his shots go in right away, and then his part of the competition is done. They skate over to the side and watch the rest of it. Whits does a beautiful job with the puck control portion, and once Holtby shoots it all the way across the rink, they’ve finished with a fairly impressive time.

Team East wins it, to the consternation of the home crowd.

Hardest Shot is up next. Whits had groaned when Jágr put him in this one, but he goes out and does his best. His second try clocks in at 95 miles per hour, which isn’t the worst of the bunch, but nowhere near Shea Weber’s 108. Not that anyone is surprised, of course.

After that, it’s all over but for the Shootout. Jack can’t manage to score on Dubnyk, but neither does anyone else, so it’s fine.

In the end, Team East wins by a rather embarrassing amount. Even better is that this part of the weekend is over and Jack can relax. Tomorrow he just has a couple of games of three-on-three hockey to play, and that’s much easier to think about.

He checks his phone once he’s showered and dressed. He has dozens of texts, a lot of them from the SMH and Falcs team chat groups, an equal mix of chirping and congratulations on not making an ass of himself. He scrolls past those — he’ll think of some clever responses later — and looks for one from Bittle.

Your parents are taking me to the bar. FYI.
Taylor’s parents are here too. They’re so nice!

Jack turns to Whits, who’s still getting dressed next to him. “When did your parents get here?”

“Just in time for me to say hi to them before coming down to change. They were relieved not to miss anything important.”

Jack’s phone buzzes in his hand.

Taylor’s MOM follows me on Twitter omg

And then one from Jack’s dad: We’re got a table in the bar, if you and Taylor want to join us.
Eric is here too [smiley]

Jack smiles at his phone. “Looks like our evening plans have been made.”

“Maybe yours have.” Whits grins slyly, and Jack shakes his head.

“You’re seriously going for that trophy this weekend, aren’t you?”

Whits finger-combs his damp hair into place. “Somebody’s gotta give Parse a run for his money.”

“Huh,” is all Jack can manage to say in response to that.

“Hey, man.” Whits drops his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “You did great tonight.”

“Thanks. You too.”

“No, I mean…” Whits glances around; there are a few stragglers left, but no one seems to be paying the two of them much attention. He sits beside Jack and lowers his voice. “I know you weren’t exactly thrilled about all this, but you did great.”

Jack shrugs. “It was all right. Didn’t embarrass myself, anyway.”

Whits grins at him. “No, that’s not happening until you get on the dance floor tonight.”

“Fuck you, I actually can dance.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.”

Jack shakes his head, because that’s definitely not happening tonight. Jack’s going to nurse a single drink and watch everyone else have fun until he can talk Bittle into heading up to the room for the rest of the night.

Whits goes back to work on his hair, and Jack groans. “Seriously? Your hair looks fine, Whits, c’mon.”

“Hey, some of us have to work to get laid tonight.” Whits winks at Jack in the mirror.

“Neither of us is gonna get laid if we never get there.”

There’s laughter from the other side of the locker room, and they look over to see Drew Doughty looking at them. “If you two have trouble getting laid around here, there no hope for the rest of us.”

“Seriously, man.” Patrice Bergeron shakes his head.

Whits frowns at him. “Aren’t you married?”

Bergeron grins. “Yeah, but my wife would dump me for either of you in a heartbeat. I don’t think you two need to worry about girls this weekend.”

Whits laughs and looks away, and Jack can see the surprise in his expression. Either Bergeron and Doughty don’t know Whits is gay, or they’re pretending not to. Either way, it feels strange that they’re just assuming Jack and Whits are straight. Jack would ordinarily find that a relief, but for some reason, right now he finds it a little annoying.

“Ha, right.” Jack smiles blandly at Bergeron and Doughty, then stands. “All right, Whits, I’m leaving.”

“Okay, fine, let’s go.” Whits feigns annoyance, but Jack senses he wants to get out of there as much as Jack does.

“Fucking finally.”

They’re both quiet as they head out of the locker room.

“That was weird,” Whits says as they make their way toward the private walkway connecting the arena to their hotel.

“Yeah.” There’s probably something worth thinking about there, but Jack’s not up for it right now. He’s got enough anxiety swirling around in his head as it is.

“You ready for this?” Whits asks as they draw near the security entrance. They can already hear the party happening inside the hotel bar. They hold up their badges up for the guard, and she nods.

“Yeah,” Jack lies. He’s ready to see Bittle again, so it’s at least partly true. He takes a deep breath and follows Whits toward the hotel lobby.

*****

Chapter Text

It’s already loud and busy by the time Jack and Whits get to the bar. The hotel limited access for the evening to guests and those with all-access badges, so it’s basically a sea of players, team staff, family members, friends, and VIPs — all well on their way to inebriation.

Bob is holding court by a large circular booth, a beer in his hand and talking to Jaromir Jágr, Claude Giroux, Lindy Ruff, and a few others Jack can’t identify from behind. In the booth, Bittle and Alicia are looking at Bittle’s phone and talking animatedly. On the other side of the booth, Alex and Amanda Whitton are talking to John Scott and his very pregnant wife, who’s squeezed herself in sideways.

“Wow,” Whits says, and digs out his phone to take a photo.

Bob says something that makes everyone around him burst out laughing, and Jack finds himself wanting to turn around and walk the other way. Bob is in his element here, and he makes it look effortless. Jack can’t relax around all these people he doesn’t know, though, can’t manage to hold a conversation about anything that isn’t hockey.

“Jack!” Bob says, having caught sight of him. The entire group turns to look at him, their expressions a strange blend of scrutiny and alcohol-induced friendliness.

“Hey.” Jack forces a smile and gives them an awkward little wave. Three possible escape plans begin to form in his mind.

“I was just telling these guys how much fun it is to be on the other side of this, watching you.” Bob grins at him.

“Yeah, I’m sure they all know that’s bullshit,” Jack replies with as much of a smirk as he can muster. “You’d get back out on that ice in a heartbeat.”

Everyone laughs, and Bob shakes his head.

“And get my ass kicked by all these twenty-something guys? No thanks.” Bob winks at Jack.

Jack shrugs and looks away. Bob is playing the proud father like a pro, just like he’s supposed to, but Jack has no idea how to play the deserving son. He hates being put on the spot like this.

He squeezes past the group to slide into the booth next to Bittle, enduring multiple shoulder pats and mild chirps along the way. He presses his knee against Bittle’s under the table and Bittle presses back.

“Did you get good stuff?” Jack asks.

Bittle’s smile is radiant for a full second before he reins it back in. “Yeah, I really did. You were amazing, oh my god.”

“I’m just glad I didn’t embarrass myself.” Of course, he has no idea what the TV commentators said about his performance, so maybe he did and just hasn’t heard about it yet.

His mom smiles warmly at him. “You did a great job, sweetie. Your dad was so proud of you.”

Jack flushes and shrugs.

“Oh, you have to see the snap story!” Bittle taps rapidly at the screen of his phone and hands it to Jack. “Your dad had literally never even heard of Snapchat, but he figured it out in ten minutes.”

“He had a little help,” Alicia adds, nodding her head towards Bittle.

Bob’s snap story is actually pretty amazing. It’s full of the sort of wry commentary Jack’s used to hearing from his dad at home, but that he usually doesn’t share in public. It’s funny to hear him chirp the guys on the ice, of course, but when the camera is focused on Jack, his dad’s obvious pride and joy bleeds through. After Jack makes his shots from the corner during the skills relay, the camera swings around to show Bob grinning wildly and saying, “Doesn’t get any better than that.” There are a few more short videos after that, including one of Jack’s attempt on Dubnyk. “Look at that deke, beautiful!” Bob says, and then, “And he shoots, look at that elevation — ahhhh, denied.” The snap story ends with a shot of Bob grinning at the camera and the text Hockey dad at the ASG. He looks undeniably proud and happy, so much that Jack finds himself wanting to replay the story just to see that expression on his face again.

Jack looks up at Alicia, but her eyes are a little watery and he has to look away again. Bittle’s ankle hooks over Jack’s under the table. Jack glances over at his Bob, who’s in the middle of telling a story that has everyone listening raptly.

Jack knows his father is proud of him, of course; Bob will hardly let him forget it. But for years now, Jack hasn’t been able to shake the thought that Bob only says things like that because he’s supposed to, not because he really believes them. Like he’s saying them because he’s afraid Jack will crumple under his criticism, like anything less than one hundred percent support will send Jack into an anxiety spiral.

If only it were that simple.

Still, maybe Jack should cut his father some slack. The thought makes his head spin a little.

“He’s gonna do more this weekend,” Bittle says.

“He’s already doing it,” Alicia adds, and they all turn to see Bob with the phone aimed at Giroux. “Eric, you have no idea what kind of monster you’ve created.”

Bittle grins and picks up his drink.

Half an hour later, Jack’s parents and the Whittons head off together to check out a live music venue Amanda had heard about. Whits settles into the booth next to Jack, frowning as they disappear into the crowd.

“I still think your dad is putting the moves on my mom.”

Jack shoots Whits a warning look. “Don’t even start.”

Bittle snickers; apparently he’s heard about this before. “I’m gonna go get another drink. Anyone want anything?”

“I’m good,” Whits says, holding up a pint glass.

“Yeah, get me a beer, thanks.” Jack slides out of the booth to let him up. “Wait — you’re not getting carded?”

“They don’t seem to be carding anyone tonight, so I’m taking advantage.” Bittle winks and walks away. Jack watches him wind his way through the crowd, then slide between two groups of guys at the bar. Bittle waves at the bartender, who flashes him a smile before turning back to the drinks she’s making.

Whits sighs when Jack sits down again. “If I’m gonna get laid tonight, I gotta get busy.”

Jack makes a noncommittal sound in response. Anything else and he’s going to get details.

“I just need to figure out who the lucky guy is gonna be.” Whits elbows Jack and grins, and Jack laughs despite himself.

“That might be the douchiest thing you’ve ever said.”

“Fuck you, man. I haven’t struck out yet this weekend.”

“You’ve been hanging around with Parse too much. He’s rubbing off on you.” Jack realizes what he’s said the moment the words leave his lips.

“Just the once,” Whits says, grinning at him. “It was pretty hot.”

“Oh my god, stop.” Jack shakes his head — though he has to admit he’s a little curious about what’s going on between Whits and Parse.

He should get Bittle to ask and then give him the relevant details.

“Speaking of douches, Lindhof is all up on your boy.”

Jack looks over to where Erik Lindhof is leaning against the bar and talking to Bittle. He shrugs. “They’re just talking.”

Lindhof leans close to Bittle to say something in his ear, and Bittle laughs in response. He takes a step back, but Lindhof closes the distance between them again.

“Come on.” Whits picks up his drink and takes a sip. “Lindy definitely wants a piece of that ass.”

Jack frowns. “What makes you think he’s not straight?”

“What do you think I did Thursday night?”

Jack turns to him. “You said you hung out with Parse Thursday night.”

Whits’ smirk is epic. “I didn’t say Parse wasn’t there.”

Jack winces: he walked right into that one. “Yeah, well. Bittle looks like he can handle it.”

At the bar, Bittle turns away from Lindhof to pay the bartender. Lindhof keeps talking to him the entire time, and doesn’t stop until Bittle turns around with drinks in hand. Bittle says something that looks like See you later and heads back toward Jack and Whits. Lindhof’s eyes follow him as he goes — and then meet with Jack’s. Jack stares back at Lindhof for a moment, then gives him a cool smile. Lindhof blanches and looks away.

“Don’t think I didn’t see that,” Whits says in a low voice.

“See what?”

Whits snorts and shakes his head. “You can be a scary motherfucker sometimes, Zimms.”

Bittle sets the drinks down on the table when he finally makes his way back to them. “Sorry that took so long. It’s gettin’ busy in here.” He slides into the booth next to Jack.

“Thanks.” Jack glances over at the bar again, but Lindhof has moved on.

There’s a whine of audio feedback from across the room, followed by the voice of the DJ, announcing that the party is about to get started. Jack looks around the bar with raised eyebrows. It hasn’t even started yet?

The first song starts with a harsh techno beat, and Bittle nearly vibrates in response.

Jack lifts his beer to his lips. “Are you gonna dance?”

“By myself?” Bittle snorts. “I’ll wind up with Erik Lindhof’s handprints all over my ass.”

“Hey, don’t knock it,” Whits retorts, grinning.

Bittle shakes his head. “He’s not my type.”

Jack forces down the flash of dark anger that rises in his chest. He’s not going to be like that, not with Bittle. He knows Bittle. He trusts him. He inhales, exhales again, and skates his fingers down the length of Bittle’s thigh under the table.

“So what is your type?”

Bittle smiles up at him. “Hmmm, I dunno. Canadian hockey robots with history degrees?”

“There any of those here?”

“One or two.” Bittle’s fingers intertwine with Jack’s. “Think I should try my luck?”

“Definitely.” Jack squeezes his hand and looks out over the dance floor. “But seriously, go dance if you want. If Lindhof bothers you, just tell him to fuck off.”

Bittle makes a sound like a strangled laugh. “If only it was that easy.”

“Isn’t it?”

Bittle stares back at him for a moment, his expression tight. He looks like he wants to say something, but then seems to change his mind. He sighs. “It’d be more fun if someone danced with me.” He raises his eyebrows at Jack.

So. It’s not that Jack doesn’t like dancing — under the right circumstances, with the right combination of people, he does. But in a crowd of people he neither knows nor trusts, the possibility of dancing with his secret boyfriend and remaining firmly in the closet seems basically nil.

“Bits—”

“Never mind.” Bittle looks back out at the dance floor again. “It’s not that big a deal.”

Jack’s heard his mom say that to his dad often enough that he thinks maybe he shouldn’t take Bittle at his word.

“I’ll dance with you.” Whits drains his glass and sets it on the table, then slides out of the booth.

Bittle grins and practically leaps to his feet. Jack watches them head down to the area that’s being used as a dance floor, and tries valiantly not to feel like an asshole.

He envies the two of them their comfort in their own sexuality. Bittle’s easy charm seems to smooth the way for everyone around him to accept him, whether he’s bro-ing it up with guys on the ice or chattering excitedly about Beyoncé while baking. And while Whits isn’t exactly out, he doesn’t seem to mind what assumptions people make about him. Jack has no idea what it would be like not to have his sexuality be a source of anxiety for him. He tries to imagine walking out onto the dance floor and pulling Bittle against him, kissing him without caring who sees.

He can’t.

There is movement to his left: Parse slides into the booth, his gaze also glued to the dance floor.

“Sup, loser?”

Jack picks up his beer and takes a large sip. “Fuck off, Kent.”

Parse sets his drink on the table; it looks fruity and complex. “I gotta say, you got some big balls, man.”

Jack turns to look at him. “What?”

Parse slides closer and lowers his voice. “Bringing your boyfriend along for the All-Star Weekend?” He shakes his head. “Mad respect, bro.”

“Where’d you hear that?” It had to have been Whits. Jack’s jaw clenches.

“Nowhere.” Parse chuckles. “Dude, it’s pretty obvious.”

Panic floods Jack’s gut, hot and sharp. “Obvious?”

“Shyeah. Okay, first: gotta give you props on the social media cover story. That’s actually a good idea, and I’m taking that one back to our PR people. But like, even if I didn’t follow you both on Twitter and know all your history and shit, it’d still be pretty fuckin’ clear. You get all dopey when you look at him for one thing.”

“Oh, for—” Jack sighs. “I do not.”

“You really do. Seriously, I wish someone would look at me like that.”

Jack snorts and shakes his head.

“Also, I saw him coming out of your room this morning.”

Jack nearly chokes on his beer. “How the hell do you know what room I’m in?”

Parse laughs, leaning his forehead on Jack’s shoulder. “I actually don’t, but thanks for confirming it.”

Jack groans. “Shit.”

“Christ, Zimms. That was too fuckin’ easy. You’re better with media than that, come on.” Parse sits back and shakes his head.

He’s right, though. Jack gave it away in less than a minute. He’s got to do better.

“I’m a little new at this, so any advice you’ve got would be great.”

Parse fumbles with his phone. “Could you say that again, but with a little more pleading? I’m gonna make it your ringtone.”

“Like I’m gonna fucking call you.” Jack presses a hand over his face. “I’m serious, Kent. How the hell do you…?” He waves his hand in a vague gesture. “You know, keep it quiet?”

“I don’t, not really. It’s kind of an open secret. It probably helps that I occasionally fuck girls too. Everyone thinks I’m a massive whore, basically.”

“Are you?”

“Pretty much.” Parse grins. “But compared to some of the shit guys get into, slutting it up isn’t that big of a deal. I keep my head down and play hard and my team wins, so no one cares who I fuck.”

“Yeah, but you’re not exactly in a big hockey market.”

Parse takes a sip of his drink. “Yet another benefit of Las Vegas. See what you missed out on when you signed with the Falcs?”

Jack takes a deep breath and releases it, slowly. “I’m thinking about coming out. Maybe after the season is over.”

“Seriously?” Parse turns to look at him, clearly surprised. “Zimms, that’s… I mean, if that’s what you want, but… look, the guys in the league and in your org knowing is one thing, but the whole fucking world knowing is something else.”

“I know, but I’m not just fucking around like you and Whits do. Bittle deserves more than being my dirty little secret.”

Parse blinks, then looks out to the dance floor to where Whits and Bittle are dancing with a group of guys from the Atlantic Division team. Bittle pauses to take some shots with his phone, presumably for the snap story.

“It’s that serious?”

Jack presses his lips together and nods. “Probably going that direction, yeah.”

“Huh.” Parse turns toward Jack and raises his glass. “Okay then. I’ll make you a deal. If you go first, I’ll do it too.”

Jack sputters. “You’ll do what?”

Parse lowers his voice to a whisper. “Come out.”

“But you just said—”

“I know, but… it’s getting old, yanno? Maybe I’m tired of just fucking around. Most of the guys our age are getting married, having kids.”

“Oh my god,” Jack says, staring at him. “Who are you and what have you done with Kent Parson?”

“I’m fucking serious, man. I just signed an eight-year contract. I want to buy a house, a big one with too many rooms and a pool and shit.” He shrugs, his gaze firmly on the dance floor. “And maybe I don’t want to live in it alone.”

Jack takes a deep breath and releases it. “Yeah, okay.”

“And the odds are good I’d want to settle down with a guy, so… I think my career could handle the pressure if I came out.”

“Then why not go first?”

“I’m not fuckin’ crazy.” Parse elbows him. “Besides, I’m not the one with a secret boyfriend.”

“Yeah.” Jack looks back out at the dance floor again. It’s so crowded now that it’s hard to pick Bittle out of the mass of bodies. “Do what you want, I guess. I’m not gonna hold you to it.”

“You don’t have to. That’s on me. Cheers me on it.” He nudges Jack’s beer glass with his own.

Jack sighs and picks up his glass, and clinks it against Parse’s. “Fine. Cheers.” He doesn’t believe it for a moment, but whatever.

“In the meantime,” Parse says, leaning in and whispering, “you need a better poker face. All you really need to do is look mildly confused and say shit like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Pics or it didn’t happen, yanno?”

Jack nods. He’s usually good at this sort of thing, but the relationship with Bittle has thrown him for a loop in a lot of ways.

“So let’s try it again.” Parse takes one more drink and sets his glass down on the table with a pronounced clunk. “You got some balls bringing your boyfriend to the fuckin’ All-Star Game, man.”

Jack frowns. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Parse elbows him. “No, c’mon, bro. I saw him coming out of your room this morning.”

Jack shrugs. “What? Sorry, no idea who you’re talking about.”

“Your social media guy. You know: cute, blond, gay as a cupcake.”

“Look, I’m not gonna speculate about somebody else’s sexual orientation. That’s none of my business.”

Dude. I’ve seen the way you look at him. Come on.”

“Oh, Bittle? He’s constantly taking pictures and tweeting for the Falcs. I have to smile for that shit.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

Parse shrugs. “All right, then. My mistake.” He claps Jack on the shoulder and slides out of the booth. “See ya later, Zimms.”

Jack takes a sip of his beer. “Not if I see you first.”

He looks out at the dance floor again, but doesn’t see Bittle. Lots of people on the dance floor have paired off now, men and women grinding against each other, laughing and smiling, some nearly making out. Whits is standing off to one side, arm draped around a dark-haired man whose back is to Jack. Whits leans in close to say something in the man’s ear, and the man seems to laugh.

Jack scans the room again and spots Bittle over by the bar, apparently ordering another drink. He’s flanked by yet another interested hockey player: Yulian Kirillov from Seattle. He’s tall and lanky, and the way he has to hunch over to talk to Bittle would be funny under other circumstances. But the way his arm snakes around Bittle’s back, pinning him against the bar, is anything but funny.

Heat starts to prickle at the back of Jack’s neck.

Bittle turns away from the bartender and bumps back against Kirillov’s arm. He looks up at Kirillov and smiles, then gives his arm a gentle push. Kirillov drops his arm, but then reaches over to brush something off of Bittle’s shoulder. It’s a blatant excuse to touch him, and Jack watches, waits for Bittle to tell the guy to back off. He doesn’t though; he just laughs and turns toward the bar to collect his drink. He reaches for his wallet, but Kirillov hands the bartender a bill before he can get there. Kirillov smiles at Bittle, and Jack can see Bittle smile and say, “Thanks.” Bittle turns away, heads back towards the dance floor. Kirillov watches him for a moment, gaze blatantly dragging down Bittle’s body, and follows him.

Kirillov catches up with Bittle, touches his arm, and Bittle turns around. Jack can’t see Bittle’s face, but he can see Kirillov’s, can see that they’re talking again.

Jack clenches his jaw. Bittle should just tell Kirillov he’s not interested, or push him away, or something, but he’s not. He’s just standing there and talking to a guy who is clearly hitting on him, and not doing a damn thing to discourage him.

Jack takes another sip of his beer and looks away again. He feels tense and angry, and suddenly, weirdly insecure. He knows Bittle isn’t interested in these other guys, but he’s not telling them to fuck off either, and Jack doesn’t understand why not. Bittle seems to have forgotten Jack is even here, which…

Fuck. They can’t be out here, so why shouldn’t Bittle seem mildly interested? If he acts like he’s single, it’s at least a decent cover. No one will think Bittle is dating Jack if he flirts with other guys, despite the fucking hearteyes and the amount of time they’re spending together and the fact that Parse and Karlsson and probably Jamie Benn and his girlfriend already know. No, Bittle should be flirting with other people and keeping his distance from Jack in a place like this. It makes sense, but it doesn’t mean Jack has to like it.

Or sit here and watch it. He pushes the rest of his beer away and slides out of the booth. He slips away, heading out of the bar and toward the elevator bank. No one stops him, or even says a word to him. Ten minutes later, he’s in the room, undressed and in bed. His phone is mysteriously quiet — seriously, no one has even noticed he’s gone?

Bittle must’ve been enjoying himself more than Jack realized. Jack chews on his lower lip and stares at the ceiling. He’s probably having even more fun now that Jack isn’t there, staring at him miserably from the sidelines.

Jack inhales, exhales, and closes his eyes. The game tomorrow: that’s what he should be thinking about. He runs through the plays they’d discussed in today’s meeting, one at a time, visualizing different scenarios. Three-on-three is something he’s come to enjoy this year, so he’s actually looking forward to the tournament itself.

His phone finally buzzes with a text, almost twenty minutes after he left the party. He picks it up from the nightstand and glances at it.

Bittle: Where are you?

Finally, he noticed. Jack sits up and presses his lips together before replying.

In the room.

The response comes seconds later. I’ll come up

There’s a sharp spike of jealous spite in his throat, and he replies without stopping to breathe it away. No, stay and have fun. If that’s what you want.

A long moment passes before Bittle responds.

I might stay a little longer. Getting some good stuff on the dance floor.

Jack’s pretty sure he means “stuff” for Snapchat and Instagram, but it doesn’t stop him from thinking about another possible meaning. Yeah I’ll bet.

His imagination runs wild, spinning visions of Bittle flirting shamelessly, smiling up at Kirillov, letting Kirillov pull him in close while he dances.

Bittle: You okay?

Fine. The jealousy morphs into resentment. Maybe you can get a few more guys to buy you drinks.

He hits send and tosses the phone across the room. It stays horrifically silent.

Jack presses his hands over his face. He can’t act like Bittle’s boyfriend in public. He can’t dance with him or sit with his arm around him or obviously flirt with him. And clearly that’s what Bittle wants, because he’s eating up attention from the guys hitting on him. But Jack can’t do any of that. He can’t, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Maybe inviting Bittle here this weekend was a mistake. It’s been great in some ways, but it’s made it more stressful too. If Bittle wasn’t here, they could still have talked on the phone. Jack would only have had to think about hockey and not whether every single moment spent with Bittle was going to out him to the entire league.

It’s a good ten minutes before he’s aware of his phone buzzing. He sighs and gets up, crosses to fish it out of the sofa cushions where it landed. There are several texts on the screen.

Whits: Why are you being a dick?
If there’s a couch in your room, you might want to go ahead and sleep on it tonight
Fine, ignore me
I’m just trying to help you
CALL HIM YOU ASSHOLE

Jack groans. He unlocks the phone and opens his contacts.

The phone rings four times before Bittle answers it. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Jack takes a deep breath. “Are you coming up?”

“Maybe after I get a few more guys to buy me drinks.” There’s not an ounce of humor in his tone, and Jack winces.

“Bits—”

“I mean, it’s not like my boyfriend wants to hang out with me or anything.”

Jack’s stomach drops. “Bitty… please, just come up.”

“Oh, now you want to talk to me?”

Jack closes his eyes. “I’m sorry, okay? Whatever I did, I’m sorry.”

“Whatever you—” Bittle makes a strangled sound. “I’ll come up later. Don’t wait up.”

The call ends, and Jack sinks down into the couch. He’s fucked this up already, somehow. Bittle is mad at him, and Jack’s not really even sure what he did wrong. Both Bittle and Whits think he’s being a dick, though, so they’re probably right.

He picks up his phone again and texts Whits. What did I do?

Whits: Dude seriously?

Jack sighs. Yes

You want a list?

Jack scowls at the phone, but yeah. A list would be helpful at this point. Sure

There is a long pause before his phone buzzes again.

First, you left without saying anything. Just fucked off. I mean?
Second, you text him some shit about how he’s flirting with other guys
Even though you were here and you saw him trying to avoid that shit

Jack gapes at the phone. He wasn’t avoiding. He let them flirt with him.

OMG
Dude wtf
You really are an asshole

Jack is missing something here, clearly. He tries to compose a response to that, but he doesn’t know what to say. He stares helplessly at the phone for what feels like minutes before it buzzes again.

Okay bro you srsly OWE ME for this
I told him you’re fuckin clueless and he should go talk to you
He’s on his way upstairs
Don’t fuck it up

“Fuck.” Jack drops the phone to the sofa and presses his hands over his face. His stomach is twisted up now, and he has no idea what Bittle is going to say.

It feels like an eternity before the door finally opens. Bittle steps through and closes it behind him, carefully turning the deadbolt before facing Jack.

Jack sits up. “Hey.”

Bittle crosses the room, arms folded over his chest. He stops in front of Jack, eyebrows raised. He looks pissed.

“I’m sorry,” Jack says.

Bittle just stares at him in response.

“Apparently I’m an asshole?” Jack sighs. “I shouldn’t have left without saying anything. I just thought…”

“Thought what?”

Jack feels a flash of relief that Bittle is talking to him, at least. “Parse knows. He guessed, just from watching us. I kind of freaked out.”

“Oh.” Bittle’s arms drop, and he sighs.

“And I mean… I’m really glad you’re here and all, but…”

Bittle makes a sound of frustration. “You think me coming this weekend was a mistake?”

“No! Not… not really.”

“Not really?” Bittle shakes his head and looks away. “God, Jack. Look, I get it that you don’t want to do anything that makes it obvious, okay? That was why I went to dance with Taylor.”

“And why you were flirting with Kirillov?”

Bittle turns to stare at him now, and his face flushes with anger. “I was not flirting with him! He wouldn’t leave me alone, and I—”

“Then why didn’t you tell him to fuck off? Seriously, Bittle, it looked like—”

“Like what? Like I was asking for it?”

Jack blanches. “No!”

“I was trying to get rid of him, but he kept following me. And then I thought, hey, I can’t dance with this guy all over me, but I’ll go sit with my boyfriend and maybe then he’ll give up. And guess what? You were gone, with no explanation!”

Jack shakes his head. “Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?”

“Because he’s a foot taller than me and I didn’t want to piss him off and make a scene! Jesus, Jack, how do you not get that?”

Jack stares at him. “Bitty…”

Bittle turns away, goes to sit on the bed. He doesn’t look at Jack. “I know I should’ve said something, okay? I don’t know how to… I just kept thinking that if I walked away, he’d get the message. But he kept following me. I didn’t know what to do. I’m not… This isn’t…” He presses his hands over his face.

Oh. A few things begin to click in Jack’s head. “You were scared.”

It’s not a question, but Bittle answers it anyway. “Not scared, just… uncomfortable? I wanted him to go away.”

Jack swallows down the anger that’s rising in his throat, anger both at Kirillov for being a pushy asshole and at himself for not doing anything about it, just sitting there and watching, and… blaming Bittle for it, and then abandoning him there.

“God, I…” He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, exhales slowly. This isn’t about him; it’s about Bittle and how Bittle feels right now. Jack’s not going to make it about himself, not again. “And you didn’t feel like you could tell him that?”

Bittle groans and flops back on the bed. “No.”

Jack hesitates, his brain whirring. “So is this… kind of like the way you’re afraid to take a hit on the ice? Like, you don’t… you avoid it instead of just facing it dead on.”

“Maybe? I don’t know.” Bittle sighs. “Look, I know I shouldn’t let people do that to me, but you don’t know what it’s like to be small around all these huge guys and… kind of obviously gay.”

Jack doesn’t, not at all.

“Taylor finally realized what was going on and helped me out.”

Jack winces. It’s a good thing Whits has Bittle’s back, because Jack really sucks at it. “That’s… I’m glad.”

“It was nice to have someone on my side.” The bitterness in Bittle’s voice would curdle cream.

Jack exhales, and the weight of the evening lands squarely on his shoulders. Bittle needed him tonight, and Jack couldn’t see past his own insecurity.

“Bitty… Fuck, I’m so sorry. I’m a terrible boyfriend.”

“Jack—”

“No, it’s even worse than that. I’m a terrible friend.” Bittle deserves so much more than Jack is capable of giving him.

Bittle is quiet for a long time. Finally, he says, “Come here. Please.”

Jack stands, crosses to the bed, and sits. He looks down, and Bittle is looking up at him, his expression worried. Bittle reaches out and takes Jack’s hand, intertwines their fingers, and tugs.

Jack stretches out next to him, turns on his side to look at him. Bittle’s hair is getting long on top, and Jack reaches over with his free hand to push it off his forehead.

“I’m sorry I left without saying anything.”

“Me too.” Bittle’s eyes fall closed. “I’m sorry I didn’t just come upstairs right away.”

“Did you get good pictures, at least?”

Bittle opens his eyes and smiles, just a little. “Yeah.”

“I’m glad you’re here, okay?”

“Are you sure? Because I think I’ve made it worse for you instead of easier.”

“I get to sleep next to you for a whole weekend. That definitely makes it easier.”

Bittle curls into him, head on Jack’s shoulder, and sighs. Jack wraps his arms around him, grateful Bittle wants to be close to him again.

“I’m so sorry, Bits.”

“Me too, honey.”

Jack kisses his forehead and closes his eyes, and just holds him.

*****

Jack wakes up alone, and panics for approximately three seconds. The side of the bed where Bittle was sleeping is still warm, though, and once Jack calms his racing heart, he can hear the sound of the faucet running in the bathroom. He rolls onto his stomach and burrows his face into the pillow. It smells like Bittle. Jack closes his eyes.

At the sound of the shower starting, Jack blinks awake again and glances at the time on the nightstand’s clock: 7:23. He doesn’t have anywhere to be until practice at 10:00. He considers going back to sleep, but now that he’s more awake he has to pee. And he fell asleep without brushing his teeth last night, ew.

“Good morning,” he says when he steps in the bathroom.

Bittle peeks around the shower curtain at him, surprised. “Did I wake you up? I was trying to be quiet.”

“No, it’s fine. I want to get up and going anyway.” He pisses, and gives Bittle a warning before flushing. (He’s learned you can never predict what hotel plumbing will do). He brushes his teeth, then spends a moment staring at his reflection, trying to decide if he’s going to shave now or later.

“You getting in?” Bittle’s face appears just to the left of Jack’s shoulder in the mirror. “Or should I turn the water off?”

“Yeah, sure.” Jack pushes his underwear down and off, and waits for Bittle to step out. He doesn’t, though; he gives Jack a coy onceover, then turns his face into the spray. Jack smiles and steps in behind him.

The shower is not configured for two, but at least the shower head is high enough that he doesn’t have to duck under it. Bittle raises one arm to run a hand through his hair, and Jack watches the muscles flex in his shoulder. He has a strange urge to sink his teeth into Bittle’s bicep. He lets his gaze travel down Bittle’s back, to where water sheets down over the curve of his ass.

Bittle glances over his shoulder. “Like what you see?”

“Yeah.” Jack takes another step forward and presses himself against Bittle from behind, hands sliding down over wet skin, settling on Bittle’s hips. Bittle sputters a little under the spray, and Jack laughs. “Sorry, didn’t mean to drown you.”

They change places, trying not to knock each other over in the process. Jack finally gets his head under the spray and tilts back into it. Bittle hands him the tiny hotel bottle of shampoo and, after he’s rinsed, the tiny matching bottle of body wash.

Jack hands it back to him, smirking. “You wanna help with that?”

Bittle grins.

Jack sighs at the first touch of Bittle’s lathered hands on his skin, and it only gets better from there. It’s maddeningly intimate, but soothing too, in the same way that getting a rubdown after a hard workout is soothing. Of course, getting a rubdown in the practice facility doesn’t involve quite this level of attention to his ass.

When Bittle’s slippery fingers finally brush against Jack’s erection, he nearly whines.

“Oh,” Bittle says, his smile sly and teasing. “Is that dirty too?”

“Definitely.” Jack kisses him, pulls him closer, and then groans into his mouth when Bittle begins to stroke.

Bittle takes his time, exploring with his fingers, experimenting with speed and pressure, and Jack just tries to remain standing through all of it. In Jack’s (admittedly limited) experience, sex has been about efficiency, about getting the other person off and getting on with everything else. But with Bittle, it’s completely different: it’s playful and fun, and as much about the process as the end result.

“I’m getting a little waterlogged,” Bittle says, holding up his fingers and grinning at Jack. “Wanna take this back to bed?”

They dry off quickly and tumble back into the rumpled sheets. Jack stretches out over Bittle, presses him down into the mattress, and they make out lazily for a while. Sunlight streams in through the split in the curtains, bright and warm, painting a wide beam across the foot of the bed. It feels like any other Sunday morning with nowhere to be, nothing to do but just enjoy the moment.

Jack pauses, and pushes up on his elbows to look down at Bittle.

“What?” Bittle asks, smiling at him. His hair is darker when it’s damp, falling messily back onto the pillow.

“I just… I’m really happy.” Jack blinks at him, uncertain what prompted him to say that. It’s true, though. He feels as relaxed and content in this moment than he can remember feeling in a long time.

“Good.” Bittle stretches under him, yawns, and then slides warm hands around Jack’s shoulders. “Come back down here.”

Jack dips his head to kiss him again. Bittle wraps his thighs around Jack’s hips and arches up against him, sliding their erections together. The surge of arousal Jack feels is nearly overwhelming. He finds Bittle’s hands and presses them back over his head, interlacing their fingers. He grinds against Bittle and Bittle moves with him, breath coming in short gusts against Jack’s shoulder. Their skin is damp everywhere they’re touching, every point of contact hot and sharp. Jack presses his face into Bittle’s neck, eyes squeezed shut. He’s so close now, just from the friction and the heat and the feeling of Bittle pulling him in, down.

“I need,” Bittle says, gasping, then makes a plaintive sound and digs his heels into the back of Jack’s thighs.

Jack releases his hands, reaches down between them to wrap a hand around Bittle’s dick. He moves with fast short strokes lubricated with nothing more than sweat. Bittle’s fingers dig into Jack’s shoulder, hard enough to make Jack flinch. He’s clinging to Jack for dear life now, riding on the edge, wild and beautiful.

“Bitty, god,” Jack whispers.

Bittle’s mouth opens and his eyes close, and Jack feels him come against his stomach, warm and wet. There’s a sharp bloom of pain on Jack’s shoulder where Bittle’s teeth latch onto his skin, but it’s secondary to the desperation Jack feels. He braces his weight on his forearms on either side of Bittle’s chest and thrusts into the tight slickness between their bodies.

Bittle makes encouraging sounds, his hands on Jack’s ass now, and Jack ruts against him, frantic and needy. It’s another half a minute before he comes, making an embarrassing amount of noise, with Bittle whimpering “Jack Jack Jack” beneath him.

“I’m sorry,” Jack breathes against Bittle’s hair the moment he finds his breath again. “Last night… I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, baby, it’s fine.” Bittle holds him tight, kisses Jack’s face. “We’re fine, okay?”

Jack nods, exhales, and kisses Bittle for a long time.

*****

Chapter Text

Whits pulls his phone from his pocket and glances at the time. “My sister and brother should be getting here any minute now.”

“You gonna go meet them?” Jack asks. He pulls a clean shirt over his head. They were the last ones off the ice at the short morning practice, and now they’re the only ones left in the locker room.

“After the lunch thing, yeah. Blake’s kind of stupidly excited about meeting Parse, so I’m gonna have to drag him along.”

“What, I’m not her favorite anymore?”

“Nah. Meeting you in person kinda ruined it, I think.” Whits smirks at him.

Jack frowns. “I’m not sure I’d want my little sister to have a crush on Parse.”

Whits opens his mouth and closes it again, then shrugs. “He’s not so bad.”

“He’s a bigger slut than you are.”

“He had a five-year head start.”

Jack snorts.

“So, uh…” Whits sits on the bench next to Jack to put his shoes on. “I take it y’all made up last night?”

Jack looks down, biting his lip. “Did he tell you?”

“No, I just figured when I didn’t hear from either of you, it was because you were too busy.”

Jack smiles and shrugs.

“There’s also that bite mark on your shoulder.”

Jack sits straight up, hand pressing over the spot where Bittle’s mouth had been when he’d come that morning. He’d gotten a few funny looks from a couple of the guys when they were changing before practice, but he hadn’t thought much about it. “Shit.”

Whits chuckles and stands, patting Jack on the other shoulder. “Relax, Zimms. Nobody cares.”

“They’d care if they knew.” Jack leans over to pulls his shoes on.

“Maybe. But not as much as you probably think.”

Jack’s not sure he believes that, but Whits definitely has more experience in that area lately. “Can I ask you — it’s kinda personal.”

“Like I don’t do that to you all the time? Shoot, bro.”

Jack glances around, making sure the locker room is really empty, then lowers his voice anyway. “How out are you right now? I mean, here, this weekend?”

Whits shrugs. “It’s pretty much an open secret at this point.”

“And you’re cool with that?”

“Yeah, I guess I am.” Whits tucks his hair behind his ears and grins cheekily. “It’s gotten me hella laid, anyway.”

“I’ll bet.” Jack watches him for a moment. Whits has been relaxed and happy this weekend in a way Jack can’t imagine feeling. It helps that Whits is outgoing and confident, that he can navigate social situations with an ease Jack can only envy. He’s like Bittle in that way. Jack can’t help but wonder if their comfort with being out has something to do with it. Jack stands and grabs his gear bag, shoves the last few items in it and zips it closed. “So, uh… thanks for helping Bittle out last night.” The when I was too much of a asshole to do it remains implied.

Whits shoves his hands in his pockets. “No problem. Kirillov was pretty easy to distract.” His smile twists in a familiar way, and Jack’s eyebrows go up.

“Wait, seriously?”

“Well, you know. I wanted to check the Seattle box.” He looks almost sheepish.

“After he was a dick to Bittle?”

“I made him apologize.” Whits smirks. “On his knees.”

Jack shakes his head. “God, you and Parse were made for each other.”

Whits sputters out a laugh and looks away, cheeks a little pinker than they were before.

*****

The Atlantic and Metropolitan teams face off in the first round of the All-Star tournament. It’s a fun game, more fun than Jack even expected, almost like a scrimmage with friends. It’s definitely competitive, but there’s still a lot of laughter and good-natured chirping on the ice. Jack doesn’t score any of his team’s four goals, but his line generates some good chances and executes a few fancy plays, so he feels good about it.

And if he takes a little extra satisfaction when he poke-checks the puck away from Erik Lindhof, that’s just a bonus.

They win, and they have an hour’s break while the two teams from the Western Conference play each other. Bittle finds him and Whits in the players’ lounge, and gets them to do mini-interviews for him to post. He shows Whits a video of Blake talking about what a dork her big brother is. Whits pretends to be offended, but his eyes shine the whole time he watches it.

The Pacific Division team kills the Central Division team 9-6. There’s a short break before the final, enough time for the Atlantic team to get back on the ice and warm up again. Jack shoots a few pucks in the net, then finds a spot to stretch out the muscles that tightened up during the hour break.

He looks over to the bench and sees Bittle there, capturing warmups on his phone. Bittle gives him a little wave and Jack waves back, smiling.

Someone squats to stretch next to Jack. He expects it to be a teammate, but it’s Kirillov. He’s looking over at Bittle too. Jack swallows down a pulse of anger and stands, ready to move away.

Kirillov stands too. “Hey, Zimmermann.”

Jack turns to look at him, his expression blank. “What?”

“So, uh… we haven’t met. Not officially.”

“I guess not.”

Kirillov looks over at Bittle again, who’s now watching the two of them somewhat warily. “Your PR guy, is nice.”

Jack’s shrug is nonchalant. “Yeah, he is.”

“He is doing good job for Falcs, yes?”

Jack’s not sure what Kirillov’s trying to say. “Yeah, definitely.”

“So I’m thinking, maybe you introduce me later? I want to ask him some things.”

Jack’s jaw clenches. He lowers his voice. “He has a boyfriend.”

The look of shock on Kirillov’s face is priceless. “Wh-what?”

“Big guy, gets crazy jealous. I’m just sayin’.”

Kirillov shakes his head, his eyes wide. “No, no, no, you have wrong idea. I’m not... I just—”

Before he can finish the sentence, Whits joins them, snowing Kirillov’s skates when he stops. He shoots a look at Jack and holds up his glove for a fist bump, then turns a sly grin to Kirillov. “Sup, Kiri?”

Jack smirks at Kirillov, who’s rapidly going pale. “You were saying?”

“Nothing,” Kirillov says. “I’m saying nothing.”

“He wants me to introduce him to Bittle,” Jack tells Whits.

“Oh really?” Whits snorts. “I thought he made it clear he wasn’t interested in talking to you last night.”

Kirillov laughs uncomfortably. “I’m drinking too much last night, and I’m forgetting who I talk to.”

“You talked to me last night,” Whits says.

“Yes,” Kirillov replies, eyes narrowing.

Whits smirks. “How are your knees today?”

Krillov’s mouth opens slightly in shock, and his expression shifts to one of near-panic. He nods stiffly, then skates away without another word. Jack stifles a laugh.

“Closet cases,” Whits says, shaking his head.

“Hey.” Jack elbows him in the side. “Some of us are pretty comfortable in that closet. And so were you not that long ago.”

“You know what I mean.” Whits turns to watch the rest of their team shoot pucks. “It’s not like all douchebags are straight.”

It’s on the tip of Jack’s tongue to make a comment about Anderberg, but he doesn’t. “So wait — did you hook up with him just for blackmail material?”

Whits snorts. “Well, not just. He was actually pretty good at it. I’d heard Russians have talented tongues, but I—”

“Ugh, I don’t want to know.” Jack gives his shoulder a shove, and Whits laughs. “But still, thanks. I guess.”

Whits winks at him and skates away.

*****

The game against Team Pacific is a lot tighter than the earlier matchup. Jack and Parse seem to be on the ice together continuously, and Jack finds he’s enjoying playing against him. Parse’s skill is obvious even in this setting, and it’s nice to get a chance to appreciate it up close.

Unfortunately, Team Atlantic doesn’t manage a single goal; even pulling Bishop out of the net at the end for the man advantage doesn’t help. Everyone’s smiling when the buzzer sounds, though. Jack watches John Scott’s teammates lift him precariously onto their shoulders in celebration while the crowd chants “MVP!”, and feels an unexpected rush of pride. He hates losing as much as anyone, but in this case, it doesn’t feel like failure at all. It feels like these four teams, all of the guys here, did something special, something beyond playing a game to entertain fans.

He’s pretty sure he’s not the only one with a lump in his throat when John Scott is announced as the game’s MVP — as a fucking write-in candidate, at that. He leans on his stick and watches Scott take it all in, and it hits him: despite the league’s efforts to keep Scott out of this game, despite the attempts by the press to argue he didn’t belong here, with the most elite players in the world, Scott held his head high and fucking brought it. And the players and the fans supported him every step of the way, even though he was different. Even though there were closed-minded people who didn’t want him here.

Jack has to take a deep breath and look away for a moment, down at the ice at his feet, scuffed and carved by the blades of everyone who skated on it over the last hour. He’s always felt at home on the ice, but somehow never confident that his best would be good enough for this league, for these teammates. He’s spent the entire weekend and most of the last few weeks questioning his right to be here. He doesn’t want to be given things because of his name alone, and he hates that the line between given and earned is frequently so blurry.

Being here this weekend, counted among the league’s best players doesn’t feel like something he’s earned — but no one has said that to him, or even implied it. And though plenty of people said that very thing about John Scott, he’s here too, and he played two amazing games, scored two goals, and was voted MVP. Right now, no one cares that he just got sent down to the AHL, or that he’s been little more than an enforcer for his entire career, that he’s barely scored a handful of goals in that time. They wanted to see him succeed anyway.

That means something. It has to.

*****

Papa: Reservation is at 10:00. Can you meet in 30? Whittons are with us.

Jack taps out a quick ok, then texts Bittle to let him know.

“Your dad?” Whits asks, buttoning his shirt.

“Yeah. He says your family is already there.”

“This is gonna be fun, but I’m not really looking forward to our dads battling over the check.”

“There won’t even be a battle, trust me.” Jack would bet serious money that Bob has already taken care of that.

They finish dressing and pack up their gear. Everything will be delivered to the hotel tonight, so they head straight to the family lounge to meet up with everyone. Bittle is already there, talking to Whits’ sister Blake. Parse is there too, to Jack’s surprise. He’s talking with Bob, Alex Whitton, Whits’ brother Mark, and a few other men who look to be players’ parents.

But none of them are Parse’s parents — they aren’t here this weekend, and Jack hadn’t realized it until just now. Not that Jack actually expected them to be here, considering Parse’s relationship with his step-father. Jack doubts that’s changed in the last few years.

Parse seems completely at ease, though, hands in the pockets of his tailored pants, listening politely to Alex and nodding along. Jack glances over at Whits, who seems just as perplexed as Jack by the situation.

Jack is even more surprised five minutes later when they all head out and Parse goes with them, joining Whits and his family in one of the vehicles Bob organized. Jack and Bittle slide into the very back row of their SUV, and Jack tangles his fingers with Bittle’s immediately.

“Sorry about the game,” Bittle says quietly.

“I’m not.” Jack shrugs. “It was fun. It felt like an important moment, you know?”

Bittle’s smile is warm. “Yeah, it really was.”

Jack kisses his temple. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” Bittle leans against him, pressing their bodies together.

Jack looks up to see his mom giving them a slightly watery smile from the middle row of the vehicle. He rolls his eyes at her, but smiles back anyway.

The restaurant is a fancy steakhouse, to Jack’s not-surprise — his father is predictable in his eating habits. But Jack is surprised when the hostess leads the group through the restaurant and into a private room in the back. There’s a large table set for all of them, and they’re immediately greeted by an elegantly-dressed woman who introduces herself as Sandra and offers everyone sparkling wine. The Whittons are wide-eyed, and Jack feels his face heat. His father can be generous to a fault; Jack’s struggled with that opulence his entire life. He’s always been painfully aware of how it looks from the outside, that his father’s success made it possible for Jack to have things that almost no one else he knew had growing up.

Bittle and Whits certainly didn’t have any of that, and Parse — well, Parse has always enjoyed tagging along anyway.

Jack pulls Bob aside. “Papa, this is nice, but maybe it’s a little much?”

Bob shrugs. “If not for the All-Star Game, then when, Jack? Relax, you’ve earned it.”

Jack hasn’t earned it, which is the point. “Papa—”

Bob switches to French. “But more importantly, I wanted you and Eric to be comfortable tonight, to be able to be together and not worry about who’s watching. This was the easiest way to do it.”

Jack stares back at him, his annoyance fading away in an instant. The idea of not having to worry about hiding their relationship for an entire evening out with family and friends is incredible. And that his father thought of that, wanted that for them. “I… Papa, thank you.”

Bob pulls him into a hug. “Just promise me one thing, okay?”

“What?”

Bob pulls back and gives him a soft, genuine smile. “Have fun tonight. Relax and enjoy yourself. You made it to the All-Star Game your rookie year, and that’s an amazing accomplishment. I’m so proud of you, Jack. You’ve no idea.”

Jack’s throat tightens. He can only blink at his father helplessly.

Bob gives him a quick squeeze, then turns away to go pick up a champagne glass. Jack takes a deep breath and releases it, easing the emotion away.

“You okay?” Bittle appears next to him and Jack reaches for him, pulls him close with an arm around his shoulders.

“Yeah. Just relieved it’s all over, I guess.”

Bittle hands him a glass of sparkling wine. “And you survived.”

Jack watches him for a moment, taking in the warmth on his face, the way his smile goes a little lopsided when he’s genuinely happy. On impulse — and just because he can — Jack leans down and kisses him. Bittle makes a soft sound of surprise, but he smiles even wider against Jack’s lips. They pull apart and grin at each other.

“Awww,” Whits says, and they look over to see everyone watching them.

“Yeah, yeah.” Jack slides an arm around Bittle’s shoulders and takes a sip from his glass.

Amanda and Alex Whitton smile warmly at them, and Jack realizes with a start that they might not have known he wasn’t straight until right now. Blake giggles and whispers something to Whits, who rolls his eyes in response. Jack should probably remind Whits to tell her not to say anything about this to her friends back home. Or tweeting about it, or—

He clamps down on the wisps of anxiety threatening to take root. He should be able to trust everyone here, and he’s not going to worry tonight. For once, he’s going to take his father’s advice and just enjoy it. Bittle presses his forehead into Jack’s shoulder, and Jack takes a deep breath. He pulls Bittle closer and brushes his lips against Bittle’s forehead.

“Well, this is probably a good time for a toast,” Bob says, holding up his glass. Everyone turns to looks at him, glasses in hand. “To Jack and Taylor, for a truly remarkable accomplishment so early in your careers. You made your teams and your families proud this weekend.”

Everyone makes sounds of agreement and clinks glasses together, smiling. Jack looks over at Whits, who smiles back at him.

“Kent, you did pretty good too, I guess,” Bob adds with a grin. Parse makes a show of rolling his eyes, but he’s laughing along with everyone else. He’s been selected for the All-Star Game almost every year he’s been in the league, so Jack figures it’s probably lost its shine by now.

Still, he watches Parse for a moment, trying to work out how he feels about him being here, at what is essentially a family gathering. There was a time in Jack’s life when he and Parse were attached at the hip, but that was years ago. They’ve only been on sort-of-good terms again for a couple of months. Jack told his parents that over Christmas — and they were pleased — but it doesn’t explain his presence here tonight. Bob has made appearances at several All-Star Games in the last few years, though, so maybe he and Parse are more friendly than Jack had realized. Parse has needed a father figure ever since Jack has known him.

Parse catches Whits’ sleeve and tugs him close, whispers in his ear. Whits smiles, then laughs, and whispers something back, his hand on Parse’s arm just above the elbow. It looks intimate in a way that catches Jack by surprise. Maybe his father isn’t fully responsible for Parse being here tonight after all.

“Huh,” Bittle says, drawing Jack’s attention. He’s watching Whits and Parse too.

Jack leans in close. “What do you think?”

Bittle snorts. “I’m trying not to, honestly.”

Jack chuckles and taps his glass against Bittle’s.

Dinner is a long, leisurely affair, stretching until nearly midnight. Everyone is leaving in the morning, but no one seems overly concerned about a potential loss of sleep.

Jack doesn’t want it to end, ever. He stays in physical contact with Bittle for most of the evening, holding his hand, or keeping an arm around him, pressing their knees together under the table. Bittle is hesitant at first, as if he’s not sure how much PDA they can really get away with. By the time dessert is served, though, he’s totally on board, leaning into Jack and smiling up at him. He even feeds Jack a taste of the chocolate torte he’d ordered.

“It’s good, right?” Bittle says, and Jack nods. “It’s flourless, which is something I’ve been meaning to try, but I think it’s maybe too sweet? I think I’d use a different chocolate in it too. Oh, here, let me—”

He wipes away a bit of chocolate from the corner of Jack’s mouth with his thumb. Without even thinking about what he’s doing, Jack catches his thumb and licks it off, holding Bittle’s gaze. Bittle’s cheeks go pink.

Across the table, Parse groans. “Christ, you two, there’s a child present.”

“Hey!” Blake scowls at him from down the table. “I’m sixteen!”

“He meant himself,” Whits retorts, and everyone laughs.

Bittle blushes, but he looks happy too, and Jack’s heart is so full he genuinely doesn’t care what anyone else in the room thinks. He can’t help but glance over at his father, though. Bob’s smile is warm and a little wry, and he winks at Jack before looking away again.

There are digestifs and more coffee, and they all finally concede it’s time to let the staff go home.

“So,” Bittle says quietly when they’re back in the car, “what do you think’s going on between Taylor and Kent?”

“I have no idea,” Jack replies. He’s still not exactly sure why Parse was there or who invited him, but it was hard to miss the way Parse stayed close to Whits the entire evening.

“They didn’t look all that couple-y, but—”

“They didn’t not, either,” Jack finishes.

Bittle tucks his arm under Jack’s and slides their fingers together. “So… how do you feel about that? I mean, you know both of them better than I do.”

Jack presses his lips together and considers. Parse has always been a bit of an enigma to Jack, even back when they were kids. He’s never been completely sure how much of Parse’s snarky, arrogant, self-absorbed persona is real and how much is self-protection, like he’s hiding behind a brick wall. Whits, on the other hand, opens himself to people easily and without reservation. He seems capable of having fun without letting feelings get in the way, but Jack can’t help worrying that Parse is leading him on.

“I don’t know,” he says at last.

Bittle squeezes his hand.

They all spend another ten minutes exchanging goodbyes in the hotel lobby before going their separate ways. Bob and Alicia hug Bittle warmly, and it strikes Jack how genuinely fond of him his parents are. More than that, Bittle likes them too, fits well with them.

This weekend was a lot to ask of Bittle, in retrospect: their relationship is new and they’re still figuring things out, and yet Bittle came here and managed to balance it all perfectly. He worked hard for the team, something that Jack’s sure will pay off for him in the future. But more importantly, he was there for Jack when Jack needed him, and he didn’t once seem to resent being kept a secret. He even accepted the weird excesses of the weekend in stride, and with a grace that Jack wouldn’t have expected.

Jack really doesn’t deserve Bittle, but he’s somehow lucky enough to have him.

Jack says his goodbyes to the Whittons to distract himself, even hugging Blake until she turns pink and giggles.

Amanda kisses him on the cheek and whispers, “You be good to that boy.”

Jack smiles and ducks his head. “Believe me, I’m trying.”

Parse gets pulled in for hugs too, much to Jack’s amusement. He looks startled for half a second, but rolls with it, confident as always. Amanda Whitton says something that makes him laugh, and Whits looks over at the two of them with narrowed eyes. Even Mark pulls him in for a handshake and a few words.

Alicia clings to Jack for a long time, and looks misty when she finally pulls away. “We’ll come down in another month, okay?”

“I’d like that,” Jack replies. He means it, too. He may feel differently in a week, but right now he wishes they didn’t live a plane ride away.

Bob hugs him last, so tightly it almost hurts. “Love you, Jack,” he whispers, and Jack has to close his eyes.

“I love you too. Thanks, Papa, for everything.”

Bob releases him and steps back, eyes shining. He and Alicia turn away, hands joined, and head toward the elevator bank along with Whits’ family.

“Well, looks like the party’s still going,” Parse says, glancing towards the bar. “You up for it, Whitton?”

Whits shrugs. “Sure.”

Parse gives Jack a sly look. “I’m not gonna bother asking you two. You’ve obviously got other plans.”

“It was nice to see you too,” Jack says, dryly.

“You’re gonna see me again when the Aces hit Providence in a few weeks.” Parse looks over at Whits and tilts his head toward the bar.

“Yeah, yeah,” Whits says, bumping him with his shoulder. “C’mon, let’s get a round before the bar closes.” He winks at Bittle. “You two have a good night.” They turn and walk away.

Bittle shakes his head. “I have no idea what’s going on there, but you better believe I’m gonna find out.”

“And then text me the details.” Jack turns to face him. “You want to get a drink too, or do you want—”

“I want to go to bed.” There’s not an ounce of audible innuendo, but the way Bittle bites his lip just after sends a spark down Jack’s spine.

“Oh, was it a long night?” Jack asks, faux-innocent. “Are you tired?”

Bittle grins. “Yes. And no, not really.”

They head toward the elevator banks side by side. The hotel is still bustling, even at this late hour, but no one else is waiting for the elevator when it opens. The doors close, and Jack reaches for Bittle’s hand. Their palms slide together, fingers interlocking, and Jack marvels at the way something so simple can feel so good, so grounding. Bittle presses his face into Jack’s shoulder and sighs.

“Lord, I’m gonna miss this. It went by so fast.”

“I know.” Jack leans back against the wall behind him, watching the numbers on the display tick by. It’s well after midnight already, and they both have to get up for flights in a matter of hours. Bittle’s on an earlier flight than Jack and Whits are; he has to get back for an afternoon lab that he didn’t want to miss. Jack’s already dreading watching him walk out the door.

The elevator stops on their floor. There’s no one in sight, so they keep their fingers tangled together as they walk.

At their door, Jack passes his key through the locking mechanism four times, but the red light continues to come on. “Shit, it’s not working.”

“Hang on, let me find mine.” Bittle digs his key out and holds it up the door, and then there are footsteps behind them.

“Heeeey,” says a familiar voice, and they both look up to see Tyler Seguin heading toward them. He looks like the dictionary definition of a walk of shame: clothes mussed, shirt buttoned up incorrectly, and tie hanging loosely around his shoulders. There’s even a fairly vicious-looking hickey on his throat. He smirks at the two of them and says, “Have a good night, boys.” There’s no mistaking the innuendo in his tone.

Jack stares blankly back at him. There’s no way to argue that this isn’t what it looks like, and any attempt at doing so would just be more incriminating. Jack swallows, then manages a casual-sounding, “Yeah, you too,” as Seguin walks on toward the elevators.

“Shit,” Bittle says as soon as they’re inside.

“Yeah,” Jack says. “Shit.”

He leans back against the door and closes his eyes. He’s not going to freak out about this, not now, not when he had such an amazing evening and this is his last chance to spend time alone with Bittle for maybe weeks. So Tyler Seguin knows something. So what?

So he’ll tell half the Dallas Stars, and then probably his friends in Boston too and…

Shit.

“Hey,” Bittle says softly. “Look at me.”

Jack opens his eyes. Bittle is smiling up at him. The room’s not as dark now — Bittle turned the bathroom light on.

“Take off your shoes, okay?” Bittle steps back and tugs his own shoes off. Jack watches him for a moment, then does the same. Bittle takes off his jacket and drapes it over the desk chair by the door. He raises his eyebrows at Jack. “You playing along?”

Jack takes his jacket off too. Bittle continues, untucking his shirt, then unfastening the buttons one at a time. Jack mirrors him with slow, measured movements until they’re both completely naked, facing each other in the dim light. Bittle takes Jack’s hand and pulls him toward the bed.

“Sit,” he says, and Jack does. Bittle’s smile twists a little. “Stay.”

Jack raises his eyebrows, but he doesn’t say anything in response. Bittle disappears into the bathroom, and comes back with a bottle of what looks like hand lotion. He sets it on the nightstand, then nudges Jack’s knees apart enough to stand between them. Jack looks up at him, at the way Bittle’s eyes are wide and clear, at the way his smile is so genuine.

Jack opens his mouth, but Bittle says, “shhhh,” and kisses him. Jack’s hands settle on his hips, then glide up his back, pulling him closer.

Bittle breaks the kiss. “Lie down, honey. I’ve got something in mind.”

Jack gives him a quizzical look, but he does it. He stretches out on his back, fingers laced behind his head, and smiles.

Bittle’s gaze rakes over him, lingering a little on Jack’s thickening cock, before focusing on his face again. “Roll over.”

Jack has absolutely no idea where this is going, but he finds he doesn’t mind. It’s weirdly exciting, even. He moves a pillow out of the way and turns onto his stomach, cradling his forehead in his arms. Bittle climbs over him, a knee on either side of his ass, his erection hot and hard against the small of Jack’s back. Jack sighs into the covers.

Bittle’s hands touch his skin then, cool and wet, and he digs his fingers into the tight muscles of Jack’s shoulders. Jack exhales, whimpers a little. He wasn’t expecting to get a backrub out of this, but he’s happy to take it. Bittle’s not half-bad at it, either, which is an unexpected relationship bonus.

Bittle’s hands work their way down his back, wringing out all the tension Jack’s been carrying over the weekend. He’s so relaxed by the time Bittle’s hands get to his ass that he can barely move.

“You still with me?” Bittle asks. His palms press down into Jack’s glutes, fingers spread.

“Yeah.” He could actually go to sleep now.

Bittle’s thumbs slide into the crease of his ass, down behind his balls and back up again, and Jack’s suddenly rather awake.

“Okay if I keep going?”

“Mmmm, yeah.”

Bittle leans away from him for a moment, one hand on the small of his back. He nudges Jack’s thighs apart and kneels between them. A moment later, his fingers slide down the same path again, this time slick with lube. He keeps his movements slow and steady, like an extension of the earlier massage, but also teasing, so light it’s not quite enough. His fingertips circle Jack’s hole, graze the skin behind his balls, reach under him to give his dick and single stroke — all of it apparently calculated to drive Jack crazy.

“Bittyyyyy.” He can’t even manage to be embarrassed about the way he’s squirming against Bittle’s fingers.

“Hmmm, what is it, baby?” Bittle’s attempt to sound innocent fails miserably.

Jack whines in frustration.

Bittle snickers and his fingers disappear, then return a moment later, slicker than before. He presses one into Jack, and Jack hisses through his teeth.

“Like that?”

“Fuck, yeah.”

Jack’s never been particularly good at telling his sex partners what he wants. Words are not a medium he excels at using under most circumstances, let alone in bed. But he trusts Bittle in a way he’s never trusted anyone before, and that makes it easier to let the words go, somehow.

“God, yeah, more of that,” he says.

Bittle withdraws, then presses back in with two fingers and angles them down.

The first time Jack had asked Bittle to finger him, it had taken some trial and error to get the touch just right. Bittle gets it exactly right now, and Jack groans and grinds against the mattress, desperate for friction.

Bittle’s other hand smooths circles on his lower back. “What do you want, honey?”

Jack whimpers as Bittle’s fingers thrust in again, brushing right where he wants them. He’s not going to come like this, not without a hand on his dick too, but the steady building of sensation is incredible. And it could be even better. He takes a deep breath.

“I want you to fuck me.”

Bittle goes completely still, though he doesn’t withdraw his fingers. “You sure?”

Jack’s cheeks go hot, even though his face is pressed into the sheets. “Yeah, I… yeah.”

“Okay.” Bittle sits back, pulls his fingers out. He climbs off the bed, and returns a moment later. Jack can hear the tear of the condom packet, can feel the mattress shift again. Bittle takes a deep breath, exhales slowly. “So, uh… I’ve never done this before.”

“That’s okay.” Jack smiles, even though Bittle can’t see it. “It’s been a while for me, so… go slow, eh?”

“Okay.”

“Well, maybe not too slow. I kinda want to feel it tomorrow.”

There’s a pause, and for a moment, Jack thinks Bittle’s changed his mind. But then Bittle laughs. “Honey, you’ve spent a lot of time with my dick. We both know that’s not gonna happen.”

“Don’t even—” Jack reaches back to swat his thigh. “Just… shut up and fuck me.”

“Fine, geez,” Bittle says, and Jack can hear the grin in his voice. “Here, you need to be a little higher.”

Bittle’s hands are on him again, tugging his hips up. Jack reaches for a pillow and shoves it under his belly, and spreads his thighs a little wider. It seems like a full minute passes before Bittle says, “Okay,” and settles between Jack’s thighs. Jack startles a little at the sensation of pressure against his hole. He’d forgotten how different the head of a penis feels pushing in, so much bigger and blunter than fingers. There’s a moment of his body clenching painfully, but he breathes, concentrates on relaxing, and it passes.

“You okay?” Bittle’s voice is tight and his fingers dig into Jack’s hips.

“Yeah,” Jack says, and then it’s just a long slow slide and the feeling of being stretched open.

Bittle’s hips are flush against Jack’s ass, and he’s breathing hard. “Oh my god.”

“I know,” Jack says, because he gets it. The feeling of being inside someone else’s body, the tightness and heat and sheer intensity — it’s a lot to take in.

“Can I—” Bittle asks, and Jack says, “Yeah, yes, please,” and Bittle pulls back a little, pushes in again.

It feels weird at first, almost too much. Bittle stops and leans forward, touching his forehead to Jack’s back.

“I’m so sorry, I’m not gonna last very long. I really want this to be good for you, but I don’t think I’m gonna make it.”

Jack smiles into his own arms. “It’s okay, really.” He pushes back, grinding his ass into Bittle’s groin. “C’mon, fuck me.”

Bittle doesn’t say anything; he takes a few breaths, then starts to move. Jack can feel him trembling, can feel the way he’s trying to find the right angle, shifting his position subtly with every thrust. And suddenly he does hit it, and Jack gasps.

“Ah, Bits, fuck,” he hisses, and then Bittle thrusts in two more times before he collapses against Jack’s back, groaning.

“Sorry, sorry,” Bittle says, panting against his skin.

“No, s’fine.” Jack reaches behind him and pats Bittle’s side.

Bittle pushes up off of Jack, and carefully pulls out. “Okay, just… Give me a sec here.”

Jack feels loose and wet, and he kind of wants to deal with that before anything else happens. He scoots out from under Bittle. “I’ll be right back.”

He cleans himself off and returns to find Bittle sitting in the middle of the bed, knees pulled up to his chest. He looks like he’s trying valiantly to smile, but he’s not quite getting there.

Jack goes to sit next to him. “So what did you think?”

“That I suck at it?” Bittle scrubs a hand over his face. “I think I ruined it for you.”

“Bitty, no.” Jack stretches out on the bed and holds an arm out. “C’mere.”

Bittle makes a pained sound, but he lies down and tucks himself into Jack’s side. “You’re not even hard anymore.”

Jack chuckles. “Trust me, that’s gonna be easy to fix.” He leans over and kisses Bittle’s forehead, then the tip of his nose. “It felt good. Really good at the end there.”

“Yeah?” Bittle seems to perk up at the praise.

“Yeah.” Jack kisses him again, tongue tracing just inside Bittle’s lips, teasing. His kisses the words into Bittle’s mouth, barely more than a whisper. “I’ve thought about it a lot, fingering myself and imagining you fucking me.”

“God, Jack.”

“You have no idea what you do to me, how much I’ve thought about you like this.”

“Mmmm, keep talking.” Bittle’s mouth is on Jack’s jaw, soft lips against stubble.

“I want everything with you. I—”

Bittle kisses him fiercely, hands sliding down Jack’s side, and Jack’s words melt into a moan.

“God, you. I want to make you come, so bad.” Bittle touches his forehead to Jack’s. “What do you want?”

“Anything,” Jack tells him, desperate and needy now, his cock rock-hard against Bittle’s thigh. “Please, I...”

Bittle pushes at Jack’s shoulder, rolling him onto his back, then sits up. “Lube, where’s the— there.” He settles between Jack’s thighs and smiles up at him. “You might want want to hang on to something, sweetheart.”

He’s not kidding, it turns out. If Jack thought he knew all of Bittle’s blowjob tricks before, he was mistaken. Bittle’s mouth is incredible, and he’s got three fingers in Jack’s ass, and he’s hitting Jack’s prostate just right, and fuck.

Jack comes in two minutes flat, and he’s totally okay with that.

*****

Saying goodbye to Bittle is hard, but it helps that they’re both half-asleep at the time. Bittle gives him one more sleepy kiss before staggering away, and Jack’s asleep again before the door even closes.

His alarm goes off at 8:00, and he’s in the lobby waiting for Whits at 8:30. At 8:37, Whits still isn’t downstairs, so Jack texts him. And texts him again. And then calls him: no answer.

At 8:43, he heads up to pound on Whits’ door. There’s a long moment, and then it opens. Whits is standing there wild-eyed, an expression of sheer panic on his face. He’s dressed only in briefs, and his hair is a riot.

“Shit, I’m so sorry! I’ll be ready in five, I swear. Here.” He holds the door open and gestures Jack in.

The room is fairly dark with the blackout curtains closed, but Jack can make out a still-sleeping form in the rumpled bed. One arm is visible, covered from the elbow up in colorful tattoos.

Jack looks away. “I can wait downstairs.”

“Nah, just need a minute,” Whits says, throwing things into his suitcase. “They have our gear downstairs, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Just gotta brush my teeth. When’s our flight?”

“Eleven.” Jack prefers to be at the airport two hours early, but there’s nothing he can do about it now.

Whits heads into the bathroom and turns on the light. The sound of running water seems oddly loud.

The guy on the bed shifts and mumbles something. Jack can’t help staring, his curiosity getting the better of him. There’s a tuft of dark blond hair visible now, along with the guy’s shoulders and more of the tattooed arm. He looks lean and ridiculously fit — has to be a player. He settles down again, and Jack forces himself to look away. It’s not any of his business who Whits spent the night with.

Whits comes out of the bathroom, tosses his toiletry bag into the suitcase, and zips it up. “Okay, I think that’s it.” He shakes his hair back and puts a snapback on, then crosses to the bed. He reaches over and gives the guy a shake. “Hey. Wake up, asshole. I’m heading out.”

The guy groans and turns to look up at him, frowning, and Jack nearly gasps in surprise. It’s Parse.

“Yeah, okay, great.” Parse yawns and waves a hand at him, almost like he’s shooing Whits away. “Good flight and all that shit.”

“Checkout’s at 11:00, okay? Don’t fuckin’ trash my room.”

“Fuck off already and let me go back to sleep.” Parse squints over at where Jack is standing by the door. “Zimms. Sup?”

Jack waves and keeps his mouth shut for fear of saying something stupid. God, was he just ogling Parse, seriously?

Parse looks up at Whits again. For a brief moment, there’s a flash of raw affection, then his usual mask slides back into place. He flops back down into the sheets. “Later, losers.”

“Yeah, yeah, fuck you too.” Whits rolls his eyes at Jack, but there’s fondness in his expression.

Jack looks back once before they leave, but Parse has already pulled the covers over his head.

Jack doesn’t say anything about it during the cab ride or check-in, or while they’re waiting in the airline lounge. He makes small talk and bites his tongue, but by the time they’re settled into their first class seats on the plane, he finally can’t stand it anymore.

He leans in close to Whits. “So. What’s the deal with you and Parse?”

Whits doesn’t look up from his Kindle. “I dunno. We’re friends, I guess?”

“You hook up with him a lot.”

“Friends with benefits, whatever.”

Jack purses his lips. “And he’s the kind of friend you invite to dinner, so he can spend the whole night charming your parents?”

Whits makes a sound almost like a laugh. “Your dad invited him, not me. His parents didn’t even bother to come, so.”

“Right.” Jack wonders if Whits has heard that story yet.

“And besides, he talked to everybody that night. Not that you would have noticed.”

“What?”

“You and Eric were almost sickening, bro. Seriously, your mom was like, planning the wedding.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “C’mon, I’m serious. You’re my friend. And he… I worry about you, that’s all.”

“There’s nothing to worry about, okay? I’m not interested in getting involved with him or anybody else right now, not with Dani sorta… kinda… whatever.” Whits sighs. “The point is, it’s not like that.”

“So what’s it like, then?”

“You really want to know?”

Jack nods.

Whits looks around, then leans closer and lowers his voice to a whisper. “The thing is, he’s really good in bed. Like, fucking incredible. I’ve fucked a lot of guys, right? But Kent Parson? Jesus Christ.” He shakes his head and looks almost dreamy for a moment.

Jack is momentarily stunned into silence. He doesn’t remember Parse being particularly good in bed, but then, they were both seventeen at the time.

“Seriously? He’s… really?” Jack’s voice absolutely did not go up an octave on that last word.

Whits honest-to-god blushes, and presses his hands over his cheeks. “Yeah.”

Jack waits for the inevitable oversharing, but it doesn’t come. Whits looks lost in thought, weirdly flushed and happy, which worries Jack even more. At least talking about Parse isn’t sending Whits into any sort of spiral of insecurity.

Jack nudges him in the side. “I guess it doesn’t hurt that you have a thing for tattoos.”

Whits shrugs, a grin teasing at the corners of his mouth. “I can’t deny that.”

“Just be careful there, okay?”

“Relax, Zimms.” Whits picks up his Kindle and swipes his thumb across the screen. “I know what I’m doing.”

Jack doubts it, but there doesn’t seem to be any point in pressing the issue. Maybe he’ll text some veiled threats to Parse later.

He settles back in his seat and closes his eyes.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack wakes up in his hotel room in Tampa Bay with three Snapchat notifications, all from Bittle. He curls onto his side in bed and opens them.

The first one shows Bittle’s face pressed into his pillow, one eye and half a sleepy smile visible in the dim light. The caption reads Happy Valentine’s Day! I woke up thinking about you…

Jack replies Me too, then snaps a selfie of his own. The light in the room is almost too dim for it, but he thinks he’s at least recognizable.

In the second, Bittle’s head is propped up on his elbow, and he’s winking at the camera. Wish you were here.

Jack sighs. Yeah.

He opens the third one: Bittle is still in bed, but the angle is different; he’s lying on his back and holding the phone up over himself. The sheets have been pushed down to his hips and the long bare stretch of his body is almost golden in contrast to the white cotton. His other arm is stretched over his head and he’s biting his lip, looking straight into the lens. Jack almost groans.

He glances over at the other bed: Whits is still asleep. Jack gets up and quietly makes his way to the bathroom. Once the door is closed and locked behind him, he flicks on the light. He strips off the t-shirt he sleeps in and leans against the counter, back to the mirror. It takes some creative maneuvering, but he manages to take a selfie that captures him from the waist up along with his reflection from behind. He’s smiling a little suggestively in the photo, which he hopes compensates for the state of his hair and the fact that he’s badly in need of a shave.

He types Roomie is asleep… and presses send.

Bittle replies in seconds with a wide-eyed blushy emoji and then a smirky one.

Jack’s phone buzzes with a new snap notification, a video this time: Bittle’s still in bed, the camera focused on his upper body as before, but his arm is moving just on the bottom edge of the screen, slowly, rhythmically. You wanna?

Jack swallows down a whimper and replays it before writing, Show me.

You first.

Not fair.

You started it.

Jack groans. His dick is already hard, though — it doesn’t take much where Bittle is concerned. He aims the camera at his face and smirks a little before tilting it down to show the tent in his boxers. He hits send before he can second-guess himself.

He gets the notification that Bittle replayed it, and then How are you even real???

Your turn.

He slides his hand over the front of his boxers as he waits, fingers tracing the length of his dick, thumb circling over the head.

The phone buzzes, and he nearly drops it in his haste to open the snap. It’s another video: Bittle’s hand is on his own dick, stroking down over lube-slicked skin, then up until the head disappears into his fist. Jack replays it, his own hand inside his boxers now, because god, that is hot.

He pushes his boxers down and strokes himself in earnest, and it’s nearly a minute before he remembers to send Bittle a video back. He doesn’t have enough coordination to do more than a top view while his hand moves rapidly, pulling the foreskin up and over the head. He sends it, and gets a new video from Bittle a second later, this one of his face. His cheeks are flushed and his eyes look nearly glazed. His mouth is wet and he’s breathing hard, clearly close.

“God, Bitty,” Jack whispers, and frantically replays it. He imagines what happens next: Bittle coming over his own hand, biting his lip and trying to stay quiet. Jack closes his eyes, and comes.

He’s still breathing hard when he opens the camera again, switches it to front view. He aims it down at the mess on his stomach, at his hand moving stickily up the length of his dick, then aims it up at his face and smiles. He types That was fun and sends it.

Bittle replays it, then sends him a come-shot too, his fingers trailing through the mess on his belly, then down to where his softening dick curves against his thigh.

Jack sighs and watches it again. I miss you.

Bittle replies, So much.

It’s been almost two weeks since they last saw each other in person. After the whirlwind of the All-Star Weekend, it’s felt intolerable.

Gonna shower now, Jack types. Then team breakfast. TTYL?

He gets a kissy emoji in response.

By the time he showers and shaves, Whits is up and ready for his turn in the bathroom. He’s made coffee already, but he still seems barely awake when he stumbles past Jack. Jack’s halfway dressed when he hears a groan from the bathroom.

“Dude, did you jerk off in here just now?”

Jack looks over at the semi-closed door. “Uhhhh… why?”

“If I just stepped in jizz, I’m gonna be seriously pissed.”

“Like you’ve got room to talk.”

Jack still hasn’t forgiven him for the time Whits cleaned himself off post-orgasm with one of Jack’s shirts. Whits claimed it was an innocent mistake, but Jack still made him put it in his own suitcase and wash it twice before returning it. He’s not sure he’ll ever be able to wear it without thinking of what was on it.

Whits grumbles something in reply, but whatever he says is lost in the sound of the shower starting.

*****

“They want us to what?” Whits asks, toweling his hair dry. He’s otherwise completely naked, as usual.

“Local press, apparently.” Jack sits down to put his shoes on. “Pete said they arranged it with Marta in the office, but somebody forgot to tell us.”

“And that means we have to miss team lunch?” Whits frowns.

“He said they’d save us food.”

Pete McKenzie meets them outside the locker room door. He’s dressed in the usual staff uniform of blue team polo and khakis, tapping at the screen of his phone with one hand. In the other, he’s holding a huge travel mug. The Falconers’ PR team seems to live on coffee; Jack can’t remember seeing any of them without a cup in hand, no matter the time of day.

“Hey, guys, thanks for doing this so last-minute. I know it’s a pain.” Pete finally looks up from the screen of his phone and gestures down the corridor. “At least they agreed to come to you. They’re setting up in one of the press rooms on the next level.”

They follow Pete down the corridor and into the elevator, and eventually arrive in a room that’s been converted into a small studio. Two people are adjusting lights in front of a green screen, while a man wearing a headset talks to a woman in a red suit. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a sleek ponytail, and she’s wearing more makeup than Jack has seen on one person in a really long time.

Pete crosses over to talk to her, and gestures to where Jack and Whits are standing.

The woman looks up and smiles, then walks over to them. “And here you are, fabulous! I’m Parker Swanson, hi.” She extends a well-manicured hand. “You’re Jack Zimmermann.” Her smile takes a distinctly flirty turn.

Jack forces himself to smile back. “Hi, yes. Thanks.”

She turns the exact same expression to Whits. “And Taylor Whitton. I have to say, you two are just as good-looking in person as I was led to believe.” She winks at Whits and turns away.

Jack and Whits exchange a look.

Pete claps them both on the shoulders from behind and chuckles. “This shouldn’t take too long, boys.”

Someone takes Jack and Whits over to the chairs set up under the lights and gets them ready. Parker sits in the chair across from them and fusses at the production assistants for a few minutes before turning a sweet smile back to Jack and Whits.

“So how are you boys liking Tampa Bay?”

Jack looks at Whits, who opens his mouth to reply, but then Parker turns to snap at the production assistant again. The assistant winces and dashes away, and Parker turns back to them once more, smile overly broad.

“Good, fantastic!”

Whits looks over at Jack, then back to Parker. “I… didn’t say anything.”

“I think we’re ready,” she continues, looking at the camera aimed at her. “You two just smile and be yourselves. I’m sure you know the drill by now.”

Jack doesn’t think he could smile now if he tried.

The segment producer steps over, examining his clipboard, and nods at everyone. “Here we go, folks, in three, two…”

He motions to Parker, who plasters on an even bigger smile, to Jack’s amazement. “Hello! I’m Parker Swanson for Fox Sports Southeast. As all you hockey fans know, the Providence Falconers are in town this weekend playing our very own Tampa Bay Lightning. You can catch that game right here on Fox Sports at three o’clock. I’m sitting here now with two of the most well-known players from the Falconers, Jack Zimmermann and Taylor Whitton. Thanks for joining me, you two.”

Jack nods and manages a “Hi, thanks,” while Whits beams and says something more substantial, as usual.

“First of all, Happy Valentine’s Day to both of you.” Before either of them can reply, she continues, “Now, you were both at the All-Star Game in Nashville two weeks ago, for the first time. What was that experience like?”

Jack looks at Whits, who slides easily into the stock answer. “It was a great honor to be there, and it was a lot of fun too. There’s nothing like being on the ice with all those hockey legends.”

“And of course, you played on the Atlantic Division team with our very own Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop.”

“Yeah, we definitely have a lot of respect for both those guys,” Jack says. “Stamkos is coming up on his 300th career goal, I think?” He pauses, in case Parker wants to say something about that, but her expression seems frozen in place. “We’re gonna do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen today, of course, but that’s an amazing accomplishment. And Bishop is a fantastic goalie. He’s gonna make it tough out there for us today.”

“He sure is.” Parker tilts her head and looks slightly more serious, then launches into a series of questions about the season so far and their thoughts about the game that day, which they take tuns answering. Just as they seem to be getting to the end, Parker’s expression changes to one that’s almost gleefully predatory. “So have you boys got any special plans for Valentine’s Day?”

It’s only years of experience with media that stops Jack from groaning. “Other than playing hockey?”

Whits chuckles. “And then we’re gonna get on a plane to Washington DC, if that’s your idea of romantic.”

Parker leans forward and grins conspiratorially. “It’s got to be tough traveling at times like this, isn’t it? Any special ladies back home that you’d like to send a Valentine’s Day message to?”

“Ha, no.” Whits laughs and shakes his head, but Jack recognizes the edge of discomfort in his expression.

“No girlfriend?” Parker asks, her tone teasing.

Whits’ jaw tightens almost imperceptibly. “No, uh… no girlfriend here.”

“What about you, Jack?” Parker turns to Jack expectantly. There’s a moment when he wonders if he could get away with it, if he could imply there is someone and not use a pronoun. But he can’t come up with anything that quickly, so he just forces a smile and shakes his head. “Ah, no, sorry.”

“You mean to tell me you boys are both single?” Parker sounds scandalized. “Well, that’s good news for all the ladies out there, isn’t it? Tell me, Taylor, what do you look for in a girl?”

Jack can’t help turning to look at Whits. The expression on his face is priceless, somewhere between astonished and embarrassed. He opens his mouth and closes it again, then laughs. “There is literally nothing I could say here that wouldn’t get me in trouble. So, uh… no comment.”

“What about you, Jack?”

Luckily, Jack’s got an answer for this one. He shrugs. “Honestly, my mom is the only woman in my life right now.”

“Awww,” Parker says, smiling. “Well, you two have a pretty amazing bromance going on anyway. Maybe you can be each other’s valentines.” She winks at them.

Whits turns to Jack, chirping face on now. “Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. Bro, you gonna get me something?”

Jack is relieved at the change to a more familiar topic. “What, like flowers?”

“No, I want chocolate. Maybe one of those giant Hershey kisses.”

“Why am I the one giving you stuff in this scenario? What about me?”

Whits pretends to be offended. “Dude, how many assists have I given you this year? I deserve some chocolate.”

“You certainly do,” Parker says, laughing. “Well, that’s all we have time for. Thanks again to my guests Jack Zimmermann and Taylor Whitton of the Providence Falconers, and good luck to both of you in the game this afternoon.” She smiles and winks at the camera. “But not too much luck, of course.”

“And cut,” the producer says. Everyone starts chattering and rushing around, moving equipment. Jack and Whits stand and shake hands with Parker again before heading over to where Pete is waiting by the door.

“Great job, guys,” Pete says, and leads them down the corridor toward the elevator. “You two are hilarious.”

The moment the elevator doors close, Whits turns to glare at him. “Did you know what she was going to ask?”

Pete gapes at him for a full second. “Well, they said the All-Star Game, today’s game, maybe a Valentine’s Day mention and—”

“How many times do I have to say it before anyone takes me seriously? I do not want to be asked personal questions like that.”

Pete’s face is slowly draining of color. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think—”

“No, none of you do.” Whits shakes his head. “I have to lie every fucking time, and I’m tired of it. I lied for five years, and I’m fucking done pretending like I’m too busy for a girlfriend when the truth is that I’m a lot more interested in sucking dick. Do you want me to say that instead? Because if one more fucking reporter asks me if I have a girlfriend, I just might.”

“Taylor, come on. I’m sorry, okay? I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Pete glances at Jack, whether for support or simply to gauge his reaction is unclear.

Jack keeps his expression carefully blank. Everyone associated with the Falconers is on a need-to-know basis when it comes to Jack’s sexuality, and so far, Pete has not needed to know. Whits doesn’t look at Jack or bring Jack into it at all, for which Jack is grateful. But he feels a little guilty too: after all, he’s the one who’s actually lying about being in a relationship.

The elevator doors open. Whits makes a sound of frustration and storms down the hallway. Pete shoots Jack a helpless look.

“He’s got a point,” Jack says. “The other guys don’t get asked that stuff.”

Pete sighs. “But if we say it’s off-limits, it just raises suspicions, you know? If he wants to come out, maybe he should just do it.”

Jack snorts. “And be the first in the league? It’s not that simple.”

“I know,” Pete says, and hesitates. He presses his lips together for a moment, like he wants to say something else.

Jack looks away, shoves his hands in his pockets. “I should go grab something to eat before it’s too late.”

“Yeah, of course.” Pete claps Jack’s shoulder and smiles. “Thanks, man.”

Jack nods and starts down the hall, and tries to ignore the way his stomach is clenching.

*****

Bittle: Single my ass [winky face]

Jack pauses in the middle of putting his pads on. So you saw it?

Had to watch through my fingers at the end. God, that was awkward.

Jack sighs. Yeah. Whits was pissed she asked about gfs.

Ugh, I’ll bet.
Should I text him?

Jack hasn’t brought it up. Whits will talk about it when he’s ready, like he always does. If you want.

Bittle sends back a kissy face emoji, followed by Have a great game!

*****

After the game, Whits gets no fewer than five giant Hershey kisses from fans. He’s delighted, of course, and divides them up amongst the guys on the bus to the airport. Jack declines his own portion, which only encourages Whits to wrestle him into the seat and try to force some into his mouth. Everyone around them cheers them on, but Jack finally manages to shove him off.

“Fine, be that way,” Whits says, mock-hurt. “Reject my Valentine’s Day gift.”

Jack rolls his eyes, but before he can respond, his phone buzzes in his pocket.

Bittle: Can you call me tonight?

Jack frowns at the phone. We’re heading to the airport. Probably won’t have any privacy until we get to DC. After a moment’s thought, he adds, Everything okay?

Three dots appear and disappear. After a full minute, it doesn’t look like Bittle is going to answer. Jack stares down at the screen. This doesn’t feel right.

Something wrong?

Just call me when you can

Jack drops his phone into his lap and closes his eyes against the dark swell of fear pressing in at the edges of his brain. If Bittle won’t even text about it, it’s big. And in Jack’s experience, the less Bittle texts, the more likely it is that Jack has somehow fucked up. He replays the events since their morning sexting session, and there are only two things that stand out: the interview and Whits’ reaction to it. Unless he missed something? He has no idea what else it could be.

“You okay?” Whits leans into him a little more, pressing their shoulders together.

Jack sighs and opens his eyes. “Yeah, just… I’d really like to make a phone call before we get on the plane and I don’t think I’m gonna have time.”

Whits lowers his voice to a whisper. “Your other half?”

Jack sighs, nods. “It’s Valentine’s Day, you know?”

Whits is quiet for a moment. “You know what I was doing this time last year?” He looks over at Jack, and Jack shrugs. “Went home alone after our game, instead of going out with the single guys, because Dani was going to call me and we were gonna have some pretty epic Skype sex. And you know what happened?”

“What?” Jack asks, though he can already guess.

“He never did. I called him a couple of times, and it went straight to voicemail. I texted, and bro — he had his read receipts on, so I know he saw them.” He pauses, shakes his head. “I mean, it was a two-hour time delay, so I kept thinking maybe it was taking him a while to get home after his game, but… apparently he found something better to do. And guess who they were playing that night?”

“Who?” Jack asks, and then winces. “Oh, don’t tell me.”

“Yeah, the Aces. I was so fucking mad the next day. I mean, I didn’t know he was cheating on me then, but I was starting to suspect something was up.” He doesn’t say it, but the fact that Dani probably spent that night with Parse hangs thick in the air between them. “And of course, he managed to turn it all around on me, like I was the one who was being too needy and putting these unfair expectations on him. He was sure he was gonna get sent down again, you know? He kept saying he was under so much stress and I didn’t understand and… well, the usual shit.”

“Well, this year seems like a big improvement.”

“Yeah.” Whits turns his phone on, then scrolls through his text messages. He taps on a photo, then turns the phone so that Jack can see the screen. It’s a selfie from Parse. He’s smirking at the camera and leaning against a bar with a cocktail glass in his hand. The text beneath it reads Happy Singles Awareness Day. Having a blowjob in your honor. Whits smiles at the photo. “I guess that’s kind of ironic, huh?”

Jack frowns. “Is he flirting with you?”

“It’s a joke. The drink is called a blowjob.”

“I know what a blowjob is.” Unfortunately, Jack’s retort is a little louder than he intended; the guys in the seats right in front of them burst into laughter.

“Congratulations, Zimms,” Pashy says, turning to look at him over the back of the seat. “Glad to hear it.”

Zizka pops up right next him. “Please tell me someone, somewhere, has sucked your dick. Because otherwise, is just sad.”

Jack rolls his eyes, but there’s no stopping the tide of chirps now.

Whits tucks his phone away and grins at Jack. “Well? Has anyone sucked your dick lately?”

“That’s none of your business.” Jack tries to glare at him, but he can feel a smug grin pushing through. “Eat your fucking chocolate and leave my dick out of this.”

That starts a new round of chirping as guys from the other end of the bus catch the thread of the conversation. Jack pulls his cap down over his eyes and settles in for a long ride to the airport.

*****

They all file into the boarding lounge of the airport’s private wing after going through security. Most of the guys immediately jockey for the most comfortable-looking seats in the nicely-appointed lounge, but Jack scans the area for a private spot to call Bittle. He can’t stop thinking about Whits’ story of Anderberg not calling him on Valentine’s Day. The idea of Bittle sitting around and waiting, maybe having to wait a few more hours — Jack grits his teeth.

He drops his bag next to the seat Whits is sprawling in. “I’ll be right back.”

He wanders down around the corner. There’s another empty waiting area there, but that’s not going to work; anyone could walk in and hear him talking. He keeps looking, and finally finds a family bathroom with a locking door. He flips on the light and steps inside, and calls Bittle.

It rings four times before Bittle picks up. “Hey.” He sounds breathless, like he just ran upstairs.

“Hey, Bits. Uh… I’m at the airport, so I don’t have long. What’s up?”

“If you don’t have time, it’s okay.”

“No,” Jack says, and then winces at his own tone. “I’m gonna be worried sick if we don’t talk now, so please just… tell me.”

“Okay.” He hears Bittle take a deep breath and release it. “It’s not a huge deal or anything, but… I think Holster is trying to get me and Kevin back together. He invited him over this afternoon to hang out.”

Jack makes a sputtering sound. “Why the hell would he do that?”

“I don’t know, but it was hella awkward, oh my god. I was in the kitchen and they walked in, and Holster was like, ‘Hey Bitty, look who’s here.’ And then he made some excuse and left him there with me.”

Jack has a sudden mental image of Bittle and Kevin, alone in the kitchen, and his chest tightens. “So what happened?”

“Not much? I think he thought it was as awkward as I did. He asked me how I was doing, what classes I’m taking, and then he asked about the All-Star Game. He saw the video that was making the rounds.”

Jack exhales, his heart pounding. He’d missed it that weekend, but there’d been a televised shot of Bittle sitting with Jack’s parents. Apparently the SMH group chat had exploded, and the moment had been giffed, and so on. Jack had turned off all his notifications the morning of the game, so he’d missed the whole thing.

“What did he ask you, exactly?”

“Just what you’d expect. What I was doing there, how I know your parents. I told him the same thing I’ve told everyone, that I was doing social media for the Falcs and I was up there helping your dad get going on Snapchat. Which isn’t even a lie, you know?”

“Do you think he…” Jack leans back against the sink. “If he knew, would he say anything, like…?”

“You mean would he out you?” Bittle sighs. “I don’t think so. I mean, he’s always going on about respecting people’s boundaries with that kind of thing. Or he used to, anyway, back when we were dating.”

“Shit.” Jack takes a calming breath, exhales slowly. “What the fuck is Holster thinking, cornering you with your ex like that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he thinks I need to be dating someone.”

“You are dating someone.”

Bittle makes a small sound of frustration. “You want me to tell him that?”

“No, I… sorry.” Jack sighs.

“Anyway, I made an excuse to go upstairs. I had a pie in the oven, and it ended up getting burnt because I couldn’t hear the damn timer from my room, and no one thought to take it out of the oven. I mean, seriously, one of those boys walked into the kitchen and turned the fucking timer off, but didn’t get the pie out or even bother to tell me?”

“Yeah, pretty stupid.” Jack presses a hand to his forehead.

“When I came back down, Kevin was gone, and Holster was all, ‘He’s such a cool guy, Bits, why’d you dump him anyway?’ I never really told them anything about it, you know?” Bittle sighs heavily. “I didn’t think I could lie to them without it being completely obvious.”

“Yeah.” Jack closes his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know.” Bittle pauses, and the silence begins to feel heavy, ominous. “I know this is how it has to be, and it isn’t forever, but… I hate that I have to lie to everyone all the time. I really hate that I hurt Kevin, and that it would hurt him so much more if he knew the truth about why I broke up with him.” Bittle’s voice is tight with emotion. “I just… I hate that I’m that kind of person.”

Jack goes cold all over. “You…” He can’t even finish the sentence. He put Bittle in this position. He pushed Bittle into this, and now Bittle actually hates himself for it. He slides down the counter until he’s sitting on the bathroom floor.

“I’m so sorry. Shit.”

“Well, you know, what’s done is done, but still, ugh.”

Jack can’t manage to reply. Despite his best efforts, he’s a complete disaster. He’s going to fuck this up. It’s just a matter of time.

“Jack, honey… Are you okay?”

“I…” Jack breathes for a count of five. He should say yes, suck it up, get himself together, and go back out to the lounge. They’ll be boarding soon. He has to go. He doesn’t want Bittle to worry about him, or to know just how close he is to losing it. It’s not fair to put that on him right now, not when Jack’s supposed to be the strong one.

But he isn’t strong. Shit.

“Jack?” Bittle’s voice is full of concern now, and Jack lets the sound of it wash over him.

He opens his mouth to say yes, but what comes out instead is, “No, I’m kind of not.”

He winces, braces himself.

“Can you switch to Facetime?” Bittle’s voice is calm, gentle.

Jack looks at the screen, taps the icon. When Bittle’s face appears, Jack feels his anxiety start to melt away. Bittle’s expression is one of concern, but nothing close to the sort of anguish Jack was imagining. Bittle’s lips curve up in a slight smile.

“Hey, honey.”

“Hey.” Jack breathes. “Wow, that really helped.”

“What helped?”

“Just seeing you.”

Bittle smiles even wider. “You’re gonna see me in person in a few days, okay? I’m done with class at noon on Wednesday, and I’m gonna take the train.”

“No, I’ll come get you.”

“Even better.” Bittle grins, and quirks an eyebrow. “And then I’m gonna wrap myself around you and not let go for at least eight hours.”

“God, I can’t wait.” Jack’s phone buzzes with a text alert from Whits. “Shit, they’re boarding. I have to go.”

Bittle nods. “Text me when you get there.”

“I will. Love you.”

They both freeze and stare at each other through their respective screens.

Jack hadn’t meant to say it now, like this — it just slipped out, like the most natural thing in the world. He’d wanted to say it first in person, with his arms around Bittle, preferably with a kiss still warm on his lips.

Bittle’s cheeks are pink now. “I love you too.”

“Good.” Jack breathes, and smiles at him, and it feels so easy. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Bitty.”

Bittle’s gaze is warm and steady. His smile is brilliant. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Jack’s still smiling when he settles into his seat next to Whits. His phone buzzes and he looks down at it.

Bittle: Forgot to say - have a good flight! Followed by a string of hearts.

Jack sends a heart back, then switches his phone to airplane mode.

Whits chuckles in the seat next to him, and Jack turns to see him wearing an expression of amusement. “For future reference, my answer is: yes, I’d be honored.”

Jack frowns at him. “What’s the question?”

Whits grins, then leans in close, then puts his hand on Jack’s shoulder and looks into his eyes very seriously. “Whits, will you be my best man?”

“Shut up.” Jack laughs and gives him a shove. “What makes you think I’d ask you, anyway?”

“Cause I’m your BFF, man. Search your mind, you know it to be true.” He yawns and settles more deeply into his seat. “But seriously, dude, anyone who knows how to press your reset button like that is a keeper. Put a ring on it.”

Jack laughs. “It’s been a month.”

Whits closes his eyes and smiles. “No, it’s been a lot longer than that.”

Jack watches him for a moment before turning his attention to the Kindle app on his phone. He can’t really argue.

*****

Chapter Text

Jack gets a text from Whits as soon as he steps off the elevator in the parking garage.

OMW - sorry

Jack tosses his gear bag in the back of his truck and settles in the driver’s seat. He scrolls through his text alerts for the ones Bittle sent in the last half-hour.

Hope you had a good nap
Uggghhhhh don’t wanna go to my stats class
I think I’m gonna skip it and bake

Jack types back You have an exam next week. Go to class.

Bittle sends back a frowny face, followed by After I was so nice to you yesterday?

It’s going to be a long time before Jack will be able to look at the pool table in his living room without remembering exactly how nice Bittle was yesterday.

If you don’t pass this class you’ll have to retake it this summer to stay on track for graduation.

He pauses and opens Snapchat, then takes a selfie of himself pouting. He sends it with the caption, What I’ll look like all summer without you.

Half a minute passes, and Bittle sends back a snap of himself walking down the front steps of the Haus, stats textbook held up in front of him. FINE

Jack replies with a kissy emoji.

There’s a sound, and he looks up to see Whits tossing his bag into the back of the truck. He opens the passenger door and climbs in.

“Sorry, man. I’m a mess today.”

“I wonder why that is.” Jack glances over at Whits with raised eyebrows.

Whits groans. “Don’t start.”

“You wanna talk about it?” Jack starts the engine.

“Not really.”

“All right.” Jack backs the truck out of his parking space.

They’re halfway to the arena before Whits finally breaks. “Dani wanted to come over this afternoon and I said no. And now he’s being a dick about it, and… Am I being unreasonable?”

“No.” The words comes out a little more forcefully than Jack intended. “We have a game tonight and preparing for it is your priority. He should know that.”

“Would you sleep with Eric right before a game?”

“No. And he wouldn’t ask me to.” Jack privately thinks Anderberg is trying to throw Whits off his game to give the Avs an advantage tonight.

Whits sighs. “Okay, but you see him all the time, so it’s not the same.”

“I’ve seen him exactly once since the All-Star Game.”

“You could see him three times a week if you wanted.”

“Not and keep it a secret,” Jack retorts. It’s true though, and he’s been thinking more and more about what it would be like not to have to hide. Being out could suck on a lot of levels, but getting to see Bittle more often, without sneaking around, would be a huge plus.

Whits is quiet through two entire stoplights. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Am I making a mistake? With Dani?”

Jack opens his mouth and closes it again. “What exactly are you doing with Dani?”

“I don’t know. Hooking up, definitely. Maybe like…” Whits stares down at his hands. “Not really getting back together with him, but, you know, maybe a… an open relationship type of thing.”

“That sounds like getting back together with him.”

“No! Not… well, okay. Sort of.”

Jack can’t help the way his jaw clenches. “You want my honest opinion?”

Whits sighs heavily. “Sure, why not?”

Jack glances over at him. “Yes, I think you’re making a mistake. I think he’s a manipulative asshole and you’d be better off with almost anyone else.” Even Parse — though Jack doesn’t say it.

Whits presses one hand over his eyes. “God, I knew I shouldn’t have asked.”

“Well, you did, and now you’re hearing what I think.” Jack takes a deep breath and releases it. “Look, you were honest with me when I needed to hear it. I’m trying to return the favor.”

“I know, but… I can’t stop thinking about him.” Whits’ head falls back against the seat. “He’s done some shitty things, yeah, but he can also be so… I don’t know. He swears he’s changed, that he misses me and wants to try again. I feel like I should give him a chance to prove it. Otherwise, I might always regret it, you know?”

Jack sighs. “I know what it’s like to want something you know is going to hurt you, to think you can’t possibly live without it. That maybe this time it will be different, because you’re not going to let it hurt you again. Trust me — it doesn’t work.”

Whits turns to look at him, surprised.

Jack takes a deep breath and plows forward. “Anyway, you’re a great guy, Whits. You deserve better.”

“Easy for you to say.” Whits snorts and looks away. He doesn’t seem to want to talk about it anymore, and Jack lets it drop.

*****

“What crawled up his ass?” Treat asks, nodding his head towards Whits. He’s been in a foul mood all afternoon, nothing like his usual bubbly, chirpy self. So of course, everyone has noticed.

Jack shrugs. “I dunno.” It’s easier to lie than to get into the details — not that the details are anyone’s business anyway.

“Aw, are Whits and Zimms fighting again?” Sandy throws an arm around Jack’s shoulders. “What, you forget to take the trash out? Call his mom a bitch? Miss the two-month anniversary of your first date?”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Is this really the shit you and your girlfriend fight about?”

“Duh. If you’d ever actually had a girlfriend, you’d know.” There’s a chorus of ooohs around them.

Kratz gives Sandy a sharp look, but Jack shakes his head, and Kratz sighs and looks away.

The guys have been chirping Jack and Whits about being a couple since the Valentine’s Day video went viral a few days back. Someone had edited out everything except the part where Jack and Whits were super awkward when answering questions about girlfriends, and posted it on YouTube. Jack hadn’t realized how many times they’d looked at each other during those two minutes, but the internet had eaten it up. It was posted everywhere, giffed, edited more, even set to music. For a few horrible hours, #zimmerwhitton trended on Twitter. Jack dreads the inevitable day his teammates find out about fan fiction.

Bittle had listened to Jack whine about it for a solid five minutes and then said, “Honey, I gotta be honest with you: It looks hella gay.”

And okay, Jack could admit that it looked pretty gay — and for a reason — but it was still annoying.

“It doesn’t bother you that people think Whits and I are dating?” Jack had asked.

“Honestly, it bothers me more that people think it’s all a big joke. Like it’s funny to think that you would ever date a guy at all.” Bittle had shrugged on the screen. “But hey, I know the truth. And it takes a little pressure off our relationship, you know?”

It makes Jack wonder what it would be like to be out, to have his actual relationship be the subject of discussion and speculation. If recent experience is any indication, he’s not sure he’s ready to find out.

The pendulum continues to swing.

Before they head out for warmups, Kratz pulls Jack aside. “So what’s up with Whitton, really?”

Jack glances over at Whits, who is glaring at his roll of stick tape like it’s personally offended him.

“Anderberg.”

Kratz’s expression goes as dark as Jack has ever seen. “Do we need to do something about that?”

Jack knows he ought to say no, to let Whits work this out for himself. But Anderberg’s brought personal shit to the ice before, and Jack wouldn’t put it past him to do it again. He holds Kratz’s gaze. “I dunno. But if he starts anything, I plan to finish it.”

“Just let me know if I can help.” Kratz claps Jack on the shoulder and heads across the locker room. He settles next to Janssen and Rolly, and the three of them talk quietly.

Jack sits next to Whits and pulls his skates on. “You ready for this?”

Whits doesn’t look up at him. “I know what you’re doing.”

“And what is that?”

Whits sighs. “He’s an agitator, Zimms. It’s what he does.”

“Are you asking me to let it go if he starts personal shit?”

Whits hesitates, presses his lips into a tight line. He looks over at Jack, his expression hard. “Like you’d listen to me if I did?”

Jack lowers his voice to a whisper. “Look, it’s none of my business what happens between the two of you in private, but what happens on the ice is different. It affects all of us, and that makes it team business.”

Whits looks away, and his expression is almost one of defeat. “Yeah, I know.”

Jack pats him on the shoulder and heads out for warmups.

Two minutes into the game, there’s a scrum for the puck in the corner, in the Falcs’ zone. Jack is in the mix, trying to knock it out onto Kratz’s stick, when Anderberg slams him face-first against the boards.

Jack hears the word Anderberg spits against his ear, but he doesn’t respond, just shoves him away and scrambles for the puck again. Janssen’s right there with him, along with another of the Avs’ forwards. The four of them get locked up, sticks twisted together, and no one can get the puck out.

Anderberg leans hard into Jack, pinning his stick between them. “Your boyfriend here tonight?”

Jack ignores him, tries to press his elbow even harder into Anderberg’s side to dislodge him.

“Oh, no — it’s a school night, isn’t it?” Anderberg says, and his teammate snickers.

“Shut the fuck up,” Janssen hisses, glaring at Anderberg.

“Suck my dick,” Anderberg retorts.

“I hear that’s your specialty,” Janssen says, and Anderberg leans off of Jack enough to give Janssen a shove.

It provides enough distraction that Jack is able to get his stick free and knock the puck toward the center. The ref isn’t looking when Jack jams the butt-end of his stick into Anderberg’s side before he skates away.

Jack isn’t sure how Anderberg knows about Bittle — if he heard it from Whits, Jack is going to be pissed — but it’s the sort of chirping Jack can’t ignore. He hasn’t told his teammates about Bittle, but it’s not going to take much for them to figure it out if Anderberg keeps making comments like that.

“You okay?” Janssen asks when they’re back on the bench after a long shift.

Jack keeps his eyes on the action on the ice. “Yeah.”

Janssen leans in and lowers his voice. “Anderberg’s being a dick.”

“Chyeah.”

“If he crosses the line, just say so.”

“And you’ll unleash hell?” Jack smirks at him, and Janssen chuckles.

“You fuckin’ know it.”

Halfway through the period, Anderberg’s stick catches Jack’s ankle and he goes down hard. It takes him a few seconds to get back on his feet afterward, and the crowd erupts with boos. It doesn’t get called, of course, but it succeeds in taking Jack out of the play for a few precious seconds. Jack winces as he gets back to his feet — that twinge in his knee is not a good sign — and skates back into position amidst roars of ”Ref you suck!”

But then he scans the ice, and to his amazement, he’s got a lane. He slams his stick down hard, and Kratz looks up, saucers it toward him in a fucking beautiful pass. Jack settles it down and fires it toward the goal. He loses sight of the puck almost instantly — and so does the goalie, who scrambles for half a second before he turns to look behind him. Whits and Kratz shout and raise their sticks from behind the net, and the crowd leaps to its feet. Just like that, the Falcs are leading 1-0.

Jack hadn’t expected that getting a goal right off Anderberg’s trip would shut him up, of course, but he’s still surprised when Anderberg doubles down.

“Your boy is awfully pretty, Zimmermann.”
“I’ll bet that college boy ass is tight.”
“Found yourself a good little slut didn’t you?“
“Got your boy’s number off Whitton. Gonna send him some pics later.”
“Whatta ya say, winner gets to take your boy for a ride?”

Jack whirls around on the last one and skates right into Anderberg, so close their chests touch. “You run your mouth like you forget your boyfriend is my best friend.”

Anderberg sneers. “Boyfriend? You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Jack sneers right back. “Right, sure.”

The crowd has started cheering, anticipating something going down between the two of them. Before anything else can happen, though, the horn sounds for the end of the period and they’re being pulled apart by their teammates.

Whits has his hands on Jack’s sweater, but he’s shooting glares over at Anderberg the whole time.

“What did he say?” Whits asks.

Jack pulls out of Whits’ grip and shakes his head. “You don’t want to know.”

“Zimms—”

“Did you tell him about Bittle?” Jack can’t keep the anger out of his voice.

“No, of course not!” Whits looks around, steps closer. “He was super-jealous, okay? He kept asking me if there was something going on between us, and I… might have mentioned that you’re seeing someone you met at school?” He grimaces a little.

Jack can only stare at him in disbelief. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I didn’t imply it was a guy! He’s probably just—”

“Looking for ways to get under my skin, and you handed him a perfect one.” Jack shoves him hard enough that Whits slides a meter back. “Thanks for that, buddy.”

Whits’ jaw clenches, and he looks away. “I’m sorry.”

“I hope you at least got a blowjob out of it.”

Whits swears softly, then turns away and skates toward the tunnel.

Kratz stops next to Jack. “Everything okay?”

Jack snorts. “No.”

Kratz sighs. “Is it time?”

Jack looks over to where the Avs are leaving the ice. “Yeah.”

Kratz slaps Jack on the ass. “We got this, Zimms. Get outta here.”

They give Anderberg hell for the rest of the night. Jack hits hard, cross-checks when he can get away with it, and generally antagonizes him at every possible opportunity. The other guys follow his lead, and they draw Anderberg into three penalties in the second period. Those power plays result in two goals for the Falcs, and after that, Denver’s coach pulls Anderberg every time Jack’s line steps on the ice. It’s a small victory, but it makes Jack feel a lot better.

Whits doesn’t say a word to Jack on or off the ice for the rest of the night. He doesn’t wait around to ride home with Jack after the game, either.

Jack is glad, because he’s not sure what he’d say.

*****

“Jaaaack!” Shitty is standing in the middle of the Haus living room, surrounded by drunk college students and holding huge plastic cups of beer in each hand. He opens his arms wide for a hug.

Jack laughs and shakes his head. “I’m not up for taking a shower right now, Shits.”

Shitty sets the cups on a nearby table and holds his arms out again. “Bring it in, bro, right here.”

Jack hugs him, hard. “It’s good to see you in person.”

“Two fuckin’ months, man. We suck.”

“Nah, just busy,” Jack says, releasing him. Someone Jack vaguely recognizes claps him on the shoulder as he walks by, and Jack nods in greeting.

“Dude, I can’t believe you drove all the way out here after playing a game. You must be wiped.” Shitty picks up his beers and offers one to Jack.

“I’m okay.” Jack shakes his head at the offer, holding up the Powerade bottle he’s been sipping from the whole drive here. “I couldn’t make the game, but I wasn’t gonna miss the chance to congratulate the guys in person.”

Shitty looks around the room and shakes his head. “Last home game of the season. Can you believe it’s been a year since we did this?”

Jack slings an arm around his shoulders. “Actually, yeah.”

Shitty laughs. “Where’s Whitton? I procured some choice Skywalker just for this occasion. It’s gonna blow his fuckin’ mind.”

Jack’s expression tightens. “He, uh… he’s doing something else tonight.”

Shitty presses a hand to his chest. ”Break my heart, man. What the fuck?”

“Ah, you know. The Avs played the Bruins tonight, and he went up to hang out with a friend after the game.”

“All right, I guess we know where we rank.”

Jack shrugs. He doesn’t say that he and Whits have barely spoken to each other in a week. Mostly because Jack hates his douchebag boyfriend, but also because Whits almost outed him to the guy. He also doesn’t say that Whits and Bittle got into a passive-aggressive texting argument, during which Bittle expressed concern that maybe Whits was making a mistake, and they haven’t spoken since either. Or that Coach Radley had put Whits on another line halfway through the first period tonight because he’d played like shit.

“Yeah, I guess,” Jack says.

“Jack!” They look up to see Ransom winding his way toward them through the crowd. Heads turn in his wake, and by the time he’s pulled Jack into a bro-hug, most of the people at the party are staring and whispering. It’s a matter of minutes before they start edging over and pulling out their phones to take photos.

Jack tries to ignore it, but it’s unsettling to get the star treatment in a place he used to call home.

“C’mon, man, let’s get you to the kitchen. I think there’s a small southern baker who’s gonna be happy to see you.” Shitty winks, and Jack stares back at him for a moment. Does he know? Jack hasn’t told him, has barely talked to him in the last couple of months. But he’d be surprised if Lardo hadn’t said something, considering.

“Okay, yeah,” he says, and they start to make their way across the living room.

Jack gets stopped for approximately one hundred selfies along the way, and he obliges — best to get it over with now, because once he sees Bittle, he’s not going to have the patience.

Shitty finally cuts it off with his usual style: “Fuck the fuck off and let the man get a fuckin’ drink!”

Jack smiles apologetically, but he’s relieved when Shitty takes him by the arm and drags him the rest of the way to the kitchen. Bittle, Lardo, Holster, and Dex are in the kitchen, along with a couple of the frogs Jack met last fall. The shirt Bittle’s wearing is one of Jack’s favorites, one that stretches tight across his shoulders and narrows at his waist. Jack is already imagining pushing it up, getting his mouth on the plane of Bittle’s stomach.

“Look who I found wandering around like a big-ass lost puppy.” Shitty steps aside with a flourish, and everyone turns and cheers.

Bittle lets everyone else get a hug in before he steps forward. Jack folds Bittle into his arms and keeps him there a little longer than he probably should, but he can’t help it. He hasn’t seen him in over a week and he feels too good.

Lardo raises her eyebrows at him when he steps back. Jack’s cheeks warm a little, and he looks down at Bittle. Bittle smiles at him, flushed and happy, and Jack loves him so much.

“You’re just in time,” Bittle says, putting a little distance between them. “Can you get the wine glasses out of the top cabinet for me?”

“Yeah, for sure.” Jack takes his time retrieving half a dozen wine glasses, then finally feels like he can face everyone again.

Bittle pulls a bottle of rosé from the fridge and unscrews the cap. “Jack?”

He wasn’t planning on drinking at all, but it suddenly seems like a good idea. He nods. “Just one, though.”

Bittle pours two glasses and puts the bottle back in the fridge. He hands one to Jack and takes the other himself. “We’re celebrating two wins tonight.”

Jack grins, and everyone in the kitchen raises a glass and cheers.

There’s hockey talk and catching up, and a few more people file in. The kitchen is getting crowded, and Jack finds himself pressed up against Bittle’s side. It’s nice, but it’s also torture, because he can’t put his arm around Bittle, or sweep his thumb across the short hairs at the back of Bittle’s neck, or lean in close enough to suggest they go somewhere more private.

Bittle takes a large drink from his wine glass and sets in on the counter behind him, then looks up at Jack. “I need to go get something upstairs.” His gaze lingers on Jack’s meaningfully for a moment before he makes his way out of the kitchen.

Jack downs the rest of his wine and waits two full minutes before he’s nearly bursting out of his own skin. He turns to Shitty. “I’d better go get in line for the bathroom.”

Shitty laughs. “Bro, somebody’s probably fucking in there.”

“Good point. I’ll go upstairs.” Which was his goal anyway, so all the better.

He manages to make it to the stairs without getting stopped by any fans, and heads up. He ducks under the customary caution tape at the top and looks both ways before opening Bittle’s door and slipping inside.

“Finally,” Bittle says, launching himself at Jack. “Here, lemme lock it. Oh my god, Jack.”

Jack pulls him close and holds him, nose buried in his hair. He can’t even form words; he just needs to be close to Bittle for a while.

“You okay?”

Jack nods. “I missed you.”

Bittle sighs happily. “Lord, me too. Come here.” He backs toward the bed, pulling Jack with him.

Jack lets himself be pulled down on top of Bittle, and smiles. “This is more like it.”

“Kiss me.”

Jack does, for a long time. They end up lying on their sides, facing each other, lips brushing between words. Jack doesn’t even care if it goes any further; he just wants to breathe the same air for a while and touch Bittle everywhere he can, to make enough sense memories to get him through the next week or so before they can be together again. The distant buzz of the party reminds him of the first night they did this, and he says so.

“That was amazing,” Bittle whispers. “Best night of my life.”

Jack smiles against his lips. “That sounds like a challenge.”

“Hmmm, then I challenge you, Jack Zimmermann.” Bittle kisses him, slow and deep, then pulls away again. “Give me a better night.”

There’s a sharp knock on Bittle’s door then, and both of them tense.

“Ignore it,” Jack whispers. “It’s locked.”

“Bits, you in there?” It’s Shitty. They stare at each other.

“Does he know?” Jack asks.

“I don’t think so.”

There’s another knock, and then the doorknob jiggles.

“I could’ve hung something on the door,” Bittle whispers. “But they’d all chirp me to hell and back if I did.”

Jack kisses him again, and Bittle sighs. A few seconds later, they hear footsteps receding toward the stairs.

“If we’re gonna do something, we should probably get to it.” Bittle’s hand slides over Jack’s hip, and presses against Jack’s cock through his pants.

“What did you have in mind?”

“Get these off and I’ll show you.”

They shimmy out of their pants, kissing all the while. Bittle scoots his hips back and takes Jack’s dick in his hand. He looks down between them and strokes up, pulling the foreskin over the head.

“Does that feel good?” Bittle looks up at Jack through his eyelashes.

“Yeah, it’s good.”

“No, I mean…” Bittle shifts again, touching the head of his own dick to Jack’s. He strokes Jack again, pulling Jack’s foreskin over himself as far as it will go, then keeps it there, moving his hand back and forth.

“Ha, wow,” Jack says. “That’s…” It’s strange, the sensation of Bittle’s dick beneath his own foreskin.

“Yeah, I… I’ve been wondering what it feels like.” Bittle stares down between them, a little frown of concentration on his face. He looks up again. “Sorry, is this weird?”

“Not if you like it.” Jack touches his forehead to Bittle’s and watches the head of Bittle’s dick slide under his own foreskin. “It’s like you’re fucking my dick.”

Bittle bursts into laughter and lets them both go. He presses his face against Jack’s neck, and Jack can feel heat radiating off him.

“Wait, did I embarrass you?” He kisses Bittle’s hair, right above his very red ear.

Bittle still won’t look up at him. “No…”

Jack snorts. “You stuck your tongue in my ass, but this is too embarrassing, seriously?”

“Don’t chirp me!”

Jack tickles him instead, feathery touches against his sides, and Bittle yelps. “Shhh,” Jack says, and kisses him.

Bittle’s lips part easily under Jack’s, and he nudges his knee between Jack’s thighs. Jack slides his hands down over Bittle’s ass and pulls them even closer, legs tangled together. Bittle is warm and soft and hard all at once, and Jack just wants to freeze the moment, enjoy the the heat between them and the feeling of Bittle’s erection against his own.

“Are you too tired for this?” Bittle pushes Jack’s hair away from his forehead. “We don’t have to.”

“No, I want to. I’m just…” He sighs, happily. “You feel so good.”

Bittle chuckles and shifts against him, and Jack hums at the sensation of heat and pressure against his dick. “I’m gonna take care of you, sweetheart. You just relax.” He pushes at Jack’s shoulder until he rolls onto his back.

Jack smiles up at him. “Okay.”

Bittle straddles Jack’s hips and starts moving slowly. Jack’s hips rise to meet him, and the friction is glorious. Jack winds his arms around Bittle’s back, sliding one hand up into his hair to pull him down into a kiss. Bittle whimpers against Jack’s lips and moves a little faster, and within a minute they’re grinding against each other almost frantically. Jack loves seeing Bittle like this, needy and on the edge of control, panting into Jack’s mouth. Bittle shifts his position, and then there’s pressure exactly where Jack needs it. He hadn’t realized he was that close, but suddenly he’s overwhelmed, coming into the tight heat between them, and gasping against the hand Bittle throws over his mouth.

“Sorry,” he whispers when Bittle pulls his hand away. He’s still feeling the aftershocks.

Bittle grins and kisses him. “You were just a little loud, baby. Okay if I keep going?”

“Yeah.”

Bittle slides one knee between Jack’s thighs and starts moving against his belly, careful not to put any pressure against Jack’s now-sensitive dick. Jack slides his hands down Bittle’s back and over his ass, urging him on.

“You’re so hot like this,” he whispers, and Bittle says, “Jack, Jack, fuck,” and shudders against him.

Bittle sighs and relaxes on Jack’s chest, and they both ignore the warm sticky mess between them. Jack wraps his arms around Bittle and just holds him.

“God, I love you,” Bittle says, smiling down at him.

“Love you too.” Jack kisses him, a soft, dry press of lips. “So much.”

Bittle settles his head against Jack’s shoulder. “People are gonna wonder where we went.” He doesn’t make any move to get up, though.

Jack sighs. “Are you coming home with me tonight?”

“Yeah. I told the guys I was gonna be doing research for a project all day Sunday. If I can sneak away, they’ll think I left before they got up.”

“Do you really have research to do?”

Bittle kisses the tip of Jack’s nose and sits up. “Sort of.”

“Bits—”

“We might not see each other again until spring break. I’m gonna have plenty of time to study.”

“If you say so.” Bittle’s procrastination worries him, but it’s not like Jack’s going to give up a whole day with him if he doesn’t have to.

Bittle fishes the box of tissues from its usual spot on the floor and wipes his stomach off, then hands one to Jack.

“Lord, this shirt is a lost cause.” Bittle strips it off and tosses it toward the laundry basket by the door.

Jack looks down at his own shirt, which is miraculously spunk-free. It got pushed up under his arms somewhere along the way, and he’d been too preoccupied to think to take it off.

Bittle gets up and heads to his closet. “I suppose it’d be too obvious to wear this one now?” He holds up a blue Falconers t-shirt. He flips it around to show Jack’s name and number on the back.

Jack grins. “Probably. I like seeing you wear it, though.”

Bittle grabs a Samwell hockey t-shirt and tugs that on instead. He crosses back to stand between Jack’s thighs. “You should give me one of your game jerseys sometime.” He leans in and kisses Jack, and whispers, “And then you can fuck me while I’m wearing it.”

Jack came not five minutes ago, but words like that make him think he could go again. “Promise?” He kisses Bittle, slow and filthy, and Bittle moans into his mouth.

“We’re gonna get dirty all over again if you keep doing that.”

“We’ve got all day tomorrow.”

Bittle grins. “I know.”

Bittle heads out first, and Jack waits a few minutes, stretches out on the rumpled sheets. He’s exhausted from the game, it’s after midnight, and he just came, so it’s basically a perfect storm of circumstances for sleep.

He blinks awake when he hears a knock at the door, and then the sound of it opening.

Jack yawns. “Sorry, Bits, I’m falling asleep.”

He opens his eyes and starts to sit up — and sees Shitty standing next to the bed, arms folded over his chest.

“Shitty, hey,” Jack says, his mind scrambling for an explanation.

They stare at each other for a long moment. Shitty takes a step back and closes the door. Jack sits up, and the tension in the room gets even thicker.

“So,” Shitty says. “How long have you been fucking Bitty, then?” He doesn’t look happy.

Jack can’t form words for three entire seconds. “What?”

“Don’t fuckin’ front, man. You two disappear together into a locked room for half an hour, then he comes down looking well-fucked?”

Jack stares at him, trying to swallow down the pulse of panic he feels. Were they that obvious?

“Not to mention that this room absolutely reeks of dude-sex. Bruh, open a window next time.”

Jack winces. “Uhhhh…”

“You’re still in his fuckin’ bed, Zimmermann. Don’t even try to deny it.”

“I’m not, I… You really didn’t know?”

“Why would I fucking know? It’s not like anyone tells me anything anymore.”

“Shitty—”

“How long?”

Jack exhales. “Since January. A little after New Year’s.”

Shitty’s eyes widen, and he huffs, looks away. “Two months. And when the fuck were you gonna tell me?”

Jack shakes his head. “Jesus, Shitty, we’ve barely told anyone. You do know that I’m an NHL player, right? And that there’s not a single openly queer player, current or retired, in the entire league? My fucking career is on the line, so don’t give me this sanctimonious ‘why didn’t you tell me’ shit.”

Shitty’s expression is stricken. “You… Seriously, after everything — you don’t fuckin’ trust me with this? You think I’d—” He takes a step back. “Fuck you, okay? Just… fuck!”

“Shitty, don’t, please.” Jack presses his hands over his face. “We each picked one person to tell, okay? Someone who could cover for us when we needed it. I told my parents too, and that was it. We were gonna start telling other people soon.”

“So Whitton knows?”

Jack nods.

“Who else?”

It’s probably best not to mention that Whits’ entire family also knows. And a handful of the Falconers’ staff. And Parse. And Tyler Seguin. And probably the entire Dallas Star roster. And… Jack winces. “Bitty told Lardo.”

Shitty stares at him for several seconds. “Right. That’s… Fuck, is everyone keeping shit from me, then?”

“Shitty—”

“God, how pathetic am I?” Shitty half-laughs, shakes his head. “I’m that loser who goes back to the frat house to party, even though he shoulda moved on, found new friends. Cause clearly the friends I thought I had don’t give a flying fuck.”

“It’s not about you! God, why is that so hard to understand? Bitty’s not even out to his parents, and the media ask me every other game if I have a girlfriend. There’s a hell of a lot at stake here, but hey, you’ve been inconvenienced, so the rest of us are supposed to—”

“Stop, stop, fuck!” Shitty looks away. “Fine, I get it. I’m not your number one friend anymore. And Lardo made a promise to Bitty and kept it. I respect the shit out of that. I just… I dunno, man.”

“I’m sorry.” Jack presses his lips together.

“Me too. For the record, I’m actually happy for you, okay?”

Jack exhales. “Thanks. I’m happy too.”

Shitty finally cracks a smile. “I’ll bet.”

“Well, now you know, so you have to sign the NDA.”

Shitty gapes at him. “The fuck?”

“Yeah, you know. Standard sort of contract.” Jack tries, but can’t keep a straight face for long. He grins. “I solemnly swear not to reveal to the world what Jack Zimmermann does with his dick.”

Shitty snorts. “Whatever, bro. Fuck you and your dick.”

“Hey, my dick’s doing well these days.”

Shitty rolls his eyes. “TMI, brah. I love you both, but I don’t need that mental image.”

Jack laughs, though his heart isn’t really in it. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.”

“Nah, I get it. It’s not like we’ve been talking every other day anyway.”

“I’m sorry about that too.”

Shitty smiles, though it’s tinged with sadness in a way that makes Jack’s chest clench. “How long are you planning to keep it a secret?”

“At least until the end of the season.”

Shitty smirks a little. “So you’re really only hanging onto this another month.”

“Fuck you, at least two months,” Jack retorts. “We’re on track for a wild card spot in the playoffs.”

“Hell, win the Cup and no one will care you’re fucking a guy.”

“Funny, Bittle said almost exactly the same thing.”

“Your boyfriend’s a good kid.” Shitty raises his eyebrows. “Don’t fuck this up, Jack, or I swear—”

“I know, Shits. I’m not planning to.”

Shitty nods, and holds his arms out. “All right, I forgive you. C’mere.”

Jack pushes to his feet and hugs him tightly. “Thanks.”

Shitty takes a deep breath and releases it. “You smell like Bitty.”

Jack snickers and strokes Shitty’s back firmly. “I also haven’t washed my hands yet.”

“Okaaaay, then.” Shitty gives him a shove toward the door. “I’m definitely not going to think about that for the next four hours.”

“C’mon, Shits. Let’s go get you a drink.” Jack opens the door and steers him back toward the stairs.

The party seems louder and wilder than before. Jack’s not sure why he’s surprised; he did live here for three years, after all. Shitty spots Lardo through the crowd and heads toward her. Jack watches him catch her by the arm and whisper something into her ear. She looks up at him shocked, and he kisses her, and they stand there like that for a long time.

“Hey,” Bittle says, appearing by Jack’s side. He hands Jack a bottle of water. “Everything okay?”

Jack sighs. “Yeah. I just had a talk with Shitty. He, uh… figured it out.”

Bittle looks over at where Shitty is talking quietly with Lardo. “Oh.”

“It’s fine,” Jack says. He leans against the Haus noticeboard and shrugs. “He was a little pissed, though.”

Bittle sighs and takes a sip from his wine glass. “I should probably go talk to him.”

Jack watches him cross to them, sees Shitty give Bittle a mock stern look before pulling him in for a hug. Lardo grins and throws her arms around both of them.

“Uh… Jack?”

Jack turns toward the voice, and his stomach drops: it’s Bittle’s ex-boyfriend, Kevin. He’s taller than Jack remembered, and somehow even better-looking. The sleeves of his flannel shirt are rolled up, revealing intricate swirls of tattoos on his forearms. He has a bottle of beer in one hand and he looks apprehensive.

“Hey, man,” Jack says, pushing off the wall. He holds his hand out and Kevin shakes it. Jack stares at him, uncertain what to say. How’s it going? Sorry about the breakup. Why the hell are you even here?

Kevin glances over at where Bittle is still talking to Shitty. “Just wanted to say congrats.”

Jack is not going to panic. He is absolutely not going to—

“On the All-Star Game.”

Jack exhales. “Right.”

“The whole campus was going nuts. Everyone was watching and cheering you on.” His voice is a little flat, but Jack can’t sense any true resentment in it.

“Wow, I… that’s great.”

“Eric seemed to have a good time. There was a big article in The Swallow about him going.”

“There was?” Jack frowns. Bittle hadn’t mentioned that.

“Yeah. I mean, it was mostly speculation about how he got the job.” Kevin raises his eyebrows.

Jack struggles to keep his facial expression neutral. “After the Falcs spent the entire fall constantly retweeting him, you’d think it’d be pretty obvious.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure it helped that he’s your… friend.”

Jack looks away, across the room to where Bittle is now laughing with Shitty and Lardo, and tries to keep his breathing even. “He’s one of my best friends, has been for a long time. Everyone knows that.” He takes another calming breath, struggling to keep his tone casual. “He did a fantastic job with our social media presence in Nashville. The PR department wants him to do more.”

“That’s right up his alley.”

“Yeah.” Jack takes a drink of water, and tries desperately to think of a way to change the subject before Kevin asks him outright if he and Bittle are dating. “Classes going well?”

Kevin chuckles. “Yeah. I mean, you know how it goes.” He takes a sip from his beer and looks over to Bittle again. “So, uh… he seems really happy.”

Jack nearly chokes on his water. He turns to look at Kevin, trying his best to be nonchalant. “Sorry?”

“Eric.” Kevin doesn’t look at Jack. “I didn’t realize how unhappy he was with me until we broke up. And the last few weeks, he’s just been so…” Kevin sighs and takes another sip of beer. “Anyway, I’m glad he’s happy now.”

Jack has no idea what to say in response to that. Before the silence between them grows too awkward, though, a young man stops next to Kevin and bumps his shoulder.

“Here you are, I— oh my god.” The young man stares at Jack, wide-eyed. “Ah… hi.”

Kevin’s smile is pained. “This is my friend Alex. Alex, Jack Zimmermann.”

“Yeah, I know.” Alex looks utterly starstruck.

“He’s a big hockey fan.” Kevin shakes his head. “Of course.”

Jack raises his eyebrows, but Kevin looks over at Alex with a fond expression.

Alex’s green eyes are huge. “I’m from Providence. I’ve been following the Falcs for a while, but god, I flipped my shit when you signed with them.”

Jack is ridiculously grateful for the opportunity to slide back into media mode. “Thanks, man, I appreciate it.”

“That game against the Avs last week was fucking brutal,” Alex says. “How many hits did you make, like six?”

Jack shrugs. “Yeah, something like that.”

Alex grins. “I don’t know what Anderberg did to piss you off, man, but it was fun to watch.”

Jack’s tempted to tell them exactly what Anderberg did, but he’s a professional. He smiles. “Yeah, well. It’s a rough game.”

“Rougher than when you played here, right?” Alex asks. “My ex-boyfriend and I went to all the home games last year. I even have your home and away jerseys!”

Kevin rolls his eyes.

Jack decides he really likes Alex. “Aha, wow. Thanks, man.”

Alex bumps Kevin with his shoulder. “Geez, you’ve been holding out on me! How do you know Jack Zimmermann?”

Kevin glances at Jack. “Uhhh…”

“Mutual friend,” Jack says.

“Right,” Kevin says.

“Wow.” Alex grins at both of them. “So, uh… could I get a selfie?”

Kevin looks like he’s in physical pain now, and Jack grins. “Yeah, no problem. Maybe Kevin can take it?”

Kevin sighs and holds out his hand, and Alex gives him his phone. They pose for the photo, and just after he takes it, Jack sees Bittle looking over at them from across the room, eyes wide.

“Whoa, thanks,” Alex says, taking his phone back. “Is it cool if I tweet this?”

“Yeah, for sure.” As if dozens of other people haven’t done the same thing tonight. Jack suddenly realizes he’s going to be featured in The Swallow. Again.

Kevin drains his beer. “Well, it was nice seeing you again, Jack. We should probably let the rest of your fans have a chance.”

Alex looks slightly crestfallen.

“It was nice to meet you,” Jack tells Alex. “If you want to come to a game sometime, let me know, okay? I’d be happy to get you tickets. Both of you.”

Alex lights up like a Christmas tree. “That’d be great!”

Kevin smiles tightly, apparently resigned to his fate. “Thanks, man. Good luck with the rest of your season.” He throws an arm around Alex’s shoulders and they walk away.

Bittle is by Jack’s side five seconds later. “What’d he say?”

“A lot,” Jack tells him, honestly.

They both watch as Kevin and Alex join the group gathered by the beer pong table.

“Are they…?” Bittle asks, and then Alex turns toward Kevin and kisses him. Kevin laughs and wraps his arms around him.

Jack elbows Bittle. “I’m gonna say yes.”

“Lord, that’s a relief.” Bittle sighs. “Want to talk about it over pie? I saved a maple apple for you.”

Jack smiles at him. “Absolutely.”

The kitchen is blessedly empty. The pie is fantastic too, and for a few minutes, Jack is transported back in time. He spent so many nights sitting in this kitchen at this table, studying while Bittle baked, and not understanding that the warm feeling in his belly had more to do with Bittle than anything else. He slides one hand across the table, palm up, and Bittle covers it with his own.

“I love you,” Jack whispers.

Bittle’s smile is radiant. “I love you too, honey.”

Jack’s phone buzzes in his pocket, but he ignores it. “So how are we going to sneak you out of here?”

“Maybe I can go up to my room, then climb out on the roof and shimmy down the drainpipe?”

Jack snorts. “Only if you want to spend the night in the emergency room.”

His phone buzzes again.

Bittle squeezes his hand. “Or we could just do the old leave-ten-minutes-apart routine. I stashed my overnight bag outside.”

“Ha, nice.”

“So what did Kevin say to you?”

Before Jack can reply, the kitchen door bursts open. Jack and Bittle jerk their hands apart just as Ransom and Holster come through. They have a pair of girls with them.

“Jack, dude!” Ransom bro-hugs Jack from behind. He’s pretty schwasted, not that Jack expected anything less. “I’m so psyched you’re here, man. Whoa, is that maple apple?” Ransom gasps. “Bits, you said there wasn’t anymore. The fuck, bro?”

“There isn’t any for you,” Bittle says. “Not after you ate an entire pie all by yourself yesterday.”

Ransom clutches his chest. “You’re killing me here, Bits. I thought I was your favorite Canadian.”

Bittle laughs. “Since when?”

“I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m his favorite Canadian, Rans.” Jack takes another bite of his own slice and smiles around the fork.

Ransom scowls and the girls laugh, but Holster is staring at Jack with narrowed eyes. Jack feels a jolt of panic and looks away. His phone buzzes again. This is probably a good time to see who’s trying so hard to get in touch with him.

His stomach drops when he sees the screen: he has half a dozen texts from Whits.

Hey - you home?
Sorry I’ve been an asshole
I’m outside your door
Shit you’re not here
Just remembered you went to Samwell
Shit sorry
Okay if I just hang here?
Call me when you can

“Shit,” Jack says, and opens his contacts. He taps Whits’ name and puts the phone to his ear.

“What is it?” Bittle asks.

Jack looks up at him. “Whits.”

Ransom and Holster exchange a glance, then usher the girls out of the kitchen. The moment the door is closed, Bittle moves a chair next to Jack’s and slides a hand into his.

The phone rings four times before Whits answers. “Zimms, hey.”

Jack exhales in relief. “I just saw your texts. What’s up?”

“Nothing, just… I mean, not nothing, but… shit. I don’t wanna fuck up your night.” He sounds more than a little drunk. “Can I hang out here?”

“Yeah, of course. I thought you were going to Boston tonight.”

“I did.” Whits makes a miserable sound. “And now I’m back.”

“Are you okay?”

Whits laughs, but it sounds completely humorless. “Shit, I… I’ll tell you later, ‘kay?”

“Are you drunk?”

“Yeeeah. Thass why I came up here. I was gonna drink m’self into a coma at my place.”

“What the fuck happened?”

Whits is quiet for a moment; all Jack can hear is breathing.

“Whits?”

“I can’t… m’sorry. You’re with Eric. I don’ wanna bother you.”

“You’re not, you… Look, I’m on my way home, okay? Just stay right there. Don’t go anywhere.”

“Zimms, you don’t… shit.”

“I was about to leave anyway.” Jack shoots an apologetic look at Bittle, whose face is almost pale with worry.

“No, just… I’ll be fine. Thanks for letting me stay. I’m sorry, okay? For ev’rything.”

“Whits, hey—” There’s suddenly no sound, and Jack’s eyes widen. “Whits? Hello? Taylor?” He looks at the screen of his phone: the call is over. He looks at Bittle. “I need to go.”

Bittle squeezes his hand once before releasing it. “Let’s go out the back door — less people that way.”

Bittle opens the kitchen door and heads toward the back porch. Jack follows, keeping his head down, his mind whirling. Whits hasn’t spoken to him in a week, and now this?

Fortunately, the party has hit that point where everyone is so schwasted that no one notices a minor celebrity sneaking out of the Haus. Bittle reaches under a lawn chair and picks up his bag along the way, and they make their way to the street in the darkness.

Neither of them says anything during the walk to Jack’s truck. Bittle climbs into the passenger seat, and Jack is grateful that he came along without any discussion. Jack starts the engine and eases the truck onto the mostly-empty road.

They’re miles out of town before Bittle finally asks: “What happened?”

“I’m not sure,” Jack says, and reaches for Bittle’s hand. “All I know is that he went to Boston to see Dani after the game, and now he’s sitting in my apartment, drunk and miserable.”

“Shit.” Bittle squeezes his hand. “I hope he’s okay.”

Jack can only nod and keep driving.

*****

Chapter Text

Bittle opens the door of the truck the moment Jack parks in his building’s garage. He even forgets his bag in his haste; Jack grabs it out of the back and chases after him.

“Thanks,” Bittle says as they’re waiting for the elevator. It’s the first word he’s spoken in half and hour. They’d both spent the drive lost in thought.

“No problem.” Jack’s hands ache from gripping the steering wheel and his shoulders are tight. The elevator is taking forever, for some reason — everyone coming in from a night out, probably.

The doors finally open, but even then, the ride up seems interminable: they stop in the lobby to pick up half a dozen people, many of them drunk, and all of them stopping on lower floors.

“Heeey,” one man slurs, grinning at Jack. “You’re the hockey player, right?” He holds his fist out for a bump, swaying slightly.

“Yeah,” Jack says. He’s seen the guy around the building off and on, but has no idea what his name is. Everyone in the elevator car stares at him. Jack takes a calming breath and releases it, and tries not to look like he’s on the verge of losing his shit.

He glances at Bittle: he doesn’t look much better.

The elevator finally stops on Jack’s floor, and they both sprint to the door. Jack fumbles for his keys, but Bittle turns the handle and it opens. He walks in ahead of Jack.

Whits is curled on the couch watching TV, wrapped in a Falconers throw blanket. He looks up at the two of them, then closes his eyes and groans.

“Great. Now both of you can say ‘I told you so.’ Skype Parse and I’ll have a complete set.”

Jack and Bittle sigh in relief.

“Oh, honey.” Bittle leans over the back of the couch and smooths Whits’ hair back from his face. “Nobody’s gonna say that, okay?” He shoots Jack a stern look.

Jack was planning to say exactly that, actually, but he nods. Bittle’s better at this than he is.

Bittle leans over and kisses Whits on the forehead. “I’m gonna make some hot chocolate.” Bittle catches Jack’s eye and tilts his head toward Whits in a way Jack assumes is supposed to be meaningful, then heads to the kitchen.

Jack stares after him for a moment, hoping he’ll get another hint, but Bittle is on a mission. Jack takes a deep breath and crosses to sit next to Whits on the sofa.

“Hey, man.”

“Hey.” Whits doesn’t tear his eyes away from the TV. Jack glances at it: it appears to be some sort of home improvement show.

Jack slides closer, close enough to bump Whits’ shoulder with his own. “What’re you watching?”

Property Brothers. These dudes are fuckin’ hot.”

Jack turns to look at the screen. “Oh, yeah. I know this one. They’re twins, right?”

“One does the renos and the other does real estate.” Whits sighs. “And I’d do both of them in a heartbeat, man.”

Jack snickers. “Or at the same time?”

Whits doesn’t reply, which is out of character for him. He takes a deep breath and exhales.

“Hey,” Jack says, and then pauses. He has no idea how to do this. He drops a hand on Whits’ shoulder and squeezes. “You okay, man?”

Whits seems to tense for a few seconds, then he shifts closer to Jack, leans into him. “Fuck, I dunno.”

Jack slides an arm around Whits. This he can do. “You know I’ve got your back, right?”

Whits makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Yeah, you’ve made it pretty fuckin’ clear.” He leans his head on Jack’s shoulder. “Thanks.”

Jack rests his cheek on the top of Whits’ head, feeling all the tension that had built up between them in the past week begin to melt away.

They watch TV in silence for two more minutes, then Bittle appears with mugs of hot chocolate for each of them. There are even marshmallows. Jack hadn’t even known he’d had marshmallows, but he’s learned not to question Bittle’s abilities.

Bittle settles on the other side of Whits, his own mug in hand. “Oooh, Property Brothers.”

Whits leans forward to pick up a mug. He takes a sip and sighs. “God damn, Eric. I didn’t even know I wanted this until right now.”

Bittle smiles. “Chocolate cures everything. Broken hearts included.” He nudges Whits with his knee.

Whits takes another sip and leans back against Jack again. “Y’all’re gonna make me talk about this, huh?”

Jack says “no” at the same time Bittle says “yes.” They look at each other over Whits’ head; Bittle’s expression brooks no argument.

“Are you okay?” Bittle asks, nudging Whits again.

Whits shrugs. “I don’t know.” He takes another sip of hot chocolate, then wraps his fingers around the mug and stares down into it. “I’m sorry I was such a dick this week.”

“No more than usual,” Jack says, and Whits snorts.

“I’m done with him this time, though. God… I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Oh, honey,” Bittle says, his expression full of sympathy. He turns sideways on the couch so that he’s facing Whits, and tucks his toes under Whits’ thigh.

Whits presses his lips together for a moment, and sighs. “Tonight was supposed to be special, you know? We weren’t sure when we’d get to see each other again.”

Jack and Bittle exchange a glance.

“But I got to the hotel room and…” Whits makes a sound almost like a laugh. “I don’t know why I was surprised. There was another guy there, some dude he’d picked up on Grindr, probably. They’d already been making out, and I— well, shit, I was pissed, you know? That’s not what…” He shakes his head. “We were gonna try and make it work. We’d been talking about it all week, and then I get there and it’s just…” He drains the hot chocolate, then leans forward and sets the mug on the coffee table.

Bittle strokes a hand down his back. “I’m sorry, Taylor.”

“I should have turned around and left right then,” Whits continues, elbows braced on his knees. “But I thought maybe it was some weird misunderstanding, you know? I mean, it’s not like I’d never be up for a threesome with him. But like, don’t fuckin’ spring it on me when I’m expecting it to be just the two of us.”

Whits sits back again, his head falling against Jack’s bicep. Bittle leans into Whits’ shoulder and laces their fingers together, looking up at Whits with concern. Jack stares at their joined hands for a moment, bracing himself for the wave of jealousy he knows is coming. It doesn’t, though: he just feels sympathy for Whits, and relief that Bittle is here right now, that it’s not up to Jack alone to help him. Jack breathes and threads his fingers into Bittle’s hair, stroking his thumb up the back of Bittle’s neck. Bittle looks up at him with a sad smile.

“So I tried to argue with him,” Whits continues. “And just… god, it was like watching all the worst parts of our relationship on replay. He said so many things I wanted to hear.” Whits hesitates, takes a breath. “But it was just… he didn’t mean a word of it. All he wanted was to talk me into letting that guy fuck me while he watched. And it didn’t matter what I said I wanted. He wasn’t going take no for an answer.”

Bittle sucks in a sharp breath. “God, Taylor, he didn’t—”

“No, not like that,” Whits says, looking at him. “But the guy was finally like, ‘Look, man, he’s not into it and neither am I anymore.’ And then he gave me this look on his way out the door like… pity, maybe.” Whits takes a steadying breath. “And even then, like an idiot, I still thought Dani and I could actually talk.”

Jack sighs and squeezes Whits’ shoulder.

“But no. Because it was all my fault, right? I’m too clingy and too fuckin’ needy, and I don’t understand him. It’s always me. I’m the one who fucks everything up.”

“Oh, Taylor, no.” Bittle’s expression is fierce.

“No, I… I know. A year ago I would’ve believed him, but…” Whits shakes his head. “This time, all I could think was how stupid I’ve been to let him say that kind of shit to me all this time. I mean?” He closes his eyes and swallows.

“Oh, honey — you are not stupid.” Bittle looks imploringly at Jack, like he expects Jack to say something to back him up.

Jack has no idea what to say, though. He’s already said everything he has to say about Anderberg, and all it accomplished was to piss Whits off, to push him away. Listening seems like the best thing he can do right now. He slides his hand behind Whits’ head and squeezes the back of his neck gently.

“Finally, he stopped yelling, and he sat on the bed and said, ‘You are so fucking hard to love, Tay. But I’m not giving up on you.’ And I just—” Whits shakes his head, almost laughs. “I mean, what the fuck is that?”

“Oh my god.” Bittle looks as angry as Jack can remember seeing him.

“So I got up and left. Just walked out the door. He yelled after me once, asked me where the fuck I thought I was going, but I just kept walking.” He takes a deep breath. “The elevator took forever and I thought maybe he was going to come after me, and… but he didn’t. He let me walk away.” Whits swallows and blinks hard, and then buries his face in his hands.

Jack’s never seen Whits cry in the entire time he’s known him. Bittle slides an arm around Whits’ shoulders and looks up at Jack expectantly, but Jack can only stare back at him. Bittle glances pointedly at something over Jack’s shoulder: a box of tissues. Right.

He picks up the box and offers it to Whits. Whits takes a tissue and leans forward, and Jack looks down at his hands.

“Jesus, I thought I was done with that.” Whits voice sounds a little strangled. He blows his nose and sighs. “I can’t believe I’m still crying over that asshole, fuck.”

“Me either,” Jack says. Bittle stares at him in shock, but before he can say anything, Jack gives Whits’ shoulder a shove. “Can I say I told you so now?”

“Yes.” Whits groans. “Get it the fuck over with.”

Jack leans in close enough to whisper in his ear, “I told you so,” then plants a wet kiss on Whits’ cheek.

Whits snorts and shoves him away, laughing. “Yeah, yeah, fuck you, man.”

“So it’s over, right?”

“It’s over. I’m fuckin’ done with him.”

“Good. I mean, you’ve only fucked your way through a third of the NHL so far. You need to get back to work on that.”

“Shit, I wasted so much time.” Whits shakes his head. “What was I thinking?”

“You weren’t, apparently.”

Whits laughs and reaches for another tissue.

Bittle stares at both of them like they’re insane.

Time to change the subject. Jack gestures to the TV. “Oh, I like this one. They do a nice job with the houses.”

“Yeah, but they’re all in fuckin’ Waco.” Whits gestures at the screen. “All the shiplap in the world isn’t gonna make Waco not suck balls.”

“I don’t think that guy is straight,” Bittle says, snuggling against Whits’ shoulder. “Did you see the one where his wife arranged for him to spend his birthday on a special trip with his super-hot best friend?”

Whits snickers. “They probably have an arrangement.”

“Their kids are cute,” Jack says. Whits and Bittle turn to look at him, surprised. “What? I like kids.”

Whits elbows Bittle. “Aw, hear that? He likes kids.”

Bittle flushes. “Shut up and watch the show, Taylor.”

Jack reaches around Whits to ruffle Bittle’s hair, and Bittle catches his hand, squeezes it. They make snarky comments about the show and the house and the problems encountered along the way. The end result is impressive, of course — though Whits reminds them once again that “it’s in fucking Waco, come on.”

When House Hunters International starts, Bittle sits up and stretches. “I’m going to bed. G’night.”

“Me too,” Jack says, yawning. “I’m pretty sure the guest bed is made up.”

“I think I might stay up a little longer, actually,” Whits says. “If that’s okay?”

Jack stands and holds his hand out to Bittle, then pulls him to his feet. He smiles at Whits. “Of course. See you in the morning.”

“Eric, you cooking breakfast?”

Bittle smiles at him. “You better believe it.”

Whits leans back into the sofa. “Then I’ll keep being your pathetic third wheel in the morning.”

“Banana pancakes,” Bittle says. “Just for you.”

They brush their teeth side-by-side in the bathroom, then get dressed for bed. Bittle sleeps in a worn Falconers t-shirt, one Jack is pretty sure he gave Bittle last spring, right after he signed. He’d given all the guys shirseys with his name and number on them, but his heart had leapt into his throat at the first sight of Bittle wearing it. He pulls Bittle into his arms now, just because he can, and kisses him.

Bittle sighs and wraps his arms around Jack’s neck. “I thought you were tired.”

“I am,” Jack says, brushing lips against Bittle’s forehead. “Come to bed.”

Bittle smiles. “You know how long I’ve wanted to hear you say that?”

“Then I’ll say it again.” Jack dips down and kisses just below his ear. “Come to bed with me.”

Bittle pushes his hands up under the Samwell t-shirt Jack sleeps in, warm against Jack’s skin. He yawns and leans his forehead against Jack’s shoulder. “I need to lie down before I fall down.”

They curl up together under the sheets, arms and legs entangled. Just as Jack starts to drift to sleep, Bittle asks, “You think he’s gonna be okay?”

“I hope so,” Jack mumbles.

“I’m glad he has you, that he felt like he could come to you with this.”

“Me too.” Jack presses lips against Bittle’s forehead.

*****

Jack wakes up to the smell of coffee. Bittle is still curled up next to him, face slack and hair sleep-tousled. Jack spends a few moments just watching him, soaking up the pleasure of waking up next to him like this, before he makes himself get up.

He closes the door quietly behind him and walks down the hall. Whits is sitting on the couch, a cup of coffee in one hand, and staring blearily at the muted television screen.

“Did you sleep at all?”

Whits turns to look at him. “Yeah. Not great, but I did sleep a little.”

Jack suspects he slept on the couch. “Good thing it’s a day off, eh?”

“Yeah.” Whits looks down into his coffee. “So, uh… I kind of ruined your night with Eric. Sorry.”

“You didn’t ruin anything,” Jack says, then heads to the kitchen. “If you stay all day, then I might get pissed.”

Whits chuckles. “I was promised breakfast. I’ll get out of the way after that, I swear.”

Jack comes back a minute later with a cup of coffee and settles on the opposite end of the couch. “As long as you don’t go off and do something stupid.” Like call Anderberg, for example.

Whits sighs. “I’ve done enough stupid shit lately to last me a while. Speaking of…” He frowns, and seems to steel himself for a moment. “I’m sorry that I told Dani you were seeing someone. I guess it wasn’t too hard for him to figure out it might be a guy, and… fuck, it was stupid.”

“Yeah,” Jack says.

Whits drains his coffee and sets the empty mug on the table. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Jack shrugs, unsure what else to say.

“Do you want me to go? Cause seriously, dude, I get it. You don’t get to see Eric much, and—”

“No, stay for breakfast.” Jack takes a sip of his coffee. “You’re not invited to the sex marathon, though.”

Whits snorts. “Yeah, I figured.”

Jack doesn’t know whether to be relieved or disturbed that Whits didn’t rise to the bait.

They watch ESPN and drink coffee for another half hour before Bittle gets up. He comes straight into the living room and curls up on Jack’s lap like a sleepy cat. Jack pets his hair and Bittle grumbles, pressing his face into Jack’s shoulder.

“S’too fuckin’ early.”

“Then go back to bed,” Jack says, kissing his forehead.

Bittle yawns. “Nope. I promised pancakes.” He pushes to his feet and stretches, and Jack only barely resists the temptation to pull him back down again. He stumbles toward the kitchen.

Whits gives Jack a small, almost sad smile, then stands. “I should probably help, huh?”

Bittle puts Whits to work, though making pancakes isn’t exactly a challenge. Jack sits at the bar and watches, sipping coffee and offering color commentary. After one too many chirps, Bittle sends him to set the table for the three of them.

“So you’re not going to talk to him, right?” Bittle is saying when Jack comes back into the kitchen for silverware.

“No,” Whits says. “He’s already texted me this morning. Stupid shit about how sorry he is, and I…” He shakes his head. “Like he thinks I’m still going to believe him, after last night.”

“Block him,” Bittle says. “Problem solved.”

Whits nods. “Yeah, I should… yeah.”

Jack squeezes his shoulder and nudges him to the right so he an open the silverware drawer.

An hour later, Jack and Bittle are alone again. Jack starts the dishwasher, then pulls Bittle against him, nuzzling his neck.

“I really need to brush my teeth,” Bittle says, ducking away from Jack’s mouth.

“I don’t care,” Jack tells him, and kisses him anyway.

Bittle melts against him for a moment before pulling away. “Is he gonna be okay, really?”

Jack shrugs. “I think so. It’s not like he doesn’t have plenty to distract him.”

“I’m glad he has you, anyway. And a place to go when he doesn’t want to be alone.”

Jack reaches past Bittle to open a drawer beside him. “That reminds me, I made you a key.” He rummages in the drawer for it.

Bittle goes completely still. “A key?”

“Yeah. Meant to do it earlier, but we were on the road.” He comes up with the key and hands it to Bittle.

Bittle stares down at it, wide-eyed. “You’re giving me a key to your apartment?”

Jack blinks at him. “Yeah. I already put your name on the access list downstairs, so if you ever come and I’m not here, getting into the building shouldn’t be a problem. I can introduce you to the doorman and—”

His words are cut off with a kiss. “Honey,” Bittle says when he pulls away, and then Jack hears the note of emotion in his voice.

Oh. Jack has a moment of panic — he’d thought they were on the same page, that it was obvious that Bittle would move in at some point, probably at least spend the summer here. But they haven’t actually discussed it, have they?

“I want you to come here whenever you want,” Jack says, palm against Bittle’s cheek. “Even if I’m on the road and you just need somewhere to go, or… whatever. I want you to feel like this is home.”

“Okay.” Bittle’s eyes are wide in the morning light streaming into the kitchen. He smiles. “It already does.”

Jack kisses the tip of his nose and smiles back. “Good.”

*****

“Hey, Zimmermann.” Patrick Sharp comes to a stop next to him and holds up his glove.

Jack bumps it, eyebrows raised. “Hey, man.”

“Is your dad gonna be hanging around after the game?”

This is the third time one of the Dallas players has asked him that tonight.

Jack glances up toward the box where Bob is sitting with Alex Whitton. “Yeah, I think he’ll be around for a little while. Why?” He knows the answer, but it’s still entertaining to watch them squirm a little.

Unlike the previous two guys, Sharp isn’t fazed in the slightest. He flashes a brilliant smile. “My wife asked me to get a selfie with him.”

Jack laughs. “Yeah, okay.”

The refs signal that play is about to start again. Sharp pats Jack’s shoulder and skates back into position.

“Again?” Kratz asks when Jack gets to the face-off circle.

“Welcome to my life,” Jack tells him.

The fathers’ trip starts tomorrow, so he knows it’s just the beginning. At least most of the Falcs have met Bob by now and won’t spend the entire weekend starstruck.

“Are you sure it’s okay?” Bob had asked when Jack first invited him.

“Papa, I want you to come. Unless you’d rather not? I know it’s going to be weird.”

“Jack,” Bob had sounded somewhere between amused and exasperated. “It’s definitely going to be weird, but I really want to be there for you.”

Jack wins the face-off against Seguin, knocks the puck back to where Whits is waiting. Whits manages to send it out to center ice, where Rolly picks it up. Jack is already at the blue line, and Rolly slides it neatly across to him. Their zone entry is fucking flawless, but the Stars’ defensemen are still right on Jack’s heels. Jack manages to pass it to Kratz right before Oduya slams him into the boards.

Jack’s shoulder twinges, but he shakes it off, wheels around the back of the net. Kratz sees him, manages to pass the puck through traffic, right back to Jack’s stick.

Demers is coming at him fast, but Whits is open, skating fast off the dot. Jack slides the puck to where he knows Whits will be in one second, right between Benn and Seguin. Whits barely looks at it, just one-times it glove-side. It’s a beautiful shot, perfectly elevated, and it goes just under Niemi’s arm.

The klaxon sounds, and the noise of the crowd is deafening.

“Damn, son!” Kratz says as they all pile onto Whits. “Birthday boy gets the go-ahead goal!”

Jack wraps an arm around Whits. “Congrats, man.”

“That pass was sick,” Whits replies, grinning at him.

“Now we just need to hang on for six minutes.”

But of course, Dallas ties it up with two minutes to go. Radley sends the first line out again, but they can’t make anything else happen by the end of regulation. Jack’s out again on the first three-on-three shift, but he can’t get a break. The Stars don’t manage to score on Treat either, and so it goes to a shootout.

The Falcs finally eke out the win after six shots on each side. It’s Whits’ shot that clinches it, to the crowd’s delight. Whits is named first star, and when he circles the ice, someone starts singing “Happy Birthday.” Soon the entire arena is singing along. Whits waves up at them and looks as happy as Jack can remember seeing him in weeks.

When Bob comes to the locker room after, he’s absolutely mobbed by players and media alike. He makes a beeline for Whits, and pulls him into a hug, whispering something that makes Whits grin. Jack doesn’t miss the number of photos that are taken of that moment.

Bob makes his way around the room, and by the time he reaches Jack, he’s talked to every guy on the team. They’re all starry-eyed in his wake, grinning excitedly to each other.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Jack tells him when Bob pulls him into a hug.

“Me too. That was a great pass, by the way.”

“Which one?” Jack asks, faux-innocent.

Bob rolls his eyes and gives him a bare-handed facewash, and Jack grins.

“You’ve got more fans waiting,” Jack says, pulling off the last of his pads. “Half the guys from Dallas are gonna want a selfie.”

Bob shrugs. “They can wait a little longer.” He winks and heads over to talk to Radley. It’s not long before he gets roped into talking to the media. Jack doesn’t hear what he says, but Bob is better with media than anyone Jack has ever known.

Jack showers and dresses, and heads out of the locker room to find him chatting with half a dozen of the Dallas Stars. He waves to let Bob know they’re ready to go, and Bob nods at him.

Seguin steps back from the crowd and comes over to give Jack a light punch on the shoulder. “Hey, man. Fuckin’ sweet pass in the third.”

“Thanks.” Jack watches his father take a selfie with Patrick Sharp. “That backhand goal in the first, though.”

“God, I was glad to see that one go in. It’s been a long couple of months.” Seguin shakes his head.

Jack nods in understanding. Dry spells utterly suck.

“So how’s your, uh, your friend? Eric?”

Jack’s throat tightens. He turns to look at Seguin, but there’s no malice in his expression, not even a hint of a knowing smirk, just a friendly smile. “Good,” Jack says, and takes a cautious breath. “His team made the playoffs.”

“Sweet. Samwell, right?” When Jack nods, Seguin asks, “You gonna make it to any of the games?”

“We’re on the road for the first round, so it depends.”

“Tell him I said good luck.” Seguin leans in closer. “Your dad is fuckin’ awesome, by the way. Benny’s trying to look cool, but he’s totally flippin’ his shit right now.”

Jack looks over to where Jamie Benn is talking to Bob. He looks totally normal to Jack’s eyes, so he can only shrug in response.

“I’m gonna give him so much shit on the plane tonight.” Seguin grins, then squeezes Jack’s shoulder. “See ya, Zimms.”

Jack exhales slowly as Seguin walks away, trying to calm his racing pulse. Whatever Seguin may think about Jack’s relationship with Bittle, he’s being cool about it. A tiny flicker of hope rises in Jack’s chest: maybe his teammates would be okay with it. Probably not all, but maybe most. The guys have seen Bittle around. They know he went to the All-Star Game. They even seem to like him. It would make things easier, just to be out to his teammates. To be able to bring Bittle around and not have to let the guys think he’s there to see Whits.

Bob shakes a few more hands, then says goodbye and makes his way over to Jack. Over his shoulder, Jack can see Benn and Sharp grinning at each other like excited kids.

It’s never not weird.

They go to a small sports bar that’s walking distance from the building where Jack and Whits live. Half the team wanted to come along and buy Whits drinks for his birthday, so the place is pretty much packed. The manager nearly passes out when he spots Bob, but he soon recovers enough to bring out some hockey memorabilia for him to sign. Bob is gracious for fifteen minutes, then takes the man aside for a quiet chat. They must reach some sort of understanding, because the team is basically left alone after that.

Alex buys the first round and Bob the second, and then Kratz and Rolly take a turn. Whits holds his hands up in defeat after four — they all have to catch a plane in the morning, after all.

It’s nice, though, even relaxing, and Jack decides he should come here more often, maybe even bring Bittle and Shitty, and some of the other guys, when they come around. He makes a mental note to ask his dad what magic he worked with the manager.

“Holy shit,” Treat says, staring down at the screen of his phone. “Have you guys seen this?”

“Seen what?” Janssen asks, and Treat passes him the phone.

Rolly looks over Janssen’s shoulder, and they both shout in surprise.

“Kent Parson got in a fight tonight,” Treat says, grinning. “It looks like he started it, too.”

“Parse?” Jack says, and looks over at Whits, who is already reaching for his phone. Parse has only been in a handful of fights in his entire career. “Who with?”

Janssen smirks at Jack. “Anderberg. In the first five minutes of the game.”

“Anderberg,” Bob says, raising his eyebrows at Jack. Bob is the only person Jack has told about Anderberg’s comments. He hasn’t even told Whits the extent of it.

Alex glances at Whits with concern, but Whits is already tapping furiously at his phone.

“Here, look,” Janssen says when Jack leans over his shoulder to watch. He starts the video over. “Parse just drops his gloves and fuckin’ goes for it.”

On the screen, Parse swings wildly at Anderberg, one hand clenched in his jersey. They both lose their helmets, and Anderberg winds back, hits Parse across the jaw hard enough that it seems to stun him. Jack winces, but Parse rallies with a punch to the side of his face that seems to draw blood.

“Shit, look at that right hook!” Rolly shakes his head in admiration. “Who knew Parse had that in him?”

Anderberg and Parse get locked up after that, and the refs come in to pull them apart. They’re still shouting at each other as they skate away.

Jack settles in his seat again, and bumps his knee against Whits’ under the table. Whits looks a little shell-shocked.

“You okay?” Jack asks, leaning in close.

“Yeah.” Whits blinks down at the phone in his hand, then tilts the screen so that Jack can see.

Me: Saw the fight. WTF???
Parse: Happy Birthday! [kissy face]

Jack has to read it three times before his brain processes what he’s seeing. He lowers his voice to a whisper. “He picked a fight with your ex… for your birthday?”

“Maybe? I don’t know.” Whits’ cheeks are flushed now.

“Does he know about…” what Anderberg did to you is what Jack wants to say, but he doesn’t want to finish the sentence in case anyone else might hear.

“Yeah, we, uh… we talked about it. He was pretty pissed, but I didn’t think he’d… I mean.” Whits bursts into nervous laughter, and puts his hand over his mouth. “Oh my god, what the fuck?”

Coming from Parse, it’s practically a romantic gesture, but Jack’s not going to say that aloud. He sits back and takes a sip from the beer he’s been nursing all evening. “Who knows what goes on in that head?”

The Aces will be in Providence in a couple of weeks. Jack expects it to be interesting.

*****

Jack squints into the sun. “What’s par on this one?”

“Four,” Bob says, handing him the driver. “Watch out for the water, though.”

“Yeah.” Jack wipes a hand over his forehead. It’s ridiculously humid, but then, it’s Houston.

“Watch, he’s gonna whiff it,” Whits says. Alex snickers.

Jack turns to Whits and pushes his sunglasses up a little higher on his nose with his middle finger. Okay, so it’s been a while since he’s played golf. He’s been a little busy.

He doesn’t whiff it, but it lands in the rough — not on the water side, at least. Jack mutters something particularly nasty, forgetting there’s a least one person present who’ll understand him.

“Don’t let your mother hear you swear like that,” Bob says, eyebrows raised.

Jack snorts. “She never did get the hang of swearing in Québécois, did she?”

Bob chuckles. “She does well enough in English. Just not in front of you.”

The group is ready to move on then, so they head up toward the green. Pashy’s ball is even further back in the jungle than Jack’s, and the two of them head over with wedges in hand. Jack manages to lob the ball nicely out onto the green. It’s even a reasonable putting distance, to his amazement. He smirks at Whits, who has turned out to be a terrible putter. He can get the ball to the green, but it takes him a ridiculous number of strokes to actually get it in the hole.

“Didn’t you play mini-golf as a kid?” Jack asks him when he double-bogeys yet again.

“Shut up.”

Pashy’s not having much better luck; it takes him two tries to chip the ball out of the rough.

“What kind of pussy swing was that?” Mr. Pashkin grumbles.

Jack and Whits exchange a look. Pashy’s father has been relentless all morning. It went past chirping an hour ago — now it’s just fucking mean. The more snide his father’s comments, the more miserable Pashy looks, and the worse he plays. Bob and Jack usually chirp each other good-naturedly when they play, but after the first three holes, everyone was so uncomfortable that they’ve even kept that to a minimum.

Pashy’s at least got it on the green now. He takes a moment to line up his shot, then carefully addresses the ball. It misses the hole by half a meter and rolls down into the water.

Pashy grimaces, and Jack can see him bracing himself.

“Fuck’s sake, Jordy,” Mr. Pashkin says, shaking his head.

“Lay off, Dad,” Pashy hisses as he walks past, heading down to the water.

“Quit acting like a little fag,” Mr. Pashkin retorts.

Everyone turns to stare at him in astonishment.

“What did you just say?” Jack registers his father’s voice, but he can’t tear his eyes away from Mr. Pashkin’s face, from the way he’s looking back at the four of them in complete surprise.

“I…” Mr. Pashkin glances at his son, then back to Bob. “What the hell?”

Pashy looks utterly mortified. “Dad, Jesus… you can’t say stuff like that.”

Jack’s heard Pashy use that particular word more times than he cares to remember — though not in a while, now that he thinks about it. In fact, he can’t recall a single instance of anyone on his team saying anything blatantly homophobic since Whits came out months ago.

Mr. Pashkin laughs nervously. “Well, it’s not… I didn’t mean it like—”

“It’s unacceptable,” Bob says, his voice taut with anger. Jack can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he’s seen his father go full beast mode since he retired. He looks like he’s on the edge of going there right now.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Alex says, glaring at Mr. Pashkin. He looks small standing next to Bob, but the fierceness in his expression reminds Jack of Bittle for a moment.

“Yeah, okay, got it.” Mr. Pashkin takes a step backward, flushed now. “Didn’t know it was such a sensitive topic.” He glances at Jack, his eyes narrowing, then looks away. “Sorry.”

Jack’s jaw clenches. Pashy looks like he wishes the ground would open up and swallow him.

It takes Pashy a few more strokes to finish the hole. Thankfully, Mr. Pashkin keeps his mouth shut.

“That makes nine,” Jack says, looking over at Whits. “We should get going.”

“Yeah,” Whits says. “Pashy, you coming?”

“Sure.” Pashy looks relieved.

They pile their clubs in the cart and head back to the clubhouse, leaving the back nine to their fathers to finish out on their own. Pashy is silent until they’re in the car on the way back to the hotel.

“Hey, guys, I uh… I’m sorry about my dad.”

Whits and Jack exchange a look.

“Hey, don’t sweat it, man,” Whits says. “It’s not your fault.”

“No, but…” Pashy sighs and looks out the window. “He’s always been like that, you know? I don’t think I realized how bad it was until… well, lately.”

“It’s not like he’s the only one,” Whits says, pointedly.

Pashy seems to miss the barb. “The thing is, I never really dated or anything in school. I was busy with hockey anyway and… well, not many girls were interested.”

Whits shoots Jack a pained look. Pashy isn’t a very good-looking guy by almost any standard. A lot of girls will overlook that in hockey players, in Jack’s experience, but Pashy also swings wildly between terminally shy and aggressively assholish, depending on how much he’s had to drink. Most of the guys on the team can manage to get laid when they want, but Jack’s seen girls approach Pashy in bars and walk away a few minutes later looking mildly horrified. He has the opposite of whatever game is.

“Anyway, I think he thought maybe I was gay or something. And I’m not, you know? Not that I think there’s anything wrong with it. I mean, you guys—” Pashy seems to realize he was about to put his foot in his mouth and stops talking. “I think he thought he was making me tougher or something.”

Jack has to physically bite his tongue to keep himself from making a snarky comment. It doesn’t excuse any of Pashy’s behavior, but it explains a lot of—

He suddenly realizes the assumption Pashy just made about him. He swallows once, takes a slow, calming breath through his nose. If that’s what Pashy thinks, then it’s what a lot of the other guys think too. No one’s really said or implied anything, but. But.

He opens his mouth, intending to say something. He closes it again. Denying it seems like a stupid idea. He doesn’t want to lie to his teammates now, not when he’s considering coming out to more of them in the next few months. Saying anything at all would just open the door to more discussion, and he’s not ready to explain himself to anyone outside his circle of friends.

He sighs and looks out his own window, letting the conversation drop.

It’s not an isolated incident, it turns out.

“Is your dad working for You Can Play, or something?” Sandy asks while they’re celebrating their win against the Aeros that night.

Jack turns a confused expression to him. “What?”

It must look more like a scowl than he realizes, because Sandy looks immediately chagrined. “I didn’t mean anything by it, just… He called out Becks’ dad in the box, apparently, for saying some shit about the Aeros taking it up the ass tonight.”

“Huh,” is all Jack can think of to say.

“Anyway, I just. It’s pretty sweet, right? That your dad is so cool with… whatever.” Sandy winces and takes a large sip of beer.

“Yeah,” Jack says. He nods at Sandy, who punches Jack lightly on the shoulder and walks away.

Jack has to take a few deep breaths.

On the one hand, he appreciates it: His father’s fierce support, the way he doesn’t hesitate to use his own notoriety and influence to make the world a little more welcoming for Jack and Whits — it means so much.

But on the other hand, it’s directing a lot of attention toward Jack and his still-undisclosed sexuality. And hockey being the way it is, the fact that Bob is calling out these comments at all is enough to make everyone suspicious. His father means well, but he’s effectively outed Jack to the whole team this weekend.

Of course, no one seems surprised, so maybe Jack wasn’t as closeted as he’d thought.

He finds his father in a booth with a handful of the other guys and their dads, all of them halfway to blitzed. Bob holds out an arm and pulls Jack against his side with a grin, then continues telling the same stories Jack’s heard his whole life. Jack laughs along with everyone, only occasionally pointing out the bits that have been exaggerated over time.

Everyone is smiling; no one is looking at him weird or acting any different than usual. Maybe they all know. Maybe it’s okay.

Bob’s arm around his shoulders feels good, and Jack leans into him, letting himself just enjoy it.

*****

“Jack-o!” Shitty says, grinning at Jack through the screen of his laptop. “Okay, so I found a stream for the game. Popping it into the chat right now.”

“Thanks.” Jack grins at him. Samwell’s third game against Colgate starts in half an hour. Jack would have loved to see it in person, but they didn’t get back to Providence until an hour ago, and Colgate isn’t exactly easy to get to on short notice. The series is tied, so this is the game that determines if they go on to the ECAC quarterfinals.

“What do you think their chances are, honestly?”

Jack purses his lips. It’s a different team this year without him and Shitty, and everyone seems to know it. “I think they can make it another round, if they keep their focus. Not sure they’re gonna get past Quinnipiac, though.”

“Fuck, no. Quinnipiac’s got a fuckin’ baller top line this year.”

Jack’s phone buzzes with multiple notifications — the Samwell team chat just lit up.

“What the fuck?” Shitty squints at the screen of his phone. “Dude, how does Bitty know Tyler Seguin?”

Jack picks up his phone. The chatter on the SMH group text is about a tweet from Seguin, so Jack thumbs Twitter open and searches for it.

Tyler Seguin @tseguinofficial - March 6
Good luck to @omgcheckplease and the Samwell University hockey team this weekend. #gowellies #ncaahockey

“Uhhhh.” Jack blinks at the phone. He hasn’t even tweeted anything about the series — it was kind of a busy weekend. He sheepishly likes and retweets, and looks up at the screen of his laptop. “They met at the All-Star Game.”

Shitty shakes his head. “Fuckin’ Christ. Bitty makes friends everywhere he goes, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah, I guess he does.” Jack’s not sure what it means that Seguin is going out of his way to be nice to Jack’s boyfriend, but if it fires up the team, he supposes it can’t hurt.

Once the game starts, he and Shitty switch their call to Facetime and watch the stream on their laptops. Whits comes over in the middle of the first period, and then there are three of them watching the game and cheering for the guys. During the second period, Whits starts livetweeting Jack’s commentary. By the third, Seguin has started replying to the more colorful of Whits’ tweets, which starts attracting attention on Twitter.

By the time Samwell pulls out a win in OT to advance to the quarterfinals, #SamwellVsColgate has started trending.

Is this what being in a relationship with you is going to be like? Bittle texts him later.

Sorry, Jack replies.

Bittle responds with a string of heart emojis.

*****

Chapter Text

The Falcs win against Minnesota in regulation, then lose to Chicago in OT. Jack gets a goal and an assist, respectively, extending his point streak to nine games — one of the longest currently running in the league.

He still can’t figure out how Whits manages to organize his hookups in the midst of travel and game prep, but he’s checking off team boxes with nearly every game they play. Jack has the misfortune of overhearing part of a very smug Skype call with Parse before he turns and ducks out of the room again. He texts Bittle to complain about it, but Bittle is preparing for his own game and has more important things to worry about than the fact that a fairly well-known hockey player apparently has some sort of dungeon set up in his house.

Jack is halfway across the country when Samwell loses its second game to Dartmouth, eliminating them from the ECAC championship and nixing any hope of making the NCAA tournament. It’s their worst season ending in years. Jack texts them all to congratulate them on working so hard, and gets lukewarm thanks in return. He knows from experience that there’s nothing else to say, so he leaves them to their disappointment.

Not that he has much free time to worry about it. Things are clicking for the Falcs on the ice now, and they’re inching their way up in the division rankings. Everyone’s starting to talk about the possibility of playoffs, and it’s exciting, heady. The entire organization is working hard, putting in the extra hours they’ll need to have a shot. Jack eats, sleeps, and breathes hockey. It’s what he always dreamed about, and it’s glorious.

By the time Jack gets back to Providence on Sunday, chatter on the SMH text group has turned to last-minute spring break plans, now that they don’t have any more hockey to prepare for. Bittle’s been quiet on that front — or at least he has in the chat; Jack’s gotten half a dozen texts since he got off the plane.

The moment the elevator doors open, the scent of cinnamon wafts out into the parking garage.

Whits elbows him, grinning. “Guess you’re gonna be busy for the rest of the day.”

“Not just today,” Jack says, biting back a grin of his own. “It’s spring break.”

“And we happen to have the next two days off and then a four-game homestand. You lucky fucker.” Whits shakes his head. “Looks like I’m gonna be on my own this week.”

“Only until Thursday.” Jack raises his eyebrows. They’re playing the Aces on Thursday. Whits has told Jack at least four times that Parse is taking a “maintenance day” on Friday, staying in Providence ahead of the Aces’ game against Boston on Saturday. Jack’s pretty sure he isn’t going to see much of either of them.

“Yeah,” Whits says, flushing a little.

“Gonna compare notes on all your conquests since the All-Star Game?”

Whits rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling when he says, “Maybe.”

When Jack opens the door of his apartment, he’s hit full-on with the scent of spiced apples and freshly-baked pastry. There are two pies sitting on the counter cooling, but otherwise the kitchen is clean and quiet. Jack takes a step closer and spots a post-it note next to one of the pies. It says In the bedroom.

Jack grins so widely it almost hurts. He turns back to lock the front door, then drops his gear bag, pulls off his shoes and jacket. He really wants to have a shower and brush his teeth first — he just spent a few hours on a plane, after all — but the rush of anticipation nearly makes him feel dizzy. It’s been a couple of weeks since they last saw each other in person.

The bedroom door is closed at the end of the hall, so he pushes it open as quietly as he can. Bittle is curled up on the bed, on top of the duvet with a fuzzy throw blanket over him. He seems to be asleep, so Jack slips into the bathroom to take a quick shower.

Bittle’s toothbrush is sitting next to Jack’s in the cup by the sink, and a damp towel hangs on the bar next to to Jack’s. It’s so domestic that it makes emotion rise in Jack’s chest. Bittle was here waiting for him when he came home, has been here all morning. He cooked here and he showered here, and now he’s curled up in Jack’s bed like he lives here, belongs here.

Jack showers quickly and brushes his teeth, then opens the bathroom door. He intends to curl up with Bittle on the bed and take a nap, but Bittle is awake now, leaning back against the pillows on Jack’s bed, smiling up at him.

He’s wearing the goddamn bunny costume.

“Oh my god,” Jack says. He’s grateful for the towel around his waist, because he just got half-hard on the spot.

“Hey.” Bittle smiles at him, almost leers, and lets his thighs fall apart. The fabric stretches so tightly over his groin that it leaves nothing to the imagination.

The thing is, the costume shouldn’t work on Bittle as well as it does. It’s clearly meant for a woman, so it’s too loose in some spots and too snug in others. Bittle’s muscular thighs and the erection that’s tenting the front of the costume are weirdly incongruous with the rest of it, but it’s fucking hot.

Jack drops the towel, and it actually gets caught on his dick.

Bittle grins. “Happy to see me?”

“Jesus, Bitty.” Jack takes three steps to the bed and crawls over Bittle on his hands and knees.

“I was going to wait until Easter to wear this for you.” Bittle reaches out with one hand and trails it down Jack’s chest, then across to his hip. He looks up at Jack and wets his lips with the tip of his tongue. ”But after this weekend, I needed something special.”

“Special,” Jack repeats. Bitty tilts his head and the damn bunny ears flop to the side, and Jack feels a jolt of arousal so strong he has to close his eyes for a moment.

“What?”

Jack half-laughs. “I’m a little freaked out that this” —he gestures down at the costume— “is what does it for me.”

“Don’t be. I like it.” Bittle’s smile is languid. His hand shifts again, fingertips tracing the curve of Jack’s ass.

Jack brushes his lips against Bittle’s once, twice, then kisses him almost frantically. Bittle arches up underneath him, and Jack feels the fabric of the costume slide against his skin. Bittle’s thighs wrap around Jack’s waist and he licks up into Jack’s mouth.

“So, ah,” Bittle says, panting now, “when you jerked off thinking about me wearing this, what did you imagine doing?” His eyes are wide and his face is flushed, and god, Jack could eat him alive.

“I thought about all the things I could do to you without taking it off.”

“Like what?” There’s a note of challenge in his voice, and an impish curve to his smile.

Jack stares down at him, suddenly incapable of putting what he wants into words. Action is easier, so he kisses his way down to the exposed vee of skin over Bittle’s chest, tugs the fabric to the side to exposes one nipple. He looks up at Bittle once, then teases with the tip of his tongue, short feathery flicks that have Bittle gasping in under a minute. Jack tugs the fabric to the other side and continues, and Bittle whimpers. He grinds up against Jack’s thigh, fingers digging into Jack’s shoulders.

Jack slides down between Bittle’s thighs, the fabric of the costume dragging against his skin as he moves. He presses a kiss to the inside of Bittle’s knee, right above the spot where those ridiculous socks end, then works his way up slowly. By the time he noses under the fabric of the shorts, Bittle is rock-hard, a wet spot visible where he’s leaking through the thin fabric. Jack tugs the edge of the shorts up until he can drag the tip of his tongue up the crease of Bittle’s thigh and press his nose into wiry blond hair. God, the smell of him — Jack takes a deep breath, pressing his forehead against Bittle’s stomach, still carefully avoiding his erection.

Bittle whines and wraps his legs around Jack’s shoulders. “Please, Jack…”

Jack moves up again and kisses him, hard at first, then pulls back to suck on the tip of his tongue. “What do you want?”

Bittle shivers beneath him, lips brushing Jack’s. “God, I…” He hesitates a moment, then looks up at Jack, clear-eyed. “I want you to do every dirty thing to me you’ve ever imagined.”

Jack goes completely still above him. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Bittle tilts his head up and kisses him. “I want all of it. I want sweet and hot and rough and filthy… just, please.”

Jack shivers a little, and kisses him again. He’s not even sure where to start. He doesn’t have any particularly dirty fantasies, but if Bittle’s open to it, he’s definitely going to think on it more.

Actually, there is something he’s wanted to try, something he’s never asked for from anyone. He slides up the bed, straddling Bittle’s chest with his knees.

Bittle’s gaze slide down to Jack’s dick, hard and leaking, and back up to his face again. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Bittle smiles and lets his head fall back. Jack braces himself with one hand on the headboard, and uses his other to feed Bittle his cock. Bittle’s eyes close and his mouth opens, and Jack has to take a steadying breath. He shifts his hips forward, pushing in until he feels himself hit the back of Bittle’s mouth, then pulls back until the head of his cock is resting on Bittle’s lips. Bittle opens his eyes again, and Jack starts to move, pumping shallowly into his mouth. Bittle’s tongue presses against the underside of the head sucking lightly. It’s hot, hotter than Jack had even expected. Bittle’s hands slide down Jack’s side, down over his ass, urging him on, and then Jack is suddenly, unexpectedly close.

He’s not ready for it to be over that quickly, so he pulls away. Bittle’s lips are wet and pink, and Jack dips down to kiss him.

He swipes his thumb along Bittle’s lower lip, then trails it up over his cheek. “Turn over.”

Bittle’s eyes widen a little, but he complies, shifting under Jack until he’s on his stomach. Jack crawls back down his body, sliding his hands over the sleek fabric. There’s a weird moment when his fingers hit the fluffy tail, but otherwise, Bittle’s ass in this costume is amazing. Jack’s fingers dip underneath the bottom hem to slide over bare skin, thumbs prying his cheeks apart. He tugs at the fabric a little to see how far it will stretch — a lot, it turns out. Enough to admire the curve of Bittle’s ass, to rake his teeth against the spot he knows Bittle finds ticklish, and then to dip his tongue into the crease and wriggle it against warm skin.

“Ahhhh… there’s a… a snap,” Bittle gasps, his hips shifting back against Jack’s face.

“Oh, right.” Jack pulls back enough to look down at where Bittle’s balls are straining against the taut fabric. He traces his fingers lightly over the bulge there, then unfastens the snap, pushes the bottom of the costume up and out of the way. “Here, bring your knees up.”

Bittle tucks his knees under himself, and Jack has to bite his lip for a moment. Bittle’s ass is spread open now, his cock and balls hanging heavily underneath. Jack reminds himself to breathe. He gives Bittle’s dick a single long, slow stroke before turning his attention back to Bittle’s ass. He’s never actually done this, but he’s willing to give it a try.

Bittle moans at the first swipe of Jack’s tongue, and so Jack does it again, and again. He switches to little flicks against his hole, then circles the rim. He presses in with the tip of his tongue, and Bittle’s hands fist in the duvet. He moves down to lap at the stretch of skin above his balls, then lower still before working his way slowly back up, making Bittle writhe beneath him. He slides his hands back up and squeezes, marveling at the give of flesh under his fingers. Bittle has a ridiculously low body-fat percentage anyway, but whatever he’s got is right here, and it’s… Something snaps in Jack’s head: he has two handfuls of Bittle’s ass, and it’s incredible. He presses his face in and just goes for it, lips and tongue and spit-slick skin, and Bittle whines and pushes back against him.

Seeing him like this, so wanton and needy — Jack’s so hard he aches. He pushes a wet finger into Bittle’s ass and licks around it, then watches the slow slide in and out for a minute.

“This okay?”

“Yes, please, anything.” Bittle sounds nearly desperate now.

Jack fumbles for the lube in the top drawer of his nightstand, and slicks up his fingers. He presses two back into Bittle’s ass, curving down a little, only barely brushing the little nub inside before pulling back again. Bittle grinds back against him, trying to get Jack’s fingers where he wants them. Jack gets on his knees and leans over him, then presses a third finger in.

“I really want to—”

“Fuck me,” Bittle says, and Jack groans.

“Yeah, I… yeah.”

He fumbles for a condom and the lube again, then tugs at Bittle’s hips to get him up on his hands and knees. He pauses for a moment with his cock in his hand, staring down at Bittle’s ass spread out for him. The sudden wash of arousal is dizzying, making his brain go slightly fuzzy. God, he wants.

He takes his time pushing in, paying attention to the tension in Bittle’s body, listening to the sounds he’s making. When he starts to move, it’s slow and controlled, his teeth clenched in an effort to keep himself from just taking. Bittle makes encouraging sounds beneath him, little gasps and soft moans. He pushes back onto Jack’s cock, and Jack grasps his hips to hold him still.

It’s all too much, and Jack gets to the edge embarrassingly quickly. He stops, slides one hand up Bittle’s spine and pushes his upper body down. Bittle goes easily, pillowing his face in his arms, ass in the air with Jack’s cock buried inside him and it’s… Jack has to close his eyes for several seconds and recite the list of the U.S. presidents in order.

When he can trust himself to move again, he concentrates on making it good for Bittle. He changes the angle until Bittle starts to whimper, then alternates between long, slow strokes and absolutely nailing him. He stills again when Bittle reaches down to touch himself.

Bittle groans in frustration, and Jack snickers. “Not yet, lapin.”

“Very funny,” Bittle replies with a snort. “Fucking fuck me already.”

“Pushy.”

“You love it.” Bittle looks over his shoulder, smirking despite the rabbit ears flopping over his head.

Jack leans over him, nips the soft skin on the back of his arm. “I do.”

He starts moving again, switching between long strokes that feed the amazing tension in his balls, and quick ones that bring him close to the edge, over and over. Bittle whimpers beneath him, one hand on his dick, but he seems willing to let Jack control the pace. Jack is sweating now, droplets running down his chest, dripping from his forehead and his nose onto Bittle’s back. He has no idea how much time has passed since either of them spoke, but when he opens his mouth, the words seem strangely loud.

“I think I… I can’t hold off much longer.”

“Yeah, do it,” Bittle says, and Jack can feel him begin to stroke himself in earnest.

Jack picks up the pace again, his arms shaking. “Are you—”

“Keep doing that… just like that… oh my god...”

Bittle shifts his hips back, fucking himself on Jack’s cock, and Jack worries for a moment that he’s not going to be able to hang on. Everything narrows down to the places their bodies are connected, hot, wet, perfect. Jack inhales, pushes in, angling down, feels the clench of Bittle’s body around him. He pulls back, glutes burning, balls pulling up tight.

“Oh god oh god,” Bittle says, and the rest of his words melt into an incoherent moan. His body tightens around Jack’s cock in waves, and Jack tries to keep moving through it, to hang on long enough for him to finish.

Bittle stills beneath him, gasping, and Jack takes a moment to catch his breath. God, he’s so close.

“Can I…?”

“Yeah, just…” Bittle whines a little. “I don’t know how much more I can handle.”

“Okay.” He’s clenching Bittle’s hips hard enough to bruise, but he can’t let go. He pushes all the way in and stills, balls-deep, and finally lets himself come. He collapses against Bittle’s back afterward, panting hard.

“Sorry.”

Bittle chuckles, and the vibration of it rumbles through Jack’s chest. “You’re apologizing for that, seriously? That was, like, epic.”

Jack smiles, though he still can’t manage to move. “Good.”

“I’m not gonna be able to walk tomorrow.”

“You can return the favor tonight, if you want.” Jack really, really wants him to.

Bittle laughs. “Be careful what you ask for, sweetheart.”

Ten minutes later, they’re cleaned up and lying in each other’s arms. Bittle is still wearing the bunny suit, though it’s pushed up around his waist now.

“I need to tell you something,” he says, lips brushing against Jack’s jaw. “Promise me you won’t get mad.”

Jack’s arms tighten around him. “Okay, just so you know, that’s not a good way to start a conversation with someone with anxiety issues.”

“Ah, shit. Sorry.” Bittle snuggles in closer, takes a slow breath. “It’s just that… Holster asked me out.”

Jack blinks at the opposite wall. “He… when?”

“Last night, on the bus.”

Jack waits for three seconds. “So what did you say?”

“No, of course.” Bittle huffs against Jack’s neck. “It was weird, too, because… I don’t think he really wants to date me.”

“So… wait, what?”

Bittle sighs. “Maybe he feels sorry for me, I don’t know.”

“Why would he — wait, this isn’t about Kevin, is it?”

“I don’t think so. Fuck, I dunno.” Bittle sighs. “He sat next to me on the bus — which he never does — and talked my ears off, lord. And then he said he wasn’t my captain anymore and he could finally tell me he wanted to ask me out.”

Jack turns onto his back and stares at the ceiling. “Did you know he was interested?”

“No. I mean, he’s been a little extra friendly lately, I guess, but I didn’t think it was for that reason. Rans has been dating someone for the last few weeks and I think he’s feeling a little… left out, I dunno.”

Jack exhales. “So when you said no…”

“He let it go and changed the subject. It was no big deal, really.” Bittle turns onto his back too, and Jack looks over at him. “I just wanted to tell you.”

Jack turns onto his side and frowns.

“It’s fine, okay? He’s probably getting his dick sucked in Atlantic City right now.”

One rabbit ear flops down over Bittle’s face and Jack pushes it away. He remembers the photo from Halloween, the spike of jealousy he’d felt at the sight of Bittle in Holster’s arms. Maybe Holster is more interested than Bittle realizes.

Jack can’t help feeling a little unsettled by the idea that someone else — someone he knows, not just a random guy — asked his boyfriend out. But of course, Holster doesn’t know Bittle has a boyfriend. As long as it’s a secret, this kind of thing is going to happen. Bittle is cute and hot, and other guys are going to notice. Have noticed. Continue to notice. Until they’re ready to make it public, he’s just going to have to live with it.

Jack turns his head enough to kiss Bittle softly. “Thanks for telling me. I love you.”

Bittle smiles and curls into him. “Oh, honey. I love you too.”

*****

Bittle sits on the couch with his laptop open in front of him, and presses his hands over his face. “I think I’m gonna throw up.”

Jack sits next to him and hands him a bottle of water. “You don’t have to do this now.”

“I know.” Bittle sighs and takes a sip before setting the bottle aside. “I’m tired of it hanging over my head. I just… I’m done being afraid of what they’ll say.”

Jack leans in to kiss his temple. “You want me to go?”

“No, I… Stay. Please.”

Jack sits back, trying to quell the anxiety flaring in his chest. “Okay.”

Bittle picks up his phone to check the time, then looks at the screen again. “There, she just logged on.” He takes a deep breath and reaches for the laptop.

Jack can see the screen from where he sits, just out of view of the camera. Bittle clicks on his mom’s name and starts the call. It rings three times before the video window flares to life.

“Hey, honey,” Suzanne says, smiling through the screen.

“Hey, Mama. How are you?” Bittle looks pale. Jack tucks a socked foot behind Bittle’s ankle.

“I’m good,” she says, and talks for a few minutes about people Jack doesn’t know. The rhythm of the conversation seems to set Bittle at ease a bit, though Jack can see him tense again as his mother’s story winds down. “Lord, you didn’t need to hear any of that, though. How’s your spring break going?”

“Good, so far.” Bittle smiles at her and it looks forced. “Is, uh… is Coach there?”

“Yeah, he’s watchin’ the Braves game.” Suzanne rolls her eyes slightly. “Do you want to talk to him?”

“Yeah, I… well, to both of you, I guess.”

Suzanne looks a little surprised, but she nods and looks offscreen. “Honey? Come talk to Dicky.”

There is a bit of movement on the screen as Suzanne’s iPad is shuffled around. When the image settles again, both of Bittle’s parents are visible in the window. Coach is squinting at the screen.

“Where are you?” he asks.

Bittle swallows and reaches for Jack’s hand. “I’m… I’m at Jack’s. In Providence.”

“Oh, how nice!” Suzanne beams into the camera. “How is he?”

“He’s fine,” Bittle says. “He’s uh… he’s right here.” He turns to give Jack a meaningful look.

Jack leans in close enough to be seen and says, “Hi.”

Bittle’s parents both smile warmly at him. Jack swallows and forces himself to smile back.

“Jack, honey!” Suzanne says. “How are you?”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“That was quite a goal you scored in the Minnesota game,” Coach says. “Folks were talking about it at school today.”

“Ah, thanks.” Jack wonders what he means by folks. “The guys set me up for that one; I just pulled the trigger.”

“How are your parents?” Suzanne asks, and Jack endures a few minutes of small talk about his family before he finally squeezes Bittle’s hand and sits back out of view again.

“Got any big plans this week, Junior?” Coach asks.

“Nah, not really. Just, you know. Hanging out with Jack. I’m gonna do some more social media stuff with the Falconers this weekend.”

“Oh, that’s great, honey,” Suzanne says. “We’ll make sure to look for it.”

“Yeah,” Bittle says, and takes a deep breath. “So uh… I wanted to tell you something.”

Jack has to look away from the screen. He’s not sure he wants to see the looks on their faces.

“I…” Bittle blinks at the screen. Jack rubs his thumb lightly against the back of his hand, presses his ankle against Bittle’s more firmly. “I’ve been seeing someone. I mean, dating someone.”

“Oh! Goodness, that’s wonderful, sweetie!” Suzanne’s surprise doesn’t sound completely genuine to Jack’s ears, but he supposes he doesn’t know her that well. “What’s… I mean, um… why don’t you tell us about… them.”

Jack looks back at the screen then, to where Suzanne and Coach are both staring at the camera intensely. He glances at Bittle, who looks like he still might vomit.

“It’s Jack,” Bittle says after a moment. “Jack and I… for a couple of months now.”

Suzanne gasps, and Jack’s heart sinks for a fraction of a second. And then he looks back at the screen to see her smiling as widely as he’s ever seen. Next to her, Coach is smiling too.

“Oh, honey,” she says, and on the screen, Jack can see Coach slide an arm around her shoulders. “I thought maybe you two… but I didn’t… Oh, goodness, Jack are you still there?”

Jack leans in again. “Yeah, I’m here.”

“You just pretend I’m hugging you right now, okay? I’m just so happy for you both, you have no idea.”

“Thanks,” Jack says.

Bittle looks thunderstruck. “Mama—”

“Dicky, I wish you’d told us sooner. We could have gone to one of Jack’s games when we came to visit you last month.”

Bittle makes a sound like a muffled squeak.

“Well, uh,” Jack says, trying to appear as casual as possible, “we only have about a dozen home games left in the regular season, but if you do come up, I can get you tickets.”

“Thanks, Jack,” Coach says, looking at his wife. “We’ll see if we can do that.”

“My parents might be able to come down too. Just let me know.”

“Oh, I’d like that,” Suzanne says, a clear note of excitement in her voice. “Richard, you’ve never met them, but they’re so nice.”

“Yeah, I’d like to meet them,” Coach says. “Do they, uh… know?”

“Yeah.” Jack smiles. “They love Bitty. Eric, I mean. They, uh…” Jack feels his face heat, and he looks away. He doesn’t want to rub it in that his parents have known for a while.

Coach chuckles. “Well, everybody adores him, so I’m not surprised.”

Bittle turns an incredulous face to Jack.

“Yeah, they do.” Jack leans in and kisses his cheek. “Hey, I’m gonna go watch some game video for a while and let you talk.” He waves at Coach and Suzanne on the screen. “Bye.”

“Bye, Jack,” they both say.

Jack slides off the couch, and picks up his own laptop on his way to the bedroom. His stomach is still twisted in knots. He’s not sure how he was expecting that conversation to go, but it certainly wasn’t like that.

Watching video of the Aces’ defensive pairs proves enough of a distraction to calm him down until the bedroom door opens half an hour later. Jack’s heart leaps into his throat all over again at the sight of Bittle standing in the doorway. He looks dazed.

Jack pauses the video and closes his laptop, sets it aside. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Bittle stretches out on the bed next to him, then stares up at the ceiling and sighs. “I can’t believe they just… I mean, I’m glad, don’t get me wrong. But… wow.”

Jack settles down next to him. Bittle turns onto his side, pillowing his head on Jack’s shoulder and draping an arm across his chest. Jack listens to his breathing even out.

“They weren’t surprised,” Bittle says at last. “And they weren’t upset. They just…”

“They love you,” Jack says, brushing lips against his forehead.

“Yeah, but…” Bittle sighs. “They knew. Or at least, they said they’d guessed. They said they were just waiting for me to tell them.”

“Does that surprise you?”

“I guess I…” He presses his face into Jack’s shoulder and breathes shallowly. It’s a moment before Jack realizes he’s crying.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Jack wraps his arms around Bittle and pulls him closer. He strokes his hands up Bittle’s back.

“I know, I…” Bittle sniffles. “I can’t believe that’s it. All these years I was so terrified to come out to them, and they just acted like… like it was no big deal. Even Coach. I mean.” Bittle takes a shuddering breath, then is quiet for a moment. “If they knew, why didn’t they say something?”

“What would you have wanted them to say?”

Bittle groans. “I don’t know. And I don’t know what I would’ve done if they had.”

Half a minute passes, and Jack closes his eyes, breathes. He hasn’t kept secrets from his parents in years, but he remembers the terror he’d felt at them finding out, the gut-wrenching fear of seeing disappointment in their eyes — or worse. Coming out to them had been an afterthought in the end; they were far more concerned with the fact that he’d nearly died.

“After Coach said goodbye, I asked Mama how long she’s known.” Bittle takes a deep breath and releases it. “She said she’d first seen me looking at boys back when I was skating.” He pauses, smiles a little. “That I was always surrounded by these half-naked girls in skimpy costumes and I barely noticed, but a cute boy would walk in the room and I’d swallow my own tongue.”

“Was that true?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Bittle shifts so he can press a kiss against the underside of Jack’s jaw. “My first kiss was with a hockey player, you know.”

“Really?”

Bittle’s lips curve into a smile against Jack’s skin. “His name was Jeff, and his sister skated, so he’d come along to competitions sometimes. And then one night he came to a room party after.”

“Oh, this sounds like a good story.” Jack closes his eyes, imagining a younger Bitty with a boy who looks not unlike his younger self.

“We thought we were drunk, but you know, it was like ten fourteen-year-olds sharing a few wine coolers. We played spin-the-bottle and he got me.”

“Your first kiss was playing spin-the-bottle?”

“Well… I guess, but we ended up making out on the balcony of some hotel room for an hour. And we talked about hockey. That was when I started thinking about playing.”

“So I have Jeff to thank, then.”

Bittle smiles and tilts his head up to kiss Jack. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Jack rolls them both over so that Bittle is under him. “Wanna relive the moment?”

“Yeah, sure.” Bittle smiles. “Maybe I’ll even let you get to second base.”

“Promise?”

Bittle sighs against his lips, the tension and fear from earlier gone. Jack smiles, and kisses him.

*****

Chapter Text

Monday and Tuesday of Bittle’s spring break pass in a blissful domestic blur. They buy groceries, cook together, watch movies curled up on the couch, and have a ridiculous amount of sex. Jack’s pretty sure he’s never been happier in his life.

When he gets to the practice facility on Wednesday morning, he’s in such an obviously good mood that everyone notices. He shrugs off multiple chirps about having updated his programming with a shrug and a grin, and hits the ice before anyone else.

Apparently Jack’s happiness at home translates into damn good hockey, because he has an almost charmed practice. He aces every drill, skates clean and fast, and every puck off his stick goes exactly where he intended it.

“Goddamn, bro,” Janssen says when they’re taking a quick hydration break. “Whatever you had for breakfast, I want some.”

Jack’s brain helpfully reminds him that he had a mouthful of Bittle’s dick first thing that morning, and he flushes before he can think to look away.

Janssen shakes his head and laughs. “Good for you, Zimms. Whoever it is, bring them around sometime, eh?”

It’s not until he’s skated away that Jack realizes Janssen hadn’t picked a particular pronoun. He wonders fleetingly what it would be like to bring Bittle around the way some of the guys do their wives, kids, and girlfriends. Bittle is already around, of course, but not in that capacity. The partners of the guys on the team tend to hang out together a lot; it can be a tough life, getting moved every other year and spending half the season alone. Jack has no idea how welcome Bittle would feel in that particular group.

Whits chirps Jack every chance he gets, though out of earshot of the rest of the guys. Jack spits a few back at him, mostly jabs about Parse, and can’t help noting that Whits laughs a little harder when he does.

He doesn’t bring it up until they’re in the truck heading home from practice: “So what’s the deal with you and Parse, anyway?”

Whits doesn’t look up from the screen of of phone. “I told you, bro — we’re friends. That’s it.”

“Are you texting him right now?”

Whits opens his mouth and closes it again. “We text each other a lot. It’s not a big deal.”

Jack thinks about how much he texted Bittle last fall when they were dancing around each other. “When is he getting in?”

“Tonight. They’re at the airport in Vegas now.” Whits taps rapidly at the screen of his phone for another minute, then puts it back in his pocket.

“So I don’t know if you have plans for Friday night, but I’m supposed to invite you over.”

Whits looks over at him with raised eyebrows.

Jack shrugs. “Shitty and Lardo are coming down to visit and Bittle is going to cook dinner. It’s not going to be all that exciting, probably, but he wanted me to invite the two of you.”

“Huh,” Whits says, his expression unreadable.

“Don’t feel obligated. It’s just dinner.”

Shitty will probably get stoned and everyone but Jack will drink a lot, but otherwise it’s going to be a quiet-night-in type of thing. Not the sort of action-packed night of clubbing and picking up guys that Whits and Parse are probably planning.

Whits shrugs. “I’ll ask him. Is it okay if we decide at the last minute?”

Bittle will probably make enough food for a dozen people, so two more showing up at the last minute shouldn’t be a problem. “Yeah, for sure.”

“Okay, cool. Thanks.” Whits looks out the window for a moment, and Jack has the distinct impression that he’s trying to look like he doesn’t care either way what happens on Friday night.

Jack suspects he cares a hell of a lot.

*****

Bittle comes with them to morning skate on Thursday, to Whits’ clear surprise.

“I’m gonna hang out with Tasha,” Bittle tells him over a travel mug of coffee. “We’re going to team up to do social media at the game tonight.”

“Cool,” Whits replies, and climbs into the back seat without being asked. He spends the entire drive on his phone.

Whits ditches them with a quick “Later!” as soon as they get to the arena. The Aces had the ice earlier, so Jack can’t help wondering if he’s sneaking off to some sort of illicit meeting with Parse. It’s none of his business either way, but his curiosity is killing him all the same.

He walks Bittle to the PR offices on the upper level of the complex. Tasha will have a badge for him there, but in the meantime he needs Jack to get him past security.

The PR offices are unusually quiet; Tasha is the only one there. Her hair is bright red this week, and freshly shaved on one side. She hugs Bittle warmly, and Jack is amused to see that she’s half a head shorter than he is.

“We’re gonna do a whole big behind-the-scenes thing today,” she tells him, handing him a visitor’s badge on a lanyard. “It’s gonna fuckin’ rock.”

“Sweet,” Bittle says, grinning at her. He puts the lanyard around his neck.

“Are you heading back with me after skate?” Jack asks him.

“Not sure,” Bittle says, glancing at Tasha.

“I can give you a ride later if you want,” Tasha says. “It’s not like Jack lives that far away.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Bittle turns to Jack. “You’re gonna be doing your game day thing anyway, so it’s probably best if I stay out of the way.”

“I’ll keep him busy here,” Tasha says with a grin. “We can call you an intern and make you do all the shit nobody wants to do.”

Bittle snorts, but he doesn’t look unhappy about the prospect.

“I guess I’ll see you later, then,” Jack says.

“I guess so.” Bittle smiles up at him with an impish sort of grin, and Jack leans down to give him a quick kiss without even thinking.

There is a sound behind them. Jack pulls away to see Tasha frowning in the direction of the door. Jack’s insides freeze, and Bittle’s face goes a little pale. He looks up at Jack with wide eyes. Jack turns toward the doorway, terrified.

Kratz is standing there, looking a little sheepish. He nods at Jack in greeting, then looks at Tasha. “I was just gonna ask you about the hospital charity thing, but it can wait until later.”

“Yeah, okay.” Tasha smiles, cool and confident, like Jack’s entire world wasn’t just turned upside-down. “After skate, maybe? I’m meeting with Eric right now.” She nods toward Bittle.

“Hey, Eric,” Kratz says with a smile. “Yeah, sure. I’ll come back. Thanks, Tasha.”

He takes a step back and looks at Jack, and Jack realizes with a jolt of horror that Kratz is waiting for him. To walk down to the locker room. Together.

Jack nods at Tasha and smiles tightly at Bittle, who looks like he wants desperately to say something. Jack picks up his gear bag and heads out.

He and Kratz walk down the hall together in silence. Jack’s stomach twists into more knots with every step he takes. His heart pounds in his chest and his brain is buzzing, and god, he’s probably going to throw up. As if this isn’t enough of a disaster already.

Kratz pushes the button for the elevator, and they stand awkwardly in front of the closed doors.

“So,” Kratz says at last. “You and Eric, eh?”

Jack’s mouth opens, but nothing comes out. The elevator doors slide open.

“I always thought he seemed cool,” Kratz says once the doors are closed.

“Yeah, he…” Jack takes a deep breath and releases it. “He is.”

“So, uh… you seem freaked out.” Kratz runs a hand through his hair, not quite looking at Jack. “I won’t say anything, okay? Not unless you were wanting to—”

“No,” Jack says, a little too quickly. “Ah, no, I… was not intending for anyone else to know about… that. Not yet, anyway.”

“Yeah, of course.” Kratz hesitates. “But just so you know, I think the guys would be cool with it.”

Jack shakes his head, huffs a little. “Easy for you to say.”

“I know,” Kratz says, and sighs. “Look, I don’t have a clue what it feels like to be in your situation. But dude, every man on this team respects the hell out of you. No one is gonna think any less of you.” He pauses and chuckles. “If nothing else, it’ll probably make them like you more.”

Jack turns to looks at him at last, surprised. “Why?”

“Half of them aren’t sure you’re really human. If you have a boyfriend, you must have some kind of life outside of hockey.” He grins.

Jack stares back at him blankly.

Kratz’s grin fades. “Seriously, Zimms, it’s fine. I don’t think many of them would be all that surprised that you’re dating a guy.”

Jack wishes he could sit down right now. “That doesn’t mean they want to see me with one.”

“They’ll deal with it. Or they’ll have to deal with me, okay?”

Jack nods, inhales. He appreciates the support, even though he knows it’s not as simple as that. “Thanks, Cap.”

The elevator doors open on the locker room level, and they step out into a whirlwind of game day activity. Kratz claps Jack on the shoulder and walks on ahead of him.

Jack stands in the middle of it all for a long moment, and just breathes. His body is still full of adrenaline, still coming down from the start of a panic attack.

Kratz knows about Bittle, and he’s cool with it. He’s going to have Jack’s back. It’s going to be fine.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and he pulls it out to see five texts from Bittle. Each are a variation of Are you okay?, phrased in increasingly desperate ways.

It’s fine, he writes back. Kratz is a good guy.

Tasha says to tell you that George is in her office if you want to talk to her.

Jack isn’t sure what he’d tell her that she doesn’t already know. No, it’s fine. I have to get geared up now.

Bitty sends him a string of hearts in reply, and Jack sends a few back at him.

Jack is on edge throughout morning skate. His hands aren’t cooperating and he can’t manage to control the puck. The more frustrated he grows, the worse his stick-handling gets. Sandy and Beaker chirp him mercilessly until he finally breaks a stick over his thigh in frustration.

“Hey, lay off Zimms,” Kratz says, shooting them both dark looks.

“What’s up?” Whits asks him while he’s sitting on the bench taping a new stick.

“Just can’t get my shit together today.” Jack runs his fingers over the tape and frowns. It’s not laying right; he’s going to have to pull it all off and start over.

“Eric’s here,” Whits says quietly, and pats Jack on the shoulder before skating away.

Jack looks up to see Bittle and Tasha standing in the tunnel. Tasha is gesturing out across the ice while she talks, and Bittle is listening intently.

Jack would like nothing more right now than to skate over and pull Bittle into a hug, but he can’t. Not unless he wants the entire team to know, and…

He’s not ready for that. Despite Kratz’s reassurances, Jack can’t trust that it would really be no big deal. He’s played hockey all his life and if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that playing hockey is about the team. Being different from the other guys makes you a target. He’s already a target because of his name, because of his father, because he came straight from college as an undrafted free agent and got put right on the top line. These guys are all his teammates now, and they’re happy he’s playing with them, helping them win. But the season is coming to a close. Some of them will move on and play for other teams next year, and they’ll use anything they know about Jack to help their new team win. They already suspect he’s not straight, but actually knowing he isn’t, and that he’s dating a guy — that’s a weapon he can’t afford to hand any of them.

His heart sinks. He can’t bear the thought of keeping this hidden for his entire career, but that might be the price he has to pay to have this career in the first place. He’s doing well in his rookie year, even better than expected. He’s built up a lot of capital, made himself indispensable to his team — but is that enough for them to accept something like this?

He looks over to see Whits and Janssen talking to Bittle. Bittle has his phone aimed at them, probably adding to the Falcs’ snap story. Jack takes a deep breath and skates over.

“Oh, look who stopped playing with his stick long enough to say hello,” Whits says, winking at Bittle.

“Yeah, yeah,” Jack says. “Hey, Bittle.”

“Hey, Jack.” Bittle is all smiles, but Jack knows him well enough to see the worry underneath. “We’re trying to get game day stuff for Snapchat and Instagram.”

“How’s that going?”

“Good, actually. I’m gonna get some shots in the locker room when y’all are done with skate, and then Tasha’s taking me over to the family lounge. We’re gonna try to get some stuff with the kids this evening. Get them coloring or something cute.”

“Sweet,” Janssen says. “I’ll tell Kelly to bring Sam.”

“He’s what, two now?” Whits asks.

“Three in July. He’s just starting to skate and it’s so fuckin’ cute.”

“Awww,” Bittle says, and turns to Tasha. “Hey, could we get some ice time for the kids? Maybe have them do a little scrimmage or something? That would be super cute.”

Tasha pulls her phone out and taps at the screen. “I’ll look into it. Not tonight, but Saturday, maybe. More of them could come then anyway.”

“That’d be something to video and put on the web.” Bittle’s expression changes to one Jack is familiar with, the one where an ambitious plan is forming in his mind.

Coach Radley whistles them over before the conversation can continue, so they all wave goodbye and skate back to center ice.

“Enjoying having your boy around?” Janssen asks, and Jack’s breath catches in his throat. He looks over at Janssen, but to his surprise, Janssen is looking at Whits.

“What?” Whits’ expression one of trepidation.

“I know you don’t get to see him all that often, so it must be fun.” Janssen smirks at him.

“I don’t—” Whits’ eyes narrow. “Wait, who are you talking about?”

Janssen nods his head back toward to tunnel, and Whits’ expression shifts to one of relief.

“Oh, no, that’s… Eric and I are not dating. No.” He laughs and looks away.

“Seriously?” Janssen asks. “Then why is he always hanging around the team and…” Janssen trails off, and Jack can almost see the wheels turning in his head.

Jack’s heart starts to pound.

“He’s a friend, and that’s it,” Whits says, his tone confident once again. “He’s interested in doing sports PR and this is like, a good opportunity for him. He did a great job at the All-Star Game, you know?”

“Right,” Janssen says. “Yeah, that’s cool. Good for him.”

Radley sets them up for a series of drills then, and the subject is dropped.

“Thanks,” Jack says the next time he is close enough to Whits to speak.

“No problem,” Whits says. “But he’s not gonna be the only one thinking that, you know.”

“Yeah,” Jack says. “I know.”

*****

Whits is almost giddy when they head out for warmups that night.

“Are you gonna be chill?” Jack asks him after the third time he sees Whits and Parse grinning at each other from opposite ends of the ice.

“Yeah, no worries, man. We have a bet on this game anyway.”

“A bet?”

Whits smirks. “Yeah, whoever’s team wins gets to—”

“Okay, I don’t need to know.” Jack’s overheard enough of their recent Skype chats to have a sense of what might be on the line.

It’s a tight game. Neither team gets on the board during the first period, and it’s not for lack of trying. Shots on goal are even at eighteen apiece, and both goalies are like fucking brick walls. The Falconers have improved a lot since the last time these two teams met, and it shows.

Jack’s always competitive on face-offs — 56% and rising — but Parse is damn good too, and it becomes an all-out battle. Once the second period starts, they don’t even try to chirp each other anymore; it’s pure stick down, block your opponent, fight for the puck hockey. Parse cheats like crazy too, and Jack isn’t sure if he despises or admires him for it.

Jack wins this one, gets it knocked behind him to Rolly, who immediately fires it at the goal. It’s blocked, but Jack’s there to get the rebound. One of the Aces’ forwards is there too, and their sticks tangle together as they fight for it. Parse shouts from a few meters away, and the man switches tactics, pulls his stick back at the same moment Jack lunges forward. He gets the puck away and passes to Parse, who one-times it toward the net.

Jack doesn’t even think; he jumps in front of it to block the shot. It hits him right in the groin.

He’s on his knees on the ice before he can even register what happened. Even though he was wearing a cup, the pain is still blindingly intense. It spreads up through his abdomen and for an awful moment, he thinks he might throw up. He can hear the crowd roaring through the fuzz in his brain, can hear the guys around him shouting at each other.

The cup did its job, though, and protected him from the worst of it. Within a minute he’s able to school his expression back into something neutral and uncoil himself from a fetal position. Weirdly, the first face he sees is Parse’s, lined with worry.

“Shit, Zimms, you okay?” Parse extends a hand down, and Jack lets himself be pulled back to his feet. Or mostly back to his feet anyway. He still can’t quite stand up straight. At least the nausea has faded.

Whits is right next to Jack, watching him with concern, and behind him, Janssen and Rolly glare at Parse like they’re ready to jump him if he so much as looks at Jack wrong.

Jack takes a deep breath and straightens up. “I think I’m okay.” His balls seem fine, but he’s shaky, like the rest of his body is still in panic mode.

“Good,” Parse punches him in the shoulder. “Hope that didn’t fuck up your weekend plans.”

“Me too,” Jack says, and manages to smile.

“You need a minute, son?” the linesman asks, and Jack shakes his head.

“No, I can skate.”

The linesman signals to the ref, and the crowd cheers. Jack winces a little when he skates back to the circle for the face-off, but really, it could have been a lot worse. He finishes his shift and sits the rest of the period out.

Bittle comes in the locker room during the second intermission, ostensibly to get snaps, but he makes a beeline right for Jack, his expression taut.

“I’m fine,” Jack tells him, and then holds up the dented cup he’d been wearing. “You wanna tweet this?”

“Oh my god,” Bittle says, and holds up his phone to take a picture.

Both teams are still scoreless when the third period starts, and everyone kicks it up a notch. The game gets rougher as both sides start to take more chances. The Falcs finally manage to score on the power play when Whits tips it in on a feed from Jack. Parse is so pissed off he’s almost glowing, which only makes Whits grin more.

“This is gonna be fun,” Whits tells Jack, one arm slung around his shoulders.

“You mean it isn’t already?” Jack says, and swats him on the ass. Whits winks at him as he skates away, and Jack laughs.

Both teams stay locked up for the remaining eight minutes, and then it’s over. The horn sounding at the end is especially sweet. Jack always wants to win, but he’d wanted to win this one a little more than usual. Parse is the first one off the ice, even ahead of the Aces’ goalie. The rest of the team sullenly files off, leaving the Falconers to do their victory round at center ice while the home crowd cheers.

Whits, Treat, and the Aces’ goalie are the stars of the game. Whits and Treat get pulled for press afterward. Jack begs off because of his injury — which means he has to endure a fairly thorough and embarrassing examination from one of the trainers, but not having to talk to the press about taking a puck to the nuts is worth it.

The photo Bittle tweeted of him holding his dented cup has a stupid number of likes and retweets, of course. Hockey fans’ priorities never cease to amaze Jack.

Whits is cooled down, showered, and dressed before most of them even hit the showers.

“Big plans?” Janssen asks him as he’s packing his bag.

Whits grins. “You could say that.”

“What’s his name?” Rolly asks.

“I don’t know yet,” Whits replies, and there is a chorus of “ooooh” in the locker room.

“Bro, you get laid more than any ten of the rest of us,” Sandy says, slinging an arm around Whits’ shoulders. “What’s the deal?”

“You really don’t know?” Whits asks, and Jack sees half a dozen heads turn toward them.

“No.”

“Dudes are fucking easy, man. Not like girls.”

Sandy laughs. “So you’re saying it’s a lot easier to get dick than pussy?”

“Shyeah.” Whits grins.

“Too bad I’m not interested in dick,” Pashy says, toweling off his hair. “I might actually have a chance.”

“With man, no needing to look at your face.” Zizka steps in behind him and grinds his groin against Pashy’s ass.

Pashy gives him a shove. “Neither would a girl, if I’m gonna have my face buried in her pussy for half an hour.”

“You know you can pay for that, right?” Beaker says.

“You’re the expert,” Pashy retorts, to peals of laughter.

“But seriously,” Sandy says to Whits, “you just fuck random dudes all the time?”

“Yeah.”

“Does it ever get… I dunno, old?”

Whits gives him an incredulous look. “No.”

“You never want to, like, pick one and… settle down?”

Whits’ expression tightens as the guys around them burst into raucous laughter.

“Goddamn, Sandy, has Ingrid got you tied down already?” Beaker asks. “It’s only been like six months.”

“She has magical pussy,” Borko says, leering at Sandy. “I know from experience.”

“Dude, shut the fuck up,” Sandy says. “Just because you hooked up with her like a year ago—”

The conversation devolves into an argument about the appropriateness of discussing their sex lives with their current partners as opposed to random hookups. Jack tunes it out and finishes getting dressed. It’s only when he’s putting on his shoes that he realizes Whits has slipped away.

*****

Jack sleeps in on Friday morning. Bittle gets up early; he has a long list of things to do for the dinner party before Lardo and Shitty arrive in mid-afternoon. By the time Jack gets up, showers, and has his first cup of coffee, Bittle’s already baked three pies, brined two whole chickens, and chopped enough vegetables to fill Jack’s refrigerator.

“I was gonna offer to help,” Jack says, wrapping his arms around Bittle from behind.

“You’re supposed to be taking it easy today.”

Jack kisses the back of his neck. “I feel fine.” He’s sore and bruised where his body absorbed the impact of the cup, but it could have been a lot worse.

“Mmm-hmm.” Bittle turns in his arms and kisses him. “But still, you’re not doing shit today. I’ve got it under control.”

Jack pulls him closer, kissing him more deeply. Bittle kisses him back for nearly a minute, then pulls away and presses his forehead against Jack’s shoulder.

“Not fair. We can’t today.”

“I can’t,” Jack says, and slides smoothly to his knees. “But you can.”

“Oh my god,” Bittle says, staring down at him with wide eyes.

He’s already hard by the time Jack gets his sweats pulled down, and Jack grins. “You’re so easy for me. I love it.”

Bittle laughs and rakes fingers through Jack’s hair. “Lord, even a straight guy would get hard at the sight of you on your knees.”

“Maybe, but I only get on my knees for you.” Jack leans forward and takes Bittle’s dick in his mouth.

Bittle makes a soft sound. “Oh, honey, that’s so… this isn’t fair.”

Jack pulls off and uses his hand to stroke up the length of Bittle’s erection. “It’s not about fair. I want to.”

“And I’d be crazy to say no, but—”

“I love sucking your dick, okay? Humor me.” Jack takes the head in his mouth again, and yeah — he really loves doing this. He loves knowing he’s making Bittle’s knees weak, loves hearing the sounds he makes as he gets close, loves watching him come.

“Okay,” Bittle says, his breath coming faster now. “Okay.”

Jack doesn’t draw it out, mostly because he can feel the stirrings of his own erection and he really doesn’t want to have to deal with sexual frustration on top of everything else. He pulls out all the tricks he’s learned to get Bittle off, and within a couple of minutes, Bittle is pushing at Jack’s forehead in warning. Jack pulls off and finishes him with his hand, and Bittle comes all over his face.

“Oh my god,” Bittle says, staring down at him. “Jack, you…” He reaches down and sweeps his thumb over Jack’s chin, smearing through his own semen.

“I’ve been wanting to do that,” Jack says, looking up at him.

Bittle grins. “We can do that whenever you want, baby.”

They curl up on the couch together with cups of coffee and watch HGTV. Bittle is full of salty commentary about almost everything on the shows they watch, and Jack finds himself laughing pretty much continuously. He watches Bittle and thinks about what it would be like to have this every day, to share this apartment with him. To know Bittle is here when he’s on the road, that his bed won’t be empty when he gets home in the middle of the night.

Maybe Bittle could work for the Falconers, or maybe he’d do something else entirely, but he’d be here. They could build a life together. Maybe Jack will stay with the Falconers for a while; his contract was for three years, with a no-trade clause, so he’s in a good position. At the end of that, maybe they’ll be able to stay, or maybe they’ll decide to go somewhere else. If he continues to play well, they could have their pick of cities, maybe think about getting married and starting a family.

Jack closes his eyes, opens them again, and picks up his coffee cup. He’s getting ahead of himself. Bittle has another year of college left. They’re almost completely closeted right now, and there are so many things that would have to happen before any of that could even be a possibility.

“What are you thinking about?”

Jack turns to see Bittle smiling warmly at him. For a moment, he considers spilling out everything he’s just been thinking, but it feels like too much, too soon. He shrugs. “How much I love you.”

Bittle shakes his head and laughs. “How are you even real, Jack Zimmermann?”

Jack kisses him and tries to think about something other than the future for a while.

*****

“Jack fuckin’ Zimmermann. Bring it in.” Shitty holds his arms open and Jack steps forward, letting Shitty pull him in for a hug.

“Nice to see you too, Shits.” Jack takes a step back, and hugs Lardo. They both laugh when Shitty picks Bittle up and swings him around.

“C’mon, I’ll get y’all a drink.” Bittle nods toward the kitchen.

“It’s like you know us,” Shitty says, and kisses him on the forehead.

It’s warm enough to sit out on the balcony with their drinks. Shitty’s spring break is the following week, so Lardo has spent the past week hanging around the apartment he shares with three roommates. Tomorrow he’s heading to Samwell, and he’ll spend his spring break at the Haus. Jack envies them having two entire weeks together.

Shitty’s just getting started on a story about the utterly clueless racism of one of his L1 classmates when Jack’s phone buzzes in his pocket.

Whits: Hey, is the invite still open?

Yeah, Jack replies.

Cool. See you in a bit.

Jack hands his phone to Bittle, who smirks. “Nice.”

“What’s up?” Lardo asks.

Bittle hands Jack’s phone back. “Looks like Taylor and Kent Parson are coming for dinner.”

“Whitton and… Parson, seriously?” Shitty looks at Jack. “What the fuck?”

Jack shrugs. “I have no idea what’s up with those two.”

“But we have our theories,” Bittle says, grinning.

“Fuckin’ cheers to that,” Shitty says, raising his glass.

Bittle heads back to the kitchen not long after that. Jack tries to help, but Bittle shoos him away, saying, “Your job is to entertain our guests. Here, bring them more drinks.”

Jack heads back out to the balcony, banished from his own kitchen, beers in hand. Lardo grins at him as she takes hers, then kisses Shitty before heading back inside.

Jack turns to watch her go. “I think I just got played.”

“Bro,” Shitty says with a knowing grin, and takes a beer bottle out of Jack’s hands. “So, Whitton and Parse, spill.”

Jack shrugs. “Whits says they’re just friends, but they text each other constantly. I think he talks to Parse more than he talks to me these days.” He pauses for a moment, trying to decide how much he should say. “I think they’re more into each other than they’re letting on.”

Shitty chuckles. “That doesn’t sound familiar at all.”

Jack smiles. “Weird as it sounds, I’m starting to think they’d be good for each other.”

“Bro,” Shitty says again, and drains his beer. “I am so Team Whitson. Sign me the fuck up.”

Jack laughs.

“So how’s married life?” Shitty asks.

“I dunno,” Jack replies. “You tell me.”

Shitty sighs and looks out over the skyline. “God, this week, having her around — she’s it for me, man. I guess I’ve known that for a while, but I don’t know if she feels the same way.”

“Have you asked her?”

“Brah, it’s a little early for that.”

“Not what I meant.” Jack shakes his head and smiles. “But you think that’s where it’s headed?”

Shitty shrugs. “If I don’t fuck it up. What about you?”

Jack sighs and leans his elbows on the railing, looking out over the river below. “Yeah. Me too, Shits.”

The noise level from the kitchen ratchets up, and a few minutes later. Bittle and Lardo reappear with frozen drinks. Bittle hands Jack a glass of something icy and pink, and Jack leans down to plant a scorching kiss on his lips.

“Damn, bro,” Lardo says, winding her arm around Shitty’s waist. “He was only gone for a few minutes.”

Jack wraps an arm around Bittle and smiles. “I missed him.”

Bittle laughs and presses his face into Jack’s neck. “Of course you did, honey.”

Lardo rolls her eyes. “Jesus, I’m gonna barf.”

There’s a sound from inside, and they all turn to look.

“Hey, guys,” Whits says, waving from the living room. Parse is standing behind him, looking around curiously.

Jack raises his eyebrows at Shitty, then heads inside. Whits smiles at both of them and holds up a bottle of wine.

“Wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring something.”

“Thanks, man.” Jack takes it and sets it on the bar. “Let me get you two a drink.”

He hands them both beers, and they stand awkwardly in the middle of Jack’s living room.

“So,” Jack says, at the same time Parse says, “Nice place.”

“Thanks.” Jack smiles.

“Something smells amazing,” Whits says, looking toward the kitchen.

Bittle steps in from the balcony, right on cue, with Shitty and Lardo behind him.

“Parson,” Lardo says, holding out her fist.

Parse grins and bumps it. “Lardo, right? Sup, Shitty?” That’s all it takes for the three of them to start a rapidfire conversation.

“I didn’t know he knew them,” Whits says quietly, leaning in close to Jack.

“He came around a few times when I was at Samwell.” Jack doesn’t want to talk about any of those visits, so he pats Whits on the shoulder and goes to help Bittle in the kitchen.

“Honestly, it’s just putting stuff together and waiting for the chicken to be done,” Bittle says. “Lardo already set the table. You really can go be social if you want.”

“When have I ever wanted to be social?”

“This was your idea, you know.”

“It was not,” Jack retorts, lowering his voice to a whisper. “This was all you.”

Bittle moves closer, hands on his hips. “You said you wished you had friends over more often. I said, then let’s invite some friends over on Friday. I’ll cook. You said, sounds great.”

Jack starts to argue the point, but thinks better of it. He shrugs. “I just need a minute, I guess.”

He looks over at where the four of them are standing. Shitty appears to be in the middle of an entertaining rant of some sort. Whits laughs so hard he almost chokes on his drink. Parse rolls his eyes at him, though he’s laughing too.

“Is it weird having him here?” Bittle’s hand settles on Jack’s lower back, his fingernails scratching lightly through the fabric.

“Parse? Yeah.”

He watches Parse for a minute, watches the way he holds himself with complete confidence and ease. His usual cocky disaffected persona has been tempered with a dash of charm tonight. Jack’s seen it before, but it’s still fascinating.

There was a time when Jack got to see the angry, hurt boy underneath that bravado, the one who had such desperate thirst to prove himself. The one who’d come back from visits home bitter and surly, and lashing out at everyone around him. Jack didn’t understand it at the time, didn’t know how deep Parse’s wounds were.

Whits starts telling a story of his own, and Parse turns his entire body towards him to listen. His expression is cool and reserved, but every now and then there’s a flash of something else, something like genuine warmth.

Dinner is fantastic, as usual. They linger over drinks and dessert, talking about everything from politics to hockey to movies none of them have had the time to see. Jack’s got an arm around the back of Bittle’s chair throughout, and Lardo and Shitty move their chairs close enough to hold hands under the table, but Whits and Parse keep space between them.

“So, I uh,” Bittle says, then looks at Jack. “I came out to my parents this week.”

“Oh, shit,” Lardo says, just as Shitty says, “Broooo.”

“It was fine.” Bittle shrugs. “They were cool.” He looks like he still doesn’t quite believe it.

“So wait,” Shitty says. “You finally fuckin’ told your parents that you’re gay and they were like, awesome about it?”

Bittle shrugs. “Yeah, pretty much.”

Across the table, Parse snorts and mutters, “Must be nice.”

Whits turns to look at him, but Parse’s gaze stays fixed on Bittle.

Bittle half-laughs. “So my mom called this morning and asked how Jack was doing after the game last night. She said something about putting cold tea bags on his testicles, and I kinda blacked out after that.” He buries his face in his hands. “She was worried about his junk, for my sake. I mean?”

Jack laughs and nudges him with his shoulder. “Aw, you didn’t tell me that.”

“I was mortified!” Bittle shakes his head. “I didn’t need to know my mom was so concerned about my sex life.”

Everyone pitches in to clean up, and then Whits disappears with Shitty to smoke up outside. Lardo sits Bittle at the dining room table to show him photos of the progress she’s made on her senior project — which leaves Jack with Parse. Parse eyes the pool table and raises his eyebrows at Jack.

Jack smirks. “You’re on.”

They’re both equally terrible at pool, it turns out. That doesn’t stop them from chirping each other about it, or of accusing each other of cheating in increasingly ridiculous ways. Parse finally shoots the cue ball hard enough that it flies off the table, narrowly missing hitting Jack in the groin.

“What is it with you taking shots at my junk?” Jack says, mock glaring at him.

Parse laughs so hard he has to lean against the table.

“Okay, I’m done,” Jack says, putting the stick back in the rack.

“Sorry, man,” Parse says, grinning at him. “How is everything in that department, anyway?”

“Still sore,” Jack tells him. “No thanks to you.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault you got in front of my shot.”

“It was worth it in the end.” Jack shrugs. “Mostly.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Parse puts his stick away too. “What’ve you got to drink around here?”

They end up in the kitchen, Jack watching as Parse mixes up something with the liquor no one has touched since New Year’s Eve, along with a couple of kinds of juice. After a few tries, he finally seems to get it tasting the way he wants. He leans back against the counter and looks around.

“This place is so you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Minimalist. Utilitarian. Cozy.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Parse shrugs. “I have a 3000 square foot two-bedroom loft for me and my cat. I hired a decorator when I moved in, and for some ridiculous reason, I let him talk me into something called French country modern.” He rolls his eyes. “I hate it, but I don’t know what else to do with it. I’ll probably just sell it as is and start over.”

“You should’ve let your mom decorate, like I did.”

Parse snorts. “Yeah, right. Like Mike would let her come spend more than a few days with me.”

Jack presses his lips together. “I thought they split up.”

“Nope.” Parse downs a quarter of his drink and shakes his head. “I offered to buy her a place in Vegas, you know? She wouldn’t have to worry about anything. But she won’t fucking leave him.”

Jack sighs. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, man.” He’s quiet for a moment. “She’d rather stay in a miserable marriage than be alone. Which is stupid, right? I mean, she’s only 55. It’s not like she doesn’t have plenty of time to meet someone else and actually be happy.”

Parse’s relationship with his asshole stepfather was a big topic of conversation when they were in Juniors together. For a long time, Jack had thought Parse was just angry that his mother had remarried anyone at all after his father died. It wasn’t until later that he’d heard the whole story, that Mike thought hockey was a waste of time, that Parse needed to get his head out of the clouds and go to technical school, get a real job.

“So he hasn’t changed, eh?”

“The more successful I am, the more he despises me. And the more he takes it out on her.” Parse pauses, and there is a flash of dark anger on his face. “God, I hate him. He’s the textbook definition of a